Bill Clinton was many things, but stupid was never one of them. Even his supporters were eventually forced to admit that most of those things were true. Sloppy, corrupt, impulsive, amoral, vindictive, petty and loving every minute of it. Sure. But not stupid.
Clinton was of the left, but he was a politician first. He understood politics as more than just gamesmanship, a set of rules, procedures and technicalities, powerful people to court, an image to cultivate and opponents to destroy.
What Clinton understood, and Obama doesn’t, is that politics is about people. And that politics is nothing without people. 400 glowing articles don’t compare to what people are feeling when they’re unemployed, when they’re not sure how they’ll make payroll next month and when they sit toting up the numbers late at night and worrying about the future.
Obama isn’t so much a machine politician as he is a politician of the machine. A man whose career was made by one machine after another. Smooth gleaming urban monstrosities guiding him from one organization to another, from handshakes to dinners to ballots to signatures. Politics to him is nothing but a power game almost completely detached from the people. They’re spectators, showing up to faint, cheer and buy him drinks afterward.
Politics to Obama is its own game, like law or basketball. The people in the stands and benches make it necessary, but they don’t really figure into it except as a nebulous crowd providing moral support. What really matters are how you win the game, the rules and the way you can break the rules. It’s all that matters.
Considering his level of emotional detachment, Obama has been good at faking it. But most of the fakery is second-hand. The work of an army of advisers and a grass-roots movement determined to create a Hollywood idea of the hero, who wins elections, defeats conservatives, and like at the end of every political movie, connects with the voters by delivering a speech that sets out the stakes.
Bill Clinton knows that’s a load of crap. He’s played that game, he’s had those advisers, and he’s given those speeches, but he has enough of a background in real world elections to know that nobody really gives a damn about the speeches. They’ll listen to them when they’re first getting to know you or when something important happens, but mostly people elect politicians to do things for them.
Clinton, like McCain, underestimated the power of the machine behind Obama. The new world order of digital power, manufactured cult-of-personality media complex and sheer arrogant rule-breaking. Slick Willy had tasted two out of that three in his time, but no one ever worshiped him as a god. And certainly no one was going to faint on listening to his wife or build statues to her. Hillary would not inspire works of art or paeans of praise.
But Bill also had the last laugh. Because gods are not allowed to let you down. Gods are not allowed to keep blaming Bush or the Republicans. They’re not allowed to promise to take care of things later. That’s not what people elect gods for.
There’s no doubt that he saw this coming early on and that in the dregs of his bitterness at losing, not just failing to win, but the humiliation of defeat, he knew that the day would come when the statues would fall. When people would stretch out their hands expecting help… and when it did not come, the hands would clench into fists.
People expect less of Presidents, than they do of gods. They expect more of men who claim to be able to lower sea levels and change history. And they don’t take “no” for an answer. Being ignored only makes them angrier.
Unlike Clinton, Obama isn’t able to step out there with an apologetic shrug and a heartfelt speech about tough times. The speech can be written for him by the campaign that never ends, which will find a poet from Chicago who writes rhymes about the Great Depression that reflect class and social divisions, while sipping a craft beer, to do the hard work of laying out all those words, it will be touted for two weeks by the media as the final response to an ungrateful nation, it will upstage three television programs that people actually enjoy watching in these hard times, and it will sound and feel exactly like the time your neighbors sent over their spoiled brat to apologize for breaking your window on pain of losing his trip to Disneyland.
Obama’s detachment is his gift. That coolness which convinces supporters that his mind is exploring other realms, contemplating deep thoughts on racial identity and postmodernism or probing the moral paradoxes of soft power. It makes his occasional bouts of attentiveness seem more intense, like a coma patient occasionally waking up to check in, before checking out again.
His pathological need for attention is wholly self-centered and he is not at all surprised to find that the world revolves around him. But it’s an attention that he has never had to fight for. It was the birthright that he gained from his dysfunctional family, his coddled educational background and his red carpet ride through politics.
Bill Clinton has never checked out in his life. Of the two men, he looks like the lazy one, but is the genuine hard worker. Even after serving two terms, he is still searching for something to do. After a term or two in office, you won’t find Obama frothing at the mouth to run someone else’s campaign. Chatting with the folks on Martha’s Vineyard, maybe. Delivering speeches on facing the challenges of tomorrow, for a cool million a pop, to Chinese corporations, almost certainly. But not working.
When it comes to attention, Clinton fights for it. His permanent campaign is a personal one that never goes away. Give him five minutes anywhere and he will make himself the center of attention, not because he deserves it and certainly not because it’s handed to him as a token prize for his race or his coolness, but because he wants it more than anyone else in the room.
There is an emptiness in many entertainers that drives them to be the center of attention and from there into explosive bouts of self-destructive behavior. Clinton is of their breed. Give him five minutes in any room and he will own the room. And then the next room. But he isn’t an actor. The actor is his rival, the cool man with the big ears, who spends more time entertaining himself than anyone else. Who reads his lines, waits for the peasants to applaud and takes off for the next venue.
There are two kinds of actors. The kind who just fall into it, who get noticed by the right people and end up in movies because a string of producers and executives thought that they had the right look. That’s Obama’s bio to a tee, except that the production he’s starring in is Hollywood’s most expensive blockbuster, it’s a compelling drama about a new era in race relations and the transformation of politics through one man’s inspiring charisma. Its budget is in the trillions, but like so many movies, the studios and producers aren’t the ones footing the bill.
Actors of this kind can thrill you from the other side of the screen with the way that they deliver their lines, intoning with self-consciousness as if they are thinking over the implications of every word that comes out of their mouths. They’re megastars, and their combination of occasional intensity and general detachment makes them seem bigger than life. But the whole thing means nothing to them. It’s an easy life, and they’re always on the lookout for an easier one. When things don’t go their way, they stamp off in a huff, hide out in their trailer and go off looking for easier work. They last only so long as the trail of luck that got them this far does. Setbacks wipe them out so completely that a decade later people occasionally wonder what happened to them.
Then there’s the other kind. The Clinton kind. The ones who really need it. Who don’t take attention as their birthright, but fight for it as if they’re the youngest sibling and every room is twenty older brothers and sisters. Who will go anywhere and stop at nothing to get the applause and the awareness that shows up in the eyes of their audience. The magnetic connection that links them to other people.
Actors like this know that you have to learn about people and understand what makes them tick. It’s not enough to go out and deliver the lines that someone else wrote for you. It’s not enough to practice the speech a few times in front of the mirror, lift a few facial expressions and tics from your favorite performers and then go out and take the applause that’s rightfully yours. They know that you have to understand your audience, to know what they are afraid of, what they love, what they hate and what makes them give you that charge you want so badly. They know you have to get under their skin to be able to connect with them.
Men like these are unstable. They can screw up at key moments. They are too needy to be trusted. But they can also perform on the fly, without the net, without the teleprompters and the endless staff. And, for all their faults, of which they have many, they also understand what their audience wants, and they know that the audience is an integral part of the performance. That the performance is a bond between them. They may despise the audience, they may cheat the audience, lie to it and abuse it, but they never take it for granted. Without the audience, they don’t exist.
Clinton always knew that Obama was bound to fail. He understood the megastar illusion of Obama was a haze of press release news stories, wishful thinking and manufactured hysteria that would be no match for the actual challenges of the country. And he also knew that the knee jerk radicalism and arrogance of his opponent and his trusted advisers would leave him hopelessly out of touch with the country in troubled times.
The former President knows the audience that Obama is playing for, the Beltway radicals with degrees and theories, the San Francisco green-energy tycoons, the New York reporters totting along Kindles with a hundred trendy bestsellers they never read through the same dozen airports and the midwestern liberal sages, playing politically correct cracker-barrel philosophers in the hopes of holding on to the party’s vanishing white male voters. And he also knows that audience isn’t enough to hold the country. It was enough to take the country with a blizzard of money and publicity, but conquests are easy, defenses are hard.
He knows that you talk to traditional businessmen, to factory workers, to coal miners and soldiers, to homemakers and those gun-and-bible-clingers too. And you don’t just talk to them, you listen, and you try to give them something, because that’s how you hold on to power. That’s how you hold on to your audience. That’s how you keep on winning.
The Democratic Party has turned on Clinton again, calling him everything from senile to traitor, but that’s a laugh. Clinton knows that they know that there’s no loyalty in the party except to yourself. Why should he or Deval Patrick or Cory Booker spit on Bain, golden fount of Democratic money, just because of the vicissitudes of the current election campaign? They’ll praise it instead and, when fundraising time comes around, they’ll remind their hosts of it. And fundraising time always comes.
Clinton also knows that last season’s golden boy easily becomes this season’s goat. He was the new JFK before he became the new Nixon. He was the first black American president, after all, and he isn’t going gently into the sunset. Hate doesn’t impress him. He’s been hated by bigger and better men than the pipsqueaks in the media, who winked and nudged when he passed the girls around, and then pretended to get outraged when he got caught. Who laughed at his racist jokes in private clubs, but act outraged because he refused to give up in South Carolina.
“To hell with them,” he thinks, “they’ll be back.” And maybe they will. Stranger things have happened. Whatever they call him, he isn’t going away. There’s an itch inside him and he still wants to play. They tell him the game has changed, but he knows how the game is really played. And he knows that the first rule, the one so many of his generation never learned, and even fewer of Obama’s generation did, is that you never give up. You never go away.
Obama wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was born with a whole set of them. That quixotic combination of connections, political and interpersonal, racial cred, important kin, friends of friends, a world-traveler’s bio and a time when a man with his background would be irresistible. Bill was baffled by it at first, but he gets it now. Flavor of the month. He’s seen them before. And he’s outlasted silver spoonies before. It’s just a matter of persistence. Of never giving up.
Hillary doesn’t want another race. The last one was bad enough. It confirmed what she suspected all along. That no one really liked her. She never cared that much what people thought of her, but it was a slap in the face to realize that all her preparations had counted for nothing. That putting in the hours and working for it wouldn’t stop a talentless amateur with more powerful backers from taking it from you. But Bill knows that’s exactly how it works and he has never let rejection stop him before. Tell him off fifty times and he still thinks that the next time you might agree.
Bill knows that the prep counts, but then you have to leave behind the notes and committee meetings and fly. And he’s determined to win again because, unlike them, he can’t stop. They may curse him now, but, in hindsight, they may thank him and, when the next Democrat steps up, he’ll be there for credibility with the business community because he was the man who got it. The one who understood that Bain did great work, that the Bush tax cuts have to be extended and that the country needs responsible leaders who are willing to reach across the aisle.
And then, just as he’s turning away, he’ll smile and say, “Hillary sends her regards. I hope she can count on your support.”