It didn't take long for the ol' Clinton charm to hypnotize the crowd at the former Prez's speaking engagement last night at the Nokia Theater at Grand Prairie. After a sustained standing ovation, the first thing out of his mouth was, "Thank you. This must be about 90 percent of the Democrats in North Texas." The line got a big laugh, but more important, it clued us in that we were going to get what we came for -- a touch of folkishness, a large helping of wonkish sex appeal, and some political substance. It was on.
I've seen the guy speak four times, and each time, within minutes he had thousands of audience members gazing and fawning like cheerleaders lusting over the homecoming king. The man is the Mick Jagger of politics -- aging but red hot. And, unlike Jagger, he's still relevant. Or at least articulate as hell. Clad in a blue suit with a light blue tie, he kicked off his speech with a quick mention of local news programming, noting that most of it is sensationalistic -- "They always seem to start off with a crime" -- but occasionally it's important. "We need a framework," Clinton noted, "within which to watch the news, to [discern] between the latest star breakup versus what's important to you and your family."
From there he started to roll, and for a little more than tour hours he spoke about everything from globalization -- which he preferred to call "interdependence" -- the environment, health care, terrorism, Iraq, the tsunami in Indonesia and "the character of the modern world."
He shifted from the theoretical and general to the specific, rhetorically asking, "Is interdependence good?" and replying, "The answer is 'Yes, but...'" The rest of his speech -- that framework within which to watch the news -- went on to list both the "yeses" and the "buts."
"Look around this room," Clinton said. "It's a lot more diverse than it would have been 30 years ago. There's a lot more women, a lot more people of color, people of different backgrounds." That was a "yes" part. A "but": The interdependent world "is unequal, unstable and unsustainable."
Clinton got specific, citing statistics and evidence about all three "buts" and then proposed solutions. About terrorism, for instance, Clinton proposed a serious increase in updating and strengthening the armed forces, but explained the true answers are diplomatic and altruistic.
"We should spend more time making friends than making enemies," he said. "The most effective military action in this world in the past six years was the airlift after the tsunami." It sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, but the ex-president had the statistical good to back it up, citing opinion polls of Indonesian Muslims and their feelings about Americans and Osama bin Laden both before the airlift (negative opinion about Americans hovered around 70 percent, while bin Ladin's approval rating was about 60 percent) and after (the numbers flipped).
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Such was the pattern for the entire speech, whether it related to terrorism or global warming. Clinton would address a problem in a general way, then propose a solution, then produce specifics, evidence and statistics to back it all up. Uh, lawyer much?
The question-and-answer period following the formal speech had its lighter moments. Clinton -- his hair a bit longer than when he was president, his formerly chunky body much more svelte -- slouched some in his chair and looked a little tired, rubbing his eyes and drinking water an entire bottle at a time. But he still was vintage Clinton, even doing a spot-on impression of Yitzhak Rabin, then choking up a bit as he discussed their friendship. "I loved him more than I've ever loved any other man," he said. "The day they killed him was the worst day of my presidency."
The remainder of the talk shifted between the serious -- Clinton's admiration of Nelson Mandela -- to more humorous. Discussing a recent campaign trip with wife Hillary, the ex-president bragged, "I am so good at a state fair. I mean, I am so good." He also admitted, when asked if he thought presidential terms limits should be abolished, "I loved being president. I loved it so much. If we didn't have term limits you'd have had to carry me outta there in a pine box."
When Clinton finally left the stage, three hours after he began, no one wanted to leave. He stopped to shake hands with many in the crowd that rushed the edge of the stage. People exiting up the stairs tripped over themselves as they craned their necks for one last glance, and it was clear from the audience reaction that at least 90 percent of the Democrats in North Texas loved when he was president too. --Jonanna Widner