Last week, former president Bill Clinton took some time out of his busy dating schedule to have a not so friendly chat with Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday. Given his rabidity, Mr. Clinton might consider taking a few milligrams of Valium the next time he allows himself to face “fair and balanced”? questions, assuming once wasn’t enough that is.
This wasn’t Mr. Clinton’s finest hour. In fact, it could be by far the worst performance of his career, which is saying a lot given that his acting skills were typically much more apparent than his policy-making acumen when he was in office.
From the onset, Mr. Clinton seemed ill at ease. This is understandable, as he didn’t see the normally comforting initials of the “Clinton News Network”? proudly displayed on the video cameras in front of him. But, this doesn’t absolve him of appearing before the American people as if he were Norman Bates just questioned about his mother.
On the other hand, maybe asking the former president anything of consequence these days will elicit such volatility, as the fireworks started as soon as Wallace brought up historically factual statements made in a new book, The Looming Tower. In it, author Lawrence Wright addressed how Osama bin Laden had indicated that when American troops pulled out of Somalia in 1993, he and his al Qaeda buddies saw this as an indication of American weakness.
Although this certainly couldn’t have been the first time he had heard this, it didn’t sit very well with Mr. Clinton, who lashed out in a fury akin to a president that had just been accused of having sexual relations with an intern:
I think it’s very interesting that all the conservative Republicans who now say that I didn’t do enough, claimed that I was obsessed with Bin Laden. All of President Bush’s neocons claimed that I was too obsessed with finding Bin Laden when they didn’t have a single meeting about Bin Laden for the nine months after I left office. All the right wingers who now say that I didn’t do enough said that I did too much.
Republicans claimed that Clinton was obsessed with bin Laden? He did too much to try to capture the infamous terrorist leader?
Do the facts support such assertions, or is this the typical Clinton modus operandi: when questioned about your own mistakes, bring up Republicans, neocons, and conservatives – the liberal equivalent of lions and tigers and bears”¦oh my – and how it’s all some kind of a conspiracy the complexities of which only Oliver Stone fully grasps.
Historically this line of attack has worked quite well with an adoring interviewer that buys such drivel hook, line, and sinker. However, what Mr. Clinton and his ilk seem to forget regularly is a recent invention known as the Internet. It is indeed odd the former president is unaware of this, inasmuch as his vice president created it.
Regardless, this tool – with the assistance of search engines and services such as LexisNexis – allows folks to go back in the past to accurately identify the truth. Sadly, as has often been the case with the rantings of the Clintons, their grasp of the past is as hazy as their understanding of what the word “is”? means. At least that is the charitable interpretation.
Nothing but GOP support for getting bin Laden
With that in mind, a thorough LexisNexis search identified absolutely no instances of high-ranking Republicans ever suggesting that Mr. Clinton was obsessed with bin Laden, or did too much to apprehend him prior to the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000. Quite the contrary, Republicans were typically highly supportive of Clinton’s efforts in this regard.
As a little background, prior to the August 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, there is hardly any mention of bin Laden by President Clinton in American news transcripts. For the most part, the first real discussion of the terrorist leader by the former president – or by any U.S. politicians or pundits for that matter – began after these bombings, and escalated after the American retaliation in Afghanistan a few weeks later.
At the time, the former president was knee-deep in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so much so that the press was abuzz with the possibility that Clinton had performed these attacks to distract the American people from his extracurricular activities much as in the movie Wag the Dog.
Were there high-ranking Republicans that piled on this assertion? Hardly. As the Associated Press reported on the day of the attacks, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) said the following on August 20, 1998:
Well, I think the United States did exactly the right thing. We cannot allow a terrorist group to attack American embassies and do nothing. And I think we have to recognize that we are now committed to engaging this organization and breaking it apart and doing whatever we have to to suppress it, because we cannot afford to have people who think that they can kill Americans without any consequence. So this was the right thing to do. [emphasis added]
Gingrich was not alone in his support. CNN’s Candy Crowley reported on August 21, 1998, the day after cruise missiles were sent into Afghanistan:
With law makers scattered to the four winds on August vacation, congressional offices revved up the faxes. From the Senate majority leader [Trent Lott], “Despite the current controversy, this Congress will vigorously support the president in full defense of America’s interests throughout the world.”? [emphasis added]
“The United States political leadership always has and always will stand united in the face of international terrorism,”? said the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [Jesse Helms]. [emphasis added]
It was vintage rally around the flag, just as they did for Ronald Reagan when he bombed Libya, for George Bush when he sent armed forces to the Gulf.
The Atanta Journal-Constitution reported the same day:
“Our nation has taken action against very deadly terrorists opposed to the most basic principles of American freedom,”? said Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This action should serve as a reminder that no one is beyond the reach of American justice.”? [emphasis added]
Former vice president Dan Quayle was quoted by CNN on August 23, 1998:
I don’t have a problem with the timing. You need to focus on the act itself. It was a correct act. Bill Clinton took—made a decisive decision to hit these terrorist camps. It’s probably long overdue. [emphasis added]
Were there some Republican detractors? Certainly. Chief amongst them was Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana:
I think we fear that we may have a president that is desperately seeking to hold onto his job in the face of a firestorm of criticism and calls for him to step down.
Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) also questioned the timing at first. However, other Republicans pleaded with dissenters on their side of the aisle to get on board the operation, chief amongst them, Gingrich himself. As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Speaker felt the “Wag the Dog”? comparisons were “sick”?:
“Anyone who saw the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, anyone who saw the coffins come home, would not ask such a question,”? said the House speaker, referring to the 12 Americans killed in the embassy bombings.
In fact, Gingrich did everything within his power to head off Republican criticism of these attacks as reported by the Boston Globe on August 23, 1998:
Indeed, Gingrich even saw to it that one of his political associates, Rich Galen, sent a blast-Fax to conservative talk radio hosts urging them to lay off the president on the missile strikes, and making sure they knew of Gingrich’s strong support. [emphasis added]
That’s the same Rich Galen, by the way, who is openly urging Republican congressional candidates to try to take political advantage of the president’s sex scandal in their television advertising this fall.
Sound like Republicans were complaining about President Clinton obsessing over bin Laden? Or, does it seem that Mr. Clinton pulled this concept out of his”¦ hat in front of Chris Wallace, and ran 99 yards with the ball, albeit in the wrong direction?
Regardless, in the end, sanity prevailed, and both Specter and Coats got on board the operation:
After reviewing intelligence information collected on bin Laden, Specter said: “I think the president acted properly.”? [emphasis added]
As for “neocons,”? one so-called high-ranking member, Richard Perle, wrote the following in an August 23, 1998, op-ed published in the Sunday Times:
For the first time since taking office in 1993, the Clinton administration has responded with some measure of seriousness to an act of terror against the United States. This has undoubtedly come as a surprise to Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi terrorist believed to have been behind the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and to the regimes in Afghanistan and Sudan who provide him with sanctuary and support.
Until now they, along with other terrorists and their state sponsors in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea, have manoeuvred, plotted, connived and killed with confidence that the United States would do little or nothing in retaliation.
So Thursday’s bombing is a small step in the right direction. More important, it reverses, at least for now, a weak and ineffective Clinton policy that has emboldened terrorists and confirmed that facilitating terror is without cost to the states that do it. [emphasis added]
Does that sound like a “Bush neocon”? claiming that Clinton was “obsessed with bin Laden”? to you?
In reality, the only person that appears to have said that Clinton was fixated with the al Qaeda leader was Richard Clarke, who stated the following on CNN on March 24, 2004:
Bill Clinton was obsessed with getting bin Laden. Bill Clinton ordered bin Laden assassinated. He ordered not only bin Laden assassinated but all of his lieutenants.
Well, at least somebody felt Clinton was obsessed with Osama. But Clinton referred to Clarke quite favorably during his tirade.
Moving forward, conservative support for Clinton’s Afghanistan attacks didn’t end in the weeks that followed. On October 25, 1998, high-ranking Republican senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said the following on CNN:
You’ve seen the great work of the FBI and the CIA in particular with regard to the Osama bin Laden matters.
Yet, maybe more curious than the delusion by Mr. Clinton that Republicans were claiming he was obsessed with bin Laden is the fact that he believes he was. After all, if Clinton had been so focused on this terrorist leader that Republicans would have thought it was over-kill, wouldn’t there be indications of this obsession in the record?
Quite the contrary, much as there is no evidence of any Republican expressing such an opinion, there is no evidence that anti-terrorism efforts were a huge focus of the Clinton administration. For instance, just five months after the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa, President Clinton gave a State of the Union address.
Think terrorism or the capture of bin Laden was a central focus to the supposedly obsessed former president? Hardly. In a one-hour, seventeen minute speech to the nation on January 19, 1999, this is all President Clinton had to say about such issues:
As we work for peace, we must also meet threats to our nation’s security, including increased danger from outlaw nations and terrorism. CLINTON: We will defend our security wherever we are threatened—as we did this summer when we struck at Osama bin Laden’s network of terror.
The bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania reminds us again of the risks faced every day by those who represent America to the world. So let’s give them the support they need, the safest possible workplaces, and the resources they must have so America can continue to lead.
We must work to keep terrorists from disrupting computer networks. We must work to prepare local communities for biological and chemical emergencies, to support research into vaccines and treatments.
Furthermore, twelve months later, even though he spoke for almost an hour and a half during his final State of the Union address on January 27, 2000, according to a LexisNexis search, the name Osama bin Laden was never mentioned. This appears almost impossible to believe given revelations that very morning about a connection between the individual apprehended trying to cross the Canadian border with explosives in December and bin Laden.
So much for obsession.
Sadly, this entire incident speaks volumes about how the press have given Clinton a pass for his transgressions, and, maybe more important, the danger of such negligence. When one watches this interview, it is easy to see a man that is unused to challenging questions from the media. After all, this is the first time that Clinton agreed to be on Fox News Sunday, and, as a result, he’s become so accustomed to the softballs fed to him by folks like Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos that he feels it’s his right to not be challenged.
Just look at some of the disdain Clinton showed for his interviewer all because he was asked a question he didn’t want to answer:
You set this meeting up because you were going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers because Rupert Murdoch is going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers for supporting my work on Climate Change. And you came here under false pretenses and said that you’d spend half the time talking about”¦You said you’d spend half the time talking about what we did out there to raise $7 billion dollars plus over three days from 215 different commitments. And you don’t care.
Or, how about this wonderful statement by a former president:
And you’ve got that little smirk on your face. It looks like you’re so clever”¦
Or this one:
So you did FOX’s bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me.
Just imagine President Bush speaking this way to a member of the media when he is being grilled either during a press conference, or in the middle of any of his interviews since he became president. Or getting in the face of his interviewer and tapping on the host’s notepad that’s sitting on his lap.
Would this be acceptable? Not a chance. However, such was the behavior of America’s 42nd president. And, as much as he and his troops appear to be aggressively defending his actions to preserve his legacy, they have failed to recognize that such displays in front of a well-regarded member of the press will defeat their purposes no matter how much they try to rationalize them.
In the end, it’s not clear which is more surprising: Mr. Clinton once again lying to the American people and disgracing himself so, or that he didn’t realize that in his self-absorbed desire to revise history for the benefit of posterity, he was actually doing himself more harm than good.