Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hillary Trumps Bill

There is a good chance that more eyes were on Bill Clinton last night than were on his wife the previous night. On Tuesday night there seemed to be general agreement that Hillary had "gotten on board" the Obama campaign; the only question that remained was whether her rhetoric could stir her loyal followers to get on board with her. On that same Tuesday, however, Bill was still the loose cannon, playing semantic games with unnamed hypothetical candidates almost as smoothly as he had played them over the semantics of "is" during the Lewinsky Affair. I had to wonder whether Obama had come to the Pepsi Center not so much for a "surprise" follow-up to Joe Biden's speech as to be ready for damage control if Bill launched another one of his volleys.

Fortunately, as Al Jazeera English reported, Democrats could all rest easy that this dog did not bark in the night:

Bill Clinton, the former US president, has offered his backing to Barack Obama's presidential bid, hours after the Illinois senator clinched the Democratic nomination.

"Barack Obama is ready to lead America and restore American leadership in the world," Clinton said at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, in his most robust endorsement yet of Obama.

Clinton told the convention on Wednesday night that Obama "has a remarkable ability to inspire people".

The former president's speech had been eagerly awaited by Democrats in view of his own past criticism of Obama and his ambivalence about the Illinois senator.

Clinton said that Obama had "hit one out of the ballpark" when he chose Joseph Biden, the Delware senator who was set to speak at the convention later on Wednesday, as his running mate.

Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds in Denver said the speech showed the Clinton's had gone out of their way to endorse Obama.

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, said that Clinton could have seen Obama as continuing his political legacy if wasn't for the bitter primary electioon battle with Hillary Clinton, his wife and the New York senator.

Nevertheless, things are rarely (never?) what they seem in politics. If Hillary's speech provided any number of reasons for the analysts to start scratching their heads and picking apart her words with a fine tooth comb, then there was no shortage of reasons for doing the same for Bill's contribution.

One way to begin this analysis would involve one of my favorite techniques, the sorting out of subjects and objects (particularly in the context of the efforts to call attention to the neglect of Katrina at this week's Convention). This had a lot to do with the morning-after analyses of Hillary's endorsement speech. Borrowing from one of her earlier texts, we were all still left wondering, "What does Hillary want?" Much of our perplexity can be traced back to the number of sentences in Hillary's speech where she, as opposed to Obama, was the subject. However, while some may see this as a coded "objectification" of Obama, I see it as a rhetorical move meant to reinforce the sincerity of not only those sentences but also the entire speech. Hillary is best when she is talking about Hillary. We all know that, but that does not mean we have to take it as a liability. Rather, in this case by "talking about Hillary" she personalized her endorsement in the strategic move to get the most resentful of her followers (the ones talking out loud about going over to John McCain) to follow her one more time, even if it was not to her ultimate leadership.

I would argue that we can examine the text of Bill's speech through the same lenses. Bill is also his own favorite subject; and, to go back to the Lewinsky Affair again, we know how much rhetorical punch he can put in a direct first-person declarative sentence (even when that sentence is false). In a somewhat creepy way Bill is not that different from George W. Bush: He attaches more importance to connecting with us over what he believes than he does to whether there is, as Plato put it, "justified truth" to that belief. I believe that both Clinton and Bush managed to get into the White House on the strength of that rhetorical strategy, but applying that strategy on behalf of someone else is a neat trick for even the best of orators. Hillary pulled it off (even if it was "just a trick"); but, when we back down from the rhetoric and look at the grammar, Bill did not.

This is not to say that Bill avoided those first-person declarative sentences entirely; there just were not enough of them. In this case Obama was the subject of Bill's sentences far more than Bill was (and far more than Obama was in Hillary's speech). The result came close to a reading of Obama's resume; and, even if the tone of the reading was dramatically stirring, the text was not, in part because it has become so familiar. One result of this "over-subjectification" of Obama is that we are more likely to remember the baseball metaphor for the selection of Biden than we are to remember anything else from the speech; and this had more to do with setting the crowd up for Biden's speech that with rallying them behind Obama.

Consider now those last quoted paragraphs of Al Jazeera analysis. I definitely agree with Reynolds that Hillary put a lot of effort into her speech. As Kevin Connolly put it in his analysis for BBC News, she needed to come across as "a lifelong Democratic Party worker;" and this may have been her most important goal in the face of supporters threatening to leave the fold. Bill, on the other hand, is the one who, as Reynolds put it, went "out of his way," because that "way" was not really aligning with the "way" of "a lifelong Democratic Party worker" (and perhaps it never really did). As a result, Hillary's endorsement came "from the heart" (even if it was "faked sincerity," in the spirit of George Burns), while Bill's just came from his going "out of his way."

In that respect I would probably also take issue with Bishara. Perhaps the rift between Bill and Obama had to do with the recognition that Obama was not particularly interested in continuing Bill's "political legacy." It may have been the legacy of economic prosperity, but much of that prosperity burst in an economic bubble with global reverberations. Then there was the ill-managed effort at health care reform and the crisis in the Balkans, which was just as poorly managed. Obama had good reason to ground his own campaign rhetoric in the need for "change we can believe in"—not just change from the messes made by the Bush Administration but also from much of that Clinton "legacy" that involved more ill will than most Democrats would care to remember.

Finally, compare Bill's performance with that of Teddy Kennedy. Kennedy could invoke his late brother's rhetoric and stir his audience with the audacity to hope that, once again, the torch would be passed. Bill just does not want to let go of the torch, and he is not getting the message from either the electorate or his party leadership. In retrospect this may have made him a liability to Hillary's campaign; will we have to worry that he will now be a liability to Obama's?

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