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Bill Clinton will go on annoying the Republicans

By DIANE ROBERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001


The Republicans have waited eight excruciating years to get him out of Washington -- him with his junk food and his cigars, his big-haired babes and his scary-smart wife, his overwrought empathizing and his pulpit-thumping oratory, his political brilliance and his (to them) inexplicable popularity.

Too bad. Bill Clinton isn't going anywhere. Oh, he'll hang out some in Arkansas, working on his presidential library, he'll party in New York and keep working on peace in the Middle East. But Bill and Hillary have just spent a third of her book advance on a big neo-Georgian pile near Embassy Row in D.C. Bill Clinton, not Al Gore, will be the shadow president, the Democrat doppelganger standing in articulate and unrepentant contrast to the Republican amateur occupying Clinton's old digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Republicans always knew what Democrats are just realizing: the 2000 election wasn't about Al Gore or George W. Bush, it was about Bill Clinton. Gore was just the necessary stand-in (durn that pesky two-term limit), while W. was just the money magnet with the name recognition the Republicans chose as the biddable instrument of vengeance against their mortal enemy.

The vote totals show that most Americans wanted to continue to live in a world shaped by Clintonist policies. Al Gore won nationally by 500,000 votes; his winning margin in Florida (not that it's worth much now) is still being calculated. Yet we are about as divided over Clinton and his ways, both personal and political, as we were in the elections of 1992, 1994 and during the massive national waste of time and money known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton's standing in the opinion polls is just over 60 percent, higher than Ronald Reagan's when he left office. Nevertheless, Republicans were able to energize their we-love-guns-and-hate-taxes base, first to vote against Clinton's heir, then to protest loudly and vituperatively in the streets -- and sometimes in county elections offices -- that the Democrats were trying to "steal" the election from their boy.

Much of George W.'s campaign was directed at reminding his right-wing shock troops how much they loathe Clinton while trying not to spook centrist voters who never did get what the big impeachment deal was about (a guy lying about cheating on his wife? Duh). So George W. was craftier than his father and his father's surrogates in 1992 -- there was no Marilyn Quayle to sniffily declaim that not everyone had "tuned in, turned on and dropped out" in the 1960s, no snarling Pat Buchanan raising his fist for white power, just the lulling repetition of words like "honor," "integrity" and "faith."

But none of this matters when the goal is to rid the nation of that working class, saxophone-playing libertine and his Big Government-loving Democrats. George W.'s sins -- the 25-year adolescence with the drinking, the DUI, the aimlessness -- were the sins of a rich boy, easily forgiven by the country club world. Bill Clinton's sins -- committing adultery and refusing to fall on his sword over it -- are somehow declasse, white-trash tacky and utterly unacceptable. This is a tricky moral calculus, especially when you consider the Republicans (Bob Livingstone, Henry Hyde, Newt Gingrich) who had to queue up during impeachment and admit to their own "youthful indiscretions."

As for Al Gore's sins, well, despite the sniping over his "exaggerations" (claiming to be the inspiration for Love Story is not quite in the same category of whopper as, say, George Bush pere claiming to know nothing of the Iran-Contra affair) his real transgression was his association with Clinton.

A little crazy, you say? Sure. But this has nothing to do with rationality. This is sheer, incandescent hatred. The Republicans hate Bill Clinton as they have rarely hated anyone, even Ted Kennedy. He was never just a political adversary for Gingrich, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay and the like: He represents everything they despised about the 1960s, the decade they think "ruined" America.

It's a curious thing: Clinton is a white, Southern man who had a hard time getting the votes of white, Southern men in 1992 and 1996, just as Al Gore, also a white, Southern man, lost them in 2000. Clinton's most hysterical foes -- Bob Barr, Bill McCollum, Trent Lott -- are also white, Southern men. But they weren't, even if they're about the same age as Clinton, '60s people. Bill Clinton was the guy who questioned authority when they were trying to become the authorities; he protested American involvement in Vietnam when they (finding their own privileged ways to evade the draft) bellowed "my country right or wrong;" he smoked dope, got girls, got a Rhodes scholarship and got away with everything, even impeachment.

The Republicans are temporarily triumphant. They hold a flimsy margin in the House of Representatives, they control the Senate by virtue of Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote, and they have the White House -- however much the odor of illegitimacy might cling to their victory. But they haven't gotten rid of Bill Clinton. He's there on the cover of Esquire, dirt-eating grin and all, he'll be there on CNN, talking to Yasser Arafat, he'll be on Leno and Letterman and in all the smart Washington restaurants. He's like ol' Brer Rabbit, just begging to be thrown back into the briar patch.

- Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, teaches English at the University of Alabama.

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