Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2001/ 26 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Wesley Pruden

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A Clinton chorus of 'America the Ugly' -- When Chelsea Clinton gets settled in at Oxford she ought to send for the old man.

Bill Clinton never finished the studies there that would have made him a Rhodes Scholar, and he needs remedial work in history. Additional studies in taste, decency and manners can't help. Not even the Oxford dons could sand off the rough spots and polish the man who long ago abandoned Hope.

Mr. Clinton went to Georgetown University the other day to relieve himself of his heaviest thoughts about terrorism, and he couldn't resist taking a few potshots at the nation that honored him with two terms in the White House. Every time we think that not even Bill Clinton could caricature Bill Clinton's shabbiness, he does.

What happened on September 11, he told the students, wouldn't surprise anyone as erudite as he is, because, well, America had it coming. The 5,000 innocents murdered on that day of infamy were paying the debt that America owes to the past. This is similar to the thoughtless remarks of the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (who had the decency to apologize and clarify), except that Mr. Clinton inserted a different set of villains. We're all guilty, stupid.

"Here in the United States," he said, "we were founded as a nation that practiced slavery, and slaves quite frequently were killed even though they were innocent. This country once looked the other way when a significant number of Native Americans were dispossessed and killed to get their land or their mineral rights or because they were thought of as less than fully human. And we are still paying the price today."

He didn't say what the hundreds of foreigners killed at the World Trade Center were paying the price for, nor why any of the Americans slain on September 11 - none of whom ever owned a slave or so far as we know slew an Indian - owed a debt to anyone. And then he descended into a little history lesson with a story from his misspent youth in deepest, darkest Arkansas.

"One example from my childhood," he began, as giggles spread through the audience, which was no doubt expecting a story about how he hit on his Sunday school teacher as a randy adolescent in Hot Springs. "In the Civil War, General Sherman waged a brilliant campaign that cut through the South and went to Atlanta." The laughter grew louder. "It was significant and helpful in bringing the Civil War to a close in a way that, thank God, saved the Union. On the way, Sherman practiced a relatively mild form of terrorism. He didn't kill civilians, but he burned all the farms and then he burned Atlanta, trying to break the spirit of the Confederacy. It had nothing whatever to do with winning the Civil War but it was a story that was told for a hundred years later and prevented Americans from coming together as we might have otherwise done. When I was a boy, growing up in the segregated South, when we should have been thinking how we were going to integrate the schools and give people equal opportunity, people were making excuses for unconscionable behavior by talking about what Sherman had done a hundred years ago."

Mr. Clinton, muddling history to make a point of what a moral tyke he was in a sea of redneck scum, quickly achieved lift-off and was off on a riff, reminiscent of his famous yarn of how he was sickened as a boy in Arkansas by the sight of black churches in flames, torched by white klansmen. When this was too much even for his footmen, flunkeys and factotums back home, who reminded him that for all their sins the white folks in Arkansas had never burned anyone's church, black or white, the president confessed that well, yes, he had made up the story, but he was just trying to pander to an audience of carpetbaggers, scalawags and other Yankee trash.

He missed an opportunity to let the Georgetown audience in on a little of the history the eager students probably had never heard. Sherman did not "cut through the South," but marched his army from Atlanta to the sea, and there was nothing "mild" about burning cities and most of the farms between. Sherman was a cruel general, not a terrorist, and his march was fully sanctioned by Abraham Lincoln. "I can make the march," Sherman told old Abe, "and I can make Georgia howl." Bill Clinton is wrong if he actually thinks it had "nothing whatever to do with winning the Civil War."

He was merely adjusting the facts again to make a point, a skill he demonstrated often as president, but we never know whether he actually believes his stretchers, tall tales, fibs and lies, his duplicity and double-dealing, and to be scrupulously fair, he probably doesn't know himself when he's spinning yarns and fondling the facts. And so he went at it again, this time at the expense of the other 49 states. What else is new?

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

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