“The people have spoken, the bastards”

Forbes has asked me to expand upon my article of two years ago (Apr 25, 2004) saying Bill Clinton was sure to be a one-term President. This led me to experiment with different leads, such as, “After I saved a child from a raging fire some time back, I was forced to use painkillers to deal wit the burns. Unfortunately, I became dependent on them. It was about that time that I wrote a piece about for Forbes . . . ”

Or: “You probably don’t know how much Forbes changes a writer’s copy, but let me tell you . . . “

But of course I was, simply, wrong. And I can’t claim that I didn’t think it through, for I didn’t think it through, for I did; nor can I say I foolishly bowed to the common wisdom, for I didn’t. I was simply way ahead of everyone else.

This is how I saw it: Early on, Bill Clinton was so confused about what he wanted to do as President, so unsure as to his Administration’s reason for being, that he flailed about wildly, jumping from gays in the military to nationalized medicine to budgets so big and greasy they could have been served with hot sauce at a Texas barbecue.

He was like that—a walking, talking Human Blunder—for two years. And everywhere I went in America—for I often leave the island of Manhattan and journey to the continent to find out how they’re thinking over there—people, when I mentioned Clinton, would roll their eyes. They had hired him, and now they would fire him. But he had two years to play out his contract, and they’d have to suffer through it. Here’s something they also did that I wish I’d paid more attention to: Every time people damned Clinton, they’d smile. They’d smile when I brought up his name. They’d smile as if he were an erring younger brother. There was a kind of softness to their disapproval.

Any, I never thought he’d recover from his first years, in part because you only get one chance to make a first impression, but more seriously because it involved imagining liberalism would change its stripes. And that just wasn’t likely.

Then Clinton was blasted almost out of his chair by the 1994 Republican sweep, and as is often the case with those who are tough and hungry competitors—and that, for all his much bitten lower lip, is what he is—defeat contained the seeds of victory.

He looked down into the abyss and saw his death. He called into the Oval Office a thing that had not been there since Nixon—a sinister force: Dick Morris. Clinton listened, declared the era of big government over—liberalism, at least rhetorically, was changing its stripes!—and changed the subject matter of his presidency. Now he was a new traditionalist, a protector of schoolchildren and single mothers. He eliminated some potentially dangerous issues, such as welfare, by bowing o the conservatives, and stole other issues by obscuring them. Thus family values became parental leave.

Clinton read, and read well, the emotional terrain. And he was smart enough to step back from the limelight, letting Newt Gingrich dominate the news, Clinton smiled as the fierce and dramatic Georgian turned too hot. And ever so slowly, ever so steadily, Clinton recovered.

People told me: “Watch out, Bill Clinton is a great campaigner.” And I’d say, “No, he’s not, great campaigners say great things never said anything interesting in his life and never will.”

Little did I know, she said defensively, that the Republicans would nominate to go against him a man with even less to say, and who said it even worse.

I didn’t think Bob Dole would get the nomination. I thought it wasn’t his year, that he’d retire one day as one of the great legislators of U.S. Senate history, go down in the books as a man who lived by shrewdness and shorthand and who expressed himself in code. He would not win the nomination because Republicans know the presidency is in large part a speaking job, and that isn’t what Bob Dole does.

But in a crowded field Dole emerged as the winner, and that was the final good news for Clinton.

Clinton is a lucky man, and that is not a put-down. A Broadway musical from my youth, Pippin, had a character sing of “the rule that every general knows by heart/That it’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.” History gave Bill Clinton peace. And prosperity. And a national mood of anxious well-being, a sense out there that change can, should, be incremental and inch by inch, and that the most interesting politician in America—our Newt—should stay on as a force and be happily moderated by a newly practical and even chastened second-termer named Clinton.

Who was it who said, “The people have spoken, the bastards”? I mean, apart from Steve Forbes. Anyway, whoever said it knew something about losing, about the proper attitude to defeat: Look ’em in the eye and tell ’em they were wrong. In this case I was wrong. Though I’d have been spared this humiliating admission if I’d been more prudently edited by Forbes’ editors, the bastards.