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Morning Cheat Sheet

What Ford's Thoughts on One Clinton's Past Say About Another Clinton's Future

Ford and Clinton at a 1997 summit. (AP).

Gerald Ford will not be a panelist at tonight's Democratic presidential debate so it's a fair bet that no one will ask whether Bill Clinton is a sex addict and whether it really matters as his wife runs to win back the White House. But it's also a fair bet that voters so far know more about Bill Clinton's sex life than Hillary Rodham Clinton's plan for Social Security -- especially since she isn't telling what her plan is.

So here again is the conundrum with this most unusual of presidential candidates. She is the current odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee, if not the next president of the United States, both because of and in spite of her unfaithful husband. And as demonstrated once again by a new book detailing Ford's from-the-grave assessment, Bill Clinton's history of extracurricular activity may never be completely removed from the national dialogue, no matter how much everyone may want it to be.

Ford gave his thoughts about Clinton over the years to Tom DeFrank, a veteran Washington reporter who covered the Michigan Republican since before he became president and agreed to keep a series of post-White House interviews secret until after Ford's death. In "Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford," the 38th president proved a tough judge of the 42nd president's behavior. "He's sick," Ford told DeFrank in 1999, the year the Senate acquitted Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice in an impeachment trial stemming from his affair with Monica Lewinsky. "He's got an addiction. He needs treatment." Ford said Clinton had "damaged his presidency beyond repair."

DeFrank, now the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, which reported on his book on Sunday, knew Ford perhaps as well as any other reporter, which may explain why the former president opened up as much as he did. He told DeFrank that Clinton was brazen in his attentions to other women even when the then-president visited the Fords at their Colorado home in 1993. "I'll tell you one thing: He didn't miss one good-looking skirt at any of the social occasions," Ford told DeFrank. "He's got a wandering eye, I'll tell you that. Betty had the same impression. He isn't very subtle about his interest."

Ford described talking with Clinton during the impeachment debate and pressing him to admit that he lied to federal investigators and accept censure.

"Bill," Ford recalled saying, "I think you have to admit that you lied. If you do that, I think that will help -- and I'll help you. If you'll admit to perjury, I'll do more."

"I won't do that," Clinton replied. "I can't do that."

As for Hillary Clinton, Ford saw her as the driving force in their marriage. "She's stronger and tougher than he is," Ford said. "When she takes a point, you're gonna have to be damn sure you're well informed because she won't compromise as quickly or as easily as he. She's very bright. She's strong, and I think he defers to her. When she gets her dander up, she ain't gonna roll over." By 2002, Ford was predicting that Hillary Clinton would be on the ticket in 2004 or 2008 but would lose the general election because the country is not yet "ready for a lady president."

Maybe, maybe not. That doesn't look to be as much of an impediment today as it may have been even six years ago, at least according to polling and fundraising numbers. Hillary Clinton has shown that she is stronger and tougher than many other politicians as she has built the best-financed and most successful campaign on either side of the aisle to date. Perhaps her most extraordinary achievement so far has been to largely silence the negative questions about her husband and accentuate him as a positive asset -- redefining him from a disgraced, impeached philanderer who pardoned his brother, his cronies and Marc Rich on the way out the door into the statesmanlike eminence grise of the Democratic Party who presided over times of peace and prosperity and is now ready to pass the torch to his wife. She has been helped in that regard by President Bush, whose tumultuous and controversial tenure has fostered nostalgia for the Clinton years.

But even without the contrast, Bill Clinton remains one of the most fascinating and complex figures in American politics, popular in the polls yet seemingly insecure about his place in history. As The Trail's own Anne Kornblut reports in this morning's Washington Post, he seems to be using this campaign in part to burnish his own standing, talking as much if not more about himself than his wife, the candidate. A victory by Hillary Clinton, of course, offers the prospect of vindication of sorts for Bill Clinton, as well as a return ticket to the third floor of the executive mansion. On the other hand, it also means he would no longer be the most important member of his family, certainly an adjustment for a man accustomed to the center of the action.

So far, even as Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and other opponents vow to get tough with Hillary Clinton, they mean that they plan to attack her positions on Iran, Iraq, lobbying and so on. The Clinton campaign tries to dismiss such broadsides as "personal attacks," when of course the New York senator knows what a real personal attack looks like. The closest her Democratic opponents come is questioning whether she has been part of the problem, meaning the polarization in Washington that seemed to grow during her husband's presidency.

Jack Shafer explored the darker side in a pair of recent columns on Slate, the online magazine owned by The Washington Post Co. The first recalled Bill Clinton's White House "propaganda machine," citing in particular the 1998 book by our own Howard Kurtz, "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine." The second linked that to Hillary Clinton's modern-day campaign, as described in Kurtz's newest book, "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War." Shafer cites the Hillary Clinton campaign's attempt to dictate ground rules to network television anchors for interviews with the candidate and how they rebelled; Shafer called it the latest example of "the couple's devious ways with the press."

While Shafer takes on Bill, The New Republic took a shot at the other Clinton, Chelsea, showing that even the once-inviolable member of the family is no longer off limits. T.A. Frank unfavorably compared the former first daughter to successor Jenna Bush. While the daughter of possibly two presidents who preach public service has spent her post-White House days working in management and investment firms, attending Versace shows and hanging out with celebrity friends on Martha's Vineyard, Frank wrote, the former party girl from Texas at least has sought to give back by teaching at an inner-city public school, working for UNICEF and writing a socially conscious book about a Central American teenage mother living with HIV. "If it's all a calculated effort to re-tune the Jenna product, it has worked on me," Frank wrote. "In fact, the closer I look, the more I like Jenna. And, I regret to say, the less I like Chelsea."

Family helps define everyone and perhaps no family has suffered in the klieg lights as much as the Clintons. It was that very human sympathy for a woman wronged that helped propel Hillary Clinton to the Senate in 2000 in the first place, with Chelsea serving as human bridge between estranged parents. Ever since, though, it is as if the episode has been wiped from history. Democrats have been leery to discuss the Bill Factor too explicitly. But in the age of Swift Boat ads, it seems hard to imagine that everyone will exercise the same restraint. And the Ford book shows how easily it gets back into the mix, as network television followed its revelations with interviews with sex therapists about whether the former president might really be a sex addict.

The Clinton camp argues that Americans long ago tired of scandal, made their judgments about the goings-on at the White House and moved on, and polling seems to back that up. Whatever misgivings voters had with the Clinton administration, her advisers say, have been overshadowed by the far more compelling issues of war, terrorism, torture and civil liberties that have defined the Bush age. Moreover, they say, she should not be judged by her husband's indiscretions. And of course, a matchup with the thrice-married former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani means a glass-house general election when no one will want to throw stones anyway.

They may be right. So far, Hillary Clinton has controlled the Democratic race more than anyone expected. But she cannot control the discussion completely, not even the judgments of a dead-and-buried president.

-- Peter Baker

Posted at 9:59 AM ET on Oct 30, 2007  | Category:  Morning Cheat Sheet
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"Clinton would be on the ticket in 2004 or 2008 but would lose the general election because the country is not yet "ready for a lady president."
These predictions were in 2002,
I am an Indian,and in sates for last ten years, Once I lost and ask the direction in a parking lot futunatley it was a lady and she was really very happy to tell me the directions. In a family gathering I told the incident and told them that if it is in India a lady won't be ready to talk.
My nice told me that she was happy because American men never ask directions. Then I relise why the American men are so directionless.
Wake up Americans (ofcourse men) respect the lady, there is no harm in following the lady directions.
We have a soild example the person who follow his wife adivce is our president now. Otherwise he would have ben in a rehab.

Posted by: sudhirprannath | October 31, 2007 5:23 PM

All this in "The Morning Cheat Sheet." Very funny.

Posted by: h-thomson | October 31, 2007 3:58 PM

America is being given a golden opportunity start new; no incumbent; plenty of highly charged issues.

The democrats favor another Clinton with enough garbage to put Kennedy+Bush to shame, or an up-and-comer with too little real experience.

The republicans can't find their way amongst a slew of candidates.

Americans have GOT to do better than this.

Posted by: AWWNats | October 31, 2007 3:25 PM

I voted for Bill Clinton, twice, but will not be voting for his wife. All I wish is that all three Clintons would simply go away.

Posted by: mhr614 | October 30, 2007 7:41 PM

It's just the start of the sleaze that will be brought out of the closet. Mrs. Clinton's +45% of the Democrats will melt away. Once voters are reminded of the stinky stuff they will want to move on.

Posted by: Big_Blue | October 30, 2007 7:18 PM

I forgot....daddy found chelsea a job...
the press never bothered to show pictures
of all the week-ends she was carried out of
night clubs in London thrown in back seat
of car passed out...Hilary went over trying
to get her to stop boozing...Enquirer did
show some of them....all the papers in
London carried those picture's.

Posted by: jlb32004 | October 30, 2007 5:20 PM

We are waiting for receipts....showing they
returned the furniture they stole from the
white house....also, receipts the idiot
brothers of both Imelda & Ferdnand Clinton
paid back the money they were pd for pardons they delivered via the impeached
president...we also want to see receipts
that bill the philanderer has reimbursed
the secret service for cost of agents
sitting all night in driveway of the women
he sleep with in chapqua...american
taxpayers do not pay fof secret service
for these pay your way
for security when it is for one night

Posted by: jlb32004 | October 30, 2007 5:16 PM

Let me echo some of the points others have made and add one more of my own. The press is enjoying the commentary from a mediocre, unelected coward who was irrelevant in national politics for decades. Mr. Ford will forever be remembered as the unelected President who shamefully pardoned a criminal, who suppressed the constitutional catharsis that the American people demanded and deserved. Revisionists may glorify Mr. Ford as a statesman who healed the country, but his shared confidences about other leaders, now that he's not here to stand up for his own words make them just so much political chatter. And Mr. Baker,your barely masked pleasure in getting to rehash the "Clinton problem" in this new context is shameful.

Posted by: rdklingus | October 30, 2007 5:12 PM

It's becoming a joke that the media has already put Hillary in the White House. People are sick of the Clintons, and, they are sick of the Bushes, let's get somebody new in the White House.

Posted by: tcdif | October 30, 2007 4:51 PM

Peter Baker, who I much admire, said this: "Bill Clinton's history of extracurricular activity may never be completely removed from the national dialogue, no matter how much everyone may want it to be."

If the author had made the choice not to quote a dead guy to whom we can't ask any follow-up questions, everyone except Clinton Haters might have gotten their wish, that Bill Clinton's history of extracurricular activity be removed from the national dialogue.

And why does the msm pick out this ONE section of the entire book to highlight?

Posted by: freespeak | October 30, 2007 4:29 PM

This article provides an excellent summary of why it is best for the country to "turn the page" to a new era and move on. Say "no" to the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton dynasties.

Posted by: cpaustin408 | October 30, 2007 3:02 PM

I am disappointed the Sen. Clinton is almost being anointed as the next president.

I read an insightful commentary that perhaps any of her opponents in the primary should read.

Posted by: miauno1 | October 30, 2007 1:20 PM

I'm glad we've established Mr Baker operates under the "Clinton Rules" which postulate you may type up any allegation or charge, no matter how unsupported or far-fetched, as long as it is about the Clintons. Now we know Mr Baker couldn't give a crap about you and me and plans to join the upcoming pile-on of Sen Clinton. Sad, really, but good to know.

Posted by: zukermand | October 30, 2007 12:36 PM

I question how much stock to put in the opinions of a man who did not have the courage to make them publicly known while he was still alive.

Posted by: onwaj6 | October 30, 2007 11:53 AM

Bravo to those in the media with the guts to bring more attention to the sordid (not so) underground life of the Clintons.

Ethics matters in 2008. Bill and (by extension) Hillary are vulnerable to reports of their ample personal shortcomings.

The democrats must rally around a candidate who can offer a clear alternative to the Bush and Clinton clans- Americans are weary of ethically compromised leadership

Posted by: kolp999 | October 30, 2007 11:23 AM

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