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Donald Trump, You’re No Bill Clinton

One problem for President Donald Trump, The New York Times said a couple months ago, is that he is not enough like President Bill Clinton, who “faced impeachment with discipline.”

The other day, however, The Washington Post noted that Trump is belatedly “taking a page out of the Clinton playbook,” by trying to project that he is “relentlessly focused on doing the business of the American people.”

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Hmm. … Here is a subject—what Clinton was like during impeachment—I know well, from reporting at the time and extensive reconstructions with key players afterward. It is an arcane specialty that I had assumed had long since been filed away in the basement, exhumed occasionally over drinks and remember-that-one-time stories with aging sources and colleagues.

In fact, people for the most part misremember that time. The mythology that Clinton was a disciplined compartmentalizer who kept public business rigorously insulated from his personal and legal problems, like many myths, has an element of truth. But it has an equal or greater element of fiction. Impeachment consumed a year of his public and private life, and by all evidence it is doing the same to Trump.

As long as we are indulging in fantasy, rather than pretending Trump is now emulating Clinton, it is more fun to imagine what it might have been like if Clinton had emulated Trump.

Imagine the White House releasing a transcript, as the Trump did in the Ukraine matter, of his erotically charged morning phone calls with Monica Lewinsky. Or picture Clinton striding to the South Lawn microphones to say that, yes, indeed, he had a sexual relationship with the former intern, that it was his right as commander in chief to have affairs, and that their furtive West Wing liaisons had been “perfect.”

Stretch back a little further to President Richard Nixon, who if he were channeling Trump, would not have denied responsibility for the Watergate break-in but boasted about it, would have claimed he had evidence that the Democratic National Committee was conspiring with foreign powers against his reelection, and would have demanded that Democrats be investigated for treason.

The parlor game is entertaining, but highlights a serious point: Whatever similarities exist between Trump and Clinton, they are minor compared to the differences in American political culture between the two times. Twenty-one years isn’t that long along, but in important respects it is very far away.

The biggest change is in our national capacity for shock. Many people are genuinely alarmed by Trump’s efforts to enlist Ukraine in U.S. domestic politics, but there aren’t many at this late date who are shocked—as in, can’t believe this is happening!—by his actions or statements about them.

A telling example from the earlier episode: Clinton lied about his relationship with Lewinsky for several months in 1998, from the time the story broke in January until he made a nationally televised confession in August. It is hard to recall the degree of bipartisan disapproval that thundered down on the passages in that confession when he confronted, not by name, prosecutor Kenneth Starr. The investigation into his private life, he complained, had “gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.”

Even many Democratic lawmakers were aghast and outspokenly critical. How dare Clinton, at a time when he should be wallowing in contrition, instead question the legitimacy of the effort to drive him from office?

Compare Clinton’s mild words of protest with—to pick almost at random from hundreds of ready examples—Trump’s description this week of House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff. “I think he’s a maniac. Adam Schiff is a deranged human being. I think he grew up with a complex for lots of reasons that are obvious. I think he is a very sick man. And he lies.”

A country that has learned to shrug at such words from a president—who was standing next to another head of state at the time—is not the same one in which Clinton navigated his scandal. Shock is a drug whose effects have worn off.

Another example worth pondering: Clinton did indeed embrace the impropriety of his behavior, just disputed the impeachable nature of it, and Democrats were not blithely tolerant, much less supportive of it.

Few people these days seem to remember that Clinton and his agents in the fall of 1998 were virtually begging for Congress to pass a resolution of censure condemning his conduct as a way of averting impeachment. Republicans dismissed censure as a meaningless diversion, determined to use constitutional procedures to drive him from office.

By contrast, when Trump the other day was asked whether he would accept being censured, as a way of allowing Republicans to express disapproval of his Ukraine dealings while voting against impeachment and removal, he was contemptuous. “Unacceptable,” he said at a London news conference. “I did nothing wrong. You don’t censure somebody when they did nothing wrong.”

This is the profound difference between Clinton and Trump. While Clinton’s critics delighted in calling him “shameless,” the evidence is abundant that regret and self-rebuke echoed within him often during his year of impeachment.

As a reporter at The Washington Post, I helped inflict that year’s clunky catch phrase, “compartmentalization,” on the national conversation to describe the supposed workings of the White House. Only later, while writing a history of Clinton’s presidency, did I come to appreciate how misleading it was.

While Clinton, unlike Trump, rarely talked about impeachment publicly, it did seep deeply into his daily life. Aides would sometimes walk into the Oval Office and find Clinton oblivious to their presence, lost in thought, fiddling with his collection of old campaign buttons. On bad days, before important meetings, senior advisers like Rahm Emanuel or Doug Sosnik would pull aside a trusted Cabinet member, like Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and say, “He needs a little help today. You’re going to have to pick up the slack in there.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who will soon get to vote on an impeachment as a member of the House from Florida, told me afterward: “It’s almost as if the government adjusted to his limping.” If the legal drama had happened in the first term, “it would have been disastrous. It was the maturity of the government that saved us that year.”

Nor was the Clinton defense the finely honed machine that it is sometimes portrayed as these days. In fact, there was constant sniping between lawyers and political hands. The political types resented the lawyers’ tendency to hoard information and their ostensible failure to appreciate that Clinton’s fate depended not so much on law but on narrative—that is, how the public reacted to what it was learning about Clinton as well as what it was learning about his Republican tormentors. The lawyers, meanwhile, thought the political hands did not appreciate the complexities of either criminal law or constitutional procedure.

Trump is so transparent—his grievances and obsessions so close to the surface in news conferences and Twitter—that in some sense it is absurd to conceive that he is, as the stories this week gamely posited, borrowing from the Clinton playbook. Find me the person in America who believes that Trump is more focused on passing a revised North American free-trade agreement than he is on the impeachment drama. It seems there will be less to learn after his presidency is finished about the gap between appearance and reality.

In Clinton’s case, I don’t believe that gap made him hypocritical. It made him human. If anything, it infused his effort to survive his ordeal with a kind of valor—paradoxical, certainly, given the sordid nature of the scandal. The country now is in another era, and valorous isn’t necessarily the first word that springs to mind to describe it.


Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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