Bill Clinton Rolls: Comeback Kid on a Comedown Tour

LEWISBURG, PA.—All Bill Clinton wants is for people to focus on the issues.

“I just think I’m for Hillary, and she’d be the best president,” Mr. Clinton told The Observer, after addressing a basketball gym full of Pennsylvanians at Bucknell University. “And I think that anything that doesn’t create a job, that doesn’t solve a problem, doesn’t help us get out of Iraq, doesn’t figure out who would be the best president, is a distraction.”

At what was the first event in a Sunday sweep through the state, Mr. Clinton exhibited all the folksy charm, encyclopedic intelligence, righteous anger and subtle-but-penetrating digs at an opponent—in this case, Barack Obama—that have made him, bar none, the best campaigner of his generation. He has put at his wife’s disposal assets of incalculable value: a razor-sharp strategic mind, decades’ worth of powerful connections and, of course, the most resonant name in Democratic politics.

It’s something of a wonder, then, that it’s actually an open question within the party whether Mr. Clinton has helped or hurt his wife’s campaign, and whether he has done damage to his own legacy. (The answer to the first seems to change depending on the week, or even the day; the answer to the second, at least according to what polls tell us about short-term public opinion, is yes.)

In a brief exchange as Mr. Clinton reached to shake hands with adoring voters along a rope line at the Lewisburg event, he put some of the blame for his drama-filled campaign season on the media, which has isolated and amplified the sorts of loaded remarks that he used to get away with regularly, often to brilliant effect.

Asked whether he thought his remarks had been misinterpreted, he said, “Of course I do. And you know what they are.”

Actually, there is quite a selection to choose from, if we’re talking about things the former president has said that, whatever other motives have been fairly or unfairly ascribed, all seemed precisely designed to get a rise out of Mr. Obama, and a conflict-hungry press corps.

In December he suggested that nominating Mr. Obama would be like “rolling the dice.” In January, he called Mr. Obama’s antiwar narrative “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” He tried to marginalize Mr. Obama’s landslide win in South Carolina later that month by saying, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88,” and he carried on a series of angry running skirmishes with reporters.

This week, he once again kicked off what passes for a controversy by criticizing, in an obviously inaccurate manner, the coverage of his wife’s inaccurate account of a trip to Bosnia. In doing so, he revived the story that has hurt his wife’s campaign and, incredibly, drew a soft public rebuke from Mrs. Clinton herself.

It has been enough to prompt even some of the most loyal Clinton supporters to ask whether Mr. Clinton’s comeback attempt was a bad idea from the beginning.

“Maybe there aren’t two lives or nine lives in American politics,” said Ellen Chesler, a historian and major fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton. “Maybe there is just one.”

To be clear, the press has not been charitable toward Mr. Clinton. In what might reasonably be considered a natural reaction to his demonstrated willingness to deal in subtext—the Jesse Jackson comparison being one of the more blatant examples—the operating assumption of the reporters covering him is that he always means something other than what he’s saying.

Hence the interpretation, for example, of a remark Mr. Clinton made at a stop in Fredericksburg, Va., on Feb. 12 that everything other than vision, planning and ability to govern is “smoke and mirrors,” which was taken as a frontal assault on the oratorically impressive Mr. Obama. Maybe it was. Or maybe he was simply making the perfectly valid and obvious point that a campaign, ideally, is decided based on things that are important.

While Mr. Clinton seems genuinely surprised that his eminently parse-able remarks have been so closely parsed, few Democrats outside the Clinton circle see it as anything extraordinary.

“He keeps slipping into it because it worked for him,” said Joe Trippi, who advised John Edwards, of Mr. Clinton’s tendency to make manipulative-sounding remarks.

Mr. Trippi argued that the campaign had made its intention to be aggressive clear from the start, and that Mr. Clinton’s history of bare-knuckles tactics gave him little credence in calling foul.

“It’s the boy crying wolf,” said Mr. Trippi. “It’s not that we just got this in our heads somehow.”

Bill Clinton Rolls: Comeback Kid on a Comedown Tour