Recently President Bill Clinton visited Fredericton as the guest of TD Bank and it's deputy chairman, former Premier Frank McKenna. Giving a speech at UNB's Aitken Centre entitled, "On the State of our Global Economy", Clinton participated in a Q &A session afterwards hosted by McKenna.
The audience was predominantly a who's who of buttoned-up provincial politicos, business people, and professionals, distinguishable by their pinstripe suits and preoccupation with Blackberries. But when Clinton stepped onto the stage they came alive with clapping and cheering that led to a standing ovation, not stopping until Clinton voiced his thanks with a southern 'aww shucks' modesty in his voice.
Clinton held forth from his notes for little over a half hour on such topics as technological advances around the world, Canada's strong banking system, climate change and the poor in Haiti. While Clinton had a lot to say, it's what was missing from the tightly-controlled event that begs attention.
Although the public was allowed to take photos with cameras and cell phones inside the Aitken Centre during Clinton's visit, only one official photographer was seen to be taking pictures. No photojournalists appeared to be in the building. Three static video cameras captured the event on large screens at each side of the stage. But no TV media was anywhere to be seen inside. CTV's Andy Campbell was lugging a TV camera back to his truck long before the event started, while the CBC's Roy Gjelstad was relegated to catching people on their way out for their opinion of Clinton after it was over. Newspaper coverage was at a minimum with only one report by Canada East's Adam Bowie in provincial papers the following day. Citizen blogger Charles LeBlanc got to take in the event and posted a few items from inside, but claims he was hassled by the RCMP. According to TD 's senior manager of corporate communications, Stephen Hewitt, the media was kept out at Clinton's request.
Also missing from the event was seating for the handicapped with a vantage point where they could easily see the President. Aitken Centre officials said sponsors of the event didn't sell enough tickets for the handicapped sections so they were curtained off to make the building look full. Although the entire first row of seats on the floor in front of the stage were empty, those in wheelchairs were left to sit at entrances to the stands along the sides of the Aitken Centre. Not only was that dangerous, given the size of the crowd that would need to exit through those entrances in the event of an emergency, but ironic since in a speech that included mention of the less fortunate, some of the less fortunate from Fredericton were shunted out of the way of Clinton's view for cosmetic reasons.
University students were at a minimum during the event as well, even though several hundred free tickets were made available to them and high school students, said Hewitt. As for the poor getting tickets? According to Hewitt that was the university students.
Also absent was the topic of how much Clinton was paid for the appearance. "His fee is a private matter and we are not in a position to discuss it," said Hewitt. But even with hundreds of tickets given away, it's estimated 3000 tickets were sold at $100 general admission and $119 for floor seating, making approximate revenue of at least $328,500. Since Hewitt stated the event was designed to break even, it seems a hefty chunk of the money went to Clinton.
Another black hole was Clinton's neglect to mention his role in the meltdown of the very topic he was discussing, our global economy. In 1999, Clinton signed into law the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that allowed lending institutions to consolidate investing, banking and insurance all under one roof. It repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which came into being after United States took a beating in the depression, to ensure consolidated banks would never again collapse to the point where it would bring the country to its knees. With the stroke of a pen, Clinton set into motion the deregulation of the credit card industry and the detested derivative swaps that ended up gutting Wall Street, the reverberations of which were felt around the world.
But the biggest black hole was host Frank McKenna's lack of questions on the speech Clinton had just delivered. There was no mention of the global economy or banking's role in the recession. Instead McKenna asked Clinton where he was when he got the news of Osama bin Laden's death. Granted, it was a big question on a lot of people's minds since Clinton's administration spent most of the 90's trying to capture bin Laden. But that was about it. After only 3 questions and a 35 minute speech, Clinton was gone. Did people really get their money's worth?
Judging by the enthusiasm of the crowd when Clinton and McKenna waved before leaving the stage, it appears they didn't care. It was a love-in where the past was excused and the two golf-tanned men sitting onstage exchanging jokes were adored for being small-town boys made good.
It's not often such greats come through Fredericton. Hopefully more high profile guests will come to town. But the local good should be less grateful for getting short shrift because although they can afford it, they need to speak up for others in the community who don't have the means to do so. Especially when the media can't get in to speak up for them.