The self-described "world's most famous sinner" was in the Washington Convention Center yesterday, auditioning for a more respectable title: Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign manager.
Bill Clinton, the man who would be first lady, had a number of things to get off his chest when he spoke to a gathering of campus activists: the good works he has been doing across the globe lately, an updated defense of his presidential legacy and the failure of Democrats to emulate his winning formula of the 1990s.
"We won in '92, we won in '96," the former president told the students, who, though young, were almost certainly aware of this recent history. "The myth that we would not have won if Ross Perot hadn't been in there is simply not true. All the exit polls show exactly the reverse."
If that sounded a bit defensive, consider his accounting for his understudy Al Gore's loss in the 2000 election. "You can argue what we should or shouldn't have done, but the truth is we had a plurality of 500,000 votes," Clinton argued. He said George W. Bush won because of his "brilliant" slogan -- "compassionate conservatism" -- "which is the only way he could win, since we had a 65 percent approval rating."
Former presidents rarely feel compelled to mount such a defense. But with his senator wife preparing for a presidential run of her own, Clinton's message amounted to a campaign pitch: His (and his wife's) brand of politics can save a party that has lost its way. Careful listeners could find a Hillary '08 road map in her husband's talk: Reach out to "red" America. Come up with some new policies. Get tough on national security. Stick to principle, as Bush does. And stop whining.
"You can't blame your opponents for applying a strategy that beats your brains out," the former president said, mocking the Democrats' Pavlovian response to political attacks: "Oh, how mean they are." Advised Clinton: "You can't ask them to stop being mean to us. . . . You've got to be tough enough to beat it."
Such wisdom may have come to the Clintons the hard way; there were times when he bemoaned the savagery of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and she spoke of a right-wing conspiracy. Clinton did not entirely bury his own foibles yesterday -- his self-description as "most famous sinner" drew chuckles -- but he clearly delighted in the travails of top Bush adviser Karl Rove. He threw his head back with laughter when his host and former chief of staff, John D. Podesta of the liberal Center for American Progress, raised the topic.
Clinton, in navy blazer, tan slacks, dark-blue shirt and yellow tie, was in his element among the hundreds of college kids, many in sandals, T-shirts and low-riding jeans. A woman who introduced him said he outpolled even Oprah as the delegates' choice for a keynote speaker. He mentioned his saxophone and he produced some knowing glances among the audience when he praised a "beautiful" woman. He wore a bracelet to show resistance to Colombian narco-trafficking, and he urged the kids to see the movie "Advise and Consent."
"It just came out on VCR," Clinton said.
"DVD," Podesta corrected.
True to form, Clinton put aside the speech he had in hand and mused on such questions as "What is the fundamental nature of the modern world?" Though he promised a short speech, its length preempted all but four of the 10 questions that were planned.
Even after discussing his good works in Africa and other poor places, Clinton reserved ample time for a defense of his record -- and his wife's. He recalled the criticism that she was shifting positions when she spoke recently of abortion as a tragedy that should be minimized. In fact, he said, "there is a remarkable consistency here." Same for the former president, who said he has "basically said and done the same thing for 30 years."
It was a prebuttal of the inevitable charge Republicans will make in 2008: that Hillary Rodham Clinton, or another Democrat who wins the nomination, is a flip-flopper without principle. In fact, Clinton said he has "honestly held convictions" that are as firm as Bush's. "I signed Kyoto and they got out of it," he said. "I signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and they got out of it; I was for the International Criminal Court against war crimes and they weren't."
Clinton was also ready with a rationalization for "Hillarycare," his wife's legislative debacle that collapsed early in his presidency. No less a Democratic legend than Harry Truman, he said, "lost the Congress in part because he tried to give the American people health care. Same reason I lost it."
Clinton said his party has no reason to despair -- "we're in better shape than it appears we are" -- and suggested the presidency could be won with someone who can "talk to so-called red America." Specifically, someone like him or his wife. Clinton pointed out that his share among evangelical Protestants in 1996 was 37 percent, compared with 21 percent for John F. Kerry in 2004.
He said a friend of his, a Pentecostal minister, voted for Clinton twice but then went Republican because "ever since you left, nobody in your party talks to us anymore." But salvation is at hand. The pastor, Clinton said, told him: "I'd vote for Hillary. I love her."