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Jewish World Review April 30, 2001 / 7 Iyar, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Consumer Reports

Unasked Questions: The Bill Clinton Road Tour Commences

For $100,000, you’d think he would be man enough to answer serious questions -- One hundred days into the administration of his successor, George W. Bush, the scamp from Arkansas is starting to fade from our collective memories.

With every day that passes since he slinked out of the White House after granting midnight pardons to fugitive financiers, drug dealers and friends of the family, former President Bill Clinton seems a little bit paler and less important.

The trappings of the presidency, along with the stage-managed hoopla he gloried in, is gone. The Latin phrase coined by medieval philosopher Thomas à Kempis, Sic transit gloria mundi — “So passes away the glory of this world” — seems to have been written especially for Clinton’s current situation.

Clinton is no longer a figure of political significance. Instead, he is now a celebrity, a pretty face trotted out to be ogled at by the curious for a fee.

He is not the first ex-president to give lectures for money. Ronald Reagan sullied his reputation by traipsing to Japan, of all places, to gain a cool $1 million in cash for an appearance soon after his term ended.

But the bills incurred by Clinton during the course of the various legal proceedings that stemmed from his immoral conduct require him to raise a lot of money. So he has taken to the hustings giving speeches for a paltry fee of $100,000 per shot. In the pursuit of that cash, he has become that most pathetic of creatures: the “entertainment” at a synagogue fundraiser.

A few months ago, he was the most powerful man in the world. Today, he’s just the act your shul brings in when they decide they want something a little more high-toned than Theodore Bikel’s folk-singing act.

I was among those who had a chance to check out Clinton’s act on April 22, when he took it to Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, Pennsylvania just outside of Philadelphia for his first local show.

Some people, including a few congregants I am told, were unhappy with this Reform synagogue’s leadership for bringing into their sanctuary a man of Clinton’s dubious ethical stature. But to argue about the moral fitness of Clinton is to misunderstand the nature of the event, and indeed, of the entire tenor of his post-presidential life.

Clinton today is nothing more than a pseudo-political vaudeville act, which means his appearance should be treated as nothing more than a glorified bake sale.

Proof of this was readily apparent at Beth Am when a tired-sounding man stepped up to the podium. Though he spoke at length about the Middle East, the tone was one of self-infatuation that readily fed off the star-worshipping applause that emanated from an audience more interested in the fact of his celebrity than the substance of what he said.

As one dreamy-eyed woman in attendance put it while waiting for the doors to open, Clinton “could say anything he wanted and speak as long as he wanted.” The only negative assessment I heard from anyone with a ticket was from another audience member, who confided that she was sorry to miss an episode of “The Sopranos,” but that it was worth it to get a look at the ex-prez.

The speech itself was notable only for its habitual name-dropping and steadfast refusal to look honestly at events and draw conclusions from them. Clinton is convinced that his Mideast peace efforts were foiled only by the failure of the people of the region “to let it it go.”

His remarks lacked any sense that his determination to push negotiations in the absence of any common ground between the two sides may have made things a lot worse rather than better.

And for those who cling to the illusion that this once stout defender of Jerusalem’s unity has changed his mind, he added that the city’s future ought to be as “an open, international city.”

But to dwell too much on what he did say is, again, to miss the point. The Clinton tour is show business, not policy. In fact, instead of taking questions from a live audience, his handlers insisted that they approve all questions in advance. Fearing, no doubt, that someone might have the temerity to inquire about his selling of presidential pardons, perjury or his sexual misconduct, Clinton sought to insulate himself from any real scrutiny.

Even for 100,000 smackers, he’s not man enough to face real questions. So what was he asked? There were queries about the death penalty, health care, his greatest achievements and worse disappointments (just legislation — not a word about lying under oath, about Monica Lewinsky or even the way he treated his wife), and whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat really wanted peace.

When he answered the question about Arafat in the affirmative, you knew you were watching a person who could lie to the American people with a straight face.

Clinton’s entourage also decided that one of the five questions would be something really serious: What would be his ideal golf foursome, and who would be his caddy?

And when the moderator departed from the script and asked him about his dog, Buddy, even that was part of the cover-up. If you’re going to ask Clinton about his pets, how could you avoid the fate of Socks, the cat the Clintons brought to the White House from Arkansas and whom they have since given away?

What should Clinton have been asked? Here are a few of the questions that might have been posed:

• Why did you push so hard to make Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak make suicidal concessions at the Camp David conference last July? Don’t you feel at least a little bit responsible for the destruction of your loyal friend Barak’s political career?

• Do you honestly think that dividing Jerusalem and making it “an international city” will end the conflict between Arabs and Jews, rather than encouraging the Arabs to think that they will eventually destroy what is left of Israel?

• Why did you pardon Marc Rich, a fugitive from justice whose ex-wife had given you huge campaign contributions, and then blame the Jews, who apparently pleaded for Rich for the whole affair, in an op-ed published in The New York Times?

• Why didn’t you pardon Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, the man who has served longer than anyone else for a espionage committed on behalf of a friendly nation? And why did you break your word that you would grant him clemency when you put the squeeze on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Wye River conference in 1998?

• Do you really think it is morally acceptable to commit perjury, even if you are asked about sex? What do you think the implications are for society when our country’s leader lies in that manner?

I will not speak against any church, synagogue or organization that chooses to use Clinton’s celebrity to help them raise funds. It may be something of a freak show, but if it is a worthy cause and they will make a profit, then why not let his presence do some good for a change? After all, hosting Clinton is certainly less immoral than fleecing people at a bingo game, as is the fundraising custom at some churches and synagogues.

But if anyone does plan on bringing him to your house of worship in the future, let me suggest that you make him work a little harder for his dough. Make him answer a few tough questions. If they cause him or your audience to blush, then so much the better. A little honesty won’t hurt anyone, even a former president.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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