Ballot Box

Why We’ll Miss Bill Clinton

LOS ANGELES–We’re going to miss him. Even the people who can’t wait to get rid of him are going to miss him.

What we’re all going to miss, about a month into the Gore or the Bush administration, is Clinton’s sheer skill at being president. This has nothing to do with his policies, his views, or his sexual morality. It’s simply a matter of Clinton’s astonishing virtuosity as a public performer. Clinton is so good in the public role of the presidency that you almost don’t notice it anymore. Clinton makes a verbal false step or misjudges the appropriate tone for an occasion once every couple of years. George W. Bush makes a verbal slip about once every half-hour. Al Gore strikes a false note in three appearances out of four.

I was reminded of this watching Clinton speak at a pro-Israel rally here yesterday. Clinton went off on a riff about the Oklahoma City bombing. I don’t have his exact words, but Clinton described Timothy McVeigh as a poor, sick kid who listened to too many anti-government tirades from conservatives. There were no audible gasps from the audience, but this was a fairly shocking thing to say. Clinton was essentially blaming the Republicans for creating a climate that led to mass murder. But he did it in such an offhand, jez-talkin’ way that it didn’t sound vicious at all. Gore could never get away with a remark like that. If he had uttered exactly the same words Clinton used, it would have sounded brutally partisan, nasty, and unfair. It would have generated headlines: GORE CALLS REPUBLICANS KILLERS. But it’s unfair to compare Gore’s communication skills to Clinton’s because Clinton’s are without peer.

Clinton’s speech this evening was uninspired as a piece of text. As usual, he attempted little in the way of soaring rhetoric or memorable lines (Clinton may leave office after eight years without having delivered a single truly memorable line). His coda, which reprised all the most excruciating Clintonite clichés (The Man From Hope, Putting People First, Building a Bridge to the 21st Century, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow), was tacky. Yet Clinton gave a superb speech nonetheless. He always does. You could say it was his delivery, but that term fails to do justice to the way Clinton relates and communicates. Clinton engages himself in giving a speech the way a great musician engages a piece of music. He doesn’t just deliver it; he embodies it, expressing himself through his phrasing, his vast repertoire of gestures, his entire body.

The idea of the speech was simple. Clinton set out to do three things: note the accomplishments of the past eight years, draw a contrast with Republican policies, and praise Al Gore. On the accomplishments, Clinton tossed out a plethora of facts, figures, and specific programs: the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years, the lowest crime rate in 25, the lowest child poverty rate in 20, welfare rolls cut in half. “America’s success was not a matter of chance,” Clinton said. “It was a matter of choice.”

In the section contrasting Democratic policies with those of the Republicans, Clinton went after the GOP not with the sledgehammer of contempt but with the scalpel of irony. He reminded his audience that Republicans warned that his 1993 economic plan would lead to a recession and ruin the economy. “The Republicans said then they would not be held responsible for the results of our economic policies,” Clinton said. “I hope the American people will take them at their word.” Citing his efforts to create a Cabinet that looks like America, he added, “If I could get my whole administration up here it would be as good a picture as anything you saw in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago.”

The praise of Gore seemed to me the weakest section of the speech. Basically, Clinton vouched for Gore and Joseph Lieberman, saying they would work to continue the successes his administration has had. “Al Gore is a profoundly good man,” Clinton said.

I don’t disagree. But Gore is not a gifted man. And taking the stage Clinton occupied tonight will make that all too readily apparent.