Saturday, April 12, 2008

Bill Clinton is in the Gym

Two weeks ago, I found myself standing within a hundred feet of Bill Clinton. We'd gone out to North Carolina to see High Point, the college my daughter had chosen to attend this fall. Her coach called while we were driving up from Georgia to let us know that Bill would be making a campaign appearance for Hillary at the school's student center the next morning. My wife and daughter are Hillary fans. They were excited. I was excited too.

I've only seen two presidents in person before. I had seen Richard Nixon in the midst of Watergate when he was in Houston, but I was two full balconies away. I'd also attended the second Clinton inauguration in 1997, but I was half a couple blocks away on Capitol square.

That evening, the president of my daughter's college was greeting folk at the student center, one of his habits. After introductions where he showed off a knack for remembering names and details about his students, I mentioned that he must be very excited to have a former President speak at the school. He informed me that they'd had Steve Forbes just last week, Rudy Giuliani was the commencement speaker last May, and Clarence Thomas was coming out to speak in another few weeks. I winced. It was apparent that he's not a fan of the Clintons. Who else would equate Steve Forbes to an appearance by Bill Clinton other than a hardcore Republican or maybe a libertarian? What was our daughter getting into at this place? Moments later, the college president explained that he believes in letting his students have contact with a range of speakers and ideas. When approached about the campaign stop, his only condition was that the students of the college be admitted free. That made me feel better, though he didn't exactly come up with a long list of progressive speakers he’d invited there. Clinton almost didn't count because the campaign had approached the school rather than vice versa. The next day the college president got several e-mails from donors threatening to stop giving simply because Bill Clinton was allowed on campus.

The student center there puts most resorts to shame. It has one of the nicest swimming pools I've seen, a hot tub, basketball courts, a running track, Starbucks, Subway, leather easy chairs, and two floors of state of the art exercise equipment including elliptical trainers with attached television screens. Oh yeah, it also houses the campus bookstore which is slightly bigger than the Starbucks but smaller than the exercise equipment area. One of the school’s guiding philosophies is “treat the students well” and they’ll treat others well after they graduate.

The next morning we made a point of getting to the student center forty five minutes before the doors opened so we could make sure we could get in. While the line was long, it wasn't an overflow crowd. Bill Clinton drew about two thirds capacity for a gym that the fire marshal designated for fifteen hundred people. Bill was fifteen minutes late. He was making 7 stops in North Carolina in one day. I expected his speech to be about ten to fifteen minutes. He spoke for more than an hour.

The guy's hair is now very white. There was a hospital gurney with an oxygen tank at the ready just behind the podium, but there were no overt signs of security. He talked for a bit about North Carolina basketball then jumped into his four reasons people should vote for Hillary after a joke or two. It wound up being about twelve reasons to vote for Hillary.

There's no doubt that Bill Clinton has a gift for connecting to people. He largely talks policy and throws out numbers and names with remarkable facility even though he didn't appear to be using notes of any kind. One of the impressive things about the in person Clinton is that he knows how to make things easy to relate to. He'll stop at just the right moment in talking about the cost of extracting energy from the ground and drop in something like “that means you'd be doing the equivalent of taking forty thousand cars off the road if we could do this”. He went on about “green collar” workers who would turn cleaning up the environment and warding off global warming into a NAFTA proof industry that would have to keep jobs at home. He talked about the mortgage crisis and talked about Hillary's proposal as a way to bail out families not banks.

He managed not to mention that his administration was behind NAFTA and the deregulation of the banking industry. In fact, this was the fascinating thing to me. The former President came off as one of Hillary's biggest assets and also one of her biggest liabilities. Notably, the entourage of Democratic endorsers he brought along on the stop were minor North Carolina political figures. There was a former attorney general, a county commissioner, a former assistant secretary of something or other. There was, however no John or Elizabeth Edwards for instance or Jim Hunt.

Hillary and Bill clearly share a passion for policy. Listening to either of them. You hear a command of detail, nuance, and execution that other politicians rarely manage. In particular, Bill does it in a way that makes his conclusions feel strangely inevitable and universally appealing, e.g. If we add 5,000 policemen and firemen to America, that's better for everyone. He's very good at making the concerns of government basic and seemingly straightforward. He even managed to make Iraq sound strangely uncontroversial “Yes, we need to get out, but we have to get out responsibly.”

He then went on to describe Hillary’s quite detailed exit strategy along with her plan to forgive student loans for college graduates who go into the helping professions.

My wife was thrilled. The crowd was politely enthusiastic. They listened, applauded at the right times, but they didn't get visibly charged up. Volunteers circulated the audience trying to coax more students to commit to the campaign and I didn't see anyone pick up a pencil. Of course, this is a school that invited Rudy Giuliani to do commencement. Bill drew about six hundred people that morning, Hillary drew a thousand a few miles away, and Obama drew two thousand.

Bill Clinton is not the candidate this time around. Hillary is. Still this felt like part of the way people should make up their minds about a President. It makes a difference to see someone directly (in person if possible), listen to them for an hour without commentators, edits, or sound bytes. While positions matter, the ability to articulate them and present them effectively probably matters just as much.

The strange business of Obama’s “bitter” comments, Hillary’s “Bosnia” visit, and even McCain’s recent inability to tell the difference between Sunnis and Shiites has turned running for the presidency into a game of “gotcha”. In thousands of words spoken in public, you say something the wrong way once and that’s supposed to be fatal, yet what you have to say the other 99% of the time somehow doesn’t matter according to the headlines. It’s simply no way to pick a leader.

I don’t know that I’ll ever have a chance to see a president up close again. It felt like I had an opportunity to make up my own mind about Bill Clinton and to a certain extent Hillary. I actually voted for the guy twice during the nineties. Oddly, I’ve voted in dozens of elections and not had this sort of opportunity before. There’s something wrong with that. Yes, I’ve been lazy in many instances, but I’ve spent more time buying and shopping for cars than I have shopped and test-driven (maybe wrong word with Bill) a presidential candidate. That’s not good.



At 4/12/2008 09:51:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

When sports arenas and work out facilities are more prominently mentioned than libraries, then I suppose this college is a consideration for younger folks.

Second, while I don't support any candidate beyond John Edwards, I think it is a bonus to see Bill Clinton. Where I may agree is that it is good to see him, his wife cannot be all places. And neither can Barack Obama, and Michelle. Obama has decided rural area residents in the midwest are too bitter and he doesn't visit their areas either, even though he claims to hear their bitterness. Go figure.

At 4/12/2008 11:06:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I should have been a little clearer. We were in the student center. The college has a perfectly fine actually more than fine library.

I'd never vote for John McCain, but I'd still probably see him if he were speaking somewhere near me. I just think we should make up our own minds about people running for office by listening to them speak uninterrupted, looking at their records, etc.
The "bitter" thing is a bit ridiculous to me. I think the media and the Clinton campaign know perfectly well that Obama doesn't look down on working class folks in small towns, just like people know that Hillary simply overstepped on the Bosnia thing, but that doesn't make her a pathological liar.

They're just not serious reasons to vote for or against anyone.

I do have different feelinga about a couple McCain gaffes, but that's largely because I thought they were far more serious and telling.

At 4/13/2008 01:50:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

I have learned since yesterday that Obama's comment was more about the GOP using wedge issues with rural voters instead of talking about improving their lives economically.

But still, I think it was misstep and he stereotyped a group of voters when he would not want to be stereotyped either.

McCain lives up to his nickname:McSame. I'm not interested in seeing 8 more years of tyranny.

At 4/13/2008 09:30:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

IF we don't want 8 years of McSame etc....I think we have to learn not to over react to the little gaffes that they try to stir into major talking points.

The simple version. McCain is endorsing a war that hasn't worked and he's consistently exaggerated the effectiveness of the surge. Remember he's the one who claimed that General Petraeus was wandering Iraq in an unarmored Humvee then had to backtrack and acknowledge that there were no unarmored US Military Humvees in Iraq.
He had virtually no response to the mortgage crisis for months. His campaign is literally run by lobbyists.

Even if it wasn't said in exactly the right way, should we really be sweating the small stuff? Shouldn't we be talking about the big and obvious stuff about these candidates?

At 4/19/2008 01:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How amazing that you got to see Bill in person. Hillary Gets Green! Of all the shining inspirations to practical action that Hillary brings to the world story, I may be even most standing-ovation for her vision of a wide and deeply Green Future. When we shift to helping our planet and our children’s world to come, we get the green jobs and the green innovation which will heal and fuel and renew the smarter American Dream.

I admire much & don't envy much, but your getting to hear Bill directly -- I envy that. CSpan used to show a lot of candidate-unfiltered stuff, but for some reason so sadly they've cut way back.

At 4/20/2008 05:28:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I agree...I like Hillary best when she's laying out the details of policy proposals. She thinks through them, clearly knows the nuances, and I think can understand how to cope with more than one idea or one direction of thought at a time.
Both Bill and Hillary are really quite impressive as is Obama. Very few people can be coherent and engaging about this sort of stuff in front of a general audience for a full hour without notes.

At 4/22/2008 07:04:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Bill Clinton is one of the fittest politicians I have ever seen.I think he has quite good interest in gym and he cant say no to his wife Hillary.

At 4/23/2008 01:50:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for your comment. I'm afraid I'm not quite following what you're saying though.


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