With only a half year left in his reign, his legacy starving for some
substance, and Al and Hillary getting all the attention, it must be
awfully tough to be Bill Clinton right now.

Apparently overcome by the urge to recapture the spotlight, the
president threw a couple of tantrums over the last few days in Boston
and Chicago. His rhetoric was remarkably unpresidential — or should I
say “unremarkably”? Since his understudy is now running for president
instead of him, I suppose it’s appropriate that Clinton has donned the
role of head attack dog, making his role reversal with Gore complete.

Before launching into his diatribe against George Bush, Dick Cheney,
Senate and House Republicans and the GOP in general, Clinton said there
is no need for negative campaigning this year. I guess he meant there is
no need for negative campaigning other than by him.

In Boston, Clinton ridiculed Bush to an audience of Democrats replete
with Kennedys. Clinton said that Bush thinks he ought to be president
because “(his) daddy was president.” He then mocked Bush and Republicans
for trying to appear “compassionate and humane.”

Anxious to demonstrate his point, Clinton railed against Republicans
for failing to act on his proposal to raise the minimum wage by a dollar
to $6.15 an hour. Republicans, he said “were still working overtime to
give tax breaks to the tiniest, wealthiest fraction of America’s
families and still doing nothing for the 10 million people who would
benefit from a boost in the minimum wage.”

A few days later Clinton spoke to a group of trial lawyers, who
presumably were not among those 10 million. Wisely, he chose not to
emphasize his patented class warfare themes before that group, which
collectively paid him a handsome quarter million at their modest little
luncheon. Instead, he focused on more uplifting themes, such as racist
Senate Republicans blocking his judicial appointments of blacks and
Hispanics. Before you assume I’m exaggerating, take a look at the
president’s words: “I’ve been trying for seven long years to fix that,
and they’ve blocked every one. They’re so determined to keep an
African-American off that they have allowed a 25 percent vacancy rate.”
Nothing negative about that, Mr. Clinton.

In a frenzy to outdo himself, Clinton topped it off with a swipe at
Dick Cheney. He reminded the group how Cheney had voted against
recommending freedom for Nelson Mandela, saying it “takes your breath
away.” It didn’t take Cheney’s breath away. He had plenty left to refute
these bogus and incendiary charges on the Sunday talk shows. Cheney
explained that in 1986 he voted against a nonbinding resolution calling
for Mandela’s release because it was packaged with a resolution calling
for U.S. recognition of Mandela’s African National Congress, “a
terrorist organization.” Cheney said that while he had always supported
efforts to free Mandela, he could not in good conscience support a
“terrorist organization.”

Clinton wasn’t out of breath either because he went on to tie the two
issues (minority judicial appointments and Mandela) together. He likened
his failed African-American and Hispanic judicial appointments to
Mandela, saying they are “being held in a political jail because they
can’t get a hearing from this Republican Senate.”

A somewhat loftier theme emerged in Clinton’s speeches over the
weekend. He contended that Democrat ideas are so superior that
Republicans are now trying to blur the distinctions between the parties.
Clinton has it exactly wrong. While Bush will bring a message of
inclusion to the “Philadelphia convention” — that has a nice ring to it
— he is not recommending that the party abandon its principles. A
review of the platform, which Bush endorsed, confirms a Republican Party
that is quite unashamed of its conservative positions. On all of the
substantive platform battles, including abortion, gays in the military,
promoting English as the nation’s common language, limiting the role of
the federal government in education, and even abstinence education,
conservatives prevailed.

I wonder if Al Gore sometimes wishes his boss would be a little less
conspicuous on the campaign trial. For a study in contrasts, look to the
Republican convention for a glimpse at the type of leadership timber
George Bush wants to bring to this country. Perhaps Dick Cheney said it
best: “We want to make Americans proud again by giving them a president
they can respect.”

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