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The Pathology of Clinton-Bashing
March 4, 2002
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 politics.

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 abortion.

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 entirely.

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 American nuns.

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 Cincinnati, Ohio.

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