Past Elections

Boston Globe
Mike Barnicle
November 3, 1996

It’s ending where it began, in Manchester, N.H., a small city where Bill Clinton’s big dream was allowed to prosper four years ago by voters who decided he was more of a celebrity than an adulterer after “60 Minutes” made him the only show in town. Tonight and tomorrow, the president concludes his last campaign in the dying dusk of a region that seems, like most of the country, to have grown more remote from politics as each day draws us closer to the election.

It has been a joyless campaign. It has been a contest between an honorable old man with nothing to say and a total inability to say it, and a smart and clever younger man who seems to think that everything that comes out of his mouth is merely skywriting — symbols to disappear and be forgotten.

We haven’t seen anything like it on the big stage since 1964 when Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater and got so carried away by the results that he nearly killed the whole country. The race that year was so lopsided and Johnson’s task so simple that his success could be traced to a single sentence uttered at a huge outdoor rally in Providence, where the president of the United States announced to the crowd: “I just want to tell you this — We’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few.”

Read those words and you hear Clinton’s voice. Watch as the president hurls himself into the throngs who turn out in spots like Las Cruces, N.M., or Springfield, Mass., and you can almost envision poor Johnson 32 years ago, darting back and forth across the country, lookin’ for love in all the strong places.

Bill Clinton’s life has been one long campaign. Sometimes, it seems the campaign, more than anything else — any issue or other person even — is the ultimate source of this man’s strength; that it is who he is, far more than 100 speeches or a dozen signatures scrawled on legislation. A guy defined by a handshake, a smile and a perpetual promise.

What strong coffee does for a hangover, crowds do for Clinton’s headaches. They revive him, prop him up, push him forward, relieve any pain that accompanies reality: the impending scandals and looming indictments that haunt his second administration even before it has been assembled.

Looking at him night after night on TV, it is pretty clear that the president of the United States would rather be loved than admired. It also seems fairly certain his wish will not be granted in a country where more people vote with their wallets than their hearts.

Read history and you get a clear indication that this was Johnson’s dilemma too: Please love me. But Johnson’s problem was easier to define because it was rooted in the fact that he existed — still does — in John F. Kennedy’s shadow. The insecure Texan woke up each morning in fear that he would always be an asterisk of his era.

Clinton’s situation might be more complex. He walks around in his own large shadow. He is a political contortionist — an excellent one too — weaving easily in and out of both difficulty as well as commitment. Gumby as president.

And it’s fitting to make a wistful last visit to New Hampshire because that’s the place that administered political CPR to a man nearly crushed by his own hand. Clinton did not win the 1992 Democratic primary there, but he did not lose either.

Dogged by draft-dodging and a big-haired woman, he treaded water long enough to go on national TV and come through with an actor’s highlight reel: watery eyes, the affection for the wife next to him, the biting of his lower lip. Given all that, why in the world do you suppose anyone in their right mind figured character would be a trump card against him in 1996?

Call it what you want, but the country seems to have sued for peace. We would rather have full employment than exemplary behavior in the Oval Office. In an age of “downsizing” and “outsourcing,” we have trimmed our dreams and modified our expectations. We don’t mind having a president who small-talks about curfews and school uniforms because his language is in keeping with our latest national motto: What about me?

Sadly, the slogan seems to have been stolen directly from our politics and that might be why so many pray today for an end to a long, sometimes dispiriting campaign where the excitement and mystery of the future were barely mentioned. That’s because the process teaches us that elections are an expensive and selfish enterprise built on a premise that personality is paramount and any notion of leading a nation is merely an afterthought.