Bill Clinton Gives John Kerry Advice From His Hospital Bed

Former president tells him to stop talking about Vietnam.

It has all the makings of a Hollywood classic. The aging gunfighter summons his young protégé to his hospital bed, whispers a few words of wisdom, and then watches as the outnumbered youngster battles back to victory.

Or at least Democrats hope it ends that way.

On Saturday night, former President Bill Clinton called John Kerry from his hospital bed (where he was awaiting the quadruple bypass operation that took place Monday; see "Former President Clinton 'Recovering Normally' From Surgery") with 90 minutes of suggestions on how to reinvigorate Kerry's candidacy. Clinton's advice: Spend less time talking about Vietnam and more time on domestic issues like healthcare and jobs.

This wasn't the only guidance Kerry received over the weekend. After polls showed George W. Bush with a large and growing lead in the wake of the Republican National Convention, many other Democrats sought to offer the Massachusetts senator their unsolicited opinions about what he should do.

Some dismissed the latest polls, one of which showed Bush with an 11-point lead, as demonstrating nothing more than a post-convention bounce. (Kerry received a small, short-lived bounce after the Democratic convention ended last month.)

Others, like Clinton, were concerned that the polling data revealed deeper problems within the Kerry campaign, especially its slow response to the recent Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads (see "Will Reopening John Kerry's War Wounds Hurt His Campaign?". These ads, featuring a handful of Vietnam veterans and funded by wealthy Republican donors, claim that Kerry has exaggerated his wartime heroism. Despite the holes poked in their veracity, the ads have served to knock the wind out of one of the central themes of Kerry's campaign — his service in Vietnam.

Was the Kerry campaign aggressive enough, these Democrats worried, to stand up to the next onslaught of attacks sure to come from Bush and the Republicans between now and Election Day?

Maybe not. In an implicit acceptance of this criticism, Kerry shook up his senior campaign team late last week. Clinton veterans Paul Begala, James Carville and Joe Lockhart, all with a history of political hardball, were brought onboard, and an old Kerry friend, John Sasso, was asked to travel full-time with the candidate. While no one was shown the door, current top aides, including campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and senior advisor Bob Shrum most likely felt the chill.

Although the Kerry campaign insists these additions are merely reinforcements for the homestretch, Kerry has a history of this sort of thing — a history that both Cahill and Shrum should remember and that many Democrats now look to with hope.

In the Democratic primaries last winter, Kerry came back from oblivion to best Howard Dean after a campaign shakeup in which he replaced his old campaign manager with Cahill. Similarly, in his 1996 Senate race, Kerry came from behind to beat popular Massachusetts Governor William Weld after replacing another top aide with Shrum.

Since the latest shakeup, Kerry has certainly been more aggressive on the campaign trail. During a midnight rally on the last night of the GOP convention, Kerry tore into the president and vice president for avoiding combat in Vietnam. Over the weekend, Kerry and running mate John Edwards both hammered the president's policies on jobs, taxes and outsourcing. They also unveiled a new campaign slogan: W stands for "wrong."

The next two months will reveal whether that was the right move.