In a raspy voice and with his folksy charm, Bill Clinton preached to the Democratic faithful in Evanston Tuesday morning, campaigning for Hillary Clinton here a week before the Illinois primary.
“I met her 45 years ago this month,” the former president told a crowd of about 700 that was wedged into a social hall in Beth Emet the Free Synagogue. He’d never met anyone with a better sense of “how to get stuff done,” he said. “She’s been the biggest change-maker I’ve ever known.”
Evanston gave Barack Obama 85 percent of its vote in 2012 and 87 percent in 2008. It chose Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary, 79 percent to 20 percent; but this time local party leaders have endorsed Hillary over Bernie Sanders. On short notice, the party was able to pack the synagogue to which U.S. representative Jan Schakowsky belongs. Latecomers stood outside, listening to the address via speakers.
Clinton insisted that progress was possible under the right president, even with a political split in Washington. “I’m not minimizing the difficulty of it, but here’s what I think, having lived with a Republican Congress for six years, and still managing to get quite a lot done. First, you have to know when to stand your ground, and second, you have to always leave the door open for common ground.”
And no one was more capable of that than Hillary, he said. He traced many of her campaign pledges: criminal justice reform, protection of gay rights, support for small businesses, and fighting for clean energy and a “more inclusive” economy.
But it was in the homestretch of his 50-minute speech, when he recounted some of Hillary’s lesser-known achievements, that the former president was especially winning and persuasive. His stories featured Hillary taking on an intractable problem, and, next thing her spouse knew, solving it. She’s a change-maker to be believed in, according to the man from Hope.
When he became governor of Arkansas in 1979, the state had five or six of the poorest counties in America, he said. Hillary “comes in one day and she says, ‘You know, I’m so worried about all these poor kids starting school with parents that can’t read. And they’re never gonna catch up.'” She told him about a program in Israel that helped educate parents as well as their young children—a program started largely for Ethiopian immigrants who couldn’t speak Hebrew or English, and who often couldn’t read. The parents were taught basic math and how to read, she told him, and their kids were taught along the way. “I said, ‘That’s great, we’re in Little Rock, Arkansas,’ I says, ‘What are we gonna do?’ She says, ‘Oh, I already did it—I called the woman that started the program, she’ll be here in ten days.'”
The crowd laughed and cheered. Clinton went on: “The next thing I know, I’m being dragged around to all these little preschool graduations, watching parents who could not read before, weeping, because finally, they feel that they can do right by their kids. Next thing I know, the program is in 26 states.”
The program is relatively less important today, he said, what with the proliferation of preschool. “But I’m telling you, there are thousands upon thousands of people in this country today, under 40, who started school more ready to learn, went further in school, and have gone further in life, because she always makes something good happen.”
As first lady, Hillary worked with Republican majority whip Tom DeLay—”the person who disliked me most in Congress,” Clinton said—to boost support for adoptions of foster kids. She sought help from DeLay because she knew he and his wife were caring for three foster children. “Next thing I know, I’m signing a bill that has a huge tax credit for people who adopt children past infancy.” By the time he left office, there’d been an 80 percent increase nationally in adoptions out of foster care, Clinton said. “She did that all by herself.”
“There’s a thing here that’s relevant to the current situation,” Clinton said. “She didn’t do anything in Washington that didn’t have some Republican support.”
He said Republicans had been “mean to her” in recent years for a simple reason. “They looked at the polls and saw she was the most popular person in America” and they “knew they couldn’t beat her on the merits, so they just went after her. But you gotta understand, this is their method of operation. She doesn’t take it seriously. And they’re scared to have to run against her, because they know that if she becomes president, she’ll be the grown-up in every room, and she’ll find a way to get them to do something good for our country.”