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The Clinton Question

By Dan Balz
Hillary Clinton hits the campaign trail for Barack Obama on Friday, dutifully playing the role of cheerleader for the presumptive nominee. What role her husband has decided to play is far less obvious. It is not that of cheerleader.

Clinton's outing in Nevada marks her first on behalf of Obama since the two campaigned together in the aptly named hamlet of Unity, N.H., shortly after the primaries ended. The Obama campaign has already announced that she will campaign for him in Florida next week and there is talk that she will undertake another swing just before the Democratic convention opens in Denver.

She is doing this in spite of obvious pain, disappointment and regrets after losing the nomination battle by the narrowest of margins. She is doing it in spite of the fact that the Obama forces have done little to help her retire the enormous debt she piled up during her bid for the nomination -- a fact that deeply rankles Clinton loyalists who believe that the most prodigious money-raiser in the history of the Democratic Party could do at least a little bit more to persuade his supporters to make a small contribution.

Clinton's pledge made during the primaries to do everything she could to elect a Democrat to the presidency in November, regardless of how the nomination battle turned out, holds. There is no sign that she is deliberately trying to make things difficult for Obama and when called upon she has delivered his signature "Yes we can!" exhortation with seemingly genuine enthusiasm.

Still, there are difficult issues yet to be resolved, most obviously how convention week in Denver plays out. Clinton has earned a prominent role at the convention. Just how prominent is still under negotiation. She will have a prime time speaking slot, but the question of whether her name will be put in nomination and whether there will be a roll call of the states -- a time-consuming process that nonetheless would highlight just how close she came to winning and give her delegates a moment to savor -- have been under discussion.

Beyond that, there is the not insignificant question of how much of the oxygen she and her husband may soak up in Denver. With cable channels prepared to mine beyond reason every speck of drama from an event notably short of that commodity, the Clintons are irresistible -- and there are plenty of Clintonistas to help fill the hours before and during the prime-time speeches. One off-message line from one prominent Clinton loyalist will be enough to disrupt what the Obama campaign hopes will be a placid narrative of a party that is unified and enthusiastic about winning back the White House.

Which raises the question of what Bill Clinton may be up to. His first venture back into the public domain should be a warning to the Obama people that if there is a contingent of bitter enders still licking their wounds after the primaries, the former president is at the head of that line.

Certainly he has good reason to feel aggrieved. When he volunteered to ABC's Kate Snow in an interview during his recent Africa trip, "I am not a racist," it was clear that he came out of the primaries wounded, angry and resentful. That may be understandable and he appears anxious to talk more about that at some appropriate time -- well after the election is over.

What he said about Obama, however, was more mystifying. He was asked whether Obama was ready to be president. For a politician who twice won the presidency, that was a slow pitch that should have been hit with ease. Instead, Clinton inexplicably responded with a version of "that depends on what the definition of 'is' is."

"You can argue that nobody is ready to be president," he said. "You can argue that, even if you've been vice president for eight years, that no one can be fully ready for the pressures of the office."

You can argue a lot of things, or discuss or debate them into the wee hours of the night, but a brief television interview is not the time or place to do so. When he was asked as a follow up, well, whether Obama was qualified, he went off track again. The Constitution, he said, determines qualifications. Then it's up to the voters. "I think we have two choices," he said. "I think he should win and I think he will win."

Nothing in that answer offered the least bit of praise for Obama. To say "I think he should win" might be nothing more than a cold-blooded analysis that, in a year when President Bush's approval ratings are hovering around 30 percent and the Republican Party's image is badly tarnished, any Democratic nominee should be able to prevail. It was a clinical answer, not the kind of embrace one should expect a former president to give a potential successor.

The Post's Anne Kornblut, who traveled to Africa with the former president, asked him during a lengthy interview whether he thought Obama could win. He said he did, but the reasons he offered had little to do with Obama. He mentioned nothing unique about Obama's message, style, biography, campaign team or anything of the sort. The key line was as follows:

"I think that the fundamental circumstances at home and abroad [that] work in his favor would work in any Democrat's favor," he said. "And I also think the demographics of the country have been moving steadily, after moving away from us from 1968 to about 1996, they've been moving back toward us for more than a decade now."

After much analysis, he added, "Plus he's smart, he's a good politician." But he quickly added, "Now McCain is a very formidable man..."

All of his analysis is dead on, reminding people that Clinton remains a premier political strategist in his own party. But that is not the role he is being asked to play right now. Perhaps it is an impossible role -- that of loyal spouse to a losing candidate who must suddenly shift allegiance, as well as that ex-president who is seeing his party taken over by a young and talented politician (as he was 16 years ago when he won the presidency) and who must be as gracious as possible.

Whatever Obama supporters may think of the Clintons, the two still represent a powerful force within the Democratic coalition -- and will almost regardless of the outcome of the election in November. They are both adjusting to new circumstances after one of the biggest disappointments of their lives. Hillary, whatever pain she still feels, has decided to soldier on. Her husband has not quite decided what to do.

By Post Editor  |  August 7, 2008; 12:09 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , B_Blog , Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take , Hillary Rodham Clinton  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: McCain Takes Merger Issue Head On
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At this point, I'm in the 'anyone but Obama' camp, as a lifelong democract. I'll vote the democratic ticket for every position except president. Obama's inexperience was certainly highlighted by the Russian attack (provoked) on Georgia. A very-near NATO member and our military ally.
Obama's money hasn't bought him higher ratings in national polls, even with the annointing by the national press and media...instead, McCain is going up. And Hillary supporters are further...unimpressed.
So, thanks all the Obama supporters and Clinton haters. You bought....air.

Posted by: freelisa | August 12, 2008 2:06 PM | Report abuse

"What he said about Obama, however, was ore mystifying"- for anyone who has taken the tiniest peak at Obama's record, I would not characterize his statement as mystifying. Are you implying that Bill Clinton is stupid or that he is clever?

"...pitch that should have been hit with ease." Should is always in the eye of the beholder. Are you beholding from the viewpoint of a political journalist, free of bias or are you beholding from the viewpoint that Obama makes a great "story"?

"Yu can argue a lot of things,... he was asked as a follow up, well, whether Obama was qualified, he went off track again." Whose track, your track?, the media that loathes to look at Obama's warts' track?

"It was a clinical answer, not the kind of embrace one should expect a former president to give a potential successor." There is that "should" again. I could say, Dan Balz should stop using the word "should"; it is irrelevant and not factual.

"He mentioned nothing unique about Obama's message, style, biography, campaign team or anything of the sort." This view is shared by about 10 million voters who cast ballots for Hillary.

Dan Balz, what on earth are you trying to say? One cannot figure in out by reading what you have written. You need to indentify your preferences regardless of whether you are writing as a journalist or as an analysist.

There goes watching you on Washington Week and believing in your commentary. Credibility is showing.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 12, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

The aggrieved Obama supporters and the mischief-making media during the primaries were indeed harsh on Bill Clinton. Part of it was they didn't want him to campaign for Hillary, because whether you like him or not, he is an asset to to any campaign he supports, and he was not supporting their candidate. These people were quick to take offence and interpreted his remarks as racist, which is still grating with him, now, months after the end of the primaries. The black politicians who were Clinton supporters, and who were their friends for years, and who mutually respected each other, deserted their friend when they found one they wanted to promote more readily. One can understand and rationalize some of this, except that the criticism against the Clintons was over the top and it was not entirely fair. Their desertion of the "first black" president was swift and ungracious, and the media fed on it.

It is no wonder that Obama does not impress Bill Clinton as a phenomenal candidate for the presidency; he did nothing to stop the disrespect and bad feelings generated by his supporters despite touting policies of change and unity. Maybe the feelings are mutual - Obama did not cite Clinton policies in his stump speeches; he lauded Reagan, if I recall, as the transformative president. Only after the primaries did he mention Bill Clinton by name. So - all's pretty even in the hurt-feelings department, I think. Also, did you think that Bill Clinton, a two term president, in an interview when asked about Obama and his opinion of him, would come out with platitudes and give a rah-rah-sound-bite opinion? I think not -no matter how devoted a Democrat he is. He is still one of the best politicians we have, and people shouldn't forget it.

Posted by: jblee | August 12, 2008 2:14 AM | Report abuse

You know, I don't really care if the Clintons are having trouble accepting her loss in the primary. It's not their party anymore and they need to toe the line or move on.

I think Barack Obama has gone out of his way to accomodate their neverending list of needs and desires. He has been gracious and helpful to both of them.

Sure, she's doing what she needs to do, however lackluster her support. Her husband is still in a snit, but who cares?

I have never seen a loser treated with such kid gloves. It is pathetic that they have such a need for the spotlight.

Posted by: Susan | August 11, 2008 9:49 PM | Report abuse

I thought that HUSSEIN was Obama's middle name?

Posted by: JakeD | August 11, 2008 7:21 PM | Report abuse


Puerile is Obama's middle name, really. And here we have his like supporters thinking they can win without Clinton votes. Yet no Clinton supporter I know is voting for Obama. Interesting. Do you actually think Republicans are going to vote for this guy? They are not. So pucker up like good little boys and girls and start kissing.

Posted by: Chicago1 | August 11, 2008 5:38 PM | Report abuse

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Iran/*contra*: 20 Years Later and What It Means

It's the 20th anniversary of the Iran-contra scandal. Two decades ago, the
public learned about the bizarre, Byzantine and (arguably) unconstitutional
actions of high officials in the post-Watergate years. But many Americans
did not absorb the key lesson: the Iran/*contra* vets were not to be
trusted.

Consequently, most of those officials went on to prosperous careers, with some even becoming part of the squad that has landed the United States in the current PLANNED INVASION and OIL THEFT in IRAQ and DRUG DEALs in AFGHANISTAN....aka the providers of the world's HEROIN....Root Brown Kellog, KBR, Halliburton, Carlyle Group.

Before tying the then to the now, let's revisit the basic narrative. When
Congress, by fair vote, decided in the 1980s that the United States should
not assist the *contras* fighting the socialist Sandinista government of
Nicaragua, the Reagan White House concocted several imaginative ways to pull
an end-run around democracy. This mainly entailed outsourcing the job to a
small band of private sector covert operators and to foreign governments,
which were privately requested or pressured by the Reaganites to support the
secret *contra* support operation. The "Iran" side of the scandal came from
President Ronald Reagan's covert efforts to sell weapons to Iran to obtain
the release of American hostages held by terrorist groups supposedly under
the control of Tehran--at a time when the White House was publicly declaring
it would not negotiate with terrorists. The two clandestine projects merged
when cash generated from the weapons transactions with Iran was diverted to
the *contra* operation.

Conservatives for years--make that decades--have argued there was nothing *
really* criminal about the Iran/*contra* affair and that it was merely a *
political* dispute between the pro-*contras* Republicans in the White House
and the Democrats controlling Congress. Yet at the time the architects of
these schemes worried they were breaking laws and placing Reagan in jeopardy
of being impeached. Look at how the National Security Archive, a nonprofit
outfit that gathers national security records,
summarizesa
memo documenting a key White House meeting on the clandestine
*contras* program:

*At a pivotal meeting of the highest officials in the Reagan Administration
[on June 25, 1984], the President and Vice President [George H.W. Bush] and
their top aides discuss how to sustain the Contra war in the face of
mounting Congressional opposition. The discussion focuses on asking third
countries to fund and maintain the effort, circumventing Congressional power
to curtail the CIA's paramilitary operations. In a remarkable passage,
Secretary of State George P. Shultz warns the president that White House
adviser James Baker has said that "if we go out and try to get money from
third countries, it is an impeachable offense." But Vice President George
Bush argues the contrary: "How can anyone object to the US encouraging third
parties to provide help to the anti-Sandinistas…? The only problem that
might come up is if the United States were to promise to give these third
parties something in return so that some people could interpret this as some
kind of exchange." Later, Bush participated in arranging a quid pro quo deal
with Honduras in which the U.S. did provide substantial overt and covert aid
to the Honduran military in return for Honduran support of the Contra war
effort.*

The Iran arms-for-hostage-deal was also illegal--or so Defense Secretary
Caspar Weinberger thought. At a December 7, 1985 White House meeting,
Weinberger argued the Iran missile deal was wrong and criminal, according to
his
notesof
the session. Weinberger pointed out to Reagan that selling missiles to
Iran would violate a U.S. embargo on arms sales to Iran and that even the
president of the United States could not break this law. Nor, Weinberger
added, would it be legal to use Israel as a cutout, as was under
consideration. Both Secretary of State George Shultz and White House chief
of staff Donald Regan, who were each present, agreed that a secret weapons
deal with Iran would be against the law. Reagan, though, insisted on
proceeding, noting he could answer a charge of illegality but not the charge
that he had "passed up a chance to free hostages." Weinberger then quipped,
"Visiting hours are Thursdays"--meaning the deal could land someone in jail.
After the meeting, Regan told Weinberger he would try to talk Reagan out of
the deal. He failed to do so.

Soon both the clandestine *contras* program and the secret Iran deal were
underway, with the relevant agencies--most notably, the CIA, the Pentagon
and the State Department--providing back-up and National Security Council
officers Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter and Oliver North overseeing
operations. In supporting the *contras* project, the CIA worked with
individuals it suspected of being involved in drug-dealing, according to a
subsequent CIA inspector general's investigation.

The skullduggery began to unravel in the fall of 1986. On October 5, 1986, a
C-123 aircraft ferrying supplies to the *contras* was shot down by the
Sandinistas, and an American named Eugene Hasenfus was captured. He told the
Nicaraguans that his flight was part of a CIA-approved operation. Days
later, Reagan said of the Hasenfus operation, "There was no government
connection with that at all." He was not telling the truth. Shortly after
that, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams testified in Congress that
the administration had arranged for no foreign donations--"not a dime"--to
the *contras*--even though he had arranged for a $10 million contribution to
the rebels from the Sultan of Brunei.

On November 3, 1986, a Lebanese weekly revealed that the previous May
National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane had secretly flown to Tehran.
McFarlane's covert mission had been part of the arms-for-hostages
deal--which now stood exposed. On November 25, Attorney General Edwin Meese
held a press conference and disclosed that funds from the arms sales to Iran
had been diverted to the *contras* support program. (I happened to be
watching that press conference with Abbie Hoffman, the former Yippie, who
exclaimed, "I couldn't make this stuff up.")

A full-scale scandal was born. Investigations were convened. The Reagan
presidency was hobbled. But impeachment never became an issue--in part
because Democratic congressional investigators removed it from the table at
the start of their inquiries. White House partisans threw up a defense of
spin and obfuscation that turned the affair into a political muddle. (That
is, mission accomplished.) Oliver North became a hero to conservatives. Bush
the Elder, who lied about his involvement in Iran/*contra* (saying he had
been "out of the loop," though noting in a private diary that he had been
one of the few officials in-the-know), was elected president in 1988.

The investigations continued. Abrams, McFarlane (who botched a suicide
attempt), and a CIA officer named Alan Fiers pleaded guilty to withholding
information from Congress. Two other CIA officers--Clair George and Duane
Clarridge--were indicted on perjury-related charges. Former General Richard
Secord and Albert Hakim, who managed the secret *contra* supply operation,
pleaded guilty to minor charges. North and Poindexter were convicted of
various counts, but their convictions were overturned on legal
technicalities. Weinberger was indicted for illegally withholding his notes
from special counsel Lawrence Walsh.

The affair came to an ignominious finale on Christmas Eve, 1992. George H.W.
Bush, who had been defeated by Bill Clinton seven weeks earlier, issued
pardons for Weinberger, Abrams, McFarlane, Clarridge, George and Fiers. Only
Thomas Cline, a former CIA officer and partner of Secord and Hakim, who was
found guilty of tax charges, ended up going to jail due to the
Iran/*contra*scandal.

But history never ends. Twenty years later, Abrams is deputy national
security adviser for global democracy in the George W. Bush administration.
A fellow who admitted that he had not told Congress the truth and who had
abetted a secret war mounted by a rebel force with an atrocious human rights
record now is supposed to promote democracy abroad. Other
Iran/*contra*figures are leading players today. Here's a partial list
from the National
Security Archive:

** Richard Cheney - now the vice president, he played a prominent part as a
member of the joint congressional Iran-Contra inquiry of 1986, taking the
position that Congress deserved major blame for asserting itself
unjustifiably onto presidential turf. He later pointed to the committees'
Minority Report as an important statement on the proper roles of the
Executive and Legislative branches of government. *

** David Addington - now Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, and by
numerous press accounts a stanch advocate of expanded presidential power,
Addington was a congressional staffer during the joint select committee
hearings in 1986 who worked closely with Cheney. *

** John Bolton - the controversial U.N. ambassador whose recess appointment
by President Bush is now in jeopardy was a senior Justice Department
official who participated in meetings with Attorney General Edwin Meese on
how to handle the burgeoning Iran-Contra political and legal scandal in late
November 1986. There is little indication of his precise role at the time. *

** Robert M. Gates - President Bush's nominee to succeed Donald Rumsfeld,
Gates nearly saw his career go up in flames over charges that he knew more
about Iran-Contra while it was underway than he admitted once the scandal
broke. He was forced to give up his bid to head the CIA in early 1987
because of suspicions about his role but managed to attain the position when
he was re-nominated in 1991. *

** Manuchehr Ghorbanifar - the quintessential middleman, who helped broker
the arms deals involving the United States, Israel and Iran ostensibly to
bring about the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon,
Ghorbanifar was almost universally discredited for misrepresenting all
sides' goals and interests. Even before the Iran deals got underway, the CIA
had ruled Ghorbanifar off-limits for purveying bad information to U.S.
intelligence. Yet, in 2006 his name has resurfaced as an important source
for the Pentagon on current Iranian affairs, again over CIA objections. *

** Michael Ledeen - a neo-conservative who is vocal on the subject of regime
change in Iran, Ledeen helped bring together the main players in what
developed into the Iran arms-for-hostages deals in 1985 before being
relegated to a bit part. He reportedly reprised his role shortly after 9/11,
introducing Ghorbanifar to Pentagon officials interested in exploring
contacts inside Iran. *

** Edwin Meese - currently a member of the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group
headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, he was Ronald Reagan's controversial
attorney general who spearheaded an internal administration probe into the
Iran-Contra connection in November 1986 that was widely criticized as a
political exercise in protecting the president rather than a genuine inquiry
by the nation's top law enforcement officer. *

** John Negroponte - the career diplomat who worked quietly to boost the U.S.
military and intelligence presence in Central America as ambassador to
Honduras, he also participated in efforts to get the Honduran government to
support the Contras after Congress banned direct U.S. aid to the rebels.
Negroponte's profile has risen spectacularly with his appointments as
ambassador to Iraq in 2004 and director of national intelligence in 2005.*

Another Iran/*contra* veteran has dramatically returned to the scene
recently: Daniel Ortega. On November 7, as the Bush White House prepared
itself for congressional elections that would be widely seen as a
repudiation of its war in Iraq, the morning newspapers carried the news that
Ortega, the Sandinista leader whom the Reagan administration had targeted,
had won a presidential election in Nicaragua. The old *contras* backers now
running the Bush administration had to watch their old nemesis (not that
Ortega was ever much of a threat) regain power, as their hold on power was
slipping. The arc of history is indeed long.

As for the current relevance of Iran/*contra*, one could argue that the
affair taught Reaganites and neocons a lesson, the wrong lesson: you can get
away with it. Though the operations ended up being exposed and the Iran deal
crashed and burned, the Reagan administration and the first Bush
administration did create enough pressure on Nicaragua and forced the
expulsion of the Sandinista government in a 1990 election. Perhaps more
important for this crowd, no one involved in the shady activity was held
accountable. Bush the First was elected. Abrams and other scandal vets were
rewarded with prominent posts in the next Republican administration--that of
Bush the Younger. The Reaganites had lied to Congress and the public about
Iran/*contra* and ultimately escaped retribution.

This sordid episode hardly served as a warning--either for the
Iran/*contra*alumni who would lead the United States into the debacle
in Iraq or for
voters who would support an administration staffed with people who twenty
years earlier had made their bones in a scandal involving war and truth. One
can hope, though, that the disingenuous, reality-defying engineers of the
current disaster will be too old or too discredited to return to power two
decades from now.

******

*DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE
SELLING OF THE IRAQ
WAR the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff.

*The New York Times* calls *Hubris* "the most comprehensive account of the
White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." *The
Washington Post* says, "There have been many books about the Iraq
war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the
multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes *Hubris* "is
a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of
the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg,
senior editor of *The New Yorker* notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle
is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last
half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the truth out
of it." For highlights from *Hubris*,

Posted by: the gipper.... | August 7, 2008 5:34 PM | Report abuse

The fact is, regardless of the recent loss and any hurt feelings about it, the Clintons are political power-houses within the Democratic party. Obama is still an inexperienced newcomer, and needs all the support he can get. Polls are currently showing a close race between he and Mccain. If even a moderate percentage of Hillary's supporters chose to either write her name in on the ballot or vote Mccain, Obama cannot possibly win. If he's as great as everybody seems to believe, he would recognize this. As for his supporters that don't see this potential outcome; If you are that close minded to reality, then what makes you think you made the best decision in the primaries?

Posted by: Phil | August 7, 2008 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Ask any Obama true believer. Clintons are baggage and totally useless. Obama has no need for them.

So what's the complaint?

Posted by: Zev | August 7, 2008 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I am of the opinion that the Clintons cannot accept the realization that she lost the primary. Their behaviour reinforces my satisfaction that she lost.

It is highly probable that Senator Obama can win without their help. I hope he stands his ground and concedes nothing to them.

Yes, they are puerile and immature; dangerous perhaps.

Posted by: Les S. Thompson | August 7, 2008 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I've supported Obama's candidacy for well-over a year now, but I think the media is being too hard and critical of Bill Clinton's remarks to Kate Snow.

He was asked a softball question, "Is Obama ready," and actually gave a meaningful insightful answer that only a handful of people in the world are qualified to give. Maybe he would have given a more resounding endorsement if the question was about Hillary, but I don't think it's a mistake to read too much into this behavior when all he really did was give an honest answer.

Posted by: brian spak | August 7, 2008 3:31 PM | Report abuse

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