Chris Wallace never knew what hit him. There he was, doing what his father Mike has done for years on 60 Minutes: Asking a famous person the most obvious of questions. "Mr. President, did you do enough to stop Osama bin Laden?" — and suddenly Vesuvius was erupting.
Clinton's big meaty paw pounded Fox News reporter's leg. Clinton's big meaty face pressed ever closer, seemingly straining to escape its moorings. Clinton's red-meat attacks were laced with insults at Wallace's employer ("you did FOX's bidding on this show"), his politics ("You did you nice little conservative hit job on me"), and Wallace himself ("you've got that little smirk on your face. It looks like you're so clever.")
Chris Wallace survived the only way he could. He played dead. No more probing questions, no references to terrorism in the 1990s. Eventually the former president grew bored and abandoned Wallace's lifeless professional career in the Fox studios. The storm that is former president William Jefferson Clinton had passed.
The defining characteristic of Bill Clinton, in my opinion, is his transparency. Watch him for five minutes and you know exactly what he is up to. The conventional wisdom on Clinton is that he was a notorious liar and that these lies crippled his presidency. But I ask you: Who ever believed anything Bill Clinton said in the first place? Is it really a "lie" when everybody knows it's not true?
Of course he never intended a "middle class tax cut." Of course he "loathed the military." Of course he "had sex with that woman." And — despite what you saw on Fox News — of course Bill Clinton knows he failed the most important test of his presidency, the challenge of terrorism.
It is instructive that Clinton's answer to the Osama question includes what appears to be an admission of failure: "I tried, and I failed." But, in classic Clinton style, he follows it up with a tirade designed to make sure nobody believes what he just said.
"Fox News is after me, the Republicans never get asked these tough questions, the right-wingers hate me, George W. dropped the ball, blah, blah, blah." Clinton offered as objective proof of his commitment to fighting terrorism Richard Clarke's book on the subject, Against All Enemies.
And, in classic Clinton fashion, it turns out that pro-Clintonite Clarke contradicts the president. Clinton, Clarke concedes, had the power to get Osama, he had the opportunity to get Osama and he had the obligation to get Osama.
But Clinton couldn't act, paralyzed as he was by his pants — or lack thereof.
The day after Clinton's crack-up, former CIA Osama specialist Michael Scheuer, went even farther, telling CBS: "The former president seems to be able to deny facts with impunity. Bin Laden is alive today because Mr. Clinton, Mr. Sandy Berger, and Mr. Richard Clarke refused to kill him."
Let me repeat something I've often said: Blaming Clinton for 9/11 is as dumb as blaming George W. Bush for 9/11. Nobody saw it coming. America was having way too much fun riding the tech bubble and watching Seinfeld to take terrorism seriously, even as our embassies exploded and battleships blew up around the world. We didn't get it, and we didn't want to.
So if nobody is holding Clinton responsible, why is he swinging wildly at mild-mannered Chris Wallace? Some say he's angry in the knowledge that his presidential legacy will be defined by the terrorists who got away and the interns who didn't.
I don't think so. Remember: Clinton is transparent. It's all there. "I tried," Clinton said again and again. "I tried to get bin Laden."
What Clinton is really attacking is the idea that, if he was wrong, then fundamentally Bush must be right.
If "trying" is enough, then unpleasant wars in places like Iraq are not necessary. If "all we can do is try," than coercive interrogation of Al Qaeda terrorists — so distasteful to the ACLU left — is no longer required. When the next terror attack comes, good Clinton liberals can simply say "We tried." There will still be thousands of dead Americans, but hey — we gave it our best shot, right?
The Bush presidency, for all its failings (and they are legion) is a direct refutation of that argument. A president has the power to do more than try. He can act. He can reject the idea that the next plot to slam airplanes into office towers is the acceptable price of refusing to waterboard some Al Qaeda dirtbag who knew it was coming.
Clinton chose one path. Bush chose another. They both can't be right, and Clinton thinks he knows which one history will condemn as wrong. It hurts him, too.
Which is why Chris Wallace had to feel his pain.