It was a sight to see: hundreds of alternative-newspaper people standing and cheering Bill Clinton as he walked onstage, hanging on his every word through a nearly hour-long talk and 45 minutes of questions, and then rushing to the stage to shake his hand, get his autograph, and take his picture.
When Clinton was president, alt-weeklies published plenty of attacks on him. And a good many of us are way farther to the left than he is. But when Clinton addressed the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies earlier this month in Little Rock, you'd have thought he was talking to a room full of supporters at the height of an election campaign.
The AAN response, I think, reflects the deep anguish many of us feel about the Bush administration and the state of the nation. Despite the tragedy in Iraq, the attacks on civil liberties, and the president's low approval ratings, the Republican leadership in Washington is solidly behind George Bush, and the Democrats remain weak.
An intelligent, eloquent, focused Bill Clinton was a relief, and then some.
Speaking almost completely without notes, he flailed away at lobbyists, Karl Rove, Ralph Nader, the secrecy and lack of accountability of the Bush administration, the polarization in Washington, and the Republican Party's vilifying of Max Cleland. (The formerGeorgia senator lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War, Clinton noted: "How much more can you give to the country and still be able to function?")
He attacked Bush administration policies that, he said, have harmed not only our own security but that of people in other parts of the world. He talked about the complex nature of the nation's problems, the threat of global warming, our over-reliance on oil. He bemoaned the high cost of health care, the rise in corporate leaders' salaries and the flat wages of the average American, the enormous gap between the world's rich and its poor, and the desperate plight of millions.
He criticized House Republicans' approach to immigration. "Our long porous borders have on balance been a great blessing to us," he said. And while the nation must be secure, he said, total security is impossible. We'd be better off developing policies that win the friendship of other nations and people --- that build partnerships: helping address the health problems of other parts of the world, for example. "These things are cheaper than war," he said. "And they work."
Residents of Indonesia and Pakistan like Americans because we helped them following the tsunami and the earthquake, he said: "Thirty percent of our households gave" to tsunami-relief efforts. "The opinion of America in Indonesia went up, and the opinion of Bin Laden went down."
He urged "home-improvement" measures in the US: increased wages, affordable health care, more investment in education, a rational energy policy. He pled for a "unifying politics." It's not that politicians shouldn't have their differences, he said, but "we shouldn't be so mad that we can't hear one another talk."
And, said Clinton, "we've got to find ways to get back to evidence-based politics." ("Hillary was accused of being too wonkish" on global warming, he said, "which tickled me, because what we need are wonks.")
Clinton is proud of his own record --- and he is proud of his wife's record, during his administration and in the Senate. And despite ground rules his handlers had set before his talk, he took questions about Hillary.
On her plans to run for president: She hasn't made a decision.
On her chances of being elected president if she's nominated: She'll have a high negative rating by election day, but "it's naive to think that anybody we nominate won't have a high negative by election day." Republicans will demonize the Democratic candidate, no matter who it is.
On his role if Hillary is elected president: "I'll do whatever she asks me to do. And I won't do anything she asks me not to do."
Asked his opinion about Robert Kennedy Jr.'s recent article in Rolling Stone, charging that John Kerry, not George Bush, won the majority of votes in Ohio and thus won the 2004 presidential election, Clinton said Kennedy made "a compelling case."
And, he said, "I think there's no question that Al Gore would have won Florida" if all the votes had been counted accurately and all the people who wanted to vote had been able to.
He suggested issues that AAN journalists should raise during their fall Congressional election coverage. Among them: "Do you believe in unilateral preemptive military action? And what should we do in Iraq now?"
Asked for his insight into George Bush, who occasionally consults him, Clinton was cautious, insisting it would be "a violation of confidence" to comment much. But, he said, "I think he believes most of what he says." Bush is more temperate on the issue of immigration than many Republicans in Congress, for example, "because he's from Texas," said Clinton. And: "I think the reason he has given more money for AIDS is because he believes it is the right thing to do. He is very strong and determined in what he thinks is right."
Clearly, Clinton opposes many of the Bush administration's policies. But he kept returning to major themes of his talk: the need for a "unifying politics," and the need for the media and the public to avoid simplistic, "cartoon" views of Bush: to "oppose what he is doing rather than ridicule him."
("I loved it when the Right Wing ridiculed me," he said. "When you ridicule someone, you underestimate them.")
What alt journalists got in their nearly three hours with Clinton was dramatically different from what had been planned. Reporting to her Denver readers last week, Westword editor Patty Calhoun --- who had moderated the question-and-answer period following Clinton's speech --- disclosed the ground rules (Clinton's? His aides'?)laid out prior to the event. He would speak for 30 minutes and then take only two, pre-screened questions, which Calhoun would ask. When a Clinton aide signaled by tapping his chest, Calhoun was to wrap things up.
But two questions in, Clinton was just getting warmed up, and more than half an hour later, ignoring his aide, he was still taking questions. When Calhoun told him that the aide was about to lose it, Clinton retorted: "He'll get over it."
It was, of course, pure Bill Clinton: charming, captivating, and completely in control. A masterful public speaker.A masterful politician.
And stunningly intelligent.
For anybody worried to the breaking point about the Bush administration, it was impossible not to feel a profound sense of loss as Clinton discussed the country's needs,Darfur, global warming, and the ideals of politics. And it was impossible not to look ahead and wonder who among the Democrats (and among the Republicans, if moderates could take back control of their party) could be his equal.
Bill Clinton's record is by no means perfect. This newspaper objected to plenty of his policies. And his astonishing sexual misconduct not only humiliated his family but severely damaged his party, making it easy for politicians with their own character flaws to masquerade as protectors of American values.
Clinton is right, of course, to chastise the media for "cartooning" politicians, and to remind us of the complex nature of national and international challenges. But during that sordid Clinton-Lewinsky period, much of the American public seemed to react more intelligently and rationally than many politicians and much of the media.
Back then, the public seemed to have no trouble sorting things out, recognizing Clinton's behavior as a dreadful but private matter, not worth the national attention it got, and far less significant than the challenges the country faced. The posturing and sound bites of Clinton's critics didn't seem to sway most Americans.
In the years since, though, the public seems to have become less discriminating, less willing to look beyond simplistic rhetoric, more accepting of fear-mongering. Maybe September 11 changed things. Certainly the attack on Pearl Harbor inspired actions by the Rooseveltadministration that horrify us now.
But surely, as we approach the fifth anniversary of that terrible, bright day in New York, we can begin to put our fear in perspective. We are still two years away from the next presidential election, but within the year, the people who want to succeed George Bush will begin their campaigns in earnest. And it will be time for the public to start assessing what those candidates say. Surely we can act more intelligently than in November 2004.
Maybe Bill Clinton needs to drop in on a lot of conventions, and a lot of cities.