At 74 — his birthday is today) — Bill Clinton is not the “Comeback Kid” anymore. And because he went vegan a decade ago after open heart surgery, a generation of journalists who have come of age since then wouldn’t even get Hunter S. Thompson’s hilarious sendup of Clinton snorting french fries in a Little Rock café.
Last night, the 42nd U.S. president tried to summon a bit of the old magic. It wasn’t easy. Clinton’s roasting of President Trump and his testimonial for Joe Biden had some nice lines and there wasn’t anything really wrong with the delivery. But the pre-canned format negates Clinton’s gifts, which were always dependent on audience interaction.
There are introverts and extroverts, and then there’s William Jefferson Clinton. His fellow humans charged him up and were, in turn, charged by him. Not this time. Aside from Jill Biden’s stirring speech and the surprisingly arresting virtual roll call from all 50 states, Tuesday’s night’s convention format was mostly a series of informercials.
Were we seeing the end of the Clinton Era? People have been saying this for a long time. Fifteen years ago, Chuck Todd wrote a magazine piece headlined “Clintonism, R.I.P.” That proved premature, although it was harder to argue with Todd Purdum’s “The Death of Clintonism” opus, published after Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump four years ago. Yet, there was her resilient husband once again last night — and Hillary is on tonight’s schedule.
As is always the case with the Clintons, however, a whiff of scandal was in the air, this time in the form of strategically timed old photographs in the Daily Mail showing 56-year-old Bill Clinton getting a massage from Jeffrey Epstein’s 22-year-old masseuse — and alleged rape victim. But asked about Bill Clinton, she described him as a “complete gentleman,” which must have brought a relieved smile to the planners of the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
I covered all eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the first five for the Baltimore Sun and the last three for National Journal. It was rarely dull. Personally, I gravitated toward his ambitious public policy prescriptions, not his personal peccadilloes, but there was always enough going on in that White House to keep any reporter busy.
One interesting aspect of that administration is that for all his talent as a communicator, President Clinton uttered few eloquent lines. He had good writers working for him, but for some reason he often substituted his own wonky language for their more stylish prose. Controversy and scandal also often overshadowed his rhetoric. Today, the most memorable lines of his presidency include a much-parodied banality (“I feel your pain”); outright mendacity (“I did not have sex with that woman”); transparent evasion (“It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”); and an obvious absurdity ( “The era of Big Government is over”).
Yet, Bill Clinton could be disarmingly candid, too. “I may not have been the greatest president,” he said near the end of his second term, “but I’ve had the most fun eight years.”
He could also be profound. At the 1995 dedication of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, Clinton issued a somber warning that applies to any age, including our own: “The road to tyranny, we must never forget, begins with the destruction of the truth.”
Notwithstanding what I wrote above, he could be extremely articulate on the topic of our shared American identity. In his last State of the Union address, Clinton related his vision of the United States, one that embraced national unity and has proven particularly prescient regarding the challenges of 2020:
“Whether our ancestors came here on the Mayflower, on slave ships; whether they came to Ellis Island or LAX in Los Angeles; whether they came yesterday or walked this land a thousand years ago, our great challenge for the 21st century is to find a way to be One America,” he said. “We can meet all the other challenges if we can go forward as One America.”