On the Campaign Trail The Reincarnation of Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton is back. After leaving office under a dark cloud, the gifted campaigner is on the stump trying to help Democrats regain a majority in Congress -- and pave the way for Hillary to move into the White House.
Eight years, seven weeks and five days later, Bill Clinton enters an ice rink in Worcester, Massachusetts. And this time he is a hero. He spreads his arms wide as if to embrace his luck, his fans, his worshippers, this crowd of 8,000 people, all yelling: "Thank you, Mr. President! Thank you!"
He walks to center stage, hugging everyone within reach. A spokesman introduces him as if he were a triple superlative: "William! Jefferson! Clinton!" Edward Kennedy, the aging senator and youngest brother of former President John F. Kennedy, bellows out the greatest hallelujah of them all: "We will never forget you. Never, never, never! We love you Bill!"
The last time Bill Clinton was in Worcester, an attractive city in New England, was eight years, seven weeks and five days earlier, on Aug. 27, 1998. It was no easy visit. In fact, it was more of a test of Clinton's courage, because it was his first public appearance after having admitted to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. And it was a terrible day for Clinton. Protesters stood on the side of the road holding signs that read: "Enough. Resign from the presidency."
Though he hasn't forgotten those signs or that summer day, today Clinton wants to relegate it to the past, to make it go away. It is his way of exacting revenge on those who despised him, those who wanted to drive him out of office. And perhaps it is also his way of convincing himself that he can get past one of the greatest defeats in his life after all.
No longer the hunted
He stands erect in the Worcester ice rink, looking almost majestic, as if he were his own monument. An enormous American flag hangs on the wall behind him and as the light from the stage lights touches his white hair, it creates a halo-like effect. His gaze sweeps across the audience, first to the younger fans below -- to those legions of campaign workers waving American flags and gazing back at him in adulation -- and then up into the upper level seats just below the roof, where his older fans sit in the suits and more formal outfits they've worn for the occasion. They all belong to him again. Indeed, the entire Democratic Party is a Clinton road show once again. He clearly savors the fact that he is no longer the hunted but a hunter -- the hunter.
"I love this city, it has been very good to me", he calls out, "I bring greetings from Hillary." The room is hot, hotter than it could ever be were Hillary the speaker.
A great and possibly historic opportunity has arisen, and Bill Clinton wants to take advantage of it -- for himself, for his wife and for the Democrats, a party desperate for leadership figures like him.
On Tuesday, Americans go to the polls to elect the entire House of Representatives and a third of all senators. Hillary Clinton, as the incumbent New York senator, is predicted to win her seat by a comfortable margin. But a win by a wider margin, both for Clinton and the Democratic Party, could boost her chances as a presidential candidate and trigger a groundswell that just might carry her into the White House. And if Hillary Clinton becomes the first female president in the history of the United States, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who is barred from running for re-election due to term limitations set down in the US Constitution, will be the first First Husband in American history.
When Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001, he was widely seen as an adulterer, a liar and bankrupt. He had incurred millions of dollars in debt from paying the legal fees of an army of lawyers, and he was also accused of having destroyed former Vice President Al Gore's chances of capturing the presidency.
Eighty appearances in 27 states
He was Bill Clinton, the man who paved the way for George W. Bush and who, with his sexual indiscretions, helped the Republicans gain a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in decades. There are many reasons why he is plunging himself into the campaign turmoil.
He has already made 80 appearances during this campaign -- Massachusetts was the 27th state he had visited this campaign season, he reminded the crowd -- each of them a triumph and a trophy alike. He has been to each of the battleground states where Democrats will have to prevail to capture a majority in Congress. He has been to Iowa and New Hampshire, which, with their early primaries in 2008, will play an important role in determining who will be the Democratic presidential candidate. He was even campaigning on Oct. 26, his wife's birthday. He says it was what she wanted for her birthday, which the Clintons celebrated that evening for two hours over dinner with friends.
Bill Clinton, who turned 60 on Aug. 19, looks a little tired, with dark circles under his eyes. But he feels far too young to retire, and even the quadruple bypass operation he had in September 2004 hasn't slowed him down.
In Little Rock, in his home state of Arkansas, Clinton's $180 million presidential library contains a life-sized replica of the Oval Office. Everything, where Clinton is concerned, has to be big, giant, even bombastic. Bill Clinton, who grew up in poor circumstances, has never been free of megalomania and a craving for status.
Clinton spent a long time toying with the idea of succeeding United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, and friends saw to it that the speculations were leaked to the public. Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl campaigned openly and former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer behind the scenes for the idea, but the unwritten rule, by which the secretary general should not come from the most powerful nation on earth, could not be set aside, not even for Clinton.
His party wants him back
And so Clinton has embarked on his own projects to solve the world's problems. Every September, to coincide with the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, the "Clinton Global Initiative" holds its own annual meeting. Statesmen, Hollywood celebrities and business leaders squeeze into the ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel -- the likes of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai converse with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and actor Michael Douglas.
One after another, Clinton introduces his friends to the press, those who are donating billions of dollars to good causes. One is the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Merck, who has promised to donate vaccines for Nicaragua. Another is Scottish athletic shoe millionaire Tom Hunter, who is pledging $100 million for Rwanda and Malawi. And then there is media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who promises to make his entire empire of companies carbon neutral.
One investment banker reverently calls him "Bill Clinton, the world's president."
He has regained his stature, is respected once again, and suddenly his party wants him back. After all, Clinton is a gifted campaigner, a man with the sort of enormous talent that only appears once every couple of decades. Indeed, he is the Democrat's strongest weapon. After six years under President George W. Bush, Clinton is living proof for the Democrats that they can do a better job running superpower America than the Republicans. The Democrats, who readily compare the eight years of peace and prosperity under the Clinton administration with three years of war under George W. Bush, have taken to calling the former president "Mr. Peace and Prosperity."
He fills a vacuum in a party that is ill-prepared for power. Aside from Bill Clinton, the Democrats have no major figure with whom to identify, no one who is capable of providing new direction or can offer any concept for dealing with the war in Iraq, or any ideas on how to reduce the country's massive budget and foreign trade deficits. Instead, the Democrats have chosen to look back, to glorify the past, and their only remaining emblem of that past is Bill Clinton, thinner and still youthful today.
Success drops into his lap
A popular bumper sticker points out a crucial difference between Clinton and Bush: "Clinton lied, but nobody died." The Democrats are on the rise and are taking pains to follow the example set by the Republicans: Be as polarizing as possible.
As in Worcester, Bill Clinton is back at center stage everywhere in the country, and if he strikes the right balance, he can help his party and especially his wife. But, as always, it's a tightrope walk for Clinton. He has more than enough of what she lacks: charisma. He has always had grand goals, and yet he doesn't come across as being consumed by ambition. Success seems to drop into his lap.
And he has no qualms about being feted. He celebrated his 60th birthday at two parties held in his honor, one on exclusive Martha's Vineyard and the other in Toronto, where he also managed to raise $21 million for his foundation.
He treated himself and his friends to three other special events in the middle of the campaign, including a morning spent playing golf in New Jersey and an exclusive Rolling Stones concert at New York's Beacon Theater. A few "Friends of Bill" spent half a million dollars apiece for the complete VIP package, which included a backstage visit with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, together with Clinton, of course.
Bill Clinton is more restless than ever. He is popular again and yet he is holding back. After all, it's about his wife this time, about the Senator from the State of New York. After all the years she spent backing him -- as governor and later as president -- he owes her a great debt. "If she asked me to do anything, I would do it," has become a favorite mantra on the campaign trail.
He repeats it to wild applause in Worcester. Then the music comes on, signalling the end of his appearance. But instead of walking to the exit, he approaches the barriers, grabs hold of outstretched hands, signs autographs, signs books and smiles for the snapshots his adoring fans take with their mobile phone cameras.
Clinton still isn't ready to leave -- everything is the way it used to be.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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