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Clinton's Intimidation Tactics Were Way Out of Line

By Mark Davis

I don't mean to spoil an entire week of multilayered analysis, but the Bill Clinton spectacle over the weekend on Fox News Sunday comes down to one simple thing: once a bully, always a bully.

I confess to enjoying these last three days of hearing people comb through every syllable of the 42nd president's interview with Chris Wallace. Did he blow his stack on purpose? What was he trying to do? Was he plotting to pick a fight no matter how the interview went?

We'll never know for sure, but when wondering about such things, it is often useful to revisit certain basics. The fundamental themes that help explain the Sunday interview meltdown are loss of control, legacy protection and intimidation.

The 42nd president's loss of his usually breezy composure is what made the exchange more newsworthy. If you had told me a week ago that a simple question about how fiercely he pursued Osama bin Laden would send him into a purple-faced snit complete with conspiracy-theory raving, I would have scoffed.

Mr. Clinton has a short fuse, but he is not dumb. Any temper issues he has - and they are legendary - have been kept under control by his nearly unparalleled political acumen. So where did that poise go as Mr. Wallace asked a thoroughly mannerly question about the Clinton anti-terror record?

The answer is revealed in the first words out of his presidential mouth. "First I want to talk about the context in which this arises. I'm being asked this on the Fox Network."

Huh? How in the world does that matter? Is there something otherworldly about fielding a question from someone who might not share your politics? Ask Ronald Reagan or either President Bush about any interview conducted over the years by CNN, ABC, CBS or NBC, to say nothing of the agenda-setting major newspapers. Can you imagine a Republican president angrily obsessing about the questioner to the questioner's face before attempting an answer?

By the time the Clinton tantrum was over, it was clear he had two goals - to defend his record and to energize Democrats by giving a dreaded Fox personality the old what-for.

Unfortunately for him, his preoccupation with one goal may have submarined the other. It is fair for Mr. Clinton to say he was no more expecting a terror hit than any other pre-9/11 president. He is entitled to recount, however imaginatively, the behind-the-scenes events at the White House during the '90s. He can also hawk Richard Clarke's fawning book all he pleases. But when he drops off his hinges and conspiratorially demeans the questions' validity, he reveals a deeper truth.

"You did Fox's bidding." "You did your nice little conservative hit job on me." These bizarre interjections were an attempt to intimidate Mr. Wallace and any future interviewers who might dare to question the Clinton commitment to fighting terror. Presidential legacies take hold over decades, mostly after a president's death. Mr. Clinton may live 30 more years, but he wants the legacy stuff wrapped up right now.

I don't believe the former president sat down intending to lose that much cool. But I do believe he was spoiling for a degree of conflict that would bolster his anti-terror credentials and energize Democrats to "get tough" with anyone doubting the party's national security credentials.

For his part, Mr. Wallace also rejects rumors of a planned outburst, relating that the room remained tense after the cameras shut down and that Mr. Clinton and his aides left arguing about the ugly scene that had unfolded.

There was no rational cause for it. Mr. Clinton can properly insulate himself from most criticism by pointing out that there was no loud public cry for military action after the 1993 World Trade Center attacks or even after the 2000 USS Cole bombing. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were not sufficiently on any radar screen to justify a major mobilization to take them out.

We were simply not yet on a war footing, as the saying goes.

But the former president is clearly on a war footing now - against anyone who even civilly asks him to account for how terror was fought while he ran the country.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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