Bill Clinton's Round Of Shoe-Shines

Bill Clinton has stepped back into the spotlight for the latest round of public yak-yak. His foundation created something grandly called the "Clinton Global Initiative," a hot-air meeting of monarchs and global bureaucrats. He granted interviews to ABC, NBC, and CNN, and all three networks genuflected before him on cue.

Let's first dismiss the "news" that emerged, because it was another Clintonian yawner. Clinton bashed President Bush for supporting tax cuts and accused Republicans of intentionally lowering living standards for our children. In other words, it was the same old class warfare, Democrat-style, and worse. Clinton just can't stay in the shadows, and can't resist the urge to build himself up every five minutes by saying everything's gone sour since he left.

So how did his interviewers react to the same old nothingness? They blurred into a faceless mob of obsequious flatterers and publicists. Start with George Stephanopoulos at ABC. This interview served mostly to remind us that the Disney people thought the best "news" people to cover the Clintons were his former paid staffers.

Stephanopoulos began by agreeing with his old boss about the inevitable need for tax hikes: "You say roll back the tax cuts for the wealthy. [Bush] says no tax increase of any kind. We're spending $5 billion a month in Iraq, probably $200 billion on Katrina. Something's got to give." Clinton answered: "That's what I think." So much for the pretense of an interview. Stephanopoulos also asked liberal questions like whether Clinton agreed with alleged Republican Chuck Hagel that Iraq was a disaster, and what the Democratic bumper sticker should say in 2008.

It must be acknowledged that the old Clinton bimbo-patroller was the only TV questioner who came anywhere close to challenging Clinton, asking vaguely if there's anything more he could have done as president on disaster relief, or race relations. Clinton's answer suggested one reason why liberals don't give him tougher questions. He quickly grew boastful, and ridiculous. "We moved 100 times as many people out of poverty in eight years as had been moved out in the previous 12 years," he huffed. That's too comical to correct - and for Stephanopoulos, too delicious to challenge.

The best question of the Clinton-coddling weekend came when Stephanopoulos wondered why, if Republicans voted for his Supreme Court nominees in large numbers despite their ideological disagreements, why shouldn't Democrats do the same for John Roberts?

Unfortunately, when Stephanopoulos said "full disclosure, I worked for President Clinton from 1991 through 1996," that was not a full full-disclosure. If Stephanopoulos had really offered full disclosure, he would have told ABC viewers that he was working with Clinton the day before the interview aired, when he served as moderator for a panel discussion on interfaith dialogue for Clinton's Global Initiative. He wasn't alone. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, a regular panelist on ABC's Stephanopoulos spectacle, moderated a Friday session of Billfest.

CNN glorified Clinton at least twice. There was the obligatory Larry King interview on Friday night, with toughies like, "How did the idea for a global initiative begin?" On Saturday night, CNN devoted an hour-long special to "A Global Summit," with Clinton playing President of the World. Christiane Amanpour inquired: "What is the solution for stopping nearly a billion people around the world having to struggle on less than $1 a day?"

NBC also took advantage of two chances to puff Clinton. On Friday morning,"Today" host Matt Lauer made time for the tax-hike plug: "what sacrifices would you ask the American people to make to pay those bills?"

But the real disappointment in all of this was Tim Russert, the man usually armed with 200-word questions that include large Devil's-Advocate lumps of text designed to pin down the guest. The regular Russert viewer had to wonder if Russert had made delicate negotiations to secure the Clinton interview, with Clinton's main stipulation being "beg, and roll over."

Every Russert question was a quick sentence, and every Clinton answer seemed to go on, and on, and, endlessly, Clinton-style, on. I'm not kidding: you could put the Larry King interview and the Tim Russert interview side by side with the names scratched out, and not be able to tell the difference. Russert even ended with jokes, asking if Clinton would join the "Denis Thatcher Society" when we elected President Hillary.

The public deserves better. If Clinton's going to pull out the brass knuckles, then shouldn't the questions be tougher than the typical cotton candy? If he's so cosmically brilliant, why not throw him a mental curveball? We're not asking for thumb-screws or polygraphs or DNA tests, just a question tougher than "tell us how you're saving the world today."

The networks do not come to question him. They come to offer shoe shines, back rubs, and the telepathic message "wish you were still in charge, big guy."