PoliticsI ♥ BILL
I’m sure you don’t remember me. How could you, with the thousands of faces you see and hands you shake each week? But I’ve seen you twice lately — June 12 in Orlando and June 18 in Little Rock — and, well, I just wanted to tell you that you are, in a word, awesome. Totally, totally awesome.
That’s not easy for me to say. I’m cynical. I look at politicians through the prism of posturing and ulterior motives. And you were no different. After all, don’t the pundits tell us that the Clintons are all about self-promotion? (BTW: Have you noticed Chris Matthews’ bizarre preoccupation with your wife? It’s really creepy.)
That first speech, at a Democratic fund-raiser in my hometown, was red meat for the converted, and they ate it up. It wasn’t what you said but how you said it — authentic words of wisdom from someone who’s been there, done that. Talk about values. Talk about fiscal sanity. Talk about the environment. Predictable topics, for sure, but you weren’t there to inflame passions or throw pejorative barbs. You spoke calmly. You spoke like a wonk. You used facts. And I started to come around.
Six days later, we were together in Little Rock for the annual Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention. You were in your element. Your presidential library was just a few blocks away, down William Jefferson Clinton Avenue. It’s an impressive structure, Bill. But between us, someone with rose-colored glasses must have created the exhibits inside. They would lead us to believe that you always wore the white hat to battle evil Republicans who wanted to destroy you. Not that they weren’t evil — or overly focused on your genitals. But an intern did blow you in the Oval Office, and you did lie about it. I’m just sayin’ ….
And when I heard you weren’t charging for this speech, it got my hackles up. These people, by and large, are lefty opinion-makers, and your wife needs to reach out to liberals if she wants to win the Democratic primary. Hillary’s pro-Iraq votes pissed them off, so I figured you were trying to smooth things over. If so, mission accomplished.
Collectively, I don’t think we lefties are sold on the Hillary for President idea — nothing personal, we just want to win. That said, I think that you explained her (and your) Iraq position as succinctly as possible. The use-of-force resolution, you said, should have been a stick to hold over Saddam’s head, not a springboard for a poorly planned war. We might not agree, and the results have been disastrous, but at least we see where you’re both coming from. And not just on Iraq, but on other liberal kvetches, like NAFTA and welfare reform. You laid out your case candidly, with lots of detail.
“That’s the great thing about not being president anymore,” you told us. “I can tell you exactly what I think. The bad part is, you don’t have to care what I think.”
But we did. Your command of nuance, of factoids, of minutiae-laden takes on politics and policy, especially international crises in Darfur and Africa, was astonishing. The thrust of your speech, however, was that American politics — and American media — need to rise above name-calling and stop creating two-dimensional cartoons of complicated politicians and issues. Don’t assume President Bush is stupid, you said. Don’t assume that he’s not trying to do what is right. Just say you disagree with him, and why. Underestimating him only helps your opponents. Point taken, but privately, I still think Bush is a jackass.
So if John McCain goes to Liberty University, we shouldn’t assume that he’s kneeling at Jerry Falwell’s altar just to woo evangelicals. And if Hillary gives an environmental speech, we shouldn’t assume that she’s hitching a ride on Al Gore’s coattails. Reality, according to you, is much grayer.
Then you spoke four simple words that really hit home. “We need more wonks.” It was a throwaway line at the end of a discourse on Hill’s energy speech and Gore’s movie, but I clapped. You’re absolutely right! We’ve become accustomed to an administration that plays on irrational fears and wedge issues. Politicians worry too much about the 30-second sound bite. You presented a study in contrast, a politician willing to talk at length, and honestly at that, about your successes and failures and your vision for the world. There was no inflammatory rhetoric, no call to arms, no chum to draw sharks. You spoke to us like intelligent adults, not ignoramuses who need talking points to follow along. That’s what politics should be. Politicians shouldn’t be derided as boring for giving detailed policy speeches. They should be applauded. But they’re not. So how can the wonks win elections in an attention-deficient 24-hour news cycle?
After the speech, as you signed autographs, I pushed to the front to ask you that. Eventually — after lecturing another reporter on NAFTA for 15 minutes — you told me. It’s simple, you said. You did it in 1992: Take the hour-long speech you want to give, and boil it down to one sentence. I wanted to follow up, but your aides were pushing you to the door, away from me.
Your philosophy comes from the mind of an introspective politician who’s not running for anything. You have the luxury of rambling. In 2008, the Democrats who want to fill your shoes will have to deal with a red-state culture that shuns intellectualism as snooty. You’re blessed to be both a wonk and able to relate to people. But Bill, that might be a once-in-a-generation match-up. Can we win without it?
I was too young to vote for you in 1996. I wish I could do so today. It would be so refreshing to have a president who spouts policy like it’s bursting from his brain, rather than one who has difficulty completing a sentence. You belong there, and I really think that, after eight years of experience, you would make a better president today than when you left office. The man I saw behind that podium is the one I want in the Oval Office, and I don’t care if you have an intern stuffed under the desk. Hell, you deserve it.
If you could run again, you’d win. But you can’t. So maybe I’ll end up voting for Hillary, if only because there’s a chance you’ll be running the show.
You own my political heart.