Pathology of Clinton-Bashing
By Jeff Ritchie
What is it about the Bill Clinton?
Following eight years of relative peace and prosperity, conservatives
now blame the former President for everything short of the
Lindbergh kidnapping. Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer
last week announced that the recent violence in Israel and
the West Bank was caused, not by the Bush Administration's
disengagement, but by Bill Clinton's attempt to broker a peace
deal between the two sides. On a daily basis, somewhere in
America, there is a newspaper or magazine editorial that bashes
Bill Clinton for one perceived shortcoming or another. One
recent editorial claimed that if Clinton hadn't been fooling
around with Monica Lewinsky, all those FBI agents investigating
the infamous blue dress would have been free to flush out
terrorists. This assumes that the President specifically requested
a four-year probe into his personal life.
And when Clinton's dog was hit by a car in December, it was
yet more evidence of the former President's immoral character.
While all previous Presidents had their critics, it is nothing
like that venom directed at Bill Clinton between 1992 and
2000, and which is still freely flowing today. Why do conservatives
loathe him in ways that they never hated Jimmy Carter or John
F. Kennedy or Harry Truman? The reason, I think, is that their
hated of Bill Clinton has its roots in psychology and not
Conservatives today are furious over what they see as a series
of stinging political and cultural defeats, but their problem
is that the one man they should be blaming is also the one
man they could never possibly blame. I am referring, of course,
to Ronald Reagan.
Far-fetched? Hardly. In the twentieth century, conservative
political identity has been linked to small government, fiscal
responsibility, and opposition to communism. Conservatives
view themselves as the pious champions of small-town values
like a reverence for religion and for the law. And Ronald
Reagan was their president.
The problem was that by the time the 1980's were over, the
Reagan Administration had made a mockery of their core beliefs.
Despite his rhetoric to the contrary, Ronald Reagan did not
limit the size of the government; the federal payroll actually
increased under his administration. Budget deficits, long
an anathema to Main Street Republicans, grew to stunning levels
courtesy of the first Reagan budget. And it took a series
of tax increases (supported by many those same fiscally conservative
Republicans, lead by Kansas Sen. Robert Dole) to set the federal
budget back on something like an even keel.
In a decade defined by its corporate greed, it seemed to
conservatives that far too many of their President's friends
were feeding at the trough. There were scandals involving
the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who accepted
bribes from major polluters, and then there was the President's
Chief of Staff who accepted gifts from the same Japanese corporations
who were decimating the American auto industry. Finally, there
came the revelation that while the Administration talked tough
on terrorism, it was actually selling military supplies to
Islamic radicals in the Middle East.
Religious conservatives, meanwhile, politely ignored that
fact that Ronald Reagan was a man of no discernible religious
convictions, despite his ability to repeat pious axioms on
cue. They ignored the fact that he was divorced, that his
second child was conceived out of wedlock, that he once fell
asleep during an audience with the Pope. They even ignored
that fact that even though he promised it regularly, the President
never backed legislation to legalize school prayer or to outlaw
Blue collars workers who voted for Reagan were rewarded with
plant closures and a federal government that provided tax
incentives to corporations that relocated overseas. Fiscal
conservatives were rewarded with a $3 trillion increase in
the national debt and what seemed like no possibility of relief.
Religious conservatives were rewarded with a stony silence
by the administration on their most cherished programs.
Their hero, the champion of their values, had sold them out
Conservatives found themselves in a difficult position. Having
invested so much of their identity in his presidency and having
adopted Reagan as a national father figure, it would required
a conservative of no small emotional fortitude to repudiate
him. Just as abused children will continue to identify with
their abusive parent, conservatives continued to identify
with and to defend Ronald Reagan. Hating Ronald Reagan for
the gross abuse of their trust was simply not an option, even
though it was clear that Reagan was not a conservative, at
least not by any definition they themselves would have used
prior to 1980.
Conservatives knew that they were responsible for shackling
their country with trillions of dollars in debt that their
children and grandchildren would have to repay. They knew
that their government had negotiated with and paid ransom
to terrorists who then turned around kidnapped and murdered
more Americans. They knew that the Reagan Administration had
been conducting a covert war in Central America that resulted
in tens of thousands of murders that included women, children,
and in one particularly appalling case four
So what ails conservatives? It appears to be something that
strongly resembles Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While one
can observe nearly all the typical symptoms of PTSD in conservative
behavior, I think that four in particular are worth noting:
Inability to recall key aspects of the trauma: Reagan supporters
appear to be suffering from Alzheimer's Disease themselves,
unable to recall the murder of 240 U.S. Marines in their barracks
in Lebanon, but able to recall in detail the deaths of 24
US Army Rangers in Somalia.
Foreshortened Sense of the Future: Based on their fiscal
and environmental priorities, Republicans seem to have a carpe
diem attitude about the future. No Social Security? No Ozone
Layer? No Problem!
Irritability or Outbursts of Anger: Notice the booming memberships
in paramilitary militia groups during the past decade. Timothy
McVeigh, who was treated with kid gloves compared to the abuse
directed toward John Walker Lindh, continues to be the poster-boy
for conservative anger.
Exaggerated Startle Response: Following the September 11
terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration activated a "shadow
government" of some 100 bureaucrats. A plan devised during
the Cold War in the event of nuclear war, it was never activated
even during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As the years passed and defending the Reagan legacy was clearly
untenable, conservatives' rage needed an outlet, which they
found in the person of William Jefferson Clinton. It was not
enough to merely defeat Clinton in the 1992 election, it was
emotionally imperative that he be destroyed and humiliated.
He should, to use Clinton's own words, feel their pain. Even
before his election, conservative publisher Richard Mellon
Scaife was funding a series of investigations into Bill Clinton's
past that would eventually become Whitewater.
They portrayed Clinton as a spendthrift Democrat, until the
federal budget began to balance in the mid-1990's, and then
they claimed (however implausibly) that the economic good
times were actually the result of policies enacted by Ronald
Reagan some fifteen years earlier. They portrayed the Clinton
Administration as corrupt, hurling a half-dozen independent
prosecutors and Clinton and his staff, and the result was
not a single appointee convicted for a crime relating to actions
as part of the Clinton Administration. They portrayed Clinton
as a liar, under the perverse logic that lying about one's
personal life is worse than Ronald Reagan's lying about multiple
felonies committed by his staff as part of White House policy.
That Bill Clinton should have escaped them was all the more
infuriating to conservatives. After eight years of relentless
hammering, their bete noir left office with an approval
rating that was even higher than that of Ronald Reagan. The
wrath of God never descended on William Jefferson Clinton,
and he would retire to the friendly confines of New York City
to write his memoirs and hit the lecture circuit. With a majority
of Americans still approving of Bill Clinton's job performance,
conservatives like William Bennett could only grouse about
a decline in national character.
Unlike other disorders, this one holds out little hope for
effective treatment because there is a well-financed and highly-visible
group that constants stokes the fires of hatred. The Republican
Party and its handmaiden, the national media, will continue
to portray Bill Clinton in the worst possible light, just
as they will continue to make excuses for Ronald Reagan and
his abysmal record as Chief Executive. Those who wish to live
comfortably with their delusion will never lack for enablers.
Jeff Ritchie is a Democratic Party activist who lives in