Bubba's still got it

The first black president joins forces with the first black president

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In case anyone doubted it, the big dog still hunts. Bill Clinton's nominating speech at the Democratic convention whipped the crowd into such a frenzy, the delegates might have been calling for him, and not Barack Obama, with their chants of "Four More Years!"

That was cleared up the next evening when President Obama's acceptance speech laying out his vision for the next four years got the crowd on its feet, cheering and hollering for his re-election.

Still, there's little doubt the party would run Bubba again in 2016 if he weren't barred from a third presidential term by that pesky 22nd Amendment.

He'd probably win, too. Despite all his personal failings, many Americans like the guy. His popularity during the Monica Lewinsky scandal was actually higher than that of the House Republicans who impeached him, and, as a result, were widely perceived as petty, mean-spirited and hyper-partisan. With his country-boy persona and hey-I'm-only-human affect, he actually managed to make his persecutors look worse than he did.

Too bad Rush Limbaugh didn't learn anything from that failed coup. His one-man campaign to eviscerate Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke for advocating insurance coverage for birth control similarly backfired.

Now Ms. Fluke is a star -- a nationally known advocate for women's rights, a symbol of courage in the face of attack and a rebuke to the GOP's outrageous war on women. The Dems invited her to speak at the convention and gave her a prime-time slot, which she used to maximum effect. Don't be surprised if she runs for office sooner rather than later. Somehow, I doubt this is what Rush was aiming for.

When Mr. Obama joined Mr. Clinton on stage after the nominating speech, it was quite a moment -- the first black president sharing the spotlight with the first black president. Never mind that one is actually white and the other is half white. In this country, racial identity is a flexible concept, as much a projection by others as it is a genetic fact. That's how Mr. Clinton wound up with the tagline, bestowed by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison in the midst of the impeachment in 1998. She wrote in the New Yorker that Mr. Clinton was being mistreated because of his "blackness":

"Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."

Since then, if course, a "real" black president has been elected, or at least a real bi-racial one, and Mr. Clinton may well turn out to be his most potent weapon after Michelle. Al Gore made a huge mistake in running away from the former president. Mr. Obama, it seems, knows better.

No other politician of the modern era could have bounced back the way Mr. Clinton did, then go on to do humanitarian work with both ex-Presidents Bush and become a respected figure on the international stage.

Yep, he lied to us, and to his wife and in sworn testimony. He failed to control his baser impulses, even knowing that his enemies were looking for just such an opening to destroy him. Yet Mr. Clinton's term was marked by a robust economy that would be the envy of any president, and the citizenry has not forgotten that fact. (Critics say he inherited it and shouldn't get the credit, but Mr. Obama inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression and the same critics want him to take the blame.)

With all his shortcomings, Mr. Clinton remains the most charismatic and persuasive politician in America today. Republicans admit they wish they had someone as masterful on their side.Nobody can deliver a stemwinder like he can when he's "on," as he was Wednesday evening -- although Mr. Obama's closing on Thursday came close. (It's also true that nobody can drone on as long as Mr. Clinton, but this time he was so riveting that the crowd stayed with him for the whole 48 minutes.)

Leaving behind any enmity from Mr. Obama's primary fight against Hillary Clinton four years ago, her husband told viewers that giving the country back to the people who broke it would be folly. He reminded them that two-thirds of Medicaid goes to the elderly and disabled, and of what Republican cuts would mean for those people and their families. He toted up the jobs created in recent decades under each party -- Republicans: 24 million; Democrats: 42 million, confirmed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And he drove this home: Republicans said from the beginning of Mr. Obama's presidency that their first priority was to keep him from succeeding. They set about blocking him at every turn, because the more they stymied him, the more they could deride him as a "failed" president who didn't keep his promises.

That's what Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are doing now on the campaign trail, but Mr. Clinton drew back the curtain to reveal who was really standing in the way of progress, and it wasn't the president. On the contrary, despite all the GOP opposition, Mr. Obama still managed to push through his signature legislation, health care reform. Of course, the Romney/Ryan ticket promises to repeal it, and Republican governors are doing their best to undermine it.

The health care law isn't everything Mr. Obama wanted, but it's a huge step in the right direction and can always be improved. That's actually an apt metaphor for his presidency. Now he just has to convince the voters of it.


Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1610).


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