09.29.10

Clinton Nemesis Now After Obama

Investigative pit bull David Bossie was Bill Clinton’s worst nightmare. He’s back, telling Benjamin Sarlin about his admiration for his old rivals—and how today’s GOP should hogtie the Democrats.

Time has mellowed David Bossie a little. The conservative investigative attack dog—who once lived in a Maryland firehouse, rushing to extinguish Montgomery County fires when he wasn't lighting them on Capitol Hill—has settled down, with a wife and three kids. Indeed, the man best known as a heat-seeking missile aimed at the hull of the Clinton White House has even grown philosophical about his former prey.

"These guys were the best, and I mean that," Bossie says, huddled in his sunlit office not far from the Capitol, reminiscing about the Clinton palace guard—Rahm Emanuel, Lanny Davis, David Kendall, Bruce Lindsey and others—with whom he did fierce battle for years. "I'm not talking about good. I'm talking about the greats. These guys were goooood… incredibly smart, incredibly dedicated to salvaging the Clintons. They would do anything for their guy."

But Bossie isn't some retired warrior, reflecting on long-gone glory days on the battlefield. He's gearing up for a whole new fight. Now president of Citizens United, the group that persuaded the Supreme Court to open the floodgates to special interests spending unlimited cash on elections, Bossie speaks kindly of the Clinton crowd only in comparison with the Obama team—which he sees as a gang of dangerous radicals. And so today, flanked by a bust of Ronald Reagan decked in a cowboy hat and a portrait of George Washington confidently crossing the Delaware, Bossie readies himself for his new mission—to help advise the resurgent Republicans on how to seize power in November, and use it to tie Obama and congressional Democrats in knots.

"I do talk to members of the [House oversight] committee," Bossie said. "I talk to people who will potentially be chairmen of subcommittees as well and I look forward to having the opportunity to tell them what we did right and what we did wrong, to be candid. There are lessons to be learned."

He learned them the hard way. Bossie burst onto the Washington stage during the 1992 presidential campaign. A top dog at Citizens United even then, he helped put together the group's searing takedown of then-candidate Clinton, a paperback entitled "Slick Willie."

In the run-up to Clinton's election, CBS reported that Bossie aggressively questioned, even harassed, the family of the late Susan Coleman, who killed herself after a (falsely) rumored affair with the then-governor in 1977. Later, Bossie and then-president of Citizens United Floyd Brown led the charge to investigate Clinton aide Vince Foster's suicide—searching for signs of foul play. As a Republican congressional staffer, he helped drive a years-long investigation into the Clintons' Whitewater real-estate investment—a crusade that ultimately failed to yield charges against the White House but earned Bossie an eternal place in Democratic lore as a boogeyman. Clinton adviser James Carville told The Washington Post at the time that Bossie's work on the case was "the greatest political dirty trick in American history."

“These guys were goooood,” Bossie says, “incredibly smart, incredibly dedicated to salvaging the Clintons. They would do anything for their guy.”

Bossie says he was driven at the time by his belief that Clinton was some kind of socialist sleeper agent. "When we looked at his background, we were worried he was a radical leftist who was in essence using that Southern governorship as a vehicle [to the White House]" he said. Today, Bossie freely admits he was wrong, and gives Clinton full credit for working with Republicans to balance the budget and reform welfare.

"I hark back for it," Bossie said of the Clinton years. "I think he was an undisciplined man on one front, but I think he was simply not as strident a leftist as we all thought he was when he came into power."

Bossie enjoyed the chase. Of his own team of House and Senate investigators, he says fondly: "We'd give as good as we got." Well, maybe not quite as good. Clinton went on to survive everything Bossie threw at him—not to mention Ken Starr's impeachment charges—and serve out his term. Bossie lost his job in 1998, forced out by House leaders for releasing interviews with a Whitewater witness that were selectively edited to disparage the Clintons. Bossie, who denied wrongdoing, shows no signs of bitterness over his fate. Newt Gingrich, who reportedly was responsible for the dismissal, now works closely with Bossie to promote Citizen's United films.

"When you're playing the Super Bowl there are no simple and innocent mistakes and I understood that," he said. "I had a really good run considering I thought I'd last about five minutes… where I am today, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to me."

Bossie stayed active during the Bush years. He blasted Al Gore in a book in 2000, wrote an article after the 9/11 attacks slamming the Clinton administration for failing to connect the intelligence dots, and went after the 2004 Democratic nominee in a volume entitled The Many Faces of John Kerry. The 2008 campaign found him focused anew on the Clintons, taking aim at Hillary. Barack Obama, on the other hand, fascinated him—at least at first.

"It was awe-inspiring to watch them even though we were opposed to them," Bossie recalls of Team Obama during the campaign. "They were so smart, they had their finger on the pulse, they know exactly what was going to happen before it happened—whether it was taking on Hillary Clinton or John McCain."

But Bossie's admiration faded swiftly after Inauguration Day. "Then it came to governing, and boy what a difference a day makes. The second he took the oath of office they went from being incredibly smart and savvy to incredibly tone-deaf… then along came the arrogance and they decided it was their way or the highway. And man you get paid back in spades in this town when you do that."

At least this time, the Democrats see Bossie and his allies coming.

"There will be two years of unrelenting investigation of the White House, the staff, the Cabinet," Bill Clinton recently warned at his annual CGI gathering. Many of these concerns are focused on Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the would-be chairman of the House Oversight Committee, based on his proud role as "the chief antagonist to Barack Obama," as his spokesman put it to Newsweek. Profiles of the congressman inevitably bring up Bossie's former boss, Congressman Dan Burton, who used to hold the chairman's gavel on the committee.

"I think there's a real concern that when the Republicans take over it's going to be nothing but various witch hunts to find something to impeach the president for," one longtime Democratic aide told The Daily Beast, citing Burton as the model.

And Bossie will once again be in the thick of it, all the more dangerous for having learned from his past crusades.

Republican investigators eager to dig in after the election should study the Clinton team's "remarkably successful" PR counteroffensive, Bossie recommends.

"What the White House did was make us into the bad guys," he said. "They did it every minute of every day so at a certain point the American people got tired of the investigations even though they were necessary."

He's also wary of letting his opponents define the contours of the playing field. The Clinton crew outmaneuvered him, he says, creating "this belief that it had to meet legal requirements. "Well, guess what," Bossie said, his voice rising notably, "it's never Congress' job to do that! It's the court of public opinion, not a grand jury or a jury of your peers."

As he gears up, he admits to a little Clinton nostalgia. "If you look back now with the benefit of hindsight, oh how I wish he was president today compared to this guy in there now. That guy in there now is truly a radical."

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.