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One Year Ago Tonight: A Turning Point in 2008 Election -- When Bill Sank Hill

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With Barack Obama only a little more than a month from taking office -- with Hillary Clinton at his side as Secretary of State -- it is amazing to look back at the night, one year ago, when Bill Clinton suddenly came out of the closet to throw cold water on the emerging Obama fever. In my view, this was a true turning point in the campaign. Contrary to what many pundits predicted -- and at that point very few were picking Obama to win -- Bill would end up hurting (actually, dooming) his wife, not helping. As it turned out, voters did not want this particular two-for-one.

It all began on the night in mid-December when Bill appeared on Charlie Rose's latenight chat show. Enjoying the experience, he would stay in the limelight for weeks. Hillary was in some trouble in Iowa but looked strong beyond that, as she still held most of her female base and the support of many, if not most, African-Americans. But now Bill was being rolled out to help and, over the next month or so, his racially insensitive statements, and cracks about Obama's unfitness for the job, would provoke a backlash that cost his wife any chance at the nomination. Here is how I described the Charley Rose interview at the time.

In a surprisingly frank interview with Charlie Rose on his PBS show late Friday night, former President Bill Clinton declared that his wife was not only far better prepared to be president than her chief rival Sen. Barack Obama -- "it's not close" -- but that voters who disagreed would be rolling the dice if they chose Obama.

Repeatedly dismissive of Obama (which could come back to haunt the Clinton campaign) the former president at one point said that voters were, of course, free to pick someone with little experience, even "a gifted television commentator" such as Rose who would have just "one year less" experience in national service than Obama.

Clinton praised Obama's intelligence and "sensational political skills" but repeatedly suggested that, unlike his wife and some of the other candidates, he might not be ready for the job. Clinton pointed out that when he was elected president in 1992 at about the same age as Obama, he was the "senior governor" in the U.S. and had worked for years on international business issues. Viewers could draw their own conclusions.

Asked if Obama was ready to be president, Clinton passed: "Well the voters have to make up their mind." He added that "even when I was a governor and young and thought I was the best politician in the Democratic Party, I didn't run the first time. I could have." Later he said that his friends in the Republican Party had indicated that they felt his wife would be the strongest candidate, partly because she had already been "vetted" -- another subtle slap at Obama. The most important thing to judge was who would be "the best agent for change" not merely a "symbol for change....symbol is not as important as substance."

He also hit back at the charge that experienced politicians had helped get us into the Iraq war, saying that this was "like saying that because 100 percent of the malpractice cases are committed by doctors, the next time I need surgery I'll get a chef or a plumber to do it."

One more dig at Obama: He said that Edwards had first run for president after just a few years in the Senate, but then completed his term and went out and conducted a serious study of poverty. "I guess I'm old fashioned," he said, in wanting a president who had actually done things for people. Some people, of course, could "risk" taking someone who had served just a year in the Senate if they chose.

When Rose said that all this seemed to add up to Clinton hinting that people would be "rolling the dice" if they picked Obama, the former president replied: "It's less predictable, isn't it?"

If a call had gone out from his wife's campaign to pull back any critiques of Obama, her husband clearly did not get the memo. He did say that he gets "tickled" watching Obama because of his attractiveness and political skills. "I like all these people," he said. "I have nothing bad to say about him or anyone else."

Obama responded on Saturday in Iowa by pointing out that Clinton himself had said in 1992 when he ran for president that a candidate can "have the right kind of experience or the wrong kind of experience." He also noted that he had been "involved in government for over a decade," mainly in Illinois, and had the right kind of experience to "bring people together." He decried "slash and burn" politics and said Americans are "not interested in politics as a blood sport."


Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher. His latest book, on Iraq and the media, is "So Wrong for So Long." His book on the 2008 campaign will be published in January.