Killing him softly

Bill Clinton needled himself to stab President Bush.

Published July 27, 2004 5:27PM (EDT)

Falling in every index and behind John Kerry, George W. Bush stands at the battlement as the warrior king, sword in hand against the hordes outside -- from masked terrorists to gays storming the churches for marriage ceremonies. He has armored himself not only as protector of fortress America but as embodiment of the nation. His call to arms is plated with reactionary cultural populism to cast the Democrats into outer darkness "out of the mainstream."

The opening night of the Democratic convention was a light and sound show to demonstrate that none of the symbolism that Bush has expropriated about 9/11 belongs to him exclusively. In tribute to the victims, delegates lifted lights in the darkened hall while a forlorn violinist played "Amazing Grace."

Hillary Rodham Clinton dispelled all speculation by appearing in the present tense as the senator from New York, the hard worker for security for police and firefighters, a signal to the Republicans who will gather in New York next for their convention that the city is a Democratic citadel.

Then she introduced her husband. Former President Clinton now explained the reasons that the Democratic Party is the party of the nation. He drew upon the trope of Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address, "We are all Democrats, we are all Federalists," to grant the premise of patriotism before drawing distinctions. "My friends, we are constantly being told that America is deeply divided. But all Americans value freedom and faith and family. We all honor the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform."

The attack of 9/11 had created the basis for exceptional consensus, but Bush squandered it. "They chose to use that moment of unity to try to push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies, not only in attacking Iraq before the weapons inspectors had finished their work but in withdrawing American support for the climate change treaty and for the international court on war criminals and for the antiballistic missile treaty and from the nuclear test ban treaty."

By means of rhetorical alchemy, Clinton transformed himself into no less than Bush: Like Bush, he pointed out that he was a dodger of military service in Vietnam and a rich man gaining lucrative tax benefits instead of sacrificing along with everyone else during a war. Clinton played on Clinton hatred by turning it on its head, a magic act performed with deadpan delivery. The audience was in on the joke from the beginning.

Clinton disdained the very idea of personal attack through a humorous aside: "And you might remember that when I was in office, on occasion, the Republicans were kind of mean to me. But as soon as I got out and made money, I became part of the most important group in the world to them. It was amazing. I never thought I'd be so well cared for by the president and the Republicans in Congress." By making himself his own straw man, Clinton could ridicule at will. The greater the self-deprecation, the deeper the stiletto thrust in Bush.

In praising Kerry's virtues, Clinton set a standard of invidious comparison with Bush. Kerry, said Clinton, has "an insatiable curiosity to understand the world around him and a willingness to hear other views, even those who disagree with him." Without ever having to say it, Bush was revealed as having a closed mind and an authoritarian temperament.

"Their opponents will tell you we should be afraid of John Kerry and John Edwards because they won't stand up to the terrorists," Clinton went on. "Don't you believe it. Strength and wisdom are not opposing values." The crowd in the arena roared and hooted and laughed. How can ignorance bring anything but weakness?

Now Clinton reached his conclusion, his ultimate history lesson, drawing on the language of the Constitution, to explain the divisive battles in every generation from the Revolution to the Civil War to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "My friends," he said (a form of address he had only occasionally used as president, the words favored by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his New Deal speeches to the nation), "at every turning point in our history, 'we the people' have chosen unity over division, heeding our founders' call to America's eternal mission 'to form a more perfect union,' to widen the circle of opportunity, deepen the reach of freedom and strengthen the bonds of our community."

It is the Republicans under Bush who represent "concentrated wealth and power," a self-serving clique using government only for "their people" -- not "we the people." The Democrats, said Clinton, stand for "shared responsibility, shared opportunity and more global cooperation." The choice in the election is about more than the candidates; it is a battle over who is the true America.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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Bill Clinton John Edwards John F. Kerry