John Sawers, once TB’s foreign policy advisor, now head of MI6, used to take the mick out of what he called my ‘love-in’ with Bill Clinton.
That rather overstates it, but fair to say I had and have a lot of admiration for the former US President, not least because of his campaigns and communications skills. I am currently editing the next volume of my diaries, which cover 97-99, (and many thanks to former Lib Dem MP Alex Carlile for putting me in the same bracket as Pepys yesterday – should look nice on a future cover) Clinton figures a lot during 97-99, not least because of the Monica scandal raging at the time, but also because of the enormous contribution to made to two of the most important issues of that period, Northern Ireland and Kosovo.
It seems extraordinary to think that we really had to work hard to persuade some of the Northern Ireland politicians that it would be a good thing to get Clinton over to help swing a ‘yes’ vote for the Good Friday Agreement. I was reminded yesterday of how fraught the visit was, with Clinton’s people worried that some of the more puritanical Unionists would go for him over his sexual antics.
But as with all his NI visits, it went well, and he made a difference. Of course just as some of the NI people did not see the benefit of his campaign skills, it is possible to make the case that had Al Gore used them properly, he might have stopped George Bush becoming President. When you think how close that election was, then I for one think a few doses of Clinton around the place might have helped Gore over the line. But he had decided he wanted to separate himself from the Clinton legacy, and I think that may be a judgement he regrets.
I was thinking of all this as I read this morning of yet another Clinton campaign visit – his 102nd so far – to help Barack Obama and the Democrats stave off disaster in the upcoming mid-term elections. That the Democrats are going to take a hit is beyond doubt, but that does not stop Clinton getting out there and doing his bit.
By way of defence, I used to say to John Sawers that what I liked about Clinton was that he was American but he understood and appreciated the political ways of others. It made him a lot more sophisticated than many American politicians, and it made him much more accessible to the ideas of others. He was in many ways atypical, which made his considerable electoral success all the more surprising.
Having his voice out there at the moment is particularly important, as American politics seems to be in a pretty dire place, what with the domination of the debate by the radicalised right, hideously whipped up by Fox News and its so-called stars (a warning if any more were needed not to let the Foxisation of Sky go any further, DC.)
In a place called Ann Arbor, on one of his recent campaign stops, Clinton said: ‘I almost gag when I hear these Republicans lambasting the President and the Democracts in Congress – “oh, they’re such big spenders, they’re just crazy, they’re quasi-socialist” … I have a simple question: who’s the last President to give you a balanced Budget?’
He’s still got it, which is why it is still good to see him out there campaigning against the Tea Party nuts who claim to be a grassroots revolt against the establishment yet are in reality funded by right-wing big business interests that don’t like the sound of this fairness Obama goes on about.