CHILLICOTHE, Ohio—Nineteen-odd years ago, before he’d spent a full month in office, President Bill Clinton flew to this city of around 20,000 people for his first national town hall meeting. He introduced the local Democratic congressman, Ted Strickland, who’d flown in with him, and the business that supplied wheels for his “famous bus tours,” and some school officials. Then he got down to business with his first somewhat hostile crowd.
“Why are we denying the right to life for the 4,400 human beings a day and 1.6 million human beings a year in the murder of an abortion?” asked one voter.
“In your address to the joint session of Congress,” said another, “nothing was mentioned about tort reform.”
Clinton, in prime feel-your-pain mode, handled this with minimal difficulty. Each question could be dispatched with short lists of economic data, and when that failed, he could slip in an anecdote of real pain from somewhere in real America. “Salesman Clinton All but Clinches Deal,” reported the Baltimore Sun. In 1996, after some reversals, Clinton easily carried Chillicothe’s Ross County. No Democratic candidate for president has done so since.
On Thursday afternoon, while Barack Obama stumped in western states, Clinton returned to Chillicothe to save him. When I arrived at the local Ohio University complex, two hours before the start time, around 1,000 voters were already lined up to see him. A confused jogger stopped at the front of the line and ruefully asked who was coming.
“President Clinton,” said a man holding a copy of the president’s memoirs.
“Oh, Clinton?” said the jogger, replacing his iPod earbuds. “Cool!”
The people in the queue outdid one another with praise for Clinton. What was better with him in the White House? Everything. “You could walk across the street and get a job,” said Dean O’Brian. Fifty years old, he had lost a job at ConAgra at the end of the Bush years, struggled through some manual labor gigs, and this year, finally scored a job he liked—a managerial role at a company that produced doughnut ingredients. But everything was better under Clinton. “He’s up there with Kennedy as the best we’ve ever had,” said O’Brian.
Ross County is around 90 percent white, and so was the crowd at Clinton’s rally. John and Agatha Zikowski, 63 and 62, reminisced about how much better the city was when Clinton was president. Jeremy Brown, a 33-year-old software engineer, claimed that Clinton’s speech at the Democratic convention managed, all on its own, to convert his Republican friends to Obama voters. It didn’t last, but nothing Obama had ever done had swayed them. “As far as I’m concerned,” said Brown, “he’s our Camelot.”
“What’s Camelot?” said his daughter, Eliza.
“Oh, when Kennedy was president, they called it Camelot.”
As we talked, a rolling, trolling flatbed truck from the Ohio Republican Party rolled by and slowed down. It carried an electronic billboard with this message:
In Obama’s Economy, Every Ohioian’s Share of the National Debt: $51,000.
The Clinton crowd laughed and booed. “Clinton’s the only one who ever did anything about the debt!” said Joyce Childers, a 72-year-old Democratic volunteer. She wore a shirt mocking Obama “birthers,” with the slogan “Made in the USA,” and excitedly told me about driving Ted Strickland around when he was running for Congress and lacked a car, right before he and Clinton came to that town hall in Chillicothe.