Columns » John Brummett

Democratic ex-president on Republican TV

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You could call it a perfect storm. From one direction came the epitome of political partisanship masquerading as journalism, meaning Fox News. From the other came a former president obsessed with his legacy, incapable of shutting up and famously temperamental, meaning Bill Clinton.

It produced what partisan Democrats cheer as Fox News’ comeuppance. It produced what partisan Republicans cite as evidence of Clinton’s megalomania, rage and loose screw. It produced what I see as both.

What it did was galvanize the polarized. It strengthened Clinton as champion to some. It strengthened Fox as champion to others. Any hope of either going away was tragically lost.

Fox got a sit-down interview with Clinton, apparently to talk first, but not exclusively, about Your Boy Bill’s noble initiatives on global climate control.

Yes, Clinton indeed is a great world leader, a noble ex-president — except for that part by which he is constitutionally incapable of letting his actions simply speak for themselves.

Why a former Democratic president wouldn’t turn down perfunctorily a Republican cable channel’s interview request is beyond me. Well, actually, it’s not beyond me at all. This particular former Democratic president craves attention and thinks he can win over anyone.

Fox dispatched Chris Wallace, one of its smarmier blenders of partisan purpose and journalistic veneer. That’s saying quite a lot considering Brit Hume.

Wallace and Hume — they’re worse than Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Wallace and Hume sound and look like reporters, just as Tony Snow sounded for Fox until the Bush White House decided to reassign him as the president’s direct, not indirect, apologist. A wolf is less dangerous if he wears a wolf’s clothing.

Not long into the interview, Wallace cited viewer interest and asked Clinton why he didn’t do a better job connecting the dots on Osama bin Laden.

You are aware that Republicans want to say that 9-11 was Clinton’s fault. You are aware that Clinton is determined to fashion a good legacy pro-actively rather than merely permit history to bestow one. You are aware that he’s worked too hard to overcome the Monica matter to let thousands of deaths get pinned on him.

So, he went off, much as he is widely known for going off in private.

He made some very good points. And at moments he resembled a madman.

He fares better in transcript than video. On paper, he impressively peppers Wallace with his Clintonesque litany of compelling detail in defense of his vigilance. He makes a compelling case that, in his administration, Dick Clarke was properly deployed as an anti-terrorism expert. He wonders why Fox hasn’t asked Bush why he demoted him. Hilariously, he actually challenges Wallace for smirking.

Clinton fares not so well when seen. He conveys an altogether pedestrian, untoward and unsettling image, something beneath his station. He spews about how he worked hard to “kill” bin Laden and came a lot closer than the current administration. He tried, darnit. He lets legacy-thirst sound like blood-thirst.

He accuses Fox of luring him for an interview about one thing, then sniping him with another. That’s mildly paranoid, or at least an overly impassioned irrationality.

I mean, this was Fox, for goodness sakes. What did he expect? And, to be honest, any journalist worth his salt and granted an interview with Clinton would want to steer the discussion to 9-11 and bin Laden.

So, can we declare a winner for the Clinton-Fox storm?

Yes, both, for their purposes. The losers were journalism and statesmanship, which got kicked while they were already down.

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