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Bill and the Giant Pumpkin

Bill Clinton and an admirer at the Hopkinton State Fair. (Dan Balz)

Only Bill Clinton would compare growing pumpkins -- or watermelons -- to being president, but then only Bill Clinton is Bill Clinton.

It all happened Sunday at the Hopkinton State Fair in Contoocook, N.H.. The former president came to the fair with his wife Hillary Clinton for what was supposed to be an hour-long campaign drop-by in between rallies in Concord and Portsmouth. Bill Clinton acted like he never wanted to leave.

Though never intended, their time at the fair provided a study in contrasts and perhaps a clue as to how a Hillary Clinton presidency might differ from that of her husband's. The Clintons arrived together and left together and occasionally worked the crowds together. More often Hillary Clinton had long since passed by one of the animal barns or food stands or knots of well-wishers and was far out of sight as her husband lagged behind.

So precise is Hillary Clinton that the two stump speeches she delivered Sunday in Concord and Portsmouth clocked out almost identically, with less than 10 seconds difference between them at just under 33 minutes each. The New York senator worked the fair the same way -- the way she works at everything, methodically, purposefully, with consistency and a business-like stride

The former president -- whose stump speeches as a candidate were regularly at indeterminate length -- worked the fair the way he does anything smacking of retail politics, wading into everywhere with an insatiable appetite for conversation with people and an unquenchable desire to explain everything about everything.

He posed, he chatted, he laughed, he asked questions and occasionally he accepted a hug or kiss from someone in the crowd. Along the way, he delivered mini lectures on, say, the right combination of water, soil and TLC for growing watermelons or the lengths to which allied pilots tried to avoid bombing the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, during World War 2.

"Where are you from," he asked one woman. When she replied "Cologne," he launched into his recollection of the first time he visited the city in 1969. "I crossed the Rhine on the bridge and got into the railway station at midnight and got out and walked up the hill to the cathedral," he said. "It was breathtaking. You must be so proud of it."

Then came the history lesson about allied bombers trying to destroy the bridge without damaging the nearby cathedral-- although the cathedral was hit at least a dozen times during the war.

"These guys repeatedly risked their lives for years to get in to bomb the bridge without every hitting the cathedral," Clinton explained as his audience listened with a mixture of amazement and amusement. "t?s really one of the touchingly heroic stories of all the terrible things that happened on both sides. You'e very lucky to live there. It's a wonderful place."

Clinton was in New Hampshire to campaign in behalf of his wife. But there is no escaping the power and appeal of having been a former president, and so when he travels with her on the campaign train, even when he attempts to play a subordinate role, he creates his own zone of interest.

" cried when he left the presidency,"one young man said to a friend as Clinton passed by.

Another man, watching Clinton work the crowd, marveled to his wife, "Once a president, always a president." He then added, "Only 42 men have ever served as president."

"I thought it was 43," his wife said, puzzled.

"I don't count Bush," her husband replied.

Whatever the right-wing may think of him (and her), he is enormously popular among Democratic audiences, which makes him a unique asset for his wife's campaign to deploy. He helps draw crowds, adds even more star power to his wife's campaign and makes arguments his wife may not be prepared to make.

In Portsmouth late Sunday, it was Bill Clinton who raised the dreaded word "electability" in the context of her candidacy. Arguing that she is ahead of her Republican rivals in Arkansas and would have appeal in other southern or border states -- a view not widely shared in the region-- he declared, "This electability thing is a canard. It doesn't amount to a hill of beans."

The Clintons' hosts at the fair were New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch and his wife Susan. Hillary Clinton arrived in black pants, a yellow jacket and flat shoes. The former president was dressed more flamboyantly, in white jeans, a pink-and-white checked shirt and ostrich cowboy boots

The Lynches escorted the Clintons through the first crush of people and delivered them to a stand selling apple crisp. After that, whatever plan the Clinton advance team had in mind quickly broke down. She went one way, he another. She moved steadily under the watchful eye of her advance team. He followed whatever caught his eye.

Eventually they were reunited in the pumpkin barn, where there were a dozen or so enormous pumpkins on display weighing anywhere from several hundred to a thousand pounds.

"That's the biggest pumpkin I've ever seen," the former president exclaimed as he admired the 1,004-pound winner. Then to those standing around the pumpkin pen he added, "It looks like we need a steroid inspection here."

On hand was the man who grew the prize-winning pumpkin, Bruce Whittier of Henniker, N.H. It took only a matter of minutes for the former president to absorb the lessons of pumpkin production before he began to hold court, comparing pumpkin-growing to the production of prize-winning watermelons in his home state.

Asked whether he'd ever seen anything like these pumpkins. He replied, "Never. Never. He [Whittier] says there are 300 guys who do this and they swap seeds and they keep trying to blend and see what happens. It's basically seeds plus soil plus care. That's what watermelon is too."

Then, as if botany were his college major, he explained the keys to winning competitions -- and the analogy to being president.

"If you give it too much water and the skin breaks, you're eliminated," he said. "And if you give it too little, somebody else beats you because they've got a bigger melon or a bigger pumpkin. So like at the end, under very tense circumstances, there are these constant judgment calls. It's kind of like being president."

Who knew? Only, apparently, Bill Clinton.

By  |  September 3, 2007; 11:51 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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