"Fairy Tale," "Jesse Jackson" and The Evil Genius of Bill Clinton at Work in Pennsylvania

05/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pennsylvania's results prove that despite the howls of protest about our ex-president playing the race card, and the bloviating about his legacy being sullied and sundered, Bill Clinton cannily rescued Hillary's campaign from complete collapse by his pointed but not accidental statements during the Super Tuesday run-up.

By raising the issues that Obama is a superficial and untested meteor (and media phenomenon) -- pretty much everything Geraldine Ferraro said without the literalness of "he wasn't black" -- Bill did what he needed to do.

I believe this was all part of the Clinton plan: Bill would inject the ugliness that the sinking campaign had to do to get into the dialogue. They would spin it as the Big Dog being unleashed and on his own, handler-free. Patent nonsense. And then he would disappear for a while into a contrived state of penance for his undisciplined rants.

Without those rants, though, Hillary would be finished because they provided the context bed for Obama's current problems with Reverend Wright and Bittergate. Seen through the lens of the white, Roman Catholic voters who gave Hillary Clinton her advantage, the "fairy tale" means this: It's a fantasy to think that this charismatic, young, inexperienced Senator isn't go to come crashing to earth as we learn more about his radical background and associations. He's not what he seems to be or claims. He's just a less overtly incendiary Jesse Jackson. Fairy tales might be comforting for a while, but dangerous if you actually believe them and act on them. And a fairy tale could actually bring about the election of John McCain, in what should be the party's year of years.

It was a clever and potent use of language. You don't have to be an expert in Bruno Bettelheim, or to have read his Uses of Enchantment, to know that fairy tales strike a deep, primal chord. Someone pretends to be what they're not, lures you into a dangerous situation based on your "hope" and naivete, and next thing you're Hansel and Gretel baking in the oven. Fairy tales have fatal consequences.

Having sowed the seeds of doubt during the Super Tuesday campaign, Bill didn't need to do much more. Circumstances changed, including the ascendancy of McCain, who the Democrats see as a tough and wily opponent who can attract independents and make the election a real horse race. And suddenly, there's a flicker that says might actually want Hillary and Bill on your side.

Obama did the best he could with the Wright mess - turning it into a brilliant rhetorical moment. Obama handed Hillary Bittergate, and she ran with it. By the way, I am convinced that her consistent use of the word "elitist" is a clever code word in certain working class circles for "uppity." It was a smart, judo move, a way to bring back the race issue in a different context, playing off the archetype of the over-educated, over-reaching black man (who's trying to tell white folks what they think and why), as opposed to their other strategy, referencing the Al Sharpton archetype.

And of course, the recent, post-SNL media self-consciousness was behind the much-deplored debate focus on Obama's triple baggage of Wright, Bittergate and Ayres. This early spring Pennsylvania harvest comes directly from seeds planted by Bill Clinton.

Obama is likely to prevail, but the fact that he has been unable to get it done, to "get it over with" as so many journalists, commentators and even superdelegates are now asking, does two things. It creates a context where anything can happen, where Hillary Clinton's incessant drumbeat about the two "e's" -- experience and electability -- could create a meaningful level of superdelegate doubt.

Negative advertising works, no matter what voters reflexively say in focus groups. For Obama, there is a way to go negative while maintaining his dignity and stature, to make her seem small while making him feel big. But his campaign hasn't found that voice yet.

Meanwhile, she has grabbed the campaign's baton and is now leading the orchestra, defining him. What worked for Obama in the beginning, and what so frustrated the Clintons and their praetorian guard, was how successful and how much voters (and yes, the media) wanted to believe in him. So she tried to emulate him, convince voters that she, too, embodied what Obama represented.

That's gone now. She's dropped the horrific, parody language, the transparent posturing of herself as the candidate of change and hope, and has also stopped trying to warm herself up, the charm triangulation. That's been what's kept her viable. For Hillary Clinton, coldness is life.

She has re-connected with her inner Attila, and it's working. Lots of voters don't seem to mind, and in fact I believe they curiously relish this gloves-are-off battle. Everyone loves a real show. Barack may be the post-millennial, post-modern candidate of ideas, but Jerry Bruckheimer lives in a bigger house than Wes Anderson. Hillary may inhabit some distressing archetypes: the scolding mother, the mirthless nag, the calculating hack, the heartless opportunist. But she's winning over a lot of voters who were once believed to be in a state of terminal loathing. Who would never willingly venture into her den, because you can't put your feet on the coffee table, and you can only watch the game if you've seen your C-Span.

Bill Clinton made all this possible. Virtually no one credited his political skills at the time, but what Hillary Clinton and Harold Ickes are attempting to sell to the superdelegates is the same fairy tale story that her husband floated out into the super-charged, Super Tuesday ether.

The campaign has entered a new narrative. She created it. She knows it. She's driving it. Indiana is next. Obama needs to show that he can take her down in the most elegant form of hand-to-hand political combat we've seen since Roosevelt and Kennedy. It's what the superdelegates want to see and hear, because they know that's what it's going to take to win in November.

Obama needs to go back to the very language that worked so well against him. He needs to return to the fairy tale language, but re-angle it in the current context. He needs to say "Bill Clinton called my campaign a fairy tale, and now, Hillary Clinton is telling you fairy tales about me. That I support racist and divisive views. That I hang out with radicals who want to overthrow the United States. That I'm an elitist - when I've known and lived personal struggles that she's only seen from the inside of a limousine. She plays with words to create fear, carefully saying that 'as far as she knows' I'm not a Muslim. Give me a break...what kind of weasel statement is that? And she's spreading the myth that I can't win against John McCain. She's inventing a Barack Obama that doesn't exist because she's holding on by her fingernails and that's the only way she can stay in the game."

And Barack needs to send out his surrogates to talk about the ways in which Hillary is appealing to our "worst instincts' or "worst demons"; nice echo of Lincoln's "better angels. Or some other language that is proxy for the race card. Bill and Hillary have been progressive forces for most of their lives, but now their joint "stop-at-nothing ethic is turning them into the same kind of sleaze as Karl Rove and the Republican attack machine. Rock her and Bill back. Not just because it is politically expedient. But because they deserve it.