Clintons talk civility amid shifting political divides
The Clintons returned to Detroit for an event Friday at the Fox Theatre where they touted the importance of listening to voter concerns in a volatile political climate.
"Slogans and anger... that won't put a single person to work," former president Bill Clinton said as he appeared alongside his wife and 2016's Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The two were in town for an event billed as "An Evening with President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton." Moderated by actor and activist Ben Stiller, the famous couple shared stories and anecdotes from their storied careers in public service as well as tackled some hot-button topics.
President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and moderator actor Ben Stiller at the Fox Theater in Detroit, Michigan. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News
Their appearance came a day after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested.
When Stiller asked Hillary Clinton about him, she acknowledged having “strong feelings” about his conduct.
“He’s been used, willingly, I believe, to undermine our elections, the functioning of our government,” she said.
Assange was arrested Thursday at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and the U.S. has charged him with conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to break into a classified government computer at the Pentagon.
WikiLeaks’ publication of Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers during the 2016 election season hurt Clinton’s presidential campaign. Donald Trump, Clinton’s Republican opponent, frequently showered praise on Assange during the final weeks of the campaign and cheered on the release of damaging emails from Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta.
The Friday event is among other conversations the couple has had in cities this spring, and plenty of the discussion focused on the White House.
When Hillary Clinton praised President Barack Obama’s reliance on her and other team members before the raid that ultimately led to the death of Osama bin Laden, her husband cited that as an example of strong leadership.
“You don’t want a bunch of yes men and women around you,” he said.
Bin Laden, the founder and first leader of the Islamist group Al-Qaeda, was killed May 2, 2011 in a raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was ultimately Obama's decision to launch SEAL Team Six.
To Carol Banks, who arrived early for the talk Friday, the Clintons’ stop in the Motor City was a helpful blueprint in the next presidential election.
“This just sets the tone for what we need to do in 2020,” the Detroit native said.
Attendee Beverly Nakenge of Detroit was thrilled just to be in the same room.
“I never thought I’d get an opportunity to see them in person,” she said. “This close — I’m good.”
Storied careers in politics
Hillary Clinton last spoke in Michigan in October 2017 during a one-hour event on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus accompanying her “What Happened” book tour.
She said at the time that women need to become part of the political process and develop a thick skin to criticism.
On Friday, the activist, lawyer, first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state stressed she had learned to take criticism "seriously, but not personally." But Hillary Clinton, who turned 71 last year, noted negative assessments can yield new insight.
"Sometimes the people who are criticizing you can be actually very helpful," she said.
Throughout their talk, both Clintons described the impact of social media on voters.
"One of the things that’s frustrating about today is, it’s so hard... to know the difference between fact and fiction," said Bill Clinton, who broke a string of Republican victories in Michigan when the former Arkansas governor won the state in 1992 over President George H.W. Bush and then was re-elected in 1996.
The nation’s 42nd commander in chief has since launched a foundation that works to improve global health and wellness, increase opportunity for girls and women, reduce childhood obesity, create economic opportunity and growth, and help communities address the effects of climate change.
The 72-year-old is still sought after for advice by some Democrats running for president. Clinton has spoken mostly with male candidates who are considered longshots for the Democratic nomination, including Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Housing secretary Julian Castro and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, the Associated Press reported.
His wife lost Michigan to Trump in the 2016 election by 10,704 votes — the first time a Republican had carried the state since 1988.
Critics said she could have tightened the race had she spent more time in Michigan campaigning.
She ran twice for the White House, first losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008. Though narrowing losing to Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in Michigan’s Democratic primary in 2016, she went on to become the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party.
The state is poised again to be a battleground in 2020, with the Democrats scheduling their second presidential primary debate in Detroit for late July.
When Stiller inquired about the couple's view on the current slate of presidential prospects, Hillary Clinton declined to endorse anyone but said she was encouraged by the group's diversity and hoped the candidates would be given enough time "to tell people what they want to do" during debates and other forums.
She never mentioned Trump but also emphasized learning from 2016, calling on voters to "take the elections back" by ignoring online attacks and other influences. Once that happens, she said to applause, "the more likely we are to take our democracy back and actually have it function."
Earlier, the former senator described the importance of candidates listening to voters — highlighting the victory of U.S. Reps Haley Stevens, D — Rochester Hills, in the November midterm election.
"She focused relentlessly on the issues people in her district cared about," Hillary Clinton said, citing a focus on "the innovation and entrepreneurial energy that is so present in Michigan. ...She had something to offer to her constituents that wasn’t just negativity.”
Meanwhile, addressing political bickering, her husband pushed for greater civility: "We have to find a way to listen and talk to each other."
The couple's talk inspired attendees like Laura Willams, 26, of Oak Park.
"I wish this message could be in a bigger platform so anyone can hear the message of positivity," she said.
Jacob Allen of Oak Park welcomed the Clintons' remarks. "It was a message of hope," the 27-year-old said.