Bill focuses like a laser on Hillary’s future, his legacy

Times Staff Writer

Bill Clinton, elegantly attired in a black suit and eye-popping orange tie, stood in the bed of a pickup on a brisk Dallas morning addressing a sparse crowd the other day.

There was no hint of desperation, no sign that his wife’s campaign is in disarray after 11 straight losses or any acknowledgment that he may have hobbled her campaign back in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he tossed around phrases like “fairy tale,” compared Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson, then feigned shock that anyone took offense and blamed the media for stirring up trouble.

Instead, there was a tight focus on the only goal right now that matters: making sure Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee. To that end, he has campaigned like a maniac, trying to make up for what he may have helped lose. In the last week, he has pinged from Texas to Ohio (and once to Rhode Island), stopping five to seven times a day, addressing groups that range from a few dozen to several thousand.

This may be Clinton’s last hurrah, his last chance to bend the will of the American people his way. If his wife doesn’t win decisively in either Texas or Ohio today, dreams of a second Clinton presidency will probably evaporate. There will be no debate over what to call the first male presidential spouse -- first gentleman? first laddie? -- nor a way to prove that the relative peace and prosperity of his White House years were no historical fluke.


Though his legacy is on the line too, he is all about Hillary.

Before, his voice was calm and measured. But now there’s a slightly more insistent pitch to it, maybe because he is spending so much time at outdoor venues, which are easy to book on the fly, but where he is sometimes forced to talk over traffic, passing trains and the wind.

The crowds, especially on weekday mornings, can be painfully small. “I’ve been going around, trying to do almost neighborhood events for a specific reason,” he explained to a gathering in Dallas. “I want to talk to people in smaller groups about their future.”

He has honed a stump speech that, in one instance last Tuesday in that small Dallas park, lasted a mere 12 minutes. That has got to be some kind of record for the famously voluble Southerner. These days, he pretty much avoids the media, though he did give a short interview last Tuesday to the student newspaper at the University of Texas here. (No news ensued.)

Clinton is using everything he can muster -- including restraint -- to help his wife win. He is playing nice for the most part, even complimenting Obama, though not to excess. “Most people who are going to vote actually like both these candidates, we know that,” he said last Tuesday in Fort Worth. “And we know that we are going to break a glass ceiling one way or the other. I think that’s a good thing.”

He often adds that he thinks it would be nice to have a Latino president, an Asian American president or a Native American president. By the end of one long day last week, he was adding “Arab American president” and “Jewish president” to the list. This followed an appearance in a Vietnamese and Chinese neighborhood of Dallas where the local official who introduced Clinton began by asking members of various ethnic groups to raise their hands, then, urged on by some in the crowd, ended by asking for a show of hands from “the white male community.”

Someone who works with Clinton lightheartedly compared this more disciplined version of him to James Bond’s antagonist from the 1999 movie “The World Is Not Enough.” The character, Renard, has a bullet in his head that cannot be removed, and as it edges closer to his cerebral cortex, he becomes more focused, more dangerous and completely unstoppable. (Until, at any rate, the handsome hero finishes him off. But that was not part of the analogy.)

Clinton now methodically makes his case for his wife on the issues: She is best suited to fix the economy, to effect universal healthcare, to improve education, to be commander in chief. He fills in a little of her background -- focusing on the work she did in the 1970s, when she spent time in Texas registering Latino voters and the work she did for the Children’s Defense Fund after law school instead of taking a high-paying corporate job.

(In that sense, her early years are becoming almost indistinguishable from Obama’s. Obama’s wife, Michelle, often talks about how he chose community service over a high-paying corporate job after law school too.)

The ever-present subtext of Clinton’s speech is, in fact, a running response to the political threat posed by Obama-mania, though he rarely utters the Illinois senator’s name. “I do not believe that we should eliminate from the presidency people who have done good work in their lives,” he will say. “I do not believe there is a conflict between experience and change.”

In one 32-minute speech, he used the word “change” 19 times. The New York senator is “a proven change agent.” She represents “change you can count on.”

Only occasionally does he let his legendary peevishness show.

“I know I get steamed when they say bad things about her,” he said at one stop. And he will drop a sarcasm bomb once or twice in every speech, usually on what he sees as the false choice between change and experience, the running theme of the Democratic contest: “If the past is irrelevant,” he said, “why not get rid of history classes in schools?” (On campuses, this is a sure-fire applause line.)

At an evening appearance at a park in Forth Worth -- Clinton becomes more animated the later it gets -- he mocked Obama’s message: “I didn’t get my hands dirty making all those good things happen in the ‘90s.” (In the World According to Bill, there were no sex scandals in the ‘90s, no political scandals, no bitter partisanship and certainly no impeachment. It was all good.)

The man who was often lampooned as the feelingest president is now counseling voters to disregard their feelings, particularly the kind of wishful sentiments that Obama has inspired among supporters.

“Don’t think about how you want to feel during the campaign,” Clinton said. “Don’t think about how you want to feel on election day.” And: “This is not a choice between experience and change. This is a choice between the feeling of change and the fact of change.”

One thing about Clinton that hasn’t changed: He is still a profligate waster of other people’s time. He was famously behind schedule as president, and often runs more than an hour late on the campaign trail. But crowds don’t seem to mind. And they find him an effective voice for his wife.

“I thought he was great,” said Emily Whitley, 18, a University of Texas freshman who enjoyed hearing Clinton talk about Hillary’s early years as an activist. “In some ways, he speaks better for her than she does for herself. It’s easier for him to brag on her.”

Before Clinton arrived, Jonathan Gifford, 35, a mortgage professional, stood at the edge of the crowd that filled the plaza in front of UT’s bell tower.

“I love Bill! I keep telling my parents that the Clintons are my Kennedys,” said Gifford, who does not hold out much hope that Sen. Clinton will win the nomination, but recalls the Clinton years with Camelot-like nostalgia.

“What is it they say?” asked Gifford. “Bill lied, but no one died.”