Hope's Last Hero
Bill Clinton delivers an optimistic message in Monterey.
Thursday, September 18, 2003
You have to figure that despite everything that happened to him while he was the president of the United States, Bill Clinton feels like a lucky man. All said and done, here''s a guy who grew up in a poor, single-parent household in a small town in Arkansas, and he got to be president. That kind of thing is likely to make a person into a lifetime believer.
In his conversation Tuesday night with his onetime pal and former Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, Clinton ultimately revealed that this is his power. This is the thing that he did so well, the thing that made people want to elect him twice to be their president; this is what allowed most Americans to support him through the bitterest infamy any president has ever faced: Bill Clinton is the most articulate optimist the nation has ever seen.
It isn''t just that he is so smart. Yes, Clinton''s understanding of national and world affairs is deep--he demonstrated that Tuesday, and the effect of hearing a politician speak so plainly and surely about so many complex matters was breathtaking all by itself. But it was the pupose to which he marshalled his facts that made this chat between two old friends so compelling.
What came across most strongly in the 90-minute conversation was that Bill Clinton still believes. He believes a way can be found out of the quagmire in Iraq, and he believes terrorism can be defeated. He believes the UN can play a strong role in world affairs, and that an "integrated" world community can be established, with human rights, democratic values and free, fair trade rules intact. Peace in the Middle East can be won and peace in Northern Ireland will hold. The economy can rebound and the federal budget can be balanced.
Clinton believes the recall can be defeated and that the Democrats can beat Bush in 2004, and he believes both of these to be crucial to the advance of history.
Clinton believes even though he knows a lot more about this stuff than you or me. And what he knows is scary.
o Now head of an international nonprofit fighting HIV-AIDS, Clinton reported Tuesday that there are 42 million people worldwide afflicted with HIV-AIDS, yet outside the US and Brazil, only 50,000 AIDS victims are getting help.
o Ever the economic-policy-wonk, Clinton explained how the projected federal deficit of $500 billion a year combined with the projected trade deficit of $500 billion a year could drive interest rates up and hurt middle-class families and small businesses, ultimately forestalling an economic recovery. (About the Bush tax cuts, which help make this happen, Clinton said "It''s bad ethics and its horrible economics," making clear that in his opinion the latter is the more heinous crime).
Having spent much of his presidency brokering a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Clinton is still obsessed with the details of that conflict. He added up the numbers killed on both sides, noted how many were children and teenagers, and said: "It''s up to people my age to figure out how to stop the violence, to stop these kids from dying."
Clinton stated the facts--and in most cases declared his optimistic belief that these staggering statistics can and must be dealt with--in response to a set of hard questions lobbed by his old friend Leon.
Panetta, of course, is no dummy himself, and he is his own kind of unique politician. If Clinton''s trademark is his optimism, Panetta''s may be his sense of fairness--his lack of partisanship. That, and his fiscal conservatism (he is the author of the Clinton recovery) is what linked these men in the first place--they are both radical centrists.
And so, for the most part, Panetta''s questions were about policy rather than politics. But we live in deeply partisan times, and Panetta''s last question of the evening required Clinton to state his opinion that many of the nation''s deepest problems can be laid at the feet of the right wing of the Republican Party.
"The Republican party is in the hands of white Southern conservatives who have convinced a bunch of white married Protestants that we [Democrats] are too morally corrupt to rule, because we are pro-choice or favor gay rights or we never met a tax we didn''t like," Clinton ranted, in one of a handful of well-reasoned emotional outbursts.
But he ended his talk on an upbeat note: "This country''s been around because more than half the time, more than half the people have been right about the big things." It was a simple reminder, a call for hope.