Posted by andreas from p3EE3C310.dip.t-dialin.net (18.104.22.168) on Saturday, October 05, 2002 at 5:09PM :
Star-gazing: Bill Clinton and Tony Blair found the old magic was still working in Blackpool yesterday.
Shameless Bill anointed king of Blackpool
Political Sketch By Ben Macintyre
THIS was not a political speech, but a cross between a revivalist meeting, a pop concert, and Oscars night. The Labour delegates were star-struck, moon-struck, Bill-struck. It was brilliant, and quite shameless, a reminder of why Bill Clinton, a man now without political power, is still the best politician in the world — though very far from being the best man.
He hugged the audience, he massaged them, and he brought them to their feet. Not a button was left unpressed, not a heart string unpulled, not a gob left unsmacked as he declared his love for them.
“I love this country,” he said, with a trademark lip-bite. “I love these party conferences . . . to the people of the land I have loved so well, keep your eyes on the prize and don’t turn back.”
Only a Southern Baptist can so effortlessly meld the cadence of the hymnal into political speech. “You were there when we turned back the tide of ethnic cleansing. You were there when the alliance turned back Saddam Hussein. When Saddam threw out the weapons inspectors, you were there. And when you were moving towards peace in Northern Ireland, we were there.”
Even Tony Blair raised his voice to “Thank the Lord he’s on my side”. And in return, Clinton called down blessings on his friend: “As an American and a citizen of the world I’m glad that Tony Blair will be central in weighing the risks and making the call.”
He also smote his enemies. “I understand your Tories are using the phrase compassionate conservatism (pause, two, three) I admire a good phrase (pause, two, three) All politics is a combination of rhetoric and reality (pause, two, three) I want you to know that compassion is the rhetoric and conservatism is reality.” (Uproar).
Long before he arrived (late, being a pro) the excitement fizzed across the conference hall, as the delegates jigged to Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, Clinton’s theme tune in his first election campaign.
Kevin Spacey arrived first, with Cherie Blair, to an explosion of flashbulbs. The entire Cabinet craned for a view. Only John Prescott’s scowl remained in place.
And then Clinton strode down the stage: older, greyer, but Elvis still, the King. Even the journalists stood. The hall was stifling, but he never broke sweat. He carried a sheaf of notes, and never looked at it once.
“Ah don’t do this stuff anymore,” he said, a little wistfully, for this is one politician who doesn’t stop thinking about yesterday.
Clinton’s campaign to take Blackpool started the moment he got off the plane. You get so many fake celebrities in Blackpool, the has-beens and the never-weres, that when a real star appears it goes hysterical.
The night before his speech Clinton appeared at Northern Night, a gathering of northern MPs and their mates that is usually famously dull. When he entered, middle-aged Labour ladies began screaming uncontrollably in a way they probably have not done since the Beatles. Men with excess facial hair spilled their pints and surged towards the stage.
Alan Milburn was so overcome that he launched into a sort of emotional Geordie riff that might have come from Paul Gascoigne. “Oor Bill Clinton, can yuh burleeve it, at Geooordie night, incuredible.”
And Bill (everyone calls him Bill) could not have been more at home in brassy, cheesy, kiss-me-quick Blackpool, where there is no upper limit to the amount of junk food an ex-President may eat.
Arkansas has an annual gathering delightfully named Toad Suck Daze, so called because 19th-century steamboat captains on the Arkansas River used to tie up at Toad Suck Lock and refresh themselves at the local tavern where, it was said, “They suck on the bottle ’til they swell up like toads.” I looked at Bill Clinton, as he waved and grinned at the beery, cheering delegates, and you could almost see him thinking: “From Toad Suck Daze to Northern Night ain’t such a great distance: we can win Blackpool.”
And he won it in vintage Clintonian style, emoting and empathising and wrapping the Labour Party in a tight embrace. Indeed, he was the Labour Party. “We’re still the party of positive change,” he said, and the resulting warm glow brought the temperature up yet another notch.
Yet, as love filled the hall, there was Monica, an invisible but permanent presence at the back of the room. All week, the Labour Party has revelled in sanctimonious jokes about John Major; yesterday it cheered to the rafters the world’s most famous adulterer.
I saw my first live Clinton speech, in Little Rock, ten years ago. That one, like yesterday’s, was a tour de force of the politician’s art, seductive and seamless, crafted and clever, but also slightly disquieting in its over-easy charm.
When Elvis had left the building, one wondered, as Monica and America once wondered: “Will he still love me tomorrow?”
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