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At a prime-time news conference on April 18, 1995, President Bill Clinton aroused both ridicule and pity when he stated, "The president is relevant." The comment seemed to encapsulate his weakened political position and what appeared to be his woeful state of mind as the new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, dominated the news in the wake of Republican victories in the midterm elections just past.

But only hours later came the event that would prove to the nation that the president -- this president -- was, indeed, relevant. At 9 am local time on the nineteenth, Timothy McVeigh set off the truck bomb that killed 168 people -- mostly federal employees and their children -- at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. At the Oklahoma State Fair Arena four days after the attack, Clinton delivered a speech "filled with love and regret and pain and anguish," according to the historian Douglas Brinkley. "I don't think it could have been a better written or delivered speech." Comforting the victims, he comforted the nation, and gave it resolve to mete out justice to terrorists who would commit such evil acts. He made the case that a reviled class of Americans -- government bureaucrats -- in fact contributed to the nation's well-being. By extension, he was also making the case that, Republican rhetoric notwithstanding, government had a positive role to play in Americans' lives.

The speech marked the true beginning of Bill Clinton's rehabilitation in the eyes of the public after the electoral rebuke. It did so for two reasons.

First, it reinforced a political narrative that the Clinton White House had begun to write almost immediately after November's balloting. During the first two years of his administration, the GOP, focusing on issues like gun control, gays in the military, taxes, and health care, had succeeded in painting Clinton as a man out of touch with the heartland. Now Clinton & Co. were determined to turn the tables on the Republicans. "Over and over again," says Mike McCurry, then the White House press secretary, "we used the words 'radical' and 'extreme' interchangeably to discuss the priorities of the new Republican leadership in Congress." So when, in the bombing's immediate aftermath, McVeigh's sympathies for the growing militia movement were revealed, the public was prepared to place the attack in the context of the scorching anti-government rhetoric emanating from Gingrich and his cohort. Neither at Oklahoma City nor at Michigan State University twelve days later ("there is nothing patriotic about hating your country, or pretending that you can love your country but despise your government") did Clinton draw a connection between McVeigh's antigovernment act and Gingrich's antigovernment words.

He didn't have to. "It wasn't consciously trying to tie conservative extremism in the House to the militia groups," says McCurry of the commencement address in East Lansing. "But it was very clearly a statement about extreme rhetoric that declares government is not the solution, it's the problem. Even that Reaganesque language had a sinister side that fueled a lot of those guys who were way out there. Clinton felt that some voice had to stand for the value of us working together as a nation." The public could draw its own conclusions from the president's words. Oklahoma City set the stage for Americans' blaming Gingrich, not Clinton, for the government shutdowns that took place later that year, and for the Clinton campaign's ease in tying Gingrich around Bob Dole's neck as the president proceeded to trounce the Kansan in November the following year.

Second, Oklahoma City reminded people why they liked Clinton in the first place. When, before the 1992 New York primary, Bill Clinton answered a heckler from Act Up by saying, in part, "I feel your pain," the words became an instant punchline. But he was telling the truth. Clinton's deep empathy is just as phenomenal, and just as rare, as is his blazing intellect. And it has proven an invaluable asset throughout his career.

In 1992 Mickey Kantor, later a cabinet member, chaired Clinton's campaign. He recalls a day in New Hampshire shortly before that state's primary. By this time Clinton seemed finished as a presidential prospect owing to the dual revelations of Gennifer Flowers and his Vietnam-era draft history. "He's at a home for the elderly," says Kantor, "and they're talking about the price of pharmaceuticals, and people were talking about how they didn't have enough money. And a woman in the front row, after asking questions, starts crying. He just walks up, and he kneels down in front of this woman and hugs her." No other politician could pull off such a gesture -- it would be seen as awkward, uncomfortable, and false. But hugs and tears come naturally to Clinton, and in New Hampshire his empathy saved the day. Dee Dee Myers, the campaign press secretary, recalls that Clinton survived the ordeal "by connecting with people on a personal and important level. People voted for him because they really believed, after seeing him, that he got their problems and cared about them, that when push came to shove -- despite Gennifer Flowers -- he would act on their behalf."

The same thing saved him in January 1998, when Washington elites expected he wouldn't last a week in office after the name Monica Lewinsky had appeared in the Washington Post. In Oklahoma City, America once again got to see the Bill Clinton they'd voted for -- not the man who wanted to take away your right to see your own doctor, not the defender of homosexuals and persecutor of gun owners, but the Man from Hope, the survivor of a broken home who understood their dreams, their struggles, and their problems. The worst of Clinton is really bad, but the best of Clinton is damn good. At eulogies -- at Oklahoma City, at the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, addressing students at Columbine after the shootings there in 1999 - Clinton always shone.

 

Follow Michael Takiff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MichaelTakiff