Coming the day after the Republican Convention -- a locked-down spectacle in a locked-down city, a location chosen for the potential to exploit mass murder for political gain -- the news of Bill Clinton's impending bypass surgery hit with the impact of a body blow.
Plenty of men Bill Clinton's age and older undergo bypass surgery and many who are a lot less robust than he is do just fine afterwards. But to those of us who believe that the health of the republic depends on defeating George W. Bush, and who have become increasingly nervous about John Kerry's reluctance to draw blood in his response to the lies of Bush-Cheney, Clinton's illness has symbolic weight. Hearing he had to have heart surgery made me feel as bewildered as Michael Madsen in "Donnie Brasco," asking, "How the fuck can John Wayne die?"
It's not that Bill Clinton is our iconic cowboy, preserved forever in our collective mythology. It's that Clinton has been a palpable presence the last few months -- making the talk-show rounds to plug his book, speaking at the Democratic National Convention and at Riverside Church this past Sunday. And in each of these appearances he has seemed indispensable to the Democratic Party, the one prominent figure in it who fully understands that John Kerry is up against enemies, a word that the typically measured Hendrik Hertzberg used in the New Yorker this week to describe the Bush campaign.
Clinton has emerged in this campaign as the rarest of political creatures -- someone who can attack the opposition without giving in to either the sourness that marked, say, Bob Dole in his role as Republican attack dog, or the unvarnished batshit craziness of Zell Miller getting ready for his close-up in "Deliverance II."
The people for whom centrism will always equal compromise and for whom compromise will always equal corruption have long accused Bill Clinton of being too interested in getting or maintaining power to go whole-hog liberal. What emerges from Clinton's "My Life" is an elucidation of the politics of inclusion -- or a workable version of what Norman Mailer might have meant when he used to refer to himself as a left conservative. Watching the antiwar riots at the Democratic Convention in 1968 from a motel room in Shreveport, La., a young Clinton received a formative lesson about extremism in politics. "I understood how both sides felt," he writes. "I was against the war and the police brutality, but growing up in Arkansas had given me an appreciation for the struggles of ordinary people who do their duty every day, and a deep skepticism about self-righteous sanctimony on the right or the left."
Why is this crucial to 2004, especially when New York '04 didn't turn out to be Chicago '68? Because Clinton understands that we are still facing the fallout of the '60s -- as he calls it, "a radical reaction on the right, one that would prove more durable, more well financed, more institutionalized, more resourceful, more addicted to power, and far more skilled at getting and keeping it."
"They had an enemy and they meant to keep it," he says of the right wing of the Republican Party that emerged from the 1968 campaign. And Clinton has been perhaps the only successful Democratic politician able to name the opposition for what it is without allowing himself to be defined by that opposition, to play as rough as it does without making it seem as if he has stooped to its level.
I want Bill Clinton to recover quickly from his surgery on Tuesday because, most of all, I love the guy. But I can't help feeling there's another health issue at stake here -- the health of our body politic, to which his example is crucial right now. Get well soon. Your country needs you.