The Art of Politics Without Conscience

Talking About the Clintons


ALAN MAASS: With the Bush presidency being such a disaster in every way, a lot of people now seem to look back at the Clinton years with nostalgia. Do the Clintons deserve this?

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR: I GUESS it depends on what side of those years you were on. If you made a lot of money in the stock market in those days, you might look back on it with nostalgia. For the rest of us, I think you only look back if you're forced to--at the scene of eight years of crime.

The Clinton administration opened the doors for Bush Junior in ways that Junior's father never did. Aside from the obvious Oedipal things going on with Bush Junior, his father hasn't been a big help to him. But Clinton certainly has. When Bush talks about his "other father," people are assuming that he's talking to the supreme deity. But I think that maybe it's Clinton who's on the speed dial.

Because in so many ways, Clinton provided the final transition between decaying old-style liberalism and the new neoliberalism and neoconservatism--which are kind of incestuous first cousins.

That goes for trade policy; for deregulation of major industries, from the utilities to communications companies to the banking industry to the insurance industry; all the way to continuing to wage war on Iraq. All of that is a living artifact of Clinton Time.

It goes for the USA PATRIOT Act. People say they rushed in the Patriot Act--this thousand-page bill that the person who wrote it probably didn't even have a chance to read. Well, the fact is that the Patriot Act had been sitting on the desk at the Department of Justice for the last two years of Clinton Time. They were all ready to update their horrendous and horrifying Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was passed in 1996 after the Oklahoma City bombing.

For a lot of these things, the left has a case of political Alzheimer's disease. That's the most gracious way of putting it--how they could immediately wipe from their minds every betrayal of Clinton Time, and heap all of it on poor Bush.

I look back at the Clinton administration as eight years of a fundamental transformation in the direction of the country--toward favoring big business, and toward almost frontal assaults on the most underprivileged members of the society.

It was much more than cutting the social safety net. Clinton followed that by the abuse of those at the lowest rungs of our society--in ways that I don't think Bush, for all of his manifest faults, has done to the same degree.

For example, blaming the victim. It's almost like a political spelunking or something when you go into Clinton's psyche. This is a guy who always saw himself as a victim, the wounded little boy president.

But at the drop of a hat, he would be the first one to sort of blame the victim--whether it was Ricky Ray Rector, who he executed as a way to boost his poll numbers during the campaign for the Democratic nomination, or the treatment of Lani Guinier, when Clinton nominated her for assistant attorney general for civil rights, and then withdrew her name.

Loyalty, personal or political, has never been a big thing for the Clintons. Jim McDougal, who was once Bill's closest friend, adviser and financier, later said that the Clinton's tore through people's lives like a tornado, leaving behind only wreckage.

The McDougals weren't alone. So many close friends and allies were pitched overboard when they became inconvenient: Lani Gunier, Peter Edelman, Joycelyn Elders. All road kill on the Clintons' path to power. They've perfected the art of politics without conscience.

MAASS: THE BIG slogan of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign was "putting people first," but by that point, both Clintons had already built up an incredible network of big business connections, hadn't they?

St. Clair: BILL IS the master politician. In one way, you can say that he was never really about self-enrichment--he was interested in power and self-aggrandizement. But Hillary was all about self-enrichment. She really did, I think, feel a sense of entitlement--she wanted money, she wanted power, she wanted prestige.

She was one of the bright young figures of the late 1960s and early '70s--a star student, part of the Watergate congressional investigation team. Her star was rising at a very rapid rate. And then, for some reason, she shackles herself to Clinton, and gets dragged off to Arkansas.

I don't think this was really in her game plan. She had started out as the crusader, and I'm sure she thought she would be the lawyer for some public interest group, like the Children's Defense Fund. But that's not the way it worked out.

Go back and look at her career as a lawyer at the Rose Law Firm, which really is like out of a Grisham novel--one of those sleazy southern law firms, and she was up to her eyeballs in it, with a lot of filthy clients. They range from Tyson Foods, to a really disgusting incinerator company Lafarge Coppée, to the Beverly Enterprises nursing home company--where, as a cost-savings measure, they were booting 80-year-old grannies and grandpas onto the street.

She was a corporate lawyer in a part of the country where corporate law wasn't practiced with the same kind of Waspish dispassion that you see in D.C. or New York. The attorneys were expected to get in there and get their hands bloody, and she did. It's the career of a sleazy corporate lawyer.

MAASS: MEANWHILE, BILL was building up his reputation as a business-friendly Democrat.

ST. CLAIR: IT'S ONE of the things that people forget about Clinton. They think that some transformation took place after the Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994.

That totally rewrites Clinton's political history. He was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). He was right there with Joe Lieberman, and philosophically, they've never been more than a micron apart. That's true from his early days as governor, to that interminable address at the Democratic convention in 1988.

For example, the left seems to think that the destruction of welfare was something that was stuffed down Clinton's throat. But this was his idea. It was part of the whole DLC agenda, with a very high place on it--along with being tough on defense, tough on the poor, tough on Blacks.

He learned this lesson early on in his political career. He wanted to be a kind of populist. He had the oratorical gifts of a Huey Long--more so than JFK, as much as he wanted to style his hair like JFK.

But Clinton was also a wimp, and you see that all the way back in his first term as governor starting in 1979.

The largest landowner in the state of Arkansas was Weyerhaeuser--the big timber company, which was cutting through the forests of Arkansas faster than it was cutting through the state of Washington. It would go through these holdings in the Ozarks, with no restrictions--2,000- and 5,000-acre clear-cuts, saturating every acre with pesticide, and then they'd plant a plantation of cloned trees.

This was prompting a kind of hillbilly rebellion. These were favorite deer-hunting areas that were being clear-cut--the mushroom patch was gone, the little pot plantation was gone. You can't fish anymore, because the streams are screwed up.

So Bill was going to place some very timid restrictions on the rampages of Weyerhaeuser, and it was a popular thing to do. Basically, Weyerhaeuser said we're going to bring you down. And they did--he lost his campaign for re-election in 1980. There were a couple of other stumbles, but really, it was Weyerhaeuser who brought him down.

And immediately after he lost, what did Clinton do? He walked right into the office of the vice president of Weyerhaeuser, and he says, "Hey, I'm sorry, what can I do to make amends?"

That's always been his political operating procedure. Clinton made his deals early on with the titans of the state--Weyerhaeuser and Don Tyson at Tyson Foods.

Tyson runs these huge factory chicken-killing operations, and the effluent from these places runs right into the White River and some other major streams in northern Arkansas. So in that first term, Clinton tried to begin to apply the Clean Water Act to some of these operations--and Tyson joined forces with Weyerhaeuser for that second gubernatorial campaign in 1980.

I think Tyson was represented by the Rose Law Firm, and Hillary may have been the one to make the first peace offerings to Don Tyson--one of the most despicable humans ever to stalk the Southland. And Clinton then becomes their boy for the next 10 years when he's re-elected governor.

The other major figure lurking in the background of the Arkansas days is Jackson Stephens. Before the dot-com boom anyway, he was one of the wealthiest Americans, and was hidden away down there in Arkansas. He's like the Warren Buffett of the dog patch--a billionaire, a financial investment titan.

With Clinton's presidential campaign in the 1990s, they spent a lot of their funds early on and needed a huge loan. So who did they go to? Jackson Stephens. He almost single-handedly financed Clinton's campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1992.

So, of course, it comes as no surprise that within six months of being in office, Bill Clinton turns over his economic policies to the bond market--and starts recruiting Robert Rubin and all these other people from Wall Street.

There's a scene in Bob Woodward's book The Agenda where Bill at one point turns to Rubin and says, "You mean to tell me that the success of the program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?" Rubin says yes, and Clinton basically says okay, if that's the way it's got to be. He doesn't even stop to wash his hands of it, say a little prayer, light a candle.

The Clintons are political invertebrates. They really don't have any kind of spine. They're infinitely flexible, because really, it's all about power for them. They're not really rooted in any kind of ideology. In that sense, I don't think the DLC program was necessarily what Clinton really believed in. It's just that he knew this was the path to power.

Hillary is the one you would think would have some kind of political conscience--the good Methodist, the feminist, the crusader against political corruption. But apparently, she doesn't. For her, it's all about entitlement and power.

MAASS: CAN YOU talk about the Clinton administration's disastrous attempt to reform health care, and the role Hillary Rodham Clinton played as the head of the health care task force?

ST. CLAIR: IT FITS into the pattern. What were the mistakes? One, I don't think they really believed in health care reform. Two, I don't think Hillary knew that much about it. And three, they chose from the starting gate a compromise policy.

They should have gone for single-payer health care and fought for it. That's the thing--these people don't have any fight in them, because they don't really have any principles. Did they really think they were going to get this huge health care transformation through a crusty, corrupt Congress in six months or a year?

Then, of course, they surrounded themselves with people like Ira Magaziner, who was in the pocket of the insurance companies.

So it wasn't a health care program that the left should have supported. It was something they should have fought to kill, I think, because it really was--like a lot of the health care reform we're seeing now--a bailout for the insurance companies.

Sharon Smith pointed that out very vividly in her recent article for CounterPunch and Socialist Worker on the Massachusetts plan. Reform has become requiring you to pay for health insurance. The insurance companies get their money. But it doesn't mean that you're going to get treated when you need to be treated, and it doesn't mean that if you are treated, you won't be bankrupt afterward.

This is obviously a huge and involved story. But I think it was one of the things that really helped the right wing back off the mat after losing in 1992--the fact that not only did they draw blood from the Clintons, but they massacred them. The fact that it was so easy surprised them, I think. It empowered the Gingrichian ultras--with how easy it was to intimidate and defeat these people.

MAASS: NOW THAT she's announced her campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Clinton is continually trying to explain her yes vote on the congressional authorization for the Iraq war, while trying to look like an antiwar critic.

ST. CLAIR: REMEMBER WHEN Bush would be asked, "Can you name one mistake that you made as president?" And he wouldn't do it. What has happened to political advisers in this country? All Bush had to do was say, sure, he's made some mistakes, and enumerate them, and say he's learned from them and we're going to change.

But Hillary complains that Bush can't even admit he's made a mistake in Iraq, and then she's asked if she made a mistake in voting not just for the authorizing legislation, but every single appropriation. "Is that a mistake," she's asked. "No," she says, I wouldn't call it a mistake."

In the psychology of these people, it's the same thing. They can't see any imperfections in their reflections.

MAASS: BASED ON the Clinton presidency, do Sen. Clinton or the other mainstream candidates represent a genuine alternative foreign policy?

ST. CLAIR: I THINK that they want a more competent management of the empire. In other words, they're imperialists.

Will they have a different approach? Yes. I think they can go back to finding intermediaries for imperial management, rather than committing U.S. troops--a lot of bombing campaigns, and then have NATO or the UN be the face of imperial management on the ground. That would be the major change, and that's right back to Clinton Time.

And it was very successful for them. What is the percentage of people in this country who understand that Iraq was being starved to death for the eight years of the Clinton presidency, or that it was being bombed once every three days? People don't know. Their war on Serbia was conducted essentially the same way. It was an air war. They weren't going to commit ground troops, even when it might have prevented ethnic slaughters on the ground in Kosovo.

So pull out, and put in UN and NATO troops instead--that's going to be their strategy. Really, in a lot of ways, that was the strategy of the Reagan years, too. You create your contra armies, you fund the mujahadeen, you have them do the dirty work for you, and you try and minimize the blowback.

MAASS: ONE POINT where there isn't even an iota of difference is the Democrats' support of Israel, right?

ST. CLAIR: IS THERE one advocate for the Palestinian people in the U.S. Congress? I can't think of one. Maybe there's a secret advocate--maybe it's Jim Moran or Ron Paul or some other lonely voice out there.

The fact that Hillary is absolutely devoted to the Israeli state is not surprising to me. If you remember, in her first year as a senator, I think she came out and endorsed--at some time in the next thousand years--the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Immediately, the New York Daily News, the New York Sun, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee--they all issued their condemnatory statements. And Hillary's response was: no Palestinian state, that's not what I meant. She learned her lesson, and she will never make that "mistake" again.

That's the state of play in U.S. politics. It's a disgusting state of affairs. That's why of all the potential presidential candidates out there, the only one that is at all attractive to me is Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who was the first elected politician to stand up and say that Israel's invasion of Lebanon was wrong, and they ought to get the hell out. I don't think you heard one Democrat say that.

Is all this because at a basic level, Hillary Clinton doesn't care about the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories? I don't think that's true. Again, I think it's the path to power. She wants to be president, and this is the path to and this is the path to power in the American political system.

Alan Maass is the editor of the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at:

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. (2.21.2007)

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