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Jewish World Review Oct. 20, 1999 /10 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Fred Barnes

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Our Hysterical President -- RICHARD NIXON USED a presidential press conference—several of them, in fact—to lie about Watergate. Jimmy Carter wildly exaggerated the energy crisis. And Ronald Reagan, while arguing for aid to the Nicaraguan contras, described the threat to Harlingen, Texas, from south of the border as greater than it probably was. But in my 26 years of covering the White House, I’ve never seen a president as hysterical, cheaply partisan, and dishonest as Bill Clinton was at his October 14 press conference. Attacking Senate Republicans for killing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Clinton concocted a fantasy world about the impact of the treaty’s defeat. He was also deceitful, illogical, and, worst of all from his own perspective, politically shortsighted. On arms control and national security, Clinton tossed aside all pretense that he’s a New Democrat, a triangulator, or pursuer of a Third Way.

Clinton is normally quite clever in tilting one way or the other on an issue, never going too far and usually giving himself plenty of political wiggle room. Not this time. He all but wrote Republicans out of the human race. Calling them reckless and partisan was the least of it. There was the claim, for instance, that out of “personal pique” Republicans would “put our children in peril and the leadership of America for a safer world in peril.” And Clinton insisted that Republicans voted against a treaty they knew little about. Actually, GOP senators had been studying it for months. It was Democrats who’d paid little or no attention to it.

The biggest whopper came when the president described what he thinks is the practical impact of the treaty’s defeat. “What happens overseas?” he asked himself, and then answered. “Countries that could be putting money into the education and health care and development of their children . . . will be sitting there saying, “Well, you know, we’d like to lower the infant mortality rate, we’d like to lower the hunger rate, we’d like to lower the poverty rate, we’d like to raise the literacy rate, but look at what the Americans are doing, look at what our neighbors are doing, let’s spend half our money on the military.” Does Clinton really believe folks around the globe are making this calculation? If he does, he’s totally caught up in the arms control cult.

I suspect Clinton has fallen into the same arms control trap that so many Democrats have plunged into over the years. They become convinced arms control, instead of American military strength and a credible nuclear deterrent, is the path to peace. Checking polls, they think the American people believe the same.

Bubba: Looking presedential
But it never works out that way. In 1980, President Carter and his aides thought Ronald Reagan’s opposition to SALT II would fatally doom his presidential chances. In 1984, Demo crats thought the nuclear freeze, which Reagan opposed, would help them regain the White House. Now, it’s the Test Ban Treaty. What always happens, of course, when Democrats go on an arms control bender is that a serious national debate on national security ensues, which Democrats lose.

Clinton’s argument against the Senate vote was nonsensical. He said the world was going to be a very different and much worse place, and not only for kids. He suggested Japan’s overdue economic recovery would be snuffed out by the treaty’s defeat. How? By causing the Japanese, who have not had a standing army since World War II, to “divert 4 or 5 or 6 percent of their gross national product” to defense. Really, he said that—and more. He declared that trade with Latin America would decline. And he contended that countries now working out trade pacts with the United States might skip out. “What would happen,” Clinton babbled, “if they all of a sudden got antsy and decided, well, you know, we have no national status?” Huh?

The world could have been spared all this horror, of course, if Clinton had merely agreed not to bring the treaty up during the final 15 months of his presidency. But Clinton insisted he had been unable to make this simple promise to Republican senators. He explained at the press conference that he couldn’t make that commitment because he might need to press for a vote again next year if “three or four or five countries are going to bail out of the nonproliferation treaty.” Of course, such a scenario would have given Clinton grounds for breaking his promise, and no doubt Republicans would have been forced to go along. So here’s the illogic: on the one hand, a world disaster; on the other, a promise that wouldn’t even have been binding if unforeseen events oc curred. Clinton chose the disaster.

And talk about pique. Clinton jeopardized everything with his tirade. By losing his cool at a press conference, he gave up any realistic chance of a meaningful legacy, which requires compromise with Republicans. It was a high price to pay for an hour of high dudgeon.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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