Clinton Live!

Double Bill: William Jefferson Clinton has always been an intriguing paradox: equal parts nerdy policy wonk and charismatic rock star, a smart guy who made stupid decisions, someone who spoke the language of liberal idealism while also ending welfare as we knew it and pursuing hair-trigger militarism or whatever would increase his popularity with voters informed by television news and talk radio.

Clinton’s paradoxes were on proud display over the weekend when he spoke at UC Davis. The speech sold out faster than any in the 48-year history of the university’s speakers forum and drew legions of enthusiastic supporters, both inside the Mondavi Center and at Freeborn Hall, where he stopped after the speech to rub elbows with students.

Yet, the spectacle featured an ex-president who was still tired and hoarse from campaigning for Democrats during the disastrous midterm elections—a defeat for Democrats that many blamed on the party’s failure to stand definitively for anything. That is also the legacy of Clinton, who won his second term by cutting the soul out of the party and leaving little to energize people over the long haul.

The substance of his speech reflected that same all-things-to-all-people approach. He excited liberals by calling for an aggressive American effort to reduce worldwide poverty, thereby cutting the number of desperate enemies who would use terrorism against us. But then he reached out to the hawks by lending support for President Bush’s war effort and by saying he would like to see an even larger contingent of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Throughout the speech, Bites watched as Clinton’s visible early fatigue steadily faded away and became replaced by the charm and active intelligence that are his hallmarks—as if he became energized by the sound of his own voice. He was doing what he does best: basking in the spotlight, feeling your pain, appreciating your appreciation of his considerable gifts.

History still doesn’t know what to make of this man, and maybe it never will in a definitive way. Clinton spoke jealously of Jimmy Carter’s recent Nobel Peace Prize. He’s hoping to win one and maybe even working to do so, even though he probably knows he’ll never command the widespread respect Carter has earned through a simple and steadfast commitment to principles.

But, while history makes up its mind about Clinton, legions of writers will try to make sense of him, from Bites to social critic P.J. O’Rourke, who is on the Clinton speaking tour for an upcoming Rolling Stone article that will probe Clinton’s post-presidential rock stardom or whatever it is his role has become. It should be an insightful read.

Airy thoughts: Maybe it was the pure oxygen that got Bites’ brain bubbling while spending an evening this week bellied up to downtown Sacramento’s first trendy oxygen bar, which just opened inside the Sheraton Grand Hotel. But Bites has been thinking a lot about the air we breathe and other things we take for granted, such as our health, our security and our right to sit in traffic.

Through the warm summer months, we start many days glancing at air-pollution indexes showing we’ll be breathing “unhealthy” air. What can we do about it, not breathe those days? So we shrug it off, get in our cars and commute to work.

We read about studies like the one that the National Environmental Trust put out recently, showing that before infants in California reach their first birthday, they have exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable lifetime-exposure limit to cancer-causing air pollutants. Then, we look at Junior with a kind of sad resignation.

We hear about lead and saline in our municipal drinking water and buy bottled water instead. We see corruption and cravenness in politics, so we don’t vote. We hear about connections between American affluence and worldwide poverty and then go shopping to cheer ourselves up.

Now, where is Bites going with all this? Who knows? Maybe Bites needs another hit of oxygen to figure it out. “Bartender, another round, and make it a double.”