Who's Clinton Now?

The war story has located this president's tragic flaws. They're not the same as Bill Clinton's flaws, but there are common threads—the arrogance, the recklessness—and the media know it.

When word came that former President Clinton's memoir would be out in June, the news flew around the world. Democrats had feared—and Republicans hoped—that if the book were published later in the year, it might suck all the air out of the Democratic campaign for the White House. Or, as The New York Times put it: "Some prominent Democrats had worried that publicity about the book might overshadow the party's presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, late in the election cycle."

The implication here is that Bill Clinton is about to come roaring back into the public consciousness. But did he ever really leave it? Take a good look at the coverage of the White House race and how the media is shaping the narrative, and a curious pattern begins to emerge. Clinton is everywhere—and I don't mean the memoir. In ways both obvious and subtle, he's the defining figure of this campaign, the template for coverage of both President Bush and Kerry.

In addition to the usual questions that frame all presidential campaigns—Who's better qualified? Who's up in the polls?—this time we have a new question: Which one of these guys is Clinton? In that shadow race, which in some ways is more interesting than the actual one, Bush and Kerry are currently running neck and neck.

Last Sunday, for instance, Maureen Dowd turned in one of those scorchers she used to come up with all the time. For some reason, Bush hasn't been quite the muse for her that Clinton was—until now. The column was a series of deadpan statements about life in an awful place called "Bushworld," where hypocrisy is king:

"In Bushworld, our troops go to war and get killed, but you never see the bodies coming home.... In Bushworld, we can create an exciting Iraqi democracy as long as it doesn't control its own military, pass any laws, or have any power.... In Bushworld, you get to strut around like a tough military guy and paint your rival as a chicken hawk, even though he's the one who won medals in combat and was praised by his superior officers for fulfilling all his obligations."

Moving through this litany was like beaming straight back to one of Michael Kelly's old columns about Clinton. Remember? Thanks to the Iraq war, the 9/11 investigation, and other Bush messes, this White House has started to feel like the Clinton White House circa 1997, lousy with potential scandals, a big media playground. Bush's shaky, who-am-I? performance at the press conference a few weeks ago may not have cost him in the polls, and the news coverage was bizarrely positive. But afterward, in private, it was all Washington media folk could talk about. The war story has located this president's tragic flaws. They're not the same as Clinton's flaws, but there are common threads—the arrogance, the recklessness—and the media know it.

Meanwhile, there's another promising candidate for the Clinton role. When Kerry had his dust-up this week over the Vietnam medals (or ribbons) that he may (or may not) have thrown over the fence, depending on when you ask him (and why)—well, we were right back with Clinton again and his Vietnam deferment. Kerry fought in the war, but like the ex-president, he seems to have spent a lifetime wormishly framing and reframing that period to maintain his political viability. The tape of Kerry on a forgotten TV show called Viewpoints was utterly Clintonistic. The only mystery was why ABC's Charlie Gibson didn't press him harder, as in: "You lied about the medals back then, didn't you, senator? Why?" At least Kerry played his assigned part. His Web site chalked the controversy up to a "Right-Wing Fiction." His people must have left out the words "vast" and "conspiracy" just to confuse us.

Sure, it's painful for the country to have to delve into this stuff again—squishy character questions, finger-pointing about the past, musty tapes, alleged lies. But the Clinton Narrative demands it. As with Clinton, it's a messy business, but it winds up revealing a lot about who these people really are.

Go through the campaign news each day and you keep tripping over Clinton. He's a prism, a crystal ball, a cudgel. "Ex-President Bush Likens Kerry, Clinton," said a headline on USAToday.com a few weeks ago. "In Minn., Bush Takes a Cue From Clinton," announced a Washington Post story this week about one of the president's new campaign tactics. "$1,000 Haircut? Kerry Flies In Hairdresser for Touch-Up Before Meet the Press," blared the Drudge Report the same day—and within hours the allegation was a Leno joke, as in Clinton times.

And Kerry and Bush each have their own Hillary. Kerry's, naturally enough, is his wife, Teresa, whose refusal to open her tax returns looks and feels more and more like Hillary's commodities-trading stonewall. She's the one with the money, not him, and she's not talking. You just know Teresa's pink-lady moment is coming; it's a matter of choosing the right forum. Barbara, Diane, or Katie?

Bush's Hillary is Dick Cheney—the dark partner skulking in the background, all Strangelovian ambition, pulling levers, sharpening knives. This week, when the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Cheney's secret energy task force, National Public Radio noted the "ironic" fact that Mrs. Clinton had faced a similar challenge to the secrecy of her health care task force, from one of the very groups now suing Cheney.

But these echoes aren't ironic at all. Because Clinton is forever.