CLINTON HATRED vs. BUSH HATRED….On March 5, 1997, long before Monica Lewinsky became a household name, I wrote the following on my original blog:
While we’re on the subject of Clinton, can anyone explain the sheer hatred he engenders among so many conservatives? There’s certainly no reason for them to like him, but they mostly treat him as if he were the antichrist, despite a pretty middle-of-the-road record.
The release of John Harris’ The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House has reignited this debate, and I’ve been thinking about it. But first, a preliminary question: was Bill Clinton hated unusually strongly?
Well, yes, he was. Still, it’s not obvious that he’s a runaway winner in this category. In terms of standard issue loathing, FDR was pilloried by the business class like no other president since Andrew Jackson. LBJ was forced out of the White House by the militant hatred of college students toward the war he had gotten us into. Richard Nixon was despised by his enemies and disliked even by his friends, and eventually driven from office just as LBJ was. A substantial fraction of today’s left thinks George Bush is only slightly preferable to Adolf Hitler.
In other words, Clinton has competitors for the title of Most Hated President. At the same time, though, the firestorm around Clinton really was substantively different from the others. After all, FDR gave businessmen plenty of reason to hate him. LBJ really did get us into a quagmire in Vietnam. Richard Nixon really was a crook. But Clinton was….Clinton: a DLC Democrat, a born compromiser, a centrist policy wonk. That’s what makes Clinton hatred so unique: the fact that we even have to ask why so many people hated him in such an extraordinary fashion.
To get at the answer to that, I think you have to drill down beyond ordinary public opinion, beyond even passionate public opinion, and look to the real source of Clinton hatred: the wingnuts.
Wingnuts have always been with us, of course, yammering away in crudely mimeographed newsletters about the Trilateral Commission and the UN’s black helicopters. But in past administrations they were (mostly) marginalized and ignored both by the press and the country at large.
Not so with Clinton’s wingnuts. When you walk down memory lane of the 90s, here’s what you get: Clinton fathered a passel of black children out of wedlock. He ran drugs out of the governor’s mansion in Little Rock. He had Vince Foster rubbed out by the mob. He paid off his guards to find women for him. He sold plots in Arlington cemetery in return for political favors. He ran a shadowy cabal, first from Little Rock and then from the White House, that killed dozens of people who knew about his past.
I could go on. Yesterday, for example, came the latest from wingnut land: an allegation that Chelsea Clinton was conceived only after Bill Clinton raped Hillary on a vacation in Bermuda. It’s a real blast from the past, the kind of allegation that no other president has had to endure. Only Clinton.
This, then, is the answer: wingnuts have always been around, but they’ve never been given a voice. That changed with Bill Clinton.
Why? The answer is obvious: instead of crudely mimeographed newsletters, the cranks had access to talk radio and the internet, both of which expanded their audience to the point that the mainstream press felt it had to pay attention. For the first time ever, the wingnuts went mainstream.
And that’s the difference between Clinton hatred and every other presidential hatred. All presidents have to put up with rhetorical excess, and all presidents have to put up with both scandal and the opponents who make hay out of them. But only Clinton was forced to deal with wingnuts as if they were serious critics. Rush and Drudge made them semi-respectable, the Republican party welcomed them, and then the press paid attention to them. In the end, it all blew up in the absurd spectacle of a wingnut-inspired impeachment that did nothing but make its target more popular than ever, and since then the wingnuts have (mostly) been swept back into the murky fever swamps of delusion where they belong.
But for one brief, glorious moment, they controlled the national agenda. And that’s what makes Clinton hatred so very, very special.
UPDATE: A couple of notes based on remarks in the comment thread.
First, there are two different kinds of wingnut: there’s “wingnut” in the sense of an extremist politician like Tom DeLay or Rick Santorum, and then there’s “wingnut” in the sense of someone who thinks the CIA assassinated JFK and Bill Clinton ordered a mob hit on Vince Foster. The first type is still with us, of course, and stronger than ever. It’s the second type, which is what I was talking about, that’s mostly been driven underground lately.
Second, will they stay underground? I don’t think we know yet. Sure, we had to put up with the Swift Boat loons last year, but campaign nastiness is fairly normal. The question is whether the press and the Republican party will once again enable conservative wingnuttia the next time a Democrat becomes president. Stay tuned for the answer to that.