The Washington Post’s Marjorie Williams may be the hottest columnist in the country right now. She’s working on a streak of at least three home runs; in her latest, she explains the vehemence with which Bill Clinton’s erstwhile defenders have turned on him since his seedy departure from office. The anger in elite, Democratic society is, she argues, “the displaced revenge of those who spent years denying the undeniable and defending the indefensible.” They “willingly suspended” judgment and covered for Clinton, and now there are some subconscious moral and emotional books to be balanced.
Clearly there’s a lot of that going on. But can’t those who didn’t cover for Clinton–which is much of the American public–get newly angry at, say, the bizarre and destructive Marc Rich pardon, even as they feel a secret warm satisfaction that the dramatic arc has been completed with the protagonist’s character flaws fully revealed? We’re not all Captain Renaults (shocked, shocked to discover what’s obviously been going on). And even the suddenly disillusioned ex-Clintonites aren’t totally Renault-esque–because Williams is missing something when she says that “the manner of the Clintons’ departure told us exactly nothing that we hadn’t known about them before.” It did tell us something new.
The Rich pardon wasn’t just seemingly corrupt and shameless–it was also incompetent. That’s something we’re not used to from Bill Clinton. It’s fair to say that the main reason people willingly suspended their judgment about him–his saving grace–was that he seemed to be on the ball as far as his job was concerned. When the time for a decision came, he found out all the necessary facts, stayed up all night, and eventually made the right call (on the economy, on taxes, on welfare, on trade). Yet here he reviewed the file, stayed up all night, and made a terrible decision–a decision he surely now realizes was terrible, a decision that he’d unmake today, were it possible, if only to escape the indelibly bad PR it’s brought him.
Did he make this mistake because, as some news reports have implied, his staff wasn’t there to talk him out of it? If so, how many other boneheaded decisions were prevented only because Clinton was surrounded, until the last few moments, by competent aides–surrounded the way we’re supposed to now be wishing that Bush is surrounded? Far from telling us nothing, the Rich pardon casts a whole new, retrospective light on Clinton’s presidency. What if Robert Rubin, Bruce Reed, and the others hadn’t been there? …
Notice: Calling All Kalbs! I have a conflict-of-interest in writing the above, namely that Williams is both a friend of mine and spouse of Slate’s Timothy Noah, another friend. She’s also a regular participant in Slate’s “Book Club.” I could have simply ignored her recent hot streak (judge the columns for yourself) without affecting my relations with Noah, or Williams, or Slate. But that would be wrong!