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Feeling his Way

Clinton's former speechwriter combs the president's words for clues as to what he will do now that he faces history's judgment. Will he simply feel the pain of the "forgotten middle class" -- or address it?

The first time I met Bill Clinton was in a crowded hotel room in Los Angeles, a few hours before he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.

I was a survivor of the Democrats' debacle tour of the 1980s, having worked as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. In spite of that record, I had just been hired as chief speechwriter for Clinton's general election campaign. I was nervous, but Clinton put me at ease, rising from the couch, calling me by my first name, gripping my right hand with one hand and my elbow with the other.

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In a brief talk before putting me to work writing a draft for his victory statement that night, Clinton mentioned that he had just read a book I'd written urging the Democrats to return to their roots as economic populists. "I agree with you about populism," Clinton said. "But we can't lead with class struggle. We have to be pro-growth populists."

Clinton was different from any big-time politician I'd met. Far from a forbidding figure like Mondale or Dukakis, he was more like a brilliantly informed and affable campaign manager. When someone new entered the room, he'd greet him or her by name, offer some physically welcoming gesture -- a beckoning wave or an arm around the shoulder -- and make a mental note to include the newcomer in the conversation.

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