From afar on a clear, cold Wednesday night in Texas, with the glare of floodlights pouring down on him, Bill Clinton looks a little like Senator Ted Kennedy, the shock of white hair, the ruddy complexion, the lifted chin that signifies the attentive thoughtfulness politicians assume as they await their turn at the microphone. But when his turn does come, there is none of that Boston Irish joviality seen in recent days as Kennedy toured South Texas for Barack Obama. There is no roaring call to action and certainly no enthusiastic off-key, rambunctious rendition of Jalisco, a song that Kennedy has sung much to the delight of Latino audiences.
Bill Clinton's musical days are behind him. Rather, President Clinton is somewhat subdued and yet charming, pleading his wife's case and admitting midway through an hourlong appeal on the University of Texas campus in Austin Wednesday night that "I'm not as good a speaker as I used to be." The line is met with smiles and a little laughter. But the greatest enthusiasm for him comes after the speech as he works the rope lines, taking time to pose and shake hands, his aides collecting posters and papers along the way that will be autographed and returned to his fans later.
"We know him from MTV," says Laura Hernandez, president of the University Democrats of UT Austin, as she introduces the former President. "We know him from playing his saxophone on Arsenio. He is the first rock star President of this country." Certainly Clinton is greeted like a rock star by the mostly student crowd as he moves down the ramp from Main Hall to a podium on the mall in the heart of the campus. Flash bulbs go off, camera phones are lifted high and U2 blasts over the speakers.
But for the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 in the audience the dark glasses and the sax are distant memories after all, most were in grade school when Clinton did his Blues Brothers schtick back in the 20th century. Now he takes to the stage to deliver campaign appeals that begin as a pitch for his wife as real "change agent" and end in a mix of wonkish detail and spin on the inner workings of Washington and his observations from his world travels.
"I do love my wife," he tells the crowd as he begins. "I plead guilty especially today, which is my daughter's 28th birthday and the happiest day of my life." He follows with a long, detailed description of how Hillary Clinton has worked for change as a law student, at the Children's Defense Fund, as First Lady of Arkansas, in the White House and the Senate. "She is the best candidate for President I've ever had a chance to support," Clinton says. A list follows: She supported Senegalese women victimized by genital multilation; she inspired Cambodian women to work for education for their daughters; she worked on health care programs for poor American kids; registered voters in dusty Texas towns; toiled for peace in Ireland... "All her life she has been an agent for change," Clinton says.
But six days before Clinton arrived for this rally, there was another one just down the hill from UT in front of the Texas Capitol: Barack Obama's. And there, hundreds of placards emblazoned "Change We Can Believe In" popped up from a crowd estimated between 15,000 and 20,000. Obama spun his magic in an hourlong speech that was lacking the wonkish details about nuclear proliferation and educational testing offered by Bill Clinton. The crowd was enthralled if not inspired.
Clinton's audience on Wednesday night is filled with enthusiastic Hillary supporters the most vocal are AFSCME union members clad in bright green T-shirts but the crowd is not much larger than the 4,000 who gathered on the same spot Saturday to hear Republican renegade Ron Paul. In the minutes before Clinton appears, a band of Obama supporters works the crowd passing out stickers and flyers, some students even leave before Clinton appears and, as he speaks, it is clear the Clinton campaign has concerns about the Obama grassroots organization.
"A lot of people think Hillary will win in the daytime and her opponent will come in the night and take back the votes she won," Clinton says, referring to Texas' complicated system of primary-then-caucus. Clinton urges Hillary supporters to sign up to attend the precinct caucuses held after the primary vote on Mar. 4. "We are going to have food, music and fun," Clinton tells the crowd, urging them to vote twice once in the primary and again in the evening caucuses, perfectly legal in Texas where 126 delegates will be allotted based on the vote, 67 on the caucus results.
But if there is an indication of how those caucuses might go, it is on the periphery of the crowd. As Bill Clinton works the rope line, longtime Austin Democratic activist Glenn Maxey is passing out his campaign flyers to people as they leave. A former state representative and the first openly gay member of the Texas Legislature, Maxey is running for county tax collector. Tonight he has passed out some 3,000 flyers. At the Obama rally six days ago he had given out 5,000 and ran out of them. Running an "insurgent" campaign against a longtime incumbent, he has thrown in his lot with Obama. "I can knock on 50 doors in two hours or I can train 200 Obama supporters to go to the caucuses," Maxey says. What does he expect on Tuesday? "A wipeout," he says as Bill Clinton gives one last wave to the crowd and leaves the quadrangle.