The Kingfish, and His Pilot Fish

Watching Bill Clinton at his big speech Monday night, and seeing him in the big campaign handoff in Michigan Tuesday afternoon, I realized that though he always wishes to be likened to John Kennedy, he is really like another famously successful operator in American political history. He is like Huey Long, the Kingfish, “the friend of the working man.” Bill Clinton, like Long on the stump in Louisiana, talks about what he gave you, what he did, how he made it all better, and how those bad people tried to stop him but he fought them off, for you.

Al Gore of course apes this, but awkwardly. He is like the white guy who can’t jump. “The powerful interests are gonna go after us with everything they’ve got,” he warned at the handoff, with a dramatic, down home tone. But he looked like the Vice President in Charge of Fear for the Powerful Interests, with his crisp suit and his fitted shirts and his steely pecs and blow-dried hair. He always seems calculating, incapable of candor, spontaneity, the ingenuous.

Mr. Clinton can fake those things because he is the best actor in all of American political history, the prince of the podium. Mr. Gore does not fake them as well. But he does his best, and he and Mr. Clinton together sounded so 1930s, so Southern agrarian populist, that afterward I wondered, as all those in politics and journalism do, How do normal people receive this? Are they impressed? Do they believe what they’re being told? Do they resent being told by Bill Clinton that they have what they have because of him and Al Gore?

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Because Mr. Clinton so often tells us what he did, it is remarkable that he cannot explain how he did it. Monday night he took a stab, but only a small one. He suggested he unleashed the economy by raising taxes. But in 1992 he excoriated George Bush for raising taxes, and indeed after Mr. Clinton raised taxes in 1993, he later admitted he’d raised them too much. So the suggestion that we owe our wealth to his tax hike was not fully satisfying.

Normally both parties torture logic, but they stick to the logic they’re torturing. Mr. Clinton seems to throw out old logic and bring in new logic all the time. So he can always keep changing the argument in a way you don’t expect, which leaves his opponents confused when they try to answer him.

I don’t mean a classic political fudging of the facts. Mr. Clinton, for instance, said in his speech over and over that he got rid of the deficit. But he didn’t get rid of the deficit, it was going down when he walked in and continued to go down as he went to fund-raisers. We will continue to build a surplus as the economy expands. What he grew is the budget, but the unstoppable economy overwhelmed even that.

What is slightly confusing is that the federal deficit was so at the center of all of Mr. Clinton’s remarks the past few days, the surplus so at the center of his bragging, that you had to sit back and wonder: When did the Democrats start to care about budget deficits? When Jimmy Carter left office in 1980 with what was at that point a huge federal deficit of $58 billion, the Democratic Party never said boo. The Democratic Party I cheered in the 1960s and 1970s never cared about green eyeshade things like deficits. Only cold, it-all-comes-down-to-money Republicans did. Democrats cared about people.

Now Mr. Clinton and the Democrats, all they care about is the deficit. This is not a change in rhetorical tack but a complete change in the logic of the party.

What is always fascinating is the blithe confidence with which Mr. Clinton says what he says, as if he’s been saying it all his life. When I listen to him I think he’s been saying it all his life, even though I know that’s not true.

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But the American people tend to give credit to a president for what happened on his watch, and there is a rough fairness to this. And in truth Mr. Clinton deserves credit for not messing the economy up. He could have. He could have tried to raise taxes again and again and done the bidding of his party on trade and fired Alan Greenspan. But he didn’t. He could have thrown a wrench in the machine. He didn’t. Or not much and not often. The machine booms along.

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More attention should be given to the president’s televised walk through the bowels of the convention hall as he made his way to the podium, while his people superimposed phrases like “longest economic expansion in American history” and “lowest unemployment rate” on the screen.

It was majestically tacky and embarrassing, and seemed almost made for the delectation of the brilliant young men and women of Comedy Central, who know goofiness when they see it. (Imagine their “supers”: First president impeached in this century . . . Lost our nuclear secrets and showed profound indifference when he found out . . . Used US military might to distract attention from his scandals . . . Sold access to the presidency.)

I thought that they must be doing it to excite the base, and yet I also thought, Only stupid people would like this, and then I wondered if Mr. Clinton’s people assume their base is stupid. At any rate, the long walk reminded me of the evening Giscard D’Estaing left the presidency of France. He said his farewell in a nationally televised speech and at the end, rather than saying good night, he abruptly walked away from his desk, leaving for the audience to ponder an empty chair. All of France was meant to weep. All of France broke out in laughter.

And yet it was the perfect Clinton moment. He will do anything to convince the American people that he is a success.

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I have been surprised in L.A. to find that Democrats on the floor and in the television booths often refer to Monica. You’d think they wouldn’t but they do. They mention “the Monica scandals” a lot. And the reason is this. If they talk about Monica enough it will distract from the other and more dangerous scandals: the selling of the Oval Office, the leaving America undefended from missile attack.

It isn’t Republicans who talk about Monica, it’s Democrats, and they have their reasons. A whole future generation is absorbing the mantra: The guy was a genius who did nothing wrong but make a mistake with a girl, a girl, a girl.

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The night of Mr. Clinton’s big speech Democrats were shaking their heads and saying Gore just isn’t like Clinton. But they’re wrong. Mr. Gore is like a Clinton. Unfortunately it’s Hillary. In her speech Monday night she was flat-voiced, dull, predictable, pedantic. “We’ve made great progress in the last eight years but we still have a lot of work to do.” “They made the hard decisions to renew our economy.” Everyone in Los Angeles thinks she delayed her speech in order to get on prime time. If this is true it was a miscalculation, as the speech was a kind of walk through the worst of Mrs. Clinton on the stump.

She was supposed to introduce her husband and speak highly of him; she was supposed to endorse Al Gore, and speak highly of him. Instead she spoke highly of herself—”I worked with a bipartisan coalition . . .” “I thought of the first foster child I represented back when I was in law school . . .” “Years ago, when I worked for the Children’s Defense Fund . . .” “I’ve talked with mothers and fathers on front porches, factory floors and in hospital wards . . .” “I’ve held the hands of mothers and fathers . . .”

At first I was taken aback by what seemed over-the-top solipsism, which could be heard even in the smallest asides, e.g. “I first met Joe Lieberman 30 years ago when Bill and I were law students.” Um, what was Joe at that time? That’s not important. What’s important is Bill and I went to law school.

Then I realized it was very much the kind of speech Mrs. Clinton’s aides would craft after finding out from the latest focus group that Mrs. Clinton strikes them as a cold post-yuppie with no biography, only hunger.

She made a lot of references to her mother and daughter and family and children. Mrs. Clinton was forced to start speaking like this in the 1992 campaign, when a focus group revealed that they thought she was a woman without a family; it was news to them that she even had a child.

It sounded Monday night to me that eight years later the focus groups are still seeing something she has spent eight years trying to knock down. That is not good news for her New York campaign.

But it was all saved in a way by Bill Clinton’s speech, which I think was the best political speech of his presidency in that it was disciplined, had a point, and he stuck to the point. And he was so confident about it that he didn’t fuss with the wording and keep desperately adding words, as he is famous for doing in the back of the limo and in the holding room, but let his writers keep it simple. Which suggested confidence and even, for him, happiness.