A Clever Fellow, to Be Sure, but Clueless About Character

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.

“Survivor: Little Rock” -- the reality TV show with only one contestant -- is back. Bubba Bill is once again transfixing the nation with the psychodrama that is his life and times. The ex-prez wants us to know that he’s been trying to figure out the source of the “demons” that led him into a dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Not surprisingly, he’s located the wellsprings of his childish behavior in his childhood. That’s nice for him. But he still doesn’t have a clue why he became every right-winger’s favorite pinata.

Asked by Dan Rather why so many people hate him, clueless Clinton replied: “I’ve always tried to change things. And people who try to be change agents are going to make people mad against the changes you’re trying to make.”

Change things? What was it exactly that Bill Clinton tried to change? He came in with grandiose plans to nationalize healthcare and allow gays to serve in the military. Neither one got anywhere, and, in the case of healthcare, it was hard to tell whether Bill cared that much; that was Hillary’s deal. Thereafter Clinton became the status quo president. He presided over a bunch of micro-reforms engineered by Dick Morris -- feel-good ideas like encouraging school uniforms and discouraging teen smoking. This was grandly known as “triangulation,” or the Third Way.


A less charitable way to put it would be that Clinton was doing as little as possible so as to offend as few people as possible. It worked like a charm; he coasted to a second term. But that doesn’t make him a change agent, much less one who would offend anyone to the right of Michael Moore. His biggest change, after all, was welfare reform: not exactly the kind of thing that gets the boys down at National Review all riled up.

Clinton’s presidency (“The era of big government is over!”) essentially ratified the huge transformations wrought by Ronald Reagan. Now there was a genuine change agent. Reagan was hated by the left for all the right reasons. Franklin D. Roosevelt was another change agent; he earned the enmity of the right by launching the era of big government.

The mystery of Clinton is that he was an essentially conservative president -- perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the White House since Grover Cleveland -- and yet he was loathed by conservatives. So much so that he was accused of all sorts of awful things he didn’t actually do, from murdering Vince Foster to being in cahoots with the Chinese. I don’t blame Clinton for getting a tad upset about the nutty accusations tossed his way and for not being able to figure out what a good ole boy with a saxophone and a smile had ever done to justify such venom.

I’m not sure I can explain it either -- any more than I can explain why George W. Bush has inspired such antipathy from the Al Franken wing of the Democratic Party even while so abjectly pandering to them with his Medicare expansion, No Child Left Behind Act, campaign finance reform and budget-busting spending increases. Here’s Dubya expanding the Great Society, and yet he gets accused of dismantling the New Deal. Go figure.

My theory, for what it’s worth, is that there’s a basic divide between people who value character in their president and those who prefer cleverness. (For some reason the two don’t generally seem to go together, at least not since Teddy Roosevelt retired.) At the risk of over-generalization, conservatives like character, liberals like cleverness.

Thus Clinton drove the right bonkers with his smooth evasions and brazen lies -- “I smoked but did not inhale,” “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” -- which showed that he was long on brains but short on principles. And now Bush drives the left equally bonkers with his verbal gaffes and moralistic views -- nicely combined in his May 25 statement, “I’m honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein.” Clinton-haters are voters who worry about how sinners will fare on Judgment Day; Bush-haters are voters who think there’s no greater sin than being judgmental.

It’s no coincidence that Stan Greenberg, Clinton’s old pollster, says secular voters are one of the core constituencies of the Democratic Party, just as white evangelicals are the core of the GOP. His recent polls show 69% of the impious going for John Kerry, while 76% of the faithful are for Bush. The other Clinton guru, James Carville, was wrong. It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the culture. And if Clinton hasn’t figured that out yet, he’s not as clever as everyone thinks he is.