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Commentary: Clinton to the rescue

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 13, 2009 - Former President Bill Clinton's secret mission to North Korea to rescue jailed American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee involved linguistic legerdemain, back-door diplomacy, public deception and the symbolic appeasement of an eccentric dictator. There is a word to describe this kind of underhanded, secretive international intrigue. That word is "good."

Critical Republicans and open-government purists are asked to take note of a few salient facts: (1) No brave young Americans were shipped home in flag-draped coffins as a result of the mission; (2) No Korean children were killed or maimed by U.S. ordnance in the course of its execution and (3) Both young women were returned home unharmed while a potentially fruitful channel of communication was opened with a hostile power.

Kudos are clearly in order and they fall, first and foremost, to the ex-president. Despite rabid vilification at the hands of his political adversaries, Bill Clinton left office a popular chief executive. The ensuing regime of George II helped to further burnish his memory. After all, what didn't you like about the Clinton Era -- was it the peace or the prosperity?

All but his most bitter critics now at least grudgingly admit that he did a pretty fair job steering the ship of state. But his domestic reputation pales in comparison to his image abroad, where he's regarded as something of a rock star. Indeed, according to press reports, it was the high honor of hosting a personal visit from the American celebrity that brought the recalcitrant Kim Jong Il on board for the prisoner release. Obviously, "Slick Willie" was the man of the hour in this diplomatic triumph.

For all the credit he deserves, Clinton is no longer the POTUS. The man who is, Barack Obama, sagely distanced himself from the proceedings. By ceding the headlines to his popular predecessor for a 24-hour news cycle, the president both demonstrated how confident he is in the office he holds and also afforded his State Department greater flexibility in any future negotiations with North Korea over the far more pressing issue of nuclear proliferation.

Obama is thus to be commended as well. Here's hoping that the quiet pragmatism he displayed in this matter will come to characterize his young administration's foreign policy posture.

Attempting to free imprisoned American journalists would normally be part of the secretary of state's job description. By allowing her famous husband to carry the ball on a high-profile case, Hillary Clinton took a back seat to secure the captives' release. Further, she trusted Bill to make the long flight home with two grateful young women -- no mean feat for a wife, given his somewhat checkered track record with the fairer sex.

Her role as second fiddle must have rankled because she later went off -- on camera -- when she was asked her husband's opinion on an issue of foreign affairs. Nonetheless, she did what was necessary to produce a successful conclusion.

Regrettably, this American feel-good story didn't make all Americans feel good. Ideological extremists have transformed our previously united states into an uneasy alliance of the red and the blue. In modern parlance, "E Pluribus Unum" often translates as "hurrah for me; screw you." Ironically, the people most likely to identify themselves as fervent patriots are the least likely to celebrate their country's triumph if credit for the victory goes to the wrong party.

Administration critics were thus quick to condemn the diplomatic rescue, claiming that it set a "dangerous precedent." They are apparently concerned that international terrorists will now kidnap hapless Americans in hopes of securing a free lunch with Bill. To hell with the two repatriated citizens who were spared 12 years in a North Korean labor camp, what matters here is how to spin the story for the next election cycle.

Obama has borrowed from Abe Lincoln and FDR in shaping his presidency. From Lincoln, he took the concept of a "team of rivals" -- incorporating former rivals into his administrative team. That's how Hillary wound up at State. From FDR, he adopted the Keynesian notion of massive government intervention to resuscitate a moribund economy.

It's still too early to fairly judge the effectiveness of either strategy. But if Obama's going to give himself a chance to succeed, he'd do well to include Bill Clinton among his philosophical mentors. Say what you will about the Clintons, when you hit them, they hit back. The Clinton White House countered every allegation -- however outrageous -- within the same news cycle that it was made.

Seemingly paranoid rumors about the president are presently running rife on the internet, talk radio and cable news. "Birthers" claim he is a native son of Kenya and is thus constitutionally ineligible for the presidency. "Deathers" allege his health-care reform entails a hit squad for oldsters to keep medical costs down.

Thus far, Obama has appeared largely above the fray on these issues. While his opponents wave the bloody shirt to incite the mob, his responses seem poised, perfunctory and patrician. That's the approach John Kerry employed while his presidential hopes were swift-boated from beneath him in August 2004.

If in fact, these charges are as nutty as they sound, the president would be better advised to emulate Clinton and, with lips quivering in quiet fury and index-finger pointed in justifiable outrage, take his case directly to the people.  Nothing beats looking into the camera and speaking your piece in unequivocal language. If you can't be sincere, fake it.

Try as they might, nobody could swift-boat Slick Willie -- no matter how much Whitewater they threw at him.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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