Richard Reeves

Farewell to a Great One

LOS ANGELES -- Compared to what? That is the real question in politics.

In the darkest days of William Jefferson Clinton's roller-coast ride through history, the days after the Republicans took over Congress, when he seemed to have blown it all, he used to tell the people around him that he couldn't wait until the 1996 election. Why? "Because," he answered, "I'll just be compared with someone else, rather than being compared to some perfect ideal."

Then he was compared with Bob Dole and he won. Then came Monica Lewinsky and he was compared with the little preachers of Congress and he won again. On Monday night here, in the waning days of his power, he seemed incomparable. No one at the Democratic National Convention had the slightest doubt that he would be the party's nominee again if that weren't against the law. That comparison, of course, hurts the man who will be the nominee, Vice President Gore. And I have not met many people who do not believe that he would clobber George W. Bush, too, if it weren't prohibited by the 25th Amendment.

The president was great in his farewell to the troops, which surprised no one. He laid out the Democratic issues -- basically comparing the country now with what it was in 1992. The most telling line had to do with Clinton's deficit reduction package in 1993: "Not a single Republican supported it. Their leaders said our plan would increase the deficit, kill jobs and give us a one-way ticket to recession." Pause. "Time has not been kind to their predictions."

The crowd roared -- farewell to the greatest politician of his time. We will not see his like again soon.

"I don't know anybody who is in his league," said Dede Myers, who served for a time as his press secretary. "If he was a baseball player, he'd be hitting 65 homers and pitching 20 wins with a 2.00 ERA."

I agree with that, although the analogy I would use would be Pentium chip. He just processes information -- both intellectual and emotional -- faster than other people do. But the brain models used by many of the people who have worked with him in the White House are sonar and radar.

"Imagine something operating with radar or sonar," said Robert Reich, who was Clinton's first secretary of labor and who has been a not-uncritical friend since they were both students. "He throws out a lot of things to the environment, people all around him, not only advisers but everybody he speaks to. Everyone. And he sees what he gets back. And they signal back through their body language, through their enthusiasm, through clapping, through nodding. ..."

And then there is his personality. He likes people, so most like him. But he does get carried away. "Like" is not enough. He wants you to agree with him. He wants you to love him.

Marcia Hale, who handled his scheduling in the White House, says: "He thinks he can convince anybody of anything if he just has enough time with them. ... He wants to win every conversation, whether there's a debate or not. He will always have an agenda. Part of it because he's a politician, and part of it because he actually believes there are things that need to be done. ... For all of his flaws, and all of his sometimes cynical tactics, there's a big part of him that's a true believer."

Myers adds: "One of the first things he wants to know is can I razzle-dazzle this person? Ninety-nine percent of the time he can. Not everybody all the time. But there's almost nobody he can't razzle-dazzle some of the time. He's smarter than most people. And he's more charming than most people."

Michael Waldman, who was Clinton's chief speechwriter, said something I found poignant about the end of this: "It's a truism that presidents age in office. ... In some ways, the office aged him into the right age to be president."

Now that Bill Clinton is really ready, he has to go. Even the most exciting farewells are sad.

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