Let me open by saying, for the benefit of readers who don’t know me, that I’ve written dozens of defenses of the Clintons going back 18 years, to the beginnings of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Until then I had mixed feelings about Clintonism—I wasn’t big on the New Democrat thing, but I did recognize that he saved the Democratic Party from possible permanent minority status.
As to Lewinsky, it’s not that I admired what President Clinton did there, obviously. But the way all that unfolded made me conclude, as my friend Joe Conason had been arguing for about three years at that point, that the get-Clinton campaign on the right was real and without precedent in American politics. The media hysteria around the Clintons was also something, in my view, without precedent.
I recoiled against this, because I felt that much more was at stake than the success or failure of the Clintons. That impeachment, to me, was an outrage—a pseudo-constitutional coup d’etat. The media throughout 1998 became a mob, and mobs are precisely what a free press exists to fight. So I fought.
At the same time, I’ve never shied from criticizing the Clintons where I thought it appropriate. I wrote a book about Hillary’s Senate campaign. It was certainly favorable overall—it would have been hard for it not to be since she started out as a much-maligned carpetbagger and ended up winning a near-landslide victory. But I included many criticisms of her and her campaign in the book. I’ve criticized her overly mistrustful posture toward the press. I’ve knocked her for her vote in favor of the Iraq War many times, and I was tough on her and Bill during the 2008 primary campaign, with those sometimes awful things that came out of her mouth about those hard-working “white Americans.”
But in the main, I’ve been a defender, and I’m totally comfortable being so. I find much to admire in her. Yes, all the things that are usually said—she’s very smart, she’s always prepared, she’s studious, and serious about the issues. But I admire other things too. I admire that it seems to be almost universally the case that Republicans who actually get to know her (former Senate colleagues, for instance) like and respect her. Trust me, that isn’t true of all senators by a long shot. And I admire her toughness. She has been force-marched through quicksand for 25 years by people who want to see her in jail, because they want to discredit the things she represents, things that to them represent moral threats to tradition. That’s why she was targeted, back in 1992. And yet she’s still standing and, seemingly, about to become president. Not many people could take it.
And on this subject: It’s all-too-rarely pointed out that we’re seeing all the emails we’re seeing only because of the existence of one organization that is dedicated to her destruction. Judicial Watch is a $20 million a year nonprofit that is in effect a get-Clinton organization. The Judicial Watch people would take great umbrage at that, of course, and to be sure, they’ve thrown enough punches at Republicans over the years to maintain their nonprofit status.
But go take stroll through the organization’s webpage of its recent press releases. There’s nothing about any Republicans. There are a few about the IRS, a couple about some “voter fraud” allegations, a handful pertaining to President Obama. But most are about Clinton. Judicial Watch has FOIA’d, as journalists say, nearly every document either Clinton has produced for 25 years. And that’s how all this stuff is getting out to the public—legal actions by one organization.
I’m not saying the Clintons never do anything wrong, and indeed, Hillary’s decision not to use a state.gov address is another matter over which I’ve criticized her. But I am saying that the Clintons are the only political figures in America I’m aware of whose every move is scrutinized by a $20 million organization with a battalion of lawyers whose job in essence is to find something on them that will drive them out of public life. I don’t think there are very many politicians in the country, under such scrutiny, who would look any better than the Clintons. A heck of a lot of them would look worse. And Donald Trump? Please. He’d be in exile in Russia.
I give you all that background so that you know the full context in which I say: The Clintons should shut the foundation down.
Now, let me note immediately, so no one needs to tweet this at me in a rage: No, no one who benefits from the Clinton Foundation’s good works should or need suffer. This, by the way, is another forgotten point, the millions of lives the foundation has saved or lengthened, the health outcomes it has so vastly improved, and the rest; it’s all real and commendable. I should also note that the foundation has an A rating from Charity Watch, with only 12 percent of money raised going to overhead.
As The Boston Globe noted in its editorial last week calling on the Clintons to shutter the foundation, all the good work can continue. I know it’s all incredibly complex, but surely it can be farmed out to other nonprofits that do similar work. Joe Conason, in his upcoming book Man of the World, about Bill’s post-presidency, discusses how some of this could happen. Some programs could be just ended, others could continue independently but rebranded, others could be swallowed up by other nonprofits. Done right, there need be no interruption of services.
So it’s good that last Thursday, the foundation announced that if Hillary wins, it will stop accepting corporate and foreign donations. It’s also good that Bill Clinton said Monday that he’ll pull back from the foundation, stepping down from the board and ending his fundraising role. But I don’t think that takes care of it. For example, the recent statements say nothing about large donations from American citizens, so presumably the foundation will still accept those, even if it’s not Bill soliciting them.
It’s depressingly easy to see how this could come to grief. A rich businessman donates millions to the foundation. He wants to build a pipeline across the Caucasus. Suddenly unrest erupts in Azerbaijan, and it becomes a global flash point. A Clinton administration has to make some policy decisions under a harsh international glare—with Putin looming large, since this is his corner of the world.
Then Judicial Watch obtains some emails or other documents showing that the businessman wanted to talk to a White House official. Not even that he did. Just that he wanted to. And what if he actually did talk to a White House official? There might well be nothing wrong with that—the businessman might simply have some knowledge to impart. But nearly all of Washington would instantly assume corruption.
Yes, it all might be unfair. But it would happen. And it would be hell on her poll numbers. It would reduce public support for her agenda (remember, Rush Limbaugh once said, “Whitewater is health care,” meaning that if the Clintons could be dirtied up, their agenda could be blocked). And she surely doesn’t want to give the opposition an excuse to do to her the kinds of things they did to her husband.
I cannot understand how the Clintons can’t see this. In humanitarian terms, the foundation has been a godsend for millions. But in political terms, it’s an albatross. I can’t fathom why they aren’t anxious to get the albatross out from around their necks.
They should have done it by now, in fact. They’ve known since at least the spring of 2015 that she was running, and they knew that she was very likely to be the Democratic nominee and would be favored to win the presidency. All of that has come to pass. I’ve thought about this a lot since last spring, and I always hoped that by now, they would have announced that the foundation will operate under far more stringent rules in the event of her election. And they’ve sort of done that. But ever since the Globe said just close it, I have to say, that strikes me as much simpler and cleaner. Its work will be done by others, but it just won’t exist. If something doesn’t exist, there can be no legitimate questions raised about it.
Such an announcement would, I think, surely nudge up her favorable numbers, which are stuck at around minus-14. And it would demonstrate, through action, that the Clintons want things to be different. Saying “things will be different” is not remotely the same as taking an action that shows people that things really will be different. I think it would help her a lot, and it would de-weaponize one of the only remaining clubs Trump has to use against her.
It would be a good thing to do right in advance of the first debate. But instead, what is apparently going to happen around then is the twelfth and final meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, which brings together dozens of corporate titans, foreign leaders, and celebrities. The Clintons are shutting down the CGI, and that’s good; but again, why didn’t they think of this last year? Seven weeks before Election Day and a week before the first debate, Bill hosts a three-day conference that will feed every negative Clinton story line.
I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. And not just because her opponent is a madman. I think she has it in her to be a very good president. She was a lot better at finding common ground as a senator than most people know. And it is worth remembering that no big scandals arose during her Senate years, so maybe that eight-year period gives us reason to hope she can run a tight ship. But keeping the foundation going is just inviting lawsuits and attacks that can keep a majority disinclined to trust her and support her initiatives. It won’t help her take the country where she wants to take it. It will get in the way. Again, I can’t fathom why she’d want that.