Several media outlets have claimed that, in a November 5 speech to the American Postal Workers Union, former President Bill Clinton attacked Democratic presidential candidates for "swift-boating" his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), following her response to a question from Democratic presidential debate moderator Tim Russert about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's (D) proposal to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. In fact, in his speech, Bill Clinton criticized Republican attacks on Democrats and the role the media play in contributing to such attacks.
From Clinton's speech:
PRESIDENT CLINTON: [T]he point I'm here to make to you is whoever you're for, this is a really big election. We saw what happened the last seven years when we made decisions in elections based on trivial matters. When we listened to people make snide comments about whether Vice President [Al] Gore was too stiff. When they made dishonest claims about the things that he said that he'd done in his life. When that scandalous Swift boat ad was run against Senator [John] Kerry [D-MA].
When there was an ad that defeated [former Sen.] Max Cleland [D] in Georgia -- a man that left half his body in Vietnam. And a guy that had several deferments ran an ad with Max Cleland's picture with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, because he dared to vote against the president's version of the Homeland Security bill.
Most Americans still don't know the truth. The president was against the Homeland Security bill for eight and a half months. And [former White House senior adviser] Karl Rove told him they were going to lose the 2002 elections unless the American people were scared about terror again. So, they decided to be for a bill they'd opposed -- and they put a poison pill in it.
That bill was designed by the president to take the job rights away from 170,000 federal employees that had no access to secure information, no access to secure technology, no business being treated like CIA agents. Look, we need to be able to fire CIA agents without going through a long process in the public, right? ... But we don't need to treat secretaries at FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] that way. I mean, the whole thing was a scam.
So Max Cleland said, "I didn't go to Vietnam and leave one arm and two legs to come home and hold my job by stripping the job rights from 170,000 good, hard-working Americans. I won't do it. So they put an ad on comparing him to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
Why am I saying this?
Because, I had the feeling, at the end of that last debate, we were about to get into cutesy land again. "Ya'll raise your hand if you're for illegal immigrants getting driver's licenses." So, we'll then let the Republicans run an ad saying, "All the Democrats are against the rule of law."
I don't -- look, I think it's fine to discuss immigration. We should. Illegal immigration needs to be discussed, and it's fine for Hillary and all these other guys to be asked about Governor Spitzer's plan -- but not in 30 seconds, yes, no, raise your hand. This is a complicated issue. This is a complicated issue.
So, do I hope you'll vote for my wife? You bet I do. It'd be good for America and good for the world. But, more than that, I came here to tell you today: Don't you dare let them take this election away from you. This belongs to you and to your children -- and to the future of America.
Don't be diverted. Don't be divided. Our best days are still ahead, claim them. Thank you.
A November 7 New York Times article reported, "Jay Carson, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton's campaign, said Mr. Clinton had not been referring to Democratic candidates' criticisms of his wife but to Republicans' criticism of her debate performance." Yet several media outlets described Bill Clinton's comments as an attack on Hillary Clinton's Democratic rivals.
In a November 7 blog post, Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo similarly noted the media's misreading of Clinton's comments.
From the November 7 edition of the New York Daily News:
Democratic White House candidates ridiculed Bill Clinton Tuesday for suggesting they were trying to sink Hillary Clinton's bid with slimy Swift boat-style attacks.
It was a rare rebuke of the popular ex-President by Sen. Clinton's rivals, who pounced on her debate stumble last week to challenge the aura of invincibility her campaign cultivates.
Barack Obama told The Associated Press he was "stunned" when Bubba on Monday compared criticism of his wife's waffling with the 2004 television ads that questioned the patriotism and Vietnam heroics of President Bush's Democratic opponent, John Kerry.
"How you would then draw an analogy to distorting somebody's military record is a reach," Obama said.
Chris Dodd deemed Bill Clinton's suggestion "outrageous."
"To have the former President come out and suggest this is a form of Swift-boating ... is way over the top in my view," he added.
Bill Clinton theorized the recent Democratic debate in Philadelphia, in which Hillary Clinton was criticized for zigzagging on Gov. Spitzer's controversial driver's license plan, veered dangerously close to intraparty character assassination.
From the November 7 edition of the New York Post:
Bill Clinton found himself in an unusual and uncomfortable position yesterday - drawing intense fire from Democratic presidential candidates and a brushback from his wife's own campaign.
Barack Obama and Chris Dodd both took rare shots at the former president for claiming that critics of Hillary's stance on giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants were unfairly trying to "swift boat" her.
"To have the former president come out and suggest this is a form of swift boating ... is way over the top in my view," said Dodd, a Connecticut senator.
Obama fumed: "I was pretty stunned by that statement."
It's the first time any Democratic candidates have attacked Bill Clinton, who is enormously popular among party members.
The rebukes came after Bill took a swipe at his wife's rivals. He likened recent Democratic attacks against his wife to a "scandalous" 2004 ad by John Kerry's fellow swift boat Vietnam veterans, questioning the candidate's military valor. He also compared the controversy to a 2002 ad that linked former Sen. Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
After recalling the earlier political attacks, which still set Democrats seething years later, Bill Clinton said, "I had the feeling that at the end of that last debate, we were about to get into cutesy land again."
In a stunning in-house slap at the former president, a senior adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign said the former president's remarks were not part of campaign strategy and were considered counterproductive by her advisers.
From the November 7 edition of CBS' The Early Show:
HANNAH STORM (anchor): What do you make of Bill Clinton criticizing Hillary Clinton's Democratic rivals, saying they were swift-boating her?
O'REILLY: You see, I don't believe anything the press writes about Bill and Hillary Clinton at all.
STORM: Oh, really?
O'REILLY: No. I think they make it up. You know, it's -- and I do this because they make stuff up about me. They make stuff up about any controversial figure. So, they're sitting around going, "What can we say about Bill Clinton?" We tracked it yesterday, and we couldn't find any Swift boat reference that Bill Clinton --
STORM: So you're saying he never said it?
O'REILLY: I don't know. I couldn't find it. I didn't report it. I couldn't find it. I had a segment last night on The Factor. I couldn't find it.
STORM: What's Barack Obama's stance, then?
O'REILLY: I don't know.
STORM: Because he's criticizing Bill -- he's taking on Bill Clinton.
From the November 6 edition of MSNBC Live:
NORAH O'DONNELL (host): And the news today, interestingly, Bill Clinton is now weighing in on this subject about whether there's a lot of piling on on his wife.
TODD: It is. He did it from another way. I mean, he sort of tried to deflect the criticism and say, "Oh, Republicans are now criticizing our answer on the driver's license for illegal immigrants," saying it reminds him of the whole Max Cleland and John Kerry -- the swift-boating of John Kerry -- and the Max Cleland attacks from 2002. It does make you sort of shake your head. You're like, "Wait a minute. So is he accusing Democrats of swift-boating?" -- because it's mostly been Democrats that have been critical of Senator Clinton on that answer. Sure, we had Rudy Giuliani and a couple of Republicans take a few cheap shots, but this was a Democratic debate that this happened.
O'DONNELL: It is an interesting tactic because Bill Clinton is going to be campaigning for his wife later this week in Iowa, and we can already see he's going to defend her and say, "Don't touch my wife, that's a swift-boating, that's essentially what's been done to John Kerry and Max Cleland."
TODD: It's interesting. We're now almost a week since that debate. They are spending a lot of time spinning out of it. It does feel as if -- you can't help but wonder: Have they seen something in their polling? Did they see something in their focus groups that didn't go well? And they want to make sure that they're fixing this and fixing it quickly. I mean, that was always the whole idea of the Clinton war room back in the '92 campaign, is never let a charge go unresponded to.