I was born into a Redskins family. For the most part that means I’ve suffered through every football season of my life. There was the rising hope of the George Allen Super Bowl year that crashed against the ’72 Dolphins, and, of course the glory years of Joe Gibbs in the 80’s with playoff runs and Super Bowl wins. That was amazing to watch. Gibbs had his own style of play that changed the face of pro football. In a league moving toward speed and downfield passing, Gibbs won with huge linemen, a slow-as-molasses running back, and a quarterback with questionable arm strength. He was the master of half time adjustments to game plans, exploiting whatever weaknesses he sensed in the opposing team during the first half of play. He had a feel for the game that was superior to almost every coach he faced. Even though he was young and could have gone on coaching for many years, he retired in the early 90’s to spend more time with his family and to run his NASCAR team. About 10 years later, after suffering through more bad coaching and frustration, the Redskins lured Gibbs back to the NFL. It was going to be great. It was going to be a return to glory. Only it wasn’t. Even though they made the playoffs two times in four years, watching them play was painful. When they won it was more like luck than skill. They won ugly and they lost uglier. The thing that stood out to me most about watching Gibbs try to coach after 11 years on the bench was how the pace of the game seemed to bewilder him. He couldn’t manage the clock. Things happening on the field were always ahead of him and his staff. They were always reacting and never acting. They were imposed upon by their opponents, the clock, the penalties, and every other circumstance of the game. They were behind and bewildered, playing catch up in a blood sport that had no mercy on them. After four seasons back, Gibbs retired again, cutting his loses and retreating from a game that had obviously passed him by.
Watching Bill and Hillary Clinton in this political season reminds me of Joe Gibbs. They owned the 90’s. They rewrote the rules and changed the face of American politics. They perfected the use of imagery and they out maneuvered their opponents in such a way as to be almost comical. Losing the House of Representatives, Special Prosecutors and being impeached didn’t stop them. Making adjustments to match the state of play was their bailiwick. Things that drove Nixon from office made them stronger politically; they became the beleaguered hero and heroine fighting the vast right wing conspiracy. The halftime adjustments in response to each situation were masterful. Bill could look into a camera, bite his lip and make people believe anything. Hillary could go to a congressional inquiry and, under intense scrutiny about her record keeping, say “I don’t recall” for as many times as it took to wear out her questioners. They had their own style and they imposed it on anyone who got in their way. They won. Even when they lost they won.
But now…But now they are back in the big leagues after ten years on the bench. Hillary was never charismatic and the natural politician Bill is, so no one expected her to be able to play the game the way he did. But they both are looking pretty bewildered these days. Neither of them appears to be able to keep up. It isn’t just their age to blame either. On the left an old man is running them ragged and on the right an old man is doing the same thing. They are not imposing their will upon anyone, they are on the defensive. Granted, they have been their own worst enemies in much of this, but there’s nothing new about that. Most of the crises they faced in the 90’s they created through their own actions. This week should have been a time of Clinton performance par excellence; a blow out Super Bowl win with their particular brand of political power on display. Instead their opponents on the left and on the right ran circles around them and left them looking tired and old and unimposing. Politics has always been a blood sport and it is without mercy. The pace of play in the arena today is not forgiving and leaves no room to catch up once you fall behind. Complaining that we’ve reduced political discourse to 140 characters would be the same as Joe Gibbs complaining about the 45 second play clock. It is what it is. Everyone on the field has to deal with the clock and the style of play. If you can’t keep up you will get run over, and there won’t be anyone to pity you. Gibbs quit after he barely made it to the playoffs in the 4th year of a 5 year contract. He saw the handwriting on the scoreboard and cut his losses. Bill and Hillary? They have at least one more game to play, and it isn’t going to be played at a pedestrian pace.