How Barack Uses Bill

Turning Hillary Clinton’s husband against her.

Bill Clinton

How much of a rhetorical genius is Bill Clinton? He could find wiggle room in the word is. He could issue stern denials about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky while looking straight into the camera. Sen. Bob Kerrey once described him as “an unusually good liar.” Clinton is considered such a master of the art of political speech that during this campaign, his every remark is scrutinized for hidden agendas, motivations, and lucky lottery numbers.

He has been effective. When Clinton railed against the press for giving Obama kid-glove treatment, he got the message across in a way campaign aides hadn’t achieved, despite months of jawboning the media. When Clinton brought up Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign after Obama’s South Carolina victory, he interjected a parallel that accentuated Obama’s race and framed his victory as a black thing. This matched the argument Clinton aides were making behind the scenes that Obama won only because he had such big African-American support. Bill Clinton says he got a bum rap for drawing the Jackson parallel, but it is hard to imagine that a man with his skill, even if he wasn’t trying a deliberate stratagem, would be ignorant to the effect his remarks would achieve.

But Clinton can’t possibly be angling as much or as often as people give him credit. Like Karl Rove, the former president is inevitably assumed to be playing games he may not actually be trying to play. What’s intent and what’s reputation doesn’t matter to Obama campaign aides, though. They have effectively used Clinton’s reputation as a political master against his wife’s campaign.

The latest attempt to turn Bill Clinton into an Obama surrogate comes after Clinton’s talked last Friday in North Carolina about what a Hillary vs. McCain race might look like:

I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interests of this country. … [P]eople could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics.

Because Clinton is such an evil genius, the Obama campaign argued, his remarks could be interpreted only in the most politically diabolical way: By stressing McCain and Hillary’s love of their country, he was suggesting Obama, whom he never mentioned, didn’t love his country. One of Obama’s top military advisers, Gen. Tony McPeak, promptly compared Clinton to Joe McCarthy. Maureen Dowd and Martin Peretz saw it this way, too.

Other observers saw even worse. “[Clinton] also, notably, pushed the race button there again,” said a veteran Democratic strategist who supports Obama, referring to Clinton’s talk about “all this other stuff.” The “other stuff,” goes this theory, is Obama’s recent trouble with his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. The powerful message: If you don’t want to have a debate about race all day long, vote for Clinton.

Is that the right interpretation? Bill Richardson, who last week came out in support of  Obama, didn’t think Clinton was making any claims about Obama’s patriotism. Though Richardson may be tender after cries that he betrayed The Family, I agree with him that if you look at Clinton’s full remarks, another interpretation is possible. Clinton appears to be imagining a post-nomination world and characterizing the debate among two senators (Hillary and McCain) as respectful because—as he had just finished explaining to the crowd—his wife and McCain had traveled the world together working on the issues like global warming. When he refers to “the other stuff that always seems to intrude,” it’s plausible to assume—if you strip him of the horns and pitchfork for just a moment—that what Clinton was talking about was the “stuff” that intrudes in general-election fights—swift-boat ads and Republican claims that Democrats aren’t patriots.

Clinton would want to characterize a Hillary vs. McCain debate as civil and respectful in this way precisely because the Obama campaign has been arguing strenuously that she is so divisive that in a general election, she’d rip the country apart. Bill might just have been saying, Hey, these senators like each other, so don’t be worried about the general election. It’ll be a civil debate.

Call me a hope-monger, but I tend to lean toward that more generous interpretation in this case. I’m not arguing that Bill Clinton doesn’t have the capacity to play the angles or that it’s a certainty he wasn’t trying to be sneaky here. I’m arguing that in this instance, those facts aren’t in evidence. I don’t think there’s a definitive deconstruction to be done. Given the thousands of words he says every day, you can find something to stuff with meaning every day if you hunt. It’s plausible to see Clinton’s remarks in another context than the one in which the Obama campaign has framed them.

Perhaps I’ve been listening to Barack Obama too much. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama argues that “political caricatures and nuggets of conventional wisdom lodge themselves in our brain without us ever taking the time to examine them.” As an example of false narratives, he cites none other than those that attach to his challenger: “[A] vote or speech by Hillary Clinton that runs against type is immediately labeled calculating.” If I’m inclined to think the worst of Hillary Clinton and her husband, it’s the senator who reminds me to recognize alternative interpretations.

Though Bill’s remarks are murky, the Obama campaign pronounced judgment by embracing the conventional wisdom that insists the Clintons are always calculating. In recent days, Obama’s campaign manager has repeatedly said that Clinton will “say or do anything to get elected,” hoping to play on the very caricature his candidate once eschewed.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, so it’s probably too much to expect the Obama campaign to match the Obama book (though campaign aides would like us to see no space between). Shouldn’t Obama supporters let him off the hook—because politics requires a little trimming of standards now and again, and, after all, doesn’t Bill Clinton deserve it for his past wrongs if not this one? If you’re inclined to that view, Obama’s remarks last week should give you pause. In his speech on race, he renewed his covenant with voters about a new kind of politics. He warned against just the kind of thing his campaign seems to now be doing by linking Clinton and McCarthyism. “We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card,” he said. “We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.”

If progress can happen only if we stop pouncing on every little thing, then why is the Obama camp madly pouncing? They obviously think it’s a dead certainty Clinton was challenging Obama’s patriotism. It’s not, and Obama’s own call to higher political standards should bias the assessment in Clinton’s favor. So, either the Obama campaign is consciously overplaying the moment for political benefit, or it is incapable of seeing anything benign coming out of the mouth of Bill Clinton the evil genius—or the evil machine that is the Hillary campaign. The latter would suggest a weakness in judgment that can’t distinguish what’s really sneaky from what isn’t, and Obama is running on his precise judgment.

You may think I’m being picky for taking all of this so seriously. It’s just politics, after all. But if we’re not supposed to take all of Obama’s speeches seriously, we’re stuck embracing the Clinton claim that he offers “just words” and doesn’t mean what he says. To believe in the full measure of Obama’s words then is, perhaps, to be too hopeful.