Saturday, December 22, 2007

MAUREEN DOWD: Savior or Saboteur?



Once it was about Hillary, but now, of course, it’s about Bill.

Our ubiquitous ex-president is playing his favorite uxorious game, and it goes like this: Let’s create chaos and then get out of it together. You ride to my rescue or I ride to yours. We come within an inch of dying and then recapture the day by the skin of our teeth. While we’re killing ourselves, we blame everyone else. We’ll be heroes.

It worked for Bill and Hillary in ’92 and ’96. It didn’t work in the health care debacle. Will it work in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Just when I thought I was out, the Clintons pull me back into their conjugal psychodrama.

Inside the Bill gang and the Hillary gang, there is panic and perplexity. Is Bill a loyal spouse or a subconscious saboteur?

Should Hillaryland muzzle him? Give him a minder? Is he rusty? Or is he freelancing because he relishes his role as head of the party his wife is trying to take over?

“For the first time since the Marc Rich pardon,” said a friend of the Clintons, “Bill is seriously diminishing his personal standing with the people closest to him.”

Certainly Bill wants to repay Hill for those traumatic times when he had to hide behind her skirt. And certainly he feels that his legacy is tied to her. He suggests to Matt Bai in today’s Times Magazine that she can be F.D.R. to his Teddy Roosevelt, getting through the ideas that fell flat the first time.

Is Bill torn between resentment of being second fiddle and gratification that Hillary can be first banana only with his help? Their relationship has always been a co-dependence between his charm and her discipline. But what if, as some of her advisers suggest, she turned out to be a tougher leader, quicker to grasp foreign policy, less skittish about using military power and more inspirational abroad? What if she were to use his mistakes as a reverse blueprint, like W. did with his dad?

When Bill gets slit-eyed, red-faced and finger-wagging in defense of her, is he really defending himself, ego in full bloom, against aspersions that Obama and Edwards cast on Clintonian politics?

Maybe the Boy Who Can’t Help Himself is simply engaging in his usual patterns of humiliating Hillary and lighting an exploding cigar when things are going well.

“They’re not Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who had jealousy as the lifeblood of their marriage,” said one writer who has studied the pair. “The lifeblood of their marriage is crisis, coming to each other’s rescue.”

Bill is staying up late strategizing and recasting her message and speeches. But he’s off his game on the trail, making clumsy mistakes like his remark — bound to be shot down by Poppy Bush — that Hillary would send 41 and 42 around the world to restore prestige lost by 43.

Hillary advisers noted that when Bill was asked by a supporter in South Carolina what his wife’s No. 1 priority would be, he replied: C’est moi! “The first thing she intends to do is to send me ...” he began.

He got so agitated with Charlie Rose — ranting that reporters were “stenographers” for Obama — that his aides tried to stop the interview.

He also got in the way of her message with stretchers about opposing the Iraq war from the start, and — in a slap at Obama — deciding not to run in ’88 because he lacked experience. Truth is, he didn’t run for fear of bimbo eruptions.

While making a speech in Iowa, The Associated Press’s Ron Fournier reported, Bill used the word “I” 94 times in 10 minutes, while mentioning “Hillary” just seven times. At a London fund-raiser, one Hillaryite said, it took him nearly half an hour to mention her.

As the Arkansas journalist Max Brantley told the Billary biographer Sally Bedell Smith, “He’s always evangelizing for the church of Bill.”

It’s hard to feel sorry for Hillary because the very logic of her campaign leads right to Bill. When she speaks of her “experience,” she is referring not to the Senate but to the White House, thereby making her campaign a plebiscite on the ’90s.

Running this way, she is essentially asking people to like her if they liked him. Whether she knows it or not, this is a coattails strategy. It’s almost as if she’s offering herself to Clinton supporters as the solution to the problem of the 22nd Amendment.

Bill is a narcissist, but he’s also within his rights to think that she has invited him onstage. If she is his legacy, why should he muzzle himself? After all, you can’t ask Elvis to behave like Colonel Parker.

If voting for Obama is a roll of the dice, as Bill suggests, voting for Billary is a sure bet: an endless soap opera.

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