On the day that Margaret Thatcher was toppled by her own party, I ran into an old friend, a hardcore leftist playwright, Marxist to the core, who wasn’t as happy as he should have been. He jabbed me in the chest. “You bastards on the right!” he fumed. “You wouldn’t even let us be the ones to drive the stake through her heart.”
I’m sure in America’s Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy there are similar mixed feelings this week. The Clintons have met their Waterloo but it’s not some doughty conservative warrior who gets to play Duke of Wellington, only some freshman pap peddler of liberal boilerplate whom no-one had heard of the day before yesterday.
Such are the vicissitudes of politics. I see from the gay newspaper the Washington Blade that, as the headline writer put it, “Clinton Leads Among Gay Super Delegates.” Only in the Democratic party. I don’t know how many supergays it takes to outvote the non-super primary and caucus voters from Maine to Nevada to Hawaii. They may yet pull Senator Clinton’s chestnuts out of the fire, but they’re looking pretty charred and indigestible right now. Unlike the Fall of Thatcher, it’s nothing so glamorous as an act of matricide, but just the nightly hell of a tired vaudeville act that can no longer find the spark.
Bill Clinton understood a crude rule of show business — that, if you behave like a star, there are plenty of people who’ll treat you like one. The apotheosis of this theory was his interminable ambulatory entrance down mile after mile of corridor at the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, when Slick Willie finally out-Elvised Elvis — or, more accurately, out-Smarted the opening sequence of Get Smart. Apparently, no-one had thought to tell him to try to get within four miles of the stage before the introductory video ended. He was, by my calculations, outside the men’s room on Corridor G27, Sub-Basement Level 6 of the Staples Center. As he began the long, long, lo-oo-oo-oong televised walk to the podium the crowd watching the monitors cheered — and, 20 minutes later, after he’d strolled down the first three or four windowless tunnels of attractive luminous drywall, hung a left by the water cooler, taken the emergency stairs, cut across the stationery closet, moved smoothly through the boiler room and had still only reached the Coke machine on Sous-Mezzanine Level 4 and there was at least a mile and a half between him and the stage, and the Democratic activists out in the hall were beginning to figure they could get dinner and a movie and still be back in time for the last third of his walk-on, they were nevertheless still cheering. In effect, President Clinton dared them not to cheer. Tom Jones wouldn’t have risked it. Engelbert Humperdinck would have balked. But, after eight years of talking the talk, Bill walked the walk. In the hall, the delegates’ hands were raw, bleeding stumps, but the Slicker knew that if he started his entrance in Idaho those Dems would cheer him every step of the way.
The Clintons turned the Democratic party into a star vehicle and designated everyone else as extras. But their star quality was strictly comparative. They had industrial-strength audacity and a lot of luck: Bill jumped into the 1992 race when A-listers like Mario Cuomo were too cowed by expert advice that Bush Snr. was unbeatable. Clinton gambled, won the nomination and beat a weak opponent in a three-way race, with Ross Perot siphoning votes from the right. He got even luckier four years later. So did Hillary when she embarked on something patently absurd — a First Lady running for a Senate seat in a state she’s never lived in — only to find Rudy Giuliani going into instant public meltdown. The SAS, Britain’s special forces, have a motto: Who dares wins. The Clintons dared, and they won — even as almost everyone else in their party lost: senators, congressmen, governors, state legislators. Even when they ran into a spot of intern trouble, sheer nerve saw them through. Almost anyone else would have slunk off in shame, but the Clintons understood that the checks and balances don’t add up to much if you’re determined not to go: As at that 2000 convention speech, they dared the Democrats not to cheer.
With hindsight, the oral sex was a master stroke. Bill Clinton likes to tell anyone who’ll listen that he governed as an “Eisenhower Republican,” which is kind of true — NAFTA, welfare reform, etc. If you have to have a Democrat in the Oval Office, he was as good as it gets for Republicans — if you don’t mind the fact that he’s a draft-dodging non-inhaling sex fiend. Republicans did mind, of course, which is why Dems rallied round out of boomer culture-war solidarity. But, if he hadn’t been dropping his pants and appealing to so many of their social pathologies, his party wouldn’t have been half so enthusiastic for another chorus of “I Like Ike.”
Hillary is what the Clintons look like with their pants up. Their much-vaunted political savvy turns out to be a big nothing: The supposed masters of “the politics of personal destruction” can’t turn up anything better on Obama than some ancient essay from his Jakarta grade school, plus a few limp charges of plagiarism. And instead of getting the surrogates to crowbar the enemy every time Hillary opens up on him she looks mean and petty and he gets to do his high-minded Obamessiah routine. Their star quality was also, as noted above, mostly a giant bluff. In his heyday, Bill could channel his narcissism into a famously sure “common touch” — he liked to bask in proof of his awesome empathetic powers. But, in the years since he left the Oval Office, he’s played too many gazillion-dollar-a-plate jet-set dinners in France and Switzerland, and the “common touch” has curdled. That was plain even by the 2002 midterms, when you could more or less correlate Democratic losses by his travel schedule. He’s a bust on the stump.
And, worst of all for Bill and Hill, the Dems found a new star — their first in 16 years. Look at it from Hillary’s point of view: She’d expected to run against the likes of Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd — the usual mediocrities and misfits. Then Barack Obama came along, and did what the Clintons did in 1992 — saw his opportunity and seized it. All of a sudden, she’s the Bill Richardson — worthy but dull, earthbound, and joyless, lead weights round her ankles.
She has a melancholy dignity in decline. She knows she would make the better president, but every time she tries to explain why it sounds prosaic and unromantic. Bill gave the party an appetite for slick lounge acts, and this time round Barack’s the guy delivering it in buckets of gaseous uplift. Can Barbra Streisand and the Supergays get Hillary airborne again? I doubt it. Go back to that Staples Center entrance in 2000, and try to imagine Hill walking that walk. How far would she get before the applause died away and she’d be padding that endless corridor to no audible accompaniment but the clack of her heels?
© 2008 Mark Steyn