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Ex-president supportive to a fault?

Bill Clinton comes under fire from some old allies for his harsh treatment of Obama, a chief rival of his wife.

December 21, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

From Washington to Sacramento, a generation of Democrats enjoys power and prosperity thanks to Bill Clinton, who ran for president as a fresh face representing hope and change.

A number of those graying Clintonites are now rallying behind Barack Obama, another national newcomer, who offers youth, optimism and an echo of that promise to upend the status quo.

Thus, many find it more than a little unsettling -- and dismaying -- that the former president is targeting the Illinois senator with the same kind of criticism that Clinton faced in 1992.

Reed Hundt, who attended law school with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, said he admired them both even though he was not supporting the New York senator's White House bid.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Presidential politics: An article in Friday's Section A about former President Clinton's role in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign said the ex-president won the 1992 Democratic primary in New Hampshire. Clinton finished second.

But he questioned some of the ex-president's recent statements, including a suggestion that a vote for the Illinois senator was like rolling the dice.

"President Clinton is going way too far -- too far into the politics of personal attack, which he knows is bad for the country," Hundt said. "It's not right for a former president to get out there and be demeaning any of our candidates.

"Calling Barack Obama 'a symbol' is not acceptable discourse," Hundt went on, referring to Clinton's comments in a recent interview with PBS' Charlie Rose. "Likening him to a TV commentator is an insult."

Hundt, who is supporting Obama but not working for his campaign, was Clinton's appointee to head the Federal Communications Commission during his first term.

Susan Rice, assistant secretary of State in the Clinton administration and an Obama advisor, said she was not surprised the Clintons were waging such a pugnacious campaign, particularly as the Democratic race tightened.

"It's politics as usual, and it's unfortunate," Rice said in Des Moines, where she traveled this week for an Obama speech on foreign policy. ". . . There are enormous challenges that we're facing in the world. To the extent that the debate can remain focused on the substance and the policy . . . we'll be better off."

Even some supporters of Sen. Clinton question her husband's turn to negative campaigning.

"He's got to take the high road," said Leon E. Panetta, chief of staff in President Clinton's first term. "He's strongest when he praises Hillary. He's weakest when he comes out as the attack dog."

President Clinton did not respond directly to the criticism. A spokesman, Matt McKenna, said the former president "feels strongly there's only one candidate with the strength and experience to lead on Day 1 and deliver the change America needs."

Bill Clinton remains a much-beloved figure among Democrats as the candidate who won the White House, held it for two terms and introduced a new vocabulary, with words like responsibility, community service and reform, that helped remake the party's losing image.

For some who worked to elect Clinton or served in his administration, having to choose between their old boss (or, more precisely, his wife) and Obama is almost like having to choose between Mom and Dad.

"I love the guy; I really do," said Mitchell Schwartz, who helped engineer Clinton's pivotal 1992 win in New Hampshire and now runs Obama's California campaign. He shrugs off the former president's criticism of his candidate.

"He's a political animal, and he's doing what he can to try to help his wife to win," Schwartz said, though he suggested it could hurt Clinton's legacy. "We like to exalt our ex-presidents because they stay out of the political ring. You jump back in, you're not in that exalted position."

But others expressed surprise and disappointment that Clinton, given his elder-statesman status, would engage Obama as if he were the one seeking office. Many of Obama's backers did not want to be quoted by name, out of loyalty to the former president or fearing retribution if Sen. Clinton wins the White House.

They suggested the former president had not only hurt his stature by stooping to attack Obama, but said he may be hurting his wife's candidacy. "I don't think he's been helpful by taking the campaign off message and reminding people about why they might not want him back in the White House," said a former administration strategist. "I have a lot of respect for Bill Clinton's policy and political skills . . . but I don't really want to see him back in."

Panetta said Clinton needed to keep at least one eye on history.

"As someone respected around the world and respected at home, he's got to be careful he doesn't act like a campaign manager and wind up getting into the kind of mud fights you're going to get into if you run the campaign rather than be a part of the campaign," said Panetta, a former congressman who directs the Panetta Institute at Cal State Monterey Bay. "He's got to be careful he's not the lightning rod making all these attacks."

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