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Bill Clinton: Who Is This Guy?

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That’s another thing: In addition to brains, Clinton brings to the table a sense of humor and a love of the game—neither of which Dukakis ever had (nor Mondale, Hart, or Carter, for that matter). “I think maybe I’ve flipped,” said Jean Hennessey, a prominent liberal party activist in New Hampshire, speaking not of her sanity but of her affiliation—first with Kerrey, now with Clinton. “I don’t agree with him on everything, but he’s genuine. He knows a lot . . . I also think I just like him. He seems to be having a good time. He gets a kick out of this.”

Clinton has proceeded through the early turbulence with a certain dignity. He hasn’t made many mistakes. He’s built a solid organization. He’s made some smart strategic moves as well, consolidating his base in the South (including a rare, and enthusiastic, endorsement from Georgia senator Sam Nunn, who once said of Clinton, “He’s been a boy wonder in three different decades”) and establishing a strong beachhead in Illinois, which votes a week after most of the South goes to the polls on Super Tuesday (March 10).

But, most important, Clinton seems to be benefiting from a rare confluence—the political equivalent of a solar eclipse. It involves, on the one hand, a sudden gust of pragmatism on the part of Democratic Party activists, who spent most of the past quarter-century searching for heretics but whose battle cry this year has become “I can live with that.” Clinton started with the support of the party’s moderate wing, led by the Democratic Leadership Council—and has been building out ever since. Last week, the major public employees’ union (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers hinted they were moving in his direction. “In the past, they [the activists] would be interested in a laundry list of issues,” Clinton said last week of the New Hampshire Democrats. “If you were wrong on question five or seven, it was good-bye, Charlie. But there’s a different level of engagement this year. They’re concerned about their own families, their own futures.”

The other half of the confluence and the key to Clinton’s early success is a message that transcends traditional labels (and therefore is often called “moderate” or neo-something) but appears to be connecting with actual civilians. Clinton is offering activist government—national economic, educational, health, and energy plans—but he’s also ready to acknowledge that it hasn’t been just the Republicans or the Congress, the rich or the poor, but a lack of responsibility across the social spectrum that has caused the economic drift and strange, sour mood that permeates the country. His signature program may well be a college trust fund that will offer four-year loans to anyone who can qualify academically, to be paid back as a small percentage of income (collected like a payroll tax) or with two years’ public service in a “Domestic Peace Corps” as police officers, teachers, nurses, or social workers. “We can educate a generation of Americans and solve half our social problems,” Clinton often says, in a rare bit of hyperbole. “It’d be the best money we ever spent.”

'Specificity is a character issue this year,” says George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s deputy campaign manager. In New Hampshire, audiences get angry if the candidate explains only four points out of any given five-point plan. They insist on knowing how he’ll pay for what he’s selling. And they appreciate it when he, inevitably, delivers: “I give him high marks, though I still want to see the others,” said Ken Massey, an engineer who came to a Nashua house party very skeptical about Clinton’s reputed conservatism. “He was very good when I asked him about health care. He gave more than just platitudes.”

“He’s the early phee-nom, no doubt about it,” says Rich Bond, an adviser to George Bush’s re-election campaign. “On paper, given that he’s the least liberal major candidate the Democrats have had in a while, he looks to be the toughest for us in this field.” Other Republican strategists breathed a sigh of relief when Mario Cuomo withdrew from the race—because they were convinced Clinton would beat him and become “a giant-killer,” as one said. “Now, if he wins, he’s just a munchkin-killer.”

All of which is very impressive. But still, the ghosts of other Democrats—Dukakis and Carter and, to an extent, Gary Hart, neo-liberals and technocrats who came out of nowhere and then proved fatally flawed—haunt Bill Clinton. He seems a more polished, creative, engaging politician than any of them. He is constantly compared, in looks and spirit, to John Kennedy as he travels about (Kerrey seems, in size, inflection, and irony—if not in substance—more like Bobby, which gives the campaign a curious fratricidal edge). At 45, Clinton—like JFK—could be the first of his generation to be nominated for the presidency. But there is a sense, too, that the whole thing may be a little too carefully massaged. Clearly, the governor has been preparing for this moment for a long time—for most of his life, perhaps. He has thought through every imaginable issue. His answers are often creative but always carefully calibrated. There are no bitter pills; few real challenges beyond the resonant call for “personal responsibility.” If left to his own devices, Clinton tends to describe issues rather than take stands on them.


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