On priorities and presidents

If you tuned into one of the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday—that most coveted of political press spots, conveying what matters most at the center of America’s political universe—you probably caught Bill Clinton speaking from his home in Chappaqua, New York. He was seated in front of a Clinton Global Initiative banner and he was talking to David Gregory on Meet the Press, and Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, and Christiane Amanpour on ABC’s This Week.

Not a “full Ginsburg.” But full enough for a former president that was ostensibly there for a PR exercise for the Clinton Global Initiative, which has its annual meeting later this week. In a week in which Washington will be talking about the American Jobs Act and Palestine’s statehood bid, do we really need that much Bill Clinton?

Granted the former president’s initiative has something to do with jobs—he mentioned efforts to train craftsmen in Haiti to both Gregory and Schieffer—which is a pressing matter right in America too, now. And he was better suited than most to comment on some timely matters of substance—peace prospects in the Middle East, political gridlock—as well some of last week’s least productive media sideshows: James Carville tells Obama to ‘panic’; part of the nation wishes we had Hillary for president. But still.

Though Clinton cautioned his hosts that he didn’t “have a feel” for Washington, all three spent more far more time talking politics with Clinton than letting him promote his initiative (can’t argue with that decision).

AMANPOUR: Now, sir, your mantra right now is jobs, jobs, jobs. What do you think can happen to radically shift the unemployment picture and, also, pass muster in Washington in these very partisan times?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I don’t know that I am the best person to answer the second part of that question, but I believe that we—those of us who aren’t in government—can think of ways to create jobs which will reinforce what I believe are the positive suggestions coming out of Washington. Essentially, the president’s plan has big payroll tax cuts in it which will benefit the economy by lowering the average family’s tax bill about $1,500, and then they can have that to spend. That will help. And then by lowering payroll taxes for employers, will make it more attractive for them to hire new people.

Clinton’s caution was presumably somewhat disingenuous; it certainly didn’t stop him from giving his opinions nor the hosts from pressing on with their Beltway baseball questions.

MR. GREGORY: It would be malpractice on my part, Mr. President, if I didn’t ask you about politics. You know a thing of two about political leadership and about how to get re-elected. So I have to show you what your good pal and old political hand, James Carville, is saying about this president and his troubles. I’ll put it up on the screen.

But whether or not Clinton has his finger on the pulse of Washington politics, he raises a good point when he wonders if he is the “best person” to ask.

How about hearing from an elected official? Or a decision maker of some kind? Or someone without the built-in platform of being an ex-president? Obviously, Clinton still holds incredible influence in the world, and is worth hearing from on occasion. Certainly, he has a mystique that might draw audiences and a prestige that might please networks. But that’s no reason to give him a Sunday morning monopoly.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.