The Difference Between Sweet-Talking and Sugarcoating

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At Oxford, Bill Clinton won friends and charmed girls by bragging about what he said were the giant watermelons of Hope, Ark.

Clinton is still a genius at conjuring up giant watermelons, luscious and mythic and savory. He gave a terrific speech at the convention. He evoked the Clinton years as one enormous watermelon patch — and in truth, the eating has been pretty good. Clinton proved, effortlessly, that he is still the most seductive guy in the Democratic party, almost too bright a star, considering that he is being written out of the script and the understudy is supposed to take over.

An outgoing president should have the grace to look tired. Almost every president ages noticeably, alarmingly, in the White House. The immense burden is supposed to exhaust the man — look at Lyndon when they carried him out. Maybe we half-think a president hasn't done his job if he is not at least staggering a little at the end of the shift. Poor Franklin Roosevelt burned out and died in April 1945, after so much labor.

Not Clinton. Of what other president could you say that after two full terms (and relentless scandal — impeachment even!), he looks fresher, livelier, than he did when he came into office? Clinton is a phenomenon — of resilience, of survival, of some life force (either heroic or sleeplessly cunning) that causes his admirers to marvel and his moralist critics to foam at the mouth.

Clinton fairly radiated the lightness of being: "See how mine enemies flee before my face." Everyone else who came to the platform seemed somehow smaller and dimmer. His own wife, though highly burnished, has settled into an unfortunate speaking style — hard, flat, dogmatic and haranguing, heavy with a metallic menace. She seems to have learned nothing from Bill about giving a speech.

Jesse Jackson on Tuesday night started out looking like an exhausted volcano, voice hoarse and cracking, and now and then veering into the unintelligible. Jackson heated up as he went on, though, and got off a few lines that roused the house. But Teddy Kennedy, who has become a solid gray block of a man, a monument to the unbearable heaviness of being and to the sheer coagulation of the past, gave a dutiful fulmination that seemed to have been phoned in from far away.

The historian Leopold von Ranke remarked of the Frenchman Michelet: "He wrote history in a style in which the truth could not be told." Political conventions are conducted in a style in which the truth cannot be told. The Democrats have spent the week citing the falsities of the Republicans in Philadelphia (the phony diversity, for example, all those conservatives wagging their heads and singing, "Red and yellow, black and white/ They are precious in His sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world.")

To listen to the Democrats — Dickensian in their tenderness for the little folk, for the janitors and maids and, presumably, for the Chicano pool boys in attendance at the homes of Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty — who would know of their own party's rich corruptions and fat-catteries? One would think that Clinton had invented this giant watermelon economy all by himself, and that the Los Angeles convention was a kind of multicultural communion of saints.

More cynicism, O Lord! As in Philadelphia, the sanctimony thickeneth.

American politics is going to die of sugar shock.