Opinion and Forefront

KRULL: Questioning presidential legitimacy is new trend

April 14, 2012

John KrullBill Clinton wasn’t president yet when he plopped down next to me in the back seat of the Secret Service limousine, but he was on his way.

It was 20 years ago. Clinton had come to campaign in the Indiana presidential primary. After getting pounded early on charges of infidelity and draft-dodging during the Vietnam War, he had fought back to become the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

I snagged an interview with him as he traveled from the airport to a press conference at a downtown Indy hotel.

We sat wedged in the back seat. Clinton was behind the driver. I was in the middle. Clinton’s press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, was on the right.

I used a tape recorder for the interview and held it in front of Clinton as he spoke. Myers also used a tape recorder.

I asked Clinton the questions of the day—questions about how he was going to lead the country with all the doubts about his character and the anger his candidacy seemed to provoke.

Clinton parried them skillfully. He talked about his successes as governor of Arkansas in working with people who disagreed with and even disliked him. He said he had expected a tough fight in the campaign, but, once the election was over, people would settle down and work together.

Those answers came smoothly, because he had been asked the questions a lot. I wanted to ask him something that would get behind the rehearsed responses and reveal the person, not the candidate. I wanted to ask him how he explained the attacks on his character to his daughter, Chelsea, who was 12 then.

But I didn’t. Back then, I thought that question crossed the line.

I would ask it now. And I’m not sure the fact that I would ask it is a good thing.

We got to the press conference. The national and state press corps asked variations of the same questions I did. Clinton handled them with the same aplomb.

I didn’t realize then—and neither did the rest of the press corps—that they all were questions about Clinton’s legitimacy as a president and that they set the pattern.

We haven’t seen a presidency since Clinton’s in which the losers—on the right with Clinton and Barack Obama and on the left with George W. Bush—haven’t questioned and fought against the winner’s right to serve in the Oval Office.

It wasn’t always that way. Opponents disagreed with George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, but they didn’t dispute that they had won the office and had earned the right to exercise power.

It’s hard to know what produced the change.

We can look at individual characteristics—Clinton’s slickness, the second Bush’s swagger, and Obama’s race and aloofness—and come up with plausible reasons.

Or we can look at historical forces. The eight presidents preceding Clinton, from Dwight Eisenhower to the first Bush, all were World War II veterans. Maybe that shared service created a stamp of approval and set boundaries for political engagement.

The only thing we can know for sure is that it has changed.

Winners no longer get a honeymoon in the Oval Office. And losers no longer feel they have to honor the outcome of the election.

I caught up with Clinton again that year.

It was after the Democratic National Convention. He and his freshly chosen running mate, Al Gore, were taking a bus tour and made a stop in Evansville. By then, they were riding the wave that would carry them to the White House.

The crowds were huge. Clinton’s message was about the baby boomers coming to power. A sound system blared Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” Clinton and Gore stood on the back of a flatbed truck and waved. Thousands cheered.

When I talked with Clinton and Gore that day, they thought their worst days were behind them.

They were wrong about that.•

Krull directs Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, hosts the weekly news program “No Limits” on WFYI-FM 90.1, and is executive director of The Statehouse File. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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