Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

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

By Washington Post editors  |  October 30, 2007; 9:59 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The Colbert Clan: 1.2 Million Strong and Counting
Next: Questioning Where Criticism Fits in the 'Politics of Hope'

No comments have been posted to this entry.

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company