It's been almost a century since America had an ex-President who occupied such commanding ground. Bill Clinton is full of energy, full of ambition, full of other things. What Clinton will do next is an always interesting question, the more so now, when there is so little left that he hasn't done. A man who's devoted his life to scaling a height has run out of summit. Will he descend like Moses? Fall like Teddy Roosevelt? Jump? Be pushed? Or will Bill Clinton keep climbing past the peak, in the manner of a cartoon character, on into the air?
As for air, Clinton gives a lot of speeches. He delivered fifty-nine paid lectures in just his first year out of office, plus numerous free talks. Possibly the way to divine what the former chief executive will be doing in the future is to listen to what he's saying now. To this end, I spent several weeks in October and November of last year attending some of Bill Clinton's public addresses and reading the transcripts of as many others as patience would bear.
The timing happened to be good. In the aftermath of the 2002 elections the only remaining prominent Democrat with national appeal seems to be Bill. Dick Gephardt is doubly gone from House leadership, so miffed at being fired that he quit. Al Gore has tossed in the terry cloth. The increasingly unpopular popular-vote winner steered into the left lane and oncoming traffic when he announced that America needs a Canadian-style national health-care system —to match, perhaps, the Canadian-style power and glory that Al foresaw for America (and others foresaw for his career). The Kennedy dynasty seems to be in a late Julio-Claudian phase. Ted has been to one toga party too many. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, RFK's eldest daughter, could not gain the governorship in Democrat-chocked Maryland. She was ousted by the Praetorian Guard of suburban voters. Meanwhile, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Joseph Lieberman fast in the wilderness of New Democrat moderation, waiting for someone to take them up into an exceeding high mountain and show them all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, like Bill Clinton got to see. But so far nobody has bothered to say to the two Johns and Joe, "All these things will I give thee."
Bill, one imagines, said, "Gee, thanks." Although one also imagines that Bill quickly told the devil, as he told students and faculty members at Harvard—locum tenentes: "There are three things, in my view, we have to do. First, spread the benefits and shrink the burdens of the twenty-first century. Second, work to create conditions in poor countries that make progress possible ... with special care for the challenges of the Muslim world. Third, we simply must develop a higher level of consciousness about how we can all cherish our faiths and our identities and still live and work together." And Satan was left to wonder, with many another Friend of Bill, if he really had the stomach to work with this guy.
Clinton alone remains standing, just as Clinton alone remained standing in the wreckage of impeachment, in the ruin of sex scandals, in the debris of Whitewater, in the dinosaur die-off that struck the 1994 Congress, and atop the small piles of flattened expectations that were the 1992 Democratic primaries. The sinkhole of his eleventh-hour pardons and five-finger discounts on White House gifts gaped all around him, and Clinton strode off to make $9.2 million on the lecture circuit in 2001.
Now a tornado of votes has blown through, and Bill is still on his feet in the trailer park of Democratic campaigning, never mind how much of the wind was generated by Bill. On November 17, 2002, Clinton gave a lecture at the University of California at Davis, in the Central Valley. "I'm a little hoarse," he began. "On the week of the elections I took three overnight flights. I did fifty interviews on election night. I lost more than my voice." The crowd chuckled sympathetically.
For a decade the Democratic Party has been taking lessons in content-free communication, promissory vagueness, and triangulated obfuscation from Bill Clinton. On November 14 Clinton spoke in a rich and liberal suburb of San Francisco. Asked about electoral defeats, he blamed the Republicans for having more money and for committing wide-ranging sins of "better geographic spread." He blamed voters for a "natural tendency to be unified" under threat of war and terrorism. But at last Clinton summoned the boundless effrontery that ever fails to affront his supporters and blamed the Democrats. "Democrats didn't have a national message," he said. The crowd nodded sagely.
On November 10 Clinton gave the keynote address at the 150th-anniversary banquet for San Francisco's black and activist Third Baptist Church. Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Josephine Baker, and Paul Robeson have spoken to the Third Baptist Church. This congregation propounds a message that has been national since there was a nation. Bill Clinton's contribution to the stirring rhetoric of racial equality was "There are those who want to count everyone in versus those who just want to be in." After the speech Mayor Willie Brown voiced a wish that Clinton could go on being President. The crowd stood and applauded.
Introducing Clinton at UC Davis, Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef said, "He continues as a living hero. Hope—it's about giving people hope."
It certainly is. Bill Clinton gives hope to every one of us potato-nosed oafs from nowhere with our shiftless relatives and our marriages that are like being sewn up in a sack full of cats. If this knight of the manure shovel, this gas pudding, can become the leader of the free world, there's hope for us all. We observe his ragamuffin character stitched together from scraps of prevarication and ribbons of fantasy. We watch his hinge-heeled ethical contraption flap in the breeze of fundraising and personal finance. We cluck at the spectacle of a sad rip and his homely girlfriends. No annoying crick in the neck from looking up to this hero.
But Clinton succeeds. The rest of us do not. Various theories have been put forth to explain the somewhat surprising rise of Bill Clinton and his truly astonishing failure to fall. My friends who listen to AM talk radio say I am not the first to suggest that he made a pact with Satan. But I don't think Bill did that. A pact with Hillary, yes—but a modern presidential administration is a corporate pyramid in its delegation of powers. The selling of souls in the Clinton White House was conducted at a lower level on the organizational chart, by such as George Stephanopoulos, Sidney Blumenthal, and Erskine Bowles.
Speculations of a more likely nature credit Clinton's political skills, his charm, his brains, and his luck, although it's not the kind of luck that one would want to have. Clinton has been lucky most of all in his enemies. He has something by which right-wingers are driven crazy (not much of a journey in many cases). It isn't the policy Clinton pursued. Once comprehensive health care (where archaeologist Al Gore went digging) had been entombed, Clinton's policies were mostly too small or skittering to attract a maniacal response. Opposing his legislative initiatives was a varmint hunt, not a mad quixotic crusade. Some of those varmints even proved useful—for example, the big lab rat of welfare reform currently running through the sociological labyrinth. Sorry if conservatives ate the cheese at the end of the maze.
Something else lit the lichen on the mossbacks. Maybe it was seeing that loosey-goosey sixties generation at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue eating peas off its knife on Dolley Madison's china. Or maybe it was the little smirk that Clinton has, or the much larger one that belongs to his wife.
Anyway, Clinton's enemies had a tendency to explode with anger, most notably during the impeachment. The walls of the House and Senate chambers were left covered in a goo of spit venom and slung mud. Red-faced, dirty Bill looked swell by comparison.
All cleaned up and calmed down, he certainly looked swell in comparison with the other dignitaries at the October 10, 2002, Boston Teachers Union rally for the gubernatorial candidate Shannon O'Brien. Mayor Tom Menino spoke, followed by the candidate for lieutenant governor Chris Gabrieli, and then O'Brien herself. Clinton put a finger to his temple in a pose of interest. Clinton cupped his chin in his fist in a gesture of concentration. Clinton rubbed the back of his head for a heedful effect, ran a thumb down the line of his jaw to mime a thought provoked, and, in short, made use of every theatrical trope to indicate rapt attention while failing to look unbored. Clinton is reputed to be a man who doesn't sleep much, but there seemed every likelihood of his getting forty winks at the Boston Teachers Union Hall.
O'Brien was an exemplary candidate for Massachusetts, that nest of the Kennedys, den of Democratic partying, and bolthole for the next Democratic presidential convention. She is Irish, female, a political insider who had noisy support from unions and The Boston Globe. Such a perfect apparatchik is Shannon O'Brien that a thumbnail description almost sounds Russian: much-flacked hack mick chick. She would be beaten by—of all things in the 401(k) plague year of 2002—a Republican venture capitalist, and a male and a Mormon at that.
Is Bill Clinton so good at politics, or are other politicians so bad? Mayor Menino spoke in the manner of Demosthenes, with an exception. One is eventually supposed to remove the pebbles from one's mouth. Chris Gabrieli turned a sycophantic face to the semi-dozing ex-President and said, "I am active in public life because I was inspired by your running in 1992." The crux of Gabrieli's road-to-Damascus (or road-to-Beacon-Hill—though in the event, not) experience was that Clinton had been "in favor of both economic growth and people."
Imagine a politician's running in opposition to either. But Gabrieli was proceeding to new conundrums, announcing, "Today is National Lights On Afterschool Day"—the idea being to promote after-school activities to keep kids from "getting into drugs, alcohol, violence, and smoking," which is apparently accomplished by having all the teachers gather for a political rally in the union hall at 3:00 P.M. Gabrieli then paraphrased Clinton: "We know that there is nothing wrong with Massachusetts that can't be fixed with what's right with Massachusetts." The climate?
Shannon O'Brien went next, instilling in the teachers a spirit of the nobility of organized labor by talking about a local janitors' strike. Suitably enough, O'Brien spoke in the manner of a schoolteacher. But not just any teacher. O'Brien calls to mind a particular teacher, the one that no lively and imaginative child will ever forget. If I hadn't been wearing a new suit, it might have been beyond my power of self-control to resist ducking out the union-hall door, wading into nearby Boston Harbor, and gathering an armful of dead eels to put in her desk drawer.
"We have someone here," O'Brien said with a show-and-tell intonation, "who appreciates what a Democrat can do when a Democrat is elected to the highest office." Clinton (rather than Ken Starr) was called to the microphone, an hour and fifteen minutes after the rally had been scheduled to begin. Four hundred or so union members who had paid $20 to $50 for admittance had been left without chairs in the windowless, linoleum-floored confines. A tape of disco music played until the slightly more annoying noise of the dignitaries began.
Clinton received (perforce) a standing ovation. His fleshy face came to life with the applause. He was a mammoth thawing in its Siberian exile from the center of attention, a nameless creature of Mary Shelley's sparked to animation by the lightning of handclaps. "You're so pumped!" Clinton said to the dull O'Brien, "and they're so good"—he waved at the crowd—"that I don't need to say anything."
Although he did. Clinton began, for some reason, with a statement that could stand as an obituary for all executive political power and certainly for his own. "When times are good and the money is rolling in, you can almost have a lobotomy and be governor." Clinton, however, seems to have had whatever the opposite of a lobotomy is—producing a superfluity of brain connections generating heaps and mounds of thoughts. He soon had one that was more apt. "It's about children," Bill said. True masters of democracy extend their embrace beyond the mere electorate to those who cannot vote—kids, endangered species, and people in Florida.
Clinton pointed to a toddler being held aloft in the crowd. "What do we want America to be like," he asked, "when that little kid in the American-flag sweatshirt is in high school?"
A country, perhaps, where Mom and Dad can have a cool life downtown, close to restaurants and shopping, but with school vouchers, so that junior doesn't have to attend Nine Millimeter High. But at O'Brien's instigation, school vouchers had been booed a few minutes before. And Clinton did not pursue the thought. He'd had another.
The thoughts of Bill Clinton indicate what an exacting thinker he is. "I spent more money every year in Arkansas on education," he said. That is the exact truth. A dull thinker would have gotten confused by truth in a sloppier form. When Clinton was elected governor, in 1978, Arkansas was ranked forty-eighth among the states in public school spending per pupil. In 1993, the year after Clinton left office, Arkansas was ranked forty-eighth.
In another statement of exact truth Clinton summarized his twenty years as a state and national chief executive with all the perquisites thereof—the large homes, fine meals, pretty furniture, attendants and staff, chauffeured cars, private aircraft, public celebrity, power, and influence: "I never had any money before I left the White House," he said.
Clinton parried his own plea for sympathy by announcing that he makes a lot of money now and immediately turned that thrust on the moneyed interests. He spoke of how the Bush Administration has called for us all to make sacrifices in the war on terrorism. "But," Clinton said, "the only sacrifice they want from me and people in my tax bracket is to summon the energy to open the envelope to get my tax refund."
Clinton is the D'Artagnan of political duello. But, like D'Artagnan's Louis XIII, Clinton's enemies are not the only ones left looking pathetic. Menino, Gabrieli, and O'Brien were idiots to share the stage with him.
Clinton began a brag about all the good things he'd done in office and how he'd puffed the economy into a pink and beautiful hugeness and how, by golly, those Bush guys must have popped it, because they've sure got gum all over their faces. It was a long and fulsome brag. And just as the brag was reaching Mike Fink-keelboat limits of good taste, Clinton opened his arms to the crowd. "But that's nothing!" he said. "You would have done the same thing! Because you're Democrats!"
There are selves too big for one person to contain. You cannot call them selfish. There is nothing -ish about such selves. They are the self, as it were, itself. And this immense, glowing self stepped down from the podium and moved in stately orbit along a velvet rope, radiating schmooze, bestowing double-mitted handshakes, dispensing weighty shoulder pats, and kissing the tot in the American-flag sweatshirt.
It would have taken a cold heart indeed to shout, "Parent or guardian, stop! You don't know where that mouth has been!"
A month later Bill Clinton went to the Third Baptist Church's 150th-anniversary celebration. The banquet was held in the grand ballroom of the San Francisco Hilton. The food was sumptuous. The dress was formal. The crowd was almost entirely black.
Clinton is famously popular among black voters. A woman at my table gave me the ordinary explanation for this: how Clinton's ambition was unthwarted by poverty and humble origins. She cited "his human aspect—not quite knowing who his daddy was."
The band was asked to play "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is sometimes called the black national anthem. Clinton claimed to be "the only white person in America who knows the words to all three verses." Then he excused himself from singing them on grounds of hoarseness. "Lift Every Voice" contains a frank description of American enslavement,
We have come over a way that
With tears has been watered;
We have come, treading our path through
The blood of the slaughtered
and a blunt affirmation of America.
May we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
It's a stirring song, but hearing these 900-some mostly middle-aged and middle-class people sing it would dissuade even a nineteenth-century ethnologist from seeing correlations between race and musical ability.
Clinton does not patronize a black audience, unless he does. In a speech he made to the National Baptist Convention in January of 2002, Clinton said: "You ever notice how polite people are at black church events? Anybody who comes up to this podium, they're going to mention more people's names than anybody else at any other event ... Then you go to some white Rotary Club or convention and no one talks about anybody ..." But Clinton did not patronize the black audience in San Francisco. More than a few of the guests looked as if they'd sat through their share of thank-yous, much-obliged-fors, and hats-off-tos at the Rotary.
Instead Clinton talked a lot about inclusiveness. He bragged again about all the good things he'd done in office (though omitting the masterly Boston Teachers Union fillip of inclusiveness at the brag's end). He repeated the story of his sacrifice in opening his tax-rebate envelope—to the applause that even the prosperous must give a man who earns $9.2 million a year and wants to pay more taxes. He made a funny remark: "Ken Starr spent seventy million dollars to find out I'm a sinner. Everybody knew that." And he interspersed his speech with too many biblical quotations.
Maybe it's a black audience that patronizes Bill. The same woman who'd spoken admiringly of his childhood struggles clucked disapproval of his behavior at a pre-speech photo opportunity. She said he'd allowed two boys making gang signs to pose with him. Maybe it's nice to have some fellow around who might have been clipping eyeholes out of his bed sheets but who supports affirmative action instead. Maybe Bill is the comforting pocket change of racial understanding, a sort of black Clarence Thomas.
There could be a more concrete reason for Bill's appeal to black voters. I felt as if I'd been at this gala before, forty or forty-five years ago. The women wore important hats and serious dresses. The men's dinner jackets were shaped at the shoulders and nipped at the waists. Their dress shirts and bow ties were splendid in color and form. This was very different from going to, for instance, a political-wife-in-a-sack and bag-o-tuxedo event on Capitol Hill. But it was not very different from going to a party with a family full of harps. My uncle Mikey-Mike, my cousin Slats, my Aunt Bridget, and her husband, Louie, who once ran the local pinball rackets in Toledo, had more "flava," as they say today, than their egg-salad-sandwich-with-the-crusts-cut-off neighbors. Grandpa J.J. was one generation away from illiteracy and, I suspect, not as distant as that from running booze during Prohibition. But by 1960 O'Rourkes had marched up the social stairs into the world of "some white Rotary Club." Like contemporary middle-class African-Americans, Irish-Americans had to find a palatable way to edge to the right. Casting ballots for Bill Clinton allowed blacks to vote Republican without throwing up.
Some people think that welfare reform should have hurt Bill Clinton with black voters. But others of us have had family members on welfare, and not many of those family members were broke from paying back the money we had lent them. A couple of weeks before the Third Baptist anniversary Bill Clinton became an honorary member of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, the way various notables become honorary Irishmen every Saint Patrick's Day. Thus blackness will disappear in America. Irishness has almost done so (a Shannon O'Brien has vanished in Massachusetts). This has taken 160 years and required the Ike-like politics of that lace-curtain bog trotter Jack Kennedy—and the Irish didn't even look much different from other short people. So it may be a while. But there will come a day—an embarrassing day—when the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth will be marked by crowds warbling "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in the bars of ten thousand soul-food-themed chain restaurants (owned by a Swiss multinational), and most of the revelers in those crowds will be the color of tofu.
Four days later the true center of gravity of Clinton support came, by the thousands, to hear Bill in the rich and liberal suburb of San Francisco. In fact, it's very rich—the most affluent county in the United States. And very liberal—the Democratic congressional candidate won 69.66 percent of the vote in 2002. Also very white—the black population is 2.9 percent.
And the members of the audience were slobs. They went to see a former President of the United States in their play-date clothes. They had almost all crossed the meridian of life. Some had sailed far beyond. But the men wore little-boy windbreakers and billow-seated wide-wale corduroys with inseams measured for Yao Ming, of the Houston Rockets. Their sweaters bore patterns that sheep might see on drugs. I counted only seven neckties, including Clinton's, the moderator's, and my own. The women all seemed to make their own jewelry. Some had donned the blowsy knits of the increasingly dowdy New Age. Others were mutton dressed as lamb.
Bill Clinton was only twenty minutes late. (At the Third Baptist banquet he had been, more rudely, half an hour early, because he'd scheduled something else for later that night.) Here was one of the great practical politicians of the age freed from the binds and gags of practical politics that had restrained him since he first ran for Congress, in 1974. Now his loyalists would get to hear what he really thinks.
And what they think too. Clinton gave an executive summary to the enthusiastic crowd: "How I view the present moment and how you'll think about it."
"The world is in a race between integration and disintegration," Clinton said. "My thesis: In an interdependent world either conflict or cooperation will be the result. Can we move from interdependence to an integrated global community?" And a little later, in case anyone still didn't know how to think, Clinton limned a vision of that integrated global community. "Ants and bees and termites are helpless on their own but powerful together."
Clinton knows what must be done to build this shining city on an ant hill. He has an understanding of foreign policy's deep, broad, and murky waters. Former world leaders do. They acquire it suddenly upon leaving office. When Clinton was actually President, U.S. foreign policy was more tinkle than Big Muddy. He began with woeful folly in Somalia and proceeded to a pointless Haiti incursion and half-hearted missile lobs at Afghanistan and Sudan. The Taliban reigned. Al Qaeda grew to maturity. The U.S.S. Cole and the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, and a prelude attack was made on the World Trade Center. The late-to-the-party interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo must have left dead Croats, Muslims, and Albanians thankful for their relatives' opportunity to kill Serbs. Clinton's Ireland peace process is unsteady on its feet, and the Wye River Accord blows chunks.
But Clinton is a savant now. The Bush Administration has sought his diplomatic aid—to lead a U.S. delegation to East Timor's independence celebration. "President Clinton was deeply involved in helping bringing about a peaceful resolution to East Timor," said a Bush Administration official. If only we listen to Clinton, there could be East Timors all around the world.
Clinton understands what motivates the North Koreans. It's the same thing that motivates him, although North Korean revelations were explosive in more than the New York Post sense. Clinton explained matters to the audience: "Why were they building bombs? It's the only way anyone pays attention to them."
Clinton proposed a new Marshall Plan for war-torn parts of the earth, such as the Middle East. It's an interesting idea, giving generous economic assistance to countries with the world's largest petroleum reserves. Plus, I thought, I did that this morning when I filled up the Suburban. Clinton said, "We spend less than one percent of our budget on direct foreign assistance." But he had a little lapse there and forgot to count the 17.8 percent that we spend guaranteeing, with our Army, Navy, and Air Force, the existence of live foreigners to assist. (Even if the foreigners with the best guarantees—NATO members—are the ones least in need of assistance.)
Clinton said that we have to "build institutions of international cooperation." He noted several. The Kyoto treaty got applause. The World Court didn't. Even liberals fret about the idea of being pulled over by a World Cop for some World Driving Violation (not using the horn enough?) and then having to go before a World Traffic Magistrate and explain in Esperanto that they were rushing a sick gerbil to the pet hospital. Clinton praised "Powell and"—that tagalong—"the President" for going to the UN with their Iraqi-weapons-of-mass-destruction concerns. "If we have to take military action now, we'll have the world behind us," Clinton said, in the one newsworthy statement of the evening—although this did not make the papers the next day. "We'll get a lot of help."
"To build the world we want," Clinton said, "we need people with the habits of mind and heart to do so." He cited Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and Nelson Mandela, and modestly avoided mentioning himself. But what if people don't act like Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and Nelson Mandela? What if people act like Winnie Mandela? Clinton didn't say. But in an April 2002 speech to the National Jewish Democratic Council, he proposed a U.S. intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian clash. His plan was a combination of prom-chaperone duty and Vietnam: "The United States must go there and put our arms around that thing like a wet blanket ... We have to cover this situation ... And we have to wade into it and stay there through disappointment and difficulty ..."
Clinton went from hearts and minds to a little homily that he had used at the Third Baptist banquet and would use again at UC Davis. It varies from speech to speech, but the essential form is this:
We derive positive meanings through positive associations with our group, and we give ourselves importance also by negative reference to those who are not part of our group. There has never been a person, and I bet this applies to everyone in this room, who has not said at least once in his life, "Well, I may not be perfect, but thank God I am not one of them."
Unless, I gather, "them" is Republicans.
Talking to the San Francisco suburbanites about the voters' support of the "Bush agenda," Clinton confessed, "It's a democracy. If they want it, they have a right to have it." He shrugged. "If you want it." Smug titters at the unenlightened they of democracy filled the hall.
All political views are rude. Political views lead to anger, outrage, gross certainty, and other boorish displays of feeling. However, only modern privileged liberalism generates smugness. No one was smirking in the audience at the Third Baptist banquet, or among the teachers at the Boston union hall. But the San Francisco suburbanites listened to Bill Clinton's speech with the self-satisfied faces of toddlers on the pot. It went with their appearance of having been hurriedly dressed by a working parent, and it illustrates why modern privileged politics shouldn't be covered by anyone who doesn't have small children in the house.
The tantrum was not long in coming. Clinton called Fox News "ultra-conservative" and said, "All the real fanaticism is on the right in America today." He said that Newt Gingrich had once told him privately, "If we fought you fair, you'd beat us every time." And Clinton showed how formidable he can be in such a fight by taking a fair swipe at compassionate conservatism: "The idea is the same benefits with smaller government and larger tax cuts. Sounds good to me." But Clinton is not a man for whom sufficiency suffices. He went on, saying, "There's a lot of conservative press and establishment press influenced by the right wing." He styled them cheaters for pointing out that the Georgia senator Max Cleland opposed the Homeland Security Bill. This was how a crippled veteran of Vietnam was defeated at the polls, said Clinton, who'd avoided the war, to the residents of a place where the war had been widely protested. Shaking his head angrily at such character assassination, Clinton said that the right-wingers "never pay any price for it." Having riled himself up, he blurted, "We don't have the stomach for it. We argue the issues."
From somewhere out in the middle of the huge audience came a single involuntary snort. The hall was silent for a moment as a scary image of a snake-headed James Carville seemed to hover over the proceedings. Clinton turned and looked to the precise spot where the snorter sat. "Don't get into this argument," he said, "You'll lose it."
Clinton raised his eyes to the audience and said, "Seventy million dollars of your tax money to look into Whitewater—a real-estate deal where I lost money!" He protested at length against all the tricks the Democrats don't play.
And then it was over. In an unpredictable change of mood that could have been predicted by any mom, the furious I-didn't-do-it was followed by an earnest I'll-never-do-it-again and sniffles of everyone's-doing-it and the-other-kids-are-worse. Clinton said, "There were things that Democrats did before. But we were peanuts and pikers compared to what people like Richard Mellon Scaife did." Scaife was the Neanderthal reactionary who financed investigations into Clinton's love life and into things that were as improbable as Clinton's love life—such as Vince Foster murder conspiracies and Clinton-sanctioned drug deals at Mena Airport—but which never actually happened. Watching millionaire Bill, who has his nutty moments, telling an audience of millionaires, who seemed a bit kooky, the story of a crazy millionaire was—there isn't really another word—cute.
Bill Clinton never gives the same speech twice, in the sense that one never has the same conversation twice at the local bar and that no two dorm-room bull sessions are identical. At UC Davis, as befit a college venue, he had some all-nighter study-break gabfest brainstorms to share. "People believe you can't get rich without more greenhouse gases," Bill said. "That's not true. Alternative energy would create a trillion-dollar market and millions of jobs." And, with legions of messengers carrying cleft sticks, so would elimination of the telephone. "We know how to do this," Clinton said. "But people don't believe it." And he told how he saw the Kyoto climate treaty "as a chance to let China skip a whole stage of industrial development." China is actually somewhat ahead of Bill here, having skipped free-market bourgeois entrepreneurship and gone straight from primitive communism to the fascist corporate state. "People have to give up this idea that you can't get rich without greenhouse gases," Clinton said. The audience laughed and applauded. After the speech I counted, among the trucks and SUVs in the UC Davis parking lot, one Honda Insight.
Clinton is a notorious policy wonk. Contrary to what editorial-page writers seem to think, this is not an inside-the-Beltway compliment. "Wonk" has its root in either "wonky"—shaky, unstable, awry—or "wank," to perform an act of self-pleasuring. Already adept in the latter department, Clinton is now turning into an Al Gore for the twenty-first century. In a lecture at Berkeley in January of 2002 he said, "I just got back from the Middle East, and I told them they ought to forget about being the oil center of the world. They ought to become the energy center and double the capacity of solar technology and conservation technologies and put them in every warm place in the world, because it's important."
But Clinton, being fully Clintonian, can glean policy fatuities from both left and right—as long as the policy expands the sphere of politics, a sphere in which Clinton still sees himself as pretty much most of the orb. He told the UC Davis audience that the federal government should be given all the computer data generated by our use of credit cards. "Just make sure the government has the information on all of us that every mass-mailing company has," he said. Clinton claimed that after 9/11 he got a phone call from a friend who owns such a company and that the friend said Mohammed Atta was in his database—under a half dozen aliases, running up debt on all kinds of plastic. "Before we restrict the civil liberties of Americans further," Clinton said, having just suggested doing so, "we should get this information that's out there anyway."
One piece of information that's out there is the size of Clinton's lecture fee. A small group from the Coalition of University Employees, Local 7, was outside the auditorium protesting the $100,000 payment. According to the CUE's printed handout, University of California staff wages, adjusted for inflation, have declined by almost 20 percent since 1990. But the Boston Teachers Union labor-solidarity Clinton of a month before was not speaking that day. "I brought the WTO organization into being," Clinton boasted from the stage.
Another small group of protesters outside was chanting, "Money for education. Not for attacking the Iraqi nation."
"When I was in office, inspections worked," Bill crowed.
"We strengthened the UN," he puffed. This had made the American right wing angry. And here, perhaps, a third small group of protesters was satisfied. They were of Republican mien and held a sign that read THANKS, BILL, FOR GETTING OUT THE VOTE.
Clinton vaunted his plan to attack North Korea back when it was trying to build six to ten atomic bombs a year using spent fuel rods. "I couldn't permit that to happen," he said. He explained how "that problem was much bigger" than the problem George Bush is having with North Korea. "Now," Clinton said with a deprecating wave, "they're trying to build one bomb from enriched uranium." He repeated his analysis of North Korean psychology—that insight drawn from deep within himself: "They're screaming to tell the world they still matter."
"When I was President," Clinton said with swagger, "terror attacks were prevented at the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Los Angeles Airport, on an airplane to the Philippines ..." Here, I confess, my notes peter out in "etc. etc."
But with these and many other so forths, Clinton brought the planet to heel, tamed rogue nations, quashed international terrorism, and put paid to at least two thirds of the Axis of Evil. He didn't leave a perfect world, but darn near. "All you have to do," he told the audience, "is go out and figure a way to share the future."
At the end of his prepared speech Clinton talked about the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups in Rwanda. Approximately 800,000 Tutsi and Tutsi sympathizers were murdered by Hutu fanatics in 1994. No "institution of international cooperation" did anything to halt the killing. And neither did anyone else. But Clinton has made up for that. He visited Rwanda recently, and a grateful Tutsi told him, "You're the only leader who ever apologized for not stopping this."
While Clinton was in Rwanda he visited a housing project. He likes to recall the experience. He recalled it at the Third Baptist banquet, in the San Francisco suburb, and also when he addressed the British Labour Party at Blackpool, in October of 2002. Tutsi and Hutu are given new homes, but only if they're willing to live with each other. It's called a Reconciliation Village. Clinton was very much impressed with this. He talked about the "children of the tribes dancing together." He was so impressed that he asked an astonishing rhetorical question about Rwandans: "Are they morally superior to everyone in the world?" "No," he answered himself. And then Bill Clinton gave the audience a glimpse of the lofty goal he has set for his post-presidential career. Details were not forthcoming about how the goal was to be achieved. The exact nature of the achievement was left to the imagination. Bill Clinton said merely, "If they can do it in Rwanda, we can do it everywhere."