Talk to American voters for any length of time in this season of unappealing political choices, and before you know it they’re going on about Bill Clinton. There are the ones who already kind of miss him (though he still has 2l2 months left in the White House), the ones who can’t wait to see the back of him, and the ones who just enjoy watching him run rings around his opponents. But they can’t help talking about him. “Gotta give the guy credit,” Ted Carle said the other week as he emerged from the Catfish Country Restaurant (“Gator nuggets: $6.95”) on Highway 98 near Bartow, Fla. “He’s got that thing, that magic thing.”
That’s surely one reason Americans seemed so tepid as they prepared to vote this week. In an age when the President has become the Celebrity-in-Chief, the lead character in the longest-running national entertainment, they’re about to trade in a genuine star for a bit player—an AÍ Gore or a George W. Bush. Clinton (like Ronald Reagan before him) knew how to make the most of his office, putting all his emotions on display. The American presidency, for better or worse, has been thoroughly Clintonized: every time Gore and Bush emote on Leno or Letterman or Oprah, they pay tribute to the master of calculated soul-bearing. “Love him or hate him, admire him or resent him, we felt we knew Bill,” as columnist Betty DeRamus wrote recently in The Detroit News. “And one reason the Gore-Bush contest hasn’t caught fire is that many of us are suffering from Clinton withdrawal.” The man with the biggest Clinton problem, of course, has been Gore. As he struggled through the campaign’s final weeks, the most widely debated question in Washington was: what’s the deal with Al and Bill? Gore’s people let it be known through the media that the old stories about the vicepresident being just like i/Wwith the President were now inoperable. The new line is that Gore wasn’t actually all that close to his boss. Their wives don’t much like each other, went the stories; even their college-age daughters never really hit it off. Gore stuck loyally by Clinton through the impeachment drama, but by this new version he was morally outraged by the President’s slow dance with Monica Lewinsky.
All that made it excruciatingly difficult for Gore to take advantage of his best card: the Clinton administration’s stellar
record in managing the economy and taming a host of social ills. For weeks, even as he sank in the polls, Gore talked more about the things left undone in the past eight years than all the things that Clinton (and he) accomplished. They appeared together just once this fall—at a funeral—and the word “Clinton” hardly ever passed Gore’s lips. It came as a mild shock at a Gore rally late one chilly night last week in the old steel town of Scranton, Pa., to hear a prominent Democrat proclaim from the podium that “we’re proud of President Clinton.” The unmentionable was finally mentioned.
Early last week, they finally seemed to have struck a balance. Clinton would work to make sure Democrats get out and vote. But he would stay away from areas with lots of flighty swing voters who might somehow blame Gore for Clinton’s sins. But that was before the new issue of Esquire magazine appeared, featuring an astonishing knees-apart cover photo of Clinton that might be described as the Lewinsky-eye view of the President.
Worse for Gore, Clinton uses a farewell interview with the magazine to remind the world once again of the whole Monica affair, and argue that the Republicans who held his feet to the fire for lying about it owe Americans an apology. “Unlike them, I have apologized to the American people for what I did wrong,” he says. “Most people know that what they did was not about morality or truth or the law, it was about politics and power. They never apologized to the country for impeachment, they never apologized for all the things they’ve done.”
And on and on. For their own separate reasons, Democrats and Republicans alike have studiously avoided even mentioning impeachment. The assumption is that Americans hated the whole business so much that they’ll savage anyone who brings it up. But Clinton clearly can’t help himself. What’s painfully obvious is that he isnt sorry at all, and he’s still campaigning as hard as any official candidate. He can’t run for office again (there’s the little matter of the 22nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which limits presidents to two four-year terms). But he can run to redeem himself, to secure his place in history, even (some have argued) to regain the affection and respect of his wife. One thing is sure: that campaign will go on long after this week’s voting is done.
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