Columns » Max Brantley

The Clintons

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I wasn't particularly excited about the 25th anniversary celebration of Bill Clinton's election. Life goes on.

But I joined thousands at the talk by Bill and Hillary Clinton moderated by James Carville and mingled at social events Friday and Saturday nights.

I was happy I went. It turned out to be an emotional release over Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016 and the ensuing national calamity. It was a reminder, too, of what it was like to be led by grownups.

About an hour into the program Saturday, Carville brought up the "elephant in the room" — Hillary's 2016 defeat. I recommend a trip to the Clinton School of Public Service's website to hear her 10-minute response. It included an acknowledgment of her own responsibility, but rightly said the Russian involvement, its links with Trump and the success of Republican vote suppression tactics in key states all deserve attention, if for no other reason than to make sure it doesn't happen again. National media — if they didn't, as The New York Times did, try to turn the event into a revisitation of Clinton female scandals — ginned out grist for the right-wing resentment mill. For example: Hillary's observation that Fox and other outlets deliver "partisan advocacy positions irrespective of the truth, the facts, the evidence."

The many references to Donald Trump drew attention, too, particularly Hillary's note of his obsession with her, evidenced a few hours before by the 800th or so attack on her by Twitter since his election. Said Hillary: "Honestly, between tweeting and golfing, how does he get anything done? I don't understand it. Maybe that's the whole point." She talked about how she'd used yoga, positive activities on a new political group and reading to help cope with her loss. She favors mysteries, she said, because "the bad guy always gets it in the end."

Emotional ovations followed tributes to Hillary Clinton. There was plenty of affection for Bill Clinton, but the event felt more like a Hillary rally. Some young women, infants when Bill was elected president, told reporters when asked about whether Bill's transgressions should be re-examined, said that they were in line for books because of Hillary Clinton, not Bill.

There weren't many differences in the side-by-side comments of the Clintons. Their synergy has always been part of their combined strength.

But I thought this: They are people who speak in complete sentences with an assurance built on serious study of everything from children's health to genome mapping. They referenced again and again "Putting People First," the 1992 campaign mantra. I confess — as someone who respects and likes Hillary Rodham Clinton, including her sharpish tongue and impatience with fools — that Bill wins the voter-connection contest. If there's ever been another political natural like the boy from Hope — the man Barack Obama called the Secretary of Explaining Stuff — I've never seen him. That is at least part of why the opposition loathed him. Drop all the anvils and sticks of dynamite they could find and they still couldn't beat the Roadrunner.

Both spoke believably about campaigning, but you couldn't beat Bill's story of meeting a 19-year-old from the backwoods of Kentucky researching the frontiers of space. It was warm, funny and generous about people and their potential. As Hillary said, you can watch Bill in these little meetings (hundreds of thousands over the years) and know that he is listening, not merely politicking. I don't think it was strictly a putdown of Trump, but also an article of Bill Clinton's faith, when he said how much better it is to reach out to the world and build diverse communities rather than divide people and feed on resentment.

I'd have liked to Donald Trump on that stage trying to speak on Bosnia or Kyoto or CHIP (the health insurance program for kids currently in Trump administration limbo) — or even — let's think of a gimme he'd flunk — what book he'd read recently.

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