Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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A group of political workers had been spreading out in South Dakota interviewing farmers and ranchers and people in agricultural-related businesses. They were working at the direction of their two Democratic U.S. Senators getting reactions to a proposed farm program that had White House interest directly from Bill Clinton. The idea was to give family farmers and smaller operators a strong voice in the marketplace that would eventually reduce federal subsidies and programs. The workers were gathered in an office in Aberdeen when the news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit.
The fact was that conservatives in South Dakota, as elsewhere, hated Bill Clinton with a blind passion. The hatred made it extremely difficult for field workers who were trying to explain the proposed program and assess its chances for acceptance and success. Time after time, the workers had to patiently let conservative farmers blow off their hostility and guide the discussion to the matter of policies and marketplace rules that would allow farmers to benefit and prosper from a fair market rather than federal subsidies. Sometimes the hostility never subsided, and they were ordered off the land, particularly in West River. Mostly, however, the idea of having a voice in the market that controlled their destiny appealed to farmers and ranchers and made it possible to talk about policy.
With these experiences directly from the land in South Dakota fresh in their minds, the workers met to draft a report of their assessments, and the Lewinsky affair hit the news. The workers, who had endured so much abuse and hostility, were dismayed and discouraged. It seemed to them that Bill Clinton had added to the hostility against him in such a way as to nullify the hard work the field workers had done in behalf of him and the Democratic Party. Instead of getting to work on the report of how they assessed chances for a new farm program, they worked on a memorandum asking Bill Clinton to resign the presidency.
Senators Daschle and Johnson shared their dismay. Bill Clinton seemed to undercut every positive thing he accomplished, and political workers were left to twist and turn in the winds of hostility he generated. But as the field workers toiled on the memo, the senior staff members from Sen. Daschle's offices, his Senatorial office and his Democratic leadership office, weighed in. They pointed out that much legislation that Democrats had worked on would simply get lost if Clinton were to resign. They made a strong case for not letting important political objectives get lost in the raging scandal over Bill Clinton's personal life. Consequently, the memo was put on hold and was never sent. The proposed farm program, however, got displaced by the impeachment agenda and never received serious consideration in Congress. The exercises in hatred of Bill Clinton siphoned away the energy needed to reform the agricultural marketplace in a way that gives producers a voice in how it operates.
This story is typical of the Clinton presidency. Alan Ehrenhalt explores the near-inexplicable hatred of Bill Clinton in his New York Times review
of John F. Harris' book on the the Clinton presidency, "The Survivor."
MILLIONS of Americans despise Bill Clinton. They have done so since he became a presence in national politics in the early 1990's, and they continue to do so today, more than four years after his retirement from public office.
The passion of the Clinton haters is a phenomenon without equal in recent American politics. It is not based on any specific policies that Clinton promoted or implemented during his years in office. It is almost entirely personal. In its persistence and intensity, it goes far beyond anything that comparable numbers of people have felt about Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or either of the presidents Bush. It surpasses even the liberals' longstanding detestation of Richard Nixon. The only political obsession comparable to it in the past century is the hatred that a significant minority of Americans felt for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Bill Clinton was a frustrating man to work for, even for those who never knew him personally. Like many people of genuine brilliance, he had personal traits that got in the way of his intelligence at times. Ehrenhalt notes, "Occasionally during the Clinton presidency, writers dredged up Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a first-rate intelligence: that of someone who could hold two opposed ideas in his head at the same time and still function. No one in the past century of American politics met that test better than Clinton." To know Bill Clinton, even as a field operatives remote from any personal contact with him, required the ability to carry opposing ideas about him in their heads.
John Harris' book does not shy away from Clinton's personal, often-devastating quirks of character, but it does manage to keep them from overshadowing the immense talents and intellect that made Bill Clinton the most effective politician of our time.
Neither Harris and Ehrenhalt come up with an explanation of the hatred that Bill Clinton inspired. That hatred carried over into the campaign of John Thune against Tom Daschle, and like Clinton, the Daschle-haters are getting more rabid in their invective. The haters won--narrowly, but they won. All one need do is look at the conservative blogs emanating from South Dakota to know that the major battle against mindless hatred lies before us. In the meantime, our task is not to let the hatred obscure what needs to be done to keep America as a place where good will and intelligence can prevail. And reading this book about Bill Clinton can define the task before us.