GREENVILLE, S.C. — If Bill Clinton has to trash his legacy to protect his legacy, so be it. If he has to put a dagger through the heart of hope to give Hillary hope, so be it.
If he has to preside in this state as the former first black president stopping the would-be first black president, so be it.
The Clintons — or "the 2-headed monster," as The New York Post dubbed the tag team that clawed out wins in New Hampshire and Nevada — always go where they need to go, no matter the collateral damage. Even if the damage is to themselves and their party.
Bill's transition from elder statesman, leader of his party and bipartisan ambassador to ward heeler and hatchet man has been seamless — and seamy.
Bill Clinton had South Carolina all to himself Tuesday, as Hillary flew off to focus on California and other Super Tuesday states. The Big Dog contentedly played the candidate again, wearing a technicolor orange tie and sweeping across the state with the mute Chelsea.
He tried to convey the impression that they were running against The Man, and with classic Clintonian self-pity, grumbled that Barack Obama had all the advantages and that Republicans had been "mean" to him.
When he was asked Tuesday if he would feel bad standing in the way of the first black president, he said no. "I'm not standing in his way," he said. "I think Hillary would be a better president" who's "ready to do the job on the first day." He added: "No one has a right to be president, including Hillary. Keep in mind, in the last two primaries, we ran as an underdog." He rewrote the facts, saying that "no one thought she could win" in New Hampshire, even though she originally had had a substantial lead.
He said of Obama: "I hope I get a chance to vote for him some day." And that day, of course, would be after Hillary's eight years; it's her turn now because Bill owes her. "I think it would be just as much a change, and some people think more, to have the first woman president as to have the first African-American president," he said.
Bad Bill had been roughing up Obama so much that Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina suggested that he might want to "chill." On a conference call with reporters Tuesday, the former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign, tut-tutted that the "incredible distortions" of the political beast with two backs were "not in keeping with the image of a former president."
Jonathan Alter reported in Newsweek that Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois congressman and former Clinton aide, have both told Bill "that he needs to change his tone and stop attacking Senator Barack Obama."
In the Myrtle Beach debate Monday night, Obama was fed up with being double-teamed by the Clintons. He finally used attack lines that his strategists had urged him to use against Hillary for months. "It was as though all the e-mails were backed up," said one.
When Hillary tried once more to take Obama's remarks about Ronald Reagan out of context, making it seem as though Obama had praised Reagan's policies, he turned sarcastic about getting two distortionists for the price of one.
"I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," he snapped at Hillary.
On a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, Obama did not back off from his more aggressive, if defensive, stance. The Clintons, he said, "spent the last month attacking me in ways that are not accurate. At some point, it's important for me to answer." Recalling that Hillary had called mixing it up the "fun" part of politics, he said: "I don't think it's the fun part to fudge the truth."
Bill has merged with his wife totally now, talking about "we" and "us." "I never did anything major without discussing it with her," he told a crowd here. "We've been having this conversation since we first met in 1971, and I don't think we'll stop now." He suggested as First Lad that "I can help to sell the domestic program."
It's odd that the first woman with a shot at becoming president is so openly dependent on her husband to drag her over the finish line. She handed over South Carolina to him, knowing that her support here is largely derivative.
At the Greenville event, Bill brought up Obama's joking reference to him in the debate, about how Obama would have to see whether Bill was a good dancer before deciding whether he was the first black president.
Bill, naturally, turned it into a competition. "I would be willing to engage in a dancing competition with him, even though he's much younger and thinner than I am," he said. "If I'm going to get in one of these brother contests," he added, "at least I should be entitled to an age allowance."
He said that "I kind of like seeing Barack and Hillary fighting."
"How great is this?" he said. "Neither of them has to be a little wind-up doll who's supposed to behave in a certain way. They're real people, flesh and blood people. They have differences."
And if he has anything to say about it, and he will, they'll be fighting till the last dog dies.
c.2008 New York Times News Service