Sunday, January 27, 2008

The End of The Natural--Bill Clinton's last stand

William Jefferson Clinton's fairy-tale rise from broken family child to President of the United States was no accident. He was a man of sharp intellect, sincere concern, and incredible political acumen. By 1992, at the age of 46, those skills had melded together into an elite campaigning machine. George Stephanopoulus, then an adviser on Clinton's election team, later described the magic like this in his book All Too Human:
Every day Clinton showed how extraordinary he was. Like when he spent his downtime stroking the hand of a little girl, bald and yellow with cancer, and looked into her eyes until she believed she'd grow up to be a movie star. Or when you would prep him for a late-night-car-ride-to- the-airport interview after sixteen hours of nonstop campaigning. His eyes would float, the lids fluttering with fatigue, but once the reporter ducked into the backseat Clinton would repeat the briefing word for word and add six points we missed. We called him Secretariat, the ultimate political thoroughbred.
Former Newsweek reporter Joe Klein remembers another nickname for Clinton: The Natural, which was the title given to Roy Hobbs, the baseball phenom in Bernard Malamud's book of the same name. As political consultant Paul Begala said of Clinton, "He was the best there ever was." Clinton's singular abilities as a finely tuned political animal enabled him to become the third-youngest president in history. Along the way he became an icon of hope, youth, change. It is amazing what a difference a decade can make.

Now Bill Clinton bumbles around his wife's campaign trail, alienating voters, dismissing opponents, and falling asleep on stage. He's like an old pitcher who can no longer find the strike zone, hanging on to past glory. Bill Clinton was ushered into the White House nearly 16 years ago to the tune of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop." Today he has us all thinking about yesterday. Meanwhile a new Democratic luminary, Senator Barack Obama from Illinois, looks forward. And, in a twist of fate, Obama is Hillary Clinton's chief rival for the Democratic nomination. But Obama, not Clinton, represents youth, and hope, and change, and even Bill can't summon that magic for his beleaguered wife anymore. Obama, not Clinton, drew 300,000 Democratic votes in South Carolina, an unprecedented amount. Obama, not Clinton, has stared a movement.

And after his victory in South Carolina Obama noted, "This election is about the past versus the future."

Many political pundits blamed Bill for Hillary's sizable defeat in that southern primary. And even afterwards Bill was back at work, dismissing Obama's victory by pointing out that Jessie Jackson won in South Carolina twice. Jackson, of course, never became president and it doesn't take a political genius to connect the sloppy dots Bill is trying to lay out. But the problem is he just doesn't do it with anything like his previous flair. The willingness is there, but the execution and timing are gone. His charisma has given over to surliness. His uncanny ability to tap an opponent's weakness now sounds like a weak jab. Bill's time has faded. It seems to belong to Obama now.

Bill Clinton's parallels to Roy Hobbs, the main character in The Natural, are worth noting. Both came from obscure, humble backgrounds, and rose on their incredible talent to heroic levels. Both were corruptible by women. And another similarity is how both characters end their journey.

"Look at him standing there, like a goddamn gorilla," a character in Malamud's book says about Roy walking to the plate one last time with the winning run on third. "Look at his burning eyes. He ain't human."

"That ain't what I see," Someone else says. "He looks old and beat up."

That seems to me how Bill Clinton looks now. Old. Tired. Past his time. And more and more people see it. His unflappable confidence is waning. The limelight which seemed to expand him has turned. You can see how bad he wants one more crack in the big game, but his magic is gone. He is the child of another age. One whose time was, and will forever be, 1992. And where he goes, Hillary is bound. Their sword has been broken. Every day more and more people recognize 2008 seems to be Obama's time.

And how does it end? With the game on the line, Roy Hobbs walked to the plate one last time to face off against a rookie relief pitcher. This pitcher was also from an obscure background, and nobody even knew who he was. But he was a kid a world of talent, and the time to see it to fruition. The blessing had passed on to another. Roy dug in at the plate and reached deep down for one last miracle, but it was not there. The ball "lit its own path" and went right past him. In the end of The Natural--the book, not the movie--Roy Hobbs strikes out. The power was gone. It belonged now to someone else: the young pitcher facing him on the mound. And by the time Roy realized it, the game was over.

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