Mugger: The Trouble With Bill

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Thanks to The Times’ Paul Krugman, I’m reminded once again why Bill Clinton inspired such a visceral disgust among economic conservatives and libertarians 17 years ago when he launched his first presidential campaign. Bear in mind this was before the various revelations—Gennifer Flowers; presiding over the execution, mid-campaign, of Rickey Ray Rector in Arkansas and the tortured dissembling of his draft status during
Vietnam—which threatened his eventual Democratic nomination in 1992. All of that was a sideshow from my point of view and didn’t compare to Clinton’s profound hypocrisy when he preached that he was the champion of Americans “who play by the rules” and didn’t game the system like Wall Street inside traders.

In his continuing, and somewhat inexplicable, evisceration of Barack Obama, Krugman on Jan. 21 repeated a line of Clinton’s stump speech when he was running against the first President Bush. “The Reagan-Bush years have exalted private gain over public obligation, special interests over the common good, wealth and fame over work and family. The 1980s ushered in a Gilded Age of greed and selfishness, of irresponsibility and excess, and of neglect.”

(Krugman regularly invokes “gilded ages” when making the case for tax hikes, universal health care and anachronistic FDR-style economics. According to the columnist we’re presently living in a “gilded age,” just like during the Reagan years, the 1920s and earlier in that century and the late 19th century. It wouldn’t surprise me if, at some point, the Princeton professor gets a bug up his ass about President Eisenhower and declares that the 1950s, too, was a “gilded age.”)

It was politically expedient, of course, for Clinton to spout such platitudes during the economic downturn of the early 1990s, never mind that he wasn’t exactly an example of a man who valued “family” over “fame” or that his wife pocketed $100,000—with an investment of $1,000—on a cattle futures transaction on the tip of her wealthy friend and Clinton political supporter James Blair. What I profoundly objected to back then was Clinton’s denigration of all the men and women—some were entrepreneurs, others in myriad white and blue collar professions—who were honest and worked long hours in an attempt to pursue fulfilling careers and support their families.

Sure, the media—which, at the time, was awash in profits—fixated on crooks like Ivan Boesky and savings and loans swindlers, and there was great sport making fun of “yuppies,” a pejorative first coined in the ’80s. Spy magazine, for example, founded in 1986, was a fascinating paradox: while the monthly lampooned public figures like Donald Trump, its staff worked around the clock for low wages and produced a magazine template that’s still influential today, years after its demise. A large percentage of Spy alumni were rewarded, justly, for their efforts by migrating to better-paid positions in various sectors of the communications industry, most notably co-founders Graydon Carter and Kurt Anderson.

Ironically, two of the men who were extraordinarily influential in the country’s economic prosperity on Clinton’s watch in the nineties, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, were, at the dawn of the “Reagan years,” struggling entrepreneurs attempting to make their company Microsoft a success. After years of ups and downs, and working in anonymity developing software programs, the pair hit it big in ’86 when the company went public. (Microsoft was recognized for its creation of thousands of jobs and influence on the burgeoning technology market with a Clinton Justice Department lawsuit in 2000, an action that arguably led to the dotcom and NASDAQ bubble burst.)

Similarly, although Bill Clinton didn’t know it at the time of his class warfare campaign of ’92, in Seattle a small and largely unknown company called Starbucks was just beginning its expansion from a chain of cafés in that city—125 outlets that year—to what is now a ubiquitous retail behemoth with stores in 30 countries and revenues that number in the billions. Was Howard Schultz, the visionary who joined the six-outlet company in 1982 (at the time Starbucks sold coffee equipment and roasted beans but didn’t sell beverages) and then bought it in ’87 for $3.8 million, an example of someone who was selfish and greedy? I’ve no idea of his lifestyle today, yet it’s indisputable that Starbucks has not only had a profound impact on cultural lifestyles but also provided a massive number of jobs.

Bill Clinton, of course, after he pardoned the notorious Marc Rich—a paragon of greed, excess, irresponsibility and selfishness—upon leaving office in 2001, discovered that he, too, wasn’t averse to making millions of dollars by giving speeches to corporations and lending his influential name to businesses run by friends of his. Just last week, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Clinton, severing his ties with billionaire Ron Burkle and his investment in Dubai, stands to make up to $20 million as a parting gift.

Krugman is almost alone among left-wing pundits in bashing Obama for making the following true statement to The Reno Gazette-Journal, ahead of the Nevada caucuses: “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way Bill Clinton did not.” Obama did not, as is clear from his career and present campaign, endorse the policies of Reagan but rather implied that the Democratic party needed someone who would capture the sense of optimism that the late president exuded. Krugman, like the Clintons, objected: “But why would a self-proclaimed progressive say anything that lends credibility to this rewriting of history—particularly right now—when Reaganomics has just failed all over again.”

The Clinton campaign has jumped on Obama’s Reagan comment and distorted its intent, running ads that quote the Illinois senator out of context, leading The Washington Post to editorialize that “this episode does not speak well of Ms. Clinton’s [character and judgment].”

This intramural bickering is fine by me, and one hopes that Obama will, unlike any other Clinton challenger, respond forcefully to their sleazy—and reckless and irresponsible—tactics. But I’m partisan, in support of Republican John McCain, so The Nation’s William Greider’s recent words ought to have more impact on Democrats. He wrote: “[The Clintons are] high-minded and self-important on the surface, smarmily duplicitous underneath, meanwhile jabbing hard to the groin area. They are a slippery pair and come as a package. The nation is at fair risk of getting them back in the White House for four more years. The thought makes me queasy.”

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