We seem to be suffering from a collective act of historical amnesia. All the commentators claiming that Senator Barack Obama has generated more excitement than any candidate since John F. Kennedy have overlooked the inconvenient, embarrassing, fact that a more recent candidate generated a similar buzz. In fact, given the ubiquity of this “JFK standard,” we could say that the last candidate to trigger such Kennedyesque hopes was none other than Obama’s chief rival’s spouse (could we say rival in-law): Bill Clinton.
Remember back in 1992 Clinton was the candidate of hope, who happened to be born in a little town called Hope. Coming from nowhere, a relative unknown when he started, he was carrying the torch of a new generation, generating rock-star like crowds with his special kind of charisma and his own distinctive eloquence steeped in optimism. Clinton on the campaign trail had that “It” factor that Obama has. Clinton had millions gushing that he was their John Kennedy, the first candidate in their lifetime who inspired them and empowered them.
Clinton, like Obama, also had sex appeal. I recall meeting a leading woman academic who admitted, just after the 1992 election, that she had received one of those emails bouncing around the internet identifying ten signs that you have a crush on Bill Clinton – and that she had almost all of them.
Bill Clinton’s transitions from wunderkind to senior statesman, from man of hope to perpetual adolescent, from party renegade to ultimate insider, have all obscured the jazz and optimism of 1992. President Clinton did not indulge in the same kind of inspirational politics that candidate Clinton or President Kennedy did. Of course, Hillary Clinton’s own artlessness on the campaign trail also accounts for some of the historical haze.
In fact, the contrast between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as campaigners is striking. Obama words are lyrical, his manner is fluid, the speeches rock. Compare him — even when he lost in New Hampshire — and Hillary Clinton when she won in New Hampshire. He is as smooth, as she is stiff. His words take off, soaring like colorful balloons that you want to linger over and watch until they have disappeared from view; her clipped tones and predictable words sink like the proverbial lead balloons. It is not surprising that Obama’s words have been set to music – Hillary Clinton should not expect such treatment for her earnest addresses any time soon. This kind of ease cannot be invented or replicated — you either have it or you don’t — Bill Clinton has it, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush – who had other talents — didn’t. Ronald Reagan had it. Walter Mondale, his opponent in 1984, didn’t.
And yet, the fact that so many Americans now skip over Bill Clinton and go straight to John Kennedy when rummaging through the historical attic searching for inspiring characters, offers sobering warnings to Obama and to the American people. While Franklin D. Roosevelt was correct — the presidency is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership – governing is not the same as politicking. The transition from being an inspirational candidate to a workaday president can be rough. Ronald Reagan was more successful than Bill Clinton at remaining fired up. Bill Clinton’s experience was more typical, as the complexity of governing turned him from the poet of possibility to the king of compromise.
We know Obama knows how to wow a crowd, we don’t know how he would weather the transition from shaper of dreams to maker of policies. Ironically, the somewhat embarrassing comparison between Barack Obama circa 2008 and Bill Clinton circa 1992 reinforces one of Hillary Clinton’s most compelling arguments for her own election. She keeps saying trust the record not the rhetoric. Of course, she and her campaign team would love to find a different analogy to help bolster that argument.