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Wednesday, June 21, 2006 01:40 am

Bill Clinton on his best behavior

He outlines a tame, but wise, way forward

“The greatest thing about not being president anymore,” Bill Clinton told our crowd at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies gathering in Little Rock last weekend, “is, I can say whatever the hell I please.” Some of us got our pencils ready. “The only trouble is, you all don’t have to pay any attention anymore.” Many didn’t, because the ex-president didn’t say anything outrageous or particularly eloquent. He not only achieved his goal of not saying anything that would “hurt Hillary,” he also promoted her whenever he could. He was completely straight-faced, though the crowd wanted to giggle, when he told us that if Hillary were elected president he would do anything she asked him to, “and I wouldn’t do anything she didn’t want me to do.” On his best behavior, Clinton wouldn’t even make fun of George W. Bush, who, he said, has “intuitive intelligence” of the kind described by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. “If you haven’t read it, you should,” Clinton said about this and several other titles he tossed out during his speech. Though he was tame, at times wonkish, and long-winded, Clinton offered an intelligent picture of the world, the war, and the way back to the White House for the Democrats. He said Republicans have run the dual strategy of “concentrating power in the hands of a few” and “attempting to maintain a majority by dividing the American electorate” along ideological lines. “We should be striving for a unifying, evidence-based politics.” Clinton’s views, together with those of retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former Democratic presidential candidate from Arkansas who also spoke to us in Little Rock, gave me hope that the polarizing policies of the Bush administration can be replaced with a calmer, saner, more mainstream politics. For example, although they agree that it was wrong to start the Iraq war, neither Clinton nor Clark would withdraw precipitously or unilaterally. Both would stay long enough to stabilize the country to avoid a bloodbath. Clinton said that the biggest question in Iraq becomes, not how Bush foreign policy has failed, but “What are we going to do tomorrow?” Attention must be given to stabilization and security in Iraq, while avoiding future wars through “interdependence” and renouncing a policy of preemptive unilateral military action. “Since no one has the whole truth,” Clinton said, “our common humanity is more important.” Clark said that Americans who are angry at Bush have a right to be. The war was a mistake, and Bush’s policy has been a failure — but don’t take it out on the Iraqi people with a premature pullout. “We now have a last, best chance to get a C- or D+ solution in Iraq,” said the four-star general. “It’s about what’s right for America to do.”
Staying the course in Iraq sounds like what Republicans are currently saying, but Clinton and Clark would change the rhetoric about the “war” on terrorism. “The world terrorist enemy has been given far too much credit,” Clark said. Fighting terrorism calls for long-term “police action,” he said. Clinton would work with other countries to control terrorism. “You have to have a security system,” he said, “but you can’t kill or jail all your enemies. You have to make a deal. That’s always cheaper than war.”
From there, Clinton went to the domestic side of the equation, what he called “home improvement.” He listed four priorities: the economy, health care, education, and energy. Because of too much debt, the economic system is “dysfunctional.” So is health care, he said: “We pay more and insure fewer.” The solution to one of the problems, the economy, lies at least partly in another: “We need a source of new good-paying jobs every five to eight years.” During Clinton’s presidency, that source was computer technology. During the Hillary era, that source will be energy production. “Clean energy will create high-paying jobs,” Clinton said, citing the example of Britain, which has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the last five years by switching to clean-energy technologies while hitting its Kyoto targets to reduce greenhouse gases ahead of schedule. “We’re crazy if we don’t do it,” Clinton said. In his speech, Clark said America drifted in the 1990s when the Cold War ended and we had no “big idea” to unify its energies and actions in the world: “We have to take our preeminence and use it for the big challenges. The war on terror is not the most important thing. We don’t have the right big ideas.” I kept thinking that he was going to tell us his big ideas, but instead he just asked his audience to be on the lookout for the next big idea. OK, but in the meantime let’s work on some of these small ideas from Clinton and Clark. Stop starting wars. Go for the C- in Iraq. Scale back the fear-mongering about terrorism. Create jobs through clean-energy technologies. After all, war is a big idea but not a very good one. Forget big ideas for now.
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