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POLITICS: Still the One

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Last week saw a generous number of Flyer hands on deck in Little Rock for the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. A feature of the event was a tour of the Clinton Museum on the Arkansas River, and to top that came a luncheon address from the man himself on Saturday, the last day of the convention.

As is virtually always the case with Clinton appearances, the former president spoke at length on a number of subjects, foreign and domestic, and gave detailed, even wonkish, answers in a Q-and-A session later on. He then indulged the visiting journalists, who more or less mobbed him, for an hour and a half of one-on-one conversation and autograph-signing. (He's probably the only public person who could simultaneously sign someone's baby picture while analyzing the "concentration of wealth" in America with someone else.)

In the Q and A, Clinton opined, inter alia, that Ralph Nader may have launched his independent presidential candidacy in 2000 for the express purpose of wrecking then Vice President AlGore's own hopes. "He wanted George Bush to be president!" Clinton declared.

Ironically enough, Clinton declined to offer anything resembling harsh criticism of Bush himself, acknowledging that one reason was a growing personal closeness to former president George H.W. Bush, the current president's father, with whom he has collaborated in a number of charitable undertakings (a post-Katrina fundraising effort, especially).

But while expressing strong disagreement with George W. Bush on a variety of policy matters, he also credited the president with sincerity in his beliefs.

Clinton was also somewhat guarded in answering a question about the presidential ambitions of his wife, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. She hasn't decided on a run, Clinton said, but if she did, she'd run well and, if elected, would serve well. His own role? "Whatever she wants me to do."

Earlier in the day, Susan McDougal, one of Clinton's former partners in the failed Whitewater real-estate enterprise, addressed conference participants on her refusal to testify during Special Counsel Kenneth Starr's ultimately futile investigation of that affair. McDougal served a year in prison for "civil contempt," as a result, and one questioner wondered if she harbored ill will toward the then president for his failure to pardon her until after her incarceration.

"Not at all!" McDougal answered, declaring her belief that Clinton, by presiding over an era of peace and prosperity, was "the greatest president this country has ever had."

Informed of that, Clinton - who has not met with McDougal, by her reckoning, in 20 years - appeared moved. "She may have undergone the same kind of ennobling experience in prison that [former South African premier] Nelson Mandela had," he said.

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