Monday, April 28, 2008

Theo Caldwell on Bill Clinton's talk in Toronto: He covered everything from Hillary to Himalayan glaciers

Last week, former U.S. president Bill Clinton spoke at an event hosted by Toronto’s Economic Club. Speculation swirled among the attendees as to what subjects the American statesman would touch upon: his legacy, the environment, poverty or, especially, his wife’s campaign for the presidency.

As it happened, all guesses were correct. From Hillary to the Himalayan glaciers to health care to the housing crisis, the 42nd American president opined on every conceivable topic. Bill Clinton is a man who is used to being listened to, and plainly believes that the mere force of his words is sufficient to square his personal opinions with reality. Making claim after claim, unsourced but emphatic, Clinton’s leitmotif was inequality, starting with income levels in the United States.

“Ninety per cent of the benefits of this decade — ninety — nine-zero — have gone to the top 10% of earners,” he informed his audience, declining to dilute the import of this message by citing evidence or defining his terms. If her campaign rhetoric is to be believed, Mrs. Clinton shares her husband’s fixation on income redistribution: One shudders to think what would be the practical upshot for taxpayers and free markets if another Clinton were in the White House.

“In America … there is a lot of pain,” he sighed, pausing to bite his lower lip for posterity. A hushed crowd dared to hope, “Would he continue with ‘and I feel it’?” Instead he went on, “… and outright anger.” These words were oddly reminiscent of Senator Barack Obama’s recent talk of “bitter” Americans and their frustrations. Perhaps showing the benefit of his political experience, however, the former president was careful to assign anger to the entire country, rather than single out the rural voters of a pivotal primary state, as Obama did.

Warming to his theme of inequality, Clinton continued, “A lot of people want to know what we can do to return to being a country of shared prosperity” — a hopeful sentiment echoing Hillary Clinton’s prescription for “shared prosperity.” To wit, she will raise the highest “shared prosperity” rate back to 40%, with marginal “shared prosperity” rates perhaps topping 70%. Moreover, if she has her way and the Estate Tax is made permanent, Americans will be compelled to “share” their prosperity even when they die. Such is the peril of happy words.

He named global warming as the greatest threat to the future, inspiring gratitude for the 22nd Amendment in this age of terrorism. He extolled the Kyoto Accord and bemoaned the environmental insouciance of the current administration.

“The U.S. takes the rap for pulling out of Kyoto after I left office and President Bush came in, and I do think it was a mistake,” Clinton tut-tutted, opting not to mention that the U.S. Senate unanimously rejected the treaty during his own presidency. Whatever Kyoto’s shortcomings, what comes of such a hijacked half-truth is wistfulness for the days when former presidents did not publicly lace into their successors.

For one hour, the left index finger of the former leader of the free world jabbed at what organizers described as an A-list audience of Toronto’s business and cultural elite. When the president’s point seemed to him particularly potent, the poking finger was replaced by a karate chop of justice to the podium. Through it all, the message was clear — the world is unfair, and was far better when he was in charge.

That is the way of things, because Bill Clinton says so.