In the mythology of the American right, Bill Clinton is the avenging devil of the 1960s, the hippie triumphant: once shaggy, now shorn, trading in his peace sign for the keys to the Oval Office. In fact, he is Lyndon Johnson redux: a maudlin cracker who avoided war when he was of draftable age yet, once his hair greys, wages it with a depraved indifference to human life and constitutional niceties. Just another oleaginous, tactile Southern Democrat with the hots for every woman not his wife.
Clinton's attack on Iraq, however immoral, is a bold political stroke that may yet save his presidency. He knows well the most pernicious maxim ever coined by our statesmen - "politics stops at the water's edge". For 60 years both parties have smeared foes of American intervention abroad - Charles Lindbergh, Senator Robert Taft, Students for a Democratic Society, Patrick J Buchanan - as crypto-Nazis, commie symps, ignorant rubes, and various species of sub-humanity, when they were simply old-fashioned anti- war Middle Americans.
In the halls of Congress and the lifeless editorial pages of American newspapers, bipartisanship is next to godliness: seldom is heard a dissident word once the cruise missiles start raining down on the New Hitler of the Month. (The current Hitler, Saddam Hussein, is a star turn who threatens to run as long as Cats. He replaced the unprepossessing Manuel Noriega and the tiresome Colonel Gaddafi.) Of course Bill Clinton struck Iraq to delay his impeachment. Of course this makes him (like his handmaiden Mr Blair) despicable. But he's going after Adolf Hitler, for goodness sake, and besides, we've got to support our troops! Let's tie a yellow ribbon 'round the old oak tree ... and there is no chance the Senate will remove a war president, however much Americans suspect Mr Clinton's motives.
Like Richard Nixon, Clinton is thoroughly impeachable; like the Watergate- era Congress, the Republican House of Representatives ignored the administration's most grievous offences and chose to wring its hands (and the President's neck) over comparatively venial sins - in this case, a lout's priapism.
In the summer of 1974 the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon for Watergate-related acts; it rejected the one proposed article of unimpeachable constitutional soundness - namely, that Mr Nixon had violated the US Constitution by ordering, without Congressional authorisation, the bombing of Cambodia. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution reserves to Congress the power "[to] declare war", and although that musty old document has been shredded more thoroughly than the Clintons' Whitewater papers, the Founders were clear on this matter. Even Alexander Hamilton, co-author of The Federalist Papers and the best friend the executive branch ever had, wrote that "anything beyond [self-defence] must fall under the idea of reprisals and requires the sanction of that Department [Congress] which is to declare or make war". (Alas, in these final days of the American century any citizen who adverts to the Constitution - or, even more tactlessly, to any of our Founding Fathers - is suspected of being a militia member and probable Timothy McVeigh epigone.)
Like Nixon, Clinton has committed acts of war - the assault on Iraq; the groundless but convenient bombing of the Sudanese aspirin factory; the invasion of Haiti - without a formal declaration of war by Congress. If we want to be sticklers to the letter of the law, the imperial adventures of Ronald Reagan in Nicaragua and George Bush in Panama were also impeachable offences - as a handful of lefties and pacifists insisted at the time, to general derision.
But then Reagan was of the Hollywood aristocracy and Bush was born to the Connecticut purple. Class - and not oral sex - is the great unmentionable in American politics. It has framed the entire Clinton-Lewinsky affair; it even illuminates the embers of Baghdad. The only Clinton quality I have ever found to be even mildly endearing is his white trashiness. His mother was a floozy and gambler, his stepfather an abusive drunk, his brother a cocaine-besotted buffoon. Young Bill may have made good grades in school, but at the end of the day he remains a classic example of white trash, with his indiscriminate rutting and comical refusal ever to take responsibility when something goes wrong. Clinton's failure to utter the simple truth about his grand jury testimony - "I lied" - sealed his fate in the House, yet this ornery refusal to own up was wholly consistent with the white-trash character. (As a rural American with populist sympathies, I hasten to distinguish white trash - slatternly, dishonest, lubricious women and brutish men - from poor whites in general.)
Yet white trash have a few admirable qualities: stubbornness, prickly pride, a lurking (and often correct) suspicion that those on top got there by foul means. Much of this was bred out of Mr Clinton at Georgetown and Oxford and Yale, but his willingness to bomb a sovereign nation once his vote-counters had informed him that his goose was cooked is a classic white-trash reaction: when backed into a corner, bite, scratch, and gouge but never surrender.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr, the superannuated Kennedy hagiographer and consummate Cold War liberal, was among those defending Mr Clinton against impeachment in those misty days before the Clinton Phase of our Hundred Years War against Iraq. Schlesinger is the proud sponsor of those galling "rate the presidents" polls of historians. Oddly, those designated "great" or "near great" are usually the war presidents: Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman. The relative peaceniks - Van Buren, Pierce, Harding, Hoover - are dumped into the "below average" or "failure" categories. The more blood they shed, the closer they get to the Pantheon.
Now, we all know that Mr Clinton, when not groping zaftig interns, ruminates about his "place in history". Perhaps, in the dead of night, while avoiding Mrs Clinton - "I'm gonna read, honey; don't wait up for me" - he has been inflicting Schlesinger upon himself. Thus the bombs, the carnage, the limbs and faces torn from innocent people. For if he keeps the war engines humming long enough, not only will Bill Clinton avoid conviction by the Senate, but future Schlesingers will adjudge him one of the truly great presidents in American history. Not bad for white trash.
Bill Kauffman is a contributing editor of 'Chronicles' and author of 'With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America' (Praeger).Reuse content