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Jewish World Review August 17, 2000 /16 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The First Hurrah; Bubba sets the tone -- LOS ANGELES | August is the time for myth and counter-myth in a presidential campaign, as the great parties lay the foundation for the coming campaign. First, the Republicans presented their fine-tuned convention in Philadelphia, and now the Democrats are assembled here like a milling movie cast.

For the extras from Arkansas, the first cast call was Sunday night at the old, restored Union Station. No wonder they use it for movie backdrops. It's a national monument and deserves to be, with its marriage of Spanish Colonial and Art Deco modernity. Its great cool spaces, the vaulted ceiling of the old Fred Harvey railroad restaurant, the stucco and the tile mosaics ... it all comes together to make nostalgia material.

You can look up above the Spanish tiles on the station's sloping roof, up beyond the tops of the swaying palms, up to the parapets of the surrounding office buildings before you spot the police snipers. From there, it must be like looking down onto the small, fragile stage the rest of us are playing on.

The music will tell us when the mood changes, and it does. The rhythm-and-blues band breaks into a "Hail to the Chief'' with a touch of soul, and The Star makes his appearance, waiting stolidly through one of those I-knew-him-when introductions.

There is time for only a nod to bittersweet nostalgia. The party's next leading man, still stirring around in the wings, is behind in the polls. A fighting mood must be established. This speech should be biting but, in accordance with what the market now demands, have the marks of civility. Always a quick study, The Star understands what must be done, and will proceed to do it.

Even now Bill Clinton seems less a president than the next ex-president, for we Americans are always looking ahead. But there is little time for the luxury of reminiscence. What there is of nostalgia tonight will be more bitter than sweet as yesterday's hero thanks those who followed him through the snows of New Hampshire (`the first time I was pronounced dead'').

With a sense of satisfaction that is supposed to be muted, he remembers how his rival that year used to refer to him as "the governor of a small Southern state.'' No need to go into detail and mention that he used to refer to that opponent as "old Bush.'' The Star must be mellow this mellow evening. It's no time to reprise that unfortunate shtick about how George W. Bush thinks he ought to be president just because his daddy was. Even the greatest stars stumble, and he's been trying to explain away that unfortunate piece of vaudeville for a couple of weeks now.

As the sky goes from a painted pale blue to one of those unchanging dark, warm California nights, Bill Clinton gives us a preview not just of what he'll tell the Democratic convention on his night, but of how the whole Democratic campaign should be conducted. He knows. He's proved as much in two national elections. Opinions may differ about whether he has been One of Our Greatest Presidents, but there is no doubt that he has been one of our greatest campaigners. He knows just what needs to done and said. It must be frustrating in the extreme for him to watch poor Al Gore fuss and flounder when Bill Clinton could be running such a better campaign.

Here's the theme: It's just not fair. His administration saved the country from the worst times since the Great Depression, put food on the table and cops on the street, ushered in the post-Cold War world and created the Internet, and now Americans just want to move on. "I worked as hard as I could to get this country turned around,'' the unappreciated president is saying, and now people aren't paying attention.

"You have to validate what you did,'' he says, his voice rising as he pounds, pounds, pounds the rostrum, the sound reverberating unnaturally through the R&B band's sound system like the presidential blues. The perfect note of muted triumph he sounded earlier has become one of resentment. Somewhere in the past half hour, a sense of entitlement has set in that dwarfs any the Bushes could ever claim.

The pattern of the coming campaign is now being set, like the concrete of a Hollywood star walk. First the Republicans had come to Philadelphia and talked ideas, mainly freedom. All their policies -- from giving people a share of their own Social Security to reforming education, from letting people keep more of the money they earn to revitalizing the military -- were artfully arranged around one central and, yes, risky idea. The idea is freedom, and the very word could be defined as risk. The Democrats are right about that.

Out here in Greater Hollywood, even if he can no longer be director and producer because of certain contractual limits, Bill Clinton remains The Talent. He's got the winning script in his head, he knows it. He just needs to teach his party the right lines one more time. Here's what to do: Rather than fall into the Republican trap and talk ideas, talk programs: Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs ... whatever thing each of us most wants or is most anxious about. Just be sure not to call these government programs but Issues. As in, "On the issues, the people are with us.''

It's a masterful game plan. With Bill Clinton, it always is. It won't matter that Al Gore is forgettable, or that Bill Clinton is now unforgettable. Keep reminding Americans of all they have to lose, and how risky freedom is. Despite all the talk about how complicated American politics is, it is really simple in a way. Each party has its own vocabulary, and whichever one can impose it on the voters, wins.

Then the president has stopped speaking. The re-charmed and re-engaged throng gathers around him for a moment of fellowship as sultry as the night. An old Clinton-watcher on the edge of the crowd, watching the palms sway as if they were made of cardboard, savors his own favorite part of what has been a first-rate performance. It wasn't the deft partisanship, or even the trick-of-the-eye history that could have been painted by a political Picasso. No, what will stay with him are the tricks of the language. Bill Clinton has woven them into a folk art -- though more art than folk. You could call the style Calculated Southern. By the end of his talk, Bill Clinton has charmed even himself.

It is at the end, in a valedictory moment, that Arkansas' native son tells us, "I'll be home before you know it.'' Home? Is he going back to New York so soon?

But the best line -- it's only a phrase, really -- comes when the president says Democrats in politics have to respond fast, "in a bird-dog minute.'' A bird-dog minute? Didn't that used to be in a New York minute?

Of course. But there are some things one shouldn't allude to even accidentally before a loyal, devoted and Arkansas crowd. These are the people who have nurtured and elected and even trusted Bill Clinton all his life, and tonight they trust him again. On occasions like this, the man has a genius not just for knowing what to say, but what not to.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate