Bill Clinton was an incredibly skilled politician. He mastered the five "D"s of political dodgeball (deny, deceive, denounce, distract, and deny) better than any national figure in my lifetime. He redefined what it means to be great at politics.
He also convinced an entire American generation of the uselessness of politicians.
The one-two punch of the irrelevance of the Clinton presidency, followed so closely by the profound power of 9/11, has created a climate in which being good at politics is a political negative. We don't want Huey Longs or LBJs or even Ronald Reagans. Thanks to Clinton legacy, the shorthand calculation is "sucks at politics, good at leadership."
And it's hard to imagine who sucks at politics any more than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Watching the stumbling, bumbling, ham-fisted handling of the vice president's bird-shot imbroglio, I keep thinking how masterfully President Clinton would handle the situation. He would have had the press cameras waiting at the hospital to capture him walking beside hapless Harry Whittington's stretcher, holding his huntin' buddy's hand. He would have made a brief statement that night at the hospital, expressed his regret and admitted he'd made a mistake — though probably leavened with a joke ("I thought it was Ken Starr!")
He would have felt Harry's pain.
A real politician would have seen it as a chance to connect with normal schlubs like you and me, people who back our cars into trash cans, and forget to pay the light bill and make the boneheaded mistakes all real people make in life. Bill Clinton would have seized the moment, and his poll numbers would have jumped.
Dick Cheney? As of this writing, he's still hiding behind the skirt of his hunt club hostess, Katharine Armstrong. How naïve — no, make that "incompetent" — to believe that some civilian could handle the media on a story of a Texas millionaire who gets shot in the face ... BY THE VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES? What — you're going to leave the story for the "News & Notes" section of the Corpus Christi Weekly Wanker, between "Tips for the Garden" and the police blotter?
"A little bird tells the Weekly Wanker that Vice President Cheney was in town hunting on Saturday and had a bit of a crazy mishap. Fortunately, Dick Cheney was handling the gun, so the little bird made it out unscathed. In other news, the Garden Club gals are baring all for a fundraising calendar later this year..."
The man who is one pacemaker short circuit away from the presidency can't put 50 pieces of birdshot into a buddy's face and have the story end in the local press. The White House knows that. So why didn't the Vice President just walk out in front of the cameras and say, "I was hunting with a pal, I made a mistake. He's OK, and he already wants to go out again — though I plan to stick with Yahtzee for the rest of this hunting season."
Why not? Because of the Bush/Cheney Doctrine: All Politics Is Evil. Accommodate the press? Work the non-partisan crowds? Admit a mistake? No way!
It's the same reason Dick Cheney can't walk out in front of the cameras and say, "I was fighting terrorism with President Bush, and we absolutely believe regime change in Iraq will help transform the Middle East and bring peace. However, conditions on the ground — plus some well-intentioned mistakes on our part — mean the ground war in Iraq is going to last longer than some of us projected. Sorry, but it's still a vital part of stopping terrorism and we must succeed."
What talented politicians know is the value of mistakes. How this White House has avoided learning such a lesson is particularly amazing given the number of mistakes they've made: WMD, border security, the prescription drug benefit, Harriett Miers, sucking up to Saudi Arabia, mistaking a prominent Republican donor for a plump, ground-nesting game bird...
There are plenty of screw-ups, but more discouraging, they are screw-ups without benefit. The White House doesn't use its mistakes to humanize the President or Dick Cheney. They just deny mistakes were ever made.
This time, however, there's a guy in the hospital who's been shot — a guy Dick Cheney wasn't trying to kill. That means, by definition, that something went wrong. Why not admit it and move on? Sure, the ("we can't seem to") Moveon.org crowd is still going to try and impeach you, but they're going to do that no matter what.
The point of admitting mistakes isn't political self-flagellation — it's political success. For months, pundits have been wondering aloud: With the economy doing great and Iraq steadily improving and the Iranians proving Kerry was wrong and Bush was right, why are the president's poll numbers flailing around like a wounded duck?
The answer is being revealed — or should I say "not" being revealed — in the windy fields of Texas right now.