While I was tussling with rightwing activist Grover Norquist this morning on NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show,” Norquist did what many conservatives do when confronted by the charge that George W. Bush dishonestly hyped the WMD threat in Iraq. He referred to Bill Clinton. The 42nd president, Norquist maintained, supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq because he (Clinton, that is) also believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The subject of the show was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and this point did not get fully explored. We had to stick to the film. My take on F9/11–thanks for asking–was that the movie is brilliant when it actually documents matters: civilian casualties in Iraq, the attitudes of American GIs there, the horrific costs paid by US soldiers, the anguish felt by relatives of dead Iraqi citizens and dead American GIs, and Bush’s seven minutes of do-nothing silence after being informed a second airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center. But the film is problematic and self-defeating when it offers overly conspiratorial connect-the-dot explanations: Bush attacked Afghanistan to benefit cronies who wanted to develop a pipeline there; Bush invaded Iraq to preserve the power of his ruling class and feed the ever-hungry war machine; the Bush clan’s too-tight relationship with the Saudis was to blame, somehow, for most things. But I noted that the film strongly–if briefly–made the case that the WMD argument for war had been a crock. That’s when Norquist brought Clinton into the picture.

As it happened, that same fellow was scheduled to be a guest on the show after we were done. And when Norquist and I left the studio–with Norquist noting that Clinton had recently been attacking only two conservatives by name, Kenneth Starr and himself–there was the famous author entering the station. Clinton glad-handed his way around. A dozen or so security people clogged the hallway. So I stood and waited for the whirlwind to pass.

But as Clinton walked by Norquist and me, he shook our hands and said, “You guys did a good job,” referring to our hour-long segment. Norquist nodded and made no mention of Clinton’s criticism of him. Clinton then asked me about a front-page story in The New York Times about those still-missing WMDs, saying he had only glanced at it.

This was a classic Clinton encounter, in which Clinton, ever the natural charmer, engaged the person in front of him by asking that person about something he knew was of interest to him or her and by asking for that person’s opinion (rather than spouting his own).

I obliged and explained the article reported that the CIA had been told before the war by relatives of Iraqi scientists that Iraq’s WMD program was kaput, but that the CIA had not passed this information on to Bush. As much as this revelation made the CIA look incompetent, I added, it was a sign that the GOPers in Congress are aiming to blame the WMD screw-up entirely on the Agency. This leak, no doubt, came from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is about to release a report on intelligence failures regarding Iraq’s supposed WMDs. But, I told 42, there had been plenty of instances prior to the invasion when Bush and his chief aides overstated WMD-related intelligence to make the threat from Iraq appear more pressing than the intelligence suggested. Clinton nodded and was about to move on.


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Then I recalled the exchange I had with Norquist.

When we were just on, I said to Clinton, Norquist claimed that you supported Bush’s invasion because you were concerned about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. Is that true?

The moment was reminiscent of that scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall when Allen is standing on line inside a movie theater lobby and listening to some blowhard in front of him expounding on the theories of real-life media critic Marhsall McLuhan. Allen then produces McLuhan from behind a movie poster, and McLuhan tells the man on line, “You know nothing of my work.” After that Allen says to the camera, “Boy, if life were only like this!”

With Norquist squeezed next to him, Clinton said that had not been his position. He acknowledged that he had endorsed the congressional resolution granting Bush the authority to wage war. But, he explained, that was because he had figured Hussein would not have permitted weapons inspectors to return to Iraq without the threat of force. “Hans Blix [the chief weapons inspector] was tough,” Clinton said, adding that he had wanted to see inspections continue.

Clinton, who later told Diane Rehm that he had indeed been concerned about the possibility of unaccounted-for WMDs in Iraq after inspections ended in 1998, dismissed WMDs as a reason to go to war. “Paul Wolfowitz tried to get me to invade Iraq,” he recalled. In the 1990s, he said, Wolfowitz considered Iraq to be “the biggest problem”–greater than terrorism or the absence of peace in the Middle East.

Being kind to an ideological foe, Clinton noted that Wolfowitz had developed a whole theory about how a US invasion of Iraq would lead to a democratic Iraq and that the existence of this new Iraq would remake the region. Clinton indicated he never accepted this point of view, but it was, he said, a theory worth debating. Referring to the Bush administration’s rationale for war, he remarked, “They should have just said that, without the pretext [of WMDs].” It was a polite way of saying the Bushies had been untruthful. After all, who is Clinton to call another president a liar?

With radio station staffers and security people trying to coax Clinton into the studio, our brief interview was over. “Good to see ya,” he said in his drawl, and he headed down the hallway.

“That was illuminating,” I said in Norquist’s direction. I don’t recall if he responded. I was too busy writing in my notebook.


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