This is a column about Bill and Hillary Clinton and the demise of complicated political relationships. In this era of "negative partisanship," a person's loyalty isn't graded on a curve. It's pass or fail. Mixed feelings are verboten: You either love somebody or you hate them.
One small example of the zero-sum gaming of relationships: Liberal author Joe Conason of National Memo today scolded MSNBC host Joe Scarborough for praising the Clintons when it benefits him and denouncing them when it's convenient. Scarborough has broadcast from the Clinton Global Initiative and now is a leading critic of how the Clintons' blend personal, political, and charitable causes.
"Oh great, I love Churchill," Scarborough said.
"It's what he said about the Hun, which is: 'They're either at your feet or at your throat,'" Conason said, referencing Churchill's remarks on Germany in the lead-up to World War II.
"So you're comparing me to Nazis now," Scarborough said sharply. "That's great."
While the author denied comparing Scarborough to a Nazi, Conason clearly accused the conservative ex-congressman of being a hypocrite. "[S]ometimes you like them," he said, referring to the Clintons. "Sometimes you don't like them when it's convenient for you."
He suggested other journalists are likewise guilty. Based on nearly 30 years of experience covering the Clintons, I suspect Conason was channeling their opinion of the media writ large.
It is a pretty unsophisticated view—this notion that journalists can't harbor both positive and negative opinions about a past and potentially future president. It's one in a set of related assumptions shared by a growing number of political figures, both Republican and Democratic: Reporters are useless unless they blindly trust a politician, embrace his or her ideology, and pull punches when producing a positive story—or burying a bad one—serves a "greater good."
Outside of politics, relationships are far less binary. You might praise your daughter in the morning and punish her at night. You might trust a neighbor to water your plants, but not babysit your kids. You love your uncle, the boorish one whose calls you let ring through to voice mail.
Who expects even a spouse to be absolutely and always perfect?
Rich, healthy relationships are complicated. Like mine with the Clintons: If you were to count every election since the mid-1980s, when I moved to Arkansas and started covering them, I probably have voted for Bill Clinton more than almost anybody in Washington. In fairness, I've also voted against him more than most.
The point is, I'm an independent-minded voter who has had the privilege of covering two of the most extraordinary political figures of my lifetime. I know them both personally, and bore witness to their many strengths: chief among them being intelligence, passion, compassion, competence, and a commitment to public service.
You could say Bill Clinton made my career. The Associated Press transferred me to Washington in 1993 for one reason: I knew the Clintons and other Arkansans coming to town. Over the years, they have been gracious toward my family.
Hillary Clinton never failed to inquire about my children by name when I'd see her at the White House, or during the occasional foreign trip, where I would dine privately with her and a small group of reporters. She's a genuinely funny and warm dinner guest.
In 2012, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush separately met with my mildly autistic son for a personal project that led to a magazine article and a book deal. Clinton gave my boy a compilation of letters Teddy Roosevelt wrote to his children, writing inside the cover, "From another fan of Theodore Roosevelt." I love him for that.
But my appreciation of the Clintons' strengths doesn't blind me to their weaknesses, including entitlement, mild paranoia, and an ends-justify-the-means mentality. Nor does my criticism mean that I hate them.
Relationships are more complicated than that, especially for journalists trained to show no fear or favor.
The Clintons don't always seem to think so. Or at least that's the message sent often via allies like Conason: Be at our feet or we'll be at your throat.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.