Man of the hour: Clinton as Happy Warrior

RICHARD REEVES

March 20, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles -- The most amazing thing about the amazing rise and survival of Bill Clinton is that he has gained weight during the primary campaigns -- maybe 30 pounds. Most normal people lose weight under this kind of tension, and some have to be kept going with what amount to intravenous feedings of milk shakes and hamburgers.

There is a happy-warrior quality about Mr. Clinton that can be very attractive. He seems to like this stuff, and that is no small thing because an almost unrelenting (and unphony) positivism is a great gift (if not an absolute necessity) for effective leaders in a democracy.

''The people,'' in a country as resourceful as ours, can accomplish almost anything they think they can. And part of political leadership is to convince them they can.

On that score, the public Clinton -- which is the important one -- reminds me most of Nelson Rockefeller. ''Call me Rocky,'' he told the world, while those who served him personally and privately called him by his other nickname, ''Sir,'' and family retainers called him ''Mr. Nelson.''

In 1970, Mr. Nelson bumped into a young Democratic politician named Sandy Frucher at a parade in Buffalo, a year after they had met for the first time at the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City. ''We seem to meet only at parades,'' said Mr. Frucher.

''Son,'' answered Rockefeller, ''parades are my business.''

That's Mr. Clinton's business, too. He is in the happy-warrior tradition of Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey and Ronald Reagan.

Roosevelt, in fact, first used the phrase in politics, nominating Smith at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. It is from William Wordsworth:

Who is the Happy Warrior? Who is he

That every man in arms should wish to be? . . .

Who if he be called upon to face

Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined

Great issues, good or bad for human kind,

Is happy as a lover . . . ''

That is a lot better than the unhappy-warrior tradition of Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis, or the tinny, nervous-making phony ebullience of George Bush -- men who essentially dislike both campaigning and being surrounded by strangers. (Dan Quayle is a happy warrior, too, although he gives himself away when he turns the phrase to ''happy camper.'')

We have seen once again this presidential year how open the American political system can be, or how dangerously vulnerable it is to a -- of energy or a dollop of demagogy. This is the only democracy I know of where the leaders of nation or party don't have to pay their dues.

You get to be president by wanting rather than waiting, wanting to be president rather than waiting your turn. Whoever heard of Bill Clinton a year ago? Or heard of Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis or John Kennedy a year before they took over?

Forgetting that our system for producing national leaders is both ludicrous and corrupt -- whatever you think of Jerry Brown, most of what he is saying about money and politics is true -- Mr. Clinton is running a great campaign.

Stories coming out of Illinois concentrated on the fact that he had an advantage in money and organization, reported with vague disapproval, as if that had something to do with luck or Daleys departed.

Who do they think built that organization or raised that money? Mr. Clinton did it himself, because that is how you become president of the United States.

Or, that is how you get a shot to be president. Happy or not, Mr. Clinton so far has proved only that he was smarter than Mario Cuomo in figuring out the system and more courageous than Bill Bradley or Al Gore in bucking the conventional wisdom that President Bush was invincible, and tough and resilient enough to put his head down and plow through evidence and implications that he is not quite a grown-up. That last, though, is true of most of these guys.

Mr. Clinton showed the kid inside, an unhappy one, only once or twice. In Chicago during a televised debate, he cracked momentarily when Jerry Brown, no happy warrior he, finally got to him by attacking his wife's integrity.

Mr. Clinton didn't cry as poor Ed Muskie did 20 years ago in New Hampshire. But he did begin to whine that over the years of running for office, which is what he and Brown both do for a living, all his opponents have always picked on him, said these terrible things about him, but he has always prevailed at the end because he is good and true and God punishes people who are mean to Bill Clinton or his wife.

Well, he's right about one thing there: People are going to pick on him now, some real mean ones, beginning with George Bush.

Clinton, who is good at campaigning, very good, got away with switching themes during the primaries, changing from the moderate businesslike politics of his record to an edgy populism when Paul Tsongas outflanked him on the right side of their party.

But it was not themes or issues that got him this far this fast. He made it on determination, energy and charm -- personal charm is to politics as height is to basketball or size to football. Mr. Clinton has it and flaunts it. This is the time of his life.

He likes what he's doing. Like Delta Airlines, Bill Clinton loves to fly, and it shows.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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