Last Friday, after nine days of talks under President Clinton’s supervision at the Wye River plantation in Maryland, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reached an agreement on the next phase of the Middle East peace process. Clinton rushed the two leaders to the White House to complete the signing ceremony before sundown, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. Minutes after the ceremony ended, the sun set, Jews all over the world ceased their labors, and the White House spin doctors went to work, lobbying reporters to give Clinton credit for pulling off the deal.
Clinton’s critics could have denied that the Wye deal was a triumph or that Clinton deserved credit for it. But this would have been futile. Instead, they diminished his achievement in a subtler and more effective way. From a political standpoint, Clinton’s true payoff for facilitating the peace deal is to put the Monica Lewinsky scandal behind him. His enemies are trying to deprive him of that payoff by binding the two stories together.
The Clinton camp’s spin in the days since the agreement has made clear that its game plan is to change the subject. In campaign fund-raising appearances, Clinton portrayed himself as a peacemaker and said the agreement “reminds us what counts.” On NBC’s Meet the Press, when conservative activist Gary Bauer denounced Clinton’s behavior in the Lewinsky matter, Democratic Party Chairman Roy Romer paraphrased the king of Jordan’s praise for Clinton’s performance at Wye. “This election is not about that [scandal],” said Romer. “This election’s about leadership. It’s about a president [of whom] King Hussein [said], ‘I’ve never seen his equal in all the presidents I’ve known.’ ” Strategist James Carville similarly brushed off questions about Lewinsky: “When you see what King Hussein has said about this president,” asked Carville, “who do you believe has got more integrity and character? King Hussein and Nelson Mandela or Bill Bennett and Jerry Falwell? People know this president’s doing the job.”
Clinton sympathizers in the media picked up this spin. Clinton’s “performance at Wye River disposes of the argument that because of the Lewinsky affair he cannot be an effective President,” wrote Anthony Lewis in the New York Times. It also “put [that] affair in perspective. How trivial it looked compared with the stakes at Wye River.” On ABC’s This Week, Sam Donaldson noted that Clinton would visit the Gaza Strip in triumph in December. “While the Republicans are holding [impeachment] hearings in the House,” boasted Donaldson, “Mr. President will be striding the world like a colossus.”
Far from denying Clinton’s triumph, conservative pundits and politicians graciously acknowledged it. On Fox News Sunday, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., credited Clinton for shepherding the talks. On CNN’s Late Edition, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called it “one of Clinton’s grandest moments.” Fox’s Brit Hume argued that Clinton’s achievement shouldn’t be underestimated. “Bill Clinton is good at peace processes,” agreed ABC’s Bill Kristol. “Let’s give him credit.”
Instead, conservatives slyly appropriated the theme of a Sunday Washington Post front-page article, which suggested that Clinton’s vices in the Lewinsky affair had become virtues at the Wye summit. The summit, “with its all-night sessions and constant brushes with disaster, was a setting in which Clinton’s penchant for keeping all the balls in the air at once seemed to thrive,” said the Post. “Clinton relied on a personal style of charm, persistence, and language that could be artfully imprecise,” particularly when Netanyahu sought his assurance that the United States would release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. According to the Post, “one Clinton adviser acknowledged that Clinton had been encouraging enough about the Pollard case in a vague way that the Israelis could have heard a pledge that was never precisely made.” In an acid reference to the Lewinsky cover-up, a confidant of Netanyahu’s suggested that Clinton, after initially saying that Pollard “is going to be released,” had taken refuge in “a dispute about the word ‘is.’ ” On This Week, former Clinton spinner George Stephanopoulos confirmed the Post’s thesis: “The things that drive you most crazy about Bill Clinton, in a situation like this, work. He can see gray. He can understand both sides of the argument.”
Clinton’s enemies flattered him in the most sincere way–imitation–by exploiting the ambiguity of the ambiguity thesis. Rather than celebrate the transformation of his vices into virtues, they argued that his momentary virtues will revert to vices. “It depended on qualities that he really had: doggedness, a willingness to stay up all night, charm,” said Hume. “And yet, like so much that he does, it was somewhat stained by this seamy little business about Jonathan Pollard, in which you can’t quite figure out who’s telling the truth, but one suspects that it may not be the president.” CNN pundit Tucker Carlson agreed: “The two things he did during this negotiation” were “to stay up all night” and to “throw a temper tantrum.” In this light, the traits for which Middle East leaders lauded Clinton at the signing ceremony took on ironic shadows: his “tolerance,” his “flexible mind,” and the fact that, as Netanyahu put it, “he doesn’t stop.”
The virtues-as-vices argument hurts Clinton not only by cementing the Lewinsky episode as the defining moment of his presidency but also by obscuring the ways in which he succeeded at Wye by overcoming the vices he displayed in that episode. By some accounts, Clinton’s chief contribution at Wye was his refusal to buckle in two showdowns with Netanyahu. But over time, this aspect of his success will be forgotten because it doesn’t fit the pattern. And as the public comes to believe instead that Clinton’s flexibility and artifice led to the Wye agreement, the agreement’s antagonists–or even its reluctant signers–will be tempted to demand that the terms be revised, arguing that Clinton deceived them and figuring that he will bend under pressure.
What will help conservatives most in their efforts to link Wye to Lewinsky is Clinton’s incorrigible narcissism. Hours after announcing the agreement, he said in a speech to a conference of religious leaders, “I felt that it was a part of my job as president, my mission as a Christian, and my personal journey of atonement.” Personal journey? Atonement? Perhaps Clinton’s enemies needn’t bother laboring to make the Lewinsky mess the touchstone of his presidency. He’s determined to do it himself.
Recent “Frame Games”
“The Microsoft Trial“: The lesson of Flytrap is to attack the inquisition. (posted Wednesday, Oct. 21, 1998)
“St. Matthew“: The political use of a gay man’s gruesome death. (posted Friday, Oct. 16, 1998)