Democrats trying to fan the flames over President Bush's now-infamous "16 Words" on Iraq's nuclear ambitions were doused with cold water this week from an unlikely source - former president Bill Clinton. On the phone Tuesday with CNN's Larry King, Clinton characterized Bush's State of the Union line as an understandable error, based on an Oval Office difference of opinion, that the White House corrected by admitting shouldn't have been in the speech. "You know, everybody makes mistakes when they are president," Clinton said. "I mean, you can't make as many calls as you have to make without messing up once in a while."
But Clinton said more that may cause even greater discomfort among his fellow Democrats. (The transcript of his conversation is at www.cnn.com/transcripts/0307/22/lkl.00.html.)
Clinton voiced some agreement with Bush's handling of events. "I thought it was prudent for the president to go to the U.N. and for the U.N. to say you (have) got to let these inspectors in, and this time if you don't cooperate the penalty could be regime change, not just continued sanctions," he said, echoing stances he took while he was president.
He gave credence to the belief that Saddam Hussein's regime indeed had weapons of mass destruction. "It is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted-for stocks of biological and chemical weapons," he said.
And he said the U.S. military's killing of Saddam's two sons, who were "pretty foolish not to give up," was "quite good news for us" and will help stabilize the situation in Iraq.
This wasn't just an ex-president extending a traditional courtesy to a successor. On policy matters that have provided campaign fodder for Democrats, Clinton departed from their script and at points even took Bush's side. As one who got top-level briefings for eight years, he knows what he's talking about - and may know much more than he can say.
That ought to give pause to those trying to turn a political debate into a presidential scandal. "We can have honest disagreements about where we go from here, and we have space now to discuss that in what I hope will be a nonpartisan and open way," Clinton said. We join him in that hope.
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