The Current Crisis

All Is Vanity

Todd Purdum's rediscovery of the Clinton crack-up.

By 6.5.08

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WASHINGTON -- The other day an aroused Bill Clinton addressed a lady reporter in South Dakota, shouting a word into her face that the Dictionary of American Slang labels "Taboo." As the reporter recorded it, Boy Clinton was "tightly gripping" her hand and "refusing to let it go." What had aroused him was a story in Vanity Fair that chronicles the excesses -- libidinous, commercial, and ontological -- of his life in retirement and while campaigning for his wife. Among other epithets the former Boy President applied to the Vanity Fair writer, Todd Purdum, was "scumbag."

About fifteen years ago Clinton's famously coarse political aide, James Carville, used the same word in public and it fell to me to educate him as to the word's meaning. It does not merely mean a despicable individual. According to the aforementioned dictionary, it means a condom, a used condom. After I apprised Carville of his indiscretion, he never again used this word on television or in any national forum that I am aware of. Now Clinton has. After reviewing his recent outbursts while campaigning for his wife, I think I can safely say that the 42nd president of the United States has the foulest mouth of any president in American history, at least the foulest mouth in public. His outburst against Purdum alone makes that clear.

What aroused Clinton's wrath was a perfectly credible account of the retired president's life. I know this for a fact because fully seventeen anecdotes used by Purdum were reported in my recent book, The Clinton Crack-Up. To be sure, Purdum never mentions my book, not even when he compares Harry Truman's comparatively penurious retirement with Clinton's posh retirement and reckless financial deals -- a comparison I made in Chapter One. So while I disapprove of Clinton's denunciation of Purdum as "sleazy," "slimy," and a "scumbag," I should mention that when he calls Purdum "a really dishonest reporter," the ex-president has a point.

Purdum, at least in Vanity Fair, has been dishonest about his sourcing. Otherwise the chronicle of Clinton that Purdum reports is right on the money. None of the stories I have reported about Clinton's excesses in retirement has been disproved. No reviewer of my book has found any major misstatement.

NOW THAT OBAMA seems certain to be nominated at the Democratic National Convention, we might review what the Clintons actually achieved in Hillary's nomination drive. People forget that days after the Clintons left the White House they tumbled to rock bottom in public approval and in the eyes of the media. The property they carted out of the White House and the wreck they left it in, with all the practical jokes their young staffers left for the incoming Bush Administration, had revealed them as the rogues they have always been. More damaging were the pardons that the Boy President granted, some of which his brother and Hillary's brothers brokered for cash.

When word got out on those pardons, major newspapers were calling for congressional investigations of them; and at least one, the New York Observer, was calling for Senator Clinton to resign. The Times and several former Clinton supporters among the nationally syndicated columnists wrote that the Clintons were actually worse than we Clinton critics had allowed (all of this I note in my book, with quotations properly footnoted). Consequently, in his early days of retirement Clinton was, as Purdum writes, deeply depressed. Purdum cites an anonymous source. I cite an interview my staff did with Clinton's friend and political aide, Terry McAuliffe.

Yet the Comeback Kid came back. He spent the next years regaining power in the Democratic Party, enough so that he goaded Hillary to run in 2004 -- a point Purdum seems unaware of. At least when I saw Purdum being interviewed on one of the cable news shows, he seemed unaware of the retired president's role in pushing her to run in 2004. Clinton made a fortune with business deals and speeches worldwide, some of the deals being decidedly unsavory. As an antidote to them, he gained a reputation as an international do-gooder through his foundation and other forums. Of a sudden he was repristinated a hero in liberal esteem.

Of course, he still was haunted with the debility that has been with him through his long and remarkably troubled public life: bad character. Some of us tried to alert the public to this when he first ran for the presidency in 1992. Scandals that had marked his governorship suggested as much, and his repeated lies during the 1992 campaign to cover his youthful transgressions reinforced our view of Clinton's flawed character. Now Vanity Fair has discovered what we Clinton critics have known for sixteen years. The Clintons both made an epic comeback, but as the country has witnessed once again in this campaign they still engage in dubious fundraising, bullying and deceitful campaign tactics, and -- well -- coarse behavior. I for one hope the rest of the media follows Vanity Fair's lead.

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.