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Bill Clinton's "late-night adult moment" -- and other campaign code words

April 13, 2008 |  4:52 pm

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she cannot imagine why former President Bill Clinton would have resurrected the saga of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s tale of arriving in Bosnia amid "sniper fire."

"He may have been having a late-night adult moment," the San Francisco Democrat said during an interview Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Attempting to explain his wife’s admittedly misspoken overstatement about the circumstances surrounding her landing in Bosnia in 1996, the former president suggested last Thursday that it’s only natural that candidates get tired on the campaign trail: "Some of them, when they’re 60, they’ll forget something when they’re tired at 11 o'clock at night, too."

Never mind that the senator had related the same tale a few times, and not only at night. Maybe Bill Clinton (who's 61) was showing his 60 side as well, Pelosi said with a laugh.

Sen. Barack Obama says he too has misspoken, ...

choosing the wrong words about his view of disenchanted working-class voters.

So now that both Democratic presidential contenders have picked up code words that enable their campaigns to be reduced, in the eyes of critics and skeptics, to a few words -– Bosnia, 3 a.m., bitter and Wright –- voters will be left to sort out the meaning of what Clinton’s critics want to portray as a question of her credibility and what Obama’s critics want to portray as a matter of his condescension.

Load another word into the sound-bite machine tonight: compassion.

The candidates are meeting at a Compassion Forum at Messiah College, a small Christian college in Grantham, Pa. The forum -- sponsored by Faith in Public Life, a Washington nonprofit that focuses on issues of justice and the common good -- was convened to examine the roles of faith and compassion in America.

"This is not a debate," a spokeswoman for the sponsor adamantly insists. Yet CNN is settling in for full-bore live coverage of the 90-minute forum, starting at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT.

So it will be telling to see how long Clinton can go without voicing the word bitter and how long Obama can refrain from a subliminal assault of his own. Nine days from an April 22 Pennsylvania primary election that has become a surprisingly close contest, it’s always possible that the candidates might add another word to the campaign vocabulary: restraint.

-- Mark Silva

Mark Silva writes for The Swamp of the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau.