May 22nd, 2008

Bill Sets Out on 1000 Mile Walk From Hillary’s Attack Dog to Obama’s Soulmate

by Philip Baruth

Regardless of what anyone in Hillary’s campaign may demand or desire, Bill Clinton will reveal himself on the campaign trail. That is a fact of nature, and this primary has underscored it too many times to count. But nowhere has the ex-President said as much in so few words as he says in an interview due out tomorrow in People magazine.

The interview is studded with off-hand comments destined to make news, but most deeply revealing are these few seemingly simple remarks about the “immensely talented” Barack Obama:

“I think I understand him. There are enough similarities in our childhoods and things that I think I get what he is doing. But I do think it’s better to have made a lot of decisions before you get to be president.”

On the surface, it would seem to be a very smooth, diplomatic way of making Hillary’s case: Obama is wonderful and talented, but given that we’re so much alike, I know better than anyone that he should have waited a few years to run for President, like Hillary.

But that isn’t the way it strikes me at all.

Clinton’s own biography, his own painful history as the son of a single mother, and as a son in constant search for an absent father, is sacred to him — not only because it fitted him for his own miraculous climb to the White House, but because it actually became an integral part of the image his 1992 campaign created along the way.

So when Clinton confides that “there are enough similarities in our childhoods and things,” it represents a landmark every bit as telling as Obama’s accumulation of a majority of pledged delegates: without coming right out and saying it, Bill Clinton is placing Obama’s personal history on a par with his own, and implying fairly directly that their shared biography is shared destiny.

Far from making a case for his wife as President, Clinton is slowly beginning to inch closer to the opposite. He is making the case that he and Obama are in many ways remarkably alike, Presidential timber produced by very similar defining circumstances.

And when you think about it, this is a very predictable evolution. Bill Clinton will not sulk if his wife is denied the nomination; he will want to be a very visible presence in an Obama era; he will want to erase any lingering suspicions about his tactics in the South and in Appalachia; and he will want, as Bill Clinton always wants, to bond with this new nominee, to advise him and befriend him.

passing of the torch

But make no mistake. This is the birth of the New Post-Primary Meme: that far from being implacable enemies, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are actually strikingly similar, both deprived in childhood, both driven to seek reassurance at the ballot box, both destined for political greatness, each with a deep intuitive understanding of the other.

And I have no problem with that, really. It’s true enough, at least in the meat of it.

But of course I’m not the one Bill has to worry about.