Of course Bill Clinton was late. On Monday morning, the theater in Ames, Iowa, at Iowa State University was full of heavy-coat-toting voters who had waited more than an hour for the former president. I felt sorry for the several dozen who had been arranged onstage as his backdrop. Seated on narrow bleachers, they couldn’t get up and mill around. The crowd thinned out, and a campaign staffer tried to usher an elderly couple into the now-empty lower seats. “Can you move down so that the cameras will have a better shot?” she pleaded gently. They didn’t budge.
Finally, Clinton arrived. “I was on the tarmac in New Jersey at 8:30 this morning,” he began. “And they told me I couldn’t land in Ames.” It was the weather that had delayed Clinton, not his famous tardiness—because the Clinton campaign doesn’t have a moment to squander in the aftermath of the Oprah/Obama hurricane.
With each minute, the Obama camp is locking in the swarms of new voters who attended Oprah’s rallies. That’s where the momentum is right now, and you can hear it in the beleaguered voices of the Clinton team. There was grumbling that the crowds at Bill Clinton’s event were smaller than expected. Staffers and advisers make the occasional resigned statements about the wisdom of Iowa voters who can’t be swayed by reason from their foolhardy decision to vote for the dreamer.
Bill Clinton had come to town to warn against dreamers. (It takes one to know one.) “I could stand up and give you the prettiest speeches in the wide world,” he said, “and I could give a pretty good one ‘cause I came out of a tradition of storytellers where we listened and learned how to tell stories.” But talk has to be backed up, he said, arguing that Hillary could do that better than her more eloquent opponents.
The president’s target was Barack Obama, of course, just as Oprah had been unmistakably referring to Hillary Clinton when she talked about “people” who wanted to do things the same old way. (Clinton was milder in his oblique shots than the Queen of Talk.)
All her life Hillary has been “an agent of change,” said her husband, who pressed that jargony phrase on the audience as he took them on a 20-minute personal tour of her career since college. “She could have gone in any law firm in the country. I tried to convince her you should dump me go home to Chicago, go to New York and take one of those offers and run for office because I thought she was the most gifted person I knew,” he said, explaining that she chose a career helping children, instead. “She laughed at me and said: First, I love you and second, I’m never going to run for anything because I’m too hard-headed.”
Clinton talked about how Hillary first moved down to Arkansas, a state she didn’t know, to be with him when he was a failed candidate in a job paying a yearly salary that was half of his campaign debt. His point was that if she were the conniving career politician, as she’s caricatured to be, she never would have committed to such a loser. How do those dating and commitment stories go over with voters—do they remind them of the Lewinsky business, or have they made peace with all of that? My sense is that most have made peace.
Bill Clinton concluded by summoning all of his storytelling skills with a tale about a golf caddie who said his primary job was as a captain in the New York Fire Department. Only Hillary Clinton, he told her husband, cared about the firefighters’ health in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. As Clinton told the story, he bit his lip, put his tongue in his cheek, and deployed dramatic pauses as if he were imitating Darrell Hammond imitating him. ” ‘She was somebody who knows what it is like to be me,’ ” said Clinton, repeating the firefighter’s words before switching back to his own voice. “That person I know is the person that firefighter knows.”
The pitch worked with a few of the undecided voters I talked to. They focused particularly on Clinton’s remarks about what his wife had done before coming to Washington. A few said it “humanized her,” an answer to the concern that she’s too polarizing to get elected.
According to a New York Times poll, Bill Clinton is a more powerful voter-persuasion force than Oprah. But the only voter I could find at the two events who had been locked in by either was an Obama fan. “I was for Obama but was giving every candidate a fair shake,” said Perry McGee of Mason City. The Oprah rally in Des Moines pushed him over to certainty. “It sealed the deal.”
McGee had also driven for two and a half hours to see Clinton because he was a fan. Before the speech, he didn’t think he would change his mind. Afterward, he waiting in the crush of voters to shake Clinton’s hand and take pictures. I caught up with him when he emerged. He was still backing Obama, but we both agreed: Clinton was a good storyteller.