BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — “I present to you the most admired, most popular, political figure on the face of the earth,” Gov. Ted Strickland announced to the crowd of several hundred at a local community center here on Sunday.
Strickland was not introducing the Messiah of the month, Barack Obama, but the Guardian of the 1990s, Bill Clinton. With his prospects of returning to the White House dimming, Clinton is spending what could be his waning days on the campaign trail reminiscing about his past.
“On election night 1992, I’ll never forget it, I was with Hillary, and her family, I was still in my running clothes, and all of a sudden the television came on, and an outline of the state of Ohio was blinking on and off, on and off,” Clinton recalled. “It said, ‘Governor Clinton will be the next president, because he just carried Ohio.'”
But when he became president, his family was destitute.
“We were the poorest family to move into the White House in the 20th Century, and we were worse off when we left than when we got there,” he said, neglecting to mention the legal woes that precipitated his descent into pauper status.
BILL IS INSECURE these days. He believes his legacy is under assault, and is determined to fend off any real or perceived attacks on his record, as if he were Aragorn fighting off dozens of orks with a single sword.
Red faced at times, pointing his finger at the audience, gently pounding his fist on the lectern, Bill describes how in the 1990s he created 22 million jobs and turned deficits into surpluses. With the North American Free Trade Agreement he championed unpopular among the increasingly protectionist liberal base, he brags about how trade enforcement was tougher when he was president.
Speaking before college students, some who could have been toddlers when he was first elected, Clinton is conscious of the perception that he is trapped in the past.
“I want to make it clear, if I make any reference to the 1990s, it’s not because Hillary wants to go back to then, but because she believes you can’t build a better future unless you understand the past,” he told a mostly young audience on Monday in Athens, home of Ohio University.
When talking about his record, Clinton demonstrated that he hasn’t lost his trademark adaptability, or his penchant for mythmaking.
One audience member held up a homemade sign that read: “800 LB Gorilla in the Debates Israeli Palestinian Conflict.”
As if on cue, Clinton added a section on the Middle East peace process to his usual stump speech.
“In the first four years of President Bush’s administration, three times as many Palestinians and three times as many Israelis were killed by terrorist incidents than in the entire eight years I was president,” Clinton boasted. “Why? Not in the end because we made peace, but because we made seven years of progress toward it.”
Clinton’s idea of “progress” during those seven years was elevating the terrorist Yasser Arafat to the role of statesman, arm-twisting Israelis into offering endless concessions to the Palestinians, watching Arafat reject peace and launch the Second Intifada, and leaving office with the region in chaos.
The military, according to Clinton, has been “broken by overextension in Iraq.” He asserted that, “by every measure of readiness, it is in worse shape today than the day I left office.”
But the military that Clinton argues is overextended because of America’s involvement in Iraq is smaller than it was during the first Gulf War precisely because Clinton spent his entire presidency slashing the number of active duty soldiers.
CLINTON IS UNDOUBTEDLY still popular on the campaign trail, but the trouble is, his rival this time around has what Clinton had 16 years ago. While Clinton draws large crowds, Obama’s are larger. They cheer for Clinton, but they chant for Obama.
Though Obama has been described as a rock star, his speeches have become more like sporting events. At the Cleveland Convention Center on Saturday night, Obama spoke to nearly 7,000 fans. They did the wave, they watched a cheesy warm-up act perform the “Obama Dance,” they waited in a snaking concession stand line for overpriced jumbo hot dogs, and they broke out into chants of “We want change!”; “We Can’t Wait!”; and the standard, “Yes We Can!”
Compared with Obama’s thunderous speeches inside arenas, Clinton’s rallies are rather low-key affairs. It’s the difference between Derek Jeter taking the field at Yankee Stadium during a critical game, and Goose Gossage stepping on the mound on Old Timers’ Day.
In wrapping up his remarks in Athens, Clinton reflected on how the presidency can affect somebody psychologically.
“It’s easy to forget ordinary people when you become president,” he said. “If you’re not real careful, you can think you are somebody. Think about what being president is like. They play a song every time you walk into a room. They play ‘Hail to the Chief.’ I was completely lost for three weeks after I left the White House, ’cause nobody ever played a song anymore.”
If it were anybody other than Bill Clinton, that might be kind of sad.