Bill Clinton was many things, but stupid was never one of them. Even his supporters were eventually forced to admit that most of those things were true. Sloppy, corrupt, impulsive, amoral, vindictive, petty and loving every minute of it. Sure. But not stupid. Clinton was of the left, but he was a politician first. He understood politics as more than just gamesmanship, a set of rules, procedures and technicalities, powerful people to court, an image to cultivate and opponents to destroy.
What Clinton understood, and Obama doesn’t, is that politics is about people. And that politics is nothing without people. 400 glowing articles don’t compare to what people are feeling when they’re unemployed, when they’re not sure how they’ll make payroll next month and when they sit toting up the numbers late at night and worrying about the future.
Obama isn’t so much a machine politician as he is a politician of the machine. A man whose career was made by one machine after another. Smooth gleaming urban monstrosities guiding him from one organization to another, from handshakes to dinners to ballots to signatures. Politics to him is nothing but a power game almost completely detached from the people. They’re spectators, showing up to faint, cheer and buy him drinks afterward.
Politics to Obama is its own game, like law or basketball. The people in the stands and benches make it necessary, but they don’t really figure into it except as a nebulous crowd providing moral support. What really matters are how you win the game, the rules and the way you can break the rules. It’s all that matters.
Considering his level of emotional detachment, Obama has been good at faking it. But most of the fakery is second-hand. The work of an army of advisers and a grass-roots movement determined to create a Hollywood idea of the hero, who wins elections, defeats conservatives, and like at the end of every political movie, connects with the voters by delivering a speech that sets out the stakes.
Bill Clinton knows that’s a load of crap. He’s played that game, he’s had those advisers, and he’s given those speeches, but he has enough of a background in real world elections to know that nobody really gives a damn about the speeches. They’ll listen to them when they’re first getting to know you or when something important happens, but mostly people elect politicians to do things for them.
Clinton, like McCain, underestimated the power of the machine behind Obama. The new world order of digital power, manufactured cult-of-personality media complex and sheer arrogant rule-breaking. Slick Willy had tasted two out of that three in his time, but no one ever worshiped him as a god. And certainly no one was going to faint on listening to his wife or build statues to her. Hillary would not inspire works of art or paeans of praise.
But Bill also had the last laugh. Because gods are not allowed to let you down. Gods are not allowed to keep blaming Bush or the Republicans. They’re not allowed to promise to take care of things later. That’s not what people elect gods for.
There’s no doubt that he saw this coming early on and that in the dregs of his bitterness at losing, not just failing to win, but the humiliation of defeat, he knew that the day would come when the statues would fall. When people would stretch out their hands expecting help… and when it did not come, the hands would clench into fists.
People expect less of Presidents, than they do of gods. They expect more of men who claim to be able to lower sea levels and change history. And they don’t take “no” for an answer. Being ignored only makes them angrier.
Unlike Clinton, Obama isn’t able to step out there with an apologetic shrug and a heartfelt speech about tough times. The speech can be written for him by the campaign that never ends, which will find a poet from Chicago who writes rhymes about the Great Depression that reflect class and social divisions, while sipping a craft beer, to do the hard work of laying out all those words, it will be touted for two weeks by the media as the final response to an ungrateful nation, it will upstage three television programs that people actually enjoy watching in these hard times, and it will sound and feel exactly like the time your neighbors sent over their spoiled brat to apologize for breaking your window on pain of losing his trip to Disneyland.
Obama’s detachment is his gift. That coolness which convinces supporters that his mind is exploring other realms, contemplating deep thoughts on racial identity and postmodernism or probing the moral paradoxes of soft power. It makes his occasional bouts of attentiveness seem more intense, like a coma patient occasionally waking up to check in, before checking out again.
His pathological need for attention is wholly self-centered and he is not at all surprised to find that the world revolves around him. But it’s an attention that he has never had to fight for. It was the birthright that he gained from his dysfunctional family, his coddled educational background and his red carpet ride through politics.
Bill Clinton has never checked out in his life. Of the two men, he looks like the lazy one, but is the genuine hard worker. Even after serving two terms, he is still searching for something to do. After a term or two in office, you won’t find Obama frothing at the mouth to run someone else’s campaign. Chatting with the folks on Martha’s Vineyard, maybe. Delivering speeches on facing the challenges of tomorrow, for a cool million a pop, to Chinese corporations, almost certainly. But not working.
When it comes to attention, Clinton fights for it. His permanent campaign is a personal one that never goes away. Give him five minutes anywhere and he will make himself the center of attention, not because he deserves it and certainly not because it’s handed to him as a token prize for his race or his coolness, but because he wants it more than anyone else in the room.
There is an emptiness in many entertainers that drives them to be the center of attention and from there into explosive bouts of self-destructive behavior. Clinton is of their breed. Give him five minutes in any room and he will own the room. And then the next room. But he isn’t an actor. The actor is his rival, the cool man with the big ears, who spends more time entertaining himself than anyone else. Who reads his lines, waits for the peasants to applaud and takes off for the next venue.