There were 15 or so of us gathered around a large conference room table. It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon in the fall of 1996 and the Philadelphia Daily News editorial board was conducting yet another interview in the laborious election-year process of endorsing candidates. I happened to be sitting in because I was directing the paper's presidential campaign coverage and this particular day the candidate was William Jefferson Clinton, whose wife Hillary was at its side. Although Election Day was a month or so off, it was assumed Clinton would roll to an easy re-election victory, which he did, and that the Daily News, a liberal bastion with a blue-collar readership, would endorse him over the hapless Bob Dole, which it did.
I have three powerful memories from that encounter: That the Secret Service had overlooked a large ceremonial African tribal dagger in a leather sheath in the middle of the table when it had scanned the room, which elicited titters from the editorial board and concerned looks from two Secret Service agents when the president pulled the dagger from the sheath and turned it in the sunlight while answering a question about education, I believe. That Mrs. Clinton, who sat immediately to my right and said nothing but dutifully nodded and smiled when her husband spoke, was wearing a perfume reminiscent of a scent an old girlfriend used, and that together and separately Bill and Hillary Clinton exuded a power for which words like charisma and magnetism are inadequate.
Thousands of news stories, analyses and commentaries have been written about the Clintons in the nearly two decades since my close encounter, many of then negative, many of them positive, and many of them attempts to try to figure out what the heck makes them tick.
Why, in my view, Bill Clinton is the best politician of my lifetime despite reliably being his own worst enemy yet remains hugely popular with large swaths of the electorate. Why Hillary Clinton is the most popular woman in America in poll after poll yet remains deeply unpopular with many voters and an enigma because of the long shadow cast by her husband in the 40 years since she agreed to move to Arkansas in the service of his nascent political career. And why the Clintons, who at ages 68 and 67 are not quietly minding their business as proud grandparents back home in Chappaqua, especially given her recent medical history and unmistakable signs of fatigue.
But the Clintons seem to be running harder than ever -- Bill to feed his high-octane ego as a global post-presidential celebrity who still relishes the roar of the crowd, and Hillary to become not just the first woman president, but to prove her detractors wrong and finally escape that long shadow.
I wrote the other day that there are only two ways Hillary Clinton will not be elected: By Republicans suppressing the Democratic vote in enough states to eek out victory, or for the conservative-dominated Supreme Court to throw the election to the GOP as it did in 2000. I should have added a third way, or rather the potentially toxic combination of two things: Running too timid a campaign, which she did in 2008 by conducting a traditional man's campaign and not running as herself, whoever that may be. And not being able to keep at arm's length her husband, who meddled to excess in 2008, as well as the troubling baggage of a family foundation that in recent years has raised a cool $2 billion or so for good works from foreign donors, too many with dodgy reputations, who expect that a President Hillary Clinton would side with them when the international going got tough.
The long and the short of the situation is this: Republicans have been fiendishly clever in keeping voters (and that supposedly liberal media) focused on her. If she cannot put the focus on us -- as in the dividends voters should expect to reap from her presidency, a sure-thing win could slip from her grasp.
A fatal case of Clinton fatigue next November would not merely hand the White House to a Republican who, judging from the overcrowded GOP field to a man (sorry, Carly), would not merely undo the significant accomplishments of Barack Obama, but even more importantly pack a Supreme Court that would do untold damage for many years to come.
RUBIO IN A HURRY TO GET TO THE TOP
Republicans have wrapped themselves in the flag of fiscal conservatism for years. Never mind that George W. Bush and the great Conservative God himself, Ronald Reagan, were profligate spenders as president. It is a persuasive sales pitch to many voters and one that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is using on the stump as he tries to make the case that he should be the Republican presidential nominee.
But as The New York Times, among other media outlets, inconveniently reveal, Rubio has been downright reckless when it comes to his own finances: Blowing $80,000 on a luxury speedboat at a time when his personal finances were a mess; liquidating a $68,000 retirement account prematurely and, as a consequence, having to pay steep tax and financial penalties; recently selling a second home for $18,000 less than he and a friend paid for it a decade ago because it faced foreclosure after he and the friend failed to make mortgage payments for five months; paying for family trips with a Republican Party credit card, and funding his campaigns with personal credit cards.
Meanwhile, in their rush to get to the top, Rubio and wife Jeanette have piled up a significant number of traffic citations -- he four and she 13 -- and together they have had to attend four remedial driving school courses after a violation.
All of this, of course, begs a couple three teensy questions: How can a guy who vows to balance the federal budget not even balance his own checkbook? How can a guy who has benefited from the government safety net in the form of student debt forgiveness oppose the safety net for others? And how can a guy who finds red lights and stop signs annoyances to be ignored be a responsible commander in chief?
THE HAWKEYE STATE'S LAMENT
The dirty secret of the Iowa caucuses, the first-in-the-nation hurdle for presidential aspirants, is that it has long been much ado about little.
As I wrote way back in October 2007, "I'll eat my straw boater if it turns out that the Iowa caucuses next January play a decisive role in determining who the Republican presidential sacrificial lamb will be, let alone who the Democrats nominate to be the next president. This is because some candidates -- averse to shoveling snow off of potential voters' driveways in Sioux City or Des Moines -- may avoid the caucuses altogether. . . . No, that's not the real reason at all. It's because not even 10 percent of eligible Iowa voters will show up at their local caucus, fewer than the number of media pundits who already are filling their drool cups in anticipation of this overhyped but underwhelming quadrennial event."
Nothing has changed since then and Iowa's "political and chattering classes," as one pundit describes them, are clearly worried. While Hillary Clinton is going through the motions of putting on itchy flannel shirts and meeting with small groups of Iowans, she doesn't need to win the Democratic caucus although she probably will. Eventual Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney ignored Iowa in 2008 and 2012, while Jeb Bush may well give it a pass this time around.
Truth be known, Iowa has never been a presidential kingmaker and in 2016 may well again play the role of knave.
IN THE COURT OF KING GROVER
Speaking of fiscal conservatism and royalty, I nearly died laughing when I read that a group of Republican legislators from Louisiana had gone hat in hand to anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, the king of the GOP "no tax pledge," to beg him to give them special dispensation to relieve a whopping $1.6 billion budget deficit that has anti-tax Governor Bobby Jindal caught between a rock and a hard place -- or perhaps an oil slick and an alligator -- and threatens to scuttle his own possible presidential bid.
Couldn't Norquist, pretty please, look the other way and give them some wiggle room on raising taxes and scuttle Jindal-backed legislation that they say would set a "dangerous precedent" in how government could mask revenue hikes?
No way, snapped King Grover, who harrumphed that he found the groveling legislators' inability to find budget cuts elsewhere "disconcerting."
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968. Click here for an index of previous Politix Updates.
PHOTOGRAPH FROM MSNBC