Clinton’s Con

The way New Yorkers are telling it, trying to get to your country house in Sag Harbor this weekend will be like crossing the Sierra Nevadas with the Donner Party. Rumors are rife that the 90-mile trip will take 10, 12, maybe 14 hours, as Route 27–the only road through the Hamptons–will be turned into the world’s largest Secret Service holding pen. With Bill Clinton returning to his populist roots for Democratic fund-raisers hosted by the likes of Kim Bassinger and investment banker Bruce Wasserstein, this promises to be a weekend when getting there won’t be half the fun.

Chatterbox, who will be smugly spending a quiet weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, has long been a connoisseur of the presidential rhetoric that accompanies the shaking of the tin cup. Clinton’s inspirational up-with-me talks at these fund-raisers are rarely reported by the press, since they invariably occur during the great Saturday-night-early-Sunday-morning news void. These appearances often provide a rare window into Clinton’s thought processes, as the president talks off-the-cuff, often freely taking questions, as he riffs his way to the hearts and wallets of wealthy Democrats.

Nobody seems to have noticed that the president got away with telling a whopper at a fund-raising brunch Sunday morning in Aspen. In answering a question about the fearsome political muscle of the Christian right, Clinton declared, “We would have won the House in ‘96, but for the fact that in the last 10 days of the election, in the 20 closest races they out-spent us 4.5 to 1–in the last 10 days.”

There you go again, Mr. President.

The main reason that the Democrats blew a golden opportunity to win back the House in 1996 is that the president and his party dropped in the polls in late October in the wake of the first revelations about the Clinton fund-raising scandals. And why were the Democrats in key House races so badly outspent? A major factor is that the Democratic National Committee, serving as the fund-raising arm of the Clinton campaign, reserved almost all their soft money for the president instead of sharing it with vulnerable House candidates. In contrast, the Republicans shrewdly wrote off Bob Dole by mid-October, and funneled their ample fiscal resources to House and Senate races. Clinton’s own greed–both in his heedless fund-raising tactics and his determination to hog all the money even after victory was assured–was what cost the Democrats the House. And don’t think that the orphaned House Democrats from Dick Gephardt on down have forgotten.

What is telling about Clinton’s revisionist history is that he probably now believes his own version of events. Rather than admit error, Clinton reshapes reality to fit his ego needs. That’s why it is naive to think that the president will ever fess up to any hanky-panky with that selfless public servant, Monica Lewinsky. By now, the president has undoubtedly convinced himself that he merely took a fatherly interest in the well-being of the eager-to-please intern. That’s what makes Clinton’s heart-on-his-sleeve sincerity so infuriating. He is such a great con man because he actually believes his own con.

Walter Shapiro