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Jewish World Review August 16, 2000 /15 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Still center stage: Bubba's first last appearance -- LOS ANGELES | The Star rocked the house Monday night going into Tuesday morning and uneasy retirement. He kept saying dutiful things about what a good family man and futurist Al Gore was, but that wasn't what turned 'em on. Having Bill Clinton as your character witness is not exactly the Thrill of a Lifetime. No, something else was happening.

The Crowd, that many-headed beast with a single impulse, was going into one wild exultation after another in great waves. It will do that at these quadrennial revival meetings, but this may have been the first time the surging leviathan went wild over ... numbers. Statistics. Balance sheets. Sociological indices. The place was like some vast congregation of numerologists on speed.

It occurred to a squashed newspaperman on the convention floor somewhere between Arkansas and New Mexico that this guy could read a day's cash-register receipts and drive a crowd wild, or at least this crowd. Because it wasn't celebrating and supporting just the speaker, the cheerleader, the Peerless Leader. He was more occasion than reason for this orgy of self-satisfaction. The Crowd was celebrating itself -- its own wisdom in having selected him, its own judgment in sticking with him, its own exultation in having ground his critics into the dust. They'd triumphed after all. He had just told them so.

After all those years of low points undergone in isolation, once-doubtful Democrats could exult with 30,000 others in a secure place. It had all been worth it! We had been right all along! The figures proved it! Each socio-eocnomic stat set The Crowd off.

The tone was set by the made-in-nostalgia movie that now must precede every big's speech at every national convention. There on the huge screen were the obligatory scenes from snowy New Hampshire in 1992, a primary that now has achieved the mythic dimensions of a political Stalingrad. Never has coming in second been so enshrined in the selective memory of fans. Amid the deafening nostalgia, one old FOB in the Arkansas delegation reached out almost hugged another, and shouted above the din: "We were there, Man! We did it, Brother!'' His life had meant something after all.

The delegates were all of one mind, or at least mood: It was time to show the country we were proud of what we'd done, of The Way We Were and, if only there had been room in those sardine-packed aisles, strut. On the podium. Bill Clinton was invoking Harry Truman, but he was evoking Elvis. It didn't matter that the figures he was spewing might be sequined and hair-sprayed, and that for each rhinestoned number there is a counter-number the opposition can cite, a counter-history the revisionists on the other side can piece together. Tonight was the clintonoids' night to howl.

The Crowd already sensed that this would be only the first of the Man's farewell concerts. The Clinton Library and shrine would soon be waiting for the next reunion of Friends of Bill in Little Rock -- like a little club set aside for these Veterans of Domestic Wars. Let the good times not just roll, but be patented, trademarked and branded Clinton.

Oops, make that Clinton-Gore. As in the president's speech, Poor Al is always a parenthetical afterthought, a kind of social obligation the people who really matter tend to forget. And is there any doubt that, if only the Constitution didn't have a 22nd Amendment, Bill Clinton would trounce any other candidate in sight. He's already put Al Gore in the shade.

As for the statistic-studded substance of what the once and always candidate said, Bill Clinton most of all knows how much fun numbers can be. The basic trick is to count the country's economic recovery from his inauguration in 1993, and not from Ronald Reagan's takeover in receivership from Jimmy Carter in the 1980s. And certainly not from the election, finally, of a Republican Congress in 1994.

But it is not what the president said Monday night that leaves the strongest, saddest impression. It is what he didn't. In the course of his verbal marathon, the eternal candidate managed to cite every happy social, economic and even moral and ethical improvement in the State of the Union, and manfully take responsibility for every one of them. Any he didn't mention, Mrs. Clinton did. (What's going to be left for poor Al Gore to claim? Not that either Clinton seemed to much care.)

The one thing this master politician did not take credit for in recent American history is the political atmosphere he leaves behind, and the country is so tired of. One suspects that even many of those who share Bill Clinton's politics would agree that it's time to Move On. It gets boring after a while living with a perpetual adolescent, however gifted-and-talented. The country is ready for an adult.

But none of that is immediately evident in the rarefied, piped-in history of the Staples Center, where the madness of crowds reigns. It is only when an old newspaperman with aching feet tries to beat the crowd out before the last paragraph, and passes a lone television monitor with Bill Clinton still speaking, does he realize what the rest of the country has been seeing. Here is a president who was supposed to have used this night to pass the torch to his ever loyal and faithful successor -- and he refused to let go.

The spectacle must have been obvious from first to last on each small, separate television screen across the country: There was his rock star's entrance, complete with those flashing reminders at the bottom of the screen of his greatness and our smallness. There was his eagerness to have another vast crowd eating out of his hand, and the Leni Riefenstahl light show that bathed the whole production, and the man's almost Republican self-satisfaction with his brilliant career. ... Maybe you had to be safe in the Staples Center with the surging crowd not to see Bill Clinton's speech Monday night. It's not just the president of the United States who lives in a bubble.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate