- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

My favorite part of any performance is the warm-up, just as the best part of any meal can be the appetizers. Slowly the crowd gathers, you see old friends and, even better, cherished enemies as, one by one, the orchestra members take their places on stage and begin to tune their instruments, filling the great hall with free, discordant sounds not yet regimented into ordinary music. All is promise.

The overture to the dedication of the Clinton presidential library has been just as enticing. For me, the best part was the appearance of the honoree-in-chief at Little Rock’s convention center for the annual luncheon of the city chamber of commerce.

The lunch was held in the dark, cavernous dining room under the city streets. When visiting politicians are on the program, it always reminds me of Plato’s Cave. But outside, in the bright sunshine, some visiting protesters from Denver were adding to the festivities by waving what looked like a huge bedsheet emblazoned with their motto, “Clinton raped Juanita.” The whole atmosphere of the Clinton Era comes rushing back. It’s a slice of living history, and isn’t that what presidential museums are supposed to be about? With a sigh, you realize this kind of thing is will go on for the rest of the week, maybe for the rest of the decade.

Mack McLarty, one of Bill Clinton’s boyhood friends and White House chiefs of staff, introduces the former president. I always listen to Mr. McLarty with great interest, wondering if this is the historic occasion on which he will utter a single memorable phrase. He never does. That is a most useful and almost extinct talent in politics. Indeed, it is a lost, Eisenhowerean art. Memorable phrases make enemies, start wars, excite jealousies, steal the show, and in general are responsible for much of the mischief in this world. Ike used to go through his speechwriters’ texts carefully striking out all the phrases of which they were proudest. He scarcely missed any, which is one reason he was one of our least colorful and most successful presidents.

I sit there listening to Mr. McLarty with my usual, rapt admiration. How does he do it? It’s not easy, to go on for a quarter of an hour saying nothing but polite nothings. It requires intense concentration. You can almost see Mack the Nice sidestepping the verbal land mines, deftly taking cover in whole forests of the innocuous and, especially important when introducing this speaker, avoiding the fatal double entendre. It’s as if he were reading off an endless succession of testimonial plaques. His instinctive preference for the prosaic, his sure grasp of the inoffensive, is so complete there’s a kind of grandeur about it.

Even Homer nods, and a few eyebrows are raised when Mack McLarty says of Bill Clinton, “He did us all proud.” But otherwise his introduction has completely faded from memory by the time the last word is spoken. Whereupon the guest of honor strides triumphantly on stage to a standing ovation. What a perfect introduction, not that anybody much notices, which is the whole point.

Bill Clinton also speaks. Briefly. These days he seems to delight in confounding his reflexive critics. Modestly he motions us to please take our seats, and even half-salutes. Thankfully, he doesn’t hold it, John Kerry-style. His remarks betray only a few isolated instances of political touchiness. He’s entitled to them. I realize he is now gone from boy governor to boy president to boy elder statesman while remaining remarkably the same, at least inwardly, through the whole long, strange trip.

Yes, he shows signs of his convalescence (may he live to 120 in good health) but his youthful, even adolescent, zest for the Next Big Idea is unchanged as he leaps from one grand possibility to another in his talk. He still has that charming way of speaking as if he were just thinking out loud. You just wish he would light. He brings to mind a great, broad, inviting river full of currents. And about an inch deep.

What a pity if Bill Clinton, between his foundation and presidential library and guest appearances and political consulting and houses and offices and this new apartment at the Clinton Library, doesn’t now focus on just one great cause. Fighting AIDS. Doing something about Darfur. Some one thing.

And what a waste if petty partisanship kept him from being the next secretary-general of the United Nations, the kind of peripatetic job he would be perfect for. Once again I think: What a remarkable human organism. If we could just get him organized. Which is probably what every chief of staff he ever had, including Thomas F. McLarty, must have thought at some, repeated point.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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