BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—On Wednesday night, Bill Clinton stood onstage not five feet away from a large saxophone for close to 40 minutes without touching it or even looking in its direction once.
Clinton had just flown from South Carolina to Williamsburg, where he would headline a Hillary fundraiser at the Brooklyn Bowl, a combination bowling alley and concert venue with two bars and a variety of french bread pizzas. Hillary, who is still campaigning in South Carolina, was not in attendance, though a cardboard cutout was provided for donors to take selfies with, which they did.
Ticket sales for the two-hour private event were slow—the cheapest seats, at $250 a person, were still available for purchase Wednesday afternoon. The most expensive, at $2,700 a piece, were also available. The announcement of a similarly-priced fundraiser early next month with Bill, Elton John, Katy Perry and Hillary herself, did nothing to help sales. Still, because the campaign barred press from the event, as they do at almost every fundraiser, I bought a ticket as a guest and expensed it to Gawker Media.
Hillary has, in fact, had a hard time of late selling her ostensibly millennial-themed events to millennials, at least in New York City. A few weeks before Wednesday’s bowling alley fundraiser, Chelsea Clinton hosted a fundraiser/exercise class at the TriBeCa location of the indoor cycling chain SoulCycle. Many of the 62 available bikes, priced between $500 and $2,700 for the 45 minute class, which Chelsea attended but did not participate in, went unsold. According to CNN, some seats were sold immediately before the class was set to begin—for $50.
The Brooklyn Bowl, capacity 600, had quite a few more attendees, though there was still plenty of room to move around the floor in front of the stage. Security for the event, which also featured Sen. Chuck Schumer (a parking-spot-stealing enemy of the Bluestone family), New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, actors Ana Gasteyer and Jeffrey Wright, and the Wailers, who played two songs but declined to use the saxophone, which stood propped up on a stand at the front of the stage the entire evening.
(For whom that sax lolled Wednesday night would remain a nagging mystery.)
To the side of the room, where the venue’s 16 bowling lanes are located a few steps above the main floor, donors who maxed out the $2,700 contribution or bundled upwards of $10,000, mingled with celebrities like Hill Harper and Mary Louise Parker. Both received a special thank you from Clinton when he took the stage. (Clinton also plugged Harper’s new CBS show, Limitless.) These donors were also invited to fill a roped-off section, located directly before the stage and directly in front of the $250-a-head attendee standing section.
But before Clinton began his speech, two notable things occurred. First, security opened the VIP section, which was sparsely filled, to the cheap (relatively speaking) seats. The surge forward, which landed at least one reporter directly in the front row, upset two very tall, painfully thin women who had been standing with a group of friends in the VIP area. After shooting me several dirty looks, the pair ultimately asked a man standing next to me to move so they, too, could be in the very front. The second occurred toward the end of Jeffrey Wright’s rambling introduction, when Clinton suddenly appeared offstage in the wings. For two minutes, the former president stood in the dark bowling alley, rigidly still, looking out past Wright into the crowd. He was surrounded by people but spoke to no one. His posture was perfect.
Finally, the former president and potential first First Man took the stage. Working off a small piece of paper with notes written on both sides, Clinton mostly hewed to so-called millennial issues like fixing student loans, raising wages, and passing immigration reform.When he discussed the Supreme Court vacancy, it was framed in terms of reproductive rights and how a conservative Supreme Court might make voting harder for college students.
Over the course of his speech, Bill’s name-checking of famous audience members only served to call attention to how he barely mentioned his own wife’s name the entire evening, referring to Hillary almost exclusively as “she” and “her.” It took close to thirteen minutes for him to even acknowledge he was there campaigning for Hillary.
“So the real issue in this election is, what are going to be the terms of our interdependence? Should the wealthy pay more? Absolutely. But not because they’re all bad—Hillary says you’ve got to build an economy for the struggling, the striving and the successful, and we have to do it together. And wrongdoers should be punished, but they ought to be punished when they do wrong, not because we need them to invest in the rest of us to grow more jobs and grow more businesses.”
Bill then went into an extended, detailed riff on Hillary’s college affordability plan, clearly the centerpiece of the campaign’s pitch to millennials.
“And she says college ought to be affordable for everyone, and free for middle class and lower-income students. And the lower your income is, the more help you ought to get. You ought to get help with books. Those of us who can afford to pay for our children should. You should use our tax money to put people to work in good-paying jobs.
“And she says the young millennials, who are stuck at home, because of their college debt, she’s got the best deal for them. She says, first of all, a lot of you know this, a college loan is the only bank loan you can get—a multi-year bank loan—that you cannot refinance. How many Americans refinance their home mortgages when interest rates drop below inflation after a crash? You can’t do that.
“Her plan, one, says we’re gonna let 25 million people immediately refinance, and if they did it today, they’d save $2,000 a person. Two, we are going to let them pay for college like they pay for a home, over twenty years. And put a strict cap on how much you can be charged as a percentage of your income after taxes and basic costs. So everybody will be able to pay. Then you can move out of your parents home, you can take a job you like. If you want to take a public service job that pays less, your repayment will go down. You will be free of the prison of this.”
It was unclear how many attendees were actually the sort of millennials who are unable to move out of their parents’ homes. Judging by the price of the ticket, whatever debt burdened the room seemed more likely to come from credit cards than student loans.
But Clinton continued on that subject, with a more focused attack on Bernie Sanders’ plan to eliminate tuition entirely.
“College should be affordable for everyone. But it doesn’t make sense to take income tax money and recycle it through the government to give free tuition. And guess who told me that yesterday. I was in Greenville, South Carolina and this woman was practically crying, she wouldn’t let go of my hand, and she said, ‘I’m a college loan officer. My whole life is devoted to making sure as many young people as possible can get into and out of college without having backbreaking debt.’ And she said, ‘I may be one of the few people who doesn’t list the bumper stickers and slogans, I’ve actually read the plan, and her plan is lightyears better for millennials. If they actually read and understood what the proposals were and the world that we’re living in, they would all be supporting her. Because they’ll be better off if she gets to be president.’”
Building up steam, Clinton made the more general case for Hillary as a true progressive. “She is the best single change-maker I’ve ever met, and she has been since I first met her, 40 years ago next month. Forty-five years ago next month. We’ve been married for 40 years. She turned me down the first two times. Anyway. Smart woman. But here’s what I know. When I met her at Yale, she was working on legal services for poor people. When she got out, she turned down all the law firms and went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund. She went to South Carolina, and tried to end the practice of keeping teenagers, sometimes as young as thirteen, in prison with men, with full-grown men, for years in a way that guaranteed their whole lives would be taken away from them.
“When she came to Arkansas, she brought to the mountains of Ozark, which is our Appalachia, the first legal aid they ever had. When I became governor, she started the first preschool program we ever had, for really, really poor families, without regard to race, at a time when there was no universal preschool in America. There wasn’t even a single state that had mandatory kindergarten at that time.
“And she found this program in Israel, and convinced the woman who started it to come all the way to Arkansas, which she couldn’t even find on a map before Hillary called her, and all of the sudden, we’ve got all of these people who could not read, could not write, learning with their children and becoming their parents’ first teachers,” Clinton said, using his wife’s name for the first time in several minutes.
“Today, there are thousands and thousands of Americans, who started school ready to learn, went further in life, because she always makes something good happen. And she doesn’t give a rip, she just always makes something good happen.”
Either way, the room loved it. “Yes!” Ana Gasteyer could be heard hollering as Clinton relayed an anecdote about a Muslim convenience store worker who stopped a robbery in the Bronx this year. Because proper names or not, Clinton is a famously charismatic speaker—a pro who reads an audience, especially one made up of people who paid hundreds of dollars just to see him, and gives the people what they want.
Except the ones who wanted him to play the stupid sax.