The Rosett Report

What Bill Clinton's Critics Really Said About Bin Laden

It’s Bill Clinton’s call, if in an interview with Fox News he wishes to give us a flash of his old red-faced grandiosity, telling his interviewer, Chris Wallace: “You did your nice little conservative hit job”; “You’ve got that little smirk on your face.”

But what absolutely does not deserve to stand is Clinton’s bizarre re-write of history in answer to Wallace’s question about why he didn’t do more to put Osama bin Laden out of business. Clinton scolded that “All the conservative Republicans who now say I didn’t do enough, claimed I was too obsessed with bin Laden… All the right-wingers who now say I didn’t do enough said I did too much — same people.”

All? Are we now supposed to believe that in 1998 Clinton’s critics on the right were hounding him for doing too much about bin Laden? Let’s take a moment to remember the late Bob Bartley, editor for three decades of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial-page, and for years one of Bill Clinton’s keenest critics. It is a huge loss that Bob is no longer among us to offer much-needed wisdom on the perils ahead. He died in 2003. But Clinton’s words brought back for me a memory of August 20, 1998 — the day Clinton announced he had launched attacks targeting Osama bin Laden’s “terrorist-related facilities” in Afghanistan and Sudan. Back then, I was working for the Journal’s editorial page. Bob was my boss. There was an editorial meeting at which a number of us debated what to say. There were arguments that this was a wag-the-dog moment, with Clinton trying to distract attention from his own grand jury testimony and impending impeachment. Bob settled the matter, saying that even if Clinton was targeting bin Laden for the wrong reasons, at least Clinton was finally doing something about terrorism — and it was important to encourage that.

The result was a Wall Street Journal editorial, published the next morning, August 21, 1998, which James Taranto, editor of Opinionjournal.com, has just been kind enough to retrieve and post at my request: “The System Strikes Back.”

In this editorial, the Journal praised Clinton’s action, saying “We’re glad to see him now striking back at terrorists and those who harbor them.” The editorial went on to note that: “By and large, Mr. Clinton’s critics have supported the actions,” mentioning, among the supporters, both Newt Gingrich (“the right thing to do at the right time”) and Jesse Helms (“the United States’ political leadership always has, and always will, stand united in the face of international terrorism”).

Far from criticizing Clinton for doing too much, the editorial advised — words we can only wish Clinton had heeded — “We can only hope there is some follow-through.”

There wasn’t. Bob Bartley is no longer here to speak for himself, but he was a man of principles and vision, and he left a considerable published record. It is unseemly for a finger-wagging former president to try to re-write that history — especially while sounding off about how to run the world today.