Return of the self-pitying Clintons

The Clintons in 2011: Are we ready for the drama that inevitably surrounds them?
The Clintons in 2011: Are we ready for the drama that inevitably surrounds them? AP

A few weeks after being impeached, President Bill Clinton was asked why people had treated him the way they had. He answered with a joke about a man who fell from the Grand Canyon, broke his fall by catching a twig, and then found the twig coming loose. “And he looks up in the sky, and he says: ‘Lord, why me? Why me? I pay my taxes. I go to work every day. Why me?' And this thunderous voice says, ‘Son, there’s just something about you I don’t like.’ ”

It’s funny, sure, but there’s a note of self-pity in it, of unjust persecution. Impeachment trials and scandalous tribulations keep afflicting the hapless Clintons. And they never take responsibility for any of it.

That’s still the way the Clintons, and the people around them, seem to think. Speaking to Andrea Mitchell last week, longtime Clinton adviser James Carville tried to minimize this month’s story about Hillary Clinton’s attempts to hide her State Department email records. “Do you remember Whitewater?” he asked. “Do you remember filegate? Do you remember travelgate? Do you remember pardongate? Do you remember Benghazi? All of this is just the same cockamamie stuff that we go through.”

He added: “This is never going to end. We’ve lived with this for 20 years, we'll live with this through the rest of the campaign. This is all about nothing.”

So the Clinton camp’s theory is that phony scandals keep arising because their enemies keep making them up, and a media that is biased against the family keeps giving them credence. (Carville complained to Mitchell that the New York Times had published “right-wing talking points” in its reporting on the e-mail story.) The gaping hole in this theory is that it can’t explain why the media has this supposed bias, and why right-wingers haven’t been able to invent comparable scandals about other Democrats if it’s so easy to do.

A better explanation for the profusion of scandals is that the Clintons frequently engage in unethical behavior, and that this pattern stimulates both true and false accusations. Democrats who were not adults in the 1990s have spent the past week learning what it’s like to have the Clintons at the head of their party. It means constantly having to defend questionable behavior.

Is that the way they want to spend the next two to 10 years? Hillary Clinton is in a strong position to win the Democratic nomination. But the email controversy, and Clinton’s stonewalling in response to it, has to be causing some qualms. How badly do Democrats need her? Most of them think that demographic trends will favor them in elections to come. Wouldn’t those trends favor them still if Martin O'Malley or Andrew Cuomo or Elizabeth Warren were their nominee?

Nostalgia for the 1990s is supposed to work in Hillary Clinton’s favor. The attraction of a Clinton restoration is the family’s association with peace and prosperity. But putting Clinton in office won’t necessarily bring back peace and prosperity. It will bring back the Clintons, and their ethics, their retinue, and their collective self-pity.

Americans may decide that they’re not quite so nostalgic about that. They may decide, in fact, that there’s something about the Clintons they just don’t like.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.