Bill Clinton calls in Chelsea to help plug his book
Bill Clinton is proposing various balms for America's woes, but the most soothing might be his daughter, finds Hadley Freeman
"It's quite the family affair, isn't it?" grinned the gentleman last night in the foyer of the New York Historical Society, perhaps unaware that one should try to avoid the word "affair" when discussing President Bill Clinton.
For it was he, making an appearance in the grand building on Central Park West to promote his latest book Back To Work, which, sadly, is not an account of a reunion by Australian band Men at Work. Rather, it's President Clinton going back to work himself, prescribing various balms for America's current woes. In his book, President Clinton is ostensibly trying to help President Obama, yet also undermining him by implying he has not done a good enough job of convincing the American people what needs to be done, and by "good enough job" I mean, of course, a "Bill Clinton-style job." And to be fair to President Clinton, he might be right on that one.
Yet what made this particular leg of his publicity tour particularly interesting was that he was scheduled to be interviewed by his daughter, Chelsea. And this made for dynamics far more fascinating than one usually sees when a politician or anyone is shilling their latest tome.
She immediately came across, as she always comes across, as a warm, appealing and awesomely intelligent young woman, saying from the off that she would be "a deeply biased interviewer" and describing herself, sweetly, as "a complete fan" of her father.
And Bill himself came across exactly as one would expect: he's still the grandiloquent statesman with centrist policies that he was back in the day, happiest holding court to the crowd, with the occasional southern phrase ("It's a heck of an idea!" "Cutesie") sprinkled in amongst the Yale-carved eloquence.
He also, perhaps predictably, now has a touch of the sentimental elder gentleman to him, which sits comfortably alongside his always present self-confidence and ego. Repeatedly he referred back to his time as Arkansas governor and policies he passed as president, contrasting them favourably with the way things are now.
It's really not like the good ol' days now. That, according to Clinton, was the Reagan era, where Republicans and Democrats could work together and "there was never a lick of politics. We just talked about what would work. When the election went on we thought we were supposed to go to work for you. God forbid, right?"
As in his book, he spoke frequently about his abhorrence of the Tea Party movement's stoking of fear over the government being involved in people's lives, referring to "this Kabuki dance over in Washington about if the government is the problem. It isn't, but if it is, it should be part of the solution. There is not a single example of a successful country that got there on an anti-government policy."
What was less expected was how distant he came across. For a man famed for according to the oft-repeated clich้ making one feel like they are the only one in the room, he was surprisingly cool, without ever cracking a joke and, when he did, it seemed to be inadvertent.
"I'm trying to say once a day: I don't know or I was wrong," he said at one point, sparking much laughter in the room, but he looked bemused by the reaction and quickly stressed that he thought this exercise would be "therapeutic for everyone in Washington", thereby returning to his main point of the evening, lecturing DC on how to operate.
(For the record, his admission of wrongness last night was that he was "wrong" to have not known that the raising of the debt ceiling was subject to a filibuster.)
Instead, it was left to Ms Clinton to bring in the levity, occasionally to her father's bemusement. When President Clinton was looking for an example to illustrate how everyone, secretly, loves a bit of conflict, he said: "Hey, I buy three cheap thriller mysteries for every good book "
"I don't know if that's feeding conflict, exactly," smiled his daughter. He completely ignored her and carried on regardless. At another point when he made reference to "the best heart surgery in the world is in this country, otherwise someone else would be giving this talk "
"Thank you," Ms Clinton interrupted, leaning towards her microphone with a smile. Again, the president appeared not to hear her.
She was able not just to keep up with her famously intelligent father, but occasionally correct him and elaborate when he wasn't quite clear. At the end as they walked off the stage he put a paternal hand on her back.
Just hearing that familiar voice speak about a time when bipartisanship did not dominate DC was like a Proustian madeleine back to the 90s. Never before has the former president looked so much like the embodiment of an earlier age. It's Ms Clinton who now has the brains and the crowd appeal. Her hand looked like it was shaking with nerves at the beginning of the talk. By the end, it was steady and confident.
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