Clinton as a Tragic Figure

Like most political junkies nowadays, I knew about ex-President Clinton’s appearance on Fox News Sunday from what bloggers were saying about it before I ever got to see it for myself.

I don’t have all the links at hand anymore, but suffice to say it broke down very predictably along party/ideological lines. To leftists, it was all about Clinton “smacking down” Fox . One site thought Clinton’s assault on Fox was so devastating, Fox might edit those parts out — a remarkably inept bit of paranoid speculation, given that Fox’s real objective is to make money. On TV, conflict equals ratings. “If it bleeds, it leads.”

To conservatives, Clinton’s blowup, combined with his supporters’ misguided attempt to pressure Disney/ABC to pull “The Path to 9/11” miniseries off the air, meant it’s now open season to say what they’ve always wanted to say: The blood of 9/11 is on Clinton’s hands. Many right-wing bloggers patted themselves on the back for having held their tongues all these years (ha!), but said that the blame game is now fair game, since Clinton decided to make an issue of his culpability.

My view is a little different. When I finally saw the interview, my reaction was, “How remarkable that he’s held this inside him for so long.”

Both right and left agreed that his rant was an example of Clinton’s famous temper, his “purple-faced rage,” that aides saw frequently but the public saw rarely.

I didn’t see that much anger. I saw grief.

The key exchange, copied here from Fox’s transcript, was this:


CLINTON: No, no. I authorized the CIA to get groups together to try to kill him.

The CIA, which was run by George Tenet, that President Bush gave the Medal of Freedom to, he said, “He did a good job setting up all these counterterrorism things.”

The country never had a comprehensive anti-terror operation until I came there.

Now, if you want to criticize me for one thing, you can criticize me for this: After the Cole, I had battle plans drawn to go into Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban, and launch a full-scale attack search for bin Laden.

But we needed basing rights in Uzbekistan, which we got after 9/11.

The CIA and the FBI refused to certify that bin Laden was responsible while I was there. They refused to certify. So that meant I would’ve had to send a few hundred Special Forces in helicopters and refuel at night.

Even the 9/11 Commission didn’t do that. Now, the 9/11 Commission was a political document, too. All I’m asking is, anybody who wants to say I didn’t do enough, you read Richard Clarke’s book.

WALLACE: Do you think you did enough, sir?

CLINTON: No, because I didn’t get him.


CLINTON: But at least I tried. That’s the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried.

So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted.


Some of this is incoherent. Some of this has been challenged factually. But what remains is this almost plaintive, and undeniably honest, confession: “I tried and failed.”

Now, any chief executive realizes quickly after assuming office that for most of what you try to do, failure is the most likely outcome. You can only follow so many initiatives with the degree of attention required to ensure success. You are at the mercy of events that will throw you off track. Your subordinates are not uniformly competent, and even the best ones can have egos that poison their minds and lead to time-wasting, soul-sucking turf wars.

If you’re both very good and very lucky, you will get some of the big things right. Your most important accomplishments might be invisible, even to you: The decisions that averted crises that no one could foresee. Maybe in time, someone will notice and give you credit. But by that time, you might be dead and forgotten.

Clinton was, to me, a president whose grade point average was a C, but he accomplished that by scoring a lot of A’s and a lot of F’s. (Kind of like my son.) History shows he was prescient about Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda. I believe him when he says he tried to kill Bin Laden. But what is apparently haunting him, and came out in this interview, was whether he tried hard enough.

Every office in America, there is some put-upon exec with a sign on his desk saying “How can I soar like an eagle when I’m surrounded by turkeys?” And: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Clinton let the bastards get him down. He envisioned the kind of threat Bin Laden posed, but he let the legalistic mind of his Justice Department, the pinhead intellectuals of the CIA and the feckless leaders of the military back him down. He didn’t quite have the courage of his convictions; and he was surrounded by unimpressive advisers like Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright who sapped his confidence.

When Clinton left office, the unfinished business with Al Queda was just one item on the list that he didn’t complete. All executives know dozens of these disappointments upon leaving office. But the polls on his presidency were high, the economy was still pretty strong, the deficit was down, Hilary was in the Senate, the impeachment battle had been won — I’m sure Clinton felt pretty good, overall. Then 9/11 happened.

From that day to this one, I’m sure he has replayed in his mind all the meetings where he got talked out of taking the next aggressive step. But, the debate was mostly inside his head. In the political world, I don’t think 9/11 damaged Clinton significantly — otherwise, why would his wife have been considered the shoo-in for the presidential nomination in 2008 until very recently? For every right-winger who said “Clinton didn’t do enough,” you had many more voices like Richard Clarke saying he did a lot more than anyone thought, and that Bush’s neglect of terrorism in the first eight months of his reign was just as decisive.

But surviving politically and surviving your own doubts are two different things.

Because Clinton is so smart, his critics see every move he makes as calculating. It’s a myth. What I saw on Sunday’s show was not Clinton the politician trying to score points. I saw Clinton the human being trying to convince himself that he really did all he could, that his attempts to stop Bin Laden were noble and his failure forgivable.

The political implications seem petty compared to the drama of a once-powerful leader stirring the ashes of his conscience. The burden he must carry now! It was an episode worthy of Shakespeare.


4 thoughts on “Clinton as a Tragic Figure

  1. John, I think you’re absolutely right pointing out that frankly, Clinton is human and maybe he had “had it up to here.” However, he does have a history of lashing out, with that wagging finger, at his accusers. And his behavior with Fox and Chris Wallace was over the top….it seemed like he was actually trying to physically intimidate Wallace. Never seen anything like that on TV before. He’s also had his heart operations and is in a very different phase of his life, in that respect. Could be having an effect on his behavior, as in, I don’t need to take this bs anymore!
    But, Clinton is not politically dumb, and there were reasons why he wanted to show a feisty face to the nation. He is surely aware the center of the Demo party is to the left of him and his anti-Bush creds may not be strong with the Howard Dean and Al Gore side of the party. Good for him to show that he’s pd off, in a political sense. The Dean party is more primal.
    As for the Clinton Admin role in 9-11 and terrorism, maybe you linked to it but Richard Miniter had a scathing piece in the WSJ yesterday that throws the argument back at Clinton. Mainly, I think he had a lot of stuff on his plate, a lot he was trying to accomplish and be remembered by history for….and at that time, fighting a “twilight struggle” against Islamic terrorism wasn’t the kind of thing to go down in history doing. It’s well documented that the preferred course was to treat it in a subdued fashion as a police activity; of course the great American Empire would have a nagging terrorism problem. Let’s not turn it into WWW III. That was the Kerry idea as well.
    It took an attack like 9-11 to make the subject epochal. And it’s still not entirely clear what happened on 9-11. Might take 50 years to sort it out.

    when they may just have something on him

  2. This “essay” is one of the most juvenile & insipid pieces of shit I have seen on the net in quite a while.
    If I were you I would stick to musing about the beach boys, or something you understand a little better.

  3. I looked up “insipid” in the dictionary and it means “lacking taste or savor: tasteless: lacking in qualities that interest, stimulate, or challenge: dull, flat.” Antonym is “zestful.”

    E.J. Dionne Jr. has a Washington Post column today, offering a more vetted, officialish interpretation that seems to take the same angle that you saw:

    I’m sure Dionne gets paid a lot of money, but still, I find your writing more zestful.

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