When Bill Clinton smacked down Chris Wallace on ‘Fox news Sunday’ last weekend it was a long time coming, and as E.J., Dionne says in today’s WaPo, his smack down has “political implications that go beyond this fall’s elections.” The implications go back in time and also create an atmosphere long overdue of standing up and decrying the lies.
By choosing to intervene in the terror debate in a way that no one could miss, Clinton forced an argument about the past that had up to now been largely a one-sided propaganda war waged by the right. The conservative movement understands the political value of controlling the interpretation of history. Now its control is finally being contested.
How long have Clinton’s resentments been simmering? We remember the period immediately after Sept. 11 as a time when partisanship melted away. That is largely true, especially because Democrats rallied behind President Bush. For months after the attacks, Democrats did not raise questions about why they had happened on Bush’s watch.
But not everyone was nonpartisan. On Oct. 4, 2001, a mere three weeks and a couple of days after the twin towers fell and the Pentagon was hit, there was Rush Limbaugh arguing on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page: “If we’re serious about avoiding past mistakes and improving national security, we can’t duck some serious questions about Mr. Clinton’s presidency.”
To this day I remain astonished at Limbaugh’s gall — and at his shrewdness. Republicans were arguing simultaneously that it was treasonous finger-pointing to question what Bush did or failed to do to prevent the attacks, but patriotic to go after Clinton. Thus did they build up a mythology that cast Bush as the tough hero in confronting the terrorist threat and Clinton as the shirker. Bad history. Smart politics.
Dionne’s assessment is telling of how “sober, moderate opinion was largely silent as the right wing slashed and distorted Clinton’s record on terrorism.”
It largely stood by as the Bush administration tried to intimidate its own critics into silence. As a result, the day-to-day political conversation was tilted toward a distorted view of the past. All the sins of omission and commission were piled onto Clinton while Bush was cast as the nation’s angelic avenger. And as conservatives understand, our view of the past greatly influences what we do in the present.
A genuinely sober and moderate view would recognize that it’s time the scales of history were righted. Propagandistic accounts need to be challenged, systematically and consistently. The debate needed a very hard shove. Clinton delivered it.