In the warm twilight of a spring evening 15 years ago, in the quiet, green garden of Rhodes House at Oxford, I watched Bill Clinton give an impromptu talk to a group of graduate students who had gathered around him with their glasses of wine after an official function earlier in the day. (I was there in a service capacity.) He was pushing the same line he espoused last week while campaigning for Hillary, when he declared that he had “killed himself” to get a state for the Palestinians at the high-stakes Camp David summit in 2000. At one point in the twilight talk at Oxford, he quoted — or claimed to quote — Yasser Arafat as testimony to his altruistic efforts: “Arafat told me, ‘Mr President, you have done more for the Palestinian people than all the Arab leaders combined!’” Sadly, the pressures those short-sighted Arabs brought to bear on Bill’s friend Yasser thwarted Clinton’s painstaking and heroic labors on the Palestinians’ behalf, and the summit failed.
I admit, Clinton is (or was) good at this kind of thing. He held the group in the palm of his hand, speaking with an engaged — and engaging — passion, direct and personal, without soaring rhetoric or the practiced glibness of the professional politician. It was interesting to see this phenomenon up close. In the immediate spell of his performance, you hardly noticed the great hubris and arrogance in what he actually said: that he alone had almost brought peace to the Middle East, that he loved the Palestinians more than the Arabs themselves did, that no one could have done more than he did to resolve the situation — all the while reducing Arafat to the role of a servile coolie, who humbly attests to the Master’s greatness and nobility.
And even though I knew at the time there was hardly a word of truth in what he said (as this story, unearthed by Spencer Thayer, makes clear), I could still feel the tidal pull of his charisma, the temptation to let go and believe in the portrait, the fantasy, he was painting. Indeed, I think Clinton himself probably believed it, at least in the moment of its telling — which is course the hallmark, the supreme talent, of a master grifter.
Of course, that was long ago. Watching Clinton today on the campaign trail for Hillary, it seems clear that his charisma has severely decayed, perhaps rotted by the years of money-grubbing with oligarchs and despots. Or maybe it's just the natural fading that comes with age and disuse. (When I saw him, he was only a few weeks out of his presidency, still at the top of his game with the skills he’d honed during decades of continual politicking.) Now he seems brittle, rattled and scattered; he can summon the spirits, in a wan attempt to paint over the truth — but they no longer come when he calls.