Monday, January 28, 2008

Bill's pride and the loss of Camelot

Edward Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama is clearly a major blow to the Clintons - and not just because the senior keeper of the Kennedy flame is tight with the kinds of primary voters that Obama needs most (downscale workers, union members, and Hispanics); and not just because Ted will stump for Obama in key Feb. 5 states (probably California, New Jersey, Hispanic-heavy Arizona, and certainly Massachusetts, which has almost as many delegates as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined).

Indeed, it's uncertain whether Ted's florid face and rhetoric are enough to sway large numbers of voters. Yes, his endorsement of Obama and his rejection of the Clintons are unprecedented (due in part to his distaste for Bill's anti-Obama campaigning); he has traditionally stayed above the fray during Democratic primary seasons. But is he really capable of sprinkling enough Camelot fairy dust to shift the ground game? I wonder.

Nevertheless, this much is surely clear: Ted's nod to Obama represents a major blow to Bill Clinton's pride, to his political and personal self-esteem.

Lest we forget, when Bill first ran for president in 1992, he saw himself as the heir to the Kennedy flame. His campaign even unearthed a photo from 1963, showing young Bill at the White House, during a Boy's Nation event, shaking hands with JFK himself. He wanted the public to see him as a virtual Kennedy, an inspiration to a new generation.

It's all there on page 418 of his hefty memoir, My Life. Bill told the '92 Democratic convention delegates, "Thirty two years ago, another young candidate who wanted to get the country moving again came to the convention..." Recalling that moment in his memoir, he then writes, "I wanted to identify with the spirit of John Kennedy's campaign." And six months later (page 474), shortly before he was sworn into office, he made a pilgrimage to the Kennedy gravesite, where he knelt, "asking for wisdom and strength."

Indeed, Ted Kennedy is repeatedly lionized in the memoir as a brilliant rhetorician, visionary policy wonk, and fabulous playmate:

Bill writes that, as a young man, he was blown away by Ted's funeral farewell to his fallen brother Bobby. The eulogy "was magnificent...closing with words of power and grace I will never forget." (page 123)

Bill lauds Teddy for making "an emotional plea" for universal health care way back in 1978. (page 260)

Bill rhapsodizes about "sailing and swimming," early in his presidency, with Ted and a passel of Kennedys on Martha's Vineyard. Apparently Caroline and Chelsea jumped into the water from a high platform on the yacht, whereupon Ted and Bill tried to goad Hillary into doing the same. But Hillary demurred, "with her usual good sense." (page 540)

Bill fondly recalls that it was Ted who had Bill's back during the '94 battle for health care reform; in fact, when Ted got his Senate committee to pass a reform bill, it was "the first time legislation providing universal coverage had ever even made it out of a full congressional committee." (page 601)

Bill writes that Ted cared deeply about Bill's agenda and performance, that Ted was the only senator "who regularly provided me with a typed 'to do' list." (page 713)

Bill praises Ted's agenda and performance, notably Ted's child health care plan. (page 761)

Bill not only bursts with pride about his Ted ties, he also proudly recalls how John Kennedy Jr. "had come to one of my first New York campaign events in 1991." And after JFK Jr. was killed, Ted "gave another magnificent eulogy."

All told, it must be tough for Bill to suffer these repeated blows to his pride. First he was dubbed the first black president by poet Toni Morrison; now Toni Morrison is backing Obama, and black voters are fleeing from the Clintons in droves. And now even the Kennedy torch was been torn away from him - and entrusted, by orders of its senior steward, to a candidate who is deemed to be the embodiment of a new generation.

Bill has long sought to fuse the Kennedys and the Clintons, to make them synonymous in Democratic politics, but Ted has now severed the link, and made it easier for Obama to argue that Democrats can have the former without the latter. Moreover, some of Ted's remarks today can be read as a rebuke of the Clintons: "(Obama) will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past. He is a leader who sees the world clearly without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in, without demonizing those who hold a different view."

This jolt to Clintonian pride may well be enough to induce Bill to dial himself down on the campaign trail, or at least to ponder how he might want to spin this embarrassment in his next memoir. After all, the first one was only 1008 pages.


Meanwhile, let's fact-check one of Bill's remarks in South Carolina, the kind of talk that helped drive Ted into the Obama camp. At the eleventh hour, Bill tried to equate Barack Obama with Jesse Jackson, in an effort to pin the "black candidate" label on Obama and thus minimize his potential appeal. Bill said, "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in '84 and '88. And he ran a good campaign. And Senator Obama is running a good campaign."

The facts: (1) In '84 and '88, South Carolina held caucuses, which attracted a fraction of the people who showed up on Saturday night. (2) Jackson's rivals didn't campaign in South Carolina, in either year, twice ceding the state to Jackson, who was born there. (3) The '84 caucuses were so insignificant that Jackson "won" by finishing behind "Uncommitted." (4) In '88, he had the state to himself, in caucuses again ignored by the media and political community, and only won 41 percent of the participants.

Which brings us to Hillary's latest defense of her spouse. Asked yesterday to comment on Bill's remarks, she said: "I think everyone who knows Bill knows that he's both a great student of politics and history."

A "great" student of history? Only with the aid of grade inflation.