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Bill Clinton, Vanity Fair, and old news

By Brian Wise
web posted June 9, 2008

You can't help but defend Bill Clinton sometimes.  For whatever else was wrong with the man (and we're not to forget there's still a lot wrong with him, both intellectually and emotionally), there were times throughout the 1990s when his thoughtful opponents had to take his side.  No, dammit, Bill Clinton didn't traffic cocaine as governor, and he didn't impregnate prostitutes, and he had nothing to do with that list of people who "mysteriously died" during his presidency.

Among principled anti-Clintons (I consider myself one), the thinking has always been that when someone is as psychologically stunted as Bill Clinton, there's no moral cause in making things up about him.  Left to his own devices, he will shoot himself in the foot sooner or later, leaving the critic ample opportunity to explain the wound.  As far as that goes, Clinton has long been the gift that keeps on giving.

But these days, Bill Clinton more gives the appearance of a somewhat sad, loosely hinged older uncle who just can't get out of his own way.  Everyone is so familiar with his act that the assertion he has an act feels like a non-event, which in one reason why Todd Purdum's article "The Comeback ID" (for Vanity Fair) is the most unimportant newsworthy item of the campaign season.  Too much of it reads like a town cryer yelling about last week's news.  "Clinton chases women!  Clinton pardoned criminals and cronies!  Clinton hangs out with shady people!"  We know, Todd.

Mayhill Fowler's thoughtful, unbiased questioning of the former president ("Mr. President, what do you think about that hatchet job somebody did on you on Vanity Fair at the end of the race?") sets two parameters, the first being that "The Comeback ID" was a hit piece, the second that the timing of its release was meant to benefit the Obama campaign.

To the first allegation I'll admit a preference for clearly defined distinctions between those who report and those who opine; and the two classes should never cross.  Employing this standard, Purdum does lapse into opinion making, though not in any significant way until the last section, entitled "A Solitary Man," where we start reading passages such as "this is Clinton's most grievous sin, his steady refusal to take grown-up responsibility for the consequences of his own actions."  The entire section carries on like that, managing to be both offsides and old hat.  If speculating after someone's mental fitness is all that turns a simple, somewhat dull, too-long essay into a hit piece, then we hope for the day Mayhill Fowler will passionately declare that Bush on the Couch ought never have been published.

As to the second point, you'd be hard pressed to prove a conspiracy where a magazine of no consequence posts an article in hopes of somehow disrupting two primaries that were foregone conclusions before the polls opened, in a race that was decided weeks ago but remained an open question only because one of the candidates refused to concede reality.  This may feel like a put up job to a Clinton partisan, but so would any piece of media, mentioning either Clinton, that didn't roughly translate into a marriage proposal.

If the end commentary doesn't lose you, the sourcing will.  There's an awful lot of "a former longtime aide said" and "four former Clinton aides told me," all of which would be bad enough if it weren't eclipsed by Purdum's extraordinary decision to print Hollywood gossip as background (in the rumor of Clinton and Gina Gershon,).  Under the hands of a competent editor, "The Comeback ID" would have been far better at half the length.  As it reads now, it's merely a frivolous article about a frivolous man. ESR

Brian Wise's web site can be found at http://www.brianwise.com.


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