Often a light-hearted history lesson, the study of the presidential golf game nevertheless threatens to expose serious character defects of the commander in chief. (Of note, the study of our White House duffers has now advanced to the point of overtaking an entire book: First Off the Tee by New York Times reporter Don Van Natta, Jr.) For at least one Clinton military aide, however, the President’s fairway conduct was not a subject of cheery observation. As Lt. Col. James “Buzz” Patterson slams in his White House memoir Dereliction of Duty,
“My first inklings into the makeup and personality of Bill Clinton and those he surrounded himself with came during these golf outings…Even in these inconsequential golf games, he would cheat with ball placements and extra shots. The way he played golf, I came to understand, was not just a peccadillo but symptomatic of the way he approached life.”
From 1996 to 1998,
Patterson — a career Air Force pilot and squadron commander — was one of five military aides selected to tote the nuclear “football,” a leather-bound case that enables, by means of the presidentially-held nuclear codes, the push-button launch of Armageddon. Consequently, the on-duty Patterson rarely left the President’s side and was able to closely observe Clinton’s second-term behavior.
One-on-one, Patterson found the President likable and undeniably charismatic. But Clinton ultimately came across as a man more of appearance (as the major fudging of his golf score would signify) than backbone. And, that being the case, Clinton’s shortage of moral fiber informs Patterson’s two-fold indictment: first, against the President’s renowned lechery and, second, against his misadministration of the armed forces.
Mercifully, comments on the former (with only a passing mention of the Lewinsky affair) are not the heart of Dereliction of Duty. And by moving away from a terribly beaten subject, Patterson mostly sidesteps the distracting cattiness that can go with it. The evidence that Patterson does provide of Clinton’s college-boy id, which was in full display on Air Force One (but never in the imperious presence of Hillary), is mostly known: the marathon poker playing, the junk-food hoovering, and the flagrant ogling.
But Patterson does allege yet another violation by a President with one serious impulse problem: Clinton’s groping of a female steward on Air Force One. Afterward Clinton was obliged to apologize privately to the unnerved woman, who also happened to be an enlisted member of the Air Force. However, Patterson found that penalty insultingly mild. He writes, “I brooded over the fact that if our commander in chief had been actually serving in the armed services, he would have been jailed.”
Chiefly, however, Patterson rails against Clinton’s weaseling vis-à-vis his ignorance of and contempt for the military. And these presidential faults, Patterson credibly argues, led to the don’t-ask-don’t-tell mess and serious missteps like the humiliation in Somalia, the ineffectuality in Rwanda, and the aimlessness in Haiti. Evidently, Clinton was also an artful dodger of his commander-in-chief duties. The author was stunned when the President — during a golf tournament, no less — ignored National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s repeated calls for a timely “go” on a strategic assault against Iraq.
But Patterson believes that Clinton’s most negligent blunder was to endanger Americans by systematically dismantling the U.S. military and by viewing terrorists — for example, perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — as criminals instead of enemy combatants. As a result, Clinton emboldened Islamic terrorism and al Qaeda, specifically. This is Patterson’s most intriguing assertion, and Patterson believes it’s no coincidence that Clinton’s terms were virtually bookended by the botched attempt to destroy the towers in 1993 and the ultimate horror of 2001. Patterson reveals a highly regrettable episode in 1998, when Clinton dithered and finally balked during a two-hour window to smart-bomb bin Laden.
Patterson goes on to argue that Clinton’s indecision had as much to do with the administration’s indulgence of Middle Eastern terrorism as it did with the President’s timidity: “Ideologically, the Clinton administration was committed to the idea that most terrorists were misunderstood, had legitimate grievances, and could be appeased…” This is about the only ideology that Patterson grants the Clinton administration.
Patterson ultimately caps his observations on Clinton’s mishandling of foreign and military affairs with a lengthy excerpt from former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s In the Arena: A Memoir of the 20th Century. It’s an authoritative (and therefore welcome) coda, to be sure, which undeniably elevates Patterson’s argument. But the addition itself seems to be a bit of cheating — sort of like raking your ball into the hole.