Bill Clinton’s performance on the Charlie Rose Show on Friday night showed a defensive, angry, and off message former president trying desperately to sell his wife’s faltering candidacy. Throughout the interview, Clinton repeatedly tried to disparage Obama’s experience, and, in the process, distorted some important aspects of American presidential history (including his own) while conveniently forgetting about others.
First, he brazenly claimed that he hadn’t run for president in 1988 because "in my bones I did not feel I was ready" to be president. Noting that "I had several governors urging me to run," the former president tried to leave the impression that it was his wisdom in recognizing his own inexperience that led him to take himself out of the race. While this version of history may be convenient for the husband of a candidate falling behind Barack Obama in the early primaries, it is simply not true. It’s another Clinton rewrite on history.
Those who were there when Governor Clinton suddenly decided not to run in 1988 will clearly recall that it was solely because of the serious threat of his extra-marital affairs seeing the light of day. It had nothing to do with experience.
He had seen what happened to Gary Hart and knew that he could not risk the same outing. After running a strong but losing race against Walter Mondale in 1984, Hart was heavily favored for the 1988 nomination until he dared reporters to follow him after they raised questions about extra-marital affairs. They took him up on his offer and ran right into his tryst with Donna Rice. The resulting publicity knocked Hart out of the presidential running. This was not the time for Bill Clinton to venture into a presidential race with the formidable baggage he was carrying.
To make Clinton understand this, his former chief of staff Betsey Wright sat down with him and made him list the names of all of the women with whom he had been involved. Through this exercise, she forced him to confront the political peril they posed. Sobered, Clinton decided not to run.
The former president's memory of history was equally faulty when he rhetorically questioned whether America had ever elected a president as inexperienced as Obama. The answer is: yes, we have -- and they turned out to be the two greatest presidents of the 20th Century. Woodrow Wilson was first elected to public office in 1908 when he was chosen to be governor of New Jersey. Four years later, he was in the White House. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was first elected governor of New York State in 1928 and became president four years later.
If Obama, elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, becomes president in 2008, he will have exactly duplicated the experience in statewide elected office of Wilson and FDR. Wilson's previous experience as president of Princeton and FDR's as a one term State Senator and defeated VP candidate, presumably are not far from Obama's six year tenure in the Illinois State Senate as far as experience goes.
But it was not his failure to recall history accurately that led his apparently panicked aides -- as reported on air by Rose -- to push for an end to the embarrassing interview. It was that Bill had taken off the gloves by implying that electing Obama was risk for the American people. And he appeared to agree when Rose characterized the former president's views as suggesting that electing Obama would be "a roll of the dice."
When Hillary or Bill attack Obama, they only antagonize voters. Particularly at risk are the black voters who make up the bulk of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina and who will heavily influence the Florida primary vote as well. Reeling from a week of ill considered personal attacks on Obama, the Clinton campaign sought to recover its footing only to stumble badly once again when an out-of-control spouse, who happens to have been president, put them back in the doghouse with Democratic voters.
Sometimes even a loyal husband does more harm than good – especially when he’s transparently avoiding the truth.
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