This column originally ran April 2, 2008. Brian Clarey is on vacation, and will return to his column next week.
Barack Obama cheats to his right. He’s up there at the podium doing it right now, this slight quarter turn to the right, laying a sincere gaze upon the assembled faithful at the War Memorial Auditorium, sometimes pivoting 180 degrees. He looks left, too, and makes a few paces onstage in that direction, and sometimes he turns to the folks seated on risers behind him on the stage, talks right in their faces as he’s explaining why his healthcare plan is better than Hillary’s or explaining contributing factors of poverty.
But mostly he looks to the right, the only flaw in a public speaking style that’s clean yet casual and crackling with intelligence.
And it’s not so much a flaw as a proclivity: We access memories when we cheat to the right, imagination when we glance to the left — which is not to say that he’s lying every time he looks left, though he might be, but that for the most part he is grounded in reality and he drops it in measured doses.
“The notion that we’re going to round up ten million people and ship them back,” he says, “that’s just not real.”
“I mean, first of all, you’ve got a black guy named Barack Obama,” he says. “That’s already — you’re starting in a hole. And I’m forty-six years old, and I got these big ears so I look even younger.”
And: “I believe there’s such a thing as being too late, and that hour is upon us.”
He’s electric, and that right side of the room ripples when he favors them with his glance.
And during the town hall portion of the presentation, Obama stays on top of things — he selects his own questions from the audience, pointing them out with his own hand. No screeners, no scripts, no obvious audience plants. Who does that?
Two days later, Bill Clinton steps from behind a gauzy black curtain in the gymnasium of the downtown YMCA. And he doesn’t cheat to one side or the other. Not when he stumps, anyway.
The guy’s a freakin’ legend, and he salutes the crowd like a celebrity, like Paul freakin’ Newman, and a palpable jolt blasts the room.
Bill Clinton has still got it. The haircut, the grin, the suit… he’s still a handsome son of a bitch, that one, and he’s got this… I don’t know… way about him, this bolstering presence, this common-sense shrewdness, this disarming aw-shucks charm.
“It’s easy to get carried away as president,” he says. “It’s easy to think you are some-body if you get to be president. You just think about it. I was president eight years. Every day for eight years, you walk into a room they play a song… and you got to keep your feet on the ground.”
And if Obama is the young buck, Bill Clinton is certainly the old lion, working the basketball court at the YMCA like it’s Lincoln Center, or a barbecue joint, or the Oval Office.
He’s a natural. Like most Americans, I rely on these visceral determinations when I choose how to cast my vote. The current president might call it, “Going with my gut.” I want to have coffee and pie with Obama while he explains his vision for the future. I want to work a cocktail party with Clinton and watch everyone — man, woman and child — surrender to his charm. I’d like to have them both over to the house for dinner and serve them chili made with hominy instead of beans.
And like most Americans, I fear I’m in danger of backwards logic: that I’m making decisions with my heart and then trying to fill in the logic with anything convenient that fits the suit.
Barack Obama’s middle name is Hussein. Hillary Clinton is a bitch. Bill Clinton lies his ass off. He does lie his ass off, you know. He’s up there right now talking about the disparity in trade agreements. Trade agreements! Like NAFTA wasn’t his baby that he coddled and nursed all the way through the House and Senate! But he wraps it in homespun nicety.
“Who do we have big trade deficits with?” he asks. China, Japan, Korea and the oil-rich countries, of course. “Guess who loans us the money?” The same folks of course.
“You think you could get away with slapping your banker this afternoon?” It doesn’t really make sense, but we lap it up anyway, this crowd who has come to see the former president campaign for his wife.
The two presentations are slightly different in tone and format, but the message is eerily similar and both seem cribbed directly from the John Edwards playbook.
No doubt Edwards possesses at least some of the personal charisma that these two wear like tailored suits, but then, Edwards is not running for president.
And neither, for that matter, is Bill Clinton.