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Clinton-Dole show raises money for Bennett College

by Jordan Green

As Hurricane Rita churned across the Gulf of Mexico on Sept. 21 preparing to visit certain devastation in a horrific sequel to Katrina, former President Clinton and former US Sen. Bob Dole bantered about philanthropy, bipartisanship and women in politics to guests in their evening finery who paid $500 to attend the fundraising gala for Bennett College at Greensboro’s Grandover Resort.

Esteemed guests such as United Negro College Fund President Michael Lomax and Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, noted Katrina and Rita’s destruction; poet Maya Angelou recited a poem that seemed to play upon the somberness of the global historic moment with lines such as, ‘“When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders and our children can drape their dolls in flags of truce,’” and, ‘“We are the true wonder of the world/ That is when, and only when, we come to it.’”

The website for former President George HW Bush and President Clinton’s hurricane relief fund flashed periodically across the ballroom’s two large screens, but the star attractions who sat for an informal conversation with college president Johnnetta Cole kept their remarks upbeat and focused on raising money for the college.

Some politicians go into lobbying or political consulting after completing their public service ‘— lucrative fields that trade on their knowledge and access to government. Others, like former President Carter, monitor human rights and elections around the world. Clinton and Dole, befitting their role as towering figures of the 1990s when privatization carried the day, have applied their energies to fundraising. Dole has raised money for the National World War II Memorial; Clinton has raised money for AIDS and HIV treatment and earthquake relief in India, along with his team effort with former President Bush to raise money for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

‘“One of the most important things that has happened since the end of the Cold War is the empowerment of private citizens and their ability to address public problems,’” he said. ‘“I know I sound like a Republican. We’re partially privatizing some of our public objectives, and I think it’s a good thing. I have 200 employees who work for a plane ticket, room and board. We don’t have to pay what the government pays.’”

Clinton and Dole, former political rivals ‘—’ Dole was the Republican Senate majority leader during the Democratic president’s first term and unsuccessfully challenged Clinton for the presidency in 1996 ‘— started appearing together after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Clinton said their act receives increasingly less television coverage because the two retired politicians don’t throw enough barbs each other’s way. Bipartisanship was a strong theme of the evening whose tone was set by Cole’s gushing decorum (‘“May I invite to this platform to engage in conversation with us, the brother President Bill Clinton and the brother Senator Bob Dole.’”).

Clinton, who recently turned 59, and the 82-year-old Dole looked tired and the former president slouched in his upholstered chair for much of the hour-long conversation, but when Cole asked them if a woman could be elected president they worked their act with ragged good humor.

‘“Many of us believe the proper place for a woman is in the House’… and the Senate too,’” Cole said. ‘“Some of us would like to see the day when a woman is in a big, big house.’”

Dole quipped: ‘“Out in the Midwest, where I’m from, a big house is considered something else.’” To which Clinton rejoined: ‘“That’s where you spent eight years trying to send me.’”

Both the men’s wives currently serve in the US Senate, Republican Elizabeth Dole for North Carolina and Democrat Hillary Clinton for New York. Bob Dole handed the question off to his friend Clinton since Hillary Clinton is widely considered a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

‘“We’ll have troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-term election of 2006 and maybe during the 2008 election,’” Clinton said. ‘“Security will be an issue. My gut is a woman could be elected president if she’s perceived as being strong and said and did all the right things.’”

‘“And voted for Roberts for chief justice?’” Dole asked.

Clinton made sure to have it both ways.

‘“Since I don’t get a vote in it and I don’t know how she’s going to vote, chances are however she decides to vote, I’ll be in agreement.’”

Through the banter and political parlor games, the two managed to avoid distracting the guests from the goal of supporting Bennett, one of only two historically black colleges for women in the country. At the end of the evening, Salisbury-based Food Lion, a subsidiary of the Belgian food retail company Delhaize, pledged $1.5 million towards the college’s campaign to raise money for student scholarships, faculty development and physical plant improvements. Earlier Cole told the group that the college had raised $25 million towards its $50 million goal.

Later, spokeswoman Wanda Mobley said the college took in more than $500,000 from corporate sponsorships and ticket sales, and was still counting donations. The event sold out, with more than 700 people attending.

Student Sharrelle Barber summed up the college’s optimistic stance when she paid tribute to Clinton.

‘“As you lean towards hope for this great nation, we lean towards hope and great expectations for Bennett College.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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