Wednesday, May 17, 2017
The New York Times described on Sunday a whining Donald Trump who reminded me of a whining Bill Clinton and suggested common symptoms over a quarter-century of our national political illness.
The Times wrote that Trump obsesses on his electoral victory. The newspaper reported that he chafes at those who question the legitimacy of his election by citing his sound popular-vote defeat as well as Russian interference.
It wrote that a friend of Trump said the president believes himself to be the first ever to take the office while being pre-emptively opposed by the Washington establishment. It wrote that Trump talks back to television screens to express his exasperation over what he sees as the absurdly concocted notion that we should appoint a special investigator to probe his supposed ties to Russia.
It occurred to me that I had heard all that before — not read it, but heard it, and not once, but twice.
It happened first in an Oval Office interview with Clinton in June 1993, about five months into his wildly embattled early presidency. I heard it again in a lengthier telephone conversation in April 1994, after the madness had subsided and years before the madness would arise again because of that young woman and all that.
In the Oval Office interview in 1993, Clinton wondered why I even bothered to talk to him directly because “this place leaks like a sieve.”
He told me in 1994: “I think I just missed a lot of the cultural cues and the sort of deep-seated cynicism that had kind of gotten into the atmosphere up here.”
Here’s Clinton, saying lines in 1994 that Trump would revise and repeat in this remake we see in 2017: “One of the ways to deal with it [his new-Democrat message and electability] was just to try to assault me personally … . It started in the campaign, and for the first time, I guess ever, there was no cessation when I took office … . The Wall Street Journal basically said they’re just sort of determined to try to act as if the election hadn’t occurred, as if I was some usurper, that there was no legitimacy to the outcome of the vote. And never mind the electoral vote victory or what all the polls showed would have happened if Perot hadn’t been in there … . It’s a spooky thing, really. The Democrats have nothing to contend with it. Nothing.”
Then there was, in ’93-’94, what Joe Klein called “the politics of personal destruction” and E.J. Dionne called “the politics of moral annihilation.” It centered on partisan clamoring for an independent prosecutor to look into “Whitewater,” which was nothing, literally nothing, except a lame and failed land development deal.
But Republicans kept a meandering made-up investigation alive until the payoff when Clinton spotted a flirtatious intern during a government shutdown.
Any dubiousness about Clinton’s election legitimacy was based on the fact that Ross Perot ran an outsider campaign in 1992 and got 19 percent that held Clinton’s winning plurality to 43 percent. Trump’s election, discredited because he got nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, represented the advancement into the mainstream of the movement Perot had introduced a quarter-century before.
Not quite four months into his presidency, Trump endures nothing new other than in the margins and then only from what he has wrought from his own irrationality and recklessness.
These commonalities from 1993 to 2017 reveal bookends of an American political era rendered dysfunctional by:
• Elections lacking clear mandates or even clear winners. (The Bush-Gore election of 2000 remains undecided still; in 2004 Bush nipped John Kerry by a smaller margin than Hillary Clinton’s over Trump and amid allegations of irregularity in decisive Ohio; in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won decisive popular and electoral victories that many, prominently Trump, refused to accept.)
• Partisan rhetoric that is now common in its uncommonly personal and character-destructive themes.
• Tactics that invoke criminal investigations as standard elements of partisan resistance.
• The clash between presidents elected as “new” or “outsider” and the powerfully embedded D.C. culture. No one parachutes into Washington without injury.
One more commonality with Clinton and Trump: Clinton’s opening presidency was beset by error and furor, from the gays-in-the-military introductory tempest to a budget bill that didn’t get passed until August and then only by Vice President Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote. Trump’s has been even more blunder-prone — much more — and he has yet to produce a full legislative accomplishment.
But there probably will prove a key difference.
Clinton was a trained and slick politician who learned as early as 1980-’82 in Arkansas how to appear chastened by failure, apologize for error, recalculate and re-invent. He adapted and finessed his way through eight acceptably competent policy years, sex scandal notwithstanding.
Trump a trained politician? Chastened? Apologizing? Re-inventing?
The difference 25 years later could be madness uninterrupted and a dysfunction proceeding to full failure.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
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