On Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton gave a speech nominating President Barack Obama for a second term in the White House. While I watched him, I realized that what we were seeing was a combination of Billy Mays, Billy Graham and Tom Jones. In 48 minutes, he could have sold a million sets of Ginsu knives, cured people of whatever ailed them and made women want to throw their panties over the heads of the Secret Service agents. He was at his best last night. He prepared 3,279 words and then adlibbed another 2,619. He was a rock star. It didn’t even matter what your personal choice of party or candidate was – he was as mesmerizing as he’d ever been and, if you were old enough to have been paying attention to political conventions at the time, it was a reminder of the kind of speeches that helped make him the Democrats’ choice of candidate in 1992. I know that this was about President Obama, but Bill is a hard act to follow. I can only imagine what might have happened if he’d brought along his saxophone.
Sure, he’s going to carry some dirty laundry with him as part of his legacy. His mastery of politics and speech failed him when he tried to convince us that there might be another way of defining the word “is”. In a way, looking back, and having the luxury of hindsight, I think it became one of his worst moments because it was so personal. He had let down, again, his wife, Hillary, who was and is his closest confidante, ally, advisor and political partner. They are The Political Power Couple, in capital letters, setting the standard and redefining that term like no one pair ever had before, and might ever again. While they may have their personal problems, when it comes to attacks on either of them by outsiders, they become a fierce and intractable force.
It’s no secret that politics and power are what brought them and keep them together. There is a mutual respect for each others undeniable intelligence. When one of them sets their sights on something, from marrying each other to seeking political office, they become a well-oiled machine and work in lock step to help each other achieve their respective goals. A great deal of their lives was revealed in David Maraniss’ well researched and carefully documented book “First In His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton”, which covered the Clintons’ lives from childhood up to the time when his first bid for the President was announced. The portrayals are fair and even-handed, without judgment or favoritism, and it’s simply a great read. When you finish it, you understand the kind of drive and ambition that this couple have, but you also are left with the knowledge that, once they’ve reached whatever it is they attained, they never gave, and still don’t give, less than everything they have to the job.
You can love the, hate them or feel absolutely nothing for them, but you can’t ignore them. They won’t let you. Since leaving office, Bill has experienced some metamorphosis, becoming America’s Ambassador to the world. He has kept friendships with foreign Heads of State and forged new ones with former Presidents, particularly, wonder of wonders, with President George H.W. Bush. This odd couple, the younger having taken a second term away from the elder, have joined together to help nations in times of crisis. They’ve raised millions of dollars with their efforts, through their foundation(s) – The Bush-Clinton Katrina, Haiti and Tsunami Funds. Bygones have become bygones, partisan politics have been put on a shelf and the two White House veterans have become friends and allies in the work they’ve done since leaving office.
After she left the White House, happily putting the title of First Lady on a shelf in their new home in Chappaqua, Hillary took steps to seek her own day in the sun, and out of the giant shadow her husband had cast, by running for and winning the office of Senator from New York. She took a lot of flack for that and was labeled a carpetbagger, something which could have been applied to any number of politicians in the past. Then, in 2008, she herself sought the highest office in the land, and we became witnesses to the Clinton team once again. It wasn’t easy to watch, however. She was fighting against forces which came as a complete surprise to her and to us. The Democratic party didn’t seem to want to give her what she needed to succeed. The press cut her very little slack and, from all appearances, had decided, in very un-journalistic fashion, to endorse her only real competitor, Barack Obama.
The story of the 2008 campaign is told very well in “Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. While it is, at times, both a little fiction and a little fact, it does talk about what we could see for ourselves – that the game wasn’t being played fairly and Hillary was being crushed under the weight of waning donations, a mocking and unobjective press and an exhausting schedule. When she broke down in tears in that restaurant in New Hampshire, she took a lot of heat. It was a sort of “there’s no crying in baseball” moment. She had been asked how she did it, how she could keep going on as things began to look more dire for her. She said, “It’s not easy, and I couldn’t do it if I didn’t passionately believe it was the right thing to do. You know, I have so many opportunities from this country that I just don’t want to see us fall backwards. You know, this is very personal for me. It’s not just political it’s not just public. I see what’s happening, and we have to reverse it.”
She never did get to reverse it. Bigger wheels were in motion. Debate after debate became more frustrating, so much so that Saturday Night Live did sketches meant to show how she was being treated so very differently. It also didn’t help when Bill lost his professional demeanor and all of his composure after it was inferred that he was a racist. Personally, I think his remarks were purposely taken out of context. Bill Clinton could be called a lot of things – racist wouldn’t be one of them. We know how it ended for Hillary that Summer, and she is now serving President Obama as Secretary of State.
So why is Bill Clinton so vocally supporting President Obama for a second term? He’s the first former President to give a nominating speech in the history of political conventions – no small thing at all. There are some theories, and I happen to agree with them. Bill knows people, not just any people, but people who will write big checks for the Obama-Biden ticket. He also loves politics, and the meeting and greeting part of campaigning. Both he and Hillary are diehard party loyalists, good soldiers of the party, as witnessed by her current cabinet position and his speech last night. More than that, however, there is Hillary herself. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that a great deal of what is going on right now is to pave the way for her own bid for the White House in 2016. She’s denying it, of course, and if I’m wrong, well, I’ll be happy to eat my share of crow and admit my error in judgement. I just don’t think she’s going to be completely happy or satisfied in the belief that her work in public service is over until she tries one more time. This time there won’t be any missteps or teary-eyed breakdowns, and Bill will control his emotions in order to focus like a laser on the job at hand. He knows that she wants this, and he still respects and cares enough about her to help her get there.
When Bill was first considering running for President, his advisors asked him if he was going to address his history of philandering. With Hillary present he said, “Like nearly anybody who has been together for 20 years, our relationship has not been perfect or free from difficulties, but we feel good about where we are and we believe in our obligation to each other, and we intend to be together 30 or 40 years from now, whether I run for president or not.” I don’t think either one of them are through – not by a long shot.