Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 2004 / 27 Elul 5764
Bless his heart
Just before he underwent his quadruple bypass in New York, Bill Clinton got a good-luck call from one of his many earnest well-wishers: John Kerry.
In return, the Democrats' presidential nominee got 90 minutes of political advice from the aging Wunderkind of American politics.
Bill Clinton's heart - and mind - were where they've always been: set on winning the next election. Bypass, shmypass, the surgery could wait. This was where the patient lived: politics. And the country's foremost political doctor had a campaign to operate on.
I can imagine how John Kerry felt at the other end of the line - half grateful, half bored. Years ago, in 1988, I attended a birthday party for an old friend and watched Bill Clinton in perpetual action. He buttonholed each guest in turn, explaining point by point by point how a beleaguered Michael Dukakis ought to respond to each and every argument being made against him in that year's presidential election. At length. If that recital didn't take a full 90 minutes, it sure felt like it. Heck, it felt like half an eternity. Unfortunately for Mike Dukakis, he wasn't in attendance - and lost.
John Kerry has something of a heart problem of his own. It isn't physical but political. It seems his message isn't circulating all that well at the moment. It speaks well of the Democratic standard-bearer that he's sought out the counsel of a specialist. Bill Clinton was the most adept of spin doctors even before that specialty had a name.
Unfortunately, what John Kerry needs right now isn't another to-do list of Pressing Issues and Sharp Comebacks, but a couple of things only he himself can supply: a consistent vision and appealing personality.
If personality isn't all in a presidential campaign, it's far ahead of any other factor. Think Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, compared to, say, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, not to mention Al Gore and, yes, John Kerry. At this point he needs to inspire trust. Instead he flits from theme to theme, like a windsurfer riding the waves, shifting with every breeze. He seems . uncentered. Fickle and dull at the same time.
Right now John Kerry's big problem is that he can't figure out what his big problem is, and so he keeps changing the major theme of his campaign. It used to be Vietnam, then it was domestic policy, now it's . who knows? At the moment he doesn't seem any more comfortable with his campaign than all those voters he's trying to reach.
To make matters worse, everybody seems to have some advice for the senator but no solutions. By now he must be inundated with the kind of kibitzers who know exactly what he should do. Put all their whispered advice together, and each piece of sage counsel cancels out the other, until John Kerry still looks like a guy who can't win for losing.
Meanwhile, his opponent can maul the English language a dozen times a day and everything still keep coming up Texas bluebonnets. It doesn't seem fair, but it feels right. This president may not be sophisticated, but he's savvy. In his own dyslexic way, W radiates a kind of Deep in the Heart of Texas simplicity, especially up close. Whether it'll come through in the presidential debates is another matter. The last time he was up against a genuine, certified stick (Al Gore) his awkward sincerity shone. If John Kerry's not careful, or rather if he's too careful, he'll come across as Gore II. Right now, as they say in Texas, he's running like a dry creek.
If anybody can give a chilly Boston Brahmin a political makeover, it's Bill Clinton. I'm not claiming his Arkansas touch can turn Long Tall John into a good ol' boy, but the original Comeback Kid might be able to unbend him here and there.
Dr. Clinton doubtless had just the right prescription to offer his political patient, but whether it will take is another matter. A sagging bloodhound could doubtless learn a lot from a feisty Great Dane, but that doesn't mean he can be one.
John Kerry was soon following doctor's orders. He's rearranged the deck chairs on the good ship Campaign Kerry to make room for some tough, seasoned Boston operatives in his inner circle. They may not be as tough as the guys who run the transgenerational Daley machine in Chicago, but Boston politics ain't beanbag, either.
Also, there's talk of the Kerry campaign's taking on some familiar old Clintonoids, such as James "the Ragin' Cajun" Carville, the always aggressive Paul Begala, and pollster Stanley Greenberg. Before this election is through, the Kerry camp could look like a reunion of the Clinton administration.
As for the patient-in-chief at New York Presbyterian, early reports are encouraging: The bypass was successful and all signs are good. Bill Clinton should be back on the campaign trail as the election enters the home stretch, and it'll probably do him a world of good - and maybe even help John Kerry a little.
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