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.