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The Man They Love to Hate

October 18, 1998|Sean Wilentz | Sean Wilentz is a professor of American history at Princeton. He is spending this year as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

WASHINGTON — Why is Bill Clinton's presidency in such peril? Surely, there is some explanation for the increasingly surreal impeachment proceedings underway in Washington. In contrast to the stormy 1860s or 1970s, the only other times impeachment has been on the congressional agenda, the national mood is tranquil to the point of complacency. Even if the most serious of the allegations against Clinton are true, they are small potatoes compared with the constitutional crimes charged against presidents Andrew Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. And whereas Johnson and Nixon were clenched, prickly and paranoid men, easy to hate, Clinton seems just the opposite.

Yet, almost everywhere one turns inside the Beltway, among journalists and politicos across the political spectrum, there is contempt for the president, in startling contrast with general public opinion. That contempt, reflected in the elite as well as the tabloid news media, has been a catalyst in turning Clinton's relatively minor misdeeds, alleged and admitted, into potentially impeachable offenses. So why do they hate Clinton so much?

A lot depends on how you define "they." Contrary to the arguments of the president's staunchest supporters, his opponents do not form a vast right-wing conspiracy (though some of Clinton's far-flung reactionary political enemies have certainly plotted to bring him down). Different people with different political beliefs dislike Clinton for different reasons, and, in recent months, they have met in a harmonic convergence of hatred.

Still, there is a pattern of sorts to the anti-Clinton fervor, rooted in recent U.S. history. Across the board, Clinton is paying dearly for unfinished American business left over from the 1960s and 1970s: the traumas of civil rights, the Vietnam War, countercultural upheaval and Watergate that still shape our politics nearly 30 years later, despite Clinton's best efforts to exorcise them.

After 1966, American national politics became polarized as at no time since the Civil War and Reconstruction. The turn from civil rights to black power, along with protests against the Vietnam War, pushed the Democratic Party well to the left. The Republican Party's defense of the war, exploitation of white voters' racial resentments and eventual alliance with ultraconservative evangelicals pushed it well to the right. The Watergate scandals, Jimmy Carter's failed presidency and the election of Ronald Reagan each, in turn, deepened the ideological and political breach.

The political middle, traditionally the staging ground of our public life, virtually ceased to exist. By the mid-1980s, it was hard to remember that the GOP once included figures as liberal as former Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller, or that the likes of Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn had been leading Democrats. Polarization became a normal state of affairs in Washington, one that guaranteed control of the White House to the rip-roaring GOP and control of Congress to the dazed-and-confused Democrats, a division that gave the political initiative to the right. Outside the capital, the country was riven by the so-called culture wars, fallout from the '60s that seemed to preclude national unity.

In 1992, Clinton assumed leadership of an insurgency--what some have called a revolt of "the radical middle"--that aimed to topple this state of affairs. Clinton perceived that the Democrats would never regain the White House unless they rethought their stale assumptions about big-government liberalism. He would replace the old shibboleths with a limber centrist liberalism and engage constructively with his opponents; preserve the spirit of reform, embrace the feminist and civil-rights breakthroughs of the '60s, and preach an ethic of hard work and individual responsibility. Other Democratic hopefuls had similar ideas; Clinton alone had the charm, the clarity of purpose and the political muscle to endure and win a grueling, dirty national campaign. As he soon learned, however, governing proved even more difficult than running.

His problems have been personal and cultural as well as political. Clinton's carefully honed persona was bound to shatter the nerves of many conservatives. (It's hardly surprising that Clinton fares worst in the opinion polls among older, white, Southern men.) From the start of his political career in Arkansas, Clinton was hounded by superpatriotic, erstwhile hard-line segregationists, notably the former state Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson and his associates, whose hatred of Clinton's views on civil rights and the Vietnam War led them to charge him with all sorts of fantastic crimes, from drug smuggling to murder. (Many members of this coterie appear in the Gennifer Flowers, Paula Corbin Jones and Whitewater investigations.)

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