It is necessary to write about Bill Clinton but I crave a little indulgence for a preamble to how I arrived at what I am going to write.
It is sometimes bliss to be completely out of touch, in this case for 10 days. The venue was Culebra, off Puerto Rico, the company was friends, and there were no newspapers, TV or radio, and a self-denying ordinance on use of the internet.
I did not know Bobby Fischer had died, nor Heath Ledger. I had no idea how the Giants beat the Packers nor that Roger Federer had lost. I was ignorant that the Fed had cut interest rates a lot or what was happening in the markets. Davos did not exist for me.
Closer to the political bone, I never discovered the order of finish in the South Carolina Republican primary, nor that Fred Thompson had taken up acting again. I did learn at a bar on the last night that Ted Kennedy was endorsing Barack Obama after nasty inferences from the Clintons about the senator from Illinois, but I had no clue as to exactly what had been said.
We had a classic vacation, sun, sea, food, books - and a lot of talking. And there was this theme that ran through Culebra that had also been evident just two weeks ago in late night conversations with the good members of the Tulsa committee on foreign relations. It goes roughly like this.
George W. Bush has bequeathed an unholy mess, at home and overseas. America’s reputation is in tatters at precisely the time when global problems - terrorism, climate change, disease and so on - have never seemed more pressing. Who, the question is posed, is going to lead us all out of this?
It will not be a past or present French president or German chancellor, because they have never taken on such a role. It cannot be Tony Blair, because his credibility is shot. It wwill not be the United Nations, where weak leadership is endemic (though some UN officials lsuch as Sadako Ogata and Antonio Gutierrez, past and present refugee commissioners, are distinguished international public servants).
China and India do not seem to want the job, Japan generally follows not leads, and Russia simply is not trusted. The European Union is forever consumed by internal problems. In sum, the beacon of hope still remains America, in spite of the extent to which Mr Bush has dimmed it.
But that begs the ‘who” question again. The next president might be the one, but we do not know who it will be. Al Gore has made his mark on climate change, as Jimmy Carter has on international conflict resolution, but the first is mono-chromatic and the second is getting older.
This leaves, of course, William Jefferson Clinton. Americans sometimes need to be reminded how popular, respected and admired he is around the world. His eclectic intellect and personal magnetism, even if squandered domestically during his presidency, still command a global following and the work he has done around the world in the last seven years, through his foundation and other mechanisms, has been far from negligible.
I have now thoroughly caught up on what he has been saying about Mr Obama while out of touch and it does not look good – not merely for his wife’s presidential ambitions but for his own reputation far outside America’s shores.
After all, the world is watching this election campaign with unprecedented fascination and, after the Bush calamity, justifiable interest. Much of this stems from the Obama phenomenon, with a young, sophisticated, articulate black American daring to challenge what the Clintons surely assumed was their monopoly on how to run a country properly.
It was fashionable in Europe to make comparisons with JFK and RFK even before Ted Kennedy delivered his blessings on Mr Obama this week. It is why Europeans fear that something awful will happen to Mr Obama to deny him the presidency, thus confirming their worst suspicions that there is something very wrong in the land of the free.
And when Bill Clinton appears to fan the racial flames, as when recalling that the Rev Jesse Jackson, much more a polarising black man, also won the Democratic caucuses in South Carolina in the 1980s, then a lot of the lustre he enjoys overseas turns to dross.
You can sympathise with his dilemma, a Hobson’s choice if ever there was one. He has no option but to help his wife win the White House and the best way to do this is to campaign for her, because he remains the best around (Mr Obama, no slouch, included). They are joined at the hip, not called Billary for nothing, but taking the low road is a high-risk proposition, for him as well as her.
Mr Obama can now field as a surrogate Ted Kennedy, the one other American politician able to compete with Mr Clinton in the eyes of Democrats. And the old liberal lion, when roused, can be a fearsome sight.
But Mr Clinton still has a future, in the US government, or outside it, and for the greater good. It would be sad if dynastic ambitions made him unqualified or suspect for necessary tasks ahead. Maybe he needs the break in Culebra.
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