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Conservatives and Bill Clinton: Absence makes the heart grow fonder

By W. James Antle III
web posted June 21, 2004

Clinton during an appearance in New York last week
Clinton during an appearance in New York last week

Although a bit of a let-down and perhaps even a sign of national decline, it is nevertheless in many ways fitting that the week of mourning for Ronald Reagan has been followed by a week of near-constant publicity for Bill Clinton. Clinton probably ranks second only to Reagan in terms of presidents who have galvanized grassroots conservatives.

While Reagan roused the right in support of his policies and robust defense of American founding principles, Clinton incited their unprecedented opposition. It was under Clinton that the conservative alternative media boomed, with talk radio reviving the AM dial and political discussion burning up the young web. The trenchant populist conservatism and persistent anti-administration reporting found on WorldNetDaily, Newsmax and the Drudge Report undoubtedly made Al Gore wish he had never invented the Internet.

At the extremes, the Clintonites and their detractors developed an almost symbiotic relationship. Any fledgling conservative group or aspiring talk-show host could make a quick buck by peddling videos purporting to document the "Clinton body count" or tales of a president involved in Cayman Islands drug enterprises. Clinton's defenders cited these facts in dismissing serious criticisms of their man as mere personal attacks from a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Even though I'm still waiting for those generous checks from Richard Mellon Scaife that were said to flow into co-conspirators' bank accounts, I certainly was one of the right-wingers exercised by the Clinton presidency. When Clinton was elected, it seemed to me like an offense against the natural order; Rush Limbaugh's mantra of "America held hostage" somehow rang true. The presidency, for the last twelve years (and according to the received wisdom of the time, for the foreseeable future) a Republican institution, had been captured by a Democratic interloper. I imagine Democrats felt the same shock and dismay when Republicans ended their party's 40-year domination of the House of Representatives two years later.

I was still in high school when Clinton took office. For an English assignment, we had to write letters to the new president about an issue that concerned us. Most of my classmates responded with pabulum about planting trees or securing world peace. I penned a five-page diatribe lecturing Clinton on everything from the economic repercussions of confiscatory tax rates to the horror of abortion on demand. If it was actually sent, I wouldn't be surprised to discover I ended up on a Secret Service watch list, but my guess is the teacher probably removed it from the batch of letters he sent to the White House and tossed it in the garbage.

When I began regularly writing opinion columns while in college, I generally confined my criticisms of Clinton to policy issues, but my writing exhibited some uniquely anti-Clinton tics. For example, I refused to ever refer to him as "President Clinton." When an editor changed "Mr. Clinton" to "President Clinton" in one my columns, I inserted a line in my next piece stating my Clinton-naming policy and explaining that if readers ever saw the words "President Clinton" appear in my column it was only because it had been changed from "that bastard" during editing. I would go on to volunteer at Republican headquarters in a Democratic city during the height of the impeachment debate and write for webzines that flourished in their opposition to the Clinton administration.

Despite my anti-Clinton animus, I increasingly began to notice how the right was often debilitated by its preoccupation with Clinton. When Clinton left office, I finally decided to Move On, even writing a column chastising my fellow conservatives for continuing to pay so much attention to our 42nd president. This is the first piece I have written featuring Clinton as the main topic since then.

Then a funny thing began to happen. My dislike for Clinton began to cool. In retrospect, some aspects of his presidency did not seem so bad. Along with the Republican Congress, he balanced the budget. Federal spending was relative under control, especially compared to the present pork feeding frenzy, mainly because of the gridlock created by divided government.

Clinton's tax increase, contrary to the conventional wisdom that it balanced the budget and lowered interest rates to stimulate economic growth, actually led to several years of sub-par growth and more lackluster job creation than would have otherwise taken place. But hysterical Republican predictions of a recession or even a depression, caused by what they described as the largest tax increase in world history, proved to be wildly inaccurate. Even though the Clinton tax hike was large in terms of gross tax take, marginal income tax rates remained well below their pre-Reagan levels and were in fact lower than they were during the early Reagan administration. This is why, in conjunction with spending restraint and later tax cuts, the economy was able to boom during Clinton's second term.

Clinton is pictured delivering his strongest public denial of allegations that he had an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, during a White House press conference on January 26, 1998
Clinton is pictured delivering his strongest public denial of allegations that he had an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, during a White House press conference on January 26, 1998

No, I haven't forgotten nor do I now condone Clinton's Oval Office intern-chasing antics. Yes, I expect to receive e-mails about technology transfers to China and illicit campaign contributions, all of which are very important even if only some of the allegations in these areas are credible. But will readers not grant that at least some of the conservative attacks on Clinton were disproportionate and a product of partisan hyperbole?

I even got to the point where President George W. Bush's effusive praise of the Clintons at the unveiling of their White House portraits seemed reasonable. A few years ago, it would have made me sick. What was it about Clinton that enraged me so during the 1990s?

Well, it's actually not that difficult a question. As Clinton has seeped back into the limelight, I have slowly been reminded why I once found him so revolting.

First, there was there were the press reports of his disgusting, piteous moaning about not being invited to deliver a eulogy at the Reagan funeral. Here is a man who ate lunch with Reagan a couple of times while governor of Arkansas and once as president-elect, and saw him maybe a few times outside of that. No longer a sitting president, what did he have to offer as a eulogist that all of the people chosen to give tribute to a man they actually knew did not?

Then there was his smug, unoriginally titled autobiography, My Life, panned even in the pages of the New York Times, now infesting bookstores near you. You can imagine him biting his lip as he confesses that the Monica Lewinsky matter was a "moral error," only to turn around and self-pityingly decry Kenneth Starr and the vast right-wing conspiracy for bringing the whole mess upon him.

The book continues Clinton's eight-year assault on the dignity of the presidency. Do we really need a presidential memoir in which the former commander-in-chief recalls his first "sexual stirrings?" Is all the amateur self-psychoanalysis really necessary?

George Will was on to something when he concluded, "Clinton is not the worst president the republic has had, but he is the worst person ever to have been president." Conservatives exaggerated the ill effect of his policies (at least the ones that he actually managed to see enacted) out of their distaste for the man, in much the same way liberals today see George W. Bush as being more right-wing than he really is out of their contempt for his personae.

Some of the right's distaste for Clinton's character was unreasonable, but as the My Life book promotion tour is already reminding us, much of it was not. The clichés "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and "familiarity breeds contempt" both come to mind here. The best thing Bill Clinton could do to enhance and safeguard his legacy is go away.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

Other related articles: (Open in a new window)

  • Forget Clinton: It's time to move on by W. James Antle III (February 19, 2001)
    Why is everyone still talking about Bill Clinton? W. James Antle III says conservatives have better things to concentrate on
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