Clinton cameo attracts crowd, weak performance



Column by Ben Jones. E-mail [email protected].

There was a president on campus last Monday.

Either that, or it was Snooki. It was hard to tell. There was a big crowd, and it was kind of hard to see.

Besides, it may as well have been. Former President Bill Clinton visited UK to endorse Senate candidate Jack Conway and push the same political platform we’ve heard Conway push for the last umpteen months, but that wasn’t why many people were there.

“Where are the secret service agents?” One girl asked, more interested in trying to find a plain-clothes police officer than the political powerhouse at the podium.

Make no mistake. Conway was charming as always, but that wasn’t the draw.  Neither was Clinton’s speech, which reminded students that the Democratic candidate stands a far better chance of winning if young people get out and vote.

Clinton’s presence was the draw. You would have had nearly as many people show up if they’d heard Clinton was going to the Johnson Center to play racquetball. To many, the politics just weren’t that important. Then again, who wouldn’t want to see a former president in shorts and goggles chasing a rubber ball?

“I’ve never seen a president in real life before,” said a grown woman in the crowd. She breathlessly waited for the former president to appear from the Main Building much in the same way a grade school student would wait for the elephants to come out at the circus.

They tried to keep the day about politics. They really did. A group of UK students that has enthusiastically campaigned for the attorney general over the last few months, “Cats for Conway,” signed people in left and right at the rally. Plenty of people were there who really cared about the issues. Plenty of Lexington-area Democrats who aren’t part of the university community volunteered their support with their voices and their presence, presumably risking a parking ticket all the while.

But it was lost on all too many.

“I’m not going to vote for this guy,” a young man said as he handed a “Cats for Conway” clipboard to a stranger behind her. “I’m just here to see Clinton.”

Before we get to anything else, the answer is yes. The secret service was there, equipped with two unmarked black SUVs with darkened windows and men in the front seat replete with black suits and darkened sunglasses. It was every bit the spectacle some people had hoped for, right down to the plastic earpieces.

Clinton didn’t disappoint, so Conway has that going for him. But how much can Clinton really help Conway?

He did bring a crowd. It’s hard to imagine Conway could have drawn a crowd for an endorsement on campus bigger than the one Clinton brought — especially since John Calipari removed himself from the political scene not long after taking over as basketball coach.

To today’s college students, Clinton is a curiosity. Even seniors would have scarcely entered junior high by the time Clinton left office. You can bet when they were preteens, Clinton’s leaving office with one of the biggest surpluses in the country’s history wasn’t nearly as important to them as their first zit. Bill Clinton has plenty of name recognition among 20-somethings, but so does Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Politically aware students know how important Clinton is, and plenty of them made it out on Monday as well. But in all probability, the politically aware students were going to vote anyway, and seeing their first president (live and in person!) wasn’t likely to sway them. Conway, a relatively young, camera-friendly candidate didn’t do himself any favors in his time at the podium. Instead of connecting with the students, he fell back to bashing his opponent for questionable decisions and comments he’s made on the campaign trail.

Clinton’s endorsement mobilized campus for a time on Monday. Politically active students showed up and made their voices heard. The secret service showed up and made sure it was seen, if not heard. But the average student sweated out an unseasonably warm day just for the spectacle, and those students aren’t likely to break the dead heat in the Senate race. Clinton’s presence on campus will be remembered by many, even if the endorsement is not.

And if Rand Paul is looking to make a splash with an endorsement, he could do worse than to book Snooki. It wouldn’t be the strangest thing he’s done this campaign.