Chris Wallace’s interview with Bill Clinton this weekend was an extraordinary moment of television. When so much of what we witness on the Sunday chat shows is carefully scripted spin, it is quite a unique moment when a skilled politician goes “off script”. This is doubly so when that politician is the old Spin Meister himself, Bill Clinton.
There has been substantial debate on the right about whether Wallace was set up or not. Those who believe that it was argue that
- Criticize Fox News in an effort to reestablish his bona fides with the left
- Neuter any future criticism of his policies in an effort to protect his legacy
- Give his wife an opportunity to respond to the same questions and appear sane in comparison
None of these possible motives strikes me as particularly compelling, and anecdotal evidence coming out of Fox following the interview suggests that if it was a ruse, it was an unusually complete scheme.
We therefore, I think, can assume that Mr. Clinton did not intend to go berserk when he agreed to the interview. My guess is that he was “pre-sensitized” to any questioning of his administration’s failures due to the recently broadcast ABC mini-series that was highly critical of his lack of action. This was compounded by the fact that at Fox, he probably felt that he was “behind enemy lines”. Of course this second point is ridiculous, it was Chris Wallace after all not Sean Hannity, but none-the-less, Mr. Clinton’s persecution complex is, fairly well documented; which, by the way, is not to say that it is unwarranted.
The bottom line in all this is that it was an extremely poor decision for the ex Commander in Chief to make. His complaints to the contrary the fact is that conservatives have largely left Mr. Clinton alone when it comes to assigning responsibility for 9/11. While it is true that his actions in hindsight were woefully insufficient in the face of an avowed enemy, it is also true that given the political and cultural atmosphere in this country in the run-up to the millennium, Mr. Clinton would not have been able to do much more than focus on trying to get bin Laden. Any wholesale invasion, such as that undertaken by the Bush team, was only doable following the attacks and even then had strong opposition on the left.
Mr. Clinton was left with two choices in the coming weeks; keep his mouth shut and let the controversy generated by the ABC mini-series dissipate (indeed both sides of the political spectrum found the “fiction as fact” based movie too flawed to regard with credibility), or stake out a public position that is equally in opposition to the facts and declare his willingness to fight. Bizarrely, Mr. Clinton chose the latter, and he has done so at his peril.
Already, the Secretary of State has pointed out where Mr. Clinton is wrong on fact. Further, the authority that he sites as proof of his position, Richard Clarke, is at odds with him on several key points, not the least of which is that a “comprehensive strategy” was handed over to the Bushies as he left office.
Further compounding Mr. Clinton’s error is his insistence that his critics accused him of being “obsessed” with bin Laden while he was in office. While others have already demonstrated that nothing could be further from the truth in the public realm, I think it does give us some insight into the internal debate that must have been underway in the administration. That debate is the question of whether or not the
Following 9/11 there can be little doubt that many in the previous administration, perhaps Mr. Clinton himself, had second thoughts about whether they made the right choice. They may even have realized that there wasn’t a choice to be made, and that they should have pursued both options. Obviously this kind of second guessing is bad enough when others engage in it, and must be terrible to contemplate when looking back at one’s own actions. I cannot comprehend the incredible burden that some of these people must carry knowing the awful outcome. That burden is multiplied by the judgment of history that will be levied at some point in the future, and I think that this, more than anything else, is what plagues our former president.
I never thought I’d say this, but I feel a bit sorry for Mr. Clinton. While his foibles were certainly many, and his obsession with his legacy was in many ways damaging to world security, on this matter, I’m not sure he really could have done more than he did. I think the country is willing to agree on this point, and Mr. Clinton would be wise to let things lie as they are.