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Bill and Hillary: Just Regular Folk in North Carolina

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As Bill Clinton's reputation, in the eyes of Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina and many other Americans, wanes, there are small towns on the campaign trail where a Bill appearance is still a golden event. Wednesday evening before dusk Clinton spoke to 1500 men, women, children, babies and dogs gathered outside The Gatekeeper's Cottage in a local park by the train tracks in Asheboro, North Carolina. There were many interesting aspects to the occasion--the most important being that Bill Clinton, when he wants to take the trouble (he doesn't always anymore), knows how to talk to ordinary folk.

"The dogwoods are keeping me in touch with my roots," Clinton begins. This is the only reference he will make to Arkansas, the only overt connection he will try to suggest between him and them to his audience. He knows what small town people are like. They treasure their particularity. If he had tried to assert what outsiders might observe--that Asheboro is much like small towns in Arkansas--the citizens of Asheboro would have maintained their polite demeanor but thought: Isn't Arkansas kinda Midwest-like? What's their history out there? Don't recollect they did much in the Civil War.

Clinton sticks with the specific and the obviously true. The wild white dogwood, blooming now under the taller North Carolina trees, many of these trees dying from the pollution that drifts down from New York and New Jersey, are lovely. Clinton doesn't mention the pollution. He keeps it positive, evoking only two grace notes: home and spring.

In quick succession, Clinton hits other notes: the military (brief mention of Hillary's appearance with retired Gen. Hugh Shelton near Ft. Bragg), the family and women. Clinton gives his anecdote about daughter Chelsea telling an audience recently that she thinks her mom would make the better President. "Did you ever see women in a family who didn't stick together?" Clinton asks. The crowd chuckles but Clinton's oft-told punchline falls flat. Small-town audiences are water wands for sincerity; Asheboro senses the underlying manipulation.

Despite this mis-step, Bill Clinton connects with his audience because he never resorts to obvious rhetorical devices or rhetorical flights. He never says, as he did in Philadelphia only days before, that if folks support Hillary "it will be like the wind at her back blowing her forward." Such a fancy would be too rich for Asheboro, who likely would've thought, Don't know about that. Seems a bit much. But Clinton knows to keep his remarks more like a conversation than a speech.

For the next hour, he ambles through a series of dinner pail concerns the end point of which always is "she'll [Hillary] get that done for you." Clinton never talks about policy with a capital P. He never frames problems as The Larger Issues Facing the Nation. He keeps it small; he makes it seem Asheboro-specific. Bill Clinton understands his audience: how by evening a decent man's and woman's worries settle in. How can I pay the electric bill come summer? Will the car last another year? That teacher isn't listening to my son.

Slowly, Bill Clinton goes through each of these worries, one by one. He touches briefly on his wife's prescriptions, especially for Asheboro's main worries: the price of food and the price of gas. Clinton says that his wife is working on a tax credit for gasoline used to drive to and from work and school, a tax credit for buying a fuel-efficient car, helping to pay off student loans, better pay for teachers, job re-training, help for single parents, expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act, doing more for Veterans. Clinton assuages Asheboro's fears, if only for an hour, by addressing them simply, calmly, matter-of-factly.

Occasionally, Clinton seems to meander into storytelling. But the Clinton sidetrack is a carefully-crafted element of his performance. He has only an hour here, for he must do two more campaign stops still. With a yarn or two, however, he gives the impression that he has all the time in the world for Asheboro. Likely most of the townsfolk will remember that former President Bill Clinton spent all evening with them, until well after dark.

"I'd keep you here 'til tomorrow morning telling stories," Clinton says as a way of signaling he's about to close. Asheboro laughs, knowing they are going to get one more. "I want to tell you about the lives she's [Hillary] changed," he says. Inwardly, I sigh, for I've heard the story many times before, and it seems so manipulative to me now, although I have to admit that the first time I heard it I was touched.

"Recently I was in Hickory, North Carolina," Clinton says. He's changed the place from Pickering, where the incident seems to have occurred, because a Philadelphia audience laughed at the word Pickering. "The last of six or seven stops." Earlier on the stump in Elon, it was the fifth stop of the day. "I get to the last person [on the rope line], and it's a very nice lady standing there--just grabs me by the arm, starts shaking me, 'Just look at my daughter! Look at my daughter!' Gee, I was scared to death." Asheboro laughs appreciatively. "There was this perfectly normal, smiling, teenage girl. She [the older woman] said, 'This is why I'm for Hillary. I know she's one of the Democrats and Republicans who went to change the adoption laws, all the tax credits. . . . for foster care.' She put her head on her daughter's shoulder. 'Hillary saved my daughter from being trapped in foster care. And saved me from life without my daughter.'"

Every time Bill Clinton tells this story, he expands upon it, exaggerating a little more. For Asheboro, he adds an extra "look at my daughter." He adds "scared to death." But as always he grabs his audience with the tale, and Asheboro responds with an "awwwwwhhhh." Maudlin as a country music ballad, nevertheless, this is just the touch of sweet that otherwise un-sentimental small-town and country folk like. Just a touch. At the end.

Bill Clinton campaigned not in Asheboro but in larger Randolph County, which is actually a very strong Republican county, in 1992. Many in the Gatekeeper's Cottage crowd remember him well from sixteen years ago, even if they cannot recall the origin of the Gatekeeper's Cottage itself. Vernon Simmons, a member of a Gospel quartet, explains his politics: "My dad would kick me out of the family if I didn't vote Democrat. I voted for Bill the first time. He ran this country very well. She's [Hillary] been there and knows how to do it. She's someone who will stand tall, her feet firmly put down. She's kept her feet more firmly planted than he [Obama] has."

There's an almost-charming obliviousness in Asheboro about Hillary Clinton's chances. These are not folks who watch much cable TV news. Just like the lady in Pickering/Hickory, many rush the rope line for a chance to shake the Clinton hand. Virginia Roberts, 86, just wants to kiss him. She remembers kissing him in '92 and wants to tell him so. Although the town EMTs have carried away four elderly Asheboroans already, Mrs. Roberts clambers easily as a goat up the tree root-knotted slope to the cottage. Her fellow citizens make way for her. Clearly, she is the town matriarch, for people have been stopping by her lawn chair all evening to pay their respects. In some ways it's astonishing that places like Asheboro still exist in America; on the other hand, as Election 2008 unfolds, these Asheboros are having their say.