“Welcome!” cooed a woman with big white teeth and shiny red lips. “Would you like a sticker?” She peeled a stylized American flag in a blue circle off a roll and handed it to me. “Coat check is on your left,” she chirped.

I was at Hillary Clinton’s fund-raising event at Crobar last Saturday, and behind me, across the street, a group of about 50 people were carrying signs and chanting.

“She’s some kind of alternative in 2008?” Andy Thayer, an organizer with the Gay Liberation Network, shouted through a bullhorn. “What a sick joke!”

Then he led the group in a hearty round of emphatic shouting: “A vote for Hillary is a vote for war!”

These people–including members of Chicago ANSWER, the International Solidarity Movement, and Peace Pledge Chicago–have a problem with Senator Clinton’s track record since the 2002 “Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq,” which about half of the Senate’s Democrats voted for, including Clinton. Since then she’s continually spoken in favor of a war that has so far cost the country over $357 billion, according to last Sunday’s Boston Globe, as well as 2,124 American lives and, according to a study in the British medical journal the Lancet, 50 times as many Iraqi lives.

“Democrats are making noises that they’re the kinder, gentler party,” Thayer told me, “but they’re spending tons of money on the war. We’re going to loudly call them out and let them know that they’re not going to have our voting support in their back pockets this time.”

Inside the club, Phil Circle, a blond guy with shaggy hair, played acoustic covers of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Marvin Gaye. Young professionals in sport coats and blouses who’d paid between $50 and $500 to be there mingled lightheartedly. “I have several pairs of shoes I want to get rid of,” I heard one woman tell a group of friends.

The media weren’t supposed to be let in until 9 PM, but Clinton’s publicist, Sam Arora, never told me this. I’d shown up early for once in my life but was turned away at the door. Photographer Andrea Bauer and I weren’t dressed for the cold, so I called club director Claudia Gassel and she let us in. But when security heard that press was loose in the building, they ordered us to stand in one corner with a bouncer and two volunteers. The rest of the media were waiting outside and would be taken in as a group.

Bored, we started dancing to the music, a DJ set by Biz Markie, which kicked off with a mix of Bob Seger and Cameo. Biz did what he could to spice up the wedding reception standards–“Billie Jean,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Could You Be Loved”–scratching and dropping in new tracks when you least expected them. Watching everyone sort of shuffle around like self-conscious seventh graders, Andrea busted out the funky chicken and I did a kind of hillbilly version of the butterfly. “Stop!” ordered one of the club’s bouncers. “You’re making me laugh! I’m supposed to keep a straight face for this.”

At 9:30 the other journalists clomped in through a side door, red-cheeked and wet, their gloves and beards crusted with snow. The volunteers ushered us all to a balcony. Across the dance floor was another balcony, where Clinton was waiting with the Secret Service.

About half an hour later Biz put on Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” and the petite Mrs. Clinton appeared. Wearing a black pantsuit and looking like she’d gotten dressed at Ann Taylor Loft, she blazed down the catwalk and onto a little neon-tape X on the balcony.

“Thank you for taking the time out on a Saturday to care about politics,” she said. “Our country needs you–needs young people who care. . . . Decisions made now will have a bigger impact on you than your parents. We’re spending ourselves into a deep, deep hole.” She deplored the country’s lack of viable alternative energy sources and our addiction to foreign oil, and shamed George Bush for not dealing with the reality of global warming. Below, everyone cheered as the the club’s lights bounced off their re-elect hillary stickers.

“This isn’t about one election or another,” she said. “America has to work together to solve our problems.” And that was about it, probably two minutes total. No talking to reporters, no questions from the crowd.

Clinton has never been much of a risk taker. Right now she’s cosponsoring legislation with Utah Republican Bob Bennett (a snoozefest of a politician who most notably tweaked out about Y2K) to outlaw burning the flag. And looking back on her voting record it seems the only causes she’s ever stuck her neck out for are health care and the war.

But Clinton did write a letter to constituents last week saying that false information–those WMD in Iraq, for example–misled her into voting for the 2002 resolution. “Based on the information that we have today, Congress never would have been asked to give the President authority to use force against Iraq,” she wrote. “And if Congress had been asked, based on what we know now, we never would have agreed.”

Hard to argue with that. But it’s easy to criticize Bush now that, according to a CNN poll last week, 55 percent of Americans don’t think the president has a decent plan for Iraq and 54 percent say they think he’s handled the whole thing badly.

And though Clinton and the other Senate Democrats now have Representative Jack Murtha, a decorated veteran, as a shield–he held a shockingly confessional news conference last month denouncing the occupation and calling for withdrawal within six months–she’s still not admitting outright that she made a mistake. In fact her letter opposes prompt withdrawal. So she’s trying to have it both ways–she’s against Bush but for his war. You can’t entirely blame her–as a Democrat and, more important, a woman thinking of running for president in 2008, she can’t appear to be soft on defense issues. But we know from watching John Kerry that being wishy-washy won’t win you the presidency.

The thought of there not being anyone to vote for in yet another election drained me, so I went to the bar for a drink.

“Time to go,” a tall, handsome bouncer announced to the group.

“But I just got a drink–” I tried to explain.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, pushing me gently. He grabbed the glass out of my hand. “All the press has to leave now.”

Andrea and I asked if we could please go get our coats first, and he said no. Could he get them for us then? “Look,” he said. “There’s a Secret Service agent waiting with a gun. He said to get the press out now. You have to go.”

We paused and looked at him incredulously–we were both wearing thin, sleeveless tops. He herded us downstairs to a hidden exit door. Snow was swirling in the open doorway.

“I can’t believe you’re kicking us out in the cold,” I sputtered, shivering, as I headed out.

“I’m not kicking you out,” he said. “Your government is.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Bauer.