Monday, September 29, 2008

Bill Clinton’s Return Poses A Test Of Party Loyalty


In a week when a great financial crisis came to a head and the presidential campaign reached a kind of warp-speed intensity, the man who seemed most likely to be there when you turned on a television was not the president or the treasury secretary or the candidates. It was Bill Clinton.

As usual, he had a lot to say. What was unusual was the stir he made for things he did not say.

Mr. Clinton made appearances on morning news shows and late-night talk shows, many or all of them scheduled to coincide with the three-day annual meeting in New York of the Clinton Global Initiative.

His passion about the philanthropic conference was clear.

But perhaps because of the contrast with that passion, Mr. Clinton’s answers to questions about the presidential race between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain seemed to some Obama supporters like the damning faint praise of a Democratic holdout.

The question arose Thursday, when both candidates appeared at Mr. Clinton’s conference — Mr. McCain in person, Mr. Obama via satellite. Was this a metaphor for Mr. Clinton’s relationship with each one, or just a scheduling conflict?

Mr. Clinton has repeatedly described Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, as honest and trustworthy, though the Obama campaign has argued that Mr. McCain’s campaign rhetoric indicates otherwise. Mr. Clinton has missed few opportunities, while allowing that he disagrees politically with Mr. McCain, of Arizona, to say how much he likes the senator and to praise him for his support of Mr. Clinton’s efforts as president to normalize relations with Vietnam and intervene in Bosnia.

Mr. Clinton also went out of his way to praise Mr. McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. “I come from Arkansas,” he told reporters, “I get why she’s hot out there.”

As comfortable as Mr. Clinton is in saying, “I like John McCain,” and “I like Sarah Palin,” no one seems to have heard him say the same for Mr. Obama. Instead, when speaking of Mr. Obama, the Democratic nominee, Mr. Clinton has assumed a professorial stance that sometimes drifts toward emotional aloofness and disregard.

“Is it me, or he didn’t want to say the name ‘Barack Obama’?” the comedian Chris Rock asked with barely contained anger when he appeared Monday night on “Late Show With David Letterman” immediately after Mr. Letterman’s 15-minute interview with Mr. Clinton.

Answering Mr. Letterman’s questions, Mr. Clinton gave a dispassionate discourse on the cultural and political dynamics of the race, which, he said, would ultimately play in Mr. Obama’s favor. Mr. Clinton mentioned his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had lost the Democratic primary to Mr. Obama, far more often than he mentioned the party’s standard-bearer. And in predicting victory for Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton suggested that it would happen because people were hurting economically. He did not say that Mr. Obama’s victory would be because voters especially wanted Mr. Obama to be president.

“People will wind up liking both of them,” Mr. Clinton said. “People will go in that polling booth and say: ‘You know, I really admire Senator McCain. He gave about all you could give to this country without getting killed for it. But I’ve got to have a change, and I’m going the other way.’ ”

By “the other way,” he apparently meant Mr. Obama.

Recently, Mr. Clinton said he planned to campaign for Mr. Obama in Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, has been campaigning for her former rival, and has urged her former donors to contribute to his campaign.

It has been widely reported that there is no love lost between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama. But Mr. Clinton’s plans for campaigning, and his rousing endorsement speech at the Democratic convention last month — after the long and bitter contest between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton — are formidable acts of party loyalty and personal discipline.

And on Thursday, as if to make up for what has been perceived as his week of political neutrality, Mr. Clinton introduced Mr. Obama’s speech at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting with an extended accolade. He described Mr. Obama as thoughtful, incisive and committed to the goals of bringing peace and prosperity to his country and the world.

It was a ringing statement of respect, if still not quite the easy affection Mr. Clinton expresses when speaking of Mr. McCain.

The night after his appearance on Mr. Letterman’s show, Mr. Clinton was on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” where Mr. Stewart defended him against the charge of aloofness and suggested that the only way to satisfy some Obama supporters would be “to get a tattoo or some type of permanent bumper sticker” placed on his person.

Without smiling, Mr. Clinton said: “The purpose of this election is not for people to pass emotional hurdle tests. This is not a Rorschach test. This is about winning an election that can change the future of the country.”

On “Larry King Live” the next night, Mr. Clinton said that while John McCain was a friend — one who had “stood up to his party” to help normalize relations with Vietnam, “stood up to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia,” and was a national hero — Mr. Obama’s political views “are much closer to what Hillary and I want.”

Source: NyTimes.Com

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