Breaking All the Rules

There is a time-honored tradition in American politics — a gentlemen’s agreement of sorts: Former presidents do not openly criticize current presidents, particularly on sensitive foreign-policy matters. Ex-presidents know intimately the difficulty of the job; they understand how much more burdensome the job can become when a former president publicly attacks a current president’s performance. Eisenhower, for example, held back his anger at John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion until the two met privately. George H. W. Bush did all he could to refrain from rebuking Bill Clinton during the tawdry 1990s.

Perhaps predictably, Bill Clinton — who has such little regard for propriety — has trashed this presidential tradition. At a time when the sitting president is practically begging for fair coverage of Iraq’s reconstruction and the war on terror generally, Bill Clinton has stepped to the cameras to question George W. Bush’s very understanding of the world’s present dangers.

In remarks made during a luncheon sponsored by the History Channel, Bill Clinton took a stab at his successor, claiming that, before Bush took office, he warned the incoming president about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden.

Reuters reported the former president as saying, “In his campaign, Bush had said he thought the biggest security issue was Iraq and a national missile defense. I told him that in my opinion, the biggest security problem was Osama bin Laden.” Clinton went on to list what he claimed were his presidential priorities: “I would have started with India and Pakistan, then North Korea, and then Iraq after that.” He said that he “thought Iraq was a lower order problem than al Qaeda.”

There is no way to know exactly what Clinton said to Bush behind closed doors. Fortunately, Clinton’s remarks on security issues throughout his term are a matter of public record. We can thus glimpse into the days of yore and see how well Clinton’s past statements match his supposed priorities. Such comparison is a kind of historical polygraph.

Enter the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. This is the official public collection of all presidential papers — every speech, statement, interview, appointment, message to Congress, press conference, and so on. By employing relevant key-word searches — the record from the Clinton years is available online — we can gain perspective on Clinton’s true national-security purview.

Admittedly, this is not a flawless research design. For instance, if a search on the word “Saddam” reveals 200 hits, this does not guarantee that the president uttered the word “Saddam” 200 times. Some of those references to Saddam may appear in the title or tagline of a speech or statement. Of course, when comparing the number of times a president mentioned certain names — such as, say, “Saddam” and “Osama” — this limitation applies to both names, and any errors usually even out.

On the other hand, each keyword “hit” tallied by the search engine refers only to a single document containing the word. In actuality, the word may be stated dozens of times within each document. Therefore, 200 document hits on “Saddam” (for example) may fall well below the total number of times a president mentioned Saddam Hussein.

At any rate, the total number of hits can be somewhat telling in signaling how much a president and his administration focused on a particular person or subject; it can reflect priorities quite effectively.

We performed several searches on the Clinton presidency, and the results are very interesting. Only 23 of his statements during his eight-year presidency mention bin Laden — despite the fact that the 1993 bin Laden-backed bombing of the World Trade Center took place during Clinton’s first year in office. Even more startling is the fact that al Qaeda was mentioned in only six documents. (Our search included all spelling variants of the terrorist organization’s name.)

What about the states that Clinton mentioned? India was mentioned by Clinton in 342 documents and Pakistan in 252. Next on his security-threats-to-neutralize list was North Korea, which produced 299 hits. And rounding out the bottom of Clinton’s to-do list was Iraq. Ironically, Clinton singled out Iraq in 490 separate presidential statements — usually with more than one mention of Iraq in each statement. The name “Saddam Hussein” showed up 190 times. So Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was mentioned 680 times in total, compared with 29 times for Osama’s al Qaeda.

Our probe into the presidential archives didn’t end there. Democrats who claim that Bush exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam’s pursuit of “weapons of mass destruction” will be interested to know that the term “weapons of mass destruction” turned up 533 times among Bill Clinton’s documents.

All of this evidence suggests that when Clinton recently offered his supposed list of priorities to Bush, he had them reversed. If a president’s priorities are reflected in his public words, then Clinton quite arguably considered Saddam’s Iraq a bigger priority than Osama’s al Qaeda.

To put it baldly, Osama wasn’t even on Clinton’s radar screen. Interestingly, even a former White House intern’s name eclipsed bin Laden’s: A search on “Lewinsky” garnered 25 hits.

To put this data in perspective, consider that, on average, Clinton statements mentioning bin Laden occurred once every 127 days, whereas Iraq popped up every 6 days of his presidency, and those elusive “weapons of mass destruction” appeared every 5.5 days.

Either Clinton’s claim to have warned Bush about bin Laden is a shameless component of Clinton’s ongoing campaign to remove the stain from his tarnished legacy, or it is political propaganda designed to harm George W. Bush. Whatever the motivation, Bill Clinton has again misrepresented reality. And once again, whether through the modern miracle of DNA testing or the present-day sophistication of a computer search engine, technology has checked him.