Bill Clinton to speak in California


The Sacramento Bee

There was a time when Bill Clinton looked like a failed president, one who might be driven from office in disgrace and consigned to history as a Warren Harding or Calvin Coolidge.

Brother, that is so 1998.

When the 42nd president of the United States breezes into Sacramento for a speech at Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday, he will arrive as one of the most popular political figures on the planet.

More than a decade after ending his two-term presidency amid peace, prosperity and surpluses, Clinton has transformed himself into an elder statesman and political rock star.

He rakes in tens of millions of dollars in speaking fees, is the most sought-after Democratic politician on the campaign trail and a potential first gentleman if the 2016 election turns in his wife's favor, assuming she runs again.

"Whether you like him or dislike him, Bill Clinton is one of the most talented politicians of the modern era," said Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "The Reagans and the Clintons don't come around that often, so when they do their allure tends to last for a long time after they leave office."

You don't have to tell that to Tiffany Kelly, the marketing chief for the Sacramento Speakers Series that is bringing Clinton to town for Tuesday night's appearance.

"Our phone has been ringing constantly," Kelly said last week as the demand for the few remaining tickets – priced at $120 in the balcony and $200 for VIP seating – continued unabated.

The 3,600-seat auditorium is expected to be filled to capacity for the event, which begins at 8 p.m. and includes a question-and-answer period after the former president's speech.

Longtime subscribers to the speakers series will mix with political junkies and students too young to remember when Clinton lived in the White House.

Doug Handen, a 49-year-old civil engineer and Republican from El Dorado Hills, is a series subscriber who will be there with his wife, as well as his parents.

"I mentioned to my mom that I was going and she's a Clinton fan and she was jealous," Handen said. "So for a holiday gift I said, 'I'll buy the tickets for you. Let's go.' "

The $120 ticket price did little to dampen Handen's enthusiasm at seeing Clinton speak in person.

"He's at the top as far as names and the anticipation of people I really want to see," he said.

Tuesday's appearance is hardly an inaugural visit to the Sacramento region for Clinton. He spoke on the UC Davis quad in October on behalf of four Democratic congressional candidates, including Ami Bera, who knocked off longtime incumbent Republican Dan Lungren a few weeks later.

During his time in office, Clinton made several visits to the area, including a town hall meeting early in his presidency and a tour of flood-ravaged areas in 1995 that included an impromptu stop at Rio Linda's Archway Frostie for some chili and a Diet Pepsi.

But the timing of Tuesday's event, following the 2012 presidential campaign that highlighted Clinton's unique political and oratorical skills, makes his visit the biggest yet for the speakers series.

"This is the biggest get the series has ever gotten," said Mitchell Ostwald, the Sacramento attorney who is managing principal for the series and who targeted Clinton as a speaker nearly a year ago.

"Who would have thought that he was the most exciting person in the world to see right now?" Ostwald said. "My goal was for after the general election and before the inauguration."

Ostwald seems to have timed it perfectly. Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention created a new generation of fans. A New York Times/CBS News poll afterward gave him a 66 percent favorability rating, higher than at any time during his presidency, which was roiled by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent impeachment by the House (but acquittal by the Senate).

The speaker series won't say what it is paying for Clinton's appearance, but he clearly is doing well on the circuit.

A CNN analysis of Hillary Rodham Clinton's financial disclosure statement last summer – required for her position as secretary of state – found he pulled in $13.4 million in 2011 and has earned $89 million giving speeches since he left office in 2001.

And he isn't just preaching to older Democrats nostalgic for bygone days or people wearing the "I Miss Bill" buttons that were so popular during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Elli Brennan, a 17-year-old senior at Rio Americano High School, will be in the audience Tuesday along with a handful of fellow students from the school's Civitas political science program.

"I saw his speech at the convention and I thought that was definitely one of the highlights of the entire campaign," said Brennan, who paid $60 for a discounted ticket to see Clinton.

One reason for Clinton's popularity at giving speeches is simple. He's good at it.

Schnur, a longtime Republican operative, recalls going to see Clinton speak a decade ago at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

"It's an audience of thousands and thousands of Westside Democrats, and there's Bill Clinton giving an extraordinary speech, and I'm probably clapping more than anyone in the audience.

"He gave a 55-minute speech off of notes that appeared to be written on the back of a business card."

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