When President Bill Clinton first decided to come to town early last week, the news spread instantaneously throughout the county and left a good percentage of the population buzzing with excitement. For a very large segment of Humboldt County — the politically active, left-leaning segment — the news was like the call of a spring songbird, heralding the end of eight years of the Bush presidency. The arrival of the nation's most prominent political celebrity seemed a good excuse to get out and celebrate.
The news broke on Monday. The buzz kept on growing, right up until Wednesday, when the event took place. It was decided that Clinton would speak at Redwood Acres, the fairgrounds on the southwestern edge of Eureka. It was a sunny January day, and people showed up early. And then more started showing up. And then more.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 people showed up to an event that was thrown together in less than two days, and booked for a hall that had a theoretical capacity of only 400. Many of them waited for several hours, and took time off from school or work to be there. They had put in effort, and their hopes were high. It was something of a miracle that the event didn't end as a total disaster.
Like all his public events, or the public events of any celebrity, Clinton's appearance was a transaction. He got something: In this case, a chance to stump and probably win votes for his wife, currently locked in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The fans at the event, many of whom brought their kids, get something: An opportunity to commune with history and to hear a master orator speak to their circumstances. They wanted to touch him, to shake his hand, to get an autograph.
That was the way it was supposed to work out, and for some people, especially those who were well connected in one way or another, the exchange was fulfilled in total. Thanks to the actions of a few locals — the members of the Humboldt Fire District — many more people collected at least a little on their end of the bargain, and left satisfied. But there were probably hundreds more who had reason to leave feeling shortchanged and angry.
Some of this should have been foreseeable, even given the tight turnaround time. What happened?
By noon a hardcore group of 10 was lined up outside the Home Arts Building at Redwood Acres. Inside the hall, Democratic Central Committee members worked with event organizers setting up chairs. White plastic chains separated the podium from the crowd. No one seemed sure who would be seated in the 20 chairs on stage.
A lone Secret Service agent with steel blues eyes roamed the hall. He explained that he'd been called up from the San Francisco office to assist with the event. Protecting the former president was not his usual job; he's in the counterfeit squad. "Our day-to-day work is investigating counterfeits, identity theft, identity fraud," he said. "That's all Secret Service."
McKinleyville resident David Berman seemed to be in charge, conferring with the Secret Service agent and with Lauren Levinson, a young campaign worker from the Hillary for President Sacramento office sporting a bright green Team Hillary scarf. (Berman is not to be confused with the Eureka elections activist of the same name.)
Milt Boyd was there from the Central Committee. Liz Murguia represented Rep. Mike Thompson's office. As Boyd explained, Berman had previously worked as an "advance man" setting up events for Bill Clinton and for Al Gore all over the country. He'd been enlisted on Monday when the visit was proposed.
At 1 p.m., six hours before showtime, Berman was working his way through a multi-page to-do list.
"Look at lectern." Check.
"Press area tables." Check.
"Touch base with Julie Fulkerson." Check.
Fulkerson, a member of the Trinidad City Council and former supervisor, had been chosen to introduce the president. Still undone: Get lists of VIP reserved seats from Murguia, Boyd and Connie Stewart, who was there from Assemblymember Patty Berg's office.
Stewart would help him check off another item on the list, "Get CDs" for entrance and exit music. The Clinton campaign had requested a specific song, "Shining Star" by Earth Wind and Fire, for Bill's entrance, and by chance it was No. 3 on a mix CD Stewart had in her car.
Outside the line was growing. By 1 p.m. the 10 had tripled to 30, including a dozen or so from Northcoast Preparatory Academy, some studying Shakespeare's Twelfth Night for a coming performance, others reading about history from Jon Stewart's satiric America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction.
An hour later the line had tripled again. By 2:30 p.m., 265 people were in line. Since the building capacity was around 400, most seemed sure that they'd get in. They were wrong.
Inside the hall, Humboldt Fire District No. 1 Fire Chief Glenn Ziemer explained that the room capacity was set by the number of chairs, as per instructions from the Secret Service. "They want everyone in a seat." Ziemer was not happy with the choice of the relatively small hall given the anticipated crowd size. Ziemer had a crew helping provide security, augmenting the Secret Service detail and a number of deputy sheriffs working under the direct supervision of Sheriff Gary Philp.
As the line continued growing, Democratic Party volunteers worked their way down the line with clipboards having people fill out Hillary for President pledge forms brought in by the team from Sacramento. Others addressed the crowd on what to expect. No folding chairs would be allowed. Cameras, but no tripods. No backpacks, although purses were okay (where the line between the two was drawn was not clear).
Around about 3:30 or 4 p.m., someone started passing out slips of paper with numbers on them. No one seems sure whose idea it was to distribute numbered slips of paper showing where each person was in line. Local party members say they had nothing to do with it. The numbers went up to around 400, the number of people supposedly to be allowed inside the building where Clinton would be. But who got the first numbers didn't necessarily correspond with the people who'd arrived first, given the fluid nature of the line and the rampant line-cutting and favors-doling that appeared to go on. The number system was ultimately meaningless.
Politics may stinkof bullshit, but in the horse stables at the back of Redwood Acres the smell of horseshit, mixed with cold darkling air, prevailed. Were there any Clinton fans around? "No, no donkeys or jackasses here," one woman said. Just horses, poking their heads out of stables waiting to be fed. Talk to Janice, she said.
Janice, clad in jeans, cowboy boots and a dark T-shirt, was at the end of the road in the arena lunging a paint horse as the sky reddened. She's been training horses and barrel racing for the past 25 years. Her 70-year-old mother was riding in the arena beside her while she worked Cherokee Chase. She stroked the horse's nose and then nudged him back. When she heard Clinton was going to be in town, she thought "big whoopee." And that's not just because she's a registered Republican. "We're just out here riding our horses," she said.
But there are things that concern Janice — the rising price of fuel and alfalfa, just to name a few. There's also the state of the local economy. She works two jobs, she said, and it's still hard to pay the bills. But politicians seem to be less effective than advertised: "It doesn't seem like anything gets done with anything ... things just keep getting more expensive," she complained.
If any of the 1,500-2,000 people waiting in line shared such cynicism, they weren't showing it that day. At around 5 p.m., a Chinese family of three stood near the end of the line waiting to hear Kelindun (Clinton's name in Chinese). Father, mother and a young daughter hailed from Shenzhen, China's quintessential boomtown. Thirty years ago, the place was a rice paddy; now it's a soaring, throbbing, bustling city filled with high rises and capitalist ambitions that would make Donald Trump blush.
The father, who didn't want to be identified, is a mental health worker in Humboldt. He's a U.S. citizen and an adamant Clinton fan, but he worries about voting in the upcoming elections because he feels his English isn't good enough to thoroughly research each candidate. But one thing is for sure: He preferred Bill Clinton's China policy to that of George W. Bush because it was less interventionist, and he imagined that with Bill at her side Hillary will make wise decisions in office vis-?†-vis the world's fastest growing economy.
As for his wife, she liked the former president, not only because he's intelligent but also because he's very shuai (handsome).
Up the line a bit, sparky blue-eyed Marie Kelleher-Roy of Trinidad was huddled in her thick blue coat, a bright pink scarf tied snug around her head and chin. She'd arrived at 4 p.m. — and now it was close to 5 p.m. — and she was resigned to remaining stuck in that line. "I wanted to see him," she said. "But now it's become an event outside. I'm just here for the fun now. I like seeing all the people."
Kelleher-Roy said the person she'd really like to see is Hillary herself. And of course she's voting for her. "I'd like to see a woman president in my lifetime," she said. "I'm 77, and I think we've waited a long time."
In line just in front of her, Bette Cawthon overheard and asked, "Who would it be? Who's in the background? The only one I can think of is Nancy Pelosi. There's not that many women in power, and it's time."
Cawthon said she has never seen a sitting or past president, and figured this would be her chance. Her husband, Joe, on the other hand, has seen five presidents.
"Hell, they have 'em backed up past the trees," Joe said. He'd just walked to the ever-lengthening tail of the line and back. It looked grim up ahead, too, his sixth presidential sighting a diminishing prospect. It was closing on 5:30 p.m., the pinkening sky pulling in night — just an hour to go before Clinton arrived. Joe said he's not "freakish" about seeing presidents — sometimes it was just a fluke.
"When I was at Kodiak in 1944 — I was in the Navy — I saw President Roosevelt. He came in on a big ship. I was in the hospital corps, and he pulled up at the dispensary and he had that hat on, and a cigarette holder. In 1948, I was going to Alaska and I was in some skid row hotel — $3 a night, it was all I could afford — in Seattle waiting to ship out, and I was on the fourth floor of the hotel and I heard a band. So I opened up the window and I looked down the street and saw this line of people coming, and it was Harry Truman, sitting in the back of a convertible waving at everybody."
In 1958, he was in San Francisco on Market Street. He'd heard that President Eisenhower was at the Civic Center, plugging for William Knowland who was running for governor. "Tickets were $25 to see him," said Joe Cawthon. "They wanted a crowd, but nobody came — they didn't want to pay. So they said 'Come on in free' and gave us tickets. Boy, they were hustling people off Market Street to come in!"
Later, Joe was working up at HSU as a groundskeeper — a job he held 18 years — and he'd gone to the airport to pick up some supplies. A lot of people were there, and he asked someone what was up. And they said, "We're fixin' to see Nixon and Johnson," who'd come to dedicate a redwood grove north of Orick to former President Johnson's wife, Lady Bird.
So, that's five presidents. Joe almost saw President Kennedy when he went to Whiskeytown to dedicate a new dam. But the highway patrol turned him away, saying it was going to be too crowded. Turns out, hardly anyone went, Joe heard later.
It looked like he was going to miss seeing President Clinton, too, the way this line was going. They'd arrived at 3:30 p.m. and felt certain they'd be among the 400 supposedly let in. But people kept cutting in front of them. And it wasn't like they wanted to get in just to collect another president, said Joe. He was voting for Hillary, hoping for the change she keeps promising she'll deliver. "It can't get worse," Joe said. "We've got about $400,000 in stocks and I bet it's not worth $200,000 now. Hell, Bush is talking about a third world war with Iran. These wars are breaking us. And you young people are gonna get stuck paying for it."
At around 5:30 p.m., over 100 people were huddling around the alternate entrance for VIPs and members of the press. They were waiting for the Secret Service to finish their sweep of the hall, after which they would be seated first, before the general public. Someone brought Trinidad Mayor Chi-Wei Lin up to the VIP table. Lin and his wife, Donna, had been languishing near the very end of the line, but now it appeared that they would be given VIP credentials.
Many of the people who wore media badges were not actually media, or were media only for the time being. Jose Quezada, who works for the Humboldt County Department of Community Development Services, was shooting video for the Times-Standard. John Russavage, the CEO of the Orick-based tourism company Redwood Parks Lodge, was one of two cameramen shooting for the county's public access channel.
A few minutes before the doors opened for the press and the VIPs, a woman came wandering up from the line for the general public. Did anyone know where she could use the bathroom? No one did. It turned out that the event organizers hadn't planned for that contingency.
The VIPs had gotten to their chairs, the media were cordoned off into their designated areas, and members of the general public were finally seated. Inside the room, aswarm with Secret Service, fire officials and other security sorts, the privileged hundreds were a ready audience for the hyped-up Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir. But when the choir began to sing "People, people, people, people — hear me callin'" it seemed to speak to the thousand-some outside waiting fruitlessly to get in. It wasn't long before the choir made its move. The choir leader asked the buzzing crowd if it was all right if they sang a spiritual. The buzz didn't alter, so the song began. "I don't want no trouble at the river ... when it's time for me to cross to the other side."
Soon, the choir was full-on into its spirituals repertoire. The VIPs and Girl Scouts in their raised special seats clapped along.
The choir was the idea of Pam Cahill, co-chair of the local Hillary for President committee, in part because she'd gone to a Hillary event in Oakland where the Oakland Interfaith Choir had performed. She was familiar with the local version and contacted them on Tuesday. As it turned out the choir director, Barbara Culbertson, was out of town, so it fell on her assistant Jaese Lecuyer to pull things together.
Cahill's choice was a good one on different levels. The fact that the 50-member choir really needed no amplification was important since the microphone they were given was less than adequate. Then there was the song selection. On the surface uplifting songs like "Oh What He's Done," "No Trouble At The River" and "Oh Happy Day" are about Jesus, but one can insert any kind of savior you like and they work just as well.
The hall filled up fast. At one entrance, a man remonstrated with Connie Stewart, who was helping to police the door. He held up the number he had been given — just under 250. He couldn't believe that they were telling him that he would be turned away. Things threatened to get unruly. Finally Stewart found a place for the man's partner to sit, and he was placated somewhat. Still, a crowd of faces pressed against the glass outside the outer hall, trying to find an angle where they might catch a corner of the podium. A set of speakers had been set up outside so that people could listen along when Clinton addressed the hall.
Pam Cahill had spent much of Wednesday at the Humboldt Democratic Party office fielding phone calls. "The sad thing is so many calls were complaints," she said. "Why didn't we have a bigger hall? Why such short notice?"
These were just two of the many questions asked in the event's wake. Not many of them have been answered.
Why the short notice? The first answer seems to be that President Clinton was in the neighborhood, more or less. He and Hillary Clinton were in Nevada in the lead-up to that state's caucuses last weekend. Both were preparing to spend some time in California, stumping for the upcoming primary on Feb. 5. According to the Times-Standard's, pre-event reporting, Bill Clinton's appearance in Eureka was arranged right after Rep. Mike Thompson endorsed Hillary Clinton. "If I was going to endorse, I wanted to make sure Sen. Clinton understood the issues that are important to the people of our district," Thompson told the T-S.Afterhe left Nevada on the previous Tuesday, Clinton ended up making three stops on a whirlwind tour of Thompson's district — first in Davis Tuesday night, then Napa and Eureka on Wednesday.
But the answers to the other complaints that Cahill received that morning, and to those that followed in the wake of the event, are much less clear. Even allowing for the fact that the event was cobbled together at a moment's notice — a whirlwind for an event of such magnitude, and staffed mostly by volunteers — some questions remain. Why the small venue? Why wasn't there better crowd control, or an equitable system for determining access? Why no bathrooms? Surely these must have been among the first considerations.
One thing that everyone agrees upon is that it was the Clinton campaign that made the ultimate decision on the hall. Milt Boyd, who had been tasked with scouting out potential venues, later said that Eureka's Municipal Auditorium had already been booked. Likewise the Adorni Center. The Wharfinger Building was even smaller. Humboldt State had been raised as a possibility, but Boyd said that the Clinton campaign put the kibosh on that idea after it found out that school was not in session.
Boyd said that he heard directly from the campaign, and on the day of the event, that Clinton's people had wanted to make sure that the hall would be filled. They were concerned that not enough people would show, leaving the depressing sight of empty chairs at a presidential rally. That was one reason that Redwood Acres' Franchesi Hall, which can hold over 800 and was just yards away from the smaller building, was not chosen. That and the fact that "it looks like a barn," Boyd said.
Boyd said that he was disappointed, but not surprised, that the local central committee had taken the brunt of the blame after the event. "Of course people are going to choose someone local, or some local entity to blame," he said, adding that in the aftermath the Clinton campaign had naturally chosen to protect the candidate.
"'Get out there in front of the guns, Milt!'" Boyd laughed. "Of course, that comes with the territory."
David Berman, who was running the show, declined to answer questions on the record after the event. (On the day of the event, he had told a reporter that it is considered extremely bad form for an advance man to appear in a story.) He referred questions to Luis Vizcaino, the Hillary Clinton campaign's communications director for California. "We were incredibly overwhelmed by the amount of support that we had up there, and the amount of interest that was up there," Vizcaino said Friday. "We were pleasantly surprised. The venue, unfortunately, was not able to accommodate everybody, but it was a good solid show that Northern California is Clinton Country."
When pressed for answers about problems with the event's planning, though, Vizcaino had little to tell a reporter. "I clearly understand what you want to write, and I hope you understand what our position is," he said.
But it wasn't just the general public who had a difficult time figuring out what was going on. Glenn Ziemer, who as chief of the local fire district was nominally responsible for safety, had trouble getting answers all that Wednesday. "The first thing for me was trying to figure out who was in charge of this thing," he said after the event. "You always get people pointing left and right."
Ziemer said that he was astonished when he learned that Berman was the person in charge, and that he had reportedly done similar events with some frequency in several presidential campaigns around the nation.
"This is the part that's quizzical to me," Ziemer said. "If you believe the central committee was not in control of this, and a semi-professional from a higher level was in charge, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect that this person does this with some frequency? Wouldn't they know to arrange for bathrooms? Wouldn't they have some plan for dealing with the crush problem? If a so-called professional were in charge of it, that raises more questions than it answers, to me."
The day after the event, Bette Cawthon called the NCJ office. Her husband, Joe — remember, the guy who's seen five presidents and almost saw a sixth? Anyway, they never did get to go inside the building where Clinton was stumping. "It was so frustrating," said Bette, "because the line kept getting longer because people kept cutting. Well, we eventually got to the door, and the guy said the place is full. I said, I'd like to hear him speak, of course, but if I could just get a glimpse of him. The guy at the door said, 'Not a chance.' My husband — you know, he's 82 years old, and we'd been there since 3:30 — he said, 'I think we should just get out of here.' And so we walked to the gate — and I saw the motorcade."
She grabbed Joe and rushed across the street. The motorcade stopped. "And I saw him in the back of the car — you know, you can't miss that head of white hair. Well, he came over across the street to us!" Clinton worked his way down the street, shaking hands, and finally got to the Cawthons. "And it was just like magic," said Bette. "He took my left hand in his right hand, and my husband's right hand in his left hand at the same moment. My husband said, 'We've always voted for and supported you.' And he said, ‚'Thank you. And now I'm asking you to vote for Hillary.' And so then I felt like it was all worthwhile. I was going to be real disappointed, after that long wait in the cold, if I hadn't seen him."
"It was amazing," said Arcata resident Greg Devaney later. "When his motorcade had just pulled up behind the building, he saw this crowd across the street and just came right over. It was total chaos. People were pouring in from every direction. Women were screaming. It was like Ace Frehely from Kiss had arrived. It must have been a Secret Service nightmare. It was dark; the crowd was swarming around him. He was smiling and just started shaking as many people's hands as he could. I didn't get a handshake, but I touched the sleeve of his jacket."
"I felt real bad for people who didn't see him — especially the old people," said Bette Cawthon. "I felt really that it was an injustice for people to bring real small children — that took up the space people really interested in it could have had. It was very poorly organized. And I think people just crowded the entrance. And they didn't give any announcement — you know, 'we're full, go home.'"
Bill Clinton entered a hall that immediately dissolved into frenzy, the Gospel Choir's climactic number nearly drowned by applause, cheers and cameras flashing and snapping. The president spoke for about an hour. He addressed issues ranging from the economy to health care to America's standing in the world. He excoriated the administration of President George W. Bush, and he cast doubts about his wife's principal opponent, Sen. Barack Obama. Mostly, he sought to remind everyone of the strength of the nation during the Clinton years, and to make the case that Hillary Clinton is a fighter — if anyone could lead us back to the prosperities of the 1990s, she could. He didn't address any issues specific to Humboldt County. He ran out of time before he could take questions. The only part of his address that was in any way localized was the very beginning, when he thanked Mike Thompson, Julie Fulkerson and others.
The crowds still welled outside. During the speech, and apparently at the command of Chief Ziemer, a fireman posted by a garage-style roll-up door in the corner of the building pulled a chain that raised the opening. The crowd standing just outside the door cheered, as did those inside. Almost immediately two sheriffs descended on the fireman asking him why he'd opened the door. When he said, "The chief told me to," a deputy in a straight-brimmed hat replied, "They're not happy about it." Apparently the fire chief's order trumped the Secret Service. The door remained open.
At the back of the hall, the fire department had decided to allow those people who were left without seats to rotate in and out in small groups, so that they would at least have a chance to see Clinton for a moment and snap his picture. Department Engineer Allen Gillespie worked one of the entrances, showing people in and out and allowing them to stand and watch at the back of one of the aisles. Gillespie tried to make certain that the many children present had a view of the podium, moving them to the front. This allowed many hundreds of people to leave less angry and disappointed.
When Clinton finished his stump speech, he worked his way through the crowd pressing the flesh and signing autographs. The choir broke into its last number, a hymn of pure adoration titled "Total Praise":
"Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills, knowing my help is coming from you. Your peace you give me in time of the storm. You are the source of my strength. You are the strength of my life. I lift my hands in total praise to you."
As they sang, Clinton made it to the amen corner and reached up into the choir shaking as many hands as he could reach. The last line with its total praise was sung directly to him, then he turned, the gray curtain parted once more, and he was gone.
You can download audio of President Bill Clinton's address at Redwood Acres from KHUM radio, which broadcast the event live. Get it at khum.com. The Times-Standard has posted a video of the speech, which can be found at extras.times-standard.com/multimedia/clinton.mov.