2008 will go down on record as the year of the presidents who just wouldn't go away.
So far, the most successful of them is Vladimir Putin who so cleverly consolidated his position during his tenure as Russian President that he has survived past his term with all of his domestic power and European influence intact. He is a pretty popular fellow too.
Then there is Robert Mugabe still desperately struggling to maintain his presidency despite a recent election the specific results of which remain unknown. Mugabe's last ten years in office strained the goodwill of anyone associated with Zimbabwe. His people, his party, his trading partners and his neighbors are sick of him. It's very hard to find anyone sympathetic to the incompetent deathgrip he maintains on a tragically impoverished country where inflation worsens every day. The election he suborned, pilfered, defrauded, and silenced offered nonviolent change to a patient people. He has cheated them of their right to express their will. He may well meet a gruesome end. In any case, at 84, his days are clearly numbered.
Finally, there is Hillary Rodham Clinton. Of course, Hillary is unlike my first two examples in that she was never actually elected president, but she did share the White House with a remarkably efficient one. For a long time, both of them have waited and schemed to place their hands once again on the exhilarating throttle of the free world.
Their patience has sustained them through eight years in the wilderness, through a bitter fight for their party's nomination, and through a long war of attrition during which -- by any measurement you care to use -- sufficient levels of national support have eluded them again and again.
To date, Barack Obama, a political nobody, bests the Clintons regularly by garnering more donations, more state primary victories, more superdelegate support, and more -- ouch -- support from the Clintons' personal friends. This is why I say -- unequivocally -- that for a time, the Clintons were undoubtedly the presidential heirs-apparent, but the country has moved on and is now experiencing Clinton fatigue.
Still, experienced pols like Robert Mugabe and the Clintons rarely go gently into the good night. If the final days of Billary's presidency taught them anything it was that in politics you should hang on and tough things out.
They just might get better.
The personal costs are horrendous, of course. Who remembers the dejection and demeanor of Bill Clinton's final days following his Monica semi-confession and the impeachment vote? The cockiest President since Jack Kennedy left office looking very much like Eeyore. It hurt to look at him.
And what about Hillary?
This year's race has changed her. A tough opponent who first attracted national attention at the tender age of 22 with carefully considered observations about integrity, trust and respect, Hillary has become a hard, mean thing desperate to hang on and all-too-willing to attack her wash-and-wear opponent with the mudslinging methods of oldstyle Arkansas politics. If one set of advice doesn't work, she gets new advice: 'Call him elitist. Focus on the gaffs. Say he isn't tough enough.'
Apparently, in the modern age of nano-fibers, this stuff just doesn't work as well as it used to.
But what has it all cost?
The will of the country was behind the Democrats in January when both Obama and Hillary appeared to be offering something fresh and new. Today, America is equally divided between John McCain and whoever the Democrats will finally choose. In an tooth-and-nail battle to prolong her eligibility for the party's nomination, Hillary has shown the country that some of the Democrats are as morally bankrupt as the Republicans.
Well, whaddya know?
Old-style cutthroat political ambition and mudslinging taints the electability of a party that was running against lobbyists, against election fraudsters, against power politics, against the same-old same-old.
Has any of this hurt Obama?
Uh-uh. Unlike all other candidates Barack Obama is not taking one last glorious shot at the title. Both Hillary and John McCain are hoping for a happy ending to rival Vladimir Putin's. To do this costs John McCain very little, whereas it costs Hillary Clinton the accrued capital of two very successful political lives. Hence my comparison to Robert Mugabe.
But I have a message for Hillary. It's time to go.In the words of a remarkable young woman who gave the first student commencement address at Wellesley College:
the only tool we have...to use is our lives...The struggle for an integrated life existing in an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences.
What a marvelous combination of feeling and knowing she once was. Everyone thought that one day she'd be president.
Of course, that was way back there in 1969.