On the trail in Kentucky, Bill Clinton gets practice playing second fiddle


Former president Bill Clinton spent Wednesday in Kentucky, on the trail in support of Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is running to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

Katy Perry’s “Roar” blasts through the speakers in this downtown Lexington mansion-turned-event space. The song has the power of summoning Alison Lundergan Grimes at events like these, and just like that she appears from behind a blue curtain. The crowd is especially raucous today, because this time former president Bill Clinton appears beside Grimes, the Kentucky Democrat who is aiming to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Clinton bites his lower lip into his familiar smirk, waves to the standing crowd. Then he sits, and it’s like he isn’t there.

“I’m a Clinton Democrat,” Grimes thunders into the microphone, the eponymous figure not even flinching at the sound of his own name. He sits motionless behind her, his mouth slightly agape as he listens intently. Grimes speaks for about 15 minutes. She does a call and response about how McConnell always says no (to things like a minimum- wage increase, equal pay for equal work) while she says yes. She talks about how the race is a referendum on McConnell’s 30 years in office, and says: “Let me get this straight, I am the pro-coal candidate.” Then she finally gets around to introducing Clinton.

“I was pretty happy just sitting back there listening,” he says. “I don’t know if Alison left me much to say.”

The crowd at the Wednesday lunch event, made up of the upper echelon of Kentucky Democratic politics (including three former governors, the current one, and the one Democrat who has announced his intent to run for that office in 2015) takes a moment from picking at their chocolate cheesecake topped with caramel and specks of mint to laugh.

Clinton has never been at a loss for words. But at two stops across the state Wednesday in support of Grimes, he got some good practice at playing second fiddle.


In Hazard, in the eastern part of the state, an overflow crowd lined up to meet Clinton — and to capture the moment. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

If the day felt like a trial run at campaigning, should his wife choose to seek the presidency in 2016, he brought it upon himself. At both events he mentioned Hillary at the outset, thanking the state for voting for her in the 2008 Democratic primary against Barack Obama.

“I really do love Kentucky,” Clinton says, his voice hoarse, giving him the added benefit of sounding like he’s choked up with emotion. “When people said Hillary was a washed-up candidate, you voted for her by 37 points. I appreciate that. Not that I was following too closely.”

After the morning event at the mansion — where tickets started at $200 and which included an operatic performance of “My Old Kentucky Home” — Clinton and the Grimes team hopped on a little private plane and flew to Hazard, in the coal country of Eastern Kentucky. They were met by more than 1,000 people. The crowd included some miners from the western part of the state who had been bused in by the United Mine Workers of America, which has endorsed Grimes. So many had turned out, in fact, that not everyone could make it into the auditorium.

“There’s room for chairs, but the fire marshal said no more people can come in,” campaign manager Jonathan Hurst says plaintively to the line snaking around the outside of the Hal Rogers Center.

One family drove five hours to be there, another complains that an 88-year-old man shouldn’t be stuck out in the heat.

“The fire marshal? Hell, he’s from Hazard,” says Jordan Whitaker, a fourth-generation miner who wanted to see Clinton. He remembers being a kid back in 2000 when Clinton last visited the area. The president shook his hand so hard he nearly fell off his mother’s lap.

Inside, Clinton makes use of an oft-repeated McConnell line that it was not the senator’s job to bring jobs to Kentucky.

“When Hillary was the senator from New York, she was virtually unopposed when she ran for reelection,” he tells members in Hazard, asking them to pipe down when they erupt into cheers. “Because the Republican area of our state, Upstate New York which was like Eastern Kentucky . . . thought she was the only public official that had an economic development plan for them

Onstage in Hazard, Clinton again sits behind Grimes as she speaks. The Hazard crowd out-whoops the morning mansion gathering, and the former president seems more animated. He pulls off an “avuncular-chic” look, gazing upon Grimes proudly as she galvanizes the gathering, chuckling at the jokes he had heard just hours earlier and fussing with his eyeglasses and some papers.

The role of political uncle is an easy one for Clinton in this case. He has known Grimes since she was young, having become friends with her father when Jerry Lundergan was the Democratic Party chairman in Kentucky and he was the governor of neighboring Arkansas.

There’s a sentiment in the Grimes camp — rarely spoken on the record — that if President Obama weren’t so unpopular in Kentucky, Grimes might be up by 10 points over McConnell. As it stands, all the polls have the race neck-and-neck. Meanwhile, Clinton, the last federally elected Democrat to win the state, remains a Kentucky favorite. And amid the raucous crowd — where people yelled, “We’d take you for a third term” and “I’m ready for Hillary” — it’s easy to see why. He can speak the language.

In Hazard, standing in front members of the United Mine Workers of America, Clinton talks about crusading for the rights of miners suffering from black lung as a young lawyer. He says that fight is one of the things he is “most proud of” in his life, and dozens of men and women wearing UMW camo shirts with the tagline “We are everywhere” stand up in wild applause.

Eastern Kentucky has been decimated by job losses in the coal industry. The Obama administration’s proposed regulations designed to cut coal plant emissions aren’t a particular favorite in the area. During the campaign, the McConnell team has pointed out that the Environmental Protection Agency building is named after Clinton and that he has “applauded” Obama on the issue. The former president avoids any mention of this in his speech.

Instead, Clinton reminisces about the last time he came to Hazard, in 2000, to try and pass the a tax credit that would help rural areas.

“I’ll never forget that day in Hazard. I’ll never forget how hot it was. . . . You couldn’t breathe, the air was so thick and hot. But there was a sense that America was on the move and that small towns and rural areas got to be a part of it.”

Then, he holds up a small packet of papers, Grimes’s jobs plan for Kentucky.

“It would be wrong to try and build a future for America that leaves rural America and small-town America out,” he says, waving the packet. “Every page of this is about you.”

After the speech he mingles inside a while, then goes outside to shake the hands of some of the people who didn’t make it in. People shout his name — “Bill! Bill!” — and try to touch him. Selfies abound.

Nearby, a man sells “Hillary Clinton for President” buttons, one for $5 or three for $10.

“Is she running?” a woman asks him.

“Man, I hope so,” says a man wearing a UMW shirt. “If she’s anything like him.”

“She has not declared, but we’ve talked to some people and think she’s very close to it,” the button-peddler says, stroking his long, brown beard.

“Okay, I’ll take three.”

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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