It's hard not to come to the conclusion that Bill Clinton, our first rock star president, has been beaten at his own game by Barack Obama.
The contrast between Obama's appearance at the Kohl Center on Tuesday night and Clinton's appearance this afternoon at the UW Stock Pavilion was clear, on several fronts.
Obama's visit, announced several days in advance, was held at night in a 17,000-seat arena which proved too small to fit in everyone who wanted to attend. The crowd was revved up by a Madison band, the Kissers, and watched videos of Obama on the Jumbotron. It was in the air all day Tuesday: Are you going to see Obama? There was a sense that the tide was rising, that people had a chance to see history in the making.
The Clinton visit, announced a day in advance, was held in the afternoon at a venue that -- storied though it may be in UW political history -- has a stated capacity of just 2,000. The UW Stock Pavilion was designed, as its name suggests, as a place to watch livestock shows. There was a sense that people didn't know Bill Clinton was coming to town.
Two UW-Madison parking officials who were helping the TV trucks find parking behind the Stock Pavilion, mentioned that one of the campaign organizers had said to them, "Do you know how difficult it is to secure a venue in one day?"
Even so, the line waiting to get in was long, stretching around the corner and for blocks down the street toward the Veterinary Medicine building.
Hannah Rosenthal took the stage first, while the crowd was still filtering into the room. She spoke of how excited she was to be able to vote for a woman, and how Hillary had worked for years on issues like child welfare, health care and education. She was followed by California Congresswoman Hilda Solis, who tried getting a chant going: "Who do we want? HILLARY! When do we want her? NOW!" The crowd was receptive, but not frenzied.
In addition to printed Hillary signs, the room held a number of hand-lettered placards: "Vote the Woman," "Girl Power," "Hillary For President." One young woman, in a nod to Valentine's Day, held a heart-shaped sign that read "Bill, will you be my Valentine?" Uh, questionable wisdom on the penning of that one.
By the time Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk introduced "Our great 42nd president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton!" shortly before 2:45 p.m. the room was mostly full, though not overflowing.
Clinton spoke for almost an hour. "Let's be positive," he began, perhaps in oblique reference to the Clinton campaign's slipping momentum. He asked the mostly young crowd to compare the last seven years of Bush to the eight of his own administration that came before. There was a short silence before cheers erupted. This was an audience that probably wasn't paying much attention to world and national affairs back in 2000.
There's been some grousing of late, even on Air America, with regard to Obama's lack of specifics in his speeches, in favor of oratory and inspiration. There were certainly specifics in Clinton's talk: He discussed Hillary's plans for health care, dealing with the mortgage crisis, and funding higher education; he talked about the economic decline in the U.S. during the Bush administration, and the loss of regard for the U.S. in the rest of the world. He spoke about getting rid of the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Not exactly barnburners, but real issues.
The most enthusiastic crowd reaction came when Clinton talked about making it easier for students to afford college, increasing Americorps jobs and letting college loans be repaid with public service.
More big cheers greeted his call to "take the politics out of science" and get real about issues like stem-cell research and global warming.
There was a sense as the speech wore on that Clinton was wandering. He said 'one more thing," as if in closing, a handful of times. Near the end of his speech, he made a couple of strained analogies, like comparing the continued U.S. presence in Iraq to letting a neighbor sleep on the couch after his house burns down, but not wanting him to still be there five years later.
The former president seemed to get energized when he told some stories about his time in the White House, but the crowd was slipping away. Literally, in some cases; people were leaving.
Even at what should have been the crescendo of the speech -- "I think it would be a good thing for us to have the first woman president!" -- Clinton pulled the rug out from under his own feet. "I think it would also be good for us to have the first African American president." And an Asian and a Hispanic....
Our 42nd president slipped off the stage to cheers and the strains of "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive. You could see where he was in the crowd by the concentration of cameras being held up in the air, and the shock of silver white hair.