What's All This Then?

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Thursday, June 02, 2005

I never thought I would ever say this, but of late I find myself disappointed - even bored - with Bill Clinton as an ex-President. It began during the last election when he seemed to be making little effort to help his party or its Presidential candidate. Indeed at one point he seemed to be saying that he’d be happy with either Bush or Kerry as President. I don’t recall the exact words but it was something along the lines of "I’m beginning to think that I’m the only person in America who likes George Bush and John Kerry."

And there he was on the Larry King show last night doing it again. Talking about how he always thought George Dubya was an extraordinary political talent and how he’d decided to be virtually non-critical of him after he left the White House and how much he likes George Bush senior who was grateful for his kid glove treatment of his son - and how he’s always liked Bush senior since they first met in 1983 and how he’s going to visit him at Kennebunkport and play golf and ride in his boat.

King gave him several chances to be critical of Dubya on such things as social security private accounts and Iraq, but this new and different Clinton declined to take the bait. His comments on those two topics sounded more like that of an apolitical elder statesman rather than that of a leader of his out of power political party. As I said, he was almost boring. There was no fire. No passion. It was as though he was abiding by some unwritten rule among Presidents to not be directly critical of each other.

What is it about our political system that seems to remove former Presidents from playing a central political role when they leave office? And what is it that prevents Presidents from opposing political parties, both former and current, from criticizing each other with the kind of political rhetoric that got them to the White House in the first place?

It doesn’t happen in other democracies. Had Tony Blair’s party lost the last UK election, he, as the former Prime Minister, would be launching attack after attack against his successor and any of his policies with which he disagreed. Of course Blair would only be an ex Prime Minister. He’d still be a member of Parliament and an active politician - so there is a difference in the relative positions of ex Presidents and ex Prime Ministers.

But there is no constitutional barrier to an ex-President continuing to state his political views in the strongest possible terms after he leaves office and to criticize his successor, if from an opposing party. Finishing a term in office or even being defeated in a run for a second term, doesn’t automatically remove a President from the role of titular head of his political party. I’m all for allowing a honeymoon period - but after a few weeks, I expect any and all leaders of the party not occupying the White House, to fulfill their roles as leaders of the loyal opposition. And that means, telling it the way you see it. Without kid gloves.

I see nothing wrong with ex-Presidents doing the sort of things that ex-Presidents do with some of their time … building Presidential Libraries, writing books, playing golf, sitting on corporate boards, hopping over to Japan to give a talk for a fast couple of million and being goodwill ambassadors for various causes. But I see a lot wrong with ex-Presidents becoming something close to apolitical the moment they leave the White House, adopting lives of nobless oblige as though they were hereditary members of the peerage. What’s traditionally American about that?

Whatever you might think of Bill Clinton personally, he was the quintessential political animal of the past two decades. His is a voice that if raised in opposition and in no uncertain terms to the policies of this administration, could make enough people sit up, take notice and think - perhaps long and strong enough to affect the balance of power at the next election.

In my view, if he continues to waste his political skills on being a non-confrontational elder statesman at this critical time in our history, he’ll deserve to have the legacy of his accomplishments overshadowed by his sexual shenanigans !!