PRESTONSBURG, Ky. — The booing was nearly as loud as the cheering when Bill Clinton stepped to the microphone in this remote mountain hamlet deep in the depressed heart of coal country.
In the audience at the local elementary school Thursday night was a sizable contingent of coal miners and their families, many wearing helmets and T-shirts declaring their support for Donald Trump.
“I’m not like a lot of people. It doesn’t bother me to have protesters at rallies,” the former president began. “I’m glad they come, because I think one of the biggest problems in America today is we seem to be less prejudiced about a lot of things, except we don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us. You notice that?”
That he should encounter hostility here was not a surprise. Floyd County’s unemployment rate last year was close to 10 percent — nearly twice as high as the state average. Many locals blame the federal government’s policies on coal.
Hillary Clinton seemed to confirm that perception in March, at a town hall in Ohio, when she said that a transition to clean energy would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She later said she had made “a misstatement,” but the comment contributed to her loss Tuesday in West Virginia, a state whose Democratic primary she had won by a landslide in 2008.
The event here was Bill Clinton’s fourth in a long day of campaigning across Kentucky, where his wife faces a similar backlash in next week’s primary. At earlier appearances, he gave his standard speech.
On the stump for his wife, Clinton at times seems rusty and rambling. And he can be thin-skinned in the face of protests, as he was when Black Lives Matter activists confronted him in Philadelphia last month.
But there was something about this crowd and this place that lit him up. It was as if the calendar had flipped back a quarter of a century. He was — once again — the “Man from Hope,” the empathizer in chief.
The former president wasn’t going to change many minds. He knew that. But he was determined to show that he had seen and felt what was going on in their lives and in their town.
He recalled a miner he had represented in Arkansas when he was fresh out of law school — “five-foot-six and weighed 96 pounds dripping wet because he was dying from black lung disease and they never would give him his benefits.” Clinton won the case, he said, “and all of a sudden, I had 100 clients.”
And he remembered another — a burly man who had been asked not to enlist during World War II because he was needed in the mines.
“He was the only guy that everybody knew that could go 100 percent for 16 hours every day to try to give this country the ability to power itself and defend itself,” Clinton said. “And by the time I met [him], he couldn’t push a little lawn mower across a postage-stamp-sized front yard.”
“I get this. I get it all,” he added.
Clinton did not mention Trump by name but invoked the celebrity billionaire’s campaign slogan as he confronted the hecklers. “I think ‘Make America Great Again’ means that we’ll make it like it was in the 1960s, even if [we] have to put another wall up,” he said. “Well, if you think you can do it, have at it, but no place else in the world that mines coal has been able to do it.”
Economists trace the decline of the coal industry to a number of factors, including competition from cheaper sources of energy, such as natural gas. Coal from the Eastern United States is also more expensive to produce than coal from Western sources.
“I think you’re better off imagining this: We got some more years where we’ll be able to mine coal. There ought to be a transition period, and at the same time, we should aggressively move as quickly as we can to do what we’ve been doing and to learn to do something else and diversify this economy,” Clinton said.
“Don’t tell me we can’t bring different kinds of jobs,” he admonished. “Don’t tell me you’re not smart enough to do it, and don’t tell me nobody over a certain age can learn this stuff.”
Clinton also vowed that if he finds himself back in the White House as the spouse of the nation’s chief executive, he will make the concerns of coal country part of his portfolio.
“Most of this stuff that happens in campaigns, you might as well be watching a television show,” he added. “But what really matters is whether people are better off when you quit than when you started, whether your children have a brighter future, or whether we’re coming together or being torn apart. The rest of this stuff is all background music.”
And then he was finished. There were a few more jeers. But this time, the applause nearly drowned them out.