The Clinton cavalcade rolls through town

by Brian Clarey

He’s a big sonafagun — you can tell even all the way from back here, in the rarified air of the luxury suite. President Bill Clinton is a big man, which makes the podium in front of him on stage at the Greensboro Coliseum seem like a scaled-down model made from plywood. And even at 64 years, the former leader of the free world looks like he could throw that podium clear across the platform.

Come to think of it, there’s not too many small guys with the nickname “Bubba.”

Moments earlier he had ascended the riser with an elegant, casual gait, clad in a damn fine navy pinstripe suit and a diagonal-stripe tie sharp enough to cut a tomato.

And now the first Democratic president to serve two full terms in office since FDR pauses at that tiny podium and opens with a joke.

“When you’re not running for anything, you can say anything you want,” he says, and then with impeccable timing he drops the punchline: “Unless your wife is secretary of state.”

The crowd tonight — well dressed, predominantly white and, dare I say, maybe just a little bit sexy — titters appreciatively.

Clinton, always the studious one, has done his homework. He’s here at the behest of Guilford College as part of the Bryan Lecture Series, and he goes into some material about Quakers, their tolerance and sense of community, which he the weaves seamlessly into his theme: “Embracing Our Common Humanity.”

“I often thought it would be good if there were more Quakers in Congress when I was president,” he says.

He also neatly ties in the work he has been doing of late through his Clinton Foundation, which includes global AIDS initiatives, earthquake relief in Haiti and climate-change solutions.

“There is always going to be a gap between what the private sector can produce and the government can provide,” he says, and that the role falls to non-governmental organizations like his.

The guy’s a pro. Now he’s slipped a pair of cheaters from his suit pocket and takes one of a very few glances at his lecture notes.

“The big question,” he says, is not what we propose to do, but, “How do you propose to do it?” He doesn’t do that thing with his thumb anymore, that emphatic but subtle hand motion mimicked so often it’s become standard in any

politician’s gestural trick bag. He stands now at ease, with his right hand in his pocket, as he lays down what he sees as essential problems in the world today: Inequality, instability and unsustainability.

“The world is too unequal…. No one can tell you with a straight face [that] we are working towards a shared future.”

“I’d be surprised if some people didn’t lose their lives over those leaks [Wikileaks diplomatic cables], and certainly some will lose their careers.”

“Nothing would create more jobs in America than changing the way we produce and use energy.”

Of course, he’s preaching to the choir. The people who really need to hear this message, the ones who disagree with the former president and everything he stands for, are, as usual, conspicuously absent.

But what, exactly, does William Jefferson Clinton stand for? His presidencies were noteworthy for balanced budgets, economic prosperity and relative peace. Down in the underbelly were NAFTA, which was a causal factor in massive US job losses; the repeal of Glass-Steagall banking regulatory reform, which added to the cowboy atmosphere on Wall Street that led to our current economic woes; and a White House sex scandal that will forever sully the title of “head intern.”

Say what you want about Bill Clinton, but he’s always been a smart fellow, with keen mental prowess and a legendary appetite for literature. And he shows disdain for the current political climate, saying later of the circumstances surrounding the 2010 election, “I’ve never been in such a fact-free environment in my life.”

“You don’t need to agree with my framework,” he says now, “but you need to have one, and you need to deal with the facts as they are.”

He closes with a nod to the country that elevated a poor kid from Arkansas to its highest elected position, while at the same time hitting his pitch for NGOs: “This is a great country,” he says, “but we have to think and we have to act, and you don’t have to be in government to do it.”

Then he settles in to a low chair at the corner of the stage for a Q&A session moderated by Terry Graedon, a Guilford College trustee who you might know better from “The People’s Pharmacy” on NPR, and though in his opening remarks tonight Clinton had made the invitation, “Ask me anything, ask me whatever you want,” the session was limited to three questions, presumable selected from a pool to which the general public was not invited to contribute.