The Magic & Bill Show, Providing The Charisma Assist

Stars on the stump: Bill Clinton and Magic Johnson got Iowans' attention campaigning for Hillary Clinton. (By David Lienemann -- Associated Press)
By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

WATERLOO, Iowa -- Moments before Bill Clinton and Magic Johnson, the former president and the former point guard, are supposed to take the stage here in the small, no-frills gymnasium of the local Boys & Girls Club, you see it from behind a purple curtain. It's a pouf of white hair bouncing up and down, up and down. Whether it's a hop or a jump is beside the point. What it is, is this: Bill Clinton getting revved up to stump for his wife. It's Bill Clinton . . . getting pumped.

"Oh yeah, he was getting ready," Johnson, who led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships, explains later. "He was just getting fired up. We both got fired up. He was just jumping, getting ready."

In the frantic rush to the Jan. 3 caucuses in Iowa, the Surrogate-in-Chief has not been making headlines for being psyched up. No, the buzz is that he's meddling, annoyed and angry as the sheen of inevitability has worn off Hillary Clinton's campaign, with everyone bracing for a bare-knuckles contest whose fate might not be decided until the final hours. There have been reports of Bill Clinton, who once joked easily with "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart about a limited role in the campaign and presidency, seizing control from top campaign advisers and aides. During a recent appearance on "Charlie Rose," he lashed out at the media for not examining Barack Obama's campaign with the same attention to detail they've given his wife's. Sitting in the darkness of the set, Clinton seemed, well, bitter.

It hasn't helped that Oprah Winfrey and Obama have become the most popular performing duo since George Michael and that other guy in Wham!

Enter Magic Johnson. Heck, in the 1980 Finals, Magic was called on to replace an ailing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center -- scoring 42 points and seven assists to win the series from Philadelphia. Who else would you call upon to guard Oprah?

"I applaud her efforts and what she's doing for Barack," Johnson says. "I don't know whether I'm supposed to be the answer to Oprah, but we just love our candidates."

But why him, here and now?

"I'm a businessman," Johnson says. "I think people know that, recognize that. I helped Bloomberg, helped in his reelection. I helped Antonio [Villaraigosa] become the mayor of Los Angeles. Why I'm here? I'm involved in politics and I want the best for this country."

The pair started the day with the candidate herself in Des Moines, where the three moseyed up and down the aisles of a Hy-Vee supermarket, prompting an "Entertainment Tonight" correspondent to do a stand-up shot in the middle of the produce section. The men then went on to Davenport and tied on quite a feed bag along the way, Clinton told the folks gathered there, lovingly listing everything they'd eaten. They drew a racially mixed crowd, sitting together in a gymnasium. It was in many ways a kind of modern-day homage to Wilder's "Our Town": It's not exactly how America looks, but it's how we want it to look.

What's missing? Try kids. You might have expected that an event at the Boys & Girls Club would feature hundreds of screaming children running around singing Hillary victory songs. Except for a few young ones, it was a crowd, of Hillary supporters in the latter stages of life. A large number of them were members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that has endorsed Clinton.

"Look at the crowd here," says Dhirendra Vajpeyi, a 61-year-old political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. "It's older than Obama's. I talk to my students and they have real reservations about Hillary and her sincerity. They don't have a good feeling."

Among the few younglings are 11-year-old Justice Smith and his 14-year-old-brother, Marcus. Sitting in the stands, Marcus says he came to see Clinton for reasons he doesn't know. Justice is here for Magic, he says, having seen him perform in NBA reruns.

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