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October 16, 2009



Keep listening to the angel on your other shoulder, Beth. In so many ways it's more urgent - and indeed fitting - that we of a certain age make a noise today. Back in the '60s/'70s we used to shout triumphantly, "Our time is now!" Wrong - it's now!

Oh, and a great post!

This is wonderful to read, made my eyes damp, and left me awed and inspired.

No one who has been following you online or offline would tell you you haven't made a difference, Beth

Really lovely report, Beth. I'm glad you've made it so personal.

You know, I've never understood the Bill Clinton thing, why people find him so charismatic. I just don't get it: there's something that I'm failing to connect with there. I think of him as glib, slick, power hungry, hungry for adulation, etc. I'm guessing that all this is because when he first emerged on the scene, I had fundamental political disagreements with him. Now that my views have matured and become more progressive, that initial negative imprint persists (the Lewinsky thing has nothing to do with it, by the way; I don't care about that nonsense).

I like him well enough, but I don't really like him. I'm positively disposed towards John Kerry, Bill Richardson, Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell...in the "I don't really get it" category are Bill, Hillary and Al Gore. Our current president, of course, I absolutely love; and still will when the inevitable flaws emerge. I don't like Joe Biden's tan or his megawatt smile, but I like him as vice-president, and I think he'd be fine as president too.

Anyway, everyone I know who has seen Bill Clinton live, without exception and regardless of political affiliation, has been blown away by his in-person charisma. They all confirm your account, and I'm glad you got to see your hero.

Maybe it's because he always seemed human to me - your negative characteristics have a basis in fact, but I could say the same thing about plenty of other accomplished people hungry for "success" - at times, myself included. Bill never seemed much like either his wife or vice-president to me, and I don't think it's fair to paint him with the same brush. He has a warmth that I feel is genuine, even if it's been turned toward self-service at times. I saw Al Gore in person; there was none of that, and I think it's clear that Hillary doesn't have it either.

Thinking over yesterday, I realized he did look different. There is definite gravity now; he's thinner and his face shows what he's been through. I don't know if his current work is a conscious attempt at redemption - and I'm not sure he thinks that's necessary - but he's doing something he cares about deeply and wants to see succeed, and he loves talking about the people he's met. If you had been there I'm pretty sure you would have felt this too. But hero? That's going too far for me. I don't think I have heroes or heroines because putting people up on that pedestal is asking too much of anyone. Seeing what happened to my friend the bishop was very instructive.

I am a bit jealous, Beth. He is one of the few famous, powerful people in the world that I would love to meet. I am too young to have heard Jack or Bobby Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. In my lifetime, Bill Clinton is simply the best speaker I have ever heard. I agree with you that not even Obama has that little something that allows Clinton to really connect with people. Unlike almost everyone else that I know, save my husband and mother-in-law, I love Bill Clinton. He has weaknesses, but they are mostly personal, and I think he was an excellent president.

I was touched by your account, and had tears in my eyes by the end. I wish I had been there.

Oh Beth, one is never too old for anything!

I always carry close to my heart what Martin Luther King said, "If you can't fly, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can't walk, crawl. But whatever you do, keep moving towards your goal."

Or what Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see."

And what has age got to do with this?

I was very moved by this, Beth, and identified with it very much.

I have always been moved and inspired by Bill Clinton - I'm usually outstandingly unsusceptible to charm, but I guess he's one of the very great charmers of our time, as well, of course, as having a great deal to say that I strongly support and a command of language and communication that I admire hugely.

This leaves me with very ambivalent feelings, of course. I'm hugely wary of charm and charisma. One of my seminal childhood memories is of when the Bishop of Worcester came to preach at the Church of England church that my primary (elementary) school was attached to. I must have been 9 or 10. I was pretty alienated from the constant and very boring church-going required of us and completely unprepared for the way this charismatic orator made me feel. It was a powerful emotional and physical experience that I'd never had before. I remember it still so clearly. I hovered. I nearly returned to belief. Instead, I learned what charisma was, and to be very amazed by and wary of it.

I don't mean to dismiss Clinton completely at all by relating this memory. But at the same time I don't feel he achieved a great deal in his presidency (although of course compared with what came after...), and if even someone so clever and persuasive can't achieve much, well, that's pretty damn hopeless and depressing, isn't it?

I heard him speak at LSE a few years ago, some years after the end of his presidency. I sat near the front, was very glad to have had the experience of seeing and hearing him in person, was far from disappointed and like you was moved and heartened by the priorities he has embraced since his time in office. My lovely boss who died three years ago, a brilliant, progressive and humane scholar, was one of those invited to dinner with Bill Clinton after the lecture. He congratulated Clinton on his speech and asked him, why didn't you say all this, work for these priorities, when you were president? Clinton replied that he did, endlessly, but it was never what the powerful or the media wanted to hear or respond positively to. My boss was not at all sure how convincing he found that response. But the photo of himself shaking hands with Bill Clinton thenceforth adorned his desk.

And there you have it, I suppose.

Thank you for sharing this so vividly. I felt very close to you reading it.

Uma, thanks for those reminders - and of course that's right. I think my momentary discouragement came from feeling the contrast between my youthful idealism (and the young people Clinton had just been talking about) and where my life's path eventually went - certainly not into one of those "save the world" professions or leadership positions - and how it is actually quite late to think about starting an ambitious initiative. But that was not a productive train of thought, since there are so many ways to make a difference and to help, and one is never too old!

Jean, thanks a lot for your honesty and for sharing that story about your boss. I'm susceptible to charm and charisma, especially when the person is also a great speaker, so I try to watch myself just as you describe...however, as one who observed Clinton with great and close interest throughout his eight years in Washington, I think I can echo what he told your boss - he did say those things, and he repeated them endlessly; his admirers heard him and his detractors chose not to, and campaigned early and viciously against him and against his policies. The health care defeat was a big blow, and it was also true that while the Clinton administration left Washington as enmeshed in "the system" as anyone could be, when they arrived they did not know the ropes and didn't have people or systems in place to get anything done. As a result, the start was very slow (Obama learned a lot from that and didn't make the same mistakes) and some enemies were made. It's also hard now to remember, maybe, how vicious the attacks were on Hilary just because she was female and refused to fit the mold of former first ladies. Anyway - Clinton ran into obstacle after obstacle, and later made compromises and deals that many of us felt were too centrist and too safe, or in some cases too much in cahoots with powerful lobbies. The tragedy of his administration and presidency, I think, is that he was one of the smartest people ever to hold the office, with both an instinctive sense of what needed to be done and a great grasp of the facts, and he was largely unable to accomplish his goals. It was horrible to listen to his yearly State of the Union addresses to Congress and watch the Democrats on their feet, applauding, and the Republicans sitting in stony silence, just waiting to attack and stonewall. And the media -- Fox rose to its current popularity during those years, Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk show hosts had a field day with Bill and Hilary-bashing -- went to town. What's good is that he was able to sustain a strong economy and keep relative peace, building relationships - only to have Bush come along and tear much of it down - and I think those eight years build the basis for what Obama will have an easier time accomplishing. During his speech here, Clinton said as much, and he accepts that. It takes time for public opinion to move forward, for people to say "enough is enough" and put pressure on Congress to do things like health care reform. In some ways, Clinton is the victim of that time lag and reluctance - more people had more money then, the situation didn't feel as dire, and so they were more complacent. Sad but true.

Kia ora Beth,
I think Jimmy Carter was the same sort of victim of the powerful as Clinton whilst he was president. I think he was a visionary and a man far ahead of his time yet his time in office is looked upon as a joke. Carter may not have the charisma of many speakers, but the words he spoke were often brilliant.

I agree, Robb, Jimmy Carter was and is a very fine human being. Isn't it interesting how much these Democratic presidents have done internationally since leaving office, and how little their Republican counterparts have done? (Though George Bush, Sr. is somewhat of an exception.) Maybe part of it is that their presidencies made them realize how interconnected we all are, and that it's more important to be world citizens than Americans.

Here we both think that you can best judge a President by what he does after he leaves office. Clinton and Carter are two of the best. I think Bush 2 is clearing brush in Texas. No one even wants to hear his name spoken.

Thanks for this report, Beth. It has inspired me at third hand. He is one of my heroes.


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