As the House was in the process of impeaching Bill Clinton in the final days of 1998, I was somewhat surprised to see him posing for pictures with members of the Fourth Estate.
He easily could have blown off his appearance at the annual Christmas party. From the White House perspective, the gathering was populated by those who had been torturing Clinton all year over the Monica Lewinsky affair. It was the era of the stained blue dress and “depends on the meaning of is.” And yet the president of the United States, who would soon be tried in the Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors, showed up and acted like it was a normal social gathering.
The magnitude of Clinton’s comeback since that self-inflicted disaster is evident in Monday’s news that President Obama is giving him a prime speaking slot at the Democratic convention. Clinton is in effect bumping Joe Biden on that Wednesday night in Charlotte, with the vice president introducing Obama the following night. Other than the man accepting the nomination, he will be the unquestioned star of the extravaganza.
What accounts for this turnaround? Clinton had regained much of his popularity by the time he left office, when it turned out the media were far more absorbed by his sexual improprieties than most of the public. And with the passage of 14 years, the impeachment is remembered more as a partisan prosecution than a moral outrage (though Clinton did put the country through a long period of tawdriness by not coming clean).
The ’90s are also fondly remembered as a time of peace and prosperity, in marked contrast to our current era of war in Afghanistan and stubbornly high unemployment.
The 42nd president has also bought himself plenty of goodwill with his tireless work for his foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.
And he can give one helluva speech, distilling complex ideas into human terms.
The irony, of course, is that there was no love lost between Clinton and Obama when Hillary ran for president and the ex-prez kept making disparaging remarks. But they have mended fences (having Hill in the Cabinet probably doesn’t hurt), and Clinton could bring some much-needed pizzazz to the otherwise routine business of renominating an incumbent. And he'll be speaking 20 years after he first accepted the Democratic nomination in New York.
Contrast the showcasing of Clinton with the sidelining of George W. Bush, who won’t be at the Republican convention. There’s little doubt that Bush, who is determined to stay off the political stage, made the decision to avoid Tampa. But you don’t get the sense that the GOP elders have been begging W to change his mind. They know that substantial minorities still blame him for the economic calamity from which the country is still digging out. A Bush speech in prime time would simply help the Obama campaign tie Romney to what the president derides as the failed old policies of the past.
Dick Cheney isn’t showing up either, as he told ABC’s Jonathan Karl in an interview that aired Sunday. The former veep also said it was a “mistake” for John McCain to pick Sarah Palin for his old job because she was too inexperienced (McCain has pushed back on that, and told me he believes the former Alaska governor helped energize his campaign).
So we have a tale of two presidents, one stepping back into the spotlight, the other doing everything he can to avoid it.