Hillary Clinton returns to Iowa, and Bill Clinton almost steals the show

·Chief National Correspondent
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Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, hold up some steaks at the 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, on Sept. 14, 2014. (REUTERS/Jim Young)
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, hold up some steaks at the 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, on Sept. 14, 2014. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

INDIANOLA, Iowa — Bill Clinton tried to be the political spouse.

When he and Hillary Clinton arrived on stage here on Sunday afternoon before a sun-drenched crowd of what organizers said was 10,000 people, he hung back, and let Hillary stand next to Sen. Tom Harkin, the retiring Iowa Democrat who was holding his 37th and final annual steak fry.

Hillary Clinton and Harkin hugged and waved to the crowd, then hugged and waved some more, as applause washed over them.

The 68-year old former president — accustomed to being the center of attention during his career — went over and stood arm-in-arm with Ruth Harkin, the senator’s wife. It was Hillary’s day. It was her first trip to Iowa since her unsuccessful 2008 presidential primary bid, and the first major political event for her ahead of the 2016 presidential election, in which she is certain to be the presumptive Democratic nominee if she runs.

But Bill Clinton is still the dominant personality, the superior politician and the better-known of the two. A few moments after ascending the stage, Bill was surrounded by the four other politicians on stage, all men, while Hillary and Ruth Harkin stood quietly off to the side. Bruce Braley, the Iowa congressman running for Harkin’s seat, pointed out his mother to Bill, who waved and said hello.

Harkin spoke, Hillary spoke and then Bill spoke. The decision as to who would go first had been a matter of some confusion beforehand. If Bill spoke first, might he steal Hillary’s thunder? If she spoke before Bill, wouldn’t that be treating him as the main attraction?

They were both draws, however, for different reasons. Many in the crowd hoped that Hillary would announce right there at the steak fry that she was running for president. Bill, meanwhile, was expected to give one of his trademark spellbinding speeches.

“And to think you all came here just to see me,” Harkin said jokingly, waving his finger at the crowd in mock reproach. “Who am I kidding?”

Hillary and Bill Clinton each spoke for just over 20 minutes, after Harkin. The main drama in Hillary’s speech came from her tease to the audience about a presidential run.

“I’m baaack,” she said as she approached the lectern. She informed the crowd that when she had been asked to speak at the event, she “wasn’t sure what to say.”

"I’ve got a few things on my mind these days,” she said, and the crowd began to cheer knowingly. “First, and most importantly, Bill and I are on constant grandchild watch.” Their daughter, Chelsea, is pregnant with her first child and nearing her due date.

"I’m calling Chelsea every five minutes to make sure things are going all right,” Hillary Clinton said.

“And then of course, there’s that other thing,” she added. There were more cheers, louder now. “Well, it is true, I am thinking about it. But, for today, that is not why I am here.” The crowd groaned collectively, and Hillary launched into a relatively generic speech espousing the need for Democrats to support their candidates in the fall election.

But even here, her biggest way of exciting the crowd to vote in the midterms was to jokingly reference her presidential aspirations.

“Too many people only get excited about presidential campaigns. Look, I get excited about presidential campaigns too,” she said, to more applause. “But those campaigns only happen every four years. … So use the enthusiasm that Iowa is so well known for every presidential year and channel that into these upcoming elections.”

There was some modest talk of policy in the former secretary of state’s speech. She ran the crowd through a bullet point list of what she said has gone right under the Obama administration: increased exports for Iowa farmers, lower unemployment rates, greater renewable energy production and refunds to consumers from health insurers because of Obamacare. She ticked off what Democrats are in favor of this fall: raising the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work for women, aid to those who want to attend technical college.

And she departed the stage with one last playful reference to her future plans, and her recent absence from the state. “It’s great to be back," she said. "Let’s not let another seven years go by.”

When Harkin — who told the Washington Post’s Dan Balz on Saturday that he and Hillary Clinton were “not terribly close” — stood to briefly introduce Bill, he didn’t mince words. “We saved the best for last, didn’t we, folks? Good things always happen when Bill Clinton comes to Iowa,” Harkin said.

 The former president began his speech with a vow that he would “really … try to be a little briefer” than the other speakers, and paid tribute to Harkin and the Iowa candidates running this fall. And after about 10 minutes of speaking, it appeared he might, amazingly, wind it up and bring himself to a close without much of a speech. But he couldn’t help himself.

“He enjoys being on a stage and sharing,” said Mary Aney, a elementary school teacher of more than 20 years from Council Bluffs, who drove 120 miles to attend Harkin’s last steak fry and to see the Clintons.

Bill Clinton talked for the next 10 minutes, just a blink of an eye for him, in philosophical terms about one of the problems bedeviling politics in the United States and around the world.

“We are less racist, sexist and homophobic than we’ve ever been. But we do have one continuing problem: We don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us, more than ever before,” he said. “That is hurting America.”

He made a plea for voters to elect leaders who consider alternative points of view and people with different experiences and backgrounds, casting it in terms of a moment that he said is "the most interdependent age in human history.”

“You can’t get a divorce from the rest of the world or the rest of your neighbors around the corridor and across the country. We are interdependent. We are in this together. Are we going to build a future together, or play a winner-take-all? Is it going to be conflict or cooperation?” he thundered at one point, pounding the lectern.

But this being a political rally in an election year, Bill also characterized Republicans as too often being certain they are right rather than open to being wrong, and argued that the Democratic ticket in Iowa would uphold the value of open-mindedness and be on the side of the voters.

After the speeches were over, Bill Clinton took charge on stage. He saw a few congressional candidates who had not been sitting on stage during the speeches, and beckoned to them to come on up for a picture. There was hesitation, and Bill moved aggressively, motioning at someone and yelling, “Go get ‘em.” The candidates came up, and Bill lined them up and orchestrated a chorus-line photo opportunity, with all of them holding their hands together raised in the air.

Afterward, 14-year-old Thomas Benson, who traveled to Iowa for the event from New York with his father, Rodney, a former Harkin speechwriter who is now a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, was uninhibited in sharing his opinion of the speeches.

“I thought Bill was the best,” Benson said.

“What about Hillary?” his uncle, Andrew Werth of Chicago, asked.

“Hillary was good,” Benson said. “They have different styles.”

Moments later, Werth too praised Bill Clinton, calling him “the most incredible politician in generations.”

Here’s betting that between now and the Democratic national convention in the summer of 2016, if Hillary runs for president, there won’t be a ton of campaign events with her and her husband.

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