Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 26 1996 3:30 AM


       LAKE CHARLES, La.--"I did not know until I came up on this platform that I'm the first sitting president in history to visit your community. All I can say is if the others had seen what I see here today, they would have been here a long time ago." As Bill Clinton made that statement yesterday afternoon, he was looking out on a not very large and not especially demonstrative crowd standing around a concrete airfield in Lake Charles, La. The weather was Gulf Coast miasma turning to light rain. If they could have seen what he saw, other presidents probably would have become extremely depressed or fired their advance teams.
       But not this president. So unbounded is Clinton's appetite for campaigning that I believe there is no place he would rather have been than where he was, working the crowd in the drab. With Bob Dole, campaigning is drudgery. He'd rather be sunning himself by the pool in Bal Harbour or back in the well of the Senate. As the day wears on, Dole's speeches often grow shorter and more peremptory. Clinton's seem to get longer; he hates to give up the stage. Where Dole speaks in a manner that might be described as stream-of-nothingness, Clinton exudes superfluid optimism. Watching him in front of an audience, any audience, is like seeing a battery recharge. Without any teleprompting, Clinton enthusiastically fluffs the local dignitaries ("We had a good one, didn't we, Sheriff?"); dispenses poll-driven banalities ("America's on the right track for the 21st century"); and takes credit for accomplishments both significant and pointless (the first sitting president to visit Lake Charles, La.).
       Clinton's chief cliche these days is, of course, his bridge to the 21st century. Over his head at Birmingham Southern College, where he turned out an enormous crowd before flying to Louisiana, sailed an enormous banner that proclaimed: "BUILDING AMERICA'S BRIDGE WITH GREAT AMERICAN LEADERSHIP." The formulation varies only slightly from stop to stop. All who introduce him are drawn irresistibly to the metaphor, and Clinton's own speeches inevitably climax in a call-and-response, "Will you help us build that bridge to the 21st century?" (Cheers). "Will you help us build that bridge?" (Cheers). In Lake Charles, Clinton worked himself into this peroration: "I have said all across America, I am trying to build a bridge to the 21st Century that is wide enough and strong enough for all of us to walk across. Louisiana needs that bridge. My native state to the north needs that bridge. America needs that bridge. ... All we need to do is to make a commitment to build that bridge and to move forward together. ... And let's build that bridge together to the 21st century." Suggested title for Clinton's autobiography: I Have a Bridge to Sell You. Seriously, though, I think I know the speechwriter who is responsible for this figure of speech, and he should be horsewhipped.
       Not having traveled with Clinton for a while, I had forgotten his penchant for transparent untruths. The whopper of the week was disgorged in New Orleans, where the president said, "Now, the crime bill that you've heard everybody brag on--I appreciate that, all the credit they're trying to give me. All I did was take the politics out of crime." To be sure, Republicans were politicizing crime long before the Democrats. But none ever politicized it so relentlessly as Bill Clinton, from his "60 new death penalties" for exotic federal crimes to the largely symbolic assault weapons ban to "three strikes and you're out." As he uttered this line, the reporters listening to the audio feed of his speech (while watching the video portion of the fifth game of the World Series) burst into spontaneous and sustained laughter.
       More common than outright lies, however, are Clinton's overgenerous depictions of his own role as president. In Birmingham, for instance, Clinton offered the following riff on medical technology: "We now have, for the first time in history, seen movement in the lower leg of laboratory animals whose spines were completely severed, because nerves were transferred from the rest of the body to their spines." Taking credit for toe-wiggling by paralyzed rats breaks new ground in applying the concept of "on my watch" (great weather all summer; air-conditioning bills down 30 percent from my predecessor; dining al fresco; fewer mosquitoes; and 700 new jobs for lifeguards).
       With the election a foregone conclusion, the only remaining matters of interest are whether Democrats will recapture all or part of Congress--and whether Clinton really hopes they do. It has become clear that he thinks talking about it is a bad idea in any case. Clinton praised Democratic Senate candidates Roger Bedford in Alabama, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and Max Cleland in Georgia, but he was careful to support them as individuals rather than as potential swing seats in a Democratic retaking of the Senate. Cleland didn't even get to share the podium with Clinton in Atlanta. The president was much more effusive about retiring Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia, Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, and Howell Heflin of Alabama, even though these conservative Southerners gave him a good deal of trouble his first year in office.
       I'll miss Heflin in particular. Introducing Clinton in Birmingham, he offered his own extended metaphor to explain the election. "The radical right-wing pachyderms have been raising their snouts and trumpeting sounds of doom as well as stampeding," he said, in his slow Alabama drawl. "Now we are beginning to hear from a large section of the herd the groans of anticipated defeat." I guess Republican elephants are a cliche too, but after the 300th suspension cable on Clinton's bridge to the 21st century, those agitated pachyderms seemed pretty darn funny.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.