A love-fest for the Clinton who’s already been president

Times Staff Writer

Bill Clinton never mentioned his wife’s candidacy and referred to George W. Bush only once, to praise the president for America’s role in Indonesian tsunami relief. But it was clear that Clinton’s Sunday night speech in Los Angeles was intended to bolster Hillary Rodham Clinton’s run for the presidency and to suggest that the country is currently going down the wrong path.

On display were the prodigious intellect and self-effacing charm that perhaps have made the 42nd president at least as popular a figure today as he was when he left office six years ago with a 66% approval rating.

In his hourlong speech -- delivered without notes before a sold-out crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as part of the Music Center Speaker Series -- Clinton marshaled a flurry of statistics in his attempt to make the case that Americans have lost ground since he ceded the presidency to Bush in 2000.


He pounded traditional Democratic themes -- climate change, the healthcare crisis, the country’s growing economic inequality -- and suggested that Americans are hungry for change in both the nation’s domestic agenda and its campaigns abroad.

“You can’t kill, jail or occupy everybody that’s against you. That’s why diplomacy is so important,” Clinton said.

He painted a picture of an America whose healthcare policy is dictated by insurance companies and held hostage by drug firms, a country headed for an economic fall unless leaders embrace environmentally friendly technologies that will create new jobs.

America’s “alleged prosperity” is built on payday loans and credit cards, he said, adding, “There are more check-cashing outlets ... than McDonald’s now.”

The evening was a love-fest from the moment Clinton strode on stage, dapper and trim in a dark blue suit and tie, his trademark white mane carefully coiffured. “We love you, Bill,” shouted one man in the audience as the crowd heartily cheered and applauded.

This was Clinton’s fifth Music Center appearance since leaving office, and his fourth speech in three days on a California trip intended to highlight his post-presidency missions to make AIDS drugs more affordable in developing countries, improve the economic stability of America’s low-income communities and fight childhood obesity.

He purposely steered clear of his wife’s candidacy. Politicking, he said, would run afoul of electioneering restrictions and could force her campaign to foot the bill for his trip to Los Angeles. During the evening’s question-and-answer period, he did offer his assessment of her candidacy: “Of course, I think Hillary would be the best president, and I’d think that even if we weren’t married, because I know what the job entails.”

He declared that he would not serve any official position in an administration headed by his wife -- federal law forbids anyone in a president’s immediate family from holding a Cabinet-level post -- “but if Hillary was to be elected, I’d do whatever she asked me to do.”

For many in the crowd -- a mostly well-heeled bunch ranging from senior citizens to folks too young have voted the last time Clinton was on the ballot -- the appearance was bittersweet. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa captured the sentiment in his introduction: “It’s true in politics as in love. You don’t realize what you’ve lost until you don’t have it anymore.”

Clinton in turn praised the mayor and drew laughter when he added, “but I resent that he’s younger and better looking than me.” He was forgiven for mangling the mayor’s name, calling him Villa-go-rosa on every reference in his evening’s speech.

The former president praised Californians, saying the state is out in front on issues such as healthcare reform and global warming. Adopting a plan to provide universal health insurance “would shake the foundation of the national government” and lead to national healthcare reform, he said.

“You can have a huge, huge impact on what happens in America and what happens in the world,” he said. “The country is depending on California to lead the way.”