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The Magic Is Back!

The Bill Clinton we all know finally arrives on the stump.

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 2008 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Barnwell, South Carolina

Bill Clinton began his Thursday afternoon in an auditorium in Walterboro. It looked like the type of small structure a rural high school might have built in the 1960s, with thick green velvet drapes closed halfway across the stage and about 325 seats. When Clinton took the stage, the room was barely two-thirds full.

Two interesting things happened over the course of Clinton's four appearances on Thursday: At each stop, the crowds grew smaller and Clinton's speeches grew longer. He began the morning speaking for only 15 minutes before taking questions. By the end of the day, his opening remarks clocked in at 40 minutes.

In Walterboro, Clinton rang the usual economic bells: shrinking middle-class; collapsing housing market; predatory lenders. There were, however, two points of interest. The first was a passing, if unacknowledged, reference to Phillip Longman's thesis that the VA hospital system should be examined as a model of efficiency. The second was a hint of what Hillary Clinton's WPA for bloggers might look like.

Senator Clinton has long touted a plan to make blogs part of the federal government. Her husband expanded on the idea saying, "She thought that every government department and every federal agency . . . should have a permanently operating blog site where people can continuously write in and ask questions and have conversations." Twenty-four hours a day. It's a triumph of the New Media.

In the closing minutes at Walterboro, Clinton began to find his touch. Asked about how his wife might help small-business owners in some capacity, Clinton responded that he had no idea. "I'm very scrupulous," he said. "I won't say what her position is, whatever I think it should be . . . I'm just the hired hand."

The audience chuckled; this reaction seemed to spark something in Clinton.

BY THE TIME HE arrived at the Barnwell Elementary School's auditorium 80 minutes later, not even the fact that the room was half empty could suppress the old Clinton magic. He opened with an amazing bit of testimony to his wife:

"We met in 1971," he said. "And I always say . . . that if we had never been married . . . if I had known the work she's done . . . knowing what I know about the demands of the presidency and the challenges we all face at this time, if she called me and asked me to come campaign for her, and we'd never been married, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Because I do believe she's the best qualified person I've ever had the chance to vote for for president."

It was vintage Clinton. He shined on more of it later when discoursing on who his wife might select as a running mate. He explained that there are three modern formulas for vice presidential selection--(1) a ticket balancer, a la Carter and Mondale; (2) the guy who finished second, a la Reagan and Bush; and (3) "Someone who is in the same philosophical line of thought that you are, but who knows different things than you." Here, he pointed to his selection of Al Gore. Clinton allowed that when he first ran for the White House, his areas of expertise included "economics and education and health care and international trade." Whereas Gore was an expert in "defense and weapons systems and technology and global warming."

Clinton veered from topic to topic, answering questions ranging from what to do with spent nuclear fuel to the potential construction uses of bamboo with equal authority. Asked about the weakness in the dollar, he explained matter-of-factly that "The dollar is so low because the rest of the world thinks we're weak."

When asked by a 9/11 conspiracy theorist if Hillary Clinton would tell America the truth, Clinton flashed his indignation. "Let me tell you my story," he bristled. "And it's almost impossible for me to be rational when somebody says [those things] because I knew people who died that day. And my wife lost a lot of her constituents that day."

In a more lighthearted moment, Clinton was asked who he was rooting for in the Super Bowl. He admitted that as a New Yorker, he was obligated to support the home team. But he quickly added that "Tom Brady is a friend of mine; I play golf with him every chance I get."

At another point, Clinton told a beautiful story about playing golf with some friends on a fancy course owned by Donald Trump outside New York. It was after 9/11 and at some point, Clinton was the last one off the green when his caddy accosted him. It turns out that the fellow was actually a captain in the New York City Fire Department who caddied to make a little extra money on the side. And he shared some extraordinary thoughts with the former president, right there on the green:

"'Your wife, my senator,' he said, 'was the first person to understand that a lot of us would get sick and some of us would die [from the air near Ground Zero]' . . . 'She knew, Hillary knew, and she fought for us and she stood up for us and she never stopped."

Here Clinton paused and admitted to the audience that at the time, he stood there on the green, "crying like a baby." His eyes welled up--just a touch--right there on stage. But Clinton continued, explaining that the fireman/caddy said to him, "'I don't know so much about politics anymore. But I know this--that is the kind of person who should be president.'"

The people in the audience ate it up, clapping and cheering loudly. All 150 of them.

Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.