The New Bill Clinton: His Second Go At Presidential Spousehood Is More Careful
Originally posted at The Guardian by Maria L. La Ganga .
The woman’s smile faded when she heard the news.
The big American flag, the milling crowd, the bright blue “Hillary” signs – they didn’t mean the candidate was coming to downtown Oakland on Monday. Nope, just the former leader of the free world. You know, Bill Clinton.
“Oh,” she said before wandering off. “The husband.”
Yes, the husband; the most famous bit player in the 2016 election. The 42nd president of the United States is a little older, a little thinner, a little raspier than he was eight years ago when he first hit the presidential hustings on behalf of his ambitious wife.
He is, however, a little more disciplined, which is a good thing for Hillary Clinton.
Crisscrossing California ahead of the 7 June primary, Bill Clinton has been hewing close to script: supportive, optimistic, urgent, careful. His swipes at Donald Trump, the bombastic billionaire who has polarized his own party, have been pointed but largely low-key.
“Look, I know we can run this whole general election on Mr Trump’s greatest horrible hits,” he acknowledged from the bed of a white pickup truck. But on this bright northern California afternoon, he restrained himself.
“Can we build a future, a tomorrow economy with broadly shared prosperity and less inequality and more upward mobility? Or do we have to settle for ‘making America great again’?” he asked the crowd of a few hundred assembled on Telegraph Avenue.
“That’s a code word, folks,” he continued. “I’ve been there. I’ve lived in a part of the country where people talk like that … Let me tell you something, America wasn’t so great for a lot of people 50 years ago. The people who did like it? You can’t have it again.
“I’d like to be 25 again, too,” 69-year-old Clinton said. “But I can’t. So, I think it’s better for me to figure out how to make the best of the rest of my life, don’t you?”
Bill Clinton was far less careful in the 2008 campaign, inciting controversy before the South Carolina contest between his candidate wife and then-senator Barack Obama. At one point, Hillary Clinton was forced to apologize for his racially charged remarks, which dogged her for months.
The Clintons have a long and close relationship with the African American community, so when the former president went off script, the result was jarring.
In January 2008, the day after Obama trounced Hilary Clinton 55% to 27% in South Carolina, a broadcast reporter asked Bill Clinton what seemed like a simple question: “What does it say about Barack Obama that it takes two of you to beat him?”
The candidate’s husband laughed, labeled the query “just bait” and then said, “Jesse Jackson won in South Carolina twice, in ‘84 and ‘88. And he ran a good campaign and Senator Obama’s run a good campaign here.”
The comments were viewed as dismissive of Obama’s performance at the polls, because Jackson’s campaigns went nowhere. The man who went on to become the 44th president was asked a day later on ABC’s This Week whether Bill Clinton was “engaging in racial politics”.
Obama skirted the point in a lengthy answer, saying that “our campaign was confident that if we talked about the things that people were really trying to deal with on a day-to-day basis … as long as we’re focused on those issues, we thought those would transcend the sort of racial divisions we’ve seen in the past.”
More than a month later, at a forum of African American community newspapers, Hillary Clinton offered a mea culpa, saying she was “sorry if anyone was offended. It was certainly not meant in any way to be offensive”.
She praised Jackson and Obama both and sought to remind the public that “anyone who has followed my husband’s public life or my public life know very well where we have stood and what we have stood for and who we have stood with”.
This time around, it was Clinton who trounced her competitor in South Carolina, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, with an even greater margin of victory: 74% to 26%. Black elected leaders and voters have flocked around her candidacy, as have Latinos.
And, during the final days of the California contest Bill Clinton has become an ambassador to the black community.
On Sunday, he stopped by the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest black churches in Los Angeles. It is a place he knows well, having visited as a presidential candidate himself shortly after the 1992 riots.
He did not utter Sanders’ name, but he answered the populist’s criticism that his family is part of the “political establishment”.
“Folks, I am the last president who ever lived on a farm without indoor plumbing,” he said, and the congregation laughed. “This is not an establishment campaign. This is an inclusion campaign.”
Then he went to get out the vote with two of the Los Angeles area’s best known and most beloved black celebrities, basketball stars Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Monday found Bill Clinton in several of northern California’s traditional black strongholds including Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood.
Kenneth Phelps, a 69-year-old retired garbage man who was in the Oakland crowd on Telegraph Avenue, dismissed the 2008 blunder. It sure didn’t hurt Obama, he said on Monday afternoon, adding that he thinks “Hillary can hold her own.”
“I think Bill Clinton is just a show right now,” Phelps said . “He’s just a little whip cream on the doughnut, so to speak.”
Read more at The Guardian.
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