Before we came here, we thought of ourselves as good people.


By Joe Campbell
January 13th, 2008

Or What is Wrong with the Clintons

[digg-reddit-me]In 1992, a man from Hope inspired Americans, and a plurality voted him into the White House. But something less hopeful lurked underneath the surface of this aspiring political dynasty. Joe Klein, writing as Anonymous in his fictionalization of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Primary Colors, told the story from the perspective of an idealistic young aide corrupted both by the process and the charismatic candidate himself. The major subplot of the novel involved a close and lifelong friend of the Stantons (representing the Clintons) who when confronted with the venality, ruthlessness, and pure lust for power of the candidate and his wife killed herself in anger and sorrow.

George Stephanopoulos, writing in his memoir of the campaign and early Clinton presidency, attributed the suicide of the close Clinton confidante and advisor, Vince Foster to a similar emotional breakdown.1 Writing shortly after Foster’s death, Margaret Carlson of Time magazine, quoted Foster as saying: “Before we came here, we thought of ourselves as good people.”

Politics, as Stephanopoulos describes it delicately, is about “play[ing] the game for the sake of getting good things done.” Any realist – any student of history – any politician – will tell you that there is a large element of truth to this. What was Lend-Lease but part of a game FDR was playing to drag us into World War II? What was Lincoln’s careful campaign formulation of allowing slavery to stay where it was but preventing any new slave states from from joining the Union if not a political stratagem? But there is a sense among those who worked with the Clintons that they sold their soul to win this game – that their lust for power overrode all ethical impulses, and that they sullied everyone who believed in them.

There is a risk of this disappointment in every campaign – including Barack Obama’s. Power corrupts. Washington corrupts. Dreams and ideals and promises are broken upon hard reality.

But sometimes, our leaders, all too human as they may be, help us rise above the game. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream; John F. Kennedy called on a nation to go to the moon; Abraham Lincoln called on the “better angels of our nature”. All of these men were corrupted by power; none of them were perfect; they were all politicians. Yet each man met their moment; each individual transcended mere politics even as they participated in the political game. They had the judgment to know when to compromise and when to stand firm.

The Clintons had their chance. They demonstrated their character – and were found wanting. Bill Clinton recently said that to vote for Barack Obama is to “roll the dice”. He had a point. Obama may be corrupted as easily as the Clintons were. But at least with Obama, there is a chance the story might turn out differently. We need to, in Bill Clinton’s words, “roll the dice”.

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  1. Page 187 of All Too Human. []