With the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing Monday, former President Bill Clinton is playing a starring role in the liberal effort to draw what the New York Times calls “parallels between the antigovernment tone that preceded that devastating attack and the political tumult of today.” The short version of the narrative is: Today's Tea Partiers are tomorrow's right-wing bombers.
On Friday, Clinton spoke at a symposium on the bombing organized by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, founded and run by John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who also directed the Obama transition. The theme of Clinton's remarks was that movements like the Tea Party, characterized by extreme right-wing rhetoric, could lead to political violence. In the last few days, news accounts in the Times (“Recalling '95 Bombing, Clinton Sees Parallels”), Newsweek (“Hate: Antigovernment extremists are on the rise — and on the march”), and ABC News (“Watch your words”) drove home Clinton's point. “This is a legitimate thing to do,” the former president said, “drawing parallels to the time running up to Oklahoma City and a lot of the political discord that exists in our country today.”
What Clinton and his supporters do not talk about is the way in which Clinton, aided by pollster/adviser Dick Morris, exploited the bombing to make a political comeback from what was the lowest point in Clinton's presidency to that time. (The Lewinsky scandal was still three years in the future.) In the days after Oklahoma City, Clinton and Morris devised a plan to use the bombing to discredit and outmaneuver the new Republican majority in Congress.
Clinton was in deep political trouble in April 1995. Six months earlier, voters had resoundingly rejected Democrats in the 1994 mid-term elections, giving the GOP control of both House and Senate. Polls showed the public viewed Clinton as weak, incompetent and ineffective. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his GOP forces seized the initiative on virtually every significant issue, while Clinton appeared to be politically dead. The worst moment may have come on April 18, the day before the bombing, when Clinton plaintively told reporters, “The president is still relevant here.”
And then came the explosion at the Murrah Federal Building. In addition to seeing a criminal act and human loss, Clinton and Morris saw opportunity. If the White House could tie Gingrich, congressional Republicans and conservative voices like Rush Limbaugh to the attack, then Clinton might gain the edge in the fight against the GOP.
Morris began polling about Oklahoma City almost immediately after the bombing. On April 23, four days after the attack, Clinton appeared to point the finger straight at his political opponents during a speech in Minneapolis. “We hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other,” he said. “They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable.”
At a White House meeting four days later, on April 27, Morris presented Clinton with a comeback strategy based on his polling. Morris prepared an extensive agenda for the session, a copy of which he would include in the paperback version of his 1999 memoir, Behind the Oval Office. This is how the April 27 agenda began:
AFTERMATH OF OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING
A. Temporary gain: boost in ratings — here today, gone tomorrow
B. More permanent gain: Improvements in character/personality attributes — remedies weakness, incompetence, ineffectiveness found in recent poll
C. Permanent possible gain: sets up Extremist Issue vs. Republicans
Later, under the heading “How to use extremism as issue against Republicans,” Morris told Clinton that “direct accusations” of extremism wouldn't work because the Republicans were not, in fact, extremists. Rather, Morris recommended what he called the “ricochet theory.” Clinton would “stimulate national concern over extremism and terror,” and then, “when issue is at top of national agenda, suspicion naturally gravitates to Republicans.” As that happened, Morris recommended, Clinton would use his executive authority to impose “intrusive” measures against so-called extremist groups. Clinton would explain that such intrusive measures were necessary to prevent future violence, knowing that his actions would, Morris wrote, “provoke outrage by extremist groups who will write their local Republican congressmen.” Then, if members of Congress complained, that would “link right-wing of the party to extremist groups.” The net effect, Morris concluded, would be “self-inflicted linkage between [GOP] and extremists.”
Clinton's proposals — for example, new limits on firearms and some explosives that were opposed by the National Rifle Association — had “an underlying political purpose,” Morris wrote in 2004 in another book about Clinton, Because He Could. That purpose was “to lead voters to identify the Oklahoma City bombing with the right wing. By making proposals we knew the Republicans would reject…we could label them as soft on terror an imply a connection with the extremism of the fanatics who bombed the Murrah Federal Building.”
It was a political strategy crafted while rescue and recovery efforts were still underway in Oklahoma City. And it worked better than Clinton or Morris could have predicted. In the months after the bombing, Clinton regained the upper hand over Republicans, eventually winning battles over issues far removed from the attack. The next year, 1996, he went on to re-election. None of that might have happened had Clinton, along with Morris, not found a way to wring as much political advantage as possible out of the deaths in Oklahoma City. And that is the story you're not hearing in all the anniversary discussions.