Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Woodward has a new book out this week, (The Price of Politics) where he focuses on the first term missteps of the current president. He concludes that to be successful, presidents need to “work their will -- or should work their will -- on the important matters of national business.” Woodward concludes that one of the best examples of a president who can “work his will” is the guy who overshadowed all the other speakers at both recent political conventions. Bill Clinton.
Clinton went to Charlotte last week, and in 45 minutes made a better case for an Obama reelection than the President himself has been able to make in the past 45 months. He clearly and succinctly explained in simple terms the philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats. Whether one agrees with Clinton’s views or not, few will deny his extraordinary ability to relate to his audience.
Bill Clinton’s secret? He connects. In Columnist Mark Shields, recent column discussing why the former president is so captivating he sums it up this way – “Bill Clinton has the ability, lacking in both Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, to "connect" with people in a personal way. Clinton possesses both the human touch and the rare gift of being able to convince almost anyone whom he meets that he, Bill Clinton, has been on this planet for 66 years just for these precious minutes he is spending with you.”
The first time I talked to Bill Clinton one-on-one was in 1991, the night I was elected Louisiana Insurance Commissioner. My staff had arranged a victory party at a Baton Rouge restaurant, and we wound up the celebration around midnight. My wife Gladys and I were on our way home with my six-year-old son James sound asleep on my shoulder. As we were leaving, Gus Piazza, the owner of the restaurant called out that I had a telephone call. I assumed that it was a reporter wanting a comment about my victory. But Gus said, “It’s the Governor of Arkansas, Jim. He wants to talk to you.” I took the phone and had my first conversation with Bill Clinton.
“I just heard the news of your victory, Jim. Congratulations,” said the Governor. I am sure I was only one of many successful Democratic candidates whom Bill Clinton called that evening. And later I was told that he called and congratulated elected officials and other potential supporters throughout the country, night after night. That focus, that tenacity, day after day, year after year, is certainly one of the reasons Bill Clinton has been so successful throughout his public life.
In 1996, Clinton was well on his way to a second term landslide victory over Republican Senator Bob Dole. The final weekend before the election, I received a call from the President’s re-election campaign staff asking me to come to New Orleans for a final campaign rally and give a short talk along with several other state elected officials to “warm up the crowd” before the president was to speak.
Now a gathering over 2,000 people in the French Quarter on Saturday night doesn’t need much warming up. But with much gusto, I gave it my best with a typical stump speech to rally the troops. I’m not sure how much of my ten-minute talk in support of the president was heard, but there was lots of cheering. Clinton was at his best, obviously thriving on the enthusiasm he had generated in New Orleans. He knew he was going to win big, and he certainly was enjoying the moment.
After his speech, public officials and other campaign staff members congregated in a small tent set up as a holding area for the president before he headed for the airport. He continually worked the crowd, stopping twice to make small talk with me.
Frankly, I was anxious for him to leave so that I could get back home to Baton Rouge. Gladys and I were hosting a dinner party that had been in the planning stages for months; we had several out-of-town guests coming in, and I had assured her I would be home early enough for at least part of the meal. As the president drifted among the crowd, I kept looking at my watch. I wanted to leave, but protocol would not let me go before the president.
I was standing next to my long-time friend, former Louisiana Senator Tommy Hudson, who was a coordinator for the Clinton campaign in Louisiana. The president came by a third time and continued to make small talk. “Fellows, is there anything else you think I should do in the short time I have left?”
I couldn’t resist. “Mr. President, you would do me a great personal favor by getting in your motorcade and leaving. I’m in big trouble at home for being late to a dinner party. The best thing you can do for me is to get on out of here.”
The president laughed and headed for the door. I wonder if anyone else has ever looked Bill Clinton in the eye and told him to “get out of town.”
Bill Clinton is as effective on the stump today has he ever has been. If he were eligible to run for a third term, he would win in a landslide. So there’s little wonder that the Obama Team is cajoling the former president to make numerous appearances before Election Day. But it’s a two way street, says Maureen Dowd in last week’s New York Times.