Winner—And Still Heavyweight Champion

What if Bill Clinton is serious?


All across the land, Republicans fell to their knees Monday night, praying hosannas of thanks to their forebears. The gratitude was overwhelming and sincere, directed to the GOP of another time, the Republicans of the 80th Congress who managed—unlike the current Congress—to pass a constitutional amendment.

The amendment—the 22nd—set a limit on the presidency of two elected terms. The goal was to prevent another Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had violated the 150-year "gentlemen's agreement" to serve no more than eight years in office. Well, whether it was a pique of anger at FDR's ability to dominate them or a legitimate concern for the pre-Great Depression two-term limit, the fact remains that their success still resonates today.

Though many in the GOP fret that it denied Ronald Reagan the opportunity of a third term, Monday's opening night at the Democratic National Convention showed the nightmare that Republicans could be living if not for the 22nd amendment: They could have been witnessing William Jefferson Clinton's fourth acceptance speech.

You doubt it? First, ask yourself if Clinton could have won re-election against George W. Bush in 2000—even post-impeachment. Are there any states Gore won that Clinton would have lost? Running on his own economic record, would Clinton have won his home state of Arkansas? Would he have lost Tennessee (maybe)? Would he have been there asking for their vote in New Hampshire ("until the last dog dies")? Better yet, has New Hampshire ever really needed an excuse to vote against a Bush?

Could Bill Clinton have survived a challenge in 2004, following a 9/11? Perhaps. Would the country have rallied to his side? Would he have managed to forestall a commission? Would the GOP have decided to impeach him again for missing pre-attack signs?

Still, would you really want to bet against the guy who spoke Monday night?

Even by his standards, Bill Clinton knocked the ball out of the park. The supposed keynoter of this convention, Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama, gave a well received address on Tuesday night. But Clinton said nearly all that needed to be said in "framing" the case against the current administration.

Trim, tanned, rested and ready, Clinton appeared as a more mature Muhammad Ali re-entering the ring, once again The Greatest. A line that looks flat on the written page—"Strength and wisdom are not conflicting values; they go hand in hand."—is a velvet rapier in the hands (and mouth) of a master. And Bill Clinton is a master.

This was a rhetorical tour de force, with a middle passage that had two paragraphs ending with "Give John Kerry, John Edwards and the Democrats a chance." He reminds the country that there is a team here—including the congressional Democrats.

The next paragraph ends with "John Kerry and John Edwards," and the following a simple, "John Kerry's your man." It's an inverse pyramid narrowing down to the man of the moment.

Clinton's use of the phrase, "My tax cuts," turned the usual legitimate criticism of his speeches—that they are narcissistic exercises ultimately about him—completely on its head. The "my" is used ironically, asserting that Republicans are wasting the public money by giving a face to "the richest one percent." Clinton turned it into a challenge, essentially asking the Republican base to choose between its ideological love of tax cuts and its pathological hatred of him. Perhaps the only way to make a tax cut seem dirty to the modern conservative is to attach Bill Clinton's name to it.

The Bill Clinton of 1992 was nearly derailed over a scandal involving his avoiding service in Vietnam. He was the "draft-dodger" president. The Bill Clinton of 2004 "confessed" to his lack of service, drew in the current president and vice president as sharers in his public sin and then raised John Kerry as the example of the opposite—the child of comfort who volunteered for his country. In Clinton's words, "John Kerry said, Send me."

For that matter, Clinton's touch seemed evident in other areas. Bill Clinton repeated his "send" declaration five times—concluding with "Send John Kerry." The evening itself ended with Patti Labelle giving a vibrant rendition of "A Change Is Gonna Come," a hit first for the legendary Sam Cooke. Cooke's first hit? "You Send Me." Given the Big Dog's love of R&B, do you think that's just a coincidence?

That little example, however, is why, before contemporary Republicans end their prayers praising their forebear's wisdom, they might do well to think again.

What if Bill Clinton—against all odds—is sincere in stating that he would campaign for John Kerry over the next 100 days? What if the conventional wisdom is wrong? It has become something of an understood "fact"—that Hillary and Bill are doing/will do everything they can to sabotage John Kerry's campaign, so that Hillary would be there in 2008 to return the Democrats to the White House.

But what if Bill Clinton is serious? What if he will devote the next 100 days toward getting John Kerry elected? Is there any reason to believe that he might commit himself to that?

Only one. It's a little thing that, because it involves Bill Clinton, it might actually be a big thing. The man who was introduced to a national audience in 1988 with a rambling overlong nominating speech of Michael Dukakis (remember how "in conclusion," was greeted with derisive applause)—and has had a career of verbose excessiveness—ended his address this year at 11:00 p.m. on the dot. Indeed, at certain parts of this speech, it seemed as if he intentionally sped up to ensure that he stayed on time.

If Bill Clinton is suddenly learning self-discipline in a speech on behalf of someone else, then something serious is going on. For Republicans, the return of the Comeback Kid in a sleeker, more beguiling model could end up being the real nightmare, Twenty-Second Amendment or not.