These can not be the best of times for Bill Clinton. I mean, it must be difficult for a man who prizes himself as one of the greatest strategic and tactical political minds of his generation (which in fairness he is and for good reason too) he must be wondering, how it is, that his political calculations failed to add up on this occasion. Was he not the acclaimed political Sorcerer and his wife his main apprentice? Surely things were not supposed to happen this way. This was not the intended outcome of the script. The Democratic Party’s primary process was supposed to be a mere formality. It was to be a validation and a celebration of his legacy, a ceremony of coronation in honour of his formidable spouse who had done her time and whose time had come. It was after all, the Bill and Hillary Show; the reigning potentates of the Democratic Party.
American political parties love to flirt with ‘royalty’. The aristocratic Republicans indulge their royal Bushes before whom they do obeisance. They revere their Bushes the way the Democrats once revered their Kennedys. ‘King’ George H. W. Bush has reigned; ‘King’ George W. Bush reigns; ‘Prince’ Jeb Bush awaits his reign; and ‘Prince’ George P. Bush contemplates his future reign; and all to the delight of their genuflecting subjects.
To many observers, the American presidential electoral process had become a game of pass the ‘crown’ just like the party game pass the parcel. The ‘crown’ kept on changing heads; but only passing from Bush to Clinton to Bush an possibly to another Clinton in perpetual succession; ad infinitum. But this time the Democratic Party had other ideas regarding the nature of succession.
But how did things go so horribly wrong for the royal house of Clinton?
Bob Dylan, that great American lyricist and singer knew the answer to this question at least four decades ago; when he wrote and sang about the fact that:
‘The times, they are a changing’
Indeed, the times they are a changing; and change is the name of the game in politics and in much else besides. Change, they say is forever constant, because change always changes. Change is akin to the flow of a mighty river; you can never step into the waters of the same river twice, because the waters are in constant flow. A fact reiterated by that age old philosophical conundrum. You either go with its flow, or get swept aside by its unrelenting motion.
How the times have changed. It seems like an eternity now since a fresh faced Bill Clinton arrived on the national scene to challenge the status quo. Back then he embodied the very notion of change with such success, that it is ironic that he failed to recognise it this time around. For great periods, he was the issue in American politics; beloved by Democrats, despised by Republicans, and admired the world over by countless others.
Bright, gifted, eloquent, and charismatic, and never far from scandal; he was and is a loveable rogue. He was and remains the consummate ‘Teflon’ politician, against whom no scandal could topple and upon whom nothing could be made to stick for long or with lasting damage. It was not for nothing that he was called slick Willie.
But because he was just too good at what he did, he fell into that hubristic trap which ensnares many a narcissistic politician. He committed the cardinal error of mistaking his political body odour for the scent of perfume. He and Hillary developed a sense of entitlement so strong, that they began to believe their own propaganda. Far too busy they were basking in the glory of their own importance that they failed to take seriously the political ascent of a certain Barack Obama. Slick Willy had become slack in his ways.
It was a fatal error. The Kennedys in contrast, were quick to sense an opportunity in Obama’s ascent. Acutely aware, that their own national political flame was petering out, they recognised that something needed to be done to revive the flame to give it new relevance in a new political age.
So, how to go about it and strengthen a wavering flame? In Barack Obama they found their answer. Why not endorse an aspiring and inspirational politician with promise and join forces. Why not marry the Kennedy fire with that of Obama’s and produce a radiant flame, in whose glow their supporters could bask. It was a masterstroke; Obama benefiting from the rich Kennedy political heritage and the Kennedys from revived memories and references to JFK. It was an effective mutual appreciation effort; Obama’s stature profited from comparisons to JFK, and he repaid the favour by interspersing his speeches with generous references to JFK. It was inspirational and tactical politics at its best.
Understandably, Bill Clinton had no need to embrace Obama like the Kennedys. He had a vested interest in the process. Hillary was the front-runner and the odds on favourite for the nomination. And quite apart from that, he saw himself as the Alpha and Omega of the Democratic Party. Obama was nothing more than a young pretender seeking to punch above his weight. In Bill’s eyes he needed tutoring in the arts of national politics. But Obama would not go away; he was an adept pupil who got better and better as the process went on. And the more successful Obama became, it became clear that there was fire on Mount Clinton. Bill Clinton became more disdainful of, and spiteful towards, Obama. And in so becoming, he made uncharacteristic errors, thereby alienating his most loyal support base in the process.
Perhaps for the first time on the national political stage, Bill Clinton found himself in indirect competition against an equally, if not more charismatic man; one blessed with profound oratorical abilities. Here was a man who with effortless expression was able to produce soaring oratory which echoed the beautiful cadences of speech of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His rich poetic overtones are a joy to listen to and they inspire the minds and kindle the hearts of his audiences across America to wonderful effect. This new political kid on the block was making the comeback kid look quite ordinary.
And with every patronising comment about Obama, it became clear, that Bill Clinton saw Obama as a rival to himself, rather than Hillary. Without warning, there was another big beast in the Democratic Party. He sensed his grasp over the Party slipping away. But his reactions let him down badly, diminishing his standing among former devotees. He went on to compound matters by refusing to endorse Obama even after the primaries had ended. Rather than endorse him he continued to equivocate about his support right up to the party convention.
That he redeemed himself at the Democratic Convention is beyond doubt. His speech was as good as any he has delivered in the past; it was professorial in all its glory, and in line with what we have come to expect of him over the years. In reality, if the truth be told, his speech had less to do with graciousness and magnanimity, and more to do with necessity; he and his wife could not have done otherwise. They had to restore their image before their party. As this could very well be their final curtain call as major players. So they had to go with the flow in the end and endorse Obama, or risk alienation in the Democratic Party.
A political shift had occurred as evidenced by the many thousands who gathered in Denver to listen to Obama’s excellent acceptance speech; not mentioning the millions who tuned in to watch it on television. Bill Clinton, indeed built a bridge to the twenty-first century, but it is Obama who travelled over it, holding abreast as he did the promise of change.
But for all his stumbles during the primary season, Bill Clinton remains a gifted politician; one of the best of his generation. Last year, purely by chance, while attempting to go into a bookshop in London’s Piccadilly, I stumbled upon the Sorcerer from Arkansas. Bill Clinton was making his exit from a promotional event held in the bookshop. His hair was whiter; his pace slower; his frame slighter; but his charm was as potent as ever. He worked the small crowd outside the bookshop with warmth and charm as only he can.
His uneasy relationship with Obama reminds me of another uneasy relationship between two public figures; Madiba Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe. Before Mandela’s release from prison, Mugabe was the star of Southern African politics. But as soon as Mandela was set free, he became the Sun which eclipsed Mugabe’s star. To this day, Mugabe resents Mandela for this. The same appears to be true of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; Obama’s Sun now threatens to eclipse Bill Clinton’s star.
And just like the adherents of the Nigerian Mountain of Fire and Miracles Christian Movement love to proclaim in their religious fervour:
‘Power must change hands,’
And indeed, political power has changed hands within the American Democratic Party; and Bill Clinton has had to succumb to the inevitable at last. He was the future once; but not anymore.
It is the times; they are a changing.