He grins and charms, she blames and mocks. But not as many fans are cheering.
When I showed up at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena at 7 p.m. sharp for “An Evening with the Clintons,” there were still hundreds of vacant seats. A half hour later when the 42nd president of the United States stepped out onto the stage with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the arena was still nearly half empty. And many (including me) were there only because the ticket prices had been slashed from their original $150 (U.S.) down to a mere $17 on some ticket sites by Tuesday morning. The patchy Canadian audience tried to make up for it by applauding loudly as Hillary squinted into the crowd and Bill waved, his well-worn campaign grin gliding easily across his face.
Moderator Frank McKenna, the deputy chairman of the Toronto-Dominion Bank and a former Liberal politician, barely let the failed presidential candidate settle into her oversized leather chair before leveling the million-dollar question at her: “You’re on a 13-city tour, Mr. President, Madame Secretary. Is that just because you want to hang out together, or is it because you’re testing the waters for a run at being president of the United States?”
The crowd roared with both cheers and laughter, perhaps amused at the idea that the Clintons would be jetting around the continent on tour to spend time with each other. Hillary’s response was both unsatisfying and unfunny: “Actually, Frank, I’m considering standing for Parliament here in Canada.” Ha ha. And thus the Clintons’ tour began in Toronto with the predictable game of coy cat-and-mouse that will be sure to keep her demure deferrals in the headlines and the theoretical existence of a rematch with Donald Trump among the topics discussed by political analysts. Hillary Clinton is Schrodinger’s candidate.
In the meantime, McKenna moved on to the midterms, and the Clintons predictably affirmed that they were most pleased with the results — especially the “diversity” of the candidates who had been elected this time around. The moderate success of the Democrats in both Congress and in the statehouses, Bill informed us, gave America “the chance to be a democracy again.” He wasn’t going to come out and say it, he reassured us, but we all know that there are forces at work in America that want to keep voters from the polls in order to enable the, shall we say, worst angels of our nature.
NAFTA was next, with McKenna giving Dante’s version of how events had unfolded:
We’ve just come through a perilous journey. . . . We’ve been through 18 months of hell in this country, 18 months of intense negotiations, of name-calling, of vilification, and at the end of 18 months, we changed the name.
Bill smiled wryly. “Welcome to our world.” And then, more seriously:
We did some real damage to our relationship with Canada. If we did, I ask for your forbearance, because we really love you. Most of us.
Not you-know-who. Predictably, the crowd ate it up. Bill smiled.
On Saudi Arabia’s involvement with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Hillary got specific about who the problem is, and vague about the precise causes: Trump’s velvet-gloved approach to the Desert Kingdom was probably a result of his personal connections, she insinuated. “What we don’t know,” she mused, “is how much commercial interest both the president’s family and business and his son-in-law’s family and business have with the kingdom.” She did not note that Saudi Arabia is a vital counterweight to Iran’s influence in the region. Neither did she make mention of the roughly $10 million to $25 million the Saudis have given the Clinton Foundation over the years.
Hillary took pokes at Trump throughout the evening, providing reliable laugh lines for the friendly crowd. She mocked Trump’s recent interview with the Washington Post, in which he said, “My gut tells me more sometimes than anybody’s else’s brain can ever tell me.” Clinton shook her head in disbelief, saying, “Literally you can’t make this stuff up. A dozen times a day your head is spinning.” Hillary apparently didn’t notice that Trump’s assessment of his own instinct accurately sums up the 2016 election, but the audience’s response encouraged her to reference the presidential gut again later in the evening, when her disbelief resurfaced in regard to Trump’s lack of interest in the issue of climate change this week. “My goodness, your gut is not the answer to everything,” she noted, receiving the expected laughter in response.
The Clintons did share some of the “historical anecdotes” promised by the event’s advertisers. Hillary detailed the hours and minutes leading up to the moment that American Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden, and Bill discussed some of his dealings with Iran and North Korea during his own presidency. Bill, incidentally, is looking pretty old these days, as if someone syringed most of the moisture out of him and he simply shrank. His voice sounded dry and pasty also, as though he needed to guzzle glasses of water. And although he seemed to lose his train of thought a couple of times, the fellow to my left (physically and ideologically) occasionally erupted into encouraging spasms of solitary applause.
McKenna ended the evening with a softball question on how the Clintons’ complicated love story (or perfectly honed political partnership, depending on your level of cynicism) began. Bill and Hillary went back and forth, tramping confidently down the well-worn path of the story of their first meeting and subsequent courtship. Bill noted that for their first official date, he persuaded the janitor in charge of an art exhibit shut down due to a workers’ strike to let the pair inside — the first and only time, he said, that he could be accused of crossing a picket line.
But it was fine, he told the crowd, with his charming grin, because he realized that if his political principles interfered with his romantic interests, then perhaps he had to adapt his political principles. My jaw dropped. There was a ripple of laughter, but a few guffaws here and there indicated that perhaps a few Clinton fans wished he’d worded his story more sensitively, all things considered. Monica Lewinsky, after all, has been in the news again these days thanks to the recent release of The Clinton Affair, a documentary series retracing the events, including his relations with Monica, that led to Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.
But on the stage of the Scotiabank Arena, there was no whiff that the Clinton marriage had suffered any hiccups, and several young women seated nearby seemed to find the entire fairy tale thoroughly adorable. The Clintons rose to a wave of applause, Hillary walked briskly offstage, and Bill lingered for just a moment longer, waving at his adoring fans. And then, for just a brief moment, the Clintons were offstage.