Let's get one thing straight right here and now: I was not a big fan of President Bill Clinton. Oh, I liked some of what he tried to do. I appreciated his and his wife's attempt to provide universal health care. But that was a particularly populist policy goal—and a failure at that—tucked into a centrist “New Democrat” presidency that was too conservative for my political sensibilities.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of three Clinton-signed laws that I didn't care much for: the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (welfare reform), the Telecommunications Act and the Defense of Marriage Act—and these were the laws that were on my mind as I traveled last weekend to Little Rock, Ark., where Clinton was the keynote speaker at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' annual convention (he took no pay). I had worked the first two laws into a question to which I wanted an answer from my former prez.
I got my chance, but it didn't happen the way I'd imagined. I'd hoped to ask it after his speech during the Q&A, but time ran out before I could be called upon. Disappointed, I meandered over toward the crowd that had gathered around Clinton as he signed autographs and shook hands. As I inched closer to him through the throng, I was struck by the momentary connections he was making with people. In one case, his face brightened as he greeted a mother and her infant and, responding to a question, gave the detailed backstory of the colorful bracelet he was wearing.
When I finally reached the front, I found myself face to face with him, and I decided to ask my question. “Sir,” I said, “you signed three laws that contained elements that I think are inconsistent with some of the themes [cautions against consolidation of wealth and power, and advocacy of a more humane global community] in the speech you just gave. NAFTA, the Telecommunications Act and welfare reform—what, if anything, do you regret about them?”
His response knocked my socks off, not necessarily in its content, but more in the manner of its delivery.
Clinton took the time to methodically take me through each law, citing facts, figures and circumstances of the time, telling me his regrets and allowing me to chime in when I had something to add or ask. Because I didn't think I'd be talking to him, I wasn't holding pen and paper, and I didn't have my recorder with me. So I stood there, arms folded, trying futilely to absorb it all. I have to admit, much of it went over my head. I got some of it, but I couldn't do the answer justice by trying to relay it to you here.
In a nutshell, he expressed regret over precisely what I didn't like about those laws. He regrets the “social” impacts of NAFTA. The agreement, he told me, was a fait accompli, but he said he was certain Al Gore would beat George W. Bush and that Gore would fix it. He regrets the media-merger mania that resulted from the Telecom Act and seemed to blame it, at least partly, on the dot-com bust. It was a case of unintended consequences. “I didn't see that coming,” he said. (I would love to have had time to press him on that one.) And he didn't like welfare reform's provision to boot mothers off the dole after five cumulative years. Perhaps that can be altered when the law is reauthorized this year, he said. (Not likely.)
Again, that's a grossly oversimplified summary. I'll regret not having my tape recorder on me for the rest of my life.
Satisfied, I shook his hand, thanked him for his time and walked away thinking to myself, Damn, that is one smart son of a bitch. And I admit that I was a little bit euphoric—just ask any of the 673 people I told about my experience that day, some of whom had seen the conversation play out and wanted to know what I said to Clinton that so engaged him.
Some of the details of his response to my question are debatable, certainly, but what I found so impressive was that he didn't talk down to me. He talked to me as if I were his equal—a lot of very unimpressive local politicians don't even treat people like that. He made eye contact and made sure he understood where I was coming from, and he really answered my question. All that stuff about how he makes you feel like you're the only one in the room—I get it now. Maybe it's genuine, or maybe it's manipulation. Either way, that dude's good.
Note to aspiring politicians: Do your homework and treat people with respect—you just might be president one day.