TYRRELL: Clinton and the episodic apologists

After a decade, president’s defenders still rise to the occasion

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Frankly, I did not think of Chris Matthews as an episodic apologist until I watched his MSNBC documentary, “President of the World: The Bill Clinton Phenomenon,” this week. The episodic apologists were a familiar fixture of the Clinton administration, much as the court historians were a fixture of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whereas the court historians could always be relied upon to spin history FDR’s heroic way, the episodic apologists always end up slobbering all over the Clintons - albeit with a twist.

The court historians were always pretty straightforward. They adored FDR from the beginning to the end. The episodic apologists’ lives are endlessly more complicated and melodramatic, as the Clintons are more complicated and more melodramatic. There seems to be a script prepared for them. The apologists begin with high hopes and admiration for Bill and Hillary. Then Bill and Hillary fail them. The Clintons lie before grand juries or filch White House property while exiting for Chappaqua, N.Y., or they get caught in Troopergate, Travelgate, Filegate or renting the Lincoln Bedroom. Of a sudden, the apologists suffer blighted hopes. First they become indignant. Then they feel used and abused. Some cry in public. Finally, hope springs anew.

As John F. Harris, formerly of The Washington Post, wrote in his 2005 book “The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House” - and after years of such humiliating scandals - the Clintons are “the two most important political figures of their generation.” Perhaps he forgot about George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich. By the way, Mr. Harris was tapped by Mr. Matthews to shill for Mr. Clinton the other night.

However, I would have expected more of Mr. Matthews. To be sure, he always was a reliable Democrat on most public matters and public figures, but on Mr. Clinton he was often skeptical. During the Monica Lewinsky, shall we say, exposure, and subsequent impeachment proceedings, he seemed impatient. I always suspected that it was his Catholic sense of right and wrong that was triggered by the Clintons’ amorality. Apparently, enough time has elapsed for him to join the episodic apologists.

This week’s documentary was hagiography for a rogue. If it ever raised an uncomfortable question for the “world president,” I missed it. His scandal-plagued presidency, its “Animal House” exit and the reckless way he has amassed his fortune got not a nod of interest. “Bill Clinton’s position in the world continues to grow,” Mr. Matthews hymned. “He’s part dignitary, part humanitarian, part international statesman, and somehow greater than all of them.” Well, he has done some good of late, but few presidents have been more self-absorbed and mediocre, and, in fact, he piffled away almost a decade as the playboy president when America needed a competent chief executive. I have always compared him to Warren G. Harding, right down to his love of golf and the bossy wife, though Mrs. Harding was relatively honest and did not make such a thing of her hair.

Halfway through the hourlong gush of celebration, one name was mentioned, I think, by way of criticism. It came fast and without much elaboration: Marc Rich. His was the most notorious of the 140 pardons and 36 commutations granted by Mr. Clinton in the hours before leaving the White House. Actually, there were many more miscreants in Mr. Clinton’s back-of-the-hand insult to federal prosecutors, including money launderers, drug dealers, murderers and even Susan McDougal, whom Mr. Clinton had said he would never pardon. The Clintons’ brothers were discovered arranging pardons for cash, along with former White House aides. Then there was the White House property, for which the Clintons finally made a minimum payment; the office equipment that their staff sabotaged; and the property stolen from Air Force One on its last flight with the Clintons. Finally, Bill began his fundraising campaign for a comfortable retirement, $43 million in the first four years, much of it from very dubious sources such as the communist Chinese. The fundraising continues.

The Clintons’ White House exit led even Democrats to inveigh, “totally indefensible” (then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.), “disgraceful” (Jimmy Carter), “terrible, devastating” and “appalling” (William Daley), “Clinton is utterly disgraced” (former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich), and “some of Mr. Clinton’s closest associates and supporters are acknowledging what his enemies have argued for years - the man is so thoroughly corrupt it is frightening” (the New York Times’ Bob Herbert). I could continue, but you get my drift - and all would be back on board in a couple of years.

Two editorials stick in my mind from those early years of Mr. Clinton’s presidency of the world. The New York Times called for congressional investigations, lamenting that “the former president … seemed to make a redoubled effort in the last moments of his presidency to plunge further and further beneath the already low expectations of his most cynical critics and most world-weary friends.” The New York Observer noted that the Clinton critics “were right, after all. Mr. Clinton was, in fact, an untrustworthy low-life who used people for his own purposes and then discarded them.” As for Hillary, the newspaper explained that New Yorkers had “made a terrible mistake, for Hillary Rodham Clinton is unfit for elective office. Had she any shame, she would resign.” Oh, and by the way, on the day of the MSNBC documentary, a headline in The Washington Post read, “Several Clinton fundraisers now facing criminal charges.”

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. His new book is “After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).

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