In avoidance of the political conventions I turned to a character named Ernie Brown Jr., who is known to his millions of fans as the Turtleman.
Described as a Kentucky woodsman, the Turtleman has his own show on cable TV. In exchange for a fresh-baked pie or a jar of homemade jam, he’ll come to your home and remove unwanted opossums, snakes, skunks, raccoons or snapping turtles (his specialty).
In one unforgettable episode, the ceiling of a crawl space gives way, dumping a nest of squirming rats on the Turtleman’s head. On another show he submerges in a pond of reeking manure to grab a rogue turtle that’s been biting cows on the ankles.
You can understand why the Turtleman is a superstar.
Personally — and I speak for many Americans — I’d rather watch a man flop around with wild rodents in his hair than listen to another political speech.
Unfortunately, the Turtleman’s time slot is early in the evening, so while flipping channels late I occasionally stumbled into convention coverage. Usually I paused to see who was speaking and hear what they were saying.
Then, when my gums began to bleed, I moved on.
The other night something unexpected happened when I came across the Democratic National Convention on CNN. Bill Clinton was talking on stage, and he was every bit as compelling as Ernie Brown Jr.
I put down the remote and watched. It was intriguing not just because of Clinton’s obvious gifts as a speaker, but also because of what it says about the American heart.
Remember that this was a guy whose horndog ways almost torpedoed his second term of office, handing the Republicans enough ammunition to stage an impeachment trial that derailed his agenda and sapped the nation’s energy for many long, infuriating months.
Who knows what else Clinton might have accomplished if he’d been content with just a peck on the cheek from Monica Lewinsky, or at least hadn’t lied about what happened.
Yet even after the scandal he walked out of the White House as one of the most popular presidents ever, and he’s even more popular now. The most recent Gallup/USA Today poll, conducted before last week’s convention, put his favorability rating at 69 percent — much higher than either of the presidential candidates.
Which is basically the political equivalent of a Beatle.
Ex-presidents typically are held in higher esteem, but Clinton’s aura is different. It’s true that he’s done good things since leaving office — his work in Haiti is one example — yet Jimmy Carter has done lots of good things, too, and nobody was clamoring to hear him speak in Charlotte.
Clinton clicks with an audience in a way that few politicians can. Look around Washington these days and try to find a trace of charisma on either side of the aisle. John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid — collectively, they have as much personality as you might find hanging on a taxidermist’s wall.
The two men running for president have proven they can deliver good speeches, but neither of them have Clinton’s uncommonly common touch. His performance the other night was off the charts.
He spoke from experience about the job of being president, about rebuilding a damaged economy, about national security, about the lost art of compromise and cooperation. He was animated and fervent and even fatherly.
In support of Barack Obama he tossed up one statistic after another, some more reliable than others, but in the end it was all about his presence. They don’t call him the Big Dog for nothing.
Americans are well aware of Clinton’s personal flaws, but he is still liked and admired by an overwhelming majority. It’s partly nostalgia for a better time, but it’s also the fact that Clinton has always known how to talk to people in a way they understand.
An ordinary politician would have been destroyed by an impeachment trial, but after all this time he’s still hot on the campaign trail, still chasing votes for the Democrats. It’s not a resurrection; the man never went away.
Eight years under the hottest, most merciless spotlight is plenty for most mortals. Dwight Eisenhower was thrilled to go work on his golf game after two terms in the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan couldn’t wait to get back to California. And George W. Bush was by all accounts delighted to stay in Texas last month while his party celebrated in Tampa.
The world of politics can be as putrid and suffocating as a cattle pond, but Clinton is like our eternal Turtleman. He loves making a splash, and he’s good at it.