The Man from Hope

July 14, 1992

The Democratic National Convention in New York this week is a massive exercise in campaign biography scripted and transmitted in living color to a distracted nation.

Gov. Bill Clinton will be transformed in this process, if party spin doctors have their way, from the caricature of the primaries -- the purported lecher, draft-dodger and country slicker -- into an all-American success story: The "dirt poor" boy from the little town of Hope, Ark.; born to a woman alone after his father was killed in an automobile accident; who, by dint of hard work and the support of his community, went on to Harvard, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School, and then returned home to a life of public service that has brought him within reach of his ultimate goal -- the presidency.

That these portraits are not mutually exclusive is why the "character issue" looms so large among thousands of delegates hungry for victory. They know Bill Clinton has to be transformed, even though the White House is not a preserve for the saintly but the residence of leaders responsible for the country's well-being.

As with Supreme Court justices, there is no sure way to anticipate performance in office. Yet the much maligned primary system has given Americans a glimpse of Mr. Clinton as a remarkably gritty and resilient politician that is at least as accurate and probably more insightful than the bad guy/good guy exaggerations of political debate.

Mr. Clinton started his quest for the White House when President Bush appeared unbeatable and the so-called Democratic heavy-hitters (including vice presidential nominee Al Gore) had no stomach for the long slog on the hustings.

So Bill Clinton's nomination is well and truly earned. If he comes to his New York triumph with his ratings rising and the race a dead heat, it is not solely due to Mr. Bush's implosion or Ross Perot's fortuitous splitting of the conservative/suburban vote; it is also due to Mr. Clinton's understanding of party machinery and what it takes to produce a convention devoid of the destructive infighting that so often assists the Republicans to victory.

His mastery of liberal interest groups, his success in devising a centrist party platform, his control of the convention agenda, all these skills "organized" a party that often takes perverse pleasure in self-immolation.

No one knows what kind of president Bill Clinton will be if he wins in November. But the crafting of heroic imagery this week in New York is the distinctive task of any convention and a necessary antidote to the mud-slinging of the primary and the dirty tricks still to come.

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