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Step Back, Mr. Clinton

A Commentary by Joe Conason

The most likely motive for Bill Clinton's reckless political performance in recent weeks, ironically and sadly, is to redress the terrible humiliations he inflicted on his wife in years past. But unless he quickly regains control of himself, the most likely result will be to inflict irreparable damage on the presidential aspirations of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Whether he has done that much harm already remains to be determined in the primaries ahead. At the very least, however, the former president has begun to change the polarity of his own presence in her campaign from positive to negative -- and to raise real questions about the meaning of his return to the White House.

It is probably safe to say that when the Democratic primaries began, most Americans looked back on the Clinton administration with the nostalgia that the people of the Middle Ages probably felt about the years before the arrival of the plague. Regardless of Mr. Clinton's flaws, the people perceived him as a competent, intelligent and compassionate president who left the nation in better condition than when he took office, a judgment that enraged his critics in the media and the Republican Party.

It also seems reasonable to assume that the memory of the Clinton years, as well as the good works that he has done around the world, shone a benign light on his wife's candidacy. The same personalities that have long hated both Clintons nurtured their grudge, but her long lead in the polls showed that many voters simply dismissed all the old canards and suspicions, just as they did 10 years ago. She was marching steadily toward the Democratic nomination.

When the rise of Barack Obama threatened her progress, with his victory in Iowa and that close call in New Hampshire, Mr. Clinton lost his compass. The man who has been praised even by his enemies as the most talented politician of his generation committed gaffe after gaffe. Perhaps more importantly, he stooped from the dignity of his position, as ex-president and world statesman, to attack her rival. In his zeal to protect and advance his wife, he injured himself and her.

How could he not have understood that his blunt intrusion into the campaign would diminish her? Why would he not realize that stepping on a young, idealistic junior senator -- who happens to be African-American -- would look like bullying? What made him think that he should voice the most aggressive attacks on Mr. Obama, after the series of clumsy surrogates who had embarrassed his wife in New Hampshire?

And after years of bitter experience in coping with a largely hostile press corps, whose animus remains vividly on display in this primary campaign, why would Mr. Clinton speak without thinking very carefully about how his words might be interpreted -- or misinterpreted?

Nobody who knows the Clintons believes that they would intentionally deploy racial stereotypes for political gain, let alone that they harbor racial prejudice. Listening to actual bigots like Rush Limbaugh gloat over the divisive debate in South Carolina is truly sickening.

But in the aftermath of the absurd argument over the civil rights contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson, and the stupid "cocaine" remarks of Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn, the former president's remarks following the South Carolina primary were stunning. By comparing Mr. Obama's huge win to earlier victories by Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, he was making a factual point that could hardly be denied. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Jackson are black men who benefited from the dominance of African-American voters in that state's Democratic primary.

In some circumstances, Mr. Clinton's statement would have been heard as harmless. After all, The Nation magazine dubbed South Carolina "the black primary" on its cover not long ago, and no one took offense. In the sensitive atmosphere of this primary season, however, when every utterance from either Clinton will be twisted and turned so easily, he should have realized that any such comparison would be heard as a "dog whistle" inviting white backlash.

Cynics have joked that Mr. Clinton was seeking to harm rather than help his wife's campaign, while others have warned against his will to power (and the constitutional issues that might be raised in a second Clinton administration). More likely, he believes that his wife is the best candidate -- and that he is deeply irritated by the press bias against her, and for her current adversary. But if he can't take a step back and she fails to control him, then he will undo her -- no matter what he intends.


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