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The Whitewater Proxy

By Kimberley Strassel

Hillary Clinton's been all the news this week, after she "misspoke" about Whitewater, Travelgate, missing files, suspicious pardons, Johnny Chung and cattle futures. Oh wait, after she "misspoke" about Bosnia. Oh wait, same thing.

That's one way to make sense of the unrelenting, unforgiving, 24/7 news coverage of Mrs. Clinton's fictional telling of Bosnian sniper fire and the subsequent debunking of her every word. In a nasty primary battle that has already featured racial slurs and Chicago slum lords, missing tax documents, and a "monster," you might expect this slip-up to have been yet another blip in the media cycle.

But that would have been to deny the press, the pundits, Democrats, and even Barack Obama, the catharsis of finally -- finally! -- getting a chance to confront the Clintons' questionable mores. Hillary's and Bill's scandals have been the elephant in the primary room ever since she first signaled a run. Yet up to now everyone has been too scared, or too loyal, or too weary to touch the ugly past. Her Bosnia misspeak is now serving as proxy for all the truths about the Clintons' non-truths, allowing even liberals to break free from their Clinton dependence.

And how liberating it is! The video of Mrs. Clinton's speech about Bosnian sniper fire, twinned with real footage of calmly strolling down the Tuzla tarmac, has been running on one continuous TV loop. Reporters have dug up every last person who accompanied her on the sedate trip to pour a little more salt in the wound. "The Audacity of Hoax," yelled a blog posting in the liberal Nation magazine, which innocently asked: "What else is she fibbing about?" Bill Burton, Barack Obama's spokesman, gleefully noted that Mrs. Clinton's recent attacks on his candidate were designed to deflect attention away from her "made up" Bosnia story. Heavy emphasis on the "made up" part. No need to mention Vince Foster, Red Bone, Marc Rich or Webster Hubbell. All this will do.

The real beauty of Mrs. Clinton's Tuzla torture is that it's self-inflicted. Up to now, Team Clinton had done a surreal job of keeping the scandal genie in its bottle. Think about it: Most of 1990s politics was defined by the Clinton White House, which in turn was defined by the Clintons' endless ethical firestorms. The American public remembers this, one reason why a majority consistently says in polls that Mrs. Clinton is "untrustworthy." And yet even as the former First Lady has lobbed ethical accusations at Mr. Obama -- slamming him for "plagiarizing" speeches, hitting him for his relationship with "slum landlord" Tony Rezko or the Reverend Jeremiah Wright -- her own past has remained a no-go zone for most of the press and for her rival.

This is hangover from the remarkable job the Clintons did in painting themselves as the victims of the so-called "right-wing attack machine." They, and their devotees, have carried that victim mentality into the present, and have made clear that anyone who revives the issues of billing records or cattle futures is little more than the second coming of Ken Starr. They've done such a remarkable job of portraying any investigation into their undeniable shenanigans as a "partisan" venture that even the press has looked away and whistled.

As for Mr. Obama, the Clintons have boxed him in with his own rhetoric. Mrs. Clinton is working hard to convince all those superdelegates that Mr. Obama would carry too much baggage with him in a general election. That's a debate he'd love to have, as he noted that he could fit his luggage neatly into an overhead compartment while she'd drag along a cargo hold of past scandals.

But this past weekend offered an example of how the Clinton team would fight back. That's when Obama Iowa coordinator, Gordon Fischer, used his blog to take issue with recent Bill Clinton comments about patriotism. "Bill Clinton cannot possibly seriously believe Obama is not a patriot, and cannot possibly be said to be helping -- instead he is hurting -- his own party. B. Clinton should never be forgiven. Period. This is a stain on his legacy, much worse, much deeper, than the one on Monica's blue dress," he wrote.

The blowback from the Clinton camp was tsunami-like. "This attack . . . the disgusting comments . . . a negative message . . . gutter politics," sputtered Clinton advisers on a conference call. "It's important that voters know that at the same time Sen. Obama talks about changing the tenor and tone of our politics," said communications director Howard Wolfson, Mr. Obama's campaign is attacking Sen. Clinton's "personal life." The Obama campaign sensed danger, and within a few hours, Mr. Fischer had donned a hair shirt and replaced his post with this: "I sincerely apologize for a tasteless and gratituous [sic] comment I made here about President Clinton. It was unnecessary and wrong."

No more apologizing. Now comes the euphoria, the liberation, the freedom of . . . Bosnian snipers! Suddenly, liberals all over are remembering that they never really liked the Clintons, even as they defended them in the 1990s. Suddenly, they can sidle into a discussion about Mrs. Clinton's ethics, and all on a subject that (bonus!) is relevant to today's race. Suddenly, they can break free of the Clintons, much as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson did earlier this week, with a look of ecstasy, as he ran toward the daylight and endorsed Mr. Obama.

Which is why it is no surprise that this week also saw the beginning of a tide of Democrats, many of them one-time Clinton defenders, calling on her to abandon her bid, laying out the reasons for why she cannot win this race, and telling her to let go for the good of the party. Mrs. Clinton, being a Clinton, may well ignore them. But what is clear is that questions about her character and honesty are no longer verboten. If she does stay in, answering them will become the new reality of her campaign.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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