Orangeburg, South Carolina
Nearly every poll conducted in South Carolina since January 1 shows Barack Obama with a double-digit lead. And after Hillary Clinton's win in Nevada last Saturday, it looked as though she might give South Carolina little more than lip service.
In the beginning of the week, Clinton (Hillary) traveled to New York, New Jersey, California, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. But another Clinton (Bill) was dispatched to South Carolina, where he proceeded to make news by taking a hatchet to Obama and the press. Then late Wednesday, the campaign announced that Sen. Clinton would be barnstorming South Carolina, too. She has a full campaign schedule here for Thursday and Friday, separate from the campaigning her husband is doing.
For his part, Clinton (Bill) seems to be relishing his return to the stage. He appeared in a small conference room in Lexington on Thursday morning. There were chairs for 150. By the time the former president walked onto the risers at 8:55 a.m., there were still a handful of empty seats; the only people standing were Secret Service and journalists.
He spoke briefly, giving a Rashomon version of his wife's autobiographical speech. He told the audience how much she cares; how, when they were in law school together, she would come home crying after seeing mistreated children.
In substance, Clinton mentions foreign policy only in passing. For the most part, he lamented that "this election is unfolding against an urgent need to reestablish the middle class dream in America." The "economic crisis," he warned, "is very significant."
"You don't have to be against anybody . . ." he told the crowd. "The issue is, who would be the best president. . . . It depends on how you define it. . . . But if you believe that America has to get back into the solutions business. . . . Then your test for president should be who is the best changemaker in other people's lives. . . And if that's the test, then Hillary is the best answer." This riff coincided with the new Hillary placards on display: "Solutions for America."
Clinton also stressed his wife's ability to work with Republicans, singling out her work with Lindsay Graham and John McCain. "If the test is who's got the longest record of achievement," he said, then Hillary is the answer.
He was low-key throughout, wrapping up his remarks after 15 minutes. He closed with a strange locution saying, "I hope South Carolina will give her a good vote . . . this is the kind of state that needs a president." (That's not a typo--it's a phrase he would use frequently during the day.)
For the next 55 minutes, Clinton took questions, and, in wonky professor mode, answered them in overwhelming detail. In talking about No Child Left Behind he went slightly off the reservation, saying that the law is "a case of good intentions gone awry. . . . It's easy to bash President Bush, [but] I don't think he meant to mess this up and I know Senator Kennedy didn't mean to mess it up."
Asked about his wife's time on the Wal-Mart board, Clinton defended it, saying that she helped Wal-Mart do better by women and the environment. He declared that Wal-Mart is now a leading force for environmentalism because they sell a large number of fluorescent light bulbs.
A farmer asked the former president about renewable fuels and energy independence, at which point Clinton gave a long disquisition on hybrid cars, saying that the goal is hybrids with batteries sufficiently powerful enough to push fuel economy to 100 miles per gallon. Clinton's tendencies to ramble and to bluster were both on display. For instance, in one aside Clinton credited his wife's victory in New Hampshire to her plan to convert old timber mills in the state into sources of biofuel.
The crowd did not seem overwhelmed. Under capacity to begin with, the first audience members began slipping out the side door 15 minutes into his Q&A session. The totality of the experience was something like seeing Elvis reduced to playing at Circus Circus.
Barely 90 minutes later, Clinton walked into an overstuffed basement cafeteria at Claflin University. It's South Carolina's oldest historically black college and there were hundreds of young students packed into room. The applause was heartier than it was in Lexington--but still nothing like what his wife gets these days.
No matter, the president seemed energized by the room. Standing in the center of the crowd, he walked this way and that, turning to address the students pressing in on him from all sides.
He gave his economic and Hillary biography spiel again and then took questions, where he became quite animated talking about 100 mpg cars. "Get us to 100 miles per gallon and America is a free country again," he said. The key, he said, is to create jobs in the environmentalism industry.
And in a flash, the wonky professor had disappeared--replaced by the Big He.
"This is A. Big. Deal. And this is not pie in the sky talk. I do this work now," he thundered, "in 40 cities on 6 continents, with my foundation. . . . In New York City we just announced a project with the mayor to make energy-efficient all the public housing. We have 11 percent of America's public housing. The utility bill is 500 million bucks a year. That's a lot money, right?" Here the audience was silent. "We're gonna cut the utility bill to $350 million." He continued on.
Segueing to foreign policy, he told the audience that half the world is mad at America. But he observed that countries that trade with America, in general, have a better opinion of the United States. "I work in all these countries," he said. "So I know. My foundation sells the world's best, least-expensive AIDS medicine in 71 countries and keeps over three-quarters of a million people alive. So I work in these countries. And I know."
A few minutes later, a question is asked about No Child Left Behind. Having warmed to his subject, Clinton gave a slightly different answer: "I don't believe that the president, or the Democrats in Congress, intended for it to work out this way--although I predicted it would when I read it."
Deeper into his answer, he mentioned to the Claflin crowd, for the second time, that his office is in Harlem. By the end of this NCLB roundabout, Clinton is in full preen, shouting, "Now, don't tell me all our kids can't learn! They can learn!"
The audience was receptive to Clintons enthusiasm, but not rapturous, or even particularly affectionate. For the president, none of that really mattered.
Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.