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Clinton the populist

Did Bill walk so that Boris and Trump could run?

Artillery Row

What a transatlantic spectacle we’ve witnessed this month. In old Europe, Boris Johnson has been condemned to political no man’s land by a parliament he once controlled so magisterially. In the New World, Donald Trump is indicted by the very Justice Department he once made his own, for the cover-up of such misuse of classified documents that he could be sentenced to years in prison.

With it has come so much noise about Johnson being Britain’s Trump and Boris apeing Donald’s strategy for survival, one man-child apparently having learned from the other. After all, where else did Boris see how to play the “victim” card and proclaim “witch-hunt” then “political persecution”? From the Donald, clearly, so says much of the commentariat.

The Clinton model could give them a window on tomorrow

Sorry, friends, maybe not. Maybe we need to cast our gaze back to the late 1990s and look at the maestro, the inventor in this era of a political survival strategy that keeps you out there — a player, whatever the rules broken under the law, indeed under the rules of the democratic institutions you yourself once governed.

The maestro is Bill Clinton. If you look back on his impeachment saga, when I was a correspondent at his White House, you can conclude Bill taught Boris and Donald much of what they needed to know about strategising victimhood and witch-hunts to answer the charges of lies and cover-up. If you are Johnson and Trump, you could yet see the road travelled by Clinton as an inviting path out of the cul-de-sac your lying created.

It is hard to escape the thought, in these days of watching erstwhile potentates of Westminster and Washington put in the modern-day stocks and pilloried, that President Clinton not only survived but prospered. Writing off Johnson, even in these days of his dramatic demise — likewise with Trump, given his support base — might prove to be a little short-sighted. The Clinton model could give them a window on tomorrow, a deliverance of sorts.

It’s a quarter-century ago now, but most of us waking up to a Washington Post story back in January 1998, alleging that President Clinton had lied under oath about his relationship with a young White House intern, diagnosed that his path to survival was slim. I just recall checking what perjury meant. It meant, potentially, prison.

As with Johnson and Trump, the scandal started with lies. Then came the denial, the infamous finger-wagging end to a televised speech: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky.” Within days, Hillary Clinton delivered the coup de grace of the strategy on the widely-watched NBC Breakfast show Today, live from New York.

Johnson and Trump have used the language of hitmen, consider Trump labelling the Special Counsel a “thug” or Johnson claiming he’s a martyr of “a political hitjob”. The Clintons were far more restrained about their enemies, but the strategy was an eerie precursor of what we’ve seen in recent days. Hillary spoke of the “politically-motivated persecution” of her husband by a “politically-motivated prosecutor” designed to “overturn his election”. Sound familiar? It’s like Donald Trump, certainly, insisting opponents are “weaponising justice” against him. It’s also like Boris Johnson when he does the same, suggesting his inquisition is really all about overturning Brexit.

Finally, Mrs Clinton delivered the clincher: “The real story is the vast, right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband from day one.”

Trump has already shown us that he converts infamy into popular support

In the press room of the White House, a few of us learned that this did not happen by chance. A savvy political consultant named Chris Lehane, a fellow who talked happily with us, had written a 332-page strategy document for the Clintons, titled: “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce”. It detailed how emerging, conservative online sites worked with right-wing think-tanks and even British tabloids to spread conspiracy theories about the Clintons, from their land deals to the mysterious death of a former law partner of Mrs Clinton. “Vast, right-wing conspiracy” — it came from the pen of Lehane.

As we watch Johnson and Trump (add late Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, another scandalous leader who survived claiming to be “victim” of political lawfare, who was later given a state funeral, no less), all of them adapting the Clintons’ original road to survival …well, we should remember perhaps that the outcome of the Monica Lewinsky saga defied all the odds, betting and otherwise, at the start of it.

President Clinton finally admitted the lie, amidst all the painful casuistry of his earlier denials. Who can forget “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”? His opponents then impeached him, with all the fanfare of the first such trial since Andrew Johnson in 1868. Back in 1998, it was only the second impeachment of a president in history (Trump has since upped the tally). Still, the opposition’s failure, lacking the numbers in the US Senate, was a foregone conclusion.

In November that year, just weeks after admitting the lie and facing impeachment, Clinton’s Democrats defied midterm election history by picking up seats with an incumbent in power, the President’s high ratings a major factor. Clinton left office in 2001 with a 65 per cent approval number, the best since such records were kept. Strikingly, 45 per cent of Americans said they would miss him.

The memory bank says, therefore, beware of writing off forever either of the current, scandal-plagued leaders. Trump has already shown us that he converts infamy and indictments into rallying popular support, along with money for his next Presidential run. Instead of being in the dock, he will seek to make Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton et al defendants for their misdemeanours, so asking the public at large to weigh the fairness of one President being indicted for classified documents in his bathroom, whilst another (Biden) enjoys immunity for classified materials in his garage.

It’s surely telling that nearly 50 per cent of Americans already tell pollsters that justice has indeed become a weapon in Trump’s case. It helps enormously that he has media such as Fox News behind him still. Witness a recent Fox headline on Biden: “Wannabe dictator speaks at the White House after having his political rival arrested.”

As for Boris Johnson, well, he has slithered his way in and out of so many scandals that the cat’s nine lives surely don’t apply to him. He will no doubt turn his infamy into millions of dollars with global speech-making. His steadfast support for Ukraine and President Zelensky will serve him well, giving him opportunities to look like a leader of sorts as he preaches lessons to notionally powerful audiences in the United States, Asia, even the Middle East.

The book he’s writing will surely outline not just his defence but somehow make the case for a return to power, casting himself as the Good Tsar who gets things done. Like Trump, having loyal tribunes in the British media helps. Probably he has no future with the Conservatives, but ponder him with a Nigel Farage, this time openly imitating Trump, shouting “make Britain great again”.

As for Bill Clinton, brilliant politician, astute survivor, his keen intellect laced with such savvy? The last time we met, he was working with the United Nations on trying to save the impoverished nation of Haiti, alongside his Clinton Foundation doing good deeds across our world. You have to believe his legacy will speak surprisingly well of the man who was once the oh-so powerful President having an affair with the youngest, unpaid, hence oh-so vulnerable intern on his staff. Deliverance indeed.

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