WASHINGTON • The first time I met Bill Clinton was in the Arkansas Statehouse in Little Rock in the late 1980s at a conference of some sort. He walked toward me smiling, and I held out my hand.
But instead of taking it, he started fingering my tie. I looked to see if it had egg on it from breakfast.
"Good looking tie you got on there," he said.
About the time he spoke, a crash sounded. A gigantic watermelon, the State Fair winner I believe, had collapsed a wooden table and made a hellacious mess on the marble floor.
Clinton smiled, nodded to someone in the wings, and went about being a governor.
The charm and resilience he displayed that morning have served him well over his career. When Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention tonight, President Barack Obama will be hoping some of the magic rubs off.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last month attested to how the public views the 42nd president: His 57 percent positive ratings easily topped the favorability of every major public figure tested — including Obama. It wasn't terribly far off from Clinton's high-water popularity of 64 percent when he took office in January 1993.
Year after year, the popularity of Big Dog, as he's known among Democrats, has ticked up even as the Clinton's weight has dropped. (After quadruple bypass, he became a vegan.)
It is noteworthy that Republicans have only the legacy of Ronald Reagan to draw on among modern leaders. Neither George Bush 43 or George Bush 41 showed up in Tampa. Dick Cheney said he was going fishing.
Among Clinton's many faults is a pettiness that showed up in his relationship with Jimmy Carter. Carter allies say Clinton rarely called on Carter for counsel, and maybe Clinton expected the same from Obama.
But Obama needs him. And, by most accounts, the tensions between the two men ebbed after Clinton accused Obama of playing the race card in the Obama-Hillary Clinton primary contest.
Clinton's task tonight will be to rekindle memories of the go-go years of the 1990s, the last time a Democrat had the keys to the White House, and to somehow entwine Obama's legacy with his. Looking to November, he'll be appealing to those relatively small pools of independents and persuadable voters who might admire his resilience and could be moved by his charm.
Of course, he must accomplish these tasks without drawing contrasts with Obama. Contrast is what Republicans want, as evidenced by Rep. Paul Ryan's praise of Clinton today in Iowa.
"President Clinton worked with Republicans in Congress to have a budget agreement, to cut spending. President Obama? A gusher of new spending and only demagoguery from those of us who have offered solutions," the GOP vice presidential candidate said.