Adding another unanticipated sidebar to this topsy-
turvy election, Kenneth Starr has lavished praise on Bill
Clinton, citing his “genuine empathy for human beings”,
calling him “the most gifted politician of the baby
boomer generation” and commending his post-
presidential philanthropy, which he noted was
Carteresque in its benevolence.
Starr, a former independent counsel, was the author of
what’s probably the most expensive piece of pornography
ever published, the Starr Report which chronicled, in graphic
sexual detail, Bill Clinton’s affair with a 21-year-old White
House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
The one-time character assassin has become a character
Bill Clinton, despite being impeached for lying under oath
about that affair, left office with the highest approval rating –
66% – of any departing president.
He was also credited with balancing the federal budget and
reviving the American economy from its early-Nineties
Since then, as Starr noted, he has followed a redemptive
path. So he should be a prime asset to his wife Hillary as she
seeks to become the first ever first lady to move from the
East Wing of the White House to the West.
The irony of Starr’s kind words is that they have come at a
time when Hillary, among other woes, has a Bill problem.
The man who could well become the “First Dude” – Hillary’s
words, not mine – is proving to be something of a liability.
Part of it stems, of course, from what eventually became the
focus of Kenneth Starr’s inquiry, Bill Clinton’s womanising.
It blunts her attacks on Donald Trump’s sexism and
misogyny which, in a contest where more women will vote
than men, should have been her ace card.
The billionaire, in a jujutsu-like move, has already launched
an attack ad featuring video of Kathleen Willey, who accused
Bill Clinton of sexual assault, and Juanita Broaddrick, who
accused him of rape.
“DIRTY BILLS,” read the front page of the New York Post the
following day, conflating Trump’s attack ad with the
allegations against Bill Cosby.
Nor is Trump relying on guilt by association. He has already
called Hillary an “enabler” of her husband’s fidelity. “She
would go after these women and destroy their lives,” he has
Like many of Trump’s attacks, that may strike many voters
as shrill and overstated, it also contains a kernel of truth.
The White House did attempt to trash Monica Lewinsky when
the scandal first erupted in 1998, and Hillary Clinton, during
her husband’s long phase of public denial, described it as
being the product of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”,
absolving him of blame.
Hillary as loyal “stand-by-your-man” wife does not marry
that well with Hillary as feminist trailblazer, the image she is
trying to project.
My sense, having watched the Clintons fairly closely for over
20 years, is that they have a loving marriage and deep
friendship. An animated conversation that started at Yale
Law School in the early Seventies continues for both of them
to fascinate and enthral.
But many critics of the Clintons believe it’s a transactional
partnership, a marriage of political convenience. To some,
her loyalty during the most troubled phase of the Clinton
presidency reinforces the sense that she’s a cynical political
operator, willing to do anything to accrue power.
The Bernie problem, her difficulty in seeing off her
Democratic rival, is also partly a Bill problem. The
unexpected success of the Vermont Senator is explained not
only by an aversion to Hillary but also a rejection of Bill.
Sanders supporters are railing against his political and
policy legacy. Bill Clinton’s pursuit of a “Third Way” politics
was designed to make the Democrats more electable and to
end the party’s losing streak in presidential politics.
Up until his victory in 1992, they had only won one of the
previous six elections. But this shift to the middle ground,
and the centrist policies that accompanied it, alienated
many on the Democrat left. Withholding support from
Hillary Clinton and bestowing it instead upon Bernie Sanders
is a form of revenge.
Whether its financial deregulation, the welfare bill that
Clinton passed with the Republican-controlled Congress,
criminal justice reforms which have contributed to higher
levels of black incarceration, the North American Free Trade
Agreement, or Nafta for short, there’s been an angry
backlash against what Clinton once trumpeted as some of
his greatest domestic accomplishments.
This has made her vulnerable to a challenge from the left, as
Sanders has shown. But it also makes her vulnerable to a
challenge from the right, because of Nafta.
Blue-collar voters, who might ordinarily be expected to vote
Democrat, stand to applaud when Donald Trump promises
to renegotiate trade deals which have exported American
Hillary Clinton hinted recently that Bill would become her
jobs tsar and focus his energies on reviving American
She clearly hopes that he can appeal again to blue-collar
whites, who warmed to him as a candidate and president.
But that bond has been severely eroded, if not severed
completely, because he was the president who negotiated
Public perceptions about Bill Clinton have also changed, in a
way which exposes the rupture between the Democratic
establishment and the Democratic grassroots.
When he first appeared on the national scene, he could
plausibly cast himself as the boy from Hope, his small-town
Now, after all the millions he has earned on the
international speaking circuit, he comes across not just as a
limousine liberal but a Lear Jet liberal. Standing at the head
of a metropolitan progressive elite, he does not have the
same common touch of old.
The Clintons, after all these years as the dominant power
couple in the Democratic establishment, also project an
imperious sense of entitlement. It explains why Hillary
Clinton’s email scandal cuts so deep. It reinforces the
widespread view that the couple believe they are not bound
by normal rules.
More on this story
Are Trump and Sanders right about trade?
Why is the US turning to protectionism?
Trump, Clinton and the ‘None of the Above’ era
Hillary Clinton’s problem with women
Those of us who have watched him on the campaign trail
have also been surprised at the 69-year-old’s comparative
lack of energy. The magnetism and charisma for which he is
famed simply is not there.
At a rally in New Hampshire, I happened to be stood next to
Clinton’s biographer David Maraniss, whose real-time
Twitter feed made for fascinating reading.
“When BC was introduced and stood on stage w/Chelsea, he
showed nothing on his face, mouth agape, eyes seemingly
blank… just frail, like he had to conserve every ounce of
energy. No gleam in his eyes, no electricity, muted…. He lit
up only when Chelsea talked about him. Then when it was
his turn to talk a little bit of his old self came back, but not
Once the most powerful energy force in any room, Bill
Clinton is now only an ambient presence.
The former president is not without his fans. There are
thousands who still cheer this self-proclaimed architect of
the bridge to the 21st Century. What’s also been striking is
how African-American voters have returned to the Clinton
fold, after backing Barack Obama in 2008, despite protesters
from the Black Lives Matters campaign targeting him on the
However, the former first couple’s hopes that wistful
memories of the Clinton administration would lead to a
Clinton restoration have surely dwindled.
Nostalgia is something that can give a departing president a
warm glow, as Barack Obama is presently discovering, but
hard for a presidential aspirant to harness, especially when
so much of the country is angrily demanding change.
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Adding another unanticipated sidebar to this topsy-