OWENSBORO, Ky. -- Up in Washington, President Barack Obama was beginning his belated self-education in the art of personal politics by inviting 12 Republican senators to dinner at a restaurant five blocks from the White House. Down here in this Ohio River city, the past master of that game was giving a lecture on how it's done -- and how essential it is to the functioning of a country built on argument.
Former President Bill Clinton knows a thing or two about political strife. Back in the day there was that little matter of impeachment, and his wife was hung in effigy, and the Republicans created a whole industry dedicated to trying to destroy his presidency -- and almost succeeded.
So it was fascinating and instructive to listen to him Wednesday night in western Kentucky at a fundraising dinner for retired Sen. Wendell H. Ford's educational foundation.
Looking fit in a trim brown suit and waxing philosophical among friends -- prominent Democrats in a border state he won twice -- Clinton delivered a preacher's homily on the virtues of political compromise, the art of the deal, the need for humility and the dangers of assuming that your argument is "100 percent right."
The former president never mentioned Obama, or any Republicans for that matter, but it was clear whom he was addressing. "I think he was sending a message to this president," said Ford, a moderate Democrat and behind-the-scenes force who was governor of Kentucky before serving four terms in the U.S. Senate.
Clinton said that he and Ford represented the breed of politicians who, in the end, would rather get a deal than a perfect deal -- since the latter was never possible -- and the kind of leaders who understood they were leading imperfect humans and not abstractions. The implication was that Obama, whose presidency and achievements went unremarked on, was not like them.
Old-school campaigning in places such as Kentucky and his home state of Arkansas required an ability to listen and to be respectful, Clinton said. In small towns, people of different views lived side-by-side, unlike the political self-segregation common in suburbs today, he said.
Media and technology (and gerrymandered districts) allow voters and politicians to wall themselves off behind their own self-reinforcing prejudices and lose the ability to see any sense, or even humanity, in the outside world.
The country has made tremendous progress in shedding various forms of bigotry, Clinton said. "We have just one bigotry left. We don't want to be around anyone who disagrees with us."
At a time when the current occupant of the White House has been accused of preferring drone-style politics -- attacks from a distance -- Clinton praised the personal and the close-in. When there is sharp disagreement, he said, the thing to do is "turn into it, not away from it." He liked the movie "Lincoln," he said, "because it glorified politics."
He admonished leaders in Washington to get down to the hard business of talking to each other and working out a deal. He cited his own experience with welfare reform in 1996, which produced two bills that he vetoed before he got a bipartisan compromise that he felt he could sign.
"We kept working at it," he said. "If all you do is fight and you don't ever fix, then you are stuck."
Each generation can only solve the problems it faces, leaving the next generation to its own challenges.
"We want America to stumble in the right direction," said Clinton. Wednesday night in Owensboro, he made it sound like a noble journey.