Saturday, February 02, 2008

"The Accompanists" (with slideshow)

WaPo, with slide show:
Both are confident and funny, opinionated and very smart. Both are Ivy League lawyers with working-class roots. Both have formidable identities independent of their formidable partners. Both are history-making spouses of history-making presidential candidates.
It is fascinating enough that Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama are playing on the same field as their partners duel for the Democratic nomination. More intriguing still is her effectiveness, hardly a given for a recent campaign recruit matched against a two-term president.

Clinton, 61, earned his reputation as one of the most gifted national politicians in modern times while Obama was still a young lawyer trying to find herself. Obama, 44, kept her political forays to a minimum while building a career on community outreach in Chicago, yet more than a few enchanted voters have said after watching her that she should be the one in public office.

They share an ability to please a crowd, although in styles as different as a piano and a saxophone. Her riffs are typically smooth and tart, usually understated, always controlled; his are showy and wide-ranging, often roaming exuberantly through complex material.

On the campaign trail, as one staff member put it, Bill Clinton is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief validator. He zips around the country -- this week in states from Illinois to Georgia to Missouri to Colorado -- reassuring Democrats, above all, that she is ready but he has her back. Michelle Obama's role is more of a portraitist. She jetted to both coasts this week to deepen the picture of the self-described skinny black guy with a funny name, and to argue that a divided nation needs him now.

The Clintons and the Obamas are crossing rhetorical paths more frequently these days.

Leading up to the South Carolina primary, the voluble former president assumed the role of antagonist in chief. He called Barack Obama's assertion of consistent opposition to the Iraq war a "fairy tale" and suggested that Obama was way too admiring of Ronald Reagan. He told one audience that "people tell me that Hillary doesn't have a chance to win here" because the state's voters care so deeply about race and gender.

Michelle Obama, who rarely talks explicitly about her husband's Democratic opponents, had something to say about all of that.

"Another candidate's spouse has been getting an awful lot of attention," understandably, she wrote in a fundraising e-mail last week. "What we didn't expect, at least not from our fellow Democrats, are the win-at-all-costs tactics we've seen recently. We didn't expect misleading accusations that willfully distort Barack's record."

The day before the primary, she and Bill Clinton campaigned within an hour's drive of each other.

"My fear," Obama told a rapt mid-morning audience at Central Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Hilton Head, "is that we don't know what truth looks like anymore.

"I desperately want change, personally," Obama said. "A change in tone, a change in the tone that creates division and separates us, that makes us live in isolation from one another. Sometimes our politics uses that division as a tool and a crutch. We think we can mend it all up after all the dirt has been thrown, but we can't."

Hours later, no dirt surfaced as Clinton addressed an enthusiastic throng on nearby St. Helena Island. He stayed on his very best behavior, developing the approach he has used in this week's run-up to Super Tuesday. More than an hour late, he skipped the pleasantries and charged right into his pitch.

Within three minutes, he was describing a brewing economic calamity. Within four, he was offering a three-point plan to deal with the mortgage crisis. Within five, he was rattling off his version of life in America seven years after the end of his presidency:

"Median family income after inflation's about a thousand dollars lower today than it was the day I left office. But the cost of health care has about doubled, the cost of a college education is up, the cost of energy is up, the cost of housing is up. Last year, food costs grew at twice the rate of inflation. . . . In our eight years, we had 22.7 million jobs and almost 8 million people move from poverty into the middle class."

On he went for more than an hour, firing off policies and programs as if it were a State of the Union address. Pell grants, health-care reform, stem-cell research, green-collar jobs, veterans, Medicare, the Geneva Conventions, Iran, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the tax code. He said, at one point, "Let me be very specific about this."

Hillary Clinton may be the presidential candidate, but much of the future Bill Clinton sketches on the stump is about putting the band back together. Watching him engage the crowd is a little like going to a Beach Boys concert, 20 years on. He knows all the old tunes and delivers them reliably. The crowd, mostly middle-aged and older, laughs and cheers in satisfied bursts, remembering the good times.

Clinton's talk is neither personal nor emotional. He does less to humanize his wife, which is often the designated role of political spouse, than to recite her credentials and bolster her argument that she is more ready for the White House than Obama. He mentions her often -- "The third thing she says we have to do"; "she will never tolerate that"; "finally, she believes . . . " -- but the narrative often veers into Clintons, plural, or Bill Clinton, singular.

"I tell people all the time," he said at one point, "this war is costing $120 billion a year."

Near then end, Clinton called his wife "the most qualified, best candidate I've had a chance to support for president in 40 years as a voter. You know, a lot of mean things have been said about Hillary over the years, mostly because she had the misfortune to be my wife and they were being mean to me. And they were mean to me because I won twice. It wasn't too complicated!"

The crowd loved it -- and received the intended message.

"If you vote for Hillary and she wins, you get two for the price of one," gushed Lynn Sutherland, 61, a part-time decorator, as Clinton 42 shook dozens of hands before racing to Charleston to introduce the aspiring Clinton 44. "There's an enormous amount of things he can do that will be unbelievably helpful to the country."

Beaufort resident Kevin Mears, 40, considered the former president's earlier criticism of Obama "a bit of a distortion. It's a bit of a no-no. But he's walking a line that others have never walked before. We should cut him a little slack."

Michelle Obama had a different challenge when she spoke to audiences of 200 or more in Hilton Head and rural Estill. She, too, talked of her spouse's readiness, but in different terms and tones, less a policy seminar than a plea delivered around a kitchen table. She pointed to his community organizing and his four terms in the Illinois senate.

Always the more pointed of the two Obamas, she wastes no words and takes her time with the ones she uses.

"Everywhere I go, people are saying, 'Barack is not detailed enough.' . . . You see, the truth of this matter is that this isn't rocket science," Obama said to row upon row of supporters in an Estill storefront, explaining that she has seen countless models of first-rate schools, early childhood education programs and senior centers. "That's what leadership means. It's someone who can touch our souls in a way we haven't seen and can inspire us to be better to one another and to ourselves. That is the difference in this race."

The Iraq war is an issue she addressed directly.

"Well, let me tell you something, I live with the man," Obama said, employing a mix of authority and incredulity. "He was always opposed to the war and he spoke out publicly against it at a time when that wasn't convenient for him. What his opponents won't tell you is he was in the middle of his own tough race for the U.S. Senate."

In etching the themes of transformation -- the core of the Obama campaign narrative -- she uses language that echoes conversations about values and propriety in the late '90s.

"It isn't just about hope and inspiration. It is about character, quite frankly," Obama said. "I am here, away from my kids, talking like this all over the country because Barack is different. It is about character."

Obama is often asked how she and her husband are handling the rough-and-tumble of the campaign. She swears she finds none of it surprising.

"Power," said Michelle Obama, "concedes nothing without a struggle."

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