Daub by daub, with the biggest brushstrokes lavished on the record eight-year economic boom that has coincided with his presidency, Clinton painted a picture of a prosperity and a nation on autopilot. The election of Al Gore, went the subtext, was crucial only in the negative. It's constitutionally necessary, yes, that the guard be changed, but that seems a technicality to this President. A vote for Gore is a vote for Clinton's beneficent policy ghost an approach that serves Clinton's ego and his vice president's electoral prospects, but only steepened the hill of individuation that Gore the man wants so dearly to climb.
Clinton has learned well to put his policies before his personal, and he clearly understood Monday night the favors that approach does to the lengthening and thus strengthening of the better aspects of his legacy. In his speeches, he has learned to spread the credit around. "I am here tonight, above all, to say a heartfelt thank you," Clinton told a roaring convention crowd. "I thank you for supporting the new Democratic agenda that has taken our country to new heights of prosperity, peace and progress."
But anyone tempted to see the past eight years as ones of eminently transferable New Democrat ideology (certainly Al Gore would prefer voters to have that impression) was confronted with a President who was not about to check his charisma at the door. Clinton's entrance into the convention hall was a genuinely thrilling hybrid of David Letterman and the World Wrestling Federation, as he strode for the cameras down a white-bricked hallway while "Braveheart"-style symphonics altered pulses in the waiting crowd. Hillary Clinton had preceded her husband without mentioning his name no matter. This was a man who needed no introduction. This was the star of the whole show.
And at the podium Clinton was basking. The mischievous smile left his lips when appropriate but never his eyes, which sparkled throughout. Where red meat might have served his understudy better, Clinton preferred sly digs at the befanged GOPers he outmaneuvered so many times. On his "new economic strategy": "Their leaders said it would increase the deficit, kill jobs, and give us a one-way ticket to recession. Time has not been kind to those predictions." At that last, the folksy drawl came out, just as it did whenever Clinton wandered from his script. Underneath the eloquent wonk, the joyful Bubba bubbles. And as the sand runs down on his stewardship, Clinton seems less inclined than ever to hide him.
Eventually, Clinton got around to his coattails never his strong suit and began to prime America to embrace his successors three: Gore, Lieberman and Hillary. "Today America faces another choice, every bit as momentous as the one eight years ago..." Though he let pass a golden opportunity to praise Joe Lieberman's record on Monica, his praise of an American future under the Al Gore was unstinting, if a shade uninspired compared to the encomium he had spent 25-odd minutes lavishing on America's recent past. It was praise the papers will pick up, and thus it was sufficient. What was missing was the idea that there was room for improvement.
Two terms after Bill Clinton took Manhattan at the 1992 convention, age is apparent, a mellowing perhaps. But as he borrowed from George Washington's "in the service of my country" farewell, he took the sentiment tellingly farther. "Now, my hair is a little grayer and my wrinkles deeper, but with the same optimism and hope I brought to the work I so love eight years ago, I want you to know my heart is filled with gratitude," he said. The historian, the rhetorician, may have had his political and hormonal ups and downs, but regrets? Too few to mention. Still young at heart.
"Remember, whatever you think of me..." That, an ad-lib, was the single nod to the nadirs of the Clinton years, and whether he meant that distancing for Al Gore or for himself rhetorical historians can decide, along with the rest. He might be a boomer child of populist destiny, "born in a summer storm to a young widow in a small southern town," or perhaps just a born salesman. But whatever we think of him, Clinton made it clear one last time what he thinks of us. President Bill Clinton's last words Monday night may be the truest thing he ever said.
When it was time to end the farewell, he did not, as has become somewhat customary at these conventions, close his speech with the three words "God Bless America." No, the twin terms of the Clinton presidency have, for Bill Clinton, been about more than patriotism, more than public service, more than better living through tightly targeted policy. For a man who read every poll like a mash note, who pressed every bit of flesh as if it belonged to a long-lost brother, and who, when he needed forgiveness, asked for it not in a dark confessional but in the cameras' white glare, only one closer for these voters would do:
"I love you."