Posted: Nov. 12, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A speech by Bill Clinton could have brought the Delaware Democrats a new regard for Joe Biden.

If Biden had spoken, it would have been shorter. No fooling.

Maybe Biden knew what he was doing when he arranged for Clinton to appear Tuesday evening at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, the state party's biggest event, held this year at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington.

It was a gala night with a larger-than-life aura, pumped by Clinton's overarching presence and his oversized speech, along with the packed house he attracted of 1,500 people, believed to be the largest dinner ever held in the riverfront hall.

"Clinton mania. Everybody's psyched," said Rhett Ruggerio, a past national committeeman for the Delaware Democrats.

Clinton's speech passed the hour mark but never set off any restless stirring at the tables. He was that charming and compelling, a blend of aw-shucks Arkansas and reflective Rhodes Scholar.

"God! I love Delaware," Clinton began, and it was impossible not to think he meant it, even though it was just as impossible not to wonder if he also has said, with the same inflection, "God! I love New Jersey," or "God! I love Florida."

Clinton was the ringmaster, and he did what he was supposed to do. He got the Democrats cracking on what is anticipated to be an epic election for the U.S. Senate, presumably between Mike Castle, the congressman and ex-governor elected more times statewide than any other Delaware Republican, and Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general and son of the vice president.

In one long run-on sentence, deep into the speech with the hook already set in the crowd, Clinton laid down the charge.

"What I want you to think about today is how you want to feel when this is over, and what you have to do to support your senators and the Democratic Congress, your governor and your state officials as they face these tough decisions, and what you're going to say this next election as you try to hold Joe Biden's Senate seat for the Democrats, where it ought to be," he said.

All night long, Beau Biden was a sort of junior partner to Clinton, like someone waiting for a cue. Biden has not come out yet as the Senate candidate, but the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner was clearly a run-up toward it.

No wonder Joe Biden stayed away. Two's company, as Beau Biden and Clinton were, but Joe Biden would have made it three's a crowd. There is only so much people can absorb.

Besides, the Democratic Party might have gone broke paying for the electricity to keep the microphone going for both Clinton and Joe Biden.

Clinton, the old saxophone player, riffed on Beau Biden.

"I was looking at Beau Biden backstage and thinking how young, handsome and thin he is. Hard not to resent a guy like that," Clinton quipped.

"He's got the best job in politics. You know, I was attorney general. That was my first elected job. You don't have to appoint or disappoint, like governors or presidents do. If you did anything really unpopular, you could just blame it on the Constitution."

Never mind that Clinton did not say what people were thinking. Gov. Jack Markell did. "We'll work to keep our U.S. Senate seat in Democratic hands by sending Attorney General Beau Biden to Washington," Markell said.

It was about the only thing Clinton left for someone else. He talked about politics, Afghanistan, higher education, health care, energy, the national debt, farming in Rwanda, Abraham Lincoln, "Saving Private Ryan," Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt -- everything up to and including a shirt maker in Ghana.

It was like a "State of the World" address. People liked it, anyway.

"Excellent. Smart," said Shaku Bhaya, a lawyer who was there. Her brevity was welcome.

In that partisan audience, Clinton was as beguiling as a torch singer who can make spouses forget they are married. If any Republicans had heard him, they would have needed therapy.

"The country's still basically with the Democrats, but we have a big challenge, because people only hire us when things are a mess. You notice that? They hire us to fix things. When they just want to hear speeches, they'd just as soon listen to the Republicans," he said.

Clinton insisted George Bush was elected only because he promised he would be a "compassionate conservative" who would improve upon Clinton, and even then it took a 5-4 Supreme Court decision -- "the smallest turnout in American history," Clinton cracked.

"[Bush said] I'll give you everything Bill Clinton did but with smaller government and bigger tax cuts. Taxes are by definition evil, so God would shower money on us. It turns out the laws of arithmetic apply in Washington, D.C., just like they do in Delaware and Arkansas," Clinton said.

There was no telling how many cameras and cell phones captured Clinton in the darkened hall, like the flickering of besotted fireflies. He stayed after the speech to work the crowd and suck the last of the oxygen from the room.

Seats emptied. Other speakers came afterwards, but they knew they were beaten. Sen. Tom Carper waved the white flag.

"As I prepared to walk up here, my wife leaned over. She said keep it short. A waiter and waitress walked over as I was walking up and said keep it short," Carper said.

"I'll keep it short."