Stone on Democrats' Disappointment in Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton's folly a party disgrace
Geoffrey R. Stone
Chicago Tribune
January 31, 2008

Why is everyone so upset with Bill Clinton? Sure, he made a few stridently negative comments about Barack Obama. Sure, some of those comments were half-truths, or worse. But this is politics. What's the big deal? Doesn't this come with the territory?

Historically, American presidential politics have been riddled with vituperation. Consider the election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Congressman Matthew Lyon charged that under President Adams "every consideration of the public welfare" was "swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice."

Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, characterized President Adams as "blind, bald, toothless [and] querulous." In response, Adams' defenders accused Bache of being an "abandoned liar." Adams raged that his opponents were deserving of only "contempt and abhorrence."

Or consider poor Abraham Lincoln, who during his presidency was variously excoriated in the press as a "despot," a "liar," a "usurper," a "thief," a "monster," a "perjurer," an "ignoramus," a "swindler," a "tyrant," a "fiend," a "butcher" and a "pirate."

Compared to those "good old days," Bill Clinton's comments about Barack Obama were positively tepid. Of course, one might expect a former president to refrain from personal attack and distortion, even in support of his wife's candidacy. And Democrats are particularly sensitive these days to any conduct that might undermine party unity and lessen the party's prospects for success in November, regardless of who the nominee might be. So, some degree of touchiness about such divisive and destructive behavior is understandable.

But there is a deeper reason for the Democrats' dismay at Bill Clinton's behavior. Not only has political discourse generally become more civil over the course of American history, but modern Democratic Party presidential politics seems to have become particularly civil. Indeed, and perhaps curiously, if one thinks back over recent decades, it seems clear that it is predominantly Republicans who have engaged in the most memorable examples of political calumny and deceit. From Joseph McCarthy to Richard Nixon, from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove, from the Pink Lady to Willie Horton to Swift Boats, it seems most often to have been Republicans who have dragged American politics into the mud.

For the most part, Democratic Party presidential politics have stayed above the slime. Why this is so may be a mystery. But whatever else one might think of them, such figures as Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Edmund Muskie, Howard Dean and John Kerry all upheld reasonably high standards of public discourse, even in the midst of often bitter political campaigns. And, for the most part, they held their agents and supporters to the same high standards. This, I suspect, has become a point of pride in the Democratic Party. Mutual respect and robust but civil disagreement and debate should be among the highest aspirations of a self-governing society.

Bill Clinton is a disappointment to Democrats not only because he slipped below the contemporary standards of American political discourse, but even more particularly because he violated his own party's most fundamental ideals and aspirations. And for that, shame on him.

Geoffrey R. Stone is a University of Chicago law professor.

Copyright 2008 Chicago Tribune Company

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Geoffrey R. Stone