Jewish World Review June 9, 2003/ 9 Sivan, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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Consumer Reports

Ma Clinton's turn to wear the pants | Is she, or isn't she?

That's what all the pundits are asking this morning about Hillary Clinton's great book adventure, but they're missing the point.

Of course she's telling whoppers, but that's not news.

She — and more to the point, he — knows that the chattering class won't buy her story that she had to gulp for air, that she cried and yelled and hollered and stomped her size 10 flats when Bill finally told her that yes, the vast right-wing media conspiracy had actually got it right, he generally did wear his pants around his ankles in the Oval Office. Buddy the dog was the only member of the family who would have anything to do with the president for days, maybe weeks, afterward, so great was Hillary's fury. (Now we know why Buddy threw himself in front of the car.)

This is not the version of events as told by Sidney Blumenthal, the faithful lady-in-waiting to Hillary. Sidney writes in his memoir that he talked to the president and the first lady minutes after the famous speech conceding that yes, "that woman" was more than mere intern, and after the phone was handed off to James Carville, "I could hear the president and Hillary bantering in the background." Queens may equivocate, prevaricate and falsify, but ladies-in-waiting usually don't. Sidney's version makes sense.

But Hillary's version makes good politics. By reveling in the role of aggrieved wife, she softens her hard edge, appealing to every woman who ever suspected her husband of giving the eye to the cute blonde in the steno pool or, indeed, every wife who ever heard a discouraging word from the old man and had to stifle an impulse to strangle him. The passages about betrayal, anger, gulping for air, stomping of feet and yelling out rage were carefully plotted, calibrated and polished by Bill. Nobody schemes more skillfully than the Clintons.

The nexus of Bill Clinton's political genius is that he still thinks like a governor, with a successful governor's skill at knowing the sweet and usually unmentionable places where constituents itch, and how to scratch them. We've never had a president's wife who followed a president to the White House, but a governor's wife or two have made it to the statehouse. Bill Clinton has studied Pa Ferguson, whose wife Ma Ferguson followed him to Austin, and George Wallace, whose first wife, Lurleen, followed him to Montgomery. Miss Hillary could not bear the thought of being thought a clone of Tammy Wynette, only to stand by her man. But being "Ma Clinton" — ah, that's another matter entirely.

Timing is the essence of genius, whether on the stage or on the stump, and the greater part of political genius is knowing when and where to strike. Saving yourself for 2008 or 2012 is all well and good, but nobody gets a guarantee that he (or she) will even stand on the green side of the turf in 2008, and four years is a century.

The Democratic field this year looks like the Great Dismal Swamp, and to call the pretenders to the throne the seven (or eight or nine) dwarfs is to insult dwarfs. Even Al Gore is said to be thinking again about his rash decision to abandon the field to the little people.

In the Great Dismal Swamp, cultivating Clinton nostalgia is not difficult. The bigger and badder George W. Bush looks, measured against Little Joe, the French-looking guy, Dorky Dick, the sleepy senator from Florida, that nice Edwards boy and Jesse Jackson Lite, the more acute the nostalgia. The former president is doing all he can to encourage the wallow in what used to be; that's what was behind his suggestion last week that what the country needs is repeal of the Twenty-second Amendment, to allow presidents who have served successfully for two terms to seek a third. Nobody knows better than Pa Clinton how unlikely repeal may be, and nobody knows better than Pa Clinton that such talk feeds nostalgia.

But if you can't have Pa, why not Ma? And if Ma Clinton later, why not now?

The lady-in-waiting, in his book, writes that after Hillary officially found out about Monica, he told her that she had to think about politics, not the betrayal of the gentle consolations of the marital chamber: "That was her reasoning as well. She said that the president would be 'embarrassed,' but that was for him to deal with."

But Bill Clinton is unembarrassable. He was vaccinated against shame and humiliation back in Hot Springs, a long time ago. Sooner rather than later, and that means '04, Ma Clinton will feel a draft, and put on the pants. Which is only right. Pa is more comfortable without 'em.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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