Clinton's Call and Response

Daily Convention Coverage


"He hit it out of the park," said Mary Ekstrom, a representative in the North Dakota House–and my next-door neighbor at the Staples Center for much of last night. When it comes to Bill Clinton, she's not exactly objective, but her reaction tracked that of most other eyewitnesses. People were bubbling with excitement as they were being confusedly herded out of the compound. Back at the Regal Biltmore–Gore's headquarters–folks were out of their minds, according to a well-placed source whom I picked up at the hotel for a late-night dinner. Even right-wingers gave Clinton his due. Conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams reluctantly admitted to me that Clinton kicked butt. "Not only flawless, but glowing," is how libertarian Deroy Murdock, who writes a column for Scripps Howard News Service, described it later at a bar in Japan town.

There was no Clinton fatigue in the Staples Center. Folks there have forgiven his sins and love him for his accomplishments. "I'm going to miss Bill Clinton because I'm enjoying the prosperity," said Georgia delegate Edward Stephens, who teaches technical education and coaches girls basketball and track at Savannah High School. He credits Bill Clinton for turning the economy around and lowering the crime rate. "I think they dwell too much on the problems he had in the past," says Stephens, when I ask about Clinton fatigue. "I really don't want to hear about it."

Indeed, fatigue was nowhere in evidence. Clinton pumped the crowd all the way through his unique, Worldwide Wrestling Federation-like entrance to his final line recalling the 1992 campaign to the song that came on after he ended his speech (Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop"). I can't stand the guy, and even my right eye was getting a bit teary as I watched him enter (I worried about myself until I realized my contact lens was bundled up in its corner.)

As is the right of an incumbent president, he took sole credit for accomplishments he fought hard against at the time–welfare reform, a balanced budget. He asked that great Republican question: Are you better off today than you were eight years ago? He quoted Harry Truman: "If you want to live like a Republican, you should vote for the Democrats." The truth of the Clinton presidency, as many a liberal will admit in private, is a little different. To get Republican policies, you have to elect a Democrat. He made the obvious clear: While Bush is going to mine an amorphous discontent with the Clinton character–our prosperity has no "purpose" is Bush's basic pitch–Gore will run on the Clinton record. And that's a good hand of cards. After all, who except for the protesters chucking cement and bottles at cops outside the Staples Center, isn't better off for the last eight years? (And let's face it, even they are.)

Clinton was good to Gore, saying one of his life's best decisions was "asking Al Gore to be my partner." He praised Gore's leadership, and reminded us that Gore really loves his family. Clinton also used the forum to talk past the delegates to middle America. His repeated mention of welfare reform garnered tepid applause in the Staples Center. But I'm sure his assertions that, "Now, those who can work, must work," and "There are 7.5 million fewer Americans on welfare–and the roles have been cut in half" were applause lines in family rooms from Florida to Washington state.

But alas, Clinton must go and there is only so much he can do for Gore. Even when he offers the spotlight to his understudy, Clinton manages to upstage Gore. The vice president will have tremendous difficulty meeting, let alone exceeding, Clinton's performance, even with the help of the biodegradable balloons that are poised to descend at the end of his speech.

The big fear in Staples Center is that Gore will go into what's known as his "Ebonic Al" routine, in which he tries to mimic the cadence and intonation of master orator Jesse Jackson. If that happens—and it's a distinct possibility, given Al Gore's competitiveness and tin ear—there will be even more tears shed on Thursday night than Clinton managed to squeeze out of this crowd.