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'Because I Won': The Cost of Being Popular
Monica Friedlander

As he walked up to the microphone, screams of "We Love You" echoed from the back of the hall. When he was done, hordes of 18-year-old girls ran up and down endless flights of stairs to elude security guards and make it to the gym through the back door. There, students stepped on each others' toes to touch him, nearly knocking down the very inconspicuous California governor trailing closely behind. He then proceeded to shake every hand, thank every well wisher, even take the time to shoot a few baskets with the kids. Finally back outside, he plunged one more time into the adoring crowd to grasp every stretched-out hand until his own were raw.

This was not a rock concert, but a visit to the University of California at Berkeley by former President Bill Clinton -- the first president to come to this campus since John F. Kennedy more than four decades ago. Clinton was honored by Chancellor Robert Berdahl with the university's highest award, the Berkeley Medal, for "his lifetime of service to society."

Most of the students who camped overnight for tickets to see him were too young to have ever voted for him, but most would clearly do so in a heartbeat if given the chance.

Clinton was the hottest ticket in town the very day of the State of the Union address -- an occasion largely ignored in an area that overwhelmingly rejected George Bush at the polls. What's more surprising is that in this ultraliberal, anti-establishment Mecca of Berkeley, a mainstream Democrat like Bill Clinton received nothing short of a hero's welcome.

And therein lies the true reason of why the GOP feared Bill Clinton so. It was not for his views, but for his undeniable star quality, which left unsmeared could have turned the Republican strategy on its head for decades to come. And no one understood that strategy better than Bill Clinton.

Asked why the right wing despises him so, the former president answered simply, "Because I won."

This is not what Clinton came to talk about, but these three words are the ones that will be remembered by everyone who saw him on January 29, for they said as much about the country in which we live, and in which 51 million were disenfranchised a little over a year ago, as Clinton's prepared speech said about our entire world.

"They believed there would never be a Democratic president," he said of the Republicans. "They thought they found a foolproof formula to turn us into cardboard cutouts -- superficial, one-dimensional, non-American figures. And the American people voted for me. They never thought it was legitimate. They decided 'We should have never lost the White House. It belongs to us.' If you want to be a Democrat or progressive and run for national office today, you have to have a pretty high pain threshold. It's just the cost of doing business in politics today."

Clinton's address was intended to offer students his alternate vision of America's role in the world and of the most effective means to fight terrorism. His talk would have made for a rousing response to the same old rally-around-the-flag mantra served nationwide during the State of the Union address.

Clinton's speech was interrupted every few minutes by spontaneous ovations, one of the loudest of which came in response to his comments about the war. Clinton endorsed the war on terrorism, but added:

"I do not believe that a law enforcement and military strategy alone is sufficient to build the world that I hope the young people in this audience will live in. I don't want the world we live in to change the character of our country by having people dominated by fear."

He went on to describe his vision, one borne out of a belief that sharing our economic good fortune -- to which his administration contributed so greatly -- and promoting our common humanity are the most effective strategies to weed out terrorism.

"It's a lot cheaper than going to war," he said to the delight of the crowd.

Clinton challenged the administration and the young people to focus on reducing poverty in a world in which half the people, he said, live on less than $2 a day and in which billions are sick and go to bead hungry. Reaching out to them, he said, "will create a world with more partners and fewer terrorists."

Looking at the world from a different perspective may have been the secret to his administration's success, and this is precisely what he asked his audience to do with regard to public policy in the 21st century.

Said Clinton, "Hillary gave me a little card when I ran for President in '92, that read: 'Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result.'"

On a serious note, he said, "We can do America's fair share of economic empowerment of poor people, put all the poor kids in school, fund the [United Nation] Secretary General's health initiative, and accelerate the effort to turn around climate change -- we can do all that for more or less what we'd spend in less than a year in Afghanistan."

As important as economic empowerment, Clinton said, is creating a world of shared values, thereby rooting out hatred that missiles alone cannot destroy.

"You have to tell people 'We respect your differences, we'll celebrate them, but only if you acknowledge that our common humanity is more important. Not very complicated, but this is what I believe will determine the shape of this whole new era."

After he finished his prepared speech, Clinton sat down with the dean of the School of Journalism, Orville Schell, for an informal question and answer session. For the next 45 minutes he touched on subjects ranging from campaign finance reform to his book and his view of the media.

"Our perception is that there are basically two dominant elements [in the media]: the establishment press and the right wing press, and the right wing is the magnet that pulls the establishment press to the right," he said.

Clinton was unabashed in defending his fundraising efforts in a political climate that would otherwise have made him another Democratic victim of GOP's ruthless campaign tactics.

"It is true that I refused to practice unilateral disarmament," he said. "I tried that and ended up with severe wounds."

And his description of "the cost of doing business" was not based on mere perception, he said.

"I've had great candid conversations with Newt Gingrich and other members of Congress privately, in which they basically said that "we have to incite people against you because you won. And so, since we can't win the argument, we have to convince them you're the devil.'"

The Democrats, Clinton said, have a very different approach to winning and losing, one that has proven very costly.

"We don't necessarily hate people when they beat us because we're so used to losing in life. We always like the contest. You get into the ring, you wrestle, someone wins, somebody loses, you wait till the next time and try again. But if you think you're going to win every time, and you think you found the formula by which they can get even close, and then somebody turns out to win, you've got to go out and convince the people that something bad happened."

Yet even eight years of almost daily pounding by the media and the far right have not hardened Clinton or soured him to public service. It's all a matter of how you respond to it, he said. "You just have to smile, go on, stand up for what you believe in. There's still nothing better than public service. It's the most rewarding thing I ever did. And if I had to do it all tomorrow again, I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

To that, Clinton received the biggest ovation of all.