: “I don’t wake up in the morning hating Kenneth Starr. I wake up in the morning feeling sorry for people who believe they are in possession of the whole truth… And I think you should, too,” President Bill Clinton told a large crowd tonight after the premiere of The Hunting of the President. “If you want to be forgiven, you have to extend forgiveness, even to people who aren’t smart enough to ask for it.”
It was an angry — at last — yet calm and philosophical Bill Clinton who stood on stage at NYU tonight, at an event sponsored by The Week, as he lectured the audience about the “historical context” of the film they had just watched. The film was based on a book that connected the dots about the — yes — vast, right-wing conspiracy that tried to bring Clinton down. It rehashed the troopers and Paula “with the hair and the nose” and Gennifer and Whitewater and the McDougals and Vince Foster with the bullet and, of course, Monica and showed who was behind it all. Just watching Ken Starr, that destructive prig, brought up the taste of bile again. But Clinton doesn’t hate Ken Starr, remember. He said that Starr et al “were not independent agents, they were instruments of a grand design.”
I found it odd, maybe sad, perhaps distasteful, no, maddening to see Clinton — whom I admire, let me be clear (or as we say, transparent) — coming out after the rehashing of all that, even if it was done by his defenders. Yet Clinton saw it as an opportunity for a history lesson.
To find “the roots of this,” he started in the ’60s. “The rise of the right in America basically began in the 1960s in all the turmoil over civil rights and the war, aggravated by the women’s movement and the gay rights movement and the controversy over Rowe vs. Wade.” With the end of the Cold War, he said, the right “didn’t have an enemy anymore and needed an enemy and I had to serve as the next best thing. I think it’s really important you understand that.” He kept repeating, “I think it’s really important that you understand,” the prof letting us know this will be on the exam.
He said the “anti-government movement” and the religious right “thought they had found a permanent way of holding onto the White House by characterizing the Democrats as weak elitists… And we helped them, frankly. Our party made a lot of mistakes.” He said the right considered Carter’s victory in 1976 “an aberrational result of Watergate” and that the “anti-government-values crowd basically believes that the most important thing to do is to have the right people in power and concentrate power in their hands….”
But then he want back further. He said that “in every hinge point in history we have a fight like we have now.”
“Our founders gave us a mission… to form a more perfect union. That was both a humble statement and a bold statement. It was humble because they recognized as flawed human beings, we will never be perfect… It was bold because it embodies the 18th Century idea of progress. It could always be more perfect…. But we always fight about this. At big times of change, it requires us to define, defend, and expand the union.”
Now Clinton goes way back. “The personal animosity I engendered, maybe that’s because there’s something about me they just didn’t like… But the time that most parallels that in the history of the country was the beginning of the republic.” When the country was formed, he said, the only things we agreed about were getting the English out and Washington in; we didn’t agree about the national economy or national legal system. “No one had really defined what it meant to be an American.” We debated and grew the union. Then slavery and the union ripped at us; we fought and expanded. Then monopoly business versus government controls; we debated and grew the union. Then the Cold War, then the information age, then the growth of American diversity and a worldwide economy. “The people on the far right have their view and they’re pursuing it as they think they should. We can win that fight because when you look back at American history, we have always decided to expand and extend. So I think you should feel optimistic and you should be very grateful — at least I am — that the American people, every time they get a clear shot and see what’s really going on, they go forward.” This, he said, is what we “will debate as we move to a new concensus about what it means to be an American in a 21st Century world.”
Then, coming back to today, he says, “The reason the last [presidential] election was 50/50 is we haven’t decided where we’re going yet.” He said there is “an honest disagreement in America today.”
Harry Evans got on stage and said we were all assigned 4,000 word essays on presidential politics.
: Clinton’s Golden Rules: “The effort of this was to show that I was bad people. I don’t think we have to show that they they are bad people. We have to say that we’re right and they’re wrong.” And: “I don’t believe we need to get into that kind of demonization. I think the evidence shows our way works better.” And: “They don’t think they’re bad people and I think it’s a mistake for us to treat them the way they treated us, because if we do, then they own us, they turn us into the kind of Pavlovian creatures they turn their voters into.”
: On that conspiracy: “Hilly was once hooted and derided when she called it a vast right-wing conspiracy.” He said that when she came home after that, he questioned only the word conspiracy. “Conspiracies are normally secret,” he said.
: On Susan McDougal: “The star of this movie and my personal heroine was Susan McDougal,” Clinton said — it was the first thing he said after coming on stage — and she got a standing O, just as he had. “If you like what’s in the film about her wait till you read what I wrote about her in the book…. Susan McDougal was a victim of abuse of power. She was simply a political pawn. And there were many more like her.”
: On the special prosecutors: “I asked for the derned thing…. I was such a naive fool, I thought people actually wanted to know the truth. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I lost money in a land deal… That doesn’t exonerate me from the stupid personal — and wrong personal — mistakes I made… All this started when the press said they wanted to know the truth about what went on, they actually wanted to know the truth.” He said his counsel, Bernie Nussbaum, begged him not to approve the appointment of a special prosecutor. He believed Fiske, the first appointee, a Republican, would find the truth and it would be over. But “Fiske was replaced [because] he was too fast and too fair and he had to go.” He was replaced by “somebody who was more results oriented, as they say.” Ken Starr, he said, “saw himself as throwing the infidels from the temple.”
: On the press: “The mainstream media basically was in the tank with Starr by and large until the issuance of the Starr report. And I give them this: There was a dramatic sea change then.” And: “Media forgot briefly what they did in Watergate. What they did in Watergate was stop an abuse of power… They thought the game was get the President, not stop the abuse of power… But they got over it.”
: On the New York Times: He said he certainly had problems with their coverage of Whitewater and Starr at first but “the New York Times was the first great establishment institution that got it wrong to at least have a conscience. They did finally say that Kenneth Starr should resign.”
: On the new media age: “The press changes in the information age, too.” In the old days, he said, there were three networks and “they all had enough market share… to afford to send older, very experienced, very seasoned journalists to Vietnam and say here’s what we saw… The newspapers had enough money to have a correspondent in Paris and Beijing.. .to write thought pieces. It was a different world. They’re in a much more competitive world today and the lines between all media are being merged and the traditional lines between news and advocacy are being blurred.”
: On politics and media: Well, the right has radio. But the left has movies. Take Moore. Take this. And, Clinton says, the left is making inroads back into other media. “Look at what MoveOn.org did this year. Look at what Air America is doing. Al Franken is beating Rush Limbaugh in a couple of markets with that little tiny network.” [Note: Anybody have those ratings books?] “When you’re up against something you can either sit around and whine about it or get up and do something about it.” He said the right used to produce more books but now the left is, and he sure hopes his is one of the big sellers.
: On religion: “What separates us is that we haven’t tried to have our politics driven by religion…. That’s the historical context of the film and that’s why the film is so important.”
: On sanity: Harry Evans asked how Clinton “sustained yourself in this ordeal.” Clinton replied that “most days it bothered me more what was happening to other people…. My friends stayed, the administration stayed, and the American people stayed. That made it a lot easier… I said if I give up on this I will compound my error [agreeing to a special counsel]. When I realized there was no limit to what they could do I realized there was not alternative but to suit up and take the field.”
: On the election: “We’ve got a 50/50 chance, maybe better, that we’ll win the White House next time.” He said the Congress may shift to the left but only by a few votes. “I think you need to worry more about the concentration of this right-wing view of government, particularly in the courts….”
: I didn’t go to the after-party. Nor did I get to hobnob with celebs, though I did see Salman Rushdie and Mike Myers and seats reserved for Uma Thurman, Glenn Close, and Moby. It’s late. Notebook’s empty. Good night.
: UPDATE: Micah Sifry does not partake of Clinton nostalgia. Way doesn’t.