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TX: Bill Clinton Takes Aim At Obama

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"I was told from time to time I could give a pretty good speech," Bill Clinton says. "I once spoke to a million people, in Accra, Ghana, a million. . . ." He is aggrieved. "I spoke to over a 100,000 people at the Brandenburg Gate. I was the first president to ever speak, after the end of the Cold War, on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate. I spoke to a 100,000 people in the streets of Ukraine, 75,000 in Romania. I know the importance of words and inspiration." Clinton is fifty minutes into his remarks at Steven Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas when he gets sidetracked. He's just said, "I will tell you how Hillary defines success. It was always the way I kept score." But we will have to wait for the scorekeeping while he engages the specter of Barack Obama.

It's Friday night in Nacogdoches, where a throng of (mostly) students has squeezed into the upstairs rally room of the Student Center. From early morning, former President Clinton has been working his way down through the piney woods of East Texas. At breakfast time, he opened a campaign office for his wife in Texarkana; later he spoke in Longview and Tyler. Now he's in Nacogdoches, running late. It will be 9 PM before he leaves here, in torrential rain, and he still has Lufkin, home to Texas Bible College, to go. Even though the Republicans control these East Texas state senate districts (nos. 1, 2 and 3, all with four delegates apiece to award in the Democratic primary), the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination is gathering here, in an often-overlooked corner of the state.

Bill Clinton's aside on the subject of his speechifying is an implicit, likely unintended, admission that whatever he's been doing for almost an hour, it hasn't added up to a political speech. It's hard to capture the tenor of his remarks. Clinton alternately adopts the tone of high school teacher, when he delves into a lengthy but simplified explanation of the meaning of "subprime mortgage," and the problem-solved approach of home products' salesman, when he says "that's [health insurance problems] all gone now, we're all gonna be covered."

Terrie Gonzalez, the managing editor of the Cherokeean/Herald (the oldest newspaper in Texas) in nearby Rusk, has challenged me to a bet on how many times Bill Clinton will use the word "solutions." The skepticism behind her wager flavors the crowd's response to Clinton. This has been a friendly but not completely respectful group. There have been a few catcalls. The room is packed; the room is hot; the room is restive. This is the Clinton Campaign "on a shoestring"--without the advance team, the organized cadre of local volunteers, the tablers and the handlers, the local supporters whipping up applause from the corners that usually so perfectly construct a Clinton event. Earlier, as I ducked under the press rope, a Secret Service agent asked me, "don't you people sign in anymore?" He was genial, but frazzled. The reason campaign rallies typically begin with musical entertainment and a roster of speakers is manifest when Bill Clinton abruptly steps onto the podium, his arrival signaled only by the turned-up volume of "Taking Care of Business." He has to stand there, his mouth opening and closing, working a smile, while an Hispanic congressman from South Texas, who never identifies himself, makes a few disjointed remarks.

Bill Clinton moves right away into outrageousness. "Our competitors believe, that even if Hillary wins the popular vote [in Texas] they can get half the delegates and upset the popular vote, because most of her supporters work for a living and have to worry about what their kids are gonna do at night--and will not come out to vote at that caucus." Clinton urges supporters to caucus, first and last in his remarks. Clearly, the Texas caucus gnaws at the campaign. Furthermore, this passive-aggressiveness surfaces again.

"You have one candidate who has made the explicit argument that the only way we can change America is to move into a post-partisan future, and therefore we have to eliminate from consideration for the presidency anybody who made good things happen in the 90's, or stop bad things from happening this decade. The better people did--it doesn't matter how much good you did, we have to get rid of you because you had to fight to make something good happen. And you had to fight to stop something bad from happening. And if you fought, you made somebody mad; you're cut up; we got to give you a gold watch and retire you because you can't possibly make a contribution to America's future. We just have to turn over a new leaf. It's actually an advantage not to have any experience, because then you've never made anybody mad. That is the explicit argument." These are Bill Clinton's words in Nacogdoches.

From their side of the conference call-cum-email war for the media, the Obama Campaign has jumped all over a slightly different version of these remarks that Bill Clinton made earlier in the day. More important, of course, is the reaction of the folks in Nacogdoches, who respond with nervous laughter. As Texas state senator Kirk Watson (endorsing Obama) said in a conference call the day before, "We need to shoot straight down here." Probably everybody in the room knows that Bill Clinton is not shooting straight; but nobody is going to call him out. That's not why people came. Bill Clinton is a celebrity, and this may be the only chance Texans here will ever have to see him in the flesh.

And so Clinton talks on, making foreign policy proposals that differ somewhat from his wife's positions (example: the only force the U.S. needs to keep in Iraq is "a small force with special forces capability up in the Kurdish area where everybody is getting along"), revisiting his administration's accomplishments and burnishing Hillary's resume. In fact, Bill Clinton superbly catalogs his wife's impressive record of community service. But then he wanders into another backhanded attack on Barack Obama:

"So, this is my thinking, based on my own life experience, with the argument being made by her opponent. I think it matters if you've made positive changes in people's lives, over a long period of time, in many different settings, as long as you've always been a change agent. Experience is not worth a flip if you're just warming a seat. If you're just standin' there and doin' nothin' it's utterly worthless, I agree. But if you've been a change agent, if you've changed other people's lives for the better over and over and over again in all kinds of different settings, that does count for something."

What will the people of Nacogdoches take away from this performance? That he showed up for them. And that's the important thing--not his swipes at "her opponent"--to keep in mind. If just for a day, Bill Clinton has put East Texas on the map and thereby validated something in its citizens' lives. People will not remember that for a moment they thought he was slightly pathetic and diminished in stature. Bill Clinton is our modern-day Sitting Bull, replaying old victories for the bleachers in a new kind of Wild West Show.

Terrie Gonzalez of the Cherokeean/Herald won the bet on "solutions" (seven times). "I've never understood why this part of Texas is so Republican," she said. She didn't have to finish the remark--because it's so poor. Indeed the drive up Highway 59 from Houston to Nacogdoches is a window on the rural poverty John Edwards campaigned to end. Beyond the picturesque--men selling shrimp and catfish and comb honey by the side of the road--are miles of century-old clapboard houses, listing on their foundations and coming apart at the seams, but still inhabited. "You know," Terrie Gonzalez said, "a lot of people up here, and I'm embarrassed to say this, won't vote for a black man." She paused. "But then a lot of people won't vote for a woman either." She nodded in the direction of her husband, who had been taking photographs for their newspaper. "We own the local radio station, too--and it's only 2500 watts, but the Obama Campaign has already been calling to ask about ad rates."