CONVENTION: Clinton Speaks, and Speaks Some More

“Don’t contribute to the ‘cartoon-ization’ of American politics and American politicians.” That was the advice former President Bill Clinton gave to a lunch packed with AAN members and their guests this afternoon at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ annual convention in Little Rock, Ark.

Happily, he wasn’t speaking about the Clinton caricature in our convention logo, but rather was asking alt-weekly publishers to explore stories in depth and to avoid the mainstream media trait of reducing people to “two-dimensional characters.” When things are “cartoon-ized,” in Clinton’s word, “then we can’t deal with the complexity of the issues we face.”

Clinton graciously donated more time than expected, taking questions well past the luncheon’s scheduled end time of 3 p.m. and lingering to sign autographs for the enthusiastic group. Clinton’s willingness to continue talking necessitated a shift in the convention’s entire afternoon schedule by 90 minutes.

When Clinton first arrived, however, it seemed that his time would be short. After an introduction by Alan Leveritt, publisher of host paper Arkansas Times, Clinton held up two sheets of paper to the audience and said, “This is my speech.”

“The greatest thing about not being president anymore is I can say whatever I think,” he added, and the audience responded with an approving roar.

Clinton touched on a number of issues, including the environment, trade, and the policies of the current administration, which he said are “made from ideology and rammed through on attack.”

But Clinton tailored the speech to the newspaper crowd, telling them, “Often, when I travel around, I try to read your newspapers. … You tend to fill in the blanks more, so you fulfill a very important function and I thank you for that.”

Following his speech, Clinton got comfortable in an armchair on stage and Patty Calhoun, AAN’s editorial chair and editor of Westword, moderated questions from members.

Although the first question dealt with Alberto Gonzalez’s threat to prosecute journalists who publish classified information — Clinton said it would be “hypocritical” because “the government leaks stuff it wants to leak all the time” — the rest of the questions dealt with broader political issues, ranging from Darfur to gay marriage.

Clinton was most emphatic about overcoming the United States’ dependence on oil, saying “it’s like we’re being hit on the head with our ticket to the future.”

Other audience members asked about President Bush and his policies. At one point, Clinton, obviously being sincere, said that he felt Bush had a lot of “intuitive intelligence,” inadvertently drawing laughter from the audience. Clinton also said that even though he and the current administration “disagree on just about everything,” he was friendly with Bush out of respect for Bush senior and in the interest of keeping conversation open.

When asked outright if his wife would be running for president, Clinton said that he didn’t know. But he did subtle campaigning for her throughout his speech, using the senator as a key example of how politicians are made two-dimensional by the press.

When his aide began trying to curtail the Q&A session, Clinton quipped, “He’s afraid I’m going to say something that will end up as a headline tomorrow. But as long as I don’t hurt Hillary, I don’t care what they say about me.”

A bit later, Patty Calhoun noted, “I think your staffer has collapsed. Clinton replied, “Then let’s take one more [question].”

After Clinton stepped down from the stage, he stood shaking hands and signing autographs for enthusiastic AAN members for 40 minutes.

The Clinton event was videotaped and will be made available to AAN members in some format in the future.