Historians sympathetic to Bill Clinton often say that the final chapter on his life hasn’t been written, implying that Clinton’s life will appear more impressive over time.
What’s far more likely is that it will appear more buffoonish and corrupt than even critics during his lifetime realized.
In Inside: A Top G-Man Exposes Spies, Lies and Bureaucratic Bungling Inside the FBI, I.C. Smith provides historians with more testimony on Clinton’s astonishing carnival of fakery. The FBI dispatched Smith as special agent in charge to Arkansas in 1995. Smith quickly found himself wading through the sludge of the White House Travel Office scandal. “Lying, withholding evidence, and considering — even expecting — underlings to be expendable so the Clintons could avoid accountability for their actions would become the norm,” Smith concluded.
While the liberal media played dumb about Clinton’s corruption, Arkansans didn’t, Smith noticed. They supplied him with endless stories of scandal and mischief, many serious, some risible, such as the time Clinton accidentally bought a $400 purse on a visit to a Little Rock boutique owned by one of his mistresses. “One day Clinton came in and was fidgeting about while the owner waited on a customer when he suddenly spied one of Hillary’s friends enter the store,” writes Smith. “He quickly grabbed a purse and loudly told a sales clerk, ‘I think Hillary will like this one.’ She rang up the purchase, and Clinton discovered he had just bought a $400 purse.”
Traveling around the state, Smith saw that “there was very real ‘Clinton fatigue’ in Arkansas well before those became buzzwords to describe the condition many Americans felt when he was president. On more than one occasion, Arkansans told me that the only way to get rid of Clinton was ‘to send him to Washington.’” Smith met one Arkansas judge — a “lifelong member of the Arkansas Democratic Party” — who would take his Arkansas lapel pin off on his travels during the Clinton years.
Even Arkansans in the tank for Clinton grew “disillusioned” with him, writes Smith. Journalist Gene Lyons, famous for positing the Lewinsky-is-a-stalker thesis on Meet the Press, felt like an ass after Clinton was backed into acknowledging the affair. “I asked Lyons how he felt after it became apparent that Clinton had lied,” writes Smith. “Lyons said it had been easier for him to forgive Clinton than it had been for his wife, who had taken Clinton’s picture off the wall in their house. ‘I’m not sure she will ever hang it up again.’”
Smith grew familiar with the Arkansas political machine that Clinton had manipulated effortlessly. He observes that Clinton used the machine to keep at bay potential Democratic challengers — a practice that explains the dearth of Democrats once Clinton left the state. Arkansas became a red state Al Gore couldn’t even win because Clinton’s solipsism made a vibrant Democratic party in the state impossible. The Clintons, writes Smith, “would not tolerate any political challenger. The spotlight was to shine on them and them alone. Consequently, when Clinton left office and was followed by a still wounded politically (and future felon) Jim Guy Tucker, there was no Democratic party heir apparent to the governor’s office.” According to Smith, Clinton made sure Tucker would never challenge him by torpedoing his Senate run against David Pryor through a “whisper campaign.” This neatly put Pryor in his pocket and cleared away Tucker as a future rival.
Smith’s fund of anecdotes — which range over 25 years of service in the FBI — throws light not only on Clinton but on an era of porous defense in American law enforcement that made the U.S. a soft target on 9/11. He records a staggering number of blunders in the FBI but leavens the tale with moments of gallows humor. He can chuckle over the time Bill Clinton’s portrait was ripped off from the Arkansas State Capitol but recovered when a homeless man “tried to sell it on the street for two dollars.”
Clinton’s legacy isn’t worth much more than that. It’s said that every generation gets the leader it deserves. Clinton was certainly the leader the media thought this generation deserved. As Osama bin Laden plotted, a late-night comedy culture accepted a punchline presidency — and the media prided itself on a lack of vigilance towards its occupant. In the final pages of the book, Smith reaches a conclusion that the old media still can’t admit: “Had the media done its job, there would arguably have never been a Clinton presidency.”
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