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The Clinton Crack-Up
The Boy President's Life After the White House
By R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
All rights reserved.
FROM RAGS TO RICHES
Scandal is not unknown to the American presidency, but even a scandal-prone president is usually well-organized, punctual, cleanly. Even the Warren Gamaliel Harding of comic memory was punctual. Harry Truman, though as bemanured by scandal as Harding, probably presided over a more orderly White House than that of his venerated predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Truman approached retirement, he perhaps smoldered with as many grievances as President Bill Clinton. Yet, he left the White House on time and decorously.
When Clinton left the White House all was a shambles. For months the press had been proclaiming him a "rock star," and like a rock star he exited the premises. That is to say, he trashed the place. Here was another of his trademark chaotic endings. It was bedlam, and within hours observant Americans recognized that the scandal-prone Clintons had just chalked up two more lulus, Pardongate and the Pilfering of the White House.
Today we again have a well-organized president at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President George W. Bush is up at 5:30 a.m., in bed by 9:30 p.m. In between he runs like a clock: no missed meetings, no meetings running overtime, and no meetings of which Mrs. Bush would not approve. President Bush is Truman without the cronies and without Truman's near-death ratings—a 23 percent approval rating at the end of a presidency that fellow Americans now rightly revere. President Bush's ratings, at least in his second term, have rarely been robust for long; and they have been feeble at times, but he is a normal American president—moral, law-abiding, and efficient. Clinton was not a normal American president. He was a lax and surprisingly passive chief executive, often allowing his aides to overrule him, as they did every time he sought action against Osama bin Laden. What is more, he was a rogue.
After every exposé, he and his aides laid down the alibi, "They all did it." In truth, no previous president "did it," certainly not with the combination of monotony and impudence that Clinton did. Only President Lyndon Johnson could match his coarseness and promiscuity, and he too entered retirement with a heart on the fritz. On the other hand, no one could ever accuse Johnson of being passive or disorganized; and he retained the respect of those around him, including political aides such as Jack Valenti, members of his Secret Service detail, and his military aides. Clinton's security and military aides were revolted by his goatish behavior, as we shall see. Former Clinton staffer George Stephanopoulos was the most outspoken of Clinton's many disappointed political aides. Once they had hoped he would be the next epochal Democratic president, a Roosevelt or a Kennedy. After half a dozen years of scandals, Stephanopoulos spoke for them all when he wrote that Clinton, "lost the battle with himself, tarnished his presidency and all of us associated with it. If I knew everything then that I know now, of course I wouldn't [have worked for him]."
The lasting image of the 1960s generation's first president is that of a smiling, pouting, hulk of a man—an overgrown adolescent. The world was his stage and journalists—many of them cogenerationists—likened him to a rock star. They thought they were complimenting the President of the United States, and he did, too. From the 1960s to the 1990s something had changed in American culture. In the 1960s both Johnson and John F. Kennedy had an eye for the fair sex and plenty of celebrity, but I cannot find one of their contemporaries comparing them with the rock star of their day, Elvis Presley. Over the next two decades something went haywire in American popular culture.
Clinton's presidency was the long-delayed aftershock of the 1960s generation, particularly that sector of the generation absorbed with Pot and Protest. He was followed in office by a president from the competing sector of the 1960s generation, a cohort more concerned during college days with Beer and Beach Parties. This sequence, in part, explains the enormous bitterness of today's politics at the national level. An intra-generational confrontation is taking place between those young conservatives of the 1960s who thought America should be as America had always been, free and bourgeois; and the young radicals, who thought America should be like one or two late 1960s Beatles albums that now are slipping into memory's well. Clinton and the others from this sector of their famous generation—wife Hillary, Dr. Howard Dean, Al Gore, Jean-François Kerry—were troubled adolescents, indignant and self-absorbed. Now despite hair loss and wrinkles, they pretty much remain adolescent, indignant, and self-absorbed.
By the 1990s normal Americans had wearied of the endless self-promotion and thumbing-of-the-nose from these aging 1960s brats. But the brats' influence remained disproportionately vast. Through their preponderance in the media and in academe they befouled American popular kultur with politics—their politics. They replaced bourgeois American culture with Kultursmog, complete with hints of the European coffeehouse, dim notions of class struggle, and various occult therapies. The Kultursmog, belching from America's newsrooms, editorial offices, and faculty lounges assisted both Clintons in riding out every White House scandal. Mind you, the scandals actually transformed Bill Clinton—and Hillary, too—into celebrities with all the moral dispensations granted to celebrities in celebrity-crazed America. The bad-boy athlete, the slutty actress, the rock star—all are adored; and after each fails a urine test or reports a corpse on the premises, the Kultursmog provides willing apologists to exonerate them.
The Clintons have had a whole press corps of apologists. These truckling defenders have had to play their sorry role so frequently that they have become a phenomenon unique to the Clinton era and worthy of their own historic designation. History might remember them as the "Episodic Apologists." In the New Deal, dependable supporters of the president from academe were labeled Court Historians. As the Clintons have proceeded through Bill's shabby retirement and Hillary's quest for higher office, the Episodic Apologists have continued to go through their contortions in defense of the Clintons' accumulating blunders and brushes with the law. There has been nothing like it in American history, but then there has been nothing like aging 1960s radicals and their byproduct, a Kultursmog that disguises every misdeed.
Both the Kultursmog and the Episodic Apologists will be revisited in future chapters. For now we need only note that by the 1990s society's icons had changed. In retirement, the Boy President was hardly ever likened to an elder statesman. Rather, the comparison used most frequently was rock star. During his retirement Truman had been likened to an artillery officer, which, in World War I, he had been, and an elder statesman, which he was. Harding, by the time of his death, was likened to a Roman senator. Americans in the 1920s admired ancient Rome. Harding's was a Roman profile. He may be an easy laugh today, but in his time he was adored. The memorial built for him in Marion, Ohio, is the most beautiful presidential memorial outside Washington, D.C. Locals will tell the occasional tourist that it is also the largest presidential memorial outside Washington. Annually it attracts several thousand visitors, presumably only a handful of whom could pass a breathalyzer test.
Harding—with his bossy wife, his energetic golfing, his cronies, and the girlfriend thrashing amidst the galoshes in the Oval Office closet—is the American presidency's closest approximation to Clinton. Lyndon Johnson's heirs can rest easy. Of course Harding died before going into retirement and running the risk of further scandal. As for that other scandal-plagued president, Truman, his retirement was quiet and dignified. He lived within the bounds of the law. He read history and groused about his perceived enemies. A comparison between Truman's retirement and Clinton's reveals how America has changed.
At first Truman's retirement was painful and lonely. He tried to influence his party but got nowhere. He was financially fragile with but an army pension of $112.56 monthly and none of the vast government resources for security details, secretarial help, and logistics that Clinton in retirement has today. Truman rejected "consulting fees" or a rich ride on the rubber chicken circuit. He would not, as he put it, "commercialize" the presidency.
Our Boy President did the opposite. In his first four years out of the White House he earned over $43 million after expenses and living costs. By comparison sources close to former President George H. W. Bush speculate that his income in his first four years of retirement was but a quarter of Clinton's sum. Moreover, as the chart in chapter two demonstrates, Clinton's retirement annually costs taxpayers more than any previous president—and by a lot. Though he has gone from rags to riches on the speaking circuit, the American taxpayer still pays the travel and hotel costs of his security detail. Another globe-trotting former president, Richard Nixon, absorbed those costs, having given up his Secret Service detail early in retirement. Not Clinton. And the extent of Clinton's globe-trotting has been stupefying. In his first year alone he spoke for voluptuous fees practically every other day in thirty-minute exhalations to any group that would foot the bill, no matter how unseemly. He hit up universities, religious groups, and giant corporations (some with government contracts signed during his presidency) for colossal fees. In Britain he even hit up the out-at-the-elbows National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for $100,000.
In foreign countries, where the prying eyes of the American press rarely gaze, the spectacle became even less edifying than at home. One day he might be fronting for Beijing, as he did in Sydney, Australia, on February 22, 2002, pocketing $300,000 from the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, a notorious Chinese Communist front. On another venue he might simply be shilling for BMW, as he did in Auckland, New Zealand, three months later, earning $137,000. A few days before that payday he was flogging condominiums in the pay of JingJi Real Estate Development in Shenshen, China, for $200,000. The Pacific Rim had a ceaseless allure to the forty-second president. On one day early in his retirement, he spoke twice in Hong Kong, flying home with half a million dollars. For that matter the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman had a powerful allure, too. There he has prospered as a lecturer; in Dubai he even picked up a couple of luxury apartments under controversial circumstances, as we shall see in chapter three. (See Appendix I.)
Truman, like most of the modern presidents following him, was temporarily bereft once the motorcades and the smart salutes of the Marine guards ended. Truman's Kansas City friend, Tom Evans, reported that "he was utterly lost." But upon returning to Missouri he soon got to work on his presidential library. Its projected cost was $1.5 million. Clinton's Taj Mahal cost $165 million, and it did not contain Truman's trove of documents from such momentous undertakings as his consolidation of the New Deal and from the launch of the Cold War. Rather the Clinton Library contained documents indicating that his administration had pretty much preserved the Reagan Revolution and engaged in a huge political campaign to protect him from impeachment for lying under oath and obstructing justice. Truman's library, unlike Clinton's, was respectful of the history its namesake made. When it came time to write a memoir, Truman wrote two volumes that are reasonably accurate and crackle with his tart partisanship. In the end Truman did all right. When historians took a second look at his achievements in office they ranked him as "near great" and forgave him his flawed appointees and the scandals they brought. For that matter even the unloved Nixon lived a dignified retirement, writing books on statecraft and earning the title of "elder statesman." He took no fees from the lecture circuit.
Every morning of his presidency Truman had arisen even earlier than the current president. He was up at 5:00 a.m., hailed his Secret Service detail, and undertook a brisk walk of one or two miles, all at the army marching pace of 120 steps a minute. Afterwards he retired to his residence (Blair House much of the time, as the White House was under renovation) for a rubdown and a morning nip, one shot of bourbon—no more. Yes, Winston Churchill is not the only modern English-speaking statesman to begin his day with a light libation. By seven Harry was at his desk, documents and newspapers spread before him, no intern in sight.
Clinton is not known to have ever begun a day at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a morning nip, and if he was up at 5:00 a.m. it was likely that he was still up from the night before—then and now he sleeps only a few hours a night in unscheduled catnaps, making life supremely hectic for his staff, particularly those in his security detail who have to be constantly at his side. As for receivingTruman's matutinal rubdown, that would be one of the Boy President's few sensual pleasures still unchronicled. Perhaps a morning nip of bourbon would have settled him down for a few hours, though he probably would have needed another and another. There are springs in Clinton's system that are obviously difficult to control. What has been recorded about him, and in copious detail, is his lack of discipline. In fact, history will remember him for being the most undisciplined president of the modern era and the least ethical.
In his retirement things did not improve. Whether on the speaker's circuit or in any other pursuit—for instance, in writing his memoir—he has been chronically late. During visits to Ireland, where Clinton spent a surprising amount of time early in his retirement, his tardiness became legendary. I interviewed a theater impresario in Dublin who knew Clinton through his friendship with one of Clinton's buddies, the Irish singer, Bono. The Irishman was still stung by the American's helter-skelter appearance at a local charity fundraiser. Though late for every event on the schedule, he had charged his hosts an honorarium in the neighborhood of $100,000. Nonetheless, when the theater impresario tried to move the hand-shaking former president along, all he got was an outburst of Clinton's famed temper.
Running late was not Clinton's most notorious imperfection. History records more serious offenses: lying when a lie is not necessary and telling a whopper when a little white lie would suffice. Even under oath Clinton has told gratuitous lies. He has also abused his power and obstructed justice frequently, usually to cover up the unseemliness of his signature recreation, girl-hopping. As president he also became known for his very loose interpretation of campaign finance laws; for globalizing presidential fundraising, particularly with agents of Beijing, and, of course, for lapses in taste—the most lurid of which have been recorded in that modern Rabelaisian masterpiece, The Starr Report, which along with its companion volume, The Evidence, made Clinton's the most talked-about presidential penis ever. The clinical term for its condition is Peyronie's Disease, causing wits to joke that President Clinton's anatomy when turgid shared a likeness with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Harding never suffered such undignified comparisons, nor did Johnson.
Moreover, Clinton had a surprisingly cavalier regard for national security. As The 9/11 Commission Report has demonstrated and as this book will elaborate, his neglect injured American security interests at home and abroad. On terror he was a no-show. In his mammoth autobiography, My Life, the forty-second president devotes precisely one paragraph to airport security measures taken during his administration, though he had ample warning that plots were being planned similar to our modern-day Pearl Harbor on September 11, 2001. For instance, the 9/11 Commission reported that on December 4, 1998, Clinton received a President's Daily Brief whose headline read, "Bin Laden Preparing to Hijack U.S. Aircraft and Other Attacks." The passive Clinton remained inert.
According to the New York Post, the briefing contained "information indicating that bin Laden and his allies were preparing an aircraft hijacking and other attacks in the United States to free three jailed Arabs, including the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef and 'Blind Sheik' Omar Abdel-Rahman." Airport security was not tightened. At the time Clinton was admittedly facing impeachment and "distracted," as his defenders plead. On the other hand, President Richard Nixon was also "distracted" by an impending impeachment. Still, in October 1973, the month that the House Judiciary Committee accepted impeachment resolutions against him, Nixon retained sufficient focus to stand by Israel in one of the Cold War's most deadly rounds, resupplying Israel nine days into the Yom Kippur War, confronting the USSR's threat of unilateral action by putting our armed forces on worldwide alert, and negotiating a ceasefire between Egypt and Israel.
Excerpted from The Clinton Crack-Up by R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.. Copyright © 2007 R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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