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Clinton poised to claim spotlight

Though he left the Oval Office 3½ years ago, William Jefferson Clinton never went away. He remains a defining political phenomenon of our time and he's about to be front and center for Democrats once again. Howard Fineman reports.
Fundraiser To Increase Minority Voter Registration And Voter Mobilization
Warming up: Clinton speaks last month in New York. Scott Gries / Getty Images file

Word is that Jim Johnson — the Democratic Wise Man whom Sen. John Kerry hired to rummage through the lives of possible vice presidential picks — has surfaced from the vasty deep and is talking to Kerry's political advisers and not just to the nominee himself. You never know what the taciturn Johnson is up to, but his visibility may mean that the senator from Massachusetts is inching toward choosing a running mate. And not a moment too soon, for Kerry is about to be clobbered by a storm worthy of "The Day After Tomorrow." It's called Bill Clinton, and the question is what he will do for — or to — the Democrats when he makes landfall.

Though he left the Oval Office 3½ years ago, in many ways William Jefferson Clinton never went away. He remains a defining political phenomenon of our time. George W. Bush wired his presidency by toggling every Clinton idea in the opposite direction on everything from taxes to terrorism. Now, as he seeks to replace Bush, Kerry offers what amounts to a Clinton Restoration, relying heavily on Clintonites for substantive advice and trumpeting a new campaign slogan — "Let America Be America Again" — that proposes to design the future based on a model of the past, including, presumably, the Clinton Years.

And here comes the whirling weather system: Clinton's 957-page autobiography, called "My Life," the sales effort for which will make a mere presidential campaign seem puny. The former president will be the toast of Chicago this week (at a booksellers' convention) and then launch the tome June 20 in the venue that, in effect, won him the White House — Don Hewitt's "60 Minutes," where Hillary stood (or sat) by her man and as he bit his remorseful lip. The book hits the stores two days later, and Clinton will be rock-starring his way around the country for days and weeks thereafter, pretty much until the Democratic Convention.

"Are we happy about this?" one Kerry adviser asks rhetorically. "Not particularly. Is there anything we can do about it? No." Clinton wasn't entirely insensitive to the Kerryites. He and his publishers tried to be an eensy bit helpful by pushing up the pub date so the book wouldn't appear this fall, in the thick of the campaign's final days. On the other hand, June 22 allows Clinton to ride the wave of politics for five months.

Help or hurt Kerry?
Will Clinton's prominence help or hurt Kerry? First of all, Mr. Bill has never not been prominent.   Kerry wasn't the Clintonites' first choice. Gen. Wesley Clark got in the race in part at their urging, and Kerry won the nomination largely without their help. But the moment Kerry locked things up, the Clinton Old Hands were on him like a swarm, offering sage advice and, in effect, serving as a kind of government-in-waiting.

These people have their uses: They are smart, politically savvy and they know how to win. And not only that — they are, for the most part, centrists, which is good for Kerry, too. As he tries to reconcile the contrasts (or contradictions) of his own past — swift boat commander vs. peacenik; prosecutor vs. Kennedy liberal; tax raiser vs. tax cutter — Kerry can use the centrist ballast that these thinkers and strategists provide.

It's an odd thing, but I get the sense (at least from the recent photo at the WWII Memorial) that Clinton and Bush the Elder have come to terms and, indeed, see eye-to-eye on any number of issues, among them the role of religious conservatives in politics and the idea of having taken the U.S. Army all the way to Baghdad. In the growing good fellowship of former presidents is a silent, but potentially powerful indictment of the current occupant of the Oval Office. I know it sounds crazy, but take a look at that photo if you haven't seen it.

And, God knows, Kerry could stand to be sprinkled with some of the charisma dust that Clinton wears like pancake makeup. These days, no one can excite a crowd of Democrats the way Bill Clinton can. He's the Beatles and Jack Kennedy and Oprah rolled into one. He not only can (and does) raise money for the campaign, he can give it the joy juice it needs to seem a happy enterprise under the bland banner of the dour Kerry. There is no one better at rallying the base, and in a close election, which this certainly will be, Bill Clinton used properly (something Al Gore never figured out) could be decisive in states where urban minority turnout is crucial.

So those are the upsides. But there are downsides. One is that Clinton is capable of overshadowing anyone, and especially Kerry. Dems want to win — desperately want to win — and Kerry's inability to duplicate the Master's moves can leave "the base" feeling blue, feeling that their standard-bearer just isn't up to beating the GOP.

Clinton had his divisive side
Though Kerry talks of wanting to "let America be America again," some of Clinton's policies and appointments were divisive, and reminding voters of them won't help Kerry in the great hunt for moderate swing voters. Just the other day, there was a reminder of that in the decision of a federal judge to invalidate the federal law banning so-called "partial birth" abortion. Most Americans are opposed to the procedure, and most Democrats outside the hard core don't want to argue this issue all over again in the campaign year. But a female federal judge in San Francisco, nominated by Clinton at the very end of his second term, made sure that argument will take place. "She is right out of central casting," said a delighted Bush-Cheney operative.

And do we really want America to be America again when part of the America we are remembering is the one in which terrorists were gathering strength and acting with what amounted to impunity through the decade? Yes, during the transition, the farsighted Sandy Berger wanted the incoming Bush crowd that al-Qaida was the main threat. But why didn't the Clinton administration see that earlier, and do something about it? If Clintonites are so tight in  the Kerry circle — and they are — is that a sign that the terrorism threat will be handled well?

Finally, if we want America to be America again, do we want to revive that part of America that contained Monica Lewinsky? Do we want to remember what happened in the off hours in the Oval Office in those days? Do we want to hear Clinton's explanation for why he shouldn't be blamed for allowing his presidency to be distracted? It wasn't just the "vast right-wing conspiracy" at work; it was Clinton's fault that he gave them the ammo they needed to paralyze the last two years of his time in office. No one's saying Kerry is Clinton, but in the next few months it could be Clinton — and not the nominee — who will be Mr. Democrat.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.