History may record primary day in Pennsylvania as the day Bill Clinton officially became the most tragic figure of the 2008 campaign. As voters headed to the polls to place another comeback in Hillary's hands, her spouse was getting himself into trouble, yet again. When a reporter asked the former president to explain why he felt Barack Obama's campaign had "played the race card" on him in South Carolina, Clinton was wrathfully indignant, denying he'd ever said such a thing. (Never mind the interview he'd given on a Philadelphia NPR station the day before saying exactly those words.) In an instant, the former president had proved himself not just out of step with the Internet and cable news cycles, but even ignorant to the realities of the radio age. By evening, the Clintons were in opposite narratives: Hillary was living yet another survivor's tale, showing she could stay and fight. Her husband, however, was the same story he's been for the whole campaign: off message, old news.
What has happened to Bill Clinton? For months, it's been a great mystery in a mystifying campaign how the most gifted politician of a generation could become an unceasing gaffe machine. Was it the Bubble—had a post-presidency spent with global do-gooders and fawning billionaires made Bubba lose his touch for the common man? Was it Freudian destiny, Hillary's husband subconsciously sabotaging her, breaking her heart yet again? Or was it karma, someone sending the Starr Report to the gods?
In truth, nothing has happened to Bill Clinton, he's just been following the orders given to him at the start of Hillary's campaign. When Hillary launched it last fall, pundits were convinced that Bill would outshine Hillary on the trail. Every day, the thinking went, would be like Coretta Scott King's funeral, where The Natural couldn't help himself and worked the room with a talent Hillary couldn't match.
Hillary's aides were sufficiently concerned about the phenomenon that they kept the Clintons on separate stages for much of the early campaign. But Bill, to the surprise of many, has resisted temptation and let Hillary have the limelight. After 15 months, the campaign belongs to Hillary—Hillary the inevitable, the endangered, the fighter, the fabricator, the star. Bill made the great and necessary sacrifice not to lead, but to follow.
The problem is that second-banana Bill Clinton, stripped of his leader's charisma, is sometimes hard to like. The Clinton tragedy is not, as some would have it, that the former president lets his base desires compromise his enormous talents. Rather, it's that a man of such talents would waste so much time proclaiming himself the victim. Playing the aggrieved party in South Carolina, Bill showed touches of his ugliest self—the man who blamed his staff for the policy missteps of his first term, who blamed the media for obsessing over scandals from Travelgate to Marc Rich, the man who wagged his finger and did not have sex with that woman.
Americans have never loved this side of Bill, but they've tolerated it when it came with a promise of better things. Yes, a good portion of the country agreed that Bill was the victim of a vast, right-wing conspiracy in the '90s. Yet that wasn't why Americans believed in him. They liked him because he fought that conspiracy and won, and in triumph had a smile on his face.
Winning this time, however, is Hillary's job, which sometimes means whining is the only job left for her husband. It doesn't matter that he may have good reasons to complain. His "fairy tale" description of Obama's Iraq policy was not racist. The media are biased against him. The Obama campaign has,at times, played the race card with great effect. But no one will make those points for him. He has no allies in the liberal blogosphere where conspiracy theories about the mainstream media gain great traction. Nor does he seem to have many friends left in the black community. Rep. James Clyburn's comment to The New York Times that Clinton had "incensed" African-Americans caused a stir because of the speaker (Clyburn had heretofore remained neutral in the Obama-Clinton fight), not because of the point he was making. So Bill is left to point out his grievances himself. As a result, he is forever playing Bartleby Bill, the man who cannot move beyond his own victimization, a doomed character in every American myth.
But Hillary can still set him free. After a high-minded, dramatic start, the Democratic campaign has devolved into something vaguely sleazy, often dishonest and increasingly small bore. It is entering an arena, in other words, where The Natural knows how to thrive. Hillary has long since proved which Clinton runs her campaign. Perhaps now, as she looks to the white working class of North Carolina and Indiana to help save her long-shot campaign, she will let her husband, a child of the white, working class, be the star for a little while. Maybe after 15 months, salvation for the Clintons will mean letting Bill be Bill.