Why Did So Many People Hate Bill Clinton? An Exchange Among ConservativesHistorians/History
In a recent essay in the NYT Book Review of John F. Harris's The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, Alan Ehrenhalt speculated about the reasons Clinton was so disliked. This sparked a rigorous debate on Richard Jensen's list, ConservativeNet. Below, a sampling of opinion.
Alan Ehrenhalt's Review
Millions of Americans despise Bill Clinton. They have done so since he became a presence in national politics in the early 1990's, and they continue to do so today, more than four years after his retirement from public office.
The passion of the Clinton haters is a phenomenon without equal in recent American politics. It is not based on any specific policies that Clinton promoted or implemented during his years in office. It is almost entirely personal. In its persistence and intensity, it goes far beyond anything that comparable numbers of people have felt about Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or either of the presidents Bush. It surpasses even the liberals' longstanding detestation of Richard Nixon. The only political obsession comparable to it in the past century is the hatred that a significant minority of Americans felt for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In this respect the phenomenon is all the more puzzling. Roosevelt made enormous and sometimes reckless changes in the American government and economy, and when his critics loathed him for it, he loathed them back. ''They are unanimous in their hate for me'' he said of them in his 1936 re-election campaign, ''and I welcome their hatred.'' Clinton, on the other hand, was a centrist who undertook no dramatic transformations of society or government and, what was more, showed himself to be an instinctive conciliator who believed in compromise almost to a fault.
Viewed in historical perspective, Clinton-hatred is not easy to explain. Certainly the Monica Lewinsky affair does not explain it. The people who detested the president after that dalliance became public were essentially the same ones who had detested him in 1992. They merely grew louder.
There is, of course, a simpler argument that some Clinton haters use to explain the persistence of their passion. They say that he was, to put it bluntly, a very bad president -- immature, self-absorbed, indecisive in domestic affairs and disastrously weak when it came to representing America in the affairs of the world...
If, as Harris believes, Clinton was in the most important ways a competent president -- and certainly not a combative or ideological one -- then the conundrum of Clinton-hatred remains essentially unsolved. Harris does try to explain it. He suggests -- as others have -- that Clinton, not entirely through his own doing, suffered as the embodiment of a generation and a set of values that much of the country had never understood or been willing to accept. He was the tangible symbol of the Baby Boom, its conceits, its self-absorption, its lack of discipline and failures of responsibility. He was a child of the 1960's preaching to millions of people who had never come to terms with the 1960's and didn't want to be reminded of them.
Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary and close friend since their Oxford days together, told Harris that Clinton's personal history of youthful rebellion and conventional adult success, all achieved without significant personal sacrifice, was threatening to many Americans, even if they themselves did not entirely understand why. And so they despised him. And they despised his wife. Whether Hillary Clinton manages in the end to overcome this generational taint may be one of the more significant political questions of the next few years.
The generational issue is surely not the only explanation of Clinton hatred, but it may be the most persuasive one anybody has presented so far. Ultimately there will be others. The debate about Bill Clinton, about his character and achievements and moral worth, will go on long after the subject himself has departed from the scene. Clinton ''was too vital and too vexing a character to be easily forgotten or dismissed,'' Harris writes. This is a complex, interesting and subtle book about a complex, interesting and subtle man.
David Horowitz (Mr. Horowitz is the founder of frontpagemag.com)
This is an interesting review, but I strongly demur from the view that Clinton hatred exceeds Bush hatred by any measure. Conservatives are more disgusted by Clinton; but they are not so blinded by their negative feelings that they don't appreciate Clinton's achievements, the centrism of his policy (when he wasn't surrendering his better judgment to interest groups), his brilliance as a politician. By contrast so-called liberals and leftists have a hatred of Bush that is so intense it reduces their view of him to absurdities -- he's a moron, a liar and evil. None of these are remotely related to any truth of the man or his presidency and the passion of belief in them is so strong that obscures any appreciation for his achievements in the war on terror and foreign policy generally which far surpass anything Clinton was able to do.
Larry Schweikart (Mr. Schweikart is Professor of History, University of Dayton and co-author of the recently published, A Patriot's History)
David Horowitz is right. As one who despised Clinton for what he did to the office of the presidency---in my view, every bit as dangerous and abusive as Nixon---it was always clear that Clinton would, in the end, do what the public wanted. (That was not so clear about She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named). I didn't "hate" Clinton so much as pitied him---the product of an alcohol-abusive family that learned how to please everyone, that wanted everyone to like him, thus one who developed no core beliefs of his own (exactly what Stephanopolous, I think, said).
The notion of "getting" Clinton was less an opposition to his policies, which, as David points out, were at times "conservative" (balanced budgets, NAFTA), but more a dogmatic demand that the law be followed because not to follow it would invite further, more egregious violations from Clinton and his wife. Thankfully, the impeachment neutered him, killed Al Gore's chances, and destroyed his "legacy." Bush hatred, though, as I have said here on numerous occasions, is essentially religious in nature. Most of all, the Bush-haters fear Bush's certainty of purpose which is given him by God. "No one can be that sure of himself," they mourn. Well, yes, one can.
I just finished a long interview with USA Today, due for the 4th of July period, on "Patriotism," which essentially dealt with "Are liberals unpatriotic?" My answer was "No, but they consistently adopt positions that make them appear unpatriotic. Dems have positioned themselves so that they can only win if there is bad news for America." (We'll see if I get quoted correctly, because several times the reporter tried to get me to say "liberals are unpatriotic." Well, she asked, isn't it impossible not to be critical of the opposition if you are the party out of power? And here is what the Dems/libs don't get . . .
The party out of power MUST be critical, but it can be "patriotically" critical---i.e., its criticism doesn't have to presume a weaker, more vulnerable, "less American" America. For example, early in the War on Terror, the Dems made a HUGE strategic mistake by not moving to the right of Bush, saying, "Bush isn't doing enough on the WOT. Afghanistan is fine, but we need to get rid of all the threats, including Syria and Iran!" This would have presumed that a) there was a threat; b) it wasn't our fault ("why do they hate us?") and c) there is a response that doesn't condemn the U.S. in every single statement. But, of course, the lefty-loonies in the Dem Party could never take that approach (thank God). Another example is immigration. Here is a PERFECT opportunity for the Dems to "patriotically" outflank Bush and siphon off just enough votes to win, by coming down hard on illegal immigration. Or China. The Dems could have said, "We need to be the strongest nation on earth and shipping key technology to China just so we can open some Wal Marts harms us. We need to develop a military strategy to counter China." But they can't adopt any of these positions because fundamentally most libs/Dems do not like America being strong; they hate us being the sole superpower; they revel in Vietnam and, by transference, by any setbacks in Iraq, which then puts them in the position of celebrating defeats. The interviewer was stunned when I said that during Vietnam, the Left actually cheered the "body counts" every night, and thought it wasn't true, till I gave her evidence from no less than Abbe Hoffman's book---then brought up Jane Fonda on the AA gun. So I think there is a gulf of difference in the views of Clinton by the right and the attacks on Bush by the left.
Gottfried (Mr. Gottfried is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt)
Looking at the two last presidents as someone who has expressed deep reservations about both, it seems to me that the reasons they have evoked hostility are different.
Republicans and movement conservatives disliked Clinton because they were genuinely turned off by his personal immorality and even more by the casuistry in which feminist groups engaged in order to justify his predatory sex life. I for one found Clinton to be a shabby clown and the embattled feminists who went to his aid seemed to have about as much credibility as the Communists who defended the Soviet-Nazi Pact.
But, unlike David and Larry, I'm not sure that the attacks on Bush are more personal and more biting than those that Republicans unleashed against Clinton. What bothers me is exactly the opposite, namely that the savaging of W is being done pro forma. It is the way the liberal media and academics and Democrats treat Republican presidents, even those who equivocate on affirmative action and become ultraliberals in dealing with illegal immigration. After all, Republicans are supposed to be ultra-rightwingers and morons. Does anyone here think that Democrats would be screaming about fascist dangers if Kerry had become president and had decided to continue the war in Iraq? Where was the liberal talk about militarism when Clinton dropped bombs on the Serbs and on aspirin factories in North Africa? The sickening thing for me is that the caterwauling from Democrats and Hollywood is about partisanship, getting Democrats into and Republicans out of office.
Gene Kizer (Mr. Kizer is a free lance writer/editor and graduate student working on an M.A. in English at the University of Charleston, South Carolina)
People hated Clinton and still do because the entire time he was president, he was a monumental LIAR. His "Slick Willie" moniker is true, but understates his level of dishonesty. My entire life, when any president would come on TV, I would tune right in with full attention because it would be something important and, at least, appear truthful. When Clinton came on, I had to change the channel as quick as I could get to the TV, I mean I would jump up and fly across the room because I could not stand to even look at Clinton. He was so phony, so fake, and every word out of his mouth was some kind of lie.
Clinton is probably the best pure "politician" in American history, but that is no compliment. It's a testament to his skill as a liar and ability to get away with it (I'm surprised he didn't bite off that lower lip). Just imagine the sincerity of a Ronald Reagan in comparison to Slick Willie.
I agree with Larry Schweikart that the impeachment "neutered" Clinton, and the things Clinton has done since being president are fine, even dignified, unlike when he was in office.
I would bet that Clinton got away with a lot more than the public knows. One of the networks did finally run that story about Clinton raping some woman, biting her face and lips severely, but they carefully timed it to run after the election. The real Bill Clinton was a rapist and abuser of power, a liar and phony, and the only pain he ever felt was his own. That's why I could not stand to even look at him, and those who hate him feel the same way.
I admit that he governed as a centrist, stealing most of his ideas from a forward-thinking Republican agenda, but he didn't originate those centrist ideas. He stole them in typical Clinton fashion. Clinton's damage has been his leftist appointments to the judiciary.
If it had not been for the anomaly of Ross Perot, we would never have had to endure Clinton. Clinton's re-election occurred because of the power of incumbency, but even then, he did not get a majority of the popular vote.
I admit that I can tolerate Clinton now and even appreciate the benign, humanitarian things he does like all former presidents. But count me among those who considered him extremely dangerous and who hated his guts when he was in office.
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Kenneth Chad Keith - 8/5/2005
Hillary will never get my vote. I hate watching her sneer at Bush everytime he gives a speech. I would take Bill back any day over her. Worst president of 20th Century - Carter or Hoover?
Kenneth Chad Keith - 8/5/2005
Clinton was nothing but a two-faced liar. He said whatever he thought sounded good at the time and whatever he thought would please the particular group he was talking to at the time. It just makes me sick that our country wasted 8 years with a "man" like that in office. Fortunately, we now have an honorable president who says what he means and does not back down from liberals or interest groups. God help us if we ever have another president like Clinton.
Nathaniel Brian Bates - 8/5/2005
When the American People would not go for the Clinton Impeachment. Since then, we have never had untainted Elections. We have also had Government firmly in the hands of Skull and Bones. When will America wake up?
Dexter Ramm - 8/4/2005
Michael Moore's movies are profitable. He enters the political conversation in America only because his movies draw paying audiences. This sets him apart from a lot of the right wing media personalities and think tank denizens who extol rugged individualism while drawing big salaries despite not producing anything of economic value.
I suppose I have seen a handful of MoveOn ads over the years. I don't see how you can consider MoveOn in any way equivalent in scale to the Conservative malefactors I listed. MoveOn may have received some money from George Soros, but it is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the start up costs of FoxNews or the $350 million+ that Mellon-Scaife has spent over the years. And wasn't he the one who paid for Paula Jones' legal expenses? What a compassionate man he was, seeking justice for the humble Ms. Jones!
MSNBC's inclusion in your list has me scratching my head. Hasn't that network given shows to Joe Scarborough and Dennis Miller? Wasn't the one liberal show (Phil Donahue's) mysteriously cancelled despite being the network's highest rated show? Please point me toward MSNBC's crusading liberals.
Thomas Heller - 8/3/2005
You list "the Moonies, Murdoch, and Mellon-Scaife (...) There is no analog of this on the left."
Surely you've heard of MoveOn, (Michael) Moore and MSNBC?
As a newbie to HNN, I won't make much of it, other than to say I enjoy the pieces posted. Commentary that follows is sometimes interesting but in this particular instance, I'm afraid it's more heat than light.
The comments by Horowitz and others were interesting all by themselves. They're neither right or wrong; simply considered perspectives.
I will admit, though, that I too tuned out Bill Clinton whenever I saw him on the tube for about his last three years.
Dexter Ramm - 8/3/2005
...but it is worth noting that going against Clinton you had a number of well funded right-wing media outlets that exist, not really to make a profit, but to destroy all who stand in the way of the far-right's agenda (I'm talking about the Moonies, Murdoch, and Mellon-Scaife owned enterprises). No one could have avoided acquiring a large and vocal group of opponents under such circumstances. There is no analog of this on the left.
No public figure, probably in the history of the world, had to deal with a collection of adversaries as noisy, unscrupulous, and unrelenting as Mr. Clinton's.
I find it telling that some conservatives can say, sincerely, that while Clinton-hating is justifiable given the dishonesty of the man, Bush-hating is partisan and unreasonable, despite Bush's status as the more prolific liar or dissembler or whatever euphemism you want to employ here.
Even more laughable is the tendency among many conservatives to cite, say, the "murder" of Vince Foster, or unsubstantiated rape charges, etc, when explaining their completely rational, dispassionate, burning hatred for Bill Clinton.
Dylan Sherlock - 7/30/2005
I would also note, that I have never seen anything that compares with the level of vitriol coming out of the Democratic mainstream today, in any of the countries I've lived in.
That includes Communist Cuba.
Dylan Sherlock - 7/30/2005
Gingrich, Limbaugh, Hannity... all of them are employed to be angry extremists.
That's their job. They were like that before Clinton and they're like that now that he's gone. That's how they make a living. Being angry extremists who "hate" their political opposition. Hardly an accurate sampling of conservative thought.
The Republican mainstream never engaged in the level of hateful rhetoric which has taken over the Democratic mainstream since Bush came into office. That is abundently clear every time I venture south of the (Canadian) border.
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/25/2005
Just out of curiosity, who is the first "worst President of the Twentieth Century"?
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/25/2005
I disagree on virtually everything you have said, except for the last part. If Hillary doesn't win, it will be because of her husband, although since she could not have won the Senate seat without him, I'll say that makes them even.
Darell Keith Potter - 7/25/2005
I agree wholeheartedly with Gene Kizer, but he left out draft dodger. Clinton was the second worst President of the Twentieth Century and the biggest liar ever. Clinton set the femminist movement back 25 years. For those who think differently the 2008 election will be a good indication of Clinton's legacy. Hillary won't get elected and she will have her enabling of Bill to thank for it.
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/25/2005
As I have said, Horowitz's belief that Clinton-haters were any different than the most vitriolic Bush-haters is clearly false.
John Chapman - 7/25/2005
The question of ‘why the hatred’ is somewhat answered by Alan Ehrenhalt in his article; he was a symbol of all what the Baby Boom stood for, his personal history was difficult to understand by many Americans (how many Americans study at Oxford and carry back with them new paradigms of cultural learning?), and he was visibly smart. Many people don’t like smart representing their country (better to have kick-ass gunslingers with a swagger). Clinton’s wife was smart. So they had plenty nasty to say about her too. Smart people can be complicated, and therefore threatening, which is why they, the majority voters, prefer down-home stupid, or at least the appearance of stupidity because that’s what lots of folk are comfortable with. KISS. That means religion, foreign policy, the economy, even war (use the nuclear option if necessary because it seems simple, decisive, biblical, and definitely not feminine) must be simplified like "the good old days". Then the discussion among the four conservatives of various stripes from the most intellectual to the least who seems without. I can admire David Horowitz’s intellect and opinions while disagreeing with them and "a hatred of Bush that is so intense it reduces their view of him to absurdities" is true but the same must be said about Clinton-haters if that is how Horowitz wants to phrase it. Having read Horowitz’s other articles I’m rather disappointed in his comments here, usually he can weave and spin words and truths into wonderful arabesques so nicely I have to frequently adjust my bearings. And then Mr. She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named Schweikart, the prudish and patriotic historian. Here Mr. Schweikart’s intensity his shines on his own absurdities. Mr. Gottfried’s comment , whose studies center on "guilt" , is equally intense so I’m sure he’s qualified to cast stones. "Does anyone here think that Democrats would be screaming about fascist dangers if Kerry had become president and had decided to continue the war in Iraq?" … here presenting the unfalsifiable, and " Where was the liberal talk about militarism when Clinton dropped bombs on the Serbs and on aspirin factories in North Africa?" How can Mr. Gottfried, for God’s sake, not see the difference between the war then and the war now. As for Mr. Kizer, unfortunately everything he says reeks pure hatred. I can never hate these conservatives, or anyone with these views but it’s certainly worrying.
Vernon Clayson - 7/25/2005
All these explanations for Clinton's act are far off the mark Bil Clinton was never serious, he was having fun. The definition of hedonist barely covers him, it was beyond that, he was a hedonist on a par with the most depraved of movie actors and rock stars.
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/25/2005
"Conservatives are more disgusted by Clinton; but they are not so blinded by their negative feelings that they don't appreciate Clinton's achievements, the centrism of his policy (when he wasn't surrendering his better judgment to interest groups), his brilliance as a politician."
-- David Horowitz
Really, Mr. Horowitz? This statement is so utterly divorced from reality, it is hardly worth looking into what Gingrich, Limbaugh, Hannity, and so many others have said about Clinton both then and now... especially since the other conservatives on this article already fly in the face of this absurd comment.
"I for one found Clinton to be a shabby clown and the embattled feminists who went to his aid seemed to have about as much credibility as the Communists who defended the Soviet-Nazi Pact."
-- Paul Gottfried
... and my personal favorite...
"The real Bill Clinton was a rapist and abuser of power, a liar and phony, and the only pain he ever felt was his own. That's why I could not stand to even look at him, and those who hate him feel the same way."
-- Gene Kizer
Are these mere samples, taken from the same article, so far removed from the "hatred of Bush that is so intense it reduces their view of him to absurdities"?
Mike Schoenberg - 7/25/2005
If a president lies about war he's a hero. If he lies about sex then impeach him. On the other hand all the Republicans who had affairs were hardly tarnished. As for taxes, health care and other subjects that Clinton stood for, read Paul Krugmans op-ed piece in the New York Times today.
Stephen Rifkin - 7/25/2005
All these Republican feminists, carping about Bill Clinton's mysogyny while ripping reproductive rights and employment opportunities out by the roots.