Comeback Kid

Bill Clinton finds healing power in his return to campaign trail.

October 26, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

To Bill Clinton watchers, the former president's recovery from heart surgery may seem a bit like his presidency. There he was yesterday, deploying his charisma before a cheering crowd to fire up the Democratic base; and there were his critics, inserting Monica Lewinsky references in sound bites. Once again, there was a TV confession - this time, on ABC's Good Morning America, where he took "responsibility" for his illness and answered a cringe-inducing question about whether he can resist the heart patient's ultimate sin: a Big Mac.

For Clinton, it seems, politics is the best medicine.

After seven weeks of private convalescence, when at last it was time to make his first comments before a cheering crowd since his open-heart surgery, Clinton could barely wait for the cue. At a Philadelphia event yesterday with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, the city's mayor had to pull Clinton away from the microphone for a moment so the former president could be formally introduced.

For friends and foes alike, it was enough that Clinton was back, the Democratic Party's rock star who simply cannot be kept off stage.

"He is, if not the most, one of the most charismatic figures in American political history and today is an example of that," former Georgia Republican congressman Bob Barr said yesterday.

Barr, a leading figure in Clinton's impeachment trial and author of the new book on the former president, said he sent Clinton a get-well card and bears him no ill will. Nonetheless, he offered his former nemesis a double-edged welcome back: "It just reminds me that here's a man who has such tremendous potential to move people and excite people politically, and he just squandered a presidency."

When Clinton finally broke his public silence, the man who felt everyone else's pain acknowledged his own.

"If this isn't good for my heart," he told the crowd, patting his healing heart, "I don't know what is."

Hitting the campaign trail in a series of appearances for Kerry, the 58-year-old former president was signing autographs, waving, staying on-message - underscoring the gains he said Kerry would make on issues such as health care, jobs and crime prevention. He even did what many heart patients recovering from recently cracked chests would consider excruciating, reaching his arm into the crowd and shaking hands.

Though to some he appeared pale and drawn - he has lost 15 pounds since the surgery - to many observers, this was Clinton coming back into his powers.

Campaigning in Philadelphia before heading to a second event with Kerry yesterday in Miami and an appearance at a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., this morning, Clinton appeared much as he did before his quadruple-bypass in September - the lower-lip bite was intact, as were the refrains of "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" and Clinton's delight in the spotlight.

True, he told ABC's Diane Sawyer, the incision aches when he wakes in the mornings and, he noted, he was only able to spread his arms apart without pain since about a week ago. At the Philadelphia event, he did not shake every hand or deliver an extra-long speech or throw open his arms for bear hugs, as in the past.

But he was jumping into the campaign nonetheless. At the time of his surgery, his doctors said Clinton would need two to three months to recuperate. Now the youngest former president in history, who complained to his friends that it was hard to downshift to a slower pace after eight years in the presidency, is finding energy where he always has - on the campaign trail.

"He was just very, very excited about going out - he was reading a list of battleground states and percentages and polling and he just devours those polls and surveys and understands them," said friend David Pryor, a former Arkansas Democratic senator and governor, recalling a phone call with Clinton Sunday night. "He has got this all figured out. He's really into it and I think he's had some time to himself in the last few weeks to contemplate some of this and hone his message."

The man who has seemed loathe to retreat from public life - he declared "I ain't dead yet" when his Harlem office opened in 2001 - told ABC he wouldn't push himself too hard but couldn't sit out, either. "I want to do this," he said.

"I don't feel the passion about some of the things - the game - that I used to feel," he said. "But I feel, in a funny way, more passionately about the consequences of the decisions that people in office make that affect people's lives."

The occasion, predictably, brought out the old Clinton characters.

Clinton nemesis Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent who helped bring the Lewinsky allegations to light, didn't exactly send get-well greetings:

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