Bill Clinton: ‘Do Ohio Voters Really Know How Bad Ken Blackwell Is?’

Six CityBeat staffers were among the 450 or so alt weekly brethren who gathered June 15-17 in Little Rock, Ark., to share story ideas, ad sales techniques and financial advice and to hear from a number of notable speakers, including former President Bill Clinton. The conference’s opening night reception was held at Clinton’s presidential library overlooking the Arkansas River.

Clinton’s appearance at the Saturday lunch was an amazing spectacle, both in terms of the length (more than two hours) and his free-flowing grasp of The Big Picture. One person told me later it was the best experience he’d had at the 25 or so Association of Alternative Newsweekly (AAN) conferences he’s attended. I can’t imagine anyone else in the audience — even the jaded, cynical editors — felt differently.

(See AAN’s coverage of the Clinton appearance here and blog coverage from other AAN papers here. See an AP story about the Clinton appearance here. And read a transcript of Clinton’s remarks and answers to the audience questions here.)

Lunch was supposed to begin at 1 p.m., but we were informed that Clinton wanted to speak first and then get on with other commitments in Little Rock and so the food would be served later. He finally came on almost 20 mintues late, introduced by the publisher of the host paper, Arkansas Times.

Clinton said he wasn’t planning lengthy remarks, holding up two pieces of paper to show a speech outline, and said he wanted to leave time for questions. He immediately set an informal tone by saying, “The greatest thing about not being president anymore is I can say whatever the hell I please.” Pausing a beat, he added, “And the worst part is you don’t have to care about what I say anymore.”

(Disclaimer: I didn’t take notes, so I’m winging it here, although I’ve confirmed details with my fellow CityBeaters.)

He told us how much he appreciates the kind of journalism alt weeklies do in their communities and said he tries to read our papers in whatever city he visits. He complained about what he called “two-dimensional cartoon” coverage in the mainstream media of important issues and people and said alt weeklies tend to flesh out important local stories into the full three dimensions.

He used that two- and three-dimension language to morph into a discussion of his wife, saying there was no public person in the United States who’s been turned into a two-dimersional cartoon more than Hillary.

In my mind, Clinton clearly was trying to plant the thought in our heads that we should give Hillary a little room over the next few years to be treated as a real person dedicated to serving the public instead of the ball-buster caricature we’ve all come to label her. Since most AAN papers offer the liberal political view in their home media markets, it’s a smart ploy to begin planting the seed of cutting Hillary some slack.

After about 30-40 minutes of remarks, Clinton sat in a comfy chair on stage to field questions. Patty Calhoun, editor of Westword in Denver and chair of AAN’s editorial committee, offered the first three. (Read Calhoun’s hilarious blog entry about her backstage dealings with Clinton’s handlers.)

Calhoun asked Clinton if he’d seen the Rolling Stone magazine story by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. about Ohio’s 2004 presidential vote being stolen by the Republicans. The June 1 article says that shenanigans out of Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s office — including confusing and contradictory directions to county boards of election, purging of voter lists, allocation of fewer voting machines to inner city precincts and tampering with vote counts after the fact — resulted in as many as 357,000 votes going uncounted statewide in 2004, enough to have swung Ohio (and the presidency) to Sen. John Kerry.

Clinton said he’d read the Rolling Stone story and, although he wasn’t ready to pronounce the Ohio vote “stolen,” was concerned about the state GOP’s tactics and about future elections.

Questions were then taken from the audience, and one person asked Clinton what his role might be in a theoretical President Hillary Clinton adminstration. He laughed and said he’d give his “automatic response answer.”

Point one, he said, is he doesn’t know if Hillary is going to run for president. When some audience members groaned, Clinton said he really doesn’t know.

Point two, he said, if Hillary runs he doesn’t know if she’ll win the Democratic nomination. Three, if she wins the nomination he doesn’t know if she’ll be elected president. So there are a lot of “ifs,” he said.

Still, if she were to become president Clinton said he’d probably relate with her much as he’s done with President Bush: “If she asks me to do something, I’ll do it. If she asks me not to do something, I won’t do it.”

Calhoun then asked Clinton what his “non-automatic response answer” was, but he wouldn’t bite.

At least three times Calhoun tried to end the Q&A session by announcing that an offstage Clinton aide was motioning to wrap it up, but each time Clinton waved his hand and said, “Let’s take some more.” When she jokingly told Clinton that the aide had passed out from stress, Clinton said, “He’ll get over it,” and looked for another question.

Finally Clinton got up, waved goodbye and stepped down from the stage, joined by several security agents with things in their ears. Audience members swarmed to the front of the room, and Clinton proceeded to work his way across the front of the stage — for 40 more minutes.

He autographed AAN name badges, conference programs and photos and books people brought — none of us from CityBeat had thought to bring anything to sign — and talked policy and politics with everyone whose hand he shook.

My friend David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat — no relation; they just stole our name — wandered away after an encounter in the line, smiling and shaking his head. He’d asked Clinton about three dubious laws Clinton signed that he disagreed with, and Clinton methodically explained to David his reasons for backing the laws as well as the laws’ benefits and shortcomings. David was pretty impressed. (Read his take here.)

“A politician who looks you in the eye and answers your tough questions,” I said to David. “How often does that happen back home?”

CityBeat sales rep Kris Sommer said hello to Clinton and invited him to come to Ohio in the fall to campaign for various Democrats. Clinton said he’d definitely be in Ohio between now and the November elections.

A little while later I was standing behind a female staffer of the alt weekly in Athens, Ohio, who again asked Clinton if he’d be visiting Ohio to help campaign for Democrats. Clinton said he would, then turned to autograph something for another person.

He stopped and looked back at her and asked, “Do Ohio voters really know how bad Ken Blackwell is?”

The woman shrugged and said something like, “I don’t know, but we’re going to tell them.”

Clinton nodded and moved on.

Lunch was finally served at 4.

— John Fox

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One Comment on “Bill Clinton: ‘Do Ohio Voters Really Know How Bad Ken Blackwell Is?’”

  1. Margo Pierce Says:

    “Six CityBeat staffers were among the 450 or so alt weekly brethren who gathered June 15-17 in Little Rock, Ark….”

    John, John, John – where is your Handbook of Nonsexist Writing by Casey Miller and Kate Swift??

    I’ll bring you my copy to the next editorial meeting and I promise to still respect you in the morning.

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