There was a moment back in September, before the first primary results, when Bill Clinton seemed like the perfect ex-president — and the man you'd want on your side if you were running for president yourself. He'd just concluded the annual meeting of his Clinton Global Initiative and was telling Tim Russert on Meet the Press how he was bringing people together to fund projects that would alleviate poverty, develop a new form of solar energy and provide reading glasses to poor people around the world. Then something really remarkable happened: Bill Clinton admitted a mistake.

Mr. Fish

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Earlier that week, Russert had moderated a debate with the then-sizable field of Democratic candidates. Perhaps out of boredom — or just to get someone to take notice at a time when people cared more about the week's college-football upsets — the NBC Washington bureau chief read a quote to Hillary Clinton in which a government official said, yes, if he knew a bomb was about to go off and he had a high-ranking al-Qaeda plotter in custody, he would have the information beaten out of the terrorist, just like Jack Bauer in practically every episode of 24. The twist was that Russert didn't reveal that the speaker was Bill Clinton. Hillary answered by dismissing the Bauer rule of torture. “It cannot be American policy, period,” she said. “These hypotheticals are very dangerous because they open a great big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president takes towards the appropriate treatment of everyone, and I think it's dangerous to go down this path.”

When Russert revealed the quote's source as her husband, Hillary calmly and forcefully said, “Well, he's not standing here right now.”

Russert pressed her: “So there is a disagreement?”

“Well,” she said, relaxed and mock-exasperated, “I'll talk to him later.”

It was one of Hillary Clinton's best moments in this long campaign. She not only differentiated herself from her formidable husband, but she did it with charm and humor — displaying none of the brittleness we saw earlier this week, on the day Ted Kennedy anointed Barack Obama as the true heir to the John F. Kennedy mantle of youthful spirit and political glamour. Even better was Bill's reaction as he recalled the debate with outright glee. “I loved it,” he told Russert with an unabashed look of pride. “I told her I thought she was terrific, and I… decided that on the policy she was right.”

That week in September, both Bill and Hillary Clinton were on top of their games. Even if you dreaded the seeming inevitability of a Hillary Clinton nomination, you wouldn't have been wrong, if you are a progressive, to have felt a little nostalgia at that moment for the Clinton era — and maybe a flash of anger at Al Gore for shunning such a skilled campaigner as Bill Clinton back in 2000.

But we've seen a different side of the Clintons in recent weeks. It's clear that years of attacks by their conservative foes have not only taught them how to withstand incoming fire, they've also learned to take brutal aim themselves. James Carville may call some of us whiners for our dismay over the ugly tone Bill Clinton has injected into this presidential race, but many of us are shedding our '90s nostalgia as we remember the unrelenting bitterness of those days. Much as we'd like to enjoy the prosperous and terror-free lives we used to live, the world has changed, and we are weary of the divisiveness that has eaten away at our national character.

The Clintons' hardcore campaign style — a little too close to the Bush administration's with-us-or-against-us mentality — has reinforced our conviction that Bill and Hillary are very much part of the Washington status quo, the status quo that Barack Obama says he is “looking to fundamentally change.” Hillary Clinton might never have gotten us into the war with Iraq, but she did vote to authorize that war, at least in part so she could look tough on defense in anticipation of her run for the White House. Meanwhile, Obama, as Senator Kennedy pointed out this week, was against the war from the beginning. He didn't need to wait for the war to be mismanaged to know that it would be. And it took years for Clinton to admit that her vote was wrong — again, largely for political expediency as the mood of the country changed. She is also the candidate most indebted to corporate lobbyists and, as much as she might want to set herself apart from her husband to make debate points, it's not at all clear that she wouldn't have made the same neoliberal calculations in ending the federal welfare program — no matter her pledge to John Edwards as he pulled out of the race that she would work to end poverty.

Certainly when Barack Obama first came onto the scene, some of us were suspicious of his beautiful words, which at first weren't backed up with the kinds of detailed policy positions that Edwards presented. But as we've watched the unprecedented turnouts in Iowa and beyond, especially among the young, who have always been considered unreliable voters, it's become clear that we have the chance to be part of a new historical era — if our cynicism doesn't get the better of us.

If I were to vote in the old style of identity politics, I would feel obliged to vote for Hillary Clinton. As a woman who could relate to her teary-eyed New Hampshire moment, a Latina in a city where the Clintons delivered a lot of political goodwill, and a journalist who isn't supposed to get caught up in emotion-driven movements, I should logically choose Clinton. She's paid her dues with her party, and her man; it's her turn to run. But last Saturday, as I listened to Obama deliver his victory speech in South Carolina, I knew that I would be voting for the senator from Illinois. And it wasn't just the prettiness of his words that persuaded me.

Behind his message of hope, Obama, throughout this campaign, has been speaking the language of an on-the-ground activist. “Yes, we can,” he repeated again and again in Saturday's speech, mirroring the call of a thousand immigrant and labor marches: “Si, se puede.

Obama isn't just asking Americans to vote for him; he is asking that Americans help him lead. This means putting pressure on Congress and health care companies so that universal health care is politically possible, not just a good idea. This means demanding real proof, not ginned-up satellite pictures, before committing our troops to dangerous misadventures. Just as consumer demand for hybrid cars forced American automakers to begin producing cleaner-burning cars, so can voter demand force Congress to begin to make real changes in the way it operates. The thing is, many Americans want to do more than pull a lever and leave it to a politician to save the day.

“America is a great nation precisely because Americans have been willing to stand up when it was hard; to serve on stages both great and small; to rise above moments of great challenge and terrible trial,” Obama said in December. “[After September 11] we had a chance to step into the currents of history. We were ready to answer a new call for our country. But the call never came. Instead, we were asked to go shopping, and to prove our patriotism by supporting a war in Iraq that should never have been authorized, and never been waged.”

I understand that Barack Obama is a mere politician with flaws and potentially troubling conflicts of interest. He's not going to lead us to some imagined promised land of unity and unicorns. But of all the people running for the White House, he can put out a call for sacrifice and service and, unlike Jimmy Carter in his tragic cardigan sweater, get people to listen and to act. This is what Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy picked up on when they endorsed Obama. And it is the real hope behind his candidacy.

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