Friday, April 23, 2010

Reversal of Fortune

In its own way, at its own pace, history fills in the blanks for us.

On this day 15 years ago, the pain and the grief was intense in Oklahoma City and the rest of Oklahoma. Four days had passed since the horrific bombing that took 168 lives, and President Bill Clinton came to the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds that Sunday to speak at the memorial prayer service. He came to fulfill his presidential role as Comforter in Chief, but I am convinced the ever–pragmatic Clinton must have come with at least some political objectives in mind as well.

Clinton's party had just lost control of both houses of Congress about six months earlier, and the president's future was uncertain. In general, polls showed that there were about as many Americans who disapproved of Clinton's job performance as there were those who approved.

History tells us that Clinton went on to be re–elected the following year. He carried 31 states and D.C., receiving more than 47 million popular votes and 379 electoral votes. No one heard of Monica Lewinsky until well after the election. The Republicans in Congress did not try to have Clinton removed from office until that second term was half over. No doubt there were many who thought, in 1995, the voters would take care of that for them.

In 1995, there was still some doubt that Clinton would win a second term — and part of that doubt was based on the perception in the country that Clinton was wishy–washy, that he wasn't tough enough for a nation that had gleefully re–elected Ronald Reagan a decade earlier.

On that Sunday in April 1995 — almost exactly a year after Clinton delivered one of the eulogies for Richard Nixon — I was living in central Oklahoma, and I recall no conversations I had with anyone else who was living there nor do I recall any discussions on the Sunday morning news shows that dealt with Clinton's political prospects.

I guess it would have been astonishing if local attention had focused on Clinton, even though the presidential entourage was coming to the state that day. Everyone's attention was still on the bombing site. The waning hope that survivors might still be found was mentioned, even though conditions had been unseasonably cool and wet in the days after the bombing, and experts warned listeners that the odds were against finding any more survivors buried in the rubble. Although Timothy McVeigh was in custody, there was some talk of the search for "John Doe #2," McVeigh's alleged accomplice, but if he ever existed, he was never found. I've only heard him mentioned once in nearly 10 years.

And there were still those who clung to the rumors (which had been discredited within hours of the bombing) that Middle Eastern terrorists had been involved. It's hard to remember now, but, at the time, the first (and unsuccessful) attack on the World Trade Center was a not–so–distant memory, and the American public, then as now, was more prepared to blame a foreign terrorist than a domestic one.

For the most part, my recollection of that day is that the people of Oklahoma were still in shock, and Clinton came to help them come to terms with their loss. His visit was mentioned respectfully by the local media, but there was none of the excitement that a place like Oklahoma City would be expected to show — under normal circumstances — for a presidential visit.

Part of that may have had to do with the fact that Clinton is a Democrat and Oklahoma hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Clinton was a teenager.

Oklahoma hasn't always been the Republican state that it is today. For the first four decades of its existence as a state, Oklahoma voted for Democratic candidates for president most of the time. But since 1952, Oklahoma has voted Democratic only once.

I really doubt that Clinton came to Oklahoma City 15 years ago today with the idea that he could win over Oklahoma with a lot of posturing and tough talk. But he used the kind of language ("evil," "terrible sin") that resonated in deeply religious Oklahoma and spoke of how healing the grief and pain was "God's work."

I think he came to Oklahoma City hoping to win over enough locals to make him the most competitive Democratic nominee Oklahoma had seen in awhile — and, in the process, revive his own political fortunes.

"You have lost too much," Clinton told his listeners, "but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes."

He quoted Scripture, telling the people of Oklahoma City that the dogwood he and his wife had planted at the White House in memory of the lost lives "embodies the lesson of the Psalms — that the life of a good person is like a tree whose leaf does not wither."

"[A] tree takes a long time to grow," Clinton said, "and wounds take a long time to heal. But we must begin."

When I sat in my Norman, Okla., apartment that day and watched Clinton deliver that speech, I felt that what he was beginning was his campaign for re–election. To me, he had seemed rather silent in that spring of 1995, metaphorically licking his wounds and biding his time while the Republican majorities in Congress reveled in their newly acquired power.

Oklahoma City was Clinton's triumphant return to the national stage — and that, to me, is the great irony of the Oklahoma City bombing.

McVeigh said he was retaliating for — even said he chose the date because of — the siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, two years earlier. That siege began very early in Clinton's presidency. He hadn't had time to accomplish anything, really, but it could be said that the Oklahoma City bombing was aimed at Clinton.

We've all heard McVeigh's comments about "collateral damage." Clinton may have been part of that, even though he was in another time zone. It just may have been intended to hurt Clinton more than it hurt anyone else, even those who were killed.

Yet Clinton turned the tables on McVeigh and may well have won his second term because of what he said 15 years ago today.

Ironic, huh?

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