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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
6 Feb 2016
Cracking the Code of Campaign-Speak

"Do you ever get the feeling," asked humorist Robert Orben, "that the only reason we have elections is to … Read More.

30 Jan 2016
Is There Only One True Progressive?

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. In our polarized politics, the … Read More.

23 Jan 2016
The Man Who Drowned Democracy With 'Sewer Money'

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. This week marked the anniversary of … Read More.

Character Is Destiny


The escalating ugliness of the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign calls to mind two very different individuals who lived some 25 centuries apart.

In the fifth century B.C., Heraclitus taught this timeless truth: "Character is destiny." In January 1992, just weeks before the crucial first-in-the-nation primary, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, plagued by charges of infidelity with Gennifer Flowers, interrupted his presidential campaign to fly from New Hampshire back to Little Rock to decide whether to grant executive clemency to Rickey Ray Rector, who had been convicted of shooting to death police officer Bob Martin. Rector had then shot himself in the head, effectively lobotomizing himself.

Clinton denied clemency, and on Jan. 24, 1992, the state of Arkansas put to death Rickey Ray Rector, a brain-damaged African-American who, after eating his last meal, reportedly wanted to save a slice of pecan pie to enjoy "later."

The political significance of this gubernatorial decision was not lost on the Associated Press reporter who, mindful of the enormous damage Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had suffered in the 1988 campaign from the Willie Horton case, wrote, "This execution could help presidential candidate Clinton distance himself from his party's soft-on-crime-liberal image, said some political observers in New Hampshire ..."

Now, 16 years later, former President Bill Clinton, not content to be simply cheerleader-in-chief for his wife's own presidential campaign, has assumed the role of political executioner-in-chief. This time, Bill Clinton's nemesis is the young Illinois senator, Barack Obama, who reminiscent of John Kennedy's memorable line — "I am not the Catholic candidate for president, I am the Democratic Party's candidate who happens to be Catholic" — had brilliantly presented himself not as the black candidate for president, but as the Democratic candidate who happens to be black. Obama, the fresh-to-Washington reformer, won Iowa, which is 96.7 percent white, and ran a close second in 98-percent-white New Hampshire.

The emerging narrative was a grave threat to Bill Clinton's perceived entitlement to a third White House term.

In her combination of toughness and divisiveness, candidate Hillary Clinton, in the judgment of respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart, "is really Richard Nixon circa 1968."

That divisiveness was on display as the Clinton campaign set out to "ghettoize" the Columbia University-Harvard Law School Obama by seeking to twist his admitted youthful experimentation with marijuana and cocaine into misrepresenting him as a drug abuser and possible pusher.

The first dime was dropped in The Washington Post by the campaign's national co-chair, then — oops, cocaine! — on national TV by Hillary Clinton's most important campaign strategist, Mark Penn. Then drug use was brought again up by billionaire supporter Bob Johnson while introducing the candidate. The co-chair resigned, Johnson eventually apologized, and Penn continues to strategize. But the "heroin" of rumor had been successfully injected into the bloodstream of the nation's body politic.

Enter Bill Clinton, maybe the nation's most articulate, if least eloquent ("The era of big government is over"?) chief executive, who has by his criticism (Obama's election would be a "roll of the dice," Obama's longstanding opposition to the Iraq war is "the biggest fairy tale," accusing Obama of putting some mythical "hit job" on him) almost single-handedly changed the tone of the post-Iowa campaign.

In South Carolina, Bill Clinton baselessly asserted that the Obama camp was inserting race into the campaign. Even though gullible journalists reported it, that charge failed the laugh test: How could raising the race issue, which would make him the Black Candidate and her the White Candidate, be anything but political suicide for Obama? Did I miss the Jesse Jackson Inauguration?

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, an Obama supporter, minces no words in exposing Bill Clinton: "This is a cynical effort to minimize whatever victories Sen. Obama can win, especially in Southern states, by attributing those victories to Sen. Obama's race. ... This is the kind of divisive politics that American voters in 2008 neither want nor deserve."

Tom Daschle is right. Character is destiny.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




6 Comments | Post Comment
Thank you for your willingness to stand up to the Clinton machine. It is sad to see how much of an issue character really is, and it isn't pretty. Clinton could have been a truly great president if that little problem hadn't come along to gum up the works.

Yes, yes, there was a vast right wing conspiracy, and I don't dispute it, but that doesn't excuse the fact that he was and as far as I can tell continues to be a pathological liar. And I don't see his better half stepping up to distinguish herself in that regard.
Someone like you, i.e., who doesn't suffer from historical amnesia, ought to replay for us that terrible scene anyone who really wanted to believe in Bill should never be able to erase from their memory. I am talking about Bill pounding the table and barking out on camera for all the world to see and hear: I did not have sex with that woman.

I hear all the excuses coming, like it was not anyone's business in the first place, etc., and that of course is true. But politics is a dirty, dirty game, and no one embraces that truth more than Bill, who as you deftly point out, was quite willing fly back to Arkansas to preside over the sacrificing of Rickey Ray Rector to the God of Electoral Victory.

I'm still naive enough to want a leader who I can believe when he looks us all straight in the eye and expresses with his most absolute conviction that he did or did not do X, or intends or does not intend to do Y. And I still can't get that scene out of my mind. I can't parse it away like Bill tried to do with those ridiculous statements he made in his depositions, and in the end I just don't like to be lied to. Especially not with such professionally crafted mimicry of genuine heartfelt emotion. I don't really know if ultimately Mr. Obama will be the truthful leader I am looking for, but there is good reason to hope for that. On the other hand, I know exactly what I will be getting in Billary, and I'm not up for four or more years of that.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Masako
Sat Jan 26, 2008 8:02 AM
I have followed you for a long time, in print, CNN, PBS and have always looked forward to those opportunities until this Friday on The News Hour and in this post. I simply don't understand your logic or upon what grounds you form your views of Bill and Hillary Clinton and race in this campaign. Though I must say you are by no means alone in the media with your assessment. I wonder about the sources of news and opinion that you and others claim to provide us and why we continue to pay attention, no matter which side we are on. Case in point is your repetition of the Mark Penn story on Obama's drug use. Did you see him say this yourself? Unless you did, I refer you to Media Matters to confirm that he did not in fact make such a statement. It was attributed to him in spite of the fact that he was prodded several times to take up the issue. They have the transcript. Race was never mentioned as an issue in this campaign until the media began to stir the pot . Mrs. Clinton made an innocent and totally accurate statement of LBJ's executive roll in getting the the Cvil Rights bill past. For days, the media jumped on this as an intentional slight of MLK rather than try to quell the uproar with an explanation of her point. Over and over I saw her misquoted in her original statement which included reference to JFK's inability to get the job done. If anyone doubts the accuracy of her assessment, they need only to go to Bill Moyer's Journal site and read his explanation as one who sat in on the meeting between MLK and LBJ in which they developed their strategy for getting the civil rights bill past, with each committing to his roll to make it happen. Many blacks said that HRC had said that MLK needed a white man to get the job done and was denigrating MLK. Where was the media in this argument. We both know. What about the four pages of talking points issued by the Obama campaign to the media pushing the race issue against Hillary's campaign. Was this race bating? Not to the press. Then theres BC's "fairy tale" statement. There is no way for anyone who heard what he said to fairly judge that he was speaking of Obama's campaign. Only after the damage was done did the media begin to get the reference straight. By then it was too late. And there is the media again, over and over implying, talking about, wondering about, polling about whether the black population of South Carolina would go for Obama over Clinton. All indications are that they will. Will this be racism? The media does not seem to think so. But when Bill Clinton states the obvious fact made known to all of us by the media that Hillary cannot win because Obama will get so much of the black vote, the media accuses him of race bating. Then Hillary is pounded on because she goes into the predominately white part of SC to look for white votes. Don't you see something of a double standard here? What is she to do? This has nothing to do with race. It has to do with going to where the votes are. In the Michigan primary, blacks were urged to go to the polls and vote for "uncommitted" rather than vote for Hillary. If the exit polling is correct, that's what the vast majority did. Was this racist? Is she, does she have a history of working against blacks and their causes? What does it mean when a whole population of one race or another is encouraged to vote for their own race over someone of another? I am a 64 year old white Southerner, an Atlantan, the home of MLK. I have seen racism up close and personal all of my life, from it's harshest days to it's very best so far. MLK released us all from the shackles of racism. But it's not dead in the South anymore than it is in the North and West. You should know that whites in the South are paying attention to the black vote in South Carolina. If it appears to them that Obama is getting the majority of black votes only because he's black, there will be a backlash. Bill and Hillary did not start this. The media did. Place responsibility where it belongs.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Jim Mashburn
Sat Jan 26, 2008 4:18 PM
Re: Jim Mashburn
Poor Billary, victimized yet again by those in the overzealous media, the ones who erected such roadblocks to our exalted mission in Iraq, the country that used to be.
It's understandable that you want to focus on the fine, highly arguable details of the present. The little details are kind of like trees in the forest that seems to rise above your view, but some of us just can't find a way to quiet of the memories that keep popping up. Here's one: Hillary arguing to the folks from Code Pink (yup, they're a bit extreme, but alas, still capable of recording events) that Iraq is just like Kosovo. Could you please ask the Billary duo to explain that?
Comment: #3
Posted by: Masako
Sat Jan 26, 2008 7:08 PM
It seems that you decided long ago that Hillary was unelectable, regardless of her stands on issues, and have sought every opportunity to demean her views, her successes and her candidacy. Having spent many years as a professor in Arkansas, and having seen Hillary deliver one commencement speech in person, I have never particularly liked the fine lady myself. However, I find that your continuous attacks on her viability as a candidate are misdirected and possibly even a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are other leaders that I would have preferred over Hillary (or Obama) by a long way, however, bashing the most likely nominee to the crown of the Democratic Party provides way too much fodder for the Republican cannon that will be continuously fired starting in just a few months. I wonder how many times Rush will repeat the ideas, if not words, you have expressed in your many anti-Hillary comments.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Mike Ohr
Wed Jan 30, 2008 12:47 AM
I have always thought you were extremely balanced and have looked forward to Friday nights listening to you and David Brooks on PBS. I know you are passionate on issues but I never have seen you display the level of blind vitriol you display when it comes to Hillary Clinton's candidacy. I find it astonishing that you continuously refer to Bill Clinton when speaking about her. I don't understand why he has become the focus of the reporting. Is your bias against a woman candidate showing? Why is Hillary responsible for Bill's conduct but not male candidates whose spouses go over the top? (We could start the list with a book about Nancy Reagan and write whole pages about Barbara Bush) I never liked Bill Clinton but we're not voting for him. In fact Hillary was my second choice after John Edwards but the media disrespect of her is definitely putting me in her camp. If you wonder why women over 50 are voting for her it is because when confronted with the kind of gender bias you are exhibiting we will vote for the woman. All this commentary did was reinforce for me why I will now most definitely vote for Hillary and wonder why an educated person like you would revert to stereotyping women as just appendages of their spouses.

Comment: #5
Posted by: Mary Ann Cummins
Wed Jan 30, 2008 8:20 PM
Re: Mary Ann Cummins This reminds me of commentary I kept running into right after Hillary shed a tear for us all to see on prime time TV right before the New Hampshire primary. Before the results were in there was a whole chorus complaining that Hillary was going to be punished for her public display of emotion because women look weak when they do it but men can get away with it. That line of commentary dried up like dew in the Sahara once the primary results were in. If you want Hillary to be taken on as Hillary instead of Billary you must begin by enlisting her cooperation. She is the one who is playing the hubby card more than anyone else. Hubby is stamped all over her resume, and you will be hard-pressed to find anything looking like preparation for being president that isn't the direct result of being his wife. Can you tell me what it is she has ever done on her own and not on Bill's coattails that qualifies her to be president? That part of her resume (you know, the did-it-all-by-one's-self part) looks far more spare to me than what you find in the case of Mr. Obama. In short, your pitch looks to me like more of the same old loser sour grapes: Have it both ways whenever you can and don't hesitate to heap a bunch of self-righteous hooey all over anyone who dares to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Masako
Sat Feb 2, 2008 10:06 AM
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