Goodbye, cuddles: Older, skinny Clinton is the wonky math-master Dems need

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

“Bill Clinton is Barney for adults,” wrote Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, in 1997. That was a time when Clinton and the purple dino Barney both held incalculable sway over the minds of men.

Gopnik haughtily continued: “He serves the same role for jumpy American liberals that Barney does for their children: he reassures without actually instructing.”

A cuddly, needy, pander-bear Clinton?! Fifteen years later, let’s declare that image of the 42nd president, who turned 66 last month, officially obsolete.

Anyone who watched Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last night can testify: Bill Clinton is now Barney for no one. He’s no longer even rotund. He doesn’t placate liberals. He doesn’t placate at all. He’s sarcastic. He mocks. He’s about as cuddly as Mark Twain. And he instructs. Boy, does he instruct.

Once known for “connecting”—for flirting and hugging and wantonly administering the human touch—Bill Clinton now lives to wonk out. He was like a freaking computer last night. He went for broke on federal-budget arcana, seemingly all in his head. What was he talking about? All I know is that he sounded mad convincing. In the end, it wasn’t Biblical rhetoric, or therapeutic prattle, that echoed in the 20,000 seat auditorium when Clinton finally finished speaking after 48 minutes, but a word that clicks with audible gears: arithmetic.

“It was a highly inconvenient thing for” the Republicans, said Clinton, “that in our debates that I was just a country boy from Arkansas, and I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four.”

“It’s arithmetic,” he added.

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Arithmetic! Clinton must be reading Mark Twain. Or maybe just rolling with his crony James Carville again.

Breaking with a treacly conceit that has informed both conventions—that this party is less privileged and more wholesome that that other one— Clinton represented the archetypal American as a flinty realist. It was bracing. He laughed off the ludicrous idea that we’re all self-made log-cabin dwellers who felled those logs ourselves. Instead, he assumed that we, too, his audience, put two and two together and get four. What a concept.

He then blasted us with figures and stats about Medicaid and welfare reform and job training and did-I-mention-Medicare like an improv saxophonist on tilt at a TED talk about the flow state.

“People ask me all the time how we delivered four surplus budgets,” said Clinton. “What new ideas did we bring? I always give a one-word answer: arithmetic.”

Now “arithmetic” is great, but who can resist the further slyness of “people ask me all the time”? You picture a roomful of groupies at the vegan restaurants the post-surgical Clinton now frequents, shouting in unison not “sex in the Oval Office!” but, “Now how in the hay, Mr. President, did y’all deliver four surplus budgets?”

I have to admit I’d be surprised if he’d gotten this question even once.

But no matter. The President was on a tear. Skinny Clinton, snowy-haired Clinton, wild-eyed Clinton, Clinton with long fingers like crooked hickory twigs. Clinton, long ago chastened and impeached and shipped off to Davos. He’s become our nation’s mad graybeard and soothsayer. I look forward to growing old with him.

In an age of citizen fact-checkers who take every quibble to Twitter in realtime, Bill Clinton also took a big risk. His sentences were bait to Googling underminers, with fact after fact vulnerable to an ideological checker who might find another way to cut the cards. Clinton seemed not to care. Instead, he invited verification, criticizing the GOP for dismissing fact-checkers.

“Since 1961,” Clinton said, from the start, “the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. In those 52 years, our economy produced 66 million private sector jobs. What's the jobs score? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 42 million!”

“The detail!” said Anderson Cooper, in CNN’s stunned wrap-up.

“He treated the audience like grown-ups!” said Paul Begala to Cooper.

I thought of Gopnik’s Clinton vivisection again: “The physical resemblance [to Barney] is eerie. There’s the odd combination of hauteur and rondeur (both are very tall without really being imposing), the perpetually swaying body, the unvarying smile, even the disconcerting chubby thighs—everything but the purple skin. Barney and Bill are not amiable authority figures, like the Friendly Giant and Ronald Reagan. They are, instead, representations of pure need: Wanting to be hugged, they hug.”

Old Clinton’s not needy anymore. He’s arithmetic. He just is: like two plus two. He doesn’t hug, and he no longer needs to be hugged.

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