A hallmark of the presidency of Bill Clinton, twice elected and once impeached, has been the ability to have it both ways on demand.
But the dope smoker who didn't inhale had to stretch even his rare gifts of connivance last week in Seattle.
The World Trade Organization meeting there was supposed to have been Clinton's post-dalliance gesture of serious purpose, a political build on his early-term triumph with the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Alas, politics intruded. And the President who staged a pep rally on the White House lawn after being impeached just couldn't pass up the chance to demand to have it both ways again. He turned a meeting designed to create an agenda for the next round of international trade talks into a domestic political forum.
Clinton knows that his legacy would benefit from succession by Vice-President Al Gore. But the Gore campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination stumbled in its early going. It looked for a while as though former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey might swipe the candidacy.
So Gore cashed in his liberal chits with organized labor and environmentalists, who can deliver the so-called superdelegates who play an especially strong role in the Democratic Party's nomination process. Clinton, although held at a conspicuous distance by Gore, has been only to eager to oblige by pandering to the liberal groups. If Gore somehow wins the presidency and back-casts symbolic legitimacy on Clinton's 8 years in office, who will remember how he snubbed his boss during the campaign?
So the World Trade Organization approaches its meeting in Seattle with Clinton saying the right things in support of the concept of international trade but introducing a couple of twists where specifics are concerned. He first signs an executive order requiring environmental reviews for trade negotiations. Then, as talks begin, he brazenly stiff-arms developing countries by demanding that trade agreements include core labor standards, enforceable by sanctions.
The man thus demands it one way where trading partners are concerned and a quite different way for domestic labor unions and environmental radicals. He wants it one way in international affairs and another way in domestic politics. Most politicians wouldn't even try to get away with such duplicity. Clinton thrives on it.
In Seattle, protests against the WTO turned violent as assorted malcontents kicked in store windows to demonstrate the maturity of their beliefs and the sophistication of their politics. Most of them, to the extent they were able to utter anything intelligible at all, held up labor or environmental issues as causes for which to self-righteously whiff tear gas and log jail time.
This reprise of the 1960s was supremely embarrassing to the US. In the absence of firm leadership, the civil disruption coupled with Clinton's labor and environmentalist torpedoes might well succeed in setting back trade negotiations. That means less economic growth than would otherwise be possible and, therefore, less demand for oil and gas. For the oil and gas industry, hungry people of the world, and anyone else with a stake in economic progress, the fiasco in Seattle is no small matter.
It might also scramble politics for the Democrats, who only months ago were trashing Republicans as isolationist. Who's isolationist now?
It all seemed to inspire the President this week, however. Having lauded free trade in general for international audiences while sabotaging it on behalf of pet domestic constituencies, the President deplored the violence but implored the WTO to listen to what the protestors had to say.
Smoking without inhaling again. No one does it better.