By James M. Perry
It was nice last night to see a familiar old face at these national conventions.
There up on the podium at the Democratic convention in Charlotte was Bill Clinton, the hair white now, but with the same gravelly voice and the same impish smile. Bill Clinton, the Peck's bad boy of American politics, was back in prime time and loving every 49 minutes of it.
We missed the Bushes, father and son, at the Republican convention in Tampa, and where, we wondered, were Bob Dole and Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle? In Charlotte, we saw Jimmy Carter, as earnest as ever, briefly on video, but there was no sign of Fritz Mondale, Michael Dukakis, or Al Gore.
Bill Clinton filled in gladly for all of them.
The speech was "too long," David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, said on PBS, "but it was effective." Brooks said Clinton actually talked -- almost endlessly, some might say -- about policy, the missing ingredient at the GOP convention.
In defending Obama's handling of the economy, Clinton, coming across last night as your favorite old college professor, said Obama came into office "with a much weaker economy than I did. No president, not me, not any of my predecessors, could have repaired all of the damage he found in just four years." He didn't quite say it, but surely he implied it, that in his time Republicans in Congress were more amenable than the ones who serve there now.
Democrats, he said, have never hated Republicans "the way the hard right seems to hate our president."
"Democracy," he argued, "does not have to be a blood sport. It can be an honorable enterprise." What works in the real world, he said, is cooperation. "We believe 'we're all in this together' is a better philosophy than 'you're on your own.'"
Now listen to this, he would say. Or, this is serious, you've got to hear this, and on and on he would go explaining Obama's position on the budget and health care and a lot more and the way he thinks Republicans have twisted so much of the record.
All of this was played out against a story line that Clinton and Obama don't really like each other very much. After all, he upset Hillary to win the Democratic nomination four years ago, but Mrs. Clinton is now Obama's secretary of state. "Heck," said Obama, "he even appointed Hillary!"
He took a stab at analyzing Obama. He's a man, Clinton said, "who's cool on the outside but burns for America on the inside."
And, after last night, he said, "I want a man who had the good sense to marry Michelle Obama."
Bill Clinton burns all over. He is is our best living politician, and he did what he had to do last night.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, will be contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com during the two political conventions. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.
See earlier columns:
Perry on Politics: Breaking foolish traditions (Aug. 27)
Perry on Politics: New day at the Cow Palace (Aug. 27)
Perry on Politics: A big-time politician (Aug. 28)
Perry on Politics: Christie good, Mrs. Romney better (Aug. 29)
Perry on Politics: Balloon drops (Aug. 30)
Perry on Politics: The nub of Romney (Aug. 31)
Perry on Politics: Only in America (Sept. 4)
Perry on Politics: A spark of humanity (Sept. 6)