I saw President Bill Clinton speak at SUNY-Albany last night. I knew I missed him, but I'd forgotten how much. As much promise as I believe President Obama has, I'd take Clinton back in a heartbeat. I had a mini-fantasy about a ticket in which Obama would be able to learn directly from The Man (specifically on how to get out of his own way), much like a promising assistant coach studying for years under a genius head coach. Eh.
To the speech:
The SEFCU Arena seats just over 4500, and it was predictably packed. He came out to a rousing ovation, chilled the crowd out, and got down to business. As a whole, it was a very engaged and respectful crowd, with one glaring exception.*
I heard two primary themes being referenced time and again: 1) that the current state of the world is too unequal, too unstable, and too unsustainable, and, 2) "Who are you, where do you want to go, and how are you going to get there?"
He spoke for a little over an hour (about thirty minutes longer than he was supposed to, I was told on good authority, not that anyone minded). He gave some numbers about graduation rates (the U.S. has dropped from #1 in graduation % to #12), the impact of expansive alternative energy programs, and how the American taxpayers could save billions with a health care model similar to other countries'.
He spoke at length about Obama's perceived "failed" stimulus program and explained how it wasn't meant to fix everything, just "put the brakes on." Once again, he used numbers to prove his point.
The use of facts in place of rhetoric was obvious, as was his clear disdain for the current state of political "fact-free" dialogue. The one thing he said that struck me the most (and caused me to start taking a few notes on my phone) came at about the midway point. He spoke of a dialogue of extremes, e.g. all tax cuts are good vs. all tax increases are bad, or all government regulation is bad vs. anything unfettered is good. His response to this? Does that help solve our problems, or "should we be a little more sophisticated here?"
The speech itself was decidedly non-partisan, with him taking a few lighthearted, but relevant, jabs at both parties, and also speaking in glowing anecdotal terms of his friends in both parties.
After the speech proper, he sat down for a brief (mostly fluff) Q & A, where he surprised the crowd by saying he "kinda likes" Sarah Palin, even though he disagrees with her on everything.
All in all, it was as informative, entertaining, and inspiring a monologue as any other I can recall at the moment.
Lastly, he was at his most animated when he answered a question about the importance of humor in humanizing a politician. He related another anecdote which, in my opinion, nicely summed everything up: During his term, NASA presented him with a moon rock that had been carbon-dated at 3.6 billion years. He placed this rock on one of the tables in the Oval Office. Whenever the debate got too heated, he pointed and said: "Hey, see that rock there? It's 3.6 billion years old. We're all just passing through here. Relax."
* Until we heard the announcement of the last question of the night, that is. At that point, hundreds of people in the crowd embarrassed themselves and the school in general by heading for the exits as Clinton was answering, as if the home team was down twenty with three minutes to go. I remarked to my wife, "I don't care if he's the janitor, that's disrespectful." Way to make an impression, folks.