Irony and Change

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Things are not working. The war in Iraq, originally penciled in for a month or two, is in its fifth year and will not end soon. The war in Afghanistan, once seemingly won, could now be lost, the country plummeting back into the abyss of the Taliban/al-Qaeda lunacy. The middle class in the United States is losing purchasing power, homes are being foreclosed on at an alarming rate, and the dollar -- oh, my God, the dollar -- is now like some desk-drawer currency, to be dumped at the end of an overseas trip.

Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Persian Gulf states are consuming their own oil and gas -- the nerve of them! -- and so that means less for us. China is trying to buy up all the oil and gas in the world, and we would, too, but we can't afford it. I read somewhere that beggars in Morocco won't even accept the dollar. The Arctic ice is melting and the southern United States is parching and gun control doesn't work, but neither do more guns. Washington has seized up like a motor without oil, Democrats and Republicans can't get along, and money is no longer the mother's milk of politics. It's its cocaine.

"Change, change," George H.W. Bush once fairly shrieked in a shocking Rumpelstiltskin moment. That was 1992, and Bill Clinton was throwing the word "change" at the incumbent president.

"Change. Change, change, change, change, says Clinton and the Ozone Man," Bush said, adding a deft reference to the future Nobel laureate, Albert Gore Jr. "Change, change, change, change, change. That's all you're going to have left in your pocket if you go in there with more taxes and more government spending."

Now it is Bill Clinton who is protesting Barack Obama's use of the word "change." It screams from Obama's banners and is directed at Hillary Clinton, who has somehow become the personification of the dreaded status quo, even though she is the first female candidate with any chance of going to the White House. Her husband takes umbrage.

Change uncoupled from experience is a train that will go nowhere, Bill Clinton says, and to prove it he told Charlie Rose that it was his own inexperience in 1988 that caused him to forgo a presidential race until 1992. This is a revisionist rendering of what happened at the time, for it was also the realization that he had women problems that caused such humility in Clinton. The White House had to wait.

Still, the former president's argument this time around makes sense. This Obama is untested. This Obama served two years in the U.S. Senate before he threw his hat into the ring. This Obama will not be an agent of change but a neophyte overwhelmed by the challenges of the presidency -- not ready, not by a long shot. Or so the Clintons suggest.

Obama's supporters often liken him to John F. Kennedy, another candidate derided at the time as too young and too inexperienced. Myths aside, that turned out to be somewhat the case -- the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, a presidency that was a marvelous photo op but ended, tragically, short of greatness. It was Lyndon Johnson, the anti-Kennedy and the civil rights president unmentioned when Obama cites the great Democratic presidents of the past, who truly left the country changed.

For the Clintons to find themselves, as Bush the elder once did when he faced them in 1992, extolling prosaic experience over the promised excitement of change is an irony awarded those who live long enough. But for the Clintons it could be a trap. On "The Charlie Rose Show," Bill praised his wife as a senator who could work with Republicans, a dear friend to those across the aisle. He mentioned Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, once President Clinton's arch foe but now Hillary's affable colleague. He talked about how she had taken a congressional delegation to the Arctic. It is all true. It is all admirable. It is all profoundly and distressingly parochial.

Of course, it is too late in the game for Hillary Clinton to repackage herself as an agent of change. Her entire demeanor has been a steady-as-she-goes solidity, resolutely sensible, reliably reliable -- an A in every subject by dint, if nothing more, of diligence. She and Bill extol her experience, but that only ties her more to the status quo and, by proximity, to the problems of the day. When things are not working -- and, after all, things are not working -- Bill Clinton himself has shown that in presidential politics, change trumps experience any day.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company