Bill Clinton's Small-Town Success

Church had just let out Sunday in steamy Marion, N.C., when the 42nd president of the United States rolled into town.

It was the middle of another busy day in the middle of nowhere for Bill Clinton. The stop in Marion -- population 4,900 -- was event No. 3 out of 8 he'd jammed into the last weekend day before Tuesday's North Carolina primary.

But after giving another classic 40-minute stemwinder at the town's historic train station, talking up his wife Hillary's candidacy with the verve and humor of a once-in-a-generation political performer, the former president lingered for a moment.

"This is not the speech," said Clinton, framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains in this little-traveled western pocket of the state. "I meant to say this, I don't have a note on it, but I meant to say it. The young woman who sang the national anthem today, McLain Rose? She has now sung for both Hillary and for me. And you must have been moved by her? Right?"

"Here's what I want you to remember: In little towns like this, all over America there are countless people like her. I just want you to think about that," he added. "If you had to hire somebody to make the best possible future for her, who would you hire? You think about that girl."

The crowd of nearly 1,000 -- many dressed in their Sunday best to see the only president of the United States they'd ever seen in person -- loved every moment of it.

Thirteen-year-old McLain Rose got another round of applause. And Clinton dove into the crowd for 30 more minutes of handshakes and photographs, before hitting the road for the next town on his checklist.

Clinton has worn a closet's full of hats this campaign -- trusted strategist, campaign attack dog, lightning rod for criticism of his wife's presidential bid. The Democratic race has in part become a referendum on the Clinton administration -- and the former president has seen his national reputation suffer with a series of purple-faced outbursts in response to pointed questions.

But it's this role -- what Clinton has alternately described as the "designated rural hit man" and "ambassador … to small-town America" -- that showcases the former president at his most effective.

Away from the major media markets -- and far from the circus atmosphere that envelops a modern presidential campaign -- Clinton is visiting small towns that seldom see national political candidates, much less presidents. With his unique, energetic style, he's recalling fond memories of his presidency, with the goal of ginning up votes for his wife.

"All the people that aren't for Hillary, who think that, you know, we're a little too connected to folks like you, they have made merciless, unmerciful fun of me about this -- 'Bill Clinton's out there in the country, exiled to the country,'" Clinton said Sunday in Lenoir, N.C. "I grew up in the country. I know where I am, and I wanna be right here."

He's using more than words to make that clear: In typical Clinton fashion, his days typically start around dawn and stretch past 11 p.m. He crams events -- and, often, local meals -- into his days; today, for instance, his public schedule includes nine campaign events in North Carolina, where voters go to the polls Tuesday.

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