Before Bill Clinton walked onto the stage in the Hilton Hotel’s third-floor ballroom, he stood in the wings as the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters praised him for nearly six minutes.
“Simply put,” said I.A.F.F. general president Harold Schaitberger, Mr. Clinton is “the kind of leader American workers need more of holding office today at every level of government.”Mr. Clinton, not to be outdone, had something more to say about those people holding office today. “I got tickled by watching Governor Perry announce [for] president,” Mr. Clinton said of the candidate from Texas, accentuating his Arkansas drawl for effect. “He’s a good-looking rascal.” The ballroom, filled with fire fighters from across the country and Canada, erupted in laughter, and Mr. Clinton grinned mischievously. He went on to call the anti-federal government rant by Mr. Perry—the longest serving governor his state’s history—“crazy.”
The rest of Mr. Clinton’s 35-minute speech was unremarkable. But the firemen were tickled to have the former president at their biannual event, and tried finding a suitable way to say thank you. They presented him with a particularly pedigreed golf club. “We were able to locate one of 12 clubs [legendary golfer] Bobby Jones had made, nine of which are in museums, three which are privately held,” said Mr. Schaitberger, counting the one being gifted among those three.
Mr. Clinton scratched his chin and offered an open-mouth smiled. He put on his glasses and inspected the head of the putter. Then, he bent over to try it out. “Wow,” Mr. Clinton muttered softly, sounding truly impressed.
By the time Mr. Clinton walked off with the rare and priceless putter, the fireman had also heard from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—a leading mayoral candidate for mayor in 2013 who is credited with blocking Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to shutter firehouses. Local union leaders thanked her and she thanked them and there was a general air of good feeling in the room.
Later that morning, one of Ms. Quinn’s likely rivals, New York City Comptroller John Liu, had his turn. Mr. Liu, who holds a degree in mathematical physics from Binghamton University, told his blue-collar audience how much he learned the previous weekend when he had the chance to take part in a day of fireman’s training.
Mr Liu was wearing a dark suit and a tightly configured tie, and his pin-straight black hair was neatly brushed to the side. He recalled wearing “close to 100 pounds of gear as well as 300 tools that were necessary.” Then, he recalled, he entered the first room designed to simulate a real fire.
“You could see the smoke coming out,” recalled Mr. Liu, “and I was standing there, going, ‘Holy shit.’” The fireman applauded and laughed.
Reflecting back on the experience from the comfort of the podium, Mr. Liu said, “I don’t think people get it, that that’s what [you] fire fighters put up with.” The firemen then presented Mr. Liu with a honorary fireman’s helmet, which he gamely donned.