Don't Stand So Close to Me

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Bill Clinton is becoming the O. J. Simpson of American politics — a morally shady figure whose public presence makes us all a little bit squeamish.

Consider the following.

  • The investment firm Morgan Stanley sent an e-mail of apology to its clients saying that the decision to have Clinton as a speaker at its Florida conference had "clearly been a mistake."
  • The parent of the investment firm Paine Webber has canceled negotiations with the former president for a speech, fearing the controversy that would result from his appearance.
  • The New York Observer newspaper ran a long article about how Clinton's society friends in Manhattan are having second thoughts about socializing with the former president.
  • And finally, Bill Clinton spoke out yesterday about how he is being unfairly persecuted, about how "there's not a single, solitary shred of evidence that I did anything wrong." Sound familiar? And what was his outlet? The Geraldo Rivera show — need I say more?

    An embarrassment of Riches

    No, Clinton hasn't murdered anyone (although his most rabid enemies say he's not even past that), but like O.J., his very presence makes us all a little bit uncomfortable. We just wish he'd stay offstage. The Marc Rich pardon has been a moral tipping point for Clinton. Even those who have always defended him have become suddenly silent. His own Al Cowlings, Bill Daley, the former commerce secretary, criticized Clinton on the front page of today's New York times.

    Yes, he's a celebrity, but as notorious as he is famous. But now, without his institutional role, he's out there all alone, in exile on 125th Street, finding solace among the last group of voters, African-Americans, who give him unqualified support. It won't be long now before we see him turning up at shabby public golf courses, scrounging for a foursome.

    Post-presidential depression

    Every ex-president arouses complicated feelings. Richard Nixon was execrated by millions, lionized by a few. Ronald Reagan rode off into the sunset, but his illness made even those unsympathetic to him a little more understanding. Only Jimmy Carter has lifted his reputation as an ex-president. In fact, he achieved a moral stature out of office that he never quite managed in office.

    In a sense, Clinton has done the exact opposite. Without the trappings of his office, his actions have lost any even faint moral justification and seem merely shabby. And what moral justification is there anyway for slipping out of the house with some silverware and a few couches?

    For some reason, the pardon has made even his staunchest allies question him. For those who consider him the Beelzebub of American politics, it's just par for the course. As Sophocles wrote, consider no man happy till you know his end. Consider no politician successful till you know how he leaves office.

    Bill, how can we miss you, if you won't go away?

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