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Clinton’s Inner Fight Goes Public


President Bill Clinton (WDCpix)

All eyes were focused last week—or most of them anyway—on the bailout negotiations, more specifically on the shenanigans of Sen. John McCain as he sought to swoop in and be the white knight of the whole mess. Will he, won’t he, will he, won’t he go to the debates?

He got all the attention he wanted, but it certainly felt political to the max, no matter who spun it otherwise.

But there was another large presence making the rounds last week, seeking public attention — former President Bill Clinton. Yes, his Global Initiative Conference was in full swing in New York, providing the media with a reason to give him a whole lot of air time. And fill it up he did, with his smarts and reach, his talks of AIDS and education, and the need for all of us to care for the unlucky.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

But deeply embedded in Clinton’s eloquent dissection of global problems was his still palpable bitterness over his wife’s loss to Sen. Barack Obama, whose name Clinton seemed to have a hard time uttering as he worked those mikes.

He was finally more gracious when introducing Obama at his own conference. But up until that point, as he talked to Larry King and the women at “The View” — now friskily empowered to be election-year players — he had a difficult time camouflaging the wounds from his wife’s loss. He mentioned Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton by name, over and over, her gifts, what she has spent her life working for, all while straining to give a full-hearted endorsement of the Democratic nominee.

The former president doesn’t seem to have any simpatico with the cool post-boomer now climbing in the polls. In fact, he has expressed far more natural sympathy with McCain. Clinton made a point of saying, over and over, how much he likes the GOP nominee — displaying not just sympathy but an almost respectful envy, from a Vietnam-era guy who didn’t serve to to a genuine war hero.

But Clinton went farther as he made his rounds, expressing his approbation for both Palins. He spoke warmly of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd. “I like the idea that this guy does those long-distance races,” Clinton said, “Stayed in the race for 500 miles with a broken arm. My kind of guy.”

These are real folks, just like me — and unlike that other guy whose name I am having some trouble with. That’s the theme.

Forget that their policies and politics are 180-degrees away from everything both Clintons have been about. Clinton is, without a doubt, as complex and flawed and gifted a man as ever to be at the helm. But the page is turning and he knows it. There is a sense of the limelight moving on.

Look, what Clinton is doing now is good, no question, and he has the stature and moxie — and need — to make it work, to galvanize other rich folk to try to help solve the world’s problems. Clearly he means to make a profound difference in his later years — and if part of that is a need for redemption after his public fall from grace, fine.

But there was evident these past days, as there often is, a visible fight within Clinton — between his bigger self and his smaller self, between his professed altruism and his narcissism.

I think he’ll win, he said of Obama, through clenched teeth, or a clenched heart, or both. But there was not much energy or enthusiasm in that prediction. He sounded impassioned and folksy and as smart as anyone who has ever occupied the White House. In his performance now, there is always the winking sense of: hey, America, look what you’re missing. You blew it; you could have had us back.

I thought about all this, about Clinton — and for that matter, about McCain — and how both men behaved last week, when I was reading the obituaries for Paul Newman, who died of cancer at 83.


Paul Newman (Flickr: Heather Lucille)

He was the other man to get some air time as the week ended. A class act, everyone agrees, a marvelous film actor, whose ego never showed — on screen or off. No entourages, no messy affairs.

He was a man, by all accounts, with a tenacious love for his spouse; a man unassuming about his gifts, though driven to be a really good actor; a man who kept acting, and didn’t get all hammy in his later roles like some other big stars like, say, Al Pacino.

Newman was also a man who did the philanthropy thing — with his salad dressings and spaghetti sauces — pouring the $250 million he made into camps for sick kids. All done with an easy hand. All done without saying: look at me, look at me.

He left the planet a better place. He left us the marvelous films and the legacy of giving back — rare for anyone, rarer still for someone in a profession like show business — and he did it without leaving ego fingerprints all over the place.

It was a lovely and sad note, Newman’s passing, in a week full of posturing and political gamesmanship.

Anne Taylor Fleming is a novelist, commentator and essayist for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” She is the author of a memoir, “Motherhood Deferred: A Woman’s Journey.”

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