It’s long been obvious that Bill Clinton believes he was wronged in this year’s Democratic primary campaign, his words and actions deliberately twisted and distorted by his enemies and their accomplices in the press to turn him into someone and something he is not.
Two months after his wife formally conceded to Barack Obama, the former president is still pouting in full public view. In an interview with ABC News last weekend, he was noticeably stinting in his praise of the presumptive Democratic nominee while making it clear that he has some primary-related grievances to air just as soon as this election is over.
“I will be glad, as soon as this election is over in January, to have this conversation with you and everbody else,” Mr. Clinton said when the discussion turned to this year’s primary campaign. “I have very strong feelings about it.”
To his loyalists, Mr. Clinton has, in defeat, sounded like an aggrieved man venting valid and reasonable frustrations. But if he’s trying to convey a sense of injustice, he’s a deeply flawed messenger.
Was Mr. Clinton victimized in this year’s primaries? Probably. For instance, his much-discussed characterization of Mr. Obama as a "fairy tale” was itself a fairy tale. The comment, made on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, referred explicitly to Mr. Obama’s Iraq war views – which, Mr. Clinton claimed, were indistinguishable from his wife’s. In its own way, this was a dishonest claim. But it had nothing at all to do with race – and yet it was recycled throughout the campaign as evidence that Mr. Clinton had played the race card.
But does this mean that he is justified in behaving like a victim? That he’s owed some kind of apology or act of contrition by those who did him wrong? There is, after all, a bigger picture to consider here, one in which Mr. Clinton is only suffering the same fate that he imposed on someone else on his way up the national political ladder.
Few people now recall the details of the 1992 Democratic primary race, which attracted a fraction of the media interest and voter turnout of this year’s contest. And that means that almost no one recalls the distortions that the Clinton campaign used that winter to derail Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts Senator whose unlikely campaign emerged as the chief threat to Clinton’s nomination.
After Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Clinton and his forces went to work on him. He was, in their telling, a Republican in disguise, a foe of Medicare and Social Security, an enemy of Israel, and a man intent on spoiling open land with nuclear power plants, among other deliberately false and inflammatory charges. Within weeks, the underfunded Tsongas campaign withered and folded.
No doubt, Tsongas felt an injustice had occurred – that his good name and reputation had been unfairly trashed and that the perpetrators had gotten away with it. In other words, the same basic emotions that Mr. Clinton feels today.
“I’m not sure that Paul, in his lifetime, ever got over it,” Tsongas’ friend (and fellow ’92 candidate) Bob Kerrey said not long ago.
In politics, the cliché about history being written by the winners really is apt. When he turned his guns on Tsongas, Mr. Clinton knew that all the gory details would be forgotten in due course as long as he ended up victorious. And he was right. After the ’92 campaign, Mr. Clinton won international fame and a permanent place in history, while Tsongas faded from the national scene, a (mostly) forgotten man. (He died in 1997.) In a system like this, justice, in the rare event that it is meted out at all, can be severely delayed and imperfect.
But Mr. Clinton might consider the example Tsongas set in the summer and fall of 1992, after their nomination battle had ended. Instead of threatening to unload all of his pent-up anger after the November election, Tsongas endorsed his old foe, delivered a primetime convention address that sang the nominee’s praises, and even headed down to Little Rock to speak up for Mr. Clinton on the day after the Republican National Convention. He was far from the most enthusiastic Clinton backer, but he made sure his own sense of pique didn’t harm the party in the fall.
Mr. Clinton, by contrast, has made it clear since the end of this year’s nominating contest that any work he does on Mr. Obama’s behalf will only come from a personal request from Mr. Obama himself, setting the stage for a potential media-driven distraction if he’s not a visible presence at the Democratic convention and on the campaign trail this fall.
As the nominee in 1992, Mr. Clinton expected – and received – much more than this from his defeated foes and their supporters. To judge by his recent behavior, he’s forgotten.