December 21, 2007

A Flibbertigibbet, A Will O' The Wisp, A Clown

How do you solve a problem like Bill Clinton? Eugene Robinson wonders whether it wouldn't be easier to keep a wave upon the sand than to try to shoehorn him into a ceremonial post as First Spouse. Bill already acts as though the campaign exists to provide him a revival of the production most Americans thought had closed for good in January 2001:

Sexism might have something to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton has to answer questions about her husband that the other candidates never get asked about their wives. But Bill Clinton has always had a way of making himself the story, and he's at it again.

When the Clintons made a campaign stop at an Iowa grocery store Tuesday, Hillary's face said it all. She realized that Bill had departed from the script and wandered off to another part of the store, and cameras caught her scanning the aisles with a look of sheer terror. Bill was supposed to be at Hillary's side; instead, he was way over yonder, giving an interview to "Entertainment Tonight." What was supposed to be a controlled photo op had suddenly turned into a happening.

Spontaneity gives ulcers to campaign staffers, but the supermarket stop got much more coverage than it would have if Bill had followed the script. He ended up drawing more attention to himself than the candidate -- which is in keeping with his formal campaign speeches. On the stump, he draws big crowds and comes off as charming, eloquent and persuasive. But reporters who have tallied his words say that he talks more about himself than about his wife -- at a ratio of about 9 to 1.

We're about to get the 2-for-1 argument that we heard in 1992, but now the Clintons may disagree on who the one is. Bill seems much more focused on Bill rather than Hillary. This may explain why Hillary had Bill locked away for much of the early campaign, rather than upstaging her day after day on the trail.

Hillary's problem is that she's worse for her campaign than Bill. She has proven herself particularly inept at shaking off the image of a dragon lady, which might actually help in a general election, given the emphasis on national security. If she had campaigned like a Lady Thatcher for the US, it might even have been a positive. However, she spent most of the campaign vacillating on Iraq, Iran, and immigration, the latter of which sent her campaign into a tailspin. Tough sells, but wishy-washy and cranky does not.

Like it or not, Hillary needs Bill just to win the nomination, let alone winning a general election. Robinson points out that the necessity of Bill brings some very clear dangers. He showed that in his suggestion last week that Hillary would seek the counsel of George H W Bush, followed by the inexplicable suggestion that Poppy would go on a world tour with him to apologize for his son. The elder Bush, clearly annoyed with his new friend, reminded him that America had no need to apologize to anyone.

Bill's a loose cannon -- or in the words of the song, a flibbertigibbet with danger of becoming a clown at times. No one likes a clown for a chief spokesman, and voters may not want to put one in the White House, as First Spouse or otherwise.


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