Bill Clinton can talk a lot.
Speaking at an event to help reelect Representative Anthony Weiner at Queens College on Thursday night, Clinton stood in a somewhat ill-fitted dark suit and in front of a big yellow sign that said “Weiner” and talked about the impressive diversity in the borough (“This room has Muslims and Jews, this room has Christians and Sikhs and for all I know Buddhists, Hindi and everything else”); the importance of electing a Democratic State Senate, his “love” of the subway; the importance of electing a president who understands the need to invest in “public mass transit or the rail network for the country” to create jobs and reduce the threat of global warming and “increase the economic independence of urban areas”; the “unchanging interest” Americans have in building a strong middle-class society; health care; Winston Churchill; bringing troops home from Iraq; obligations to veterans; Hillary Clinton; Barack Obama; the two million foreclosures this year and its ramifications on the credit markets and the entire national and then global economy.
The one thing he was told by aides not to talk about was the one thing New York reporters sitting to the side of the room were interested in hearing: What did he think about the City Council’s decision earlier in the day to extend term limits and allow Michael Bloomberg to run for a third term?
The question was especially relevant because it had the most profound impact on the mayoral ambitions of Weiner, who sat right behind the former president on a stool. Another multi-multi-multimillion dollar mayoral campaign by Bloomberg would seriously jeopardize Weiner’s chances. To say the least.
After his lengthy speech, Clinton signed books and pieces of paper on a rope line, where The Observer asked what he thought of the Council’s decision. An aide whispered into his ear, the former president nodded and ignored the question.
Clinton has a very good relationship with Bloomberg. They have done work together at the former president’s foundation, at the annual conference of which in September Bloomberg was a featured guest, receiving unreserved adulation from Clinton, who said he’d be good at any job he wanted and was “one of the ablest public servants I have ever known.”
At the same time, Weiner is a loyal backer of Hillary Clinton, dates the senator’s trusted aide Huma Abedin, and traveled around with the former president a good deal during the primaries.
(Senator Clinton, for her part, recently weighed in by saying that she found the Council’s process to overturn term limits “disturbing.”)
The most prudent policy for Clinton then, was to avoid the topic altogether. And that was just what the former president did.
But it was clearly on everyone’s minds.
Before Weiner and Clinton arrived on the small stage, set up in a gray and acoustically challenged room on the fourth floor of the school’s student union building, as hundreds more people waited outside, local officials proudly stated their opposition to the extension of term limits. Councilman David Weprin said he voted against it, and said the only upshot was that “now people know that the City Council exists.”
When it was his time to speak, Weiner paid tribute to the former president, boosted local State Senate candidates and urged everyone to vote for Barack Obama.
“We have an opportunity to wake up on Wednesday, November 4, and read the headlines that say ‘Barack Obama, president of the United States.’” he said to applause. He added, “And if you think about it, it is a very similar type of a moment that we have now today that we had then, when we voted for President Bill Clinton.”
His only plug for himself was in the context of his reelection campaign.
“Hopefully you’ll vote for Barack Obama — hopefully you’ll vote for me, too,” he said. “But don’t stop there. I want you to go all the way down to the bottom and really make change in New York State.”
Then he introduced “the last truly democratically elected president of the United States.”
Clinton talked in great detail about several issues, including his pet subject of global warming and how better public transportation policies could have a positive impact. (This was somewhat lost on a constituency that was for the most part opposed to Bloomberg’s proposal of congestion pricing, which Weiner also opposed.)
He testified, in relatively unrestrained fashion, to Obama’s competence.
“Barack Obama proved in the last two debates,” he said, clearing his throat, “that even though Senator McCain, in fairness to him, was trying to move the Republican Party forward, and took a more forward-leaning position than most in his party, Obama understood this three times better and could talk about it. If you watched the debates, you got this sense.”
And he told the integrated crowd that “the Wall Street people are mad at all over America doesn’t even exist anymore,” and said it was hard to blame individual brokers for helping to inflate the housing market.
“What would you have done if you had been a 30-year-old employee at one of these investment banks and Anthony and I called and said, ‘We want to open an account,’” he said. “’We’ll give you $50,000 each and you invest it and earn good money for us.’ And you looked around and saw that nothing was growing in the American economy but housing, you might have tried to find some funny way to keep putting it into housing, too.”
But Clinton’s central purpose in visiting Queens was to say kind things about Weiner, and he did.
“I just wish everyone in America could be represented by someone in Congress as intelligent and as tough and as committed to a middle-class future for all Americans, whether it is in jobs or in energy or in health care or education, two areas where Anthony’s been especially good — I wish everyone would go represent as you are,” he said.
And when he said Queens was a “borough that has a special place in my heart,” and called Weiner “a young man I have come not to have only great admiration for, but deep affection,” the crowd responded with heavily Queens inflected “aaua.”
Clinton then signed autographs on an especially pushy rope line (“Yo, yo, yo, back up!” screamed the police) and then Weiner walked the former president down to his car. When he came back up, he sat next to Abedin and they chatted while he waited to do a local television spot. Only then did he discuss the issue that was on everyone’s mind.
“It’s a sad day for the City Council and I don’t think it’s the final chapter,” he said, sitting with legs crossed on one of the chairs the university workers had begun putting away.
“New Yorkers don’t respond well to having their vote taken away and they want to fight this and I’m going to stand up to them, too. This was a classic battle between the people and the powerful and I think I was on the side of the people. And I think that ultimately they are going to want to have their say here and I am going to fight to get it for them. This thing isn’t over.”