Columns » Max Brantley

Love that Clinton

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Consider: "The Hunting of the President," the documentary by Harry Thomason based on the book by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason, premiered this week in Little Rock. The movie recalls the right-wing conspiracy - aided by the putative liberal media - to bring down Bill Clinton's presidency. At press time, it looked like well more than 600 people would pay $50 to $100 to see the first showing of the film. Arkansas had a starring role in the Whitewater affair, so interest in the movie should be strong here. But consider, too, the coming release of Clinton's biography, "My Life." It will go on sale without a customary excerpt first in a major newspaper or magazine. The publisher doesn't need the promotion. The president's book will undoubtedly outsell his wife's book, a best seller, too, despite its lack of revelation. For all the lack of excitement in the pages of Hillary's book, I remember standing in a bookstore in Verona and watching as Italian-language versions of the book flew from an imposing stack. If enthusiasm for Mrs. Clinton's book is any indication, the same store will need guards for crowd control when the president's book arrives. The good feeling towards Clinton is not news, though you might not know it if you listen to TV commentators, particularly those on Fox. They tend to overlook that Clinton's popularity was higher on the last day of his presidency than that of Ronald Reagan on his last day. But the Clinton attack machine has swayed even prominent Democrats. Al Gore won the 2000 vote - though not by enough to overcome corrupt Florida officials and the Bush Supreme Court - despite the distance he put between himself and Clinton. Gore was running, essentially, as an incumbent. But rather than tout the years of prosperity and balanced budgets the country had enjoyed under Clinton, Gore ignored them as best he could. He bought the media's suggestion that he would hamper his campaign with allusions to the scandal-sullied Clinton. Happily, the Democratic candidate this year has a keener grasp of politics. The election is again about an incumbent, George W. Bush. Democrat John Kerry must give ample reasons (not hard) why Bush's record doesn't merit another term. He must also illustrate (here he has a way to go) the ways in which he can do better. Kerry is smart enough - or perhaps personally secure enough - to recognize that a popular former president with a knack for unsettling the opposition can be an asset. (See George Bush, busily wrapping himself in Reagan's aura.) The media (fed by Republican spin) has tried to sell the idea that the Clinton book will turn attention from Kerry. The Republicans would dearly love for Kerry to pull a Gore and tell Clinton to shut up. Kerry is smarter than that. He will capitalize on Clinton. "I intend to get him to campaign as much as he can," Kerry told the New York Times. "I think he's good." Al Gore might have been president today had he been equally insightful.

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