Bill Clinton was many things, but stupid was never one of them. Even his supporters were eventually forced to admit that most of those things were true. Sloppy, corrupt, impulsive, amoral, vindictive, petty and loving every minute of it. Sure. But not stupid.
What Clinton understood, and Obama doesn't, is that politics is
about people. And that politics is nothing without people. 400 glowing
articles don't compare to what people are feeling when they're
unemployed, when they're not sure how they'll make payroll next month
and when they sit toting up the numbers late at night and worrying about
Obama isn't so much a machine politician as he is a politician
of the machine. A man whose career was made by one machine after
another. Smooth gleaming urban monstrosities guiding him from one
organization to another, from handshakes to dinners to ballots to
signatures. Politics to him is nothing but a power game almost
completely detached from the people. They're spectators, showing up to
faint, cheer and buy him drinks afterward.
Politics to Obama is its own game, like law or
basketball. The people in the stands and benches make it necessary, but
they don't really figure into it except as a nebulous crowd providing
moral support. What really matters are how you win the game, the rules
and the way you can break the rules. It's all that matters.
his level of emotional detachment, Obama has been good at faking it.
But most of the fakery is second-hand. The work of an army of advisers
and a grass-roots movement determined to create a Hollywood idea of the
hero, who wins elections, defeats conservatives, and like at the end of
every political movie, connects with the voters by delivering a speech
that sets out the stakes.
Bill Clinton knows that's a load of crap. He's played that game,
he's had those advisers, and he's given those speeches, but he has
enough of a background in real world elections to know that nobody
really gives a damn about the speeches. They'll listen to them when
they're first getting to know you or when something important happens,
but mostly people elect politicians to do things for them.
Clinton, like McCain, underestimated the power of the
machine behind Obama. The new world order of digital power, manufactured
cult-of-personality media complex and sheer arrogant rule-breaking.
Slick Willy had tasted two out of that three in his time, but no one
ever worshiped him as a god. And certainly no one was going to faint on
listening to his wife or build statues to her. Hillary would not inspire
works of art or paeans of praise.
But Bill also had the last laugh. Because gods are not allowed to
let you down. Gods are not allowed to keep blaming Bush or the
Republicans. They're not allowed to promise to take care of things
later. That's not what people elect gods for.
There's no doubt that he saw this coming early on and that in the
dregs of his bitterness at losing, not just failing to win, but the
humiliation of defeat, he knew that the day would come when the statues
would fall. When people would stretch out their hands expecting help... and
when it did not come, the hands would clench into fists.
expect less of Presidents, than they do of gods. They expect more of
men who claim to be able to lower sea levels and change history. And
they don't take "no" for an answer. Being ignored only makes them
Unlike Clinton, Obama isn't able to step out there with an
apologetic shrug and a heartfelt speech about tough times. The speech
can be written for him by the campaign that never ends, which will find a
poet from Chicago who writes rhymes about the Great Depression that
reflect class and social divisions, while sipping a craft beer, to do
the hard work of laying out all those words, it will be touted for two
weeks by the media as the final response to an ungrateful nation, it
will upstage three television programs that people actually enjoy
watching in these hard times, and it will sound and feel exactly like
the time your neighbors sent over their spoiled brat to apologize for breaking your window on pain of losing his trip to Disneyland.
Obama's detachment is his gift. That coolness which convinces
supporters that his mind is exploring other realms, contemplating deep
thoughts on racial identity and postmodernism or probing the moral
paradoxes of soft power. It makes his occasional bouts of attentiveness
seem more intense, like a coma patient occasionally waking up to check
in, before checking out again.
His pathological need for attention is wholly self-centered and
he is not at all surprised to find that the world revolves around him.
But it's an attention that he has never had to fight for. It was the
birthright that he gained from his dysfunctional family, his coddled educational background and his red carpet ride through politics.
Bill Clinton has never checked out in his life. Of the two men,
he looks like the lazy one, but is the genuine hard worker. Even after
serving two terms, he is still searching for something to do. After a
term or two in office, you won't find Obama frothing at the mouth to run
someone else's campaign. Chatting with the folks on Martha's Vineyard,
maybe. Delivering speeches on facing the challenges of tomorrow, for a cool million a pop, to Chinese corporations, almost certainly. But not working.
When it comes to attention, Clinton fights for it. His
permanent campaign is a personal one that never goes away. Give him
five minutes anywhere and he will make himself the center of attention,
not because he deserves it and certainly not because it's handed to him
as a token prize for his race or his coolness, but because he wants it
more than anyone else in the room.
There is an emptiness
in many entertainers that drives them to be the center of attention and
from there into explosive bouts of self-destructive behavior. Clinton is
of their breed. Give him five minutes in any room and he will own the
room. And then the next room. But he isn't an actor. The actor is his
rival, the cool man with the big ears, who spends more time entertaining
himself than anyone else. Who reads his lines, waits for the peasants
to applaud and takes off for the next venue.
Actors of this kind can thrill you from the other side of the
screen with the way that they deliver their lines, intoning with
self-consciousness as if they are thinking over the implications of
every word that comes out of their mouths. They're megastars, and their
combination of occasional intensity and general detachment makes them
seem bigger than life. But the whole thing means nothing to them. It's
an easy life, and they're always on the lookout for an easier one. When
things don't go their way, they stamp off in a huff, hide out in their
trailer and go off looking for easier work. They last only so long as
the trail of luck that got them this far does. Setbacks wipe them out so
completely that a decade later people occasionally wonder what happened
Then there's the other kind. The Clinton kind. The ones who
really need it. Who don't take attention as their birthright, but fight
for it as if they're the youngest sibling and every room is twenty older
brothers and sisters. Who will go anywhere and stop at nothing to get the
applause and the awareness that shows up in the eyes of their audience.
The magnetic connection that links them to other people.
Actors like this know that you have to learn about people and
understand what makes them tick. It's not enough to go out and deliver
the lines that someone else wrote for you. It's not enough to
practice the speech a few times in front of the mirror, lift a few
facial expressions and tics from your favorite performers and then go
out and take the applause that's rightfully yours. They know that you
have to understand your audience, to know what they are afraid of, what
they love, what they hate and what makes them give you that charge you
want so badly. They know you have to get under their skin to be able to
connect with them.
Men like these are unstable. They can screw up at key moments.
They are too needy to be trusted. But they can also perform on the fly,
without the net, without the teleprompters and the endless staff. And,
for all their faults, of which they have many, they also understand what
their audience wants, and they know that the audience is an integral
part of the performance. That the performance is a bond between them.
They may despise the audience, they may cheat the audience, lie to it
and abuse it, but they never take it for granted. Without the audience,
they don't exist.
Clinton always knew that Obama was bound to fail. He understood
the megastar illusion of Obama was a haze of press release news stories,
wishful thinking and manufactured hysteria that would be no match for
the actual challenges of the country. And he also knew that the knee jerk
radicalism and arrogance of his opponent and his trusted advisers would
leave him hopelessly out of touch with the country in troubled times.
The former President knows the audience that Obama is playing
for, the Beltway radicals with degrees and theories, the San Francisco
green-energy tycoons, the New York reporters totting along Kindles with a
hundred trendy bestsellers they never read through the same dozen
airports and the midwestern liberal sages, playing politically correct
cracker-barrel philosophers in the hopes of holding on to the party's vanishing white male voters.
And he also knows that audience isn't enough to hold the country. It
was enough to take the country with a blizzard of money and publicity,
but conquests are easy, defenses are hard.
He knows that you talk to traditional businessmen, to factory
workers, to coal miners and soldiers, to homemakers and those
gun-and-bible-clingers too. And you don't just talk to them, you listen,
and you try to give them something, because that's how you hold on to
power. That's how you hold on to your audience. That's how you keep on
The Democratic Party has turned on Clinton again, calling him
everything from senile to traitor, but that's a laugh. Clinton knows
that they know that there's no loyalty in the party except to yourself.
Why should he or Deval Patrick or Cory Booker spit on Bain, golden fount
of Democratic money, just because of the vicissitudes of the current
election campaign? They'll praise it instead and, when fundraising time
comes around, they'll remind their hosts of it. And fundraising time
Clinton also knows that last season's golden
boy easily becomes this season's goat. He was the new JFK before he
became the new Nixon. He was the first black American president, after
all, and he isn't going gently into the sunset. Hate doesn't impress
him. He's been hated by bigger and better men than the pipsqueaks in the
media, who winked and nudged when he passed the girls around, and then
pretended to get outraged when he got caught. Who laughed at his racist
jokes in private clubs, but act outraged because he refused to give up
in South Carolina.
Obama wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was born
with a whole set of them. That quixotic combination of connections,
political and interpersonal, racial cred, important kin, friends of
friends, a world-traveler's bio and a time when a man with his
background would be irresistible. Bill was baffled by it at first, but
he gets it now. Flavor of the month. He's seen them before. And he's
outlasted silver spoonies before. It's just a matter of persistence. Of
never giving up.
Hillary doesn't want another race. The last one was bad enough.
It confirmed what she suspected all along. That no one really liked her.
She never cared that much what people thought of her, but it was a slap
in the face to realize that all her preparations had counted for
nothing. That putting in the hours and working for it wouldn't stop a
talentless amateur with more powerful backers from taking it from you.
But Bill knows that's exactly how it works and he has never let
rejection stop him before. Tell him off fifty times and he still thinks
that the next time you might agree.
Bill knows that the prep counts, but then you have to leave behind
the notes and committee meetings and fly. And he's determined to win
again because, unlike them, he can't stop. They may curse him now, but, in
hindsight, they may thank him and, when the next Democrat steps up, he'll
be there for credibility with the business community because he was the
man who got it. The one who understood that Bain did great work, that
the Bush tax cuts have to be extended and that the country needs
responsible leaders who are willing to reach across the aisle.
And then, just as he's turning away, he'll smile and say, "Hillary sends her regards. I hope she can count on your support."