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12.10.10

Bill Schools Barack

While stumping for Obama’s maligned tax deal at a White House presser Friday, the master triangulator taught his successor a lesson in the art of persuasion. Let’s hope the president was taking notes.

Once Barack Obama ceded the podium, there was no stopping him.

Bill Clinton, back in the building he called home for eight years, offered a tutorial in how to sell a legislative package in simple terms. Obama watched intently as his predecessor rambled on, perhaps convincing him there was no point in continuing, and that he’d better hustle off to a Christmas party.

You had to wonder what was going through 44’s mind as he handed off to 42, introducing him as having “presided over as good an economy as we’ve seen in our lifetime”—and undoubtedly wishing his economy was even close.

Perhaps the two men have healed the scars of the 2008 primaries, when the newcomer out of Chicago was the only thing standing in the way of the Man From Hope moving back into the White House, this time as first spouse. Obama has, after all, given Clinton’s wife a pretty good job as a consolation prize.

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But it can’t have thrilled the president that he needed the former president to help get wavering Democrats in line on the compromise tax package he hammered out with the GOP. The master triangulator would show the kid how it was done. It was like the rookie basketball player, sidelined by a split lip, calling the wily veteran off the bench to sink a couple of crucial three-pointers.

Twitter was abuzz with ’90s talk, as folks wondered when the next Mike McCurry briefing would be, or whether the Republican House would have to impeach Clinton all over again. You could practically hear Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow in the background. About the only thing that stopped me from humming it is that Clinton looked gaunter than in the intern-chasing days.

The contrast wasn’t as great as I might have expected, because we got the wonky Clinton, who somehow wound up talking about wind turbines in Nevada, rather than the feel-your-pain Clinton. But the body language was instructive. Obama tends to stand straight, as if addressing a law school class; Clinton kept putting his hand over his heart, as if to signal he’s speaking with sincerity.

Clinton instantly personalized the debate, saying that as a rich guy, he would benefit from the GOP’s insistence on tax cuts for the wealthy. “You know how I feel,” he told reporters. “I think people who benefit the most should pay the most—not for class-warfare reasons, but for reasons of fairness and rebuilding the middle class in America.” He made the case right there, in one sentence.

Clinton thanked the Republican leaders for their concessions, appearing gracious rather than grudging. “There’s never a perfect bipartisan bill in the eyes of a partisan,” he said.

As Clinton ticked off the provisions, he had a way of using everyday language: “A lot of people are heaving a sigh of relief that there’s finally been some agreement on something.” He said that on a recent trip to Asia he noticed that even Hong Kong “had a stimulus, although I guess we’re not supposed to use that word.” Democrats have avoided the S-word, which got a bad name with the trashing of last year’s economic package, so it’s taken the likes of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer to point out that the deal sneaks in nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of stimulus.

Before it was over, Clinton even worked in a heartfelt plug for the START treaty, recalling his days of negotiating with Boris Yeltsin. Cue Fleetwood Mac.

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The comparison is a bit unfair, because as Clinton noted, “I’m not running for anything.” And it’s not true that Obama never shows Clintonesque emotion at his news conferences. He showed some passion at his last presser—unfortunately for the Democrats, it was aimed at them and their “sanctimonious” behavior.

But before the Dems get swept away by nostalgia, Clinton smiled in puncturing the myth that has grown up around his dealings with the GOP Congress in 1995 and 1996. “The story line is how well we worked with the Republicans and all that,” he said. “But, you know, we played kabuki for a year and had two government shutdowns—we can’t afford that now.”

Clinton offered a tutorial in how to sell a legislative package in simple terms. Obama watched intently as he rambled on, perhaps convincing him there was no point in continuing.

Then the grin got broader. “Oh, I had quite a good time governing,” he said. “I am happy to be here I suppose when the bullets that are fired are unlikely to hit me, unless they’re just ricocheted.”

And that’s when the distinction was sharpest. Clinton, whatever his flaws, exudes a deep love for the game of politics. Obama often seems exasperated by the grubby business of arm-twisting and horse-trading, as if the fact that he has made the right intellectual case ought to be enough. He deserves credit for bringing in Bubba. Maybe he made some mental notes.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.