A reliable informant called me yesterday around noon to tell me former President Bill Clinton was coming to Walterboro, the town I live near in South Carolina. Arrangements had been hastily made the night before, and the Hampton Street Auditorium (capacity about 650) booked for the appearance. The only publicity was via Hillary’s website and word of mouth through the local Democratic Party, but the event was open to the public.
I resolved to attend, and had a number of surprises in store.
First, although the small public parking areas near the venue appeared full, there were several street spaces available, and I was able to park half a block away only fifteen minutes before the scheduled start.
Surprise #2: As I walked up to the entrance, there stood several uniformed Sheriff’s Deputies and one Secret Service type in a suit. I nodded to them, they nodded back. A younger man in coat and tie stood by the door. I asked him, “Am I in the right place?” He assured me, almost gleefully, that I was, and opened the door for me. None of the security personnel gave me so much as a harsh look – in fairness, the local deputies may have recognized me as a harmless crank. Inside, several ladies sat behind cafeteria tables in the lobby, manning sign-in sheets requesting name, phone number, and checking any categories of volunteer work I might be willing to give the campaign. I left those blank.
But again, as I entered the auditorium, while there were security people scattered throughout, no one frisked me, no one questioned me, no one looked at me hard. There was no metal detector. Not sufficient to protect a former President against a determined nut.
The third surprise came with the audience. I estimated the crowd at about 500, plus a few dozen media types, several with video equipment, and the former President’s entourage and security detail. They were about 90% white, an unusual mix for any public event in this county, which is about 35% black, 5% Hispanic, and 2% other ethnicity. For a Democratic Party event, though, it was remarkable to have so few black attendees. Females of all ages comprised a clear majority, too, perhaps two-thirds or more. After noticing this, I looked, and counted only four black males (not counting the security detail, media, or entourage) in the room, including none of the several prominent black local elected officials and Democratic Party leaders I would have expected to see. Also, very few younger men were there.
The next surprise was that it began on time. Given President Clinton’s long history of running late to political events in his own campaigns, I figured “3:15” meant “5ish.” But shortly after 3:15, without fanfare, he walked onstage with former State Senator McKinley Washington against a large American flag backdrop. After Washington’s introduction, Clinton delivered a roughly 30-minute stump speech on Hillary’s behalf. He looked older, thin, with some wrinkles, but much better than he comes across on video, including those from recent days.
Following his speech, which started slowly but warmed into a good (but not great) surrogate address, Clinton left the stage and walked onto the floor of the theatre in front of the audience to take questions in a “townhall” format. He answered audience queries for over an hour, including at least five after he announced “Okay, they tell me we have to go, so this will be the last question.” The man was clearly in his element. His energy level soared; it was as if he were running again himself. Now, I have doubts about the statistics he threw about, but he did it with great skill, speaking quickly about such specifics and moving immediately on, leaving the impression of a factual case made, when in fact none had been.
But he is ever so convincing. He connects with people in the live setting like no one I’ve ever seen. Not just the questioners, but everyone. I was seated in the 12th row, about 50 feet or so away from him, and he could have been arguing the points with me over coffee at the Huddle House. I mistrusted every factoid, disagreed with every policy approach, but still could not help but like the guy. That’s the fifth, and biggest surprise. Me, a certified, card-carrying charter member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy . . . liking Bill Clinton.
If you go to see him live, carry a mirror and only view him through it. I feel lucky he had such a poor product to sell. Hillary, I can resist. I’m just glad he wasn’t selling condos.