Bill Clinton looms large at Obama’s party
His prime-time speech Wednesday is an opportunity to heal a Democratic rift.
Denver – Bill Clinton has never done anything on a small scale. He served six terms as governor of Arkansas before his two terms as president and now travels the world as head of a foundation that dispenses millions of dollars to fight disease and climate change. On the side, he earns more for one speech than most Americans make in a year.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, in a week that is supposed to be all about Barack Obama and his battle for the presidency against John McCain, former President Clinton has carved out an outsize role for himself here in Denver. Even if his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has publicly said all the right things after losing a tough Democratic nomination fight with Senator Obama, Mr. Clinton has not.
And up until the moment he delivers a prime-time convention speech Wednesday – his sixth such address in as many presidential cycles – no one can be quite sure if Clinton’s appearance will help or hurt Obama. The greatest danger may well be that Clinton spends the bulk of the time talking about himself, doing little to convince voters that he and his wife are ready to cede the spotlight to Obama.
“He can do what Mario Cuomo did for him in 1992,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, referring to the then-New York governor’s convention speech nominating Clinton. “Everybody was wondering whether it would be a Mario-fest, but Cuomo very wisely kept saying the name Bill Clinton – Bill Clinton is this, Bill Clinton is that. The more that Bill Clinton mentions Barack Obama, the better it will be for the Democratic Party.”
Another risk is that he may get the words right, but in a tone or with body language that betrays a hint of dismay. That will only fuel the story line that the Clintons may not want Obama to win in November, so Mrs. Clinton can try again in four years. Of course, if Obama does lose, and either Clinton is seen as having hurt the Illinois senator’s chances, that could doom Mrs. Clinton’s prospects as a future presidential candidate.
It’s also highly possible that the former president will deliver a pitch-perfect address and take a big step toward winding down the Clinton-Obama soap opera. After all, Clinton is one of the great political showmen of his time. Even when he bombed in his first, overlong convention address – the 1988 nominating speech for then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts – he quickly recovered by appearing on the Tonight Show, where he played the saxophone and made fun of his convention flop.