Jewish World Review August 2, 2001 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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The long hello

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT was nice while it lasted, this six-month spell of normalcy in national politics. Politicians have been debating the issues instead of which crimes are impeachable and which are not, which pardons were undeserved and which pardons were really undeserved, and which New Yorker is most representative of Arkansas -- Bill, Hillary or Buddy.

After the X-rated Clinton Years, boredom had never been more welcome. It was as if the pink flamingos had been taken off a Florida lawn, the sequins off Dolly Parton's cowgirl costume, the fins off a '50s Cadillac ... . There are times when less is blessedly more.

You could almost feel the decompression set in last January, as if all that shiny charisma had been lifted from the nation's shoulders. Hollywood had gone back to Hollywood, and once again the country had a president who spoke in Eisenhowerean opacities. (That is, you know what he means even if he doesn't quite say it.)

Yes, it was suddenly stylish not to be stylish. And there was a strange new-old feeling in the air that hadn't been there for the longest time. The feeling wasn't easy to identify, but maybe it was trust. Or maybe only normalcy. Or maybe just relief.

It was all too good to last. All those buttoned-down politicians and dull adults are about to be eclipsed. Yes, the Sun King and his court are coming back. So says a story in The Washington Post. "Six months after his exit from the White House turned into a personal and political debacle,'' the Post's John F. Harris reports, "Bill Clinton this week will begin a second attempt at beginning his ex-presidency.'' (If at first you don't succeed, try and try again.)

Is there really such a thing as campaigning for ex-president? If there isn't, Bill Clinton would invent the idea. The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, whatever, he thrives on the whole, surreal shtick. He is never so fully himself as when he can lose himself in another campaign. Any campaign. It's as if not just his presidency but his life has been a perpetual campaign -- to prove just what isn't clear, and doesn't need to be. It's the campaign that counts, not what it's about, if anything.

Of course it will take time to reconstruct America's memory. One suspects that William Jefferson Clinton, suspended Esq., will be at this campaign for the rest of his life. He is now entering the slow, classic spiral of every celebrity, and his descent could yet make Harold Stassen's fade-out look mercifully short and graceful, for there are at least as many new Clintons on tap as there were ever newer Nixons. None of us are obliged to watch this show, but all of us will. We may not admit it, but we'll be fascinated -- the way we were by Richard Nixon's last great comeback, which lasted two decades.

The show must go on, and so must the personalized autographs, the photographs with admirers, the panel discussions, the squishy Chicken Kievs stretching from here to eternity. Whenever and wherever Bill Clinton appears now, you can almost feel the same unspoken pity Richard Nixon used to evoke in his last, long years.

We are a nation of gawkers, and Bill Clinton has always given us something to gawk at. The only thing surprising about his re-entering the spotlight is that he was somehow able to stay out of it for the last six blessed months, which may have been the hardest thing he's ever done. The country grew restless without its Clinton fix and turned to less satisfactory stimuli, like the sphinx-like silence of Gary Condit. But it wasn't the same. We want our politics to be entertaining. And now the very personification of the clintonesque stands in the wings, preparing to make his nth entrance, this time as boy Elder Statesman.

It's almost time for the muffled drum roll, followed by a muted, bluesy Hail To the Chief on sax and trumpet. One can sense the thrill of anticipation at his return, mainly in the tabloids, and almost forget the phrase Clinton Fatigue. It, too, will stage a comeback soon enough.

But for now the long goodbye is about to metamorphose into the long hello. It's all happening on schedule:

Last week the ex-president addressed a group of freshmen Democrats in the House, poor devils. He laid out his party's agenda, which is just the sort of thing he likes to do at length.

Monday, there was a campaign rally welcoming him to his pied-`-terre in Harlem, and the welcome was deserved. He's giving 125th Street its best show since the Apollo's heyday. "Now I feel like I'm home!'' the prodigal told the Harlem crowd, shucking aside that myth about his home being Arkansas. Bill Clinton is home, of course, wherever he's

campaigning at the moment, whether for governor, president, or ex-president. His people are whomever he's addressing at the time. He's the very personification of that saddest of modern delusions, the citizen of the world. His roots are portable, his language as flexible as a forger's handwriting.

But he's still on CST, Clinton Standard Time. He was an hour an a half late to this rally, welcome and street carnival. Bill Clinton's habitual tardiness may be the truest indication of how he really feels about the Little People whose cause he is always championing. Why shouldn't they wait? His time is so much more valuable than theirs. They don't have speeches to make, memoirs to write, history to reconstruct. Gosh, it's good to be writing about Bill Clinton again. He is to newspaper columns as air is to fire, scandal to headlines, sleaze to politics ... . Thank you, Lord. Preserve him in health and happiness and transparent, foot-shooting rhetoric for many more happy, snappy years. What a show! And it's on tour. Tonight he's due in Little Rock to talk about his library at the city's Aerospace Museum. Talk about a blast.

Next week, the country's youngest old trouper is to attend his first formal golf tourney and party fund-raiser since that sort of thing was the stuff of FBI investigations. Happy Days Are Here Again, kind of.

And the gang's all here again. Among the former aides reported eager to help design Bill Clinton's re-entry into the supercharged atmosphere are Erskine Bowles and John Podesta, names that have been out of the news since the Clinton Follies closed.

John Podesta's talk-show line has scarcely altered. "The issues that animated his presidency are still the ones he wants to work on and make a contribution to,'' says Mr. Podesta. "He wants to leave footprints.'' And why not, having already left so many fingerprints?

Erskine Bowles, the Quiet Man in the Clinton administration, the one certified adult in the bunch, Bill Clinton's own Dick Cheney, isn't quoted in this article. He always understood the prudence of silence.

But where is Lanny Davis? Is he being held in reserve for the first post-presidential, post-pardons Clinton scandal? His time will come again. It always does, as surely as the Night Before gives way to the Morning After.

But what ever happened to Al Gore? They say he won't be heard from till fall. His timing remains consistent; once again Bill Clinton has beaten him to the punch and headlines. What a pity that Clinton-Gore couldn't have staged a joint comeback right here in Little Rock this week. Considering what August is like in these latitudes, the chill would have been welcome.

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