I hardly recognized the Bill Clinton I saw in the Cynthia McFadden interview. The brilliant, agile, articulate politician we’ve watched for the past twenty-five years was nowhere to be found. In his place was a slow-speaking, frail-looking, short-tempered elderly man with the voice of Bill Clinton.
What’s happened to him?
His responses seemed painfully labored, his thinking muddled. There was an obvious difficulty and frustration in finding the right words. He seemed befuddled — his free floating stops-and-starts were jarring as he seemed to start to speak of ideas as they darted across his mind and then instantly stop in mid-sentence. It was painful to watch, much like watching an old-timer ball player in his late sixties struggle to execute plays he once did automatically.
The Bill Clinton in Africa appeared uncharacteristically rattled, unusually hesitant, particularly in the original video released on Monday morning. By evening, things had been cleaned up a bit.
Was it just exhaustion? Or has Bill Clinton unplugged lost his magic?
No one can stay on message better than Bill Clinton, but he was all over the place in the interview. Whatever message he had planned went out the window. He must have been prepped to answer McFadden’s question about the appearances of making $500,000 per speech. He had memorized some statistics about the global reach of the Clinton Foundation — that’s always been easy for him. But he fumbled badly when asked unscripted, but easily anticipated questions. At first, he seemed to be groping for the words to say that making money is the American way. Then, sensing how inappropriate that would sound, he shifted to the ridiculous argument: “I gotta pay my bills.”
Would anyone believe that he was living from $500,000 paycheck to the next $500,000 paycheck?
This certainly was not a prepared sound bite. And most likely his claim that everybody makes mistakes on their taxes — as the Foundation did for seven years — wasn’t polled before he threw it out.
The former president seemed to hide behind the optics of needy children as he justified his massive income. But all the arguments about how giving money to the Foundation helps poor people fall apart when we realize how much of the money goes into his pocket and her pocketbook.
Even in his interactions with the disadvantaged children that his Foundation helps, Bill Clinton moved slowly, glowing in a great-grandfatherly way at their accomplishments and accepting their thanks, a half smile implanted surgically on his face.
The biggest — and saddest — impression that comes across is one of extreme frailty. This in a big man once so filled with vigor. At one point in 1995, in frustration, I seized his arms and shook him, trying to shake out the sense of gloom and defeat that enveloped him after losing Congress. Now I’d fear that he’d fall apart if I shook too hard.
No longer do his arms chap at the air as he makes his points. Now gravity and their own weight sort of bring them down. He doesn’t stride anymore. He shuffles. He makes weird faces as his rage slips through. He’s not on top of his game.
The former president is 68– that’s not so old. But his health issues and his reduced stamina make him appear so much older.
Maybe he just needs to rest. And maybe his rage at the accusations about his Foundation sent him reeling. But whatever was behind his atrocious performance, it didn’t help his wife’s cause. Not at all.