Strange Bedfellow

No Respect

Why the Washington establishment hates Bill Clinton.

In recent weeks, Bill Clinton’s stock has been trading higher. His approval-disapproval rating in the latest CNN poll is 59-31. This may account for the grudging credit the president has begun to receive on the weekend talk shows (see Slate’s “Pundit Central“) and in the opinion columns. Commentators are commending the administration’s strategic acumen in proposing to expand child-care benefits and let 55-year-olds buy into Medicare. More generally, they have lately accorded Clinton a measure of respect for presiding over peace and prosperity, and simply for staying afloat for five years.

Yet, beneath these acknowledgments there runs an undercurrent of distaste, disdain, even contempt. Last month, the unapologetically establishment journalist R.W. Apple Jr. wrote a piece in GQ about Clinton’s place in history. Though he hasn’t screwed up in any profound way, Apple contended, Clinton will be remembered as a middling president, at best. He is a man with a “compulsion to cut ethical corners” and “total contempt for ethical niceties.” Such hostility continues to peek through at regular intervals. On election night in 1996, agribusiness spokesman and former TV journalist David Brinkley announced that Clinton was “a bore” and would always be one. Among members of the Washington establishment, especially the Washington media establishment, there is a scorn for Clinton that is not always articulated in public but never fades.

I’m not talking here about conservative anti-Clinton animus as represented by the American Spectator, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, or the Christopher Ruddy-Ambrose Evans-Pritchard-Richard Mellon Scaife-Jerry Falwell school of conspiracy wackiness. Though this form of detestation does have a clinical element, it is easy to understand. Right-wingers hate Clinton in much the same way that left-wingers hated Reagan (although Clinton is, of course, hardly an ideological threat as Reagan was, and in fact, many left-wingers also hate Clinton, precisely for being a centrist). The left had the October Surprise; the right has Vince Foster. What is much harder to understand is the Clintonophobia exhibited by a Washington elite that roughly shares the administration’s center-liberal orientation. This group includes the editorial page editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times, as well as leading columnists for both papers. It is the oft-expressed view of what remains of Georgetown society. Goodness knows there are plenty of reasons to dislike anyone, maybe more than the average number in Clinton’s case. What is mystifying is the intensity of the contempt for him.

Let’s begin with the conscious reasons. If you ask one of these Clinton detractors what she objects to, she is likely to mention that the president is duplicitous, disloyal, and unethical. Michael Kelly has called the president “a shocking liar.” Apple has compared the Clintons to the F. Scott Fitzgerald characters Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who left a trail of broken friends in their single-minded social ascent. Maureen Dowd recently wrote that the Arlington graves-for-cash scenario sounded like something Clinton would have done, even though he did not, in fact, do it. Interestingly, if these critics are much bothered by conventional immoral behavior, such as the extramarital affairs, they don’t make a public point of it.

Each of these criticisms contains a kernel of truth. Clinton almost certainly has not told the truth about Paula Jones, just as the first lady did not tell the truth about the travel-office firings. Bill Clinton treated his friends Lani Guinier and Harold Ickes badly. Investing with James McDougal does not reflect the highest ethical standards. But those who continue to dwell on these well-aired matters seldom exhibit much perspective. What president or successful politician has never acted expediently by dissembling, dropping old friends, and compromising his ethics at various points? The real question is whether the extent of Clinton’s bad behavior is extraordinary. JFK was a favorite of many of Clinton’s Georgetown critics when they were younger. Kennedy, of course, cut his corners with a touch of class, something else Clinton is said to lack. Clinton haters hate Clinton for not having the dignity and sense of restraint that should attach to his office. Even his jogging shorts, they think, are unpresidential.

The next level is less literal, more psychological, and involves several disparate strands. Many journalists were seduced by Clinton in 1992, and subsequently felt personally betrayed. Joe Klein is the chief specimen here. During the 1992 campaign, Klein gushed about Clinton in New York magazine. After Clinton became president, Klein tongue-lashed him in Newsweek for not measuring up. Klein distilled his own emotional roller-coaster ride into an excellent novel, Primary Colors. Related to this sense of betrayal, which is shared in varying degrees by many others who covered Clinton in 1992, is the feeling that Clinton has “got away with it,” in the sense of never paying the bill for his sexual misdeeds. Related to this is an attitude not far from envy. Disappointed in Clinton, many of the shrewder members of the president’s peer group seem to think that they could do better themselves. Since Clinton is no smarter and certainly no better behaved than they are, why aren’t their positions reversed?

The generational factor is significant. Everybody distrusts the baby boomers. The older generation sees them as spoiled and self-indulgent. Those younger see them as greedy and narcissistic. Often, those who came of age during the 1960s seem to resent themselves. Just as he gets it from all sides as a member of the ‘60s generation, Clinton gets it coming and going on the issue of class. To Georgetown sophisticates, there is something hopelessly garish and cheap about the Clintons. At the same time, others sneer at Bill and Hillary for being part of a snooty meritocratic elite (viz., Renaissance Weekend) with no feel for the grimy working-class soul of the Democratic Party.

B ut the most important explanation of the Washington establishment’s Clinton hating is that Clinton threatens its waning power. At the height of the Cold War, Georgetown society was the center of the political world. These days, it is a vestige, whose only real wellspring of importance is a president who elevates it with his blandishments and listens to its advice. When a Republican president like Nixon or Bush fails to heed the wise men of the permanent government, they can dismiss him. When a Democrat like Carter or Clinton ignores them, they must launch their missiles. For whatever reason, the Clintons have been notably uninterested in cultivating the surviving members of the Georgetown set. During the presidential transition in 1992, the Clintons attended a dinner at Katharine Graham’s house and drew glowing comments from the attendees. They launched a round of intimate White House dinners. Johnny Apple cooed.

After that, however, the president more or less stiffed the Georgetowners. This outraged them–you could tell because they all said their friends were outraged. In July 1993, Sally Quinn observed in the Washington Post: “People who have been here and who have attained a certain social or political position do not want to be ‘dissed.’ They want the new team to respect them. Because these tribal rituals were not fulfilled, many people were virtually gleeful when Clinton went into free fall in the polls. You reap what you sow, was the attitude.” As he begins the sixth year of his presidency, Clinton is reaping it still.