`Comeback Kid' calls candidate Kerry

September 09, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Before former President Bill Clinton went under the knife for heart surgery, news reports say, he offered 90 minutes of advice by telephone from his hospital bed to Sen. John Kerry on how Mr. Kerry could revive his presidential candidacy. That would be a phone chat on which I would love to have had a wiretap.

Imagine its educational, as well as entertainment, value. Mr. Kerry could hardly find a better tutor than Mr. Clinton, the self-declared "Comeback Kid" who made his second-place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire primary sound like a landslide victory. Mr. Clinton's tips to Mr. Kerry might sound like the political equivalent of Elvis coaching Pat Boone, and I imagine their phone chat going something like this:

"Yo, John? What's goin' on?"

"Mr. President, how are you?"

"Hey, can't complain, except I'm about to have my chest cracked open. I'm tellin' ya, I've got to lay off the soul food, man. But, look, I'm glad you called. I've got to get a few things off my chest, so to speak."

"So to speak."

"John, I hear you're bringing some of my old war-room crew on board."

"Yes, sir. They include a couple of your favorite advisers - James Carville and Paul Begala - your old pollster Stan Greenberg and, of course, Joe Lockhart, your press secretary who was so helpful during your, uh, you know, unpleasantness with the House impeachment managers."

"All in the past. Anyway, I'm glad the gang's all there, because you need 'em. I've seen your polls. Not good."

"I don't read polls, not even when I'm ahead."

"Save that for the media jackals. This is Bubba you're talking to. The truth is that it's after Labor Day and the real contest begins now, and you're starting out in the hole - as much as 11 points, if you believe Time magazine's poll."

"Just a post-convention bump for Bush, my advisers assure me. It'll fade."

"Not by itself! Wake up! Have you seen the ads that the other side is putting on TV about you? You're getting Dukakis-ized, man."

"Do you mean the Republicans are slandering me with attack ads the way they mangled Michael Dukakis in 1988?"

"Roger that, lieutenant. How else did a National Guard no-show like President Bush put you, a guy who faced enemy gunfire, on the defensive? You put too many eggs in your Vietnam basket, bro. It carried you to the Democratic presidential nomination and put you even with or ahead of Bush, a sitting president, simply because so many people are angry at Bush or are afraid of what he's going to mess up next. That couldn't last."

"Well, that's not entirely fair. I have issues and ideas. I have a program to help employers save money on health care for their workers and another to prevent jobs from going overseas and ..."

"Zzzzz ... Oh! Oh, excuse me, did you say something? I must have dozed off there for a moment in all that talk about legislation. Excuse me, John, but you know what your problem is? You're suffering the Senator Syndrome."

"Senator Syndrome?"

"Senators get too accustomed to making compromises in the Senate. Remember when Bob Dole ran against me in '96? Every time people would ask him about an issue, he'd respond with a bill number. People want to hear a clear message that you're on their side. Do you remember our motto that Carville put up on the wall in our war room in '92?"

"`It's the economy, stupid.'"

"Congratulations. That was the motto that most people remember. But Carville wrote two others up there too: `Change vs. more of the same' and `Don't forget health care.' Listen to me, bro. This election is about jobs, the economy, health care and people trying to take care of their families. You need to get the campaign off your Vietnam record and onto Bush's White House record."

"Good sound bite. Mind if I use that?

"Open the newspaper, man. The news offers you plenty more material. Iraq. Iran. The deficit. Old folks! Did you see Bush bragging in his convention that his administration had `done the job of improving health care for our seniors'? The next day, the Bush team announced Medicare premiums are going up 17 percent, effective in 2005. Next year! Like, after the election? They've done a `job' on seniors, all right. I'm telling you, man, the gall of those Bush folks is breathtaking. You need to call 'em on it."

"So I am learning, sir. I appreciate your advice."

"Good, John. I have to go. The sedatives are beginning to take hold. Give my best to Teresa, and remember ... `Don't ... stop ... thinking ... about ... tomor- row' ..."

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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