Meet Bill Clinton, man of the people

The Baltimore Sun

DUNN, N.C. -- If Barack Obama wants to connect with white, working-class voters, he could take a lesson from William Jefferson Clinton.

The former president has been on tour for months, almost exclusively in small towns and rural county seats, attracting adoring crowds and votes that are keeping his wife's candidacy alive. Of course, he's hurt her chances, too, perhaps fatally, with unscripted remarks that angered voters and aided Obama.

Regardless of how the nomination turns out, Clinton's extraordinary efforts as a campaign surrogate - he's visiting 40 communities in North Carolina alone - far exceed those of any former president. They open a window into the ways that the greatest campaigner of his generation is reaching out to a key voter group: downscale whites, who have resisted Obama's charms and are poised to defect to John McCain this fall.

Clinton mixes nostalgia for his presidency with a message of hope that's different from Obama's. He's also stoking Democratic Party divides, by playing viscerally on the class resentments and urban-rural splits that Obama, too, has addressed, though in a loftier, more academic (and self-damaging) way.

His brief visit the other day to this eastern North Carolina town of 10,000, carved out of cotton fields and swamps, was a typical Bill Clinton event. It was also a tour de force.

A crowd of several hundred cheered enthusiastically when he stepped from the front door of a brick mansion built long ago by Jefferson Davis Barnes, a local businessman. On this full day of speechmaking and handshaking - Dunn was his fourth of eight stops - Clinton was simply but richly attired: charcoal business suit, white shirt and a tie the color of peach blossoms.

His thick, silver hair outshone the white columns on the portico where he stood, beaming, as the mayor hailed the milestones of his life, from college scholarships to his re-election as president, the only one by a Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt.

Clinton sniffed the smoke from a nearby parking lot, where a local cook had dismembered a whole pig on a portable grill.

"I can smell the pig pickin' from here," he began, "and I'm gonna eat some when I finish talking" (35 minutes later - a truncated version of his stump speech, which can run an hour or more).

Selling conservative Southerners on his wife's plan to remove U.S. forces from Iraq, he emphasized that "it's got to be done in the right way, because nobody wants to fail." The idea is to force Iraqis to make hard decisions about "how they're going to split up all that oil money" and share political power, which won't happen "if we do what Senator McCain says, and tell 'em we'll stay for 100 years" if necessary.

"Y'know, people don't normally make hard decisions unless they have to. D'you ever wonder why the dentist always tries to get you to make the next appointment 'fore you get out the door?" he said. "I mean, I'm 61, and I still don't want somebody sticking a needle in my gums."

In his selective retelling of the '08 campaign, criticism of the news media, sometimes twisted for effect, and class warfare rhetoric play prominent roles.

"The pundits have buried her more times than a zombie in a bad movie," he said, chuckling, as he boasted of her victories in places like California, when "all the fancy people were against her," and Texas, where "they" said she'd lose "because all those big cities are going to bury her."

When her campaign went broke, "300,000 workin' people sent her money over the Internet, something they had never done before, $5, $10, raised $30 million and kept her going."

"They've written her obituary fifty-eleven times already," he said. "I wouldn't be here, but people in towns just like this one said, 'I don't think so. I need a president. I need somebody who is ready on Day One.'"

He skewered a recent New Yorker magazine article, which quoted an unnamed Clinton campaign adviser's joke that the former president would be "leading a caravan of Wal-Mart greeters to the polls" on primary day. Only in Clinton's retelling, it was the article's author, not his wife's adviser, who was laughing at him.

"You know, there was an article in one of the publications the other day making fun of me for being Hillary's ambassador to rural America. 'They sent that ol' boy out there running around these little towns. What in the world's he doing?' And this guy ended by - he thought he was insulting me - he said, 'Next thing you know, Bill Clinton will be taking Wal-Mart greeters to the polls,'" he said, prompting squeals of delight from an actual Wal-Mart greeter in the crowd and her friends.

"That's the kind of thing those people that aren't for us say. You know, they think we're dumber'n we are. I know, cuz I grew up in a place like this, and I figured out that people are just as smart here as anywhere else. But they ain't figured it out yet."

Pushed into the background by his wife's strategists, who fear he'd overshadow her, Clinton tries to make common cause with ordinary Americans who feel victimized by society.

The critics who say his wife is "pandering" by proposing a gasoline tax cut are "people who have good incomes" and never have to "make a choice every day between paying for the gasoline to go to work and putting food on the table or buying their kinfolks' medicine," he said.

He hints at the partnership America would get by returning the Clintons to the White House, noting the similarity between his wife's jobs plan and one of his. "She does not overpromise. We believe in underpromising," he said.

He frequently recalls his years in office, when "everybody was doing better ... . I left you with a surplus. If they'd have stayed with my budget, this country would be out of debt in six or seven years. "

After earning $109 million, with his wife, over the last eight years, he still stresses his humble origins and speaks fondly of the elemental link between man and machine.

"Hillary and I had to borrow money when we went to school. We were poor as church mice. I had six jobs when I was in law school, never more than three at once," he said. "When I was 5 or 6 years old, I knew how to change the oil and get under the car and figure out what was going on. That's back when real people could still repair their cars. Can't do that anymore."

The Clintonian vision of hope differs from Obama's idea of a new politics that changes how Washington works. It is a concrete path to prosperity, something strategists in both parties say blue-collar voters want.

"Nobody resents people getting rich in this country," he said, a favorite line from his past campaigns. "What bothers people about this decade is, after inflation, average family incomes are $1,000 lower in value than they were the day I left office. It's not fair. You want fair back? You vote for Hillary for president."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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