Some politicians handle the old heave-ho quite well. They get it—the fleeting nature of fame, politics as a fickle mistress and all of that. When the time comes for their ride into the sunset, they do so not in some noisy, awkward trot, but with a canter, graceful and fluid.
One politician who comprehends the understated exit: former President Bill Clinton.
One politician who doesn’t know understated from undeterred: Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.
When it came time for Clinton to go after two terms in 2000, the formal transition was pretty-well scripted. One of finest bits of the U.S. Constitution mandates an orderly change from one presidential administration to the next, and, with the exception of the weeks it took the Supreme Court to hand George W. Bush the seat that Al Gore won in 2000, the transition happened as Americans (though rightfully bitter) would expect.
But much of the transition hung on what appears to be Clinton’s ability to move on and into the next chapter. In walking away from the White House, he didn’t seem to do much looking back. Those who can’t get past his Monica Lewinsky fling would say Clinton skillfully slipped out the back door. It was to his personal advantage. Well, fine.
But it didn’t take long for him to find meaningful work in retirement. He helped his wife Hillary get elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000, then re-elected last year. He’s back at it again, acting as Hillary’s top fund-raiser for her 2008 presidential bid. In between all that campaigning, Clinton teamed with George H.W. Bush in raising millions for relief after the 2004 south Asian tsunami. He has found AIDS prevention work in Africa, and a couple of books to write, too.
You could see and hear a man who seems comfortable in his post-retirement skin when he spoke Nov. 4 to 1,500 at the University of Utah on behalf of Hillary’s campaign. Clinton ticked off the reasons she would make the best president among an impressive bunch of Democratic rivals. Like a good political spouse, he framed the pitch around her. “She will put the United States back in the cooperation business” with countries George W. Bush has so skillfully alienated, he said. “She will get America’s standing back in the world, and she’ll do it more quickly than anyone else”—Democrat or Republican, he said.
It was striking how well Clinton plays second fiddle. He frequently dissed himself with self-deprecating asides. He called himself the “old horse.” They pull him out of the stable now and again, he said, and try to make him useful.
Pretty useful, all right. In two brief Utah appearances, Clinton raised more than $350,000 for Hillary. And did I mention it was Utah?
But then there are those politicians who just can’t seem to go gently. With time, ego and all self-image wrapped into elected office, a person moving on can evolve into one sad, slow process. It actually hurts to watch it, like witnessing a scab picking. Just do it, you think. Pull the damn thing off and be done.
Rocky Anderson can’t seem to go easy. About eight hours from now (as I write this column), we’ll have a whole new mayor in Salt Lake City, and Anderson will be yesterday’s headlines on the stack of recyclables headed for the big blue receptacle. He managed for the most part to avoid stomping all over the campaigns of those he disagreed with, as he did in the primary. He hardly uttered a hyperbolic word in this final election cycle, for instance, against personal nemesis and mayoral candidate Dave Buhler (his favorites were “horrendous,” and “utter disaster.”). But three days before Election Day, Anderson couldn’t resist pulling out the stops with his announcement of opposition of a ballot measure to fund new public safety buildings.
This, after he sat on the issue for months, barely squeezing out a burp over the issue. The mayor believes he has a moral obligation to speak out on such things. And he does—when he has any relevance. But now it’s simply time to go, time to move off quietly and find a way to pay the bills.
It would be much nicer if Anderson could just canter off with dignity—an old gray horse like Bill Clinton. His graceful absence could only grow on us. Years from now, we might even draw him out of the stable for a friendly downtown reunion.
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