In recent weeks, I have been crossing paths with have been and wanna be Clinton folk who, true to what they have always been remain for the most part intellectually dazzling wonks. Hearing them again, as confidence builds that the future is Democratic, I was suddenly reminded of what I didn't like about the 1990s.
Few people who observe U.S. presidencies closely enough will dispute that William Jefferson Clinton was probably the brightest White House resident in the last half century or so. To go to a seminar to listen to Laura D'Andrea Tyson, former chair of Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, or Robert Rubin, Clinton's former treasury secretary, provides the kind of brain food that compares easily to the caloric content -- and delight -- that comes with chocolate chip ice-cream.
One should note, however, that the runner in the presidential brains department was unquestionably Richard Nixon, demonstrating that intellect doesn't necessarily make the best of presidents -- or of people.
In fact, Adlai Stevenson (don't gape and say "who?" -- look it up) learned, as did "Clean Gene" McCarthy, that the U.S. American body politic is notoriously anti-intellectual. Wonks come up with intriguing ideas, but not necessarily solutions.
In politics ideas have to survive the compromises and Hillary Clinton's defeat at health reform is a classic example of complex thinking failing to muster votes.
In recent weeks I have run into Clintonites more obscure than Rubin or Tyson who have unwittingly reminded me what I didn't like about the last Clinton Administration and raised my fears about the putative next.
Put simply, you could describe it with the motto "It's the arrogance, stupid."
At a recent public forum, one former official described a set of social programs with which I happen to be intimately familiar as unqualified failures. I went up to him afterward to ask him for the basis of his characterization and I got the following answer:
"When I was Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy," he began, capitalizing the initials in each part of his former title with the inflection of his voice, "I read many, many reports."
Would he be so kind as to name one?
Since I had missed the cornerstone of his argument, he replied "In the White House, I was brought extensive reports."
Ah, I see, merely by sitting in a White House office in the light of those enormous 18th-century windows and in possession of an 8-word, initial-capped occupational title, knowledge just seeps into your brain, as if by osmosis, and renders your judgments infallible.
Someone should tell the pope.
This man is one of the thousands of obscure policy influencing figures so cozily ensconced in think-tank sinecures that require only repeating "regression analysis" over lunch every day and unlikely to be selected for a repeat performance. Yet his hunger for it was dripping from his sleeve the day I spoke with him.
Oh, to be in the White House again!
After several such encounters in more recent weeks, I've suddenly found myself hitting upon what appeals to me about Barack Obama and send shivers up my spine about Hillary Clinton. It's not just that New York's junior senator might lose to Fred Thompson and stick us all with eight more years of the present nonsense.
A future President Clinton she brings in tow the whole rafter of admittedly brilliant cadres. They fueled the happy days when peace was brokered in Ireland and Yugoslavia, when the stock market tripled in value and when anyone with a pulse could get a job with a good salary. All granted.
But they also failed to prevent a hypocritical bomb-thrower like Newton Leroy Gingrich from forcing poor women with children under the age of six to go get dead-end jobs and scaring millions of others off the one program that once eliminated hunger in the United States, food stamps.
Hillary Clinton now talks as if she has a plan for everything. She probably does. Good plans, too. But can she win and get them through with a bunch of weenies whose hubris is showing more than a year before the White House becomes vacant? Do I trust the former "Goldwater Girl" to show herself to be from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party?
Obama, who is charismatic, has at least the decency to admit that he doesn't know everything. That he is willing to listen and negotiate. That he is not a Boomer stuck in 1965 -- as admittedly I myself am on some days.
That's why, for all the aura of inevitability around Hillary Clinton, I'm not counting Obama out.