Bill vs Hillary Clinton

I supported Bill Clinton when he was in office, and I have liked and admired him before and since. I knew that he did some unsavory things -- OK, let's set aside the obvious, and think back to his approval of the execution of the (mentally-damaged) convicted murderer Ricky Ray Rector during the heat of the campaign in 1992. I thought, and think: this is the price leaders pay. The question is whether, on balance, the leader is a force for public good, and I thought he clearly was.

This standard of comparison sticks in my mind during Hillary Clinton's campaign. And I'm not even talking about Bill Clinton's flurry of public involvement around the time of the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Rather I'm thinking: she has done things I don't remember him doing, or that he was smooth enough to do without my noticing it.

As mentioned earlier, I don't recall Bill Clinton knee-capping his Democratic opponents in the 1992 campaign by saying that the Republican opponent, incumbent President George H.W. Bush, was better qualified for office than they were. This of course was Hillary Clinton's charge against Obama a week or so ago.

And I do not recall Bill Clinton saying anything as flatly insulting to the intelligence as Hillary Clinton's statement about the Michigan primary during her interview yesterday with Steve Inskeep on NPR's Morning Edition.

Flatly false from Bill Clinton? Sure: "I did not have..." But flatly insulting to the intelligence, in the fashion of an old press briefing by Scott McClellan when defending Scooter Libby or Alberto Gonzales? No. And that is what Hillary Clinton did yesterday -- to the plain incredulity of the normally calm-sounding Inskeep, who kept asking things like, "But how could the primary have been 'fair' if Barack Obama's name was not on the ballot?"

Listen to the clip to hear for yourself, if you haven't already done so -- but it came down to a "how stupid does she think we are?' argument that it was Obama's own fault that he obeyed the party's rules (as other candidates did) and took his name off the unauthorized Michigan ballot. "We all had a choice as to whether or not to participate," she told Inskeep. "Most people took their names off the ballot, but I didn’t. And that was a wise decision, because Michigan is key to our electoral victory in the fall."

My point is not really the merits of this argument. It is the Clinton-v-Clinton contrast. Am I right in remembering that in his prime, Bill Clinton didn't -- or didn't have to -- do things quite this bluntly and ham-handedly? Are we seeing a demonstration during the campaign of a talent gap in basic political skill between the two members of the household? One reason not to think so is that Bill Clinton is presumably involved in these very strategies, which seem so much clumsier than he was in 1992. Another is that he himself has struck same of the same off-notes this year.

Perhaps it's just Golden Age-ism that makes me think that the old Bill Clinton could always spin the story and make us like it. Perhaps the objective circumstances are different now. But perhaps there is a real and important prose-versus-poetry difference within their household, whose results we're seeing now.

Whatever the reason: I've been away from The Internets for several days, and to emerge and hear Inskeep's clip was startling indeed.