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The Politician


Fourteen years ago this February I braved the early-morning New Hampshire chill to stand outside a firehouse with two dozen other reporters and camerapeople, waiting for Bill Clinton to arrive. I wasn’t yet aware that that morning, the Wall Street Journal had broken the story of how Clinton had avoided military service during the Vietnam War. But of course others there knew, and as soon as Clinton stepped out of his limo, someone shoved a mic in his face and asked, “Governor, are you a draft dodger?”

What the presidential candidate from Arkansas did next left a lasting impression on me. He could have allowed his handlers to close in around him and whisk him into the firehouse, as they clearly wanted to do. But instead, he stopped dead and let the media people close in around him. “Let me explain to you what happened,” he began.

At that time, I wasn’t a big Bill Clinton fan. I recall reading an editorial in The Nation, titled “Clinton Already?” in which the leftist magazine bemoaned the fact that he seemed already to have been anointed by a critical mass of mainsteam pundits as the Democratic candidate with an inside track to the nomination. I agreed with The Nation that there must be a better candidate to take on George H.W. Bush—perhaps the old-school liberal senator from Iowa, Tom Harkin, or the more eccentric progressive from California, Jerry Brown. To us, Clinton already was tainted by his association with the Democratic Leadership Council, a group with close ties to big business and an agenda that stressed political centrism and independence from “special interest groups” like organized labor and women’s- and minority-rights advocates. The way to win back the White House, the DLC argued, was to ignore the left wing of the Democratic Party (yet count on collecting their votes anyway) and compete openly for Middle America, the Reagan Democrats, the soccer moms and Nascar dads.

As I watched Clinton patiently address reporters’ questions that morning, it was, for me, the beginning of a fascination with and respect for the man that continues to this day, although I did not always agree with his policies and actions as president. His attempt to reform health care was a dismal failure. I thought his “welfare reform” was misguided and unjust. He bombed Iraq. In light of these and other presidential actions that had serious, sometimes very negative consequences, the other matter for which he became infamous seems utterly trivial. Besides, in many ways he was an excellent president. He understood government and its importance, and ran it competently. He put the country on sound financial footing, running a budget surplus for the first time in memory. He advocated for diversity and tolerance and set an example in his own staff and appointments. And in his combination of charm, brilliance and diplomacy, underscored by his often riveting public speeches, he represented the United States well to the rest of the world.

Again, he wasn’t a perfect president. Still, for me, one thing about him stood out and set him apart from most elected officials I have observed over the years: He talked to us. He listened to tough questions and answered them, often backed up by a remarkable store of knowledge on the subject. He wasn’t always scripted. Presidents all have to control their public appearances to some degree, but Clinton by comparison seemed available, welcoming, not confined to speeches in front of handpicked supportive audiences. And occasionally his ability to take the heat shone through in remarkable ways.

The morning at the firehouse was minor compared to an incident that happened near the end of his second term, on election day 2000, when he was calling up radio stations in New York to help shore up support for Al Gore’s presidental run and his wife Hillary’s campaign for the New York State Senate. And when he dialed up WBAI in New York City, he suddenly found himself on the phone with left-wing firebrand and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. Goodman, along with colleague Gonzalo Aburto, began peppering the president with questions about his policies and about the discouraging similarities between the two major parties. And it was one of the most amazing half-hours of radio theater you’re ever likely to hear. Goodman and Aburto fired hard questions at Clinton the likes of which you seldom hear from the Washington press corps, and Clinton responded with candid, fact-based, often brilliant answers, only once or twice dodging qestions he didn’t want to deal with. They attacked him from their progressive flank; he stood his ground and proved he could speak with feeling to people and issues on the left without alienating his moderate base. Try to find a Democrat willing to do that these days.

I now have a bookend to my New Hampshire morning with Clinton in 1992: He was the keynote speaker last month at the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, which was held this year in Little Rock, Ark., where Clinton once presided as governor and now has inaugurated his presidential library. It was a long and typically impressive speech in which he covered many topics relating to the challenges facing the world and what we might do about them. He spoke of his new role as a sort of ambassador to the world, and of his travels with another ex-president, George H.W. Bush. In fact, he said one particularly gracious thing to this audience of Bush bashers. While he had plenty negative to say about the current administration’s policies, he refused to take the bait to personally attack the president: In spite of the fact that he disagrees with him philosophically, Clinton said, he believes that George W. Bush sincerely believes in what he is doing. Besides, he added, “I have a lot of respect for his father.”

One other thing Clinton said made me wish he somehow had more influence in this increasingly violent, us-vs.-them era. In reflecting on how we might better approach the problem of sharing the world with people of different races, religions and political opinions, he offered this: “Our differences do matter. They make life interesting, and they aid in the search for the truth. But since no one has the whole truth, our common humanity matters more.”

When his speech was over and the three prearranged questions were answered, Clinton’s handlers motioned for him to leave. But he was having fun, and he wanted to stay longer. To our surprise (we had been told no way), he took questions from the audience. He shook hands and signed books. He frustrated his handlers and the wait staff who were supposed to be serving lunch. But he thrilled his audience. He’s still a politician. And still a great one.

—Stephen Leon

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