Bill Clinton told a packed crowd at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last night that he was on furlough from "writer's jail" in Chappaqua, N.Y. Clinton took a break from finishing his memoirs -- they're "supposed to be finished tomorrow," he said -- to rouse the crowd at a fundraiser for the MoveOn.org Voter Fund and Voices for Working Families. "I'm happier to see you than you are to see me," Clinton told the audience that greeted him with a standing-O.
The event was celebrity-studded, emceed by Rosie Perez and featuring Wyclef Jean, the Black-Eyed Peas, Savion Glover, John Mellencamp, Odetta, Willem Defoe, the Sopranos' Edie Falco and Federico Castelluccio (Furio), and Sandra Bernhard (whose rambling, bizarre and occasionally offensive rant would have deserved the only hook off the stage had this been amateur night.) In the audience were Al Franken, Moby, Doug E. Fresh, Kevin Bacon and Steve Buscemi.
But for this crowd, there is no glitzier celeb than the Big Dog himself. And nothing gets liberals more jazzed than zipping back in time to 2000. Clinton whipped up the crowd by invoking the Florida recount controversy: "A friend of mine is a wit ... They won the election fair and square, he said: 5-4." Of the five Supreme Court justices whose decision ultimately handed the presidency to George W. Bush, Clinton said, with the crowd's clear approval: "They forgot the law and the constitution." Proceeds from the event will go toward getting blacks, Latinos and working mothers out to vote to help prevent another 2000 Florida debacle, when minority voters were found by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to have been disenfranchised.
Many Democrats sorely remember from the last election, though, that Bill Clinton did not actively campaign for Al Gore, something that might have made a difference in a close race like Florida -- although Clinton, a remarkably polarizing figure, could have actually hindered Gore in the end. Watching Clinton make a no-duh case against a second term for Bush last night, you had to wonder just how much of a role Clinton will play in this presidential campaign. Will the party's most charismatic and persuasive speaker use his upcoming book tour as an opportunity to boost John Kerry's campaign at every Barnes and Noble he visits? Or will the spotlight on Clinton siphon Kerry's buzz? What will a summer of blanket Bubba book tour coverage bring? Stay tuned.
Even from writer's jail, Clinton has lobbied some for Kerry. A couple of e-mail solicitations from the Kerry campaign have been issued in Clinton's name. And Clinton appeared with Kerry, former president Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and other party luminaries at a gala fundraiser for the presumptive nominee in late March, when Clinton lauded Kerry and made a strong case for his candidacy, invoking Kerry's Vietnam war record. "John Kerry knows we are going in the wrong direction. He knows what to do to turn it around," Clinton said "... So I ask you to do one simple thing: I ask you to look at John Kerry tonight and say one thing to him that he has been saying to us his entire adult life, 'Send me.' " Hillary Clinton has also appeared on the stump with Kerry. "John Kerry has never let his friends down, his crew down, his constituents down, or his country down," she said at a town hall meeting in New York.
Still, it remains to be seen just how much the Clintons will be out there on the trail with or for Kerry, and how effective they will be. Last night, Clinton was at his best when arguing against the policies of the Bush administration. "This is not complicated," he said. "So I can have my tax cut," he said, "they kicked 300,000 poor kids out of after-school programs" and thousands of police officers off the streets. He returned to a folksy, Perot-like refrain: If you like what you see, stick with the people in power. If not, "we've got a different deal for you."
But about that "we." Clinton didn't exactly give a "Why you should vote for John Kerry speech" last night. He was far more eloquent in articulating why Bush doesn't deserve a second term in the White House than explaining why Kerry deserves a first one. Perhaps that will come. As it was, Clinton's main Kerry anecdote dipped back to 1996 when Kerry was in a tough Senate re-election race and Clinton went up to campaign for him. Later, he said, "The only way we can lose is to be lazy and dumb ... we have a candidate we can be proud of." He'll need a better argument for Kerry's candidacy than that. He certainly has one, because he's articulated it before. But how often will we hear it?
At one point last night, while shushing applause that threatened to interrupt him, Clinton held out his arms and said: "I'm yesterday's news. Forget about me." But we won't be forgetting about him anytime soon, and Clinton will make sure of it. His autobiographical opus hits bookstores next month and Clinton will be bounced for good from "writer's jail" onto the book tour circuit. The question is, how much does he really want voters to forget about him and start focusing on the party's nominee?