Bill hits the sweet spot

Well, there goes the Republican talking point about Democratic "disunity."

When Bill Clinton is on, there is still nobody (except perhaps Barack Obama) who can match his gift for hitting the rhetorical sweet spot. For this reason alone, he has long driven the Republicans crazy. Lately, of course, he has also driven a lot of Democrats crazy (cue the litany of grudging remarks about Obama), but you all know that story. And that was the story he had to erase tonight. And he did, delivering what is arguably one of his finest political speeches - succinct, selfless, and focused. Even the Republicans would have to admit that, purely as a piece of political communication, the Clinton address (which he reportedly wrote himself) effectively accomplished a number of crucial tasks:

1. He vetted Obama on the readiness question in ways that Hillary last night did not. Perhaps they deliberately divvied up the chores in advance, and decided that Bill should take that task; perhaps she felt less comfortable doing it, given her past attacks. The bottom line is that Bill said the magic words, bestowing the Clintonian blessing: "Barack Obama is ready to lead and to restore America's leadership in the world...Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States." That's enough to trump the sour remarks he made recently to ABC, when he dodged a question about Obama's readiness by grumbling that nobody is really ever prepared to be president.

2. He vetted Obama's personal qualities, another task that Hillary passed on: "Barack Obama is the man for this job...He has a remarkable ability to inspire people...He has the intelligence and curiousity that every successful president needs." That latter sentence was actually a two-fer, because, as we all know by now, the current president, one of the worst since Warren G. Harding, is notorious for his lack of intellectual curiousity.

3. He framed the '08 stakes for Democrats in stark, colloquial language - arguably better than Obama himself has done. Referring to John McCain's embrace of the same "right-wing orthodoxy" that has guided George W. Bush for two terms, he said simply: "The third time is not the charm."

4. He succinctly framed the two great themes of this election, at last for Democrats: "How to rebuild the American dream, how to restore America's leadership in the world." And regarding the latter, he came up with a line that any writer would envy, about how people around the world traditionally "have been more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power."

5. He parried a Republican charge and contended that he and Obama are political soul mates, all in the same paragraph: "The Republicans said I was too young and inexperienced to be commander-in-chief. Sound familiar? It didn't work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history. And it won't work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history." (Although it's fair to point out that Bill's inexperience was glaringly obvious during his first two years.)

And Bill did all this in a mere 20 minutes.

OK, he was supposed to talk for only 10 minutes, but still.

This is the thing about Bill: he's a lot like Manny Ramirez, the ex-Red Sox slugger. Manny would drive everyone nuts with his antics...and then, when the game was on the line at Fenway, he'd turn on a fastball and launch it onto the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Perhaps in the long run, if Obama wins, this Clinton speech will prove to be a rare moment of detente between two heavy hitters. Or perhaps, to quote Humphrey Bogart's closing line to Claude Rains in Casablanca, "this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."