The Comeback Kid
I t had been the winter of talking trash, a season in which the candidates trekked from arena to arena insulting one another like a lost troupe from the World Wrestling Federation. Their debates were the undercard of the primary process; they were of little real consequence except as make-work for handlers and divertissements for the sportsmen and scribes waiting at ringside for the main event. But CNN chanced to have scheduled its installment in the seemingly endless maxiseries for the Sunday before the New Hampshire primary, and Bill Clinton approached it as edgily as if his comeback from the boneyard of politics depended on how well he did.
His mood was cranky as he set out from Manchester to Nashua in a red campaign minivan the Saturday before the big show. His handlers piled in with him; the half-hour ride was the only time they could wedge into the schedule to begin his warm-ups. The buzz among them as they got started was about why Paul Tsongas had dropped mostly out of sight for the past several days. In fact, he was holed up nursing a painfully infected eye. But mysteries in politics are usually food for paranoid thought, and Clinton was not immune. He guessed aloud that Tsongas was spending a hundred hours prepping for the debate. The fantasy gnawed at him and became fresh ground for complaint about his own handlers, whom he often tended to blame when things went wrong. "I've basically been both under- and overprepared," he groused, looking back at them from the passenger seat. That was why he hadn't done as well as he should have on the debate tour. He had been too passive. He hadn't felt well armed.
Hillary, sitting just behind him, thought he might be getting too much advice from his cornermen, not too little. Whenever he felt his circuits getting overloaded, she said, he needed to tune them out. "The important thing, Bill," she told him, "is for you to say what you're comfortable with."
His handlers didn't disagree in principle; the problem was that what Clinton was most comfortable with was the minutiae of public policy --