Bill Clinton's last day as a candidate begins, according to his own sentimental request, in New Hampshire, at the Merrimack Restaurant, a greasy spoon prominent in the state's political lore. The day is brisk and clear, and there is a strong sense of moment. This is to be Clinton's farewell to the place where his presidential candidacy nearly sank, but somehow didn't, in 1992. Though Clinton is not, of course, retiring from office, he is retiring today from running for office; and given his preternatural talent for campaigning, it's like seeing Horowitz play his final concert or Nolan Ryan throw his last game. The occasion has brought out several serious Clinton watchers, including three authors of books about him--David Maraniss (First in His Class), Martin Walker (The President We Deserve), and Anonymous (Primary Colors). No sign, though, of Roger Morris, R. Emmett Tyrrell, or Gary Aldrich.
Clinton says he's choked up--"cracking"--but somehow, his emotion doesn't seem terribly real. Perhaps it's too early in the morning, or perhaps it's the smallness and underwhelming enthusiasm of the crowd. Still, it's clear from his speech that this is going to be an "on" day for the president. Picking up on a phrase offered by the local Democratic congressional candidate, Joe Keefe, Clinton improvises a riff about the Democrats, and how they have become not just the "moderate" party, but a "modern, moderate party--a common-sense but vital, vigorous--centrist party moving this country forward." He segues from this into some familiar statistics about his achievements in reducing the deficit, shrinking the public sector, and, as he puts it, "growing" the economy. "You don't have to take me on faith anymore; you don't have to say, 'Well, that sounds like a good approach,' " Clinton says. His zinger comes at the end, when he reminds everyone of what he said in Dover, N.H., in 1992, that if the people gave him a chance to be president, "I would be with you until the last dog dies." It sounds a bit like he's saying "until at last Dole dies," which seems like a distinct possibility, given Dole's concluding schedule.
Clinton's theme for his valedictory is supposed to be "seize the day," which is a fancy speech-writer way of saying, "Vote for me for all the aforementioned reasons." Given the schedule, however, "refuse to let go the day" seems more apt. For the next 20 hours, we bounce west across the country like an ominous EKG--to Cleveland, Lexington, Cedar Rapids, and Sioux Falls, before ending up in Little Rock at 4 a.m. In Ohio, a crowd of 10,000, the biggest of the day, awaits us in the basketball arena at Cleveland State University. We have connected at the airport with Al Gore, and Hillary and Chelsea. Gore, who leads off, seems to have had a personality transplant since the vice-presidential debate. He's shouting about Speaker Gingrich, not only heatedly, but at an intense clip, sounding like a chipmunk version of himself--a 33 rpm record played at 45. The president seems taken aback. "Wow. Well, I do not know what the vice president ate for breakfast--but if he'd had two more bites of it he would have blown the roof clear off this thing."
In Lexington, Ky., at sundown, Clinton himself begins to warm up, appropriating a joke from Gore about a politician soliciting a farmer for his vote:
"Does your dog bite?" the politician asks.
"Nope," says the farmer.
The dog bites the politician in the rear.
"I thought your dog didn't bite," the politician says, from the safety of his car.
"It's not my dog," says the farmer.
Clinton riffs, connecting the joke to his willingness to shut down the government rather than sign the Republican budget. "It is their dog. I thought it was a mangy old dog," he says, to laughter and applause. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, his penultimate stop, Clinton peppers his amalgamated "building the bridge/common ground/seize the day" stump speech with a series of anecdotes from the campaign trail. One is about a white woman he met at a rally who adopted a black baby with AIDS. He says he wants a $5,000 tax credit for parents who adopt. "To me, that is what our public service is all about," he says. "To me, that is what our public life is all about." When Clinton finishes, "Work to Do," by the Average White Band, begins to play--a vast improvement on "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." We may be hearing more of "Work to Do." According to my information, "We have work to do," a nice phrase that was the refrain of Clinton's Sunday morning church address in Tampa, will feature prominently in the president's victory speech tonight.
By the end of the day, the exhaustion factor is severe. As we're getting back on the plane in Cedar Rapids, a shoving match breaks out on the plane between a couple of picture guys. Rather touchingly, Barry Toiv, a less-than-prepossessing White House spokesman, interposes. Clinton, however, is showing no sign of fatigue after performing all day on three hours of sleep, following on three hours the night before that.
His final performance, which begins after midnight on a basketball court in Sioux Falls, S.D., does not disappoint. There's an added level of focus and intensity to his words, as Clinton tells the crowd that he is at "the last rally of the last campaign I will ever run." Describing what he sees as at stake in the election, Clinton portrays it not as a contest between the past and the future, but as one between an atomistic, conservative conception of society and a communal ideal that he both advocates and embodies. "When we join hands and run our country ... we always win," he says, reminding his listeners that "no person living today knows this better than I do."
There is not a person living today who has been given more gifts, who feels more humble on this night than I do. Fifty years ago, when I was born in a summer storm to a widowed mother in a little town in Arkansas, it was unthinkable that I might ever have become president. I'd like for you to believe I did it because I always worked 60 or 70 hours a week; I had an understanding and supportive and wonderful family, and I just did it. I did it because at every step along the way for 23 years and long before, there was a Sunday school teacher, a teacher in school, a doctor, the guy running the Red Roof Inn in my hometown who always stopped and talked to me and tried to give me encouragement when I was despondent, over and over. We just need to run our country the way we want to run our lives. That is what I have learned in 23 years, and that is what I ask you to vote for tomorrow.
Here Clinton's voice cracked, and this time, there was no question about his sincerity. And with that, fireworks went off inside the amphitheater, sprinkling the crowd with a light dusting of gunpowder, on top of streamers and confetti coming down, as Jerry Jeff Walker struck up his band. After lingering to shake a few more hands, Clinton walked back to his motorcade, which was waiting to take him back to Air Force One, which was waiting to take him home to Little Rock.