What About Bill?

PHILADELPHIA—One name has been conspicuously absent from the Republican convention thus far: that of Bill Clinton. You remember Clinton—he’s the guy Republicans voted to impeach a couple of years back. It took until almost 9 p.m. Tuesday for a speaker on the platform to even refer to “the Clinton-Gore administration.” As Jacob Weisberg pointed out last night, the delegates at The Convention That Dare Not Speak His Name still loathe the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but his presence is like that of a ghostly dead relative. He casts a shadow over the gathering. He is on the minds of every delegate and every speaker. No one mentions his name, but everyone is talking about him.

Speakers will occasionally make reference to “the current administration” or “the past eight years.” But more often they reach into a grab bag of code words about “dignity,” “honor,” or “integrity.” Monday night’s biggest applause line was Laura Bush’s assertion that parents tell her, “I want my son or daughter to respect the president of the United States.” She cited her husband’s “strength and constancy of conviction” and his “core principles” that “will not change with the winds of polls or politics.” Bush’s foreign policy guru Condoleezza Rice told the delegates Tuesday that “it all begins with integrity in the Oval Office,” and that the Texas governor “keeps his word” and “tells the truth.” John McCain’s standard speech about the corruption of the political system was an anti-Clinton polemic in the eyes of GOP delegates who cheered loudly when he said, “Too often those who hold a public trust have failed to set the necessary example,” and decried politicians who “posture, poll, and spin.”

In last night’s video retrospectives of the presidencies of Ford, Reagan, and Bush the Elder, GOP revisionists cast the three living Republican ex-presidents as anti-Clintons who cleansed the White House and redeemed America. Ford took office during “a traumatic time for all Americans.” He was the first president “to take office under the 25th Amendment” (subtext: Gore could have been the second). Ford was lauded for his “commitment to be candid with the American people,” his “straightforward manner,” and his record of “upholding promises.” He was also credited with “restoring much-needed dignity and honor to the White House.” Reagan’s mandate was to “restore respect for America,” and his presidency managed to “renew respect for the United States.” Most important, he “always made time for his one true love, Nancy Davis Reagan.” Even the tepid Bush retrospective noted that after Desert Storm, America “regained our strength.”

To be fair, Clinton’s name is not the only one that goes unuttered. Speakers take pains to avoid mentioning any member of the Unholy Trinity (Clinton, Gore, and the Hillary Spirit). The Internet has been mentioned various times without a single snide reference to its inventor. Laura Bush called Gore “George’s opponent.” (As in “George W. Bush’s education policy is better than the leading brand.”) But the omission of Clinton stands out because the president ought to be such a ripe target. By attacking Clinton, Republicans could damn Gore without seeming as if they were going negative.

So why is the convention so quiet on the Clinton front? Strategists for George W. are probably telling the truth when they say they want to run a positive campaign. But I suspect there’s another reason: fear. After the ‘94 elections, the GOP has proceeded to lose nearly every political fight it has picked with the president. Six years of government shutdowns, budget battles, and midterm elections have taught Republicans a lesson: Never mind Social Security. Clinton is the real third rail in town. Touch him and you die.