The former president returns to Hazard, Kentucky, this week, 15 years after his 1999 appearance in support of his “new markets” initiative. The official purpose of his speech is to support the candidacy of the Democratic Senate challenger. But could he say something much more important?
Moses told the burning bush he was no good at making speeches. So the burning bush said, I’ll send help.
On Wednesday Bill Clinton returns to rural America. He is coming to Hazard, Kentucky, to speak for Alison Lundergan Grimes, a lackluster speechmaker and a shaky Moses. She’s out to unseat U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the closest thing Kentucky has to Ramses II. This senatorial campaign is corrosive by design and numbing by degree. In a race that may spend a record $100 million, every registered voter, every inveterate TV watcher, has been deadened by a steady stream of smear and counter-smear calculated to 1) disgust all but the most fervent supporters and 2) discourage thinking people from going to the polls at all.
Could Bill Clinton change the subject and change the game? Could he use his moment in this unlikely venue to say something that matters more than who gets elected? He is the explainer in chief, the Big Dog. He’s the guy who finally explained Obamacare. He could be the first president since Bill Clinton to make the case for a transcendent rural America – maybe even explain that hard scrabble communities, urban and rural – have a reason to team up. And he could take this moment to make an honest speech about Eastern Kentucky that gets beyond two candidates squabbling over who loves coal operators more and the EPA less.
In July 1999, then President Clinton came to Hazard and spoke to thousands squeezed shoulder to shoulder in near 100-degree heat. Cases of bottled water passed overhead and down both sides of Main Street as first responders tended fainters who swooned by the dozen. He was Elvis that day, except that instead of twanging a guitar he was explaining how new market incentives for rural towns and inner cities could change the horizons for poor and working people. Ah, to be young, full of dreams, and on the rope line in Hazard that day.
A sitting president’s visit to the coalfields is rare. LBJ did it 24 hours before declaring the War on Poverty. Several presidential aspirants made pit stops. And an honorable mention goes out to Warren G. Harding, who didn’t come himself, but authorized the Army to drop bombs on striking West Virginia miners at the company’s request.
I interviewed ex-president Jimmy Carter when he and Rosaynn came to Pike County to build houses for poor families. And I helped produce a documentary about Richard Nixon’s visit to Leslie County, his first public appearance after leaving office. As a teen I walked down Liberty Street in Hazard with Bobby Kennedy, and later I drove Paul Wellstone and John Edwards when they re-traced the RFK tour. I helped advance Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Super Tuesday primary speech at the Hazard Bulldog gymnasium: a foot stomper about how we were all like patchwork squares on his grandmother’s quilt and that we should not be discouraged in the face of injustice and insult. He had local politicians and coal operators up chanting against the excesses of local politicians and coal operators. Political church.
Here is what to look for in a Clinton speech. He will count things out on his fingers starting with his thumb for number one. He will tell you something you don’t know about the opponent, and would not like very much if you did know. He will make fun of himself. He will mention a turtle on a fence post, lift up someone in a story, and he will talk about the future in a way that makes you think you can get there.
Remember he is the candidate whose campaign song was “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” the first time, and his re-election theme was let’s build a bridge to the 21st Century. When he came to Hazard before, he spoke for an hour and did not mention coal mining once. There were 24,000 more East Kentucky miners then than now. Instead he talked about technology, emerging markets, and the next investment opportunities. And when he walked into the crowd to shake hands afterwards, John Cougar Mellencamp blasted above the din. “Well I was born in a small town, And I can breathe in a small town, Gonna die in this small town, And that's prob'ly where they'll bury me.”
He knew then what Grimes and McConnell refuse to acknowledge now. Coal is our heritage, our history. It’s moved a lot of people out of poverty and into the middle class. It’s been a friend, but it’s not our future.
Here is what to hope for in Clinton’s speech:
1) He could tell us to find some courage. We need not fear EPA’s 2030 emission standards, climate science, or radical environmentalists from Mars. If Appalachian mountain communities are going to do better than just survive, they are going to have to take a hard look at what we got that the future wants. Spoiler alert: It’s not coal. It’s fresh water, clean air, what we can grow and build, and it’s creative kids who can solve everyone’s problems, not just our own. And that means connecting to distant markets and stranger people than we are used to. And we can’t get there from here by whining about the past or venting our spleens about the present. We must be dauntless.
2) He could tell us to take care of one another. This U.S. Congressional District is the least healthy in the nation with the lowest life expectancy. Health is an economic engine that works. We have five times the number of health care workers as miners. We can look after the afflicted, rehabilitate the addled, and restore abused land so it can nurture us again. Dr. Helen Lewis says every child has the right to a clean glass of water. If we can rally around common goals like making our water safe and accessible, we don’t just get the sewage out of the creek and the toxic metals out of our watershed, we change the value of our homes, our communities, and our prospects.
3) He could tell us to raise the bar. I was just at a meeting in Harlan County about what Eastern Kentucky should do next. One guy said, when we were all in the mines we had a common vision. We knew each week what we needed for production and what we needed to get everyone home safe. We need a vision to unite us now.
The former president could tell us what we know when we get out of bed. We can’t wait around for an intervention. No one’s coming to help until we change the direction. It is time to demand much more of our leaders and the same from ourselves, from our kids, from our neighbors. Vision is not a passive enterprise. We have to see something different on the horizon and make sure others see it too. And we can’t tolerate the same divisive rhetoric and policy diversions that have accompanied us on our slide down.
When Clinton came before he said: “Ladies, and gentlemen, it's been a hot day, but when I'm gone I hope you will remember more than that the president came and you were hot.”
Maybe we can hope for that again. If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself. Somebody had a vision.
Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder. Follow his tweets @iamflyrock.