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Mayhill Fowler

Mayhill Fowler

Posted: April 24, 2008 07:41 AM

Stump Dreams: The Clinton Family White House


Wednesday in Elon, North Carolina, talking to a group three-thousand strong, Bill Clinton offers a window into Clinton family thinking on the race for the Democratic nomination. "When we started this election, all the pundits--who are normally wrong, by the way--said Hillary can win the primary [sic], she can't win the general election. That has been conventional wisdom for fifteen months.

"We were having dinner earlier in this election, and I said, 'You know I always disagree with them [pundits] and you know sometimes I'm wrong, too--but I think it's dead wrong. I think you're gonna have a hard time getting nominated. But if you win, you'll be elected President by a good strong margin because people will see you're the best qualified person. . . .

"So I think you should do something to help yourself get through the hard times. Ask yourself right now--right now--if you are lucky enough to be elected President, how can you tell when it's over if you did a good job. Now think about this. . . ."

After wandering for awhile in a description of his Foundation's work, Bill Clinton continues.

"This is the answer she gave. She said, 'I think if the people were to elect me and I got to serve, I would believe I had been faithful to the American people if I could say three things. One. That people are much better off than when I started. Two. That people have a much brighter future than when I started. Three. The country is coming together instead of being torn apart.'"

Aside from the fact that this conversation sounds more like an excerpt from the HBO John Adams miniseries than any real marital chitchat in Chappaqua or Georgetown, Bill Clinton's remarks do illuminate the Clinton mindset, something that has certainly been confounding the press of late. Why is Hillary Clinton still in the race when she has no chance of winning? Waxing prolix in Elon, the ex-President tells us why.

First of all, the nomination battle is writing exactly the narrative Bill predicted to Hillary. His having foreseen her struggle validates it. Secondly, the Bill-Hillary conversation reveals how easily the former First Couple can imagine being in the White House again. Not only that--but over a meal they were already looking back on an Administration that had yet to occur. Their getting so far ahead of themselves is a fascinating glimpse into how power can shape vision--not always to good effect.

Stumping in North Carolina, Bill Clinton speaks again and again, with example after example, of his wife's being the best qualified for the job. The Clintons truly do believe she is best-qualified, and for that reason, as well, she has not conceded to Barack Obama. Furthermore, both Clintons seem to have found a second--or is that a third?--wind as the nomination contest goes forward. In short, somewhat oblivious to what is going on around them, they are having a ball.

Coming to North Carolina and finding myself following Bill Clinton on the trail yet again , I haven't shared the Clinton merriment. Like the rest of the press, who have been tolling the bell of gloom and doom for Democrats ever since Pennsylvania was called by ten points for Hillary Clinton, I have wanted closure to this seemingly never-ending race. I'm not sure why the politicos and pundits are calling for an endgame when observing whatever happens, one way or another, is our raison d'etre. But driving into Elon College, North Carolina, I am not a happy newshound. (Elon University is in the town of Elon College--try finding that on your GPS.) I have caught the Pennsylvania press cold; I have just walked out of a Charlotte beauty salon looking like Elsa Lanchester.

But the minute I reach Elon, my spirits rise. Here is yet another lovely American college town I would never have seen if not for the campaign. The university courtyard and its Fonville Fountain before which Bill Clinton is to speak are beautiful. The yard is jammed with students. Around the periphery of the press enclosure are gathered the older citizens of Alamance County. Inside the enclosure, the university's journalism students are learning on the job. Their earnestness, excitement and attention to detail are infectious. The amiable but raucous crowd has been standing since 2 PM and now it's 4:30. A journalism student intones for the camera, "Senator Clinton has said she will meet him anytime anyplace. Why will Senator Obama not debate her?" Young Hillaryites in the crowd wear stickers saying "HOPE-ing for a Debate." The press and the rest of the country may be sick of debates, but clearly that is not the feeling in the Tar Heel State. It's North Carolina's turn, and Democrats here want every minute in the limelight that the preceding contests have had. This waiting in line and the subsequent satisfaction upon being called on is a group feeling of which both the Clinton and Obama campaigns are well aware. It's one reason the Florida/Michigan conundrum continues to bedevil.

The local Hillary organizer revs up the crowd. "Who's the next President of the United States?" O-BAM-A! O-BAM-A! O-BAM-A! the students shout. Not surprisingly, most are Obama supporters, but they are curious enough to hear Bill Clinton to wait several hours for him. And Spring Fever's in the air. When Clinton finally appears, frat boys hoot "Bi-ill! Bi-ill! Bi-ill!" But these are mostly Southerners, and as such they've been taught good manners; they are generally respectful, if mostly inattentive, to ex-President Clinton. It's a shame about the woolgathering, because Clinton gives the best speech I've heard from him on the stump--a speech that he tailors exactly to the lives and experiences of the young people before him. The win in Pennsylvania has re-energized and re-focused Bill Clinton. He displays none of the inner disdain for his audience that he had for Hispanics in Texas. Clearly, he regards the North Carolina students as his peers.

Bill Clinton begins with a memory of '92. "On the last bus tour, we had a magnificent rally on this campus and I'll remember it all my life." Admiring the scene, Clinton says, "I wish I could go back to school." Bill Clinton and I are exactly of an age, so I appreciate where he's coming from. The students, however, are not so much into reminiscence. Nor are they much into hearing about the future consequences of so many of their generation living to 100, not even when Clinton gets into how bio-tech will be the century's next wave of new jobs after green energy. He talks with force and clarity about the relationship of fiscal policy and trade, but nobody's taking notes. In short, for these students Bill Clinton is a bit of an old fart.

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Coming Tomorrow: Bill knows how to talk to ordinary folk!