Bill Clinton: The Time Is Now

PITTSBURGH — At times fiery with his familiar finger-pointing repeatedly jabbing the air, former President Bill Clinton implored an audience of bloggers and activists tonight not to lose out on a moment that he said he had worked all his life for.

It was as though this was his time, too, not just that of President Obama. The former president revisited several pieces of his legacy, drawing comparisons between his battle for health care overhaul to the fight occurring now and even angrily defending the compromise that became “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for the military when a protester in the audience shouted at him. He even drew on Americorps and student loans to bridge the time between his administration and that of Mr. Obama.

As the keynote speaker on the opening day of the Netroots Nation conference, Mr. Clinton began rather quietly, apologizing for a hoarse voice caused by being on too many planes lately. (Perhaps a reference to his rescue mission for the journalists detained in North Korea or to recent speaking events around the country. Or to that birthday party in Las Vegas. … )

He then sort of slipped in an oblique reference to his role versus his wife’s job these days, on the heels of her outburst in Africa, where she recoiled intemperately from a question about what he might think on a particular subject. Being a former president, he joked, was great because he could speak his mind, but on the other hand, the worst thing is nobody cares anymore. “Unless,” he quipped, “Your wife becomes secretary of state and then they only care when you screw up.” (At another point, he defended her work there ardently, praising her for touring sites of human misery in the Congo.)

The past work of Hillary Rodham Clinton hung in the air, too, as opposition to the current health care bills has reached such a loud pitch that the echoes were all too noisy for the former president. He urged the audience to debate the major points – he said he still favored a public option but that there were many options; but he cautioned them not to lose sight of the opportunity they have now with a Democratically controlled Congress.

He complimented President Obama’s town-hall meeting in New Hampshire earlier in the week, saying he hit the right message. (He oddly noted, though, that “one good day in New Hampshire does not a campaign make,” which, while he was referring to Mr. Obama’s town-hall, also holds resonance from his wife’s primary win in that state that restored her confidence after her loss in Iowa to Mr. Obama.)

Mr. Clinton concluded that segment by saying, “the president needs your help and the cause needs your help.’’

And he continued, drawing on his own history with the failed health care bills of his own terms: It is “politically imperative for the Democrats to pass a health care bill now. One thing we know and that I’ve lived through — if you get out there and you don’t prevail — the victors get to rewrite history.”

He counseled them to debate the best parts, toss out the ones no one could agree on and forget the bad. But stay, he urged, in the lane to get it done.

At that point, Mr. Clinton began a point-by-point revisit of the 1993-94 health care battles, contending that the insurance companies were now rewriting that history. He ended the segment by asking, “Do you want to go through that again? Of course you don’t.”

“This battle is not over,” he cajoled the friendly audience. “We have big-time responsibilities. It is an honor for all us to be alive and to carry this responsibility. We can’t be in the peanut gallery. We have to be actors. … Don’t lose your energy because things don’t work out the way you want. It won’t take you 40 years to get health care reform. ….”

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

One of the other interesting moments tonight (and there were several) was when a person in the audience stood up and shouted to Mr. Clinton about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military. At first, Mr. Clinton turned his head and said: “Hey, you ought to go to one of those congressional health care meetings.” They’d be happy to have him, he added.

But then Mr. Clinton turned very irritated and pointedly used the second person in challenging his critic in the audience. You, he said, didn’t get me any support in Congress. The media exacerbated his efforts on gays in the military, he added. Then he kept on in this vein, partially paraphrased: Most of what you did was to attack me instead of getting me some support in the Congress. “Now that’s the truth. That’s the truth.”

He again mentioned how times have changed, and how much more support there is within the military for change. He also recalled how General Colin Powell had developed the policy, with the idea that no one’s personal life out of uniform would ever be reason for a penalty. But, he said, after Mr. Powell left, those intentions went awry. Mr. Clinton lamented that just recently the government spent a ton of money to oust a gay person who spoke Arabic, and also mentioned so many who risked their lives in the first Gulf War but were let go as soon as it was over. “I hated what happened,” Mr. Clinton said. “I regretted it.”

He insisted that those decisions were made against the backdrop of worry about whether Republicans would be able to muster the votes for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. (We ask, are most members of the audience old enough to even remember that time?)

Later on, in the context of another issue, Mr. Clinton digressed to say he didn’t mind debating the person who challenged him on this issue. But his angry, lengthy digression – totally unscripted — into that historical part of his presidency suggested that he does indeed mind the impressions still indelibly left in people’s minds.

This segue was a truly Clintonesque moment — one that just came out of the blue and drew him into a vortex of what he remembered and who he remembered as enemy or friend.

… Just a few more notes: After all the rivalry and bitterness between the Clinton and Obama campaigns in 2007 and 2008, and especially Mr. Clinton’s controversial statements that upset African-Americans during the primaries in certain states, the aftermath – at least in public – is interesting to watch.

Following up on comments made by Representative Brad Miller of North Carolina tonight that 47 percent of his state’s residents believe Mr. Obama wasn’t born in the United States, Mr. Clinton opened up his remarks by saying he was surprised it was that low because of prejudice and sustained racial divisions. Mr. Miller had worried aloud that much of the health care debate had been twisted into identity politics, where presidential proposals for changes that were less onerous than those for car insurance had resulted in calling Mr. Obama “Hitler.”

As for Mr. Clinton, he did late in the speech return to the notion that people don’t believe Mr. Obama’s citizenship. He said the election of an African-American lifted a “burden” off the shoulders of Southerners like him, and was not only an inspiration to young black children, but to so many others in a country that was more and diverse. And it’s also a time when Democrats, to Mr. Clinton, finally have a chance to grab a moment that could last three decades or more, unlike his own Democratic reign betwixt and between many Republican administrations.

To the audience, he pointed again to this time: “But we should realize that we have been given this staggering responsibility. I have been waiting 40 years for this.”

Another Note: And F.Y.I., liberal bloggers aren’t the only ones online who are in the Steel City. RightOnline, a conference of conservative bloggers, has set up a smaller counterconvention nearby, just as it did last year. It doesn’t begin until Friday night, when Pat Toomey, the former congressman and Republican candidate for Senator in Pennsylvania will be among the high-profile guests. We visited them last year in Austin.

And a P.S.: As a hometown, this one can only be said to hold considerable sway tonight as the Steelers played a pre-season event.


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