Meeting Bill Clinton

Me and Bill Clinton

(Note: details of the meeting follow my personal narrative!)

A couple of weeks ago I received an invitation to represent Feministe as a credentialed blogger at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, which kicks off today in NYC. I was psyched, a tad skeptical, and more than a tad nervous all at once. I’ve never been invited to participate in anything as A Blogger, much less something this high-profile. I tend to think of myself as a relatively little fish in the blogosea, and all sorts of self-doubt about whether I was really qualified for this or deserved it started running through my head.

All of this anxiety was amped up exponentially when I got the additional invite to participate in a blogger meeting with President Bill Clinton before the start of the CGI meeting. I responded to the invite right away, but then all that doubt flooded in I nearly wrote back and said never mind. I mean, really – was I good enough or important enough to deserve a spot?

But then I thought to my self, now hold up, Jack. These doubts were certainly due in part to the sorts of insecurities that everyone gets from time to time about their skills, and also due in part to some rational acknowledgment of the fact that, for sure, I haven’t busted ass posting or networking or engaging in the public discourse as much as some other folks out there, so I’m understandably gonna be smaller potatoes. But I think they were also fueled in no small part by internalization of the sort of dynamics that permeate the blogosphere as much as the rest of the world; dynamics of privilege and power that automatically lend higher degrees of traction, legitimacy, or “authority” (as Technocrati puts it) to certain voices than to others for reasons entirely apart from the quality and quantity of their thoughts and words. The kind of dynamics, for example, that led to a 2006 blogger meeting with Bill Clinton being all white (and that helped this year’s meeting be predominantly white, too.) [1] Internalization is all about oppressed people learning to help keep themselves down, so I checked myself and decided not to help out on that count.

There was also an entirely different set of misgivings: how would I reconcile my politics with this meeting? After eight years of Dubya “President Clinton” has such a nice, nostalgic ring to it, and yeah, he did some good stuff while president and has done a whole lot more good stuff since leaving office (his attack dog role during Hillary’s campaign aside). The Clinton Global Initiative itself is an example of that “good stuff” (though the question remains whether efforts at change from the top down and coming from people and entities with significant investments in globalization and capitalism will really benefit the people at the bottom.) But we gotta be real – his administration yielded beaucoup bad shit that is still messing up our world today, from the Defense of Marriage Act to NAFTA to welfare “reform” to the continuation of US imperialist practices to repealing Glass-Steagall (which may have led in part to our current financial crisis) to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (which is in part to blame for the impending execution of Troy Anthony Davis), and the list goes on.

Given all of that, it felt weird to be headed to this meeting. Compounding that was the knowledge that this wouldn’t be a completely free format where we’d all get to ask incisive and aggressive questions about anything we wished; this would definitely be a more friendly format, focused on the CGI specifically, and both of those factors would limit how much we could call Clinton out for anything. Beyond that, there’s just something squicky about being in a situation where you grin like a star-struck fool in a photo with a man who represents and is even responsible for so much of what you find to be wrong with this country.

But in the end I went, and as you can see, I was a bit of a grinning star-struck fool despite never quite forgetting who I was sitting next to here. And I was literally sitting next to him the whole time. After all of us bloggers gathered in the lobby of the Sheraton, were escorted up to the right floor, walked unwittingly past President Uribe of Colombia (!) and led to a too-small holding room while Clinton finished up a meeting with newly-elected President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay (!!!), we were finally led past stone-faced Secret Service agents into a larger suite where the meeting itself would soon take place. As we filed in and began to take seats in the circle of cushy chairs and couches that were arranged for us, I heard Clinton’s unmistakable voice off to the side someplace, a voice that I’d been hearing regularly for the better part of my life but only on the TV or radio. And that’s when it really hit me – whoa, I’m about to talk to Bill Clinton!

Then Deanna Zandt of Alternet pointed out that I had unwittingly sat in the chair directly next to the empty one reserved for Clinton, triggering a moment of intense panic in which I nearly bolted from my seat but didn’t, because there he was, and it was time to smile, shake hands, and get down to business.

Clinton was utterly charming, eloquent, and clearly an incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable man (again inspiring wistful nostalgia after these eight long years of Bush.) He was also very affable and casual, which was great because it allowed me to sit about a foot away from him for around an hour without feeling totally freaked out the entire time. He started out by talking about having just met with Presidents Uribe and Lugo, enthusiastically telling us about how Lugo’s recent election makes him the first Paraguayan president in over forty years to not come from one conservative ruling party. I was excited to hear him speak highly of Lugo. After Solana Larsen of Global Voices asked about how the world and corporate leaders in attendance were selected – Clinton said that the heads of state are largely self-selected and come depending on what’s going on for them at home and whether it makes sense, and that corporations are chosen based on their work in one of the focus areas of the CGI – I asked Clinton what he thought about the recent resurgence of the left across Latin America and the US government and media’s rather hostile response, especially towards easily demonized figures like Chavez, Castro, and more recently, Bolivia’s Evo Morales. I pointed out that relatively few of Latin America’s left-leaning leaders were present at the CGI (really only Guatemala’s president Alvaro Colom, since Lugo is unable to attend the CGI meeting itself).

Clinton responded by saying that Morales has actually been to the CGI Meeting twice in the past, which I was happy to hear (and of course, Morales’ absence this year is understandable given what’s going on in Bolivia right now.) Clinton talked about one of the projects that’s come out of the CGI is a collaboration between Cisco Systems and Bolivia to enable distance learning through software that is translated into indigenous languages. Clinton then expressed his belief that it is necessary that the next U.S. administration make a “serious effort” to reach out to Latin America “across the board,” saying that such action is necessary because those countries are our neighbors and our friends. He stressed the need of the U.S. to help Latin America on issues like clean energy, education, and health care. As throughout the meeting, Clinton focused on the clean energy issue, here as a means to economic independence for Latin America, specifically the Caribbean. He spoke of the “economic bondage” that Caribbean nations endure because they need to import all of their energy at high cost, and asserted that energy independence through investment in clean, sustainable sources should be possible for Puerto Rico (which he called “one of our own”), the Dominican Republic, and even Haiti. He also mentioned the need for the U.S. to offer significant assistance to Haiti after the hurricane devastation that the island has seen recently, and said that the ability to stop the complete eradication of the rainforests depends in part on energy sustainability. (The man knew how to stay on message!)

After this, the discussion moved to the current economic situation in the U.S., about which Clinton went on at length. I’m not going to discuss that in great detail here because I’m sure that other bloggers will (and a few already have – check out Kim Pearson at BlogHer, Emily Douglas at RH Reality Check, and Jamie Zimmerman at New America.) It was a really engrossing conversation, and one that actually helped to clarify the whole economic morass for me. I appreciated Clinton’s insistence that any bailout must respond to the needs of Main Street as well as Wall Street. When asked by Dana Goldstein of The American Prospect whether Clinton has rethought the deregulation that took place during his presidency in light of the current crisis, Clinton responded that he thinks his administration should have done a better job of reigning in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and should have pressed for more regulation of derivatives, but refuted criticism of the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act, saying that the repeal actually helped lessen the crisis by allowing Bank of America to take over Merrill Lynch. This was actually the point on which I disagreed with him most throughout the entire night; I won’t claim that economics are my strong point, but from much of the analysis I’ve heard of late, I just don’t buy that.

There were also questions about offshore drilling from a blogger from Treehugger and Deanna, to which Clinton responded that while drilling is essentially inevitable at this point despite not being an “information-based thing,” given that offshore drilling is only going to yield mere months’ worth of oil years down the pike. He insisted that since it’s inevitable, we need to make sure it’s done as carefully as possible to avoid damage to the environment and that we (meaning Democrats and progressives) use the concession as leverage to get things that really will make an environmental difference – for example, increasing the time limit on tax credits for wind and solar power from 3 years to 6-10 years and investing in a modernized electric grid to allow for efficient transmission of clean energy.

After about an hour of conversation, one of Clinton’s aides started signaling that we needed to wrap up. A bunch of us, including myself, crowded around for quick pics with the Pres. I told myself that I was doing it because my parents would kill me if I had the opportunity to take a picture with Clinton and didn’t, but I know it was kinda for me, too. Then we walked out past those Secret Service agents again, took the elevator down to the lobby, and were ejected into the real world again in a bit of a daze for the surreality of the experience we’d just had. All in all, it was a pretty incredible time, and for all of my political misgivings, I’m glad I went.

I’ll be covering the rest of the Clinton Global Initiative throughout the week, so check back for more on what looks to be an exciting and impressive program. I’ll also be adding links here to other folks’ accounts of the night. And sorry to any bloggers whose questions I didn’t get to attribute – it’s just because I don’t know who you are! So let me know and I’ll fill that in.

Cross-posted at Feministe

[1] And though I should probably let sleeping dragons lie, before someone says “Oh but POC bloggers were invited to that meeting but they just couldn’t/didn’t go so IT IS ALL OKAY,” let’s just acknowledge that there were probably white bloggers who were invited and couldn’t go, either, so that doesn’t neatly explain away the disparity. If the ratio of white bloggers to bloggers of color who were invited was less skewed than it probably was, then the room probably wouldn’t have wound up being so white. And even if that disproportionality was unintentional, it was a reflection of the general racial tilt of the “A-list” blogosphere, which is most certainly shaped by racism and classism.

4 Responses to “Meeting Bill Clinton”

  1. 1 Shev


    That was a really interesting and thoughtful post. It’s really difficult to reconcile one’s own politics with whatever has a cat’s chance in hell of passing at a national level. I know that my own politics are really important to me, that the current system of government is totally unsatisfactory and that ideally we’d tear it down and put a non-hierarchical, cooperative, non-racist, non-sexist, non-heteronormative way of doing things in place instead – however, in the meantime, before I take over the world and actually work out a way that it could happen (no really, honestly, it could), I write to my MP and vote in local and national elections, and protest, and get mad at stuff I can conceivably have an effect on. Like, not letting the best be the enemy of the good/ok-for-now (can’t remember where I heard that, but it kind of sort of works. Until the revolution, obv).

    Sometimes I feel a bit rubbishy about begging my Conservative MP to recognise abortion rights (whaddya know – he did), but then I remember how much more rubbishy it would be to totally exclude myself from what the world deems an acceptable way of participating in democracy and the public sphere, in the name of purity of principles. And besides, women goddamn died for my vote. I’m not letting it go that easy.

    Go you. And hey, that photo is cute. Mebbe cuter without the old dude on your shoulder, but hey, I once got a photo with Ant and Dec, so no judgment from me if none from you =0)

  2. 2 Jack

    Thanks for the response, Shev. Just googled “the best is the enemy of the good” and it’s a Voltaire quote, and quite apt for this situation. Of course we want systems of power to change, but we also need to confront the realities that we’re currently stuck with and try to get the best situation we can within that framework. Some would argue that this approach validates the system too much, though, and distracts us from truly dismantling or changing it. A difficult situation, huh?

    Thanks for the compliment on the photo. I had to google Ant and Dec, too – funny! We all have our cheesy celebrity pictures. We need to own the cheese!

  3. 3 Shev

    Yeah, they don’t have quite the same global reach or political influence as Bill Clinton.

    There is of course the master’s house/master’s tools argument, which must always be kept in mind in situations like this – however, I don’t personally feel that I am distracted from the problems with the system itself when I’m trying to effect change within it – and this IS important, as it effects people right now. A lot of the time, the best way to effect change is just to live our lives without apology. You would (not) be amazed at the consternation this causes. Just existing seems to rock some people’s perception of how the world is or should be. My butch and I can’t count the times we’ve had trouble in our area, and we’re both worried that it’s not a case of if we’re bashed, but when. However, we’ve stopped slinking around like scared mice, and started walking head up and hand-in-hand (most of the time – we’re not dumb about it). And it’s heck of a lot less scary than waiting to be singled out.

    My friends are fed up with the commercialised nature of the scene so instead of waiting for it to change, have started their own DIY queer night at the village hall. It’s amazing, the best night I have ever been to, cause there’s no hierarchy of cool, no profit-making motive – just a bunch of people who are fed up with the way our lives are being packaged and sold, playing their own music, bringing their own drink, shagging the way they want, making and putting up their own decorations, and everyone clears up at the end of the night, making sure to use the correct recycling boxes. The community hall is free, and people help out for the love of it. And it’s the nicest place I’ve ever been. And I strongly believe that micro-communities of this sort are the way forward as far as politics are concerned.

  4. 4 coquito

    Just wanted to say congrats, and good job describing, and giving background on, the scene. Sorry it took me so long to finally read this.

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