Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Clintons In Danger Of Ruining Legacy

Bill and Hillary Clinton, two people with just about the largest egos in America, are in danger of ruining their legacy of political leadership and as stalwarts of the Democratic Party.

They may not realize it, but the Clintons are in crisis management mode as the nation turns its attention to the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 25-28.

From the perspective of strategic communications, politics can be a strange business. Day-in, day-out, dozens of strategists likely huddle with the Clintons to chart their next moves in the face of the Democratic Party nomination of Barack Obama and his run for the White House.

One wonders, though, are the Clintons focused on shaping their legacies, or are they interested in retaining the spotlight just to feed their egos? At stake are not just their roles at the convention, but also how history will judge them as political leaders and how Hillary will be positioned for the future.

Shaping one’s legacy is no simple matter. From the corporate world, we have the example of Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric. Through skillful management of his legacy, Welch is now arguably more popular then ever.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dick Grasso, former head of the New York Stock Exchange, may have won his case in the court of law, but the court of public opinion is another matter. Most people view him as a greedy Wall Street type who walked away with tens of millions of dollars he didn’t deserve.

Speaking Roles Coming Into View

The Democratic National Convention is heating up for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Bill will speak on the third night before an address by the yet-to-be-named VP candidate, while Sen. Clinton is expected to speak on the convention’s second night.

Meanwhile, recent comments from the two leave one wondering if they will articulate the party line at the convention or create party divisiveness.

During a trip to Africa, Mr. Clinton said (for the record) “…you can argue that nobody is ready to be president,” and he learned a lot in his first year on the job. That remark, which made headlines across the country and throughout the world, could be viewed as tepid and unenthusiastic. Why didn’t he just say Obama was qualified?

Hillary, speaking about the same time during a Web chat, insisted she’s sincerely behind Obama after someone asked whether she truly was supporting him or was “just saying what you have to?”

In a video, Sen. Clinton seems to be inviting more dissent from her supporters at the Democratic Convention when she says, “…I’ve made it very clear that I’m supporting Obama, and we’re working cooperatively on a lot of different matters. But delegates can decide what they want to do on their own; they don’t need my permission.”

As The New York Times pointed out in an Aug. 8 analysis, having one Clinton, let alone two, hover over you during a Presidential campaign can be trying. Just ask Al Gore.

Some may recall that the Gore campaign tried to keep Mr. Clinton out of the limelight at the L.A. convention in 2000, giving him a speaking role on Monday night. But Mr. Clinton arrived the previous Friday and was the toast of the town for nearly three days leading up to his speech.

What might the Clintons have up their sleeves for Denver?

It’s hard not to see that, so far, the Clintons are all about being the Clintons. If they disrupt the convention and further split the party, John McCain is likely to win. For their part, the Clintons risk being despised by the Party for years to come.

Rx to Protect Their Legacy

The Clintons should, of course, speak at the convention. After all, Bill is a former president and Hillary (by her own count) captured 18 million votes in the primaries. However, what they need to understand is what they say and how they say it will have a direct impact on their reputations and legacy.

History tells us that it only takes a few pointed comments to the national media to create a lasting impression (“Read my lips: no new taxes”, George H.W. Bush, 1988 Republican National Convention). Based on more than 30 years’ experience counseling politicians, corporate executives and individuals trying to manage their reputations, I’m offering a few sound bites for the Clintons.

For Mr. Clinton:

“…Barack Obama has the skill, commitment and ability to lead the Democrats back to the White House.”

“…People say Obama is a celebrity. What’s wrong with that? Leadership has many qualities. Understanding what the electorate wants and needs wins elections.”

“…I’ve dedicated my political life to the Democratic Party. Obama shares the fundamental ideals that have made the Party great. I hope every Democrat and Independent voter rallies behind him and elects him President.”

For Sen. Clinton:

“…This is not the time to talk about what happened during the primary campaign. It’s time to turn the page. The people have spoken and I’m doing everything in my power between now and November to get Obama elected.”

“…I was honored to have 18 million Americans cast their ballots for me in the primaries. I urge those same voters, along with Independents, to cast their ballots for Obama.”

For almost two decades, the Clintons have captured and maintained a major presence in the American political landscape and dialogue. They have accomplished much, but there comes a time to elevate the political discussion and demonstrate true leadership. If their real goal is to help the Democratic Party regain the White House, they must abandon the hubris.

These actions would help solidify their legacy as two of the most remarkable political leaders in America.

Joe M. Grillo, senior vice president at Nicolazzo & Associates, contributed to this blog.

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