As with many codes of conduct, the Uniform code of Military Justice (UCMJ) has a catchall provision to cover miscreant behavior not specifically covered by other provisions. UCMJ Article 133 relates to "Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman," conduct that would reflect unfavorably on the uniform, the service or the country. I believe that the former Commander in Chief, President William Jefferson Clinton, has crossed the line and engaged in "conduct unbecoming" a former president.
Granted, we are in uncharted waters where no former president and spouse have ever gone before. And it is certainly understandable why a spouse, former president or not, would be a strong advocate for that spouses candidacy for the presidency. But the question remains as to how far a former president who is also the titular head of the party and potentially one of its greatest political assets, can go before his conduct is unbecoming and possibly detrimental to his party's chances in the fall.
It is one thing for presidential candidates to criticize each other and their records and positions. But say, if Howard Dean, the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, were to level attacks against John Edwards, it would be deemed very inappropriate. Among other reasons for this judgment is that such criticisms could be echoed by the Republicans in the fall, should that candidate be nominated. On the other hand, criticisms by Michelle Obama or Elizabeth Edwards in defense of their husbands are, within limits, accepted and acceptable.
So what is different for Bill Clinton? Why should not a red-faced Bill Clinton describe the Obama phenomenon as a "fairy tale?" And why not criticize Senator Obama for being inexperienced? The answer is that President Clinton can be one of the most effective fund-raisers and campaigners for the Democratic Party and such actions erode his capability to help the ticket in the fall. He is not only one candidate's spouse, he is the titular head of the party. In short, he is both Michelle Obama and Howard Dean. Bill Clinton would do well to emulate President George H.W. Bush's participation in his son's 2000 primary and general election campaigns. The elder Bush did not attack John McCain in the primaries or play the attack dog in the general election. His behavior was decorous and restrained as befits a former president.
Bill Clinton, not well known for his self-discipline, must keep his two roles separate. He can go to great lengths to praise Hillary's record, intellect, experience and values. But he must restrain his criticisms of other candidates lest he hurt the Democratic Party in the long term. How many more red-faced outbursts or finger waving sessions before his value to the Democratic Party -- or his wife - will disappear? Bill Clinton's untoward behavior as president likely caused Al Gore the 2000 election. The nation cannot afford to have his behavior as a former president be devalued and thus contribute to a similar result in 2008.