Like a frisky pup eagerly set loose after months of being locked up in the dog house -- er, White House -- President Clinton bounded into San Francisco Friday to preach to a cheering, stomping throng of true believers.
This was the good Bill, the smiling, sunny-tempered one, and he exhorted the faithful not only to vote for Al Gore but to convince everyone they know, and even those they don't know, to vote for the vice president. And he had the crowd crowing with pure pleasure in his presence from the moment he started his spiel. But just as important as what the big guy did in his speech at the city's George Moscone Convention Center, however, was what he didn't do.
He didn't whine that the Republicans owed him an apology, as he did in a profile in the December issue of Esquire. He didn't make like Sharon Stone under interrogation and spread his legs sporting a "come-eat-me" look in his eyes, as he did in the cover photo accompanying the magazine article. He didn't subtly insult the man who doesn't want to be seen with him by referring to Gore as "the next best thing" -- after Clinton himself -- as he did in a radio interview earlier this week.
Instead, Clinton marshaled all the charm that has eluded his political heir, who's been campaigning as if he's the vice president of an administration with no one at the top. But Friday, the man who actually is at the helm laid out a precise, paint-by-numbers argument for the candidacy of Mr. "I'm my own man" based on the administration's record, with an explicit, and oft repeated, request that those listening pass the word along to family, friends and strangers.
Clinton ticked off what he viewed as key accomplishments: Employment is up, crime is down, toxic wastes have been cleaned up and wilderness land has been set aside en masse. Education is undergoing a stage of "renewal" and access to health insurance coverage continues to grow.
"Do you want to keep this prosperity going?" Clinton asked. "If you do, you only have one choice -- Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and the Democrats ... Here's the issue: If education and health and the environment and crime are moving in the right direction, do you want to build on the progress of the last eight years and do even better?"
This elicited huzzahs and screams from the thousands of rapt listeners in the crowd of the long-ago converted. They would have rewarded the president with thunderous standing ovations had the organizers actually provided them with chairs to sit on.
Clinton, obviously thrilled with the crowd's adoration, praised Gore but conspicuously attributed no particular achievements to the vice president. He didn't mention the progressive thorn in Gore's left side, although he did dis those nameless individuals who would proclaim that there are no differences between the two main candidates. Nor did he mention by name the recently exposed drunk driver, although he did make fun of the guy's peculiar way with math.
"People ask me all the time, Mr. President, what great new idea did you bring to economic policy?" he said. "And I say, arithmetic. Arithmetic." Much laughter naturally ensued.
If the goal was to energize the troops, the gambit succeeded even before the president arrived -- late, as usual, although his 30-minute tardiness was probably within the bounds of propriety for this obviously partisan crowd. The few thousand gathered -- union folk, African-Americans, students, escapees from a high-tech conference taking place next door -- clearly relished the prospect of witnessing the president's historic last visit to California before true lame-duck status sets in on Tuesday.
Other, mostly dimmer luminaries -- including California Gov. Gray Davis, real estate tycoon Walter Shorenstein and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown -- filled the vacuum before Clinton's arrival with their yada-yadas, but the agitated crowd punctuated the centuries of droning with scattershot but enthusiastic shouts of "We want Bill!"
Perhaps the most telling part of the event, however, was not the speech itself but one of Gov. Davis' preliminary remarks. Here's how he explained the rationale for Clinton's visit: "Nobody can do a better job of rallying the faithful and describing in clear, simple terms what we have to do on November 7th."
Funny. Isn't that supposed to be the candidate's job?