PRESSWATCH

Raging Bill
Why did Clinton blow up at Chris Wallace? Because he's used to sycophantic interviewers.

BY JAMES TARANTO
The American Spectator, December 2006/January 2007

"One of the most important things you can teach a child is that not everything that happens to you will be nice," a guest told CNN's Larry King in September. He continued:

But you are in control of how you respond to everything that happens to you. You do not have to respond with violence or anger or hatred or bitterness or demeaning conduct, and you cannot be diminished by what someone else says about you.
Four days later, that same man, Bill Clinton, responded with anger and hatred and bitterness and demeaning conduct--though he stopped short of violence--when Fox News's Chris Wallace asked him, "Why didn't you do more to put [Osama] bin Laden and al Qaeda out of business when you were president?"

Clinton repeatedly interrupted Wallace, wagged his finger at him, invaded his personal space, and offered paranoid theories as to why Wallace was asking this perfectly reasonable question. "You did Fox's bidding on this show," the ex-president goaded the host. "You did your nice little conservative hit job on me."

A debate ensued over whether Clinton's outburst was planned or spontaneous. Newsmax.com quoted his press secretary, Jay Carson, as saying, "We knew exactly what we were going to do if he did that"--if Wallace asked the question--"as we suspected he would."

But Richard Miniter, author of Losing bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror, reported in the Australian:

I asked Chris Wallace if he was surprised. . . . Yes, Wallace was surprised by both the intensity and the answer.

Clinton's performance, his defenders say, was planned in advance to stiffen his party's spine and teach it how to fight back. Was it planned? "Absolutely not," Wallace told me. Off camera, during the interview, he said he saw Clinton's public relations man waving his arms, demanding that the interview be terminated immediately. At the end of the interview, Clinton was still visibly angry and threatened to fire his PR man if he ever had to endure another interview like that one.

Miniter told me that the PR man was the same Jay Carson. It appears Carson was spinning in an effort to insulate Clinton from the consequences of his outburst, all in order to keep his own job. What actually seems to have happened is that Wallace took Clinton by surprise, and Clinton lashed out from a position of weakness.

How could Clinton have been unprepared to answer what seems an obvious question? Conservative blogger Edward Morrissey actually did a better job defending Clinton's record than Clinton himself did:

The time has come--it has long since come--for that history to become just that: history. None of us can pretend that Bill Clinton could ever have declared war on al-Qaeda in the manner Bush did without having a 9/11-type event as a catalyst. Not only would the Left have screamed much as they do now, albeit without the Hugo Chavez-type conspiratorial thinking, Republicans would have never given Clinton the kind of support needed to send American troops into Afghanistan. The political climate had been thoroughly poisoned by the time of the African bombings and Congress would never have put aside its deathmatch with Clinton to unite in a war effort, especially against a band of terrorists most Americans didn't know existed.
In part Clinton's problem is that this may not be a satisfactory answer for a former president obsessed with his legacy. From this standpoint, George W. Bush got "lucky" that terrorism reached a crisis stage while he was in office, which means he has the potential to earn great historical credit (or blame) for the bold policies he adopted. Clinton's failure to do more may be understandable given the circumstances, but the fact remains that he did not do more, thus diminishing him in importance compared with his successors.

Indeed, in David Remnick's fawning 20,000-word profile in the New Yorker of September 18, Clinton admitted as much:

"9/11--I wish that I'd been there," Clinton said. . . . "I wish I'd been there beforehand, you know, when the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. finally said we agree that bin Laden did the Cole. We could have gone after Afghanistan. And in the aftermath I'd have liked to have been there."
But part of Clinton's problem is that he is used to sycophantic interviewers. The Remnick piece continues:

Clinton remains sensitive to accusations that he was too hesitant or distracted in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden--recently, he attacked an ABC docudrama for suggesting that his Administration, given the chance, had failed to fire on bin Laden--and so I asked him what he would have done in Bush's place.

"I would have gone into Afghanistan, as quick as I could, just as President Bush did," he said, "and I would have demanded that Saddam open himself up to inspections, because U.N. records indicated that there were unaccounted-for chemical and biological materials. I personally never saw any intelligence on the Al Qaeda connection or the nuclear issue, except that he had some people in labs fooling around with it."

Once he got going, Clinton laid out a critique of the Bush administration . . .

Because Clinton "remains sensitive" about his own record, Remnick asked him about Bush's record, prompting a "critique" of Clinton's successor. Has any reporter ever invited Bush to critique Clinton's record?

This is an easy target, but just for fun, here are some of the questions Larry King, the king of the softball, asked Clinton the week before his Fox outburst:

"Now, the purpose of your initiative overall is to make the world a better place, right?"

"And the four things it covers is to make the world a better place."

"Is it a better place?"

"How's your health?"

"The greatest thing you almost did was peace in the Middle East."

"Want to just briefly discuss some of the initiatives at this conference. We love coming here every year. Poverty alleviation. Possible?"

If Clinton is used to getting questions like these from King and even Remnick, no wonder he was taken by surprise by Wallace's moderately tough query. It's another example of how the liberal media lull liberal politicians into a state of complacency. At least one liberal politician has figured this out, as the Washington Post reported in October:

He said Democrats of his generation tend to be na´ve about new media realities. There is an expectation among Democrats that establishment old media organizations are de facto allies--and will rebut political accusations and serve as referees on new-media excesses.

"We're all that way, and I think a part of it is we grew up in the '60s and the press led us against the war and the press led us on civil rights and the press led us on Watergate," [the politician] said. "Those of us of a certain age grew up with this almost unrealistic set of expectations."

You know how this ends, don't you? The politician who acknowledged his unrealistic expectations was Bill Clinton. For his sake, it's too bad he didn't think of this before he went to see Chris Wallace.

Next article: On Reflection, This Timely Honour's All Mine (Australian, 12/26/06)

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