It's hard to imagine three political rivals more likely to privately admire one another's values on race and civil rights than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. So it's a relief that, even as the tenor of their campaigns becomes increasingly harsh in other respects, they've agreed to spare Democrats any more gratuitous skirmishing around race.
A second step forward in campaign decorum would be some self-restraint on Bill Clinton's part. I count myself among his legions of 1990s-era campaign supporters and impeachment opponents still nostalgic about his two terms in office. Thus it gives me no great pleasure now to chastise him in print. But let's be blunt: In his shrill attacks on Senator Obama's candidacy, President Clinton is demeaning himself and jeopardizing his well-earned stature as statesman.
That Bill Clinton has a favored candidate in the Democratic horse race is understandable, and anything short of an enthusiastic affirmation of Senator Clinton as the best leader for the country would be odd. He's right to celebrate his wife's personal qualities and her decades of various forms of public service. Giving voters insight into the kind of experience she chalked up as a substantively engaged first lady makes sense. And chiming in on the nexus between experience, judgment, and leadership is perfectly fair game.
But he crosses the line when he tries to sabotage a candidacy rightly recognized – even by Republicans seeking the White House – as a breath of fresh air. Slamming as "fairy tale" Obama's asserted consistency on Iraq policy is ludicrous, when any fair reading of the record shows that Obama has been far steadier in his opposition to the war, and in his prescription going forward, than either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Edwards. Still more unbecoming is Mr. Clinton's peremptory dismissal of Obama's groundbreaking – and, for many, exhilarating – candidacy as a "roll of the dice."
Handing such ammunition to Obama's Republican opponent in the fall – should he happen to win the nomination – is a disservice to the party and to one of its brightest stars. And it's inexcusable when perpetrated by the leading living member of the Democratic pantheon.
There is no quibble here with a choice by Hillary Clinton and her team to conduct a tough campaign, even one that may occasionally employ the tactics of distortion and innuendo. Americans have come to expect such tactics from most of those seeking high office, at least some of the time. This is politics, the stakes are high, and winning the election is priority No. 1. In this context, campaign roles and identities are unambiguously understood: Mrs. Clinton is the candidate; her surrogates are her agents.
Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, is not just another campaign mouthpiece. He is more than simply a citizen with the right to air his views and more than merely a candidate's spouse. He is, and will remain, "President Clinton," and Democrats' beloved former leader. When he takes the stage on his wife's behalf, he can't pretend to set aside these identities.
Does "America's first black president," as Mr. Clinton has been affectionately dubbed, have a special obligation toward Obama because of the latter's race? My answer would be an emphatic "no," and I suspect that neither Obama nor most African-Americans would want any such special treatment.
But what all Americans have a right to expect from a distinguished former president is that he not treat his wife's campaign as a holiday from his role as statesman. If Mr. Clinton can (mostly) hold his tongue about his successor's two terms, based on president-to-president etiquette, he can leave the intraparty negativity to the candidates themselves and their lesser surrogates.
Pundits can, and do, debate how much Bill Clinton's campaigning has helped or hurt his wife's quest to become the nation's 44th president. But what's clear is that, thus far, it's damaging the legacy of William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd president of the United States.