MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In politics it's not just your enemies you have to watch out for, you have to keep a pretty sharp eye on your friends, too.
Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., flew to New Hampshire this week to help rescue the campaign of his pal Bill Clinton.
Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, had been leading the polls in New Hampshire as he seeks the Democratic nomination for president. But then stories surfaced about an alleged affair and dodging the Vietnam draft.
And now Clinton has slipped into a virtual tie with Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts with just six days left until the New Hampshire primary.
So all stops are being pulled out to save the Clinton campaign. And Bumpers jetted in, held a luncheon for about a half-dozen reporters and managed to throw some gasoline on the flames.
Bumpers began by saying all the right things: "Bill is bright, knowledgeable and has a good sense of humor. And what Bill Clinton doesn't know, I dare say Hillary does!"
And then things began to unravel a little.
"Are there more stories [about Clinton] coming?" Bumpers replied: "I can't promise you that won't happen. The draft, womanizing. Those are old stories. And who can say if one of the others gets the nomination, what might happen with them?"
Well, yes. That may be one way for Clinton to campaign: "Vote for me, because the other candidates might be hiding even worse scandals!"
And then, as if to prepare everyone for the worst, Bumpers said: "While I divinely hope Bill will carry New Hampshire, I don't think it's necessary."
In other words, Bumpers thinks Clinton can do well enough in the South on Super Tuesday to make up for any losses elsewhere.
But won't the draft-evasion stories hurt Clinton in the South, where many young men volunteered for the Vietnam War?
"They take their toll in the South, maybe even more than other parts of the country," Bumpers admitted. "But in a two-man race in the South between Clinton and Paul Tsongas, it's no contest."
Possibly. But only if there are no new stories about Clinton, no other shoe to drop. So I asked Bumpers why he "can't promise" there are no other skeletons about to pop out of Clinton's closet.
"Well, I've been in Washington for 17 years [i.e. away from Arkansas]," Bumpers said. "I don't talk to him about his personal life. I don't know anything about it. I don't know if there's another shoe to drop."
See what I mean about how your friends can help do you in? Here is Dale Bumpers, a savvy political pro, who knows Bill
Clinton better than most, and Dale Bumpers is not about to risk his own reputation sticking up for Bill Clinton's reputation.
Sure he likes Clinton. Sure he wants Clinton to be president. And he has even flown to New Hampshire to help out. But will he stand up and say that Bill Clinton has nothing to hide and nothing to fear? Nope. Bumpers just doesn't know about that. Must be those 17 years away from Arkansas and all.
So it is going to be left to Bill Clinton to defend Bill Clinton. Which he spends a lot of his time doing these days.
After visiting a number of people in Nashua, N.H., who were facing the loss of their homes through foreclosure, Clinton stood outside in the bitter cold and read a prepared statement to reporters.
"Let's face it," he said, "too much of the last couple of weeks of this election has been about me, or rather some false and twisted tabloid version of me, when it should have been about the people of this state."
He said the negative stories about him were being orchestrated by Republicans who wanted to destroy him before people could get to know him.
"Sadly," he said, "some Democrats have joined in that kind of campaigning."
Which is true. That's the funny thing about politics: Nobody has ever confused it with patty-cake.
And what about the draft? What about Vietnam? What about the war that many Americans would rather forget, but still seems to haunt us decades after its conclusion?
"I was opposed to the Vietnam War," Clinton said. "I still believe the policy was wrong-headed and a lot of people died for no good end."
But, Clinton said, although at the time of the war he was "a troubled young man," he also "did not do anything wrong."
And it seems true that he did nothing illegal. He simply manipulated the system for his own benefit, using college deferments and other maneuvers to escape the draft, maneuvers denied to less privileged young men who could not get into college and had to go and fight.
"I'm proud of the life I've lived," Clinton said. "I've never before been questioned in this way."
Of course he hasn't. He's never run for president before. Willie Horton was old news to Michael Dukakis when he ran for president four years ago. Dukakis had handled the issue and put it to rest in Massachusetts.
And Clinton had handled the draft issue and the womanizing issue and put them to rest in Arkansas. But none of that matters when you run for president. Everything is fresh news when you run for president. And everything becomes fair game all over again.
"I just have one thing to say about the next [few] days," Clinton said. "'I'm going to fight like hell."
It looks like he's going to have to.