“Shut up!” someone yelled at the gray-haired heckler standing to the left of the stage, before boos began to descend down from other attendees rallying in defense of the night’s two stars, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Sitting on the stage of the Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Hillary Clinton played a bit of impromptu defense as well, drowning out the heckler until security escorted him off the premises.
“I think it’s really important that when we talk about politics, we actually talk about the reality of politics,” she said to loud cheers. “It’s also difficult sometimes to have those conversations when you have agent provocateurs.”
For one spring night in New York City, it felt like 2016 all over again, albeit a tamer, almost nostalgic version of that year. President Donald Trump’s name was seldom heard, and the husband and wife onstage received a rousing standing ovation on the first stop of their traveling road show, “An Evening With the Clintons.” But many of the seats remained noticeably empty throughout the evening. New Yorkers apparently had better ways to spend $99, the minimum day-of price of admission.
Even the heckler’s opening cry lacked the gusto of political yesteryear. Gone was the “Lock her up!” chant that had become a rallying call of the Republican Party in 2016. In its place was something more befitting the moment.
“Bill, this is boring!” the heckler bellowed.
Thursday night was supposed to be the easy one ― “We’re starting this tour with a home game,” Bill Clinton joked at one point ― and it may very well turn out to be. The night was light on relitigation of that disappointing election and heavy on stories from the olden days, like that time Barack Obama was surprised to learn that the secretary of state had kept Osama bin Laden’s assassination a secret from her husband, the former president.
There was little reckoning with the battered image of the Clintons that emerged after the 2016 election: Hillary lost an election that many thought she should have won. And Bill went from a charismatic former president coveted for campaign appearances to an awkward example of how the Democratic Party mishandled sexual harassment allegations.
But Thursday’s audience ate up their act, as Hillary suggested Washington, D.C., was more like “Game of Thrones” than “Veep” or “The West Wing” (Bill playfully suggested “Schitt’s Creek”). They loved her quip about not making difficult presidential decisions on Twitter.
Despite their attempts to avoid too much 2016 talk, the Clintons may be forever tied to those political caricatures of them created by right-wing media. Outside, a few stray Trump supporters still bothered to line the sidewalk to make their presence known. One held a Confederate flag. Another, William Garrison, 83, hadn’t planned on protesting the Thursday night event.
He’d been on his way to purchase a bottle of wine when he noticed the hubbub, he said.
“This is just a serendipity-type thing,” he said as he held a towering Trump 2020 flag in his hands. “I thought I would kind of join the party.”
When HuffPost asked why he would spend his night protesting two 70-somethings who no longer hold public office or even seek it, Garrison replied that he just hoped they’d get their “comeuppance” when the full Mueller report is released.
Nearby, a group of Haitian protesters led a loud chant related to the Clintons’ supposed mishandling of funds after a devastating 2010 earthquake left the country in shambles. “Where is the money?” “What money?” “Haiti’s earthquake money!” “How much money?” “Six billion dollars!”
One of them, Dahoud André, 52, said the group had been protesting the Clintons since 2014.
“We don’t want the world to forget. The people who are coming here ― we want them to know,” he said.
Raquele, a 20-year-old woman visiting the U.S. from Colombia who declined to give her last name, was taken aback by the “confrontational” nature of the scene outside. She had received her ticket for free from someone who no longer wanted it and was slightly surprised that anyone would pay so much to watch two people talk, she said.
The United States’ political media infrastructure has changed dramatically since Bill Clinton was first elected governor of Arkansas in 1978, something Hillary Clinton noted on Thursday night. “Make no mistake, there is a very big industry designed to feed false information to people,” she said. “When he ran for president, there was no Fox News.”
“You just diminished the significance of my victory,” said Bill to cackles from the crowd.
Just before the heckler spoke, the former president had been trying to explain the political shift to the right that has occurred in places like his hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas.
“There are a lot of very smart, decent people out there who are a part of the Make America Great rallies,” said Bill Clinton. “People who feel that they’re stuck in economic stagnation, social insignificance and political disempowerment.”
Later, he returned to that point. “A lot of these people I talk to in Arkansas, they’re not anti-gay rights. They’re anti the fact that all the gay rights progress and all the sexual identity issues got 20 times more political coverage than the misery they were living through,” he said.
Bill Clinton had earlier clarified that he remains a steadfast supporter of women, people of color and the LGBTQ community. And later in the night, he also celebrated his wife’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Stronger Together,” which he said stood in stark contrast to the “global Brexit phenomenon” of “ethnic politics and anti-immigrant” sentiment.
But his subtle criticism of the Democrats’ recent emphasis on identity politics ― a swipe that others took at his wife’s campaign in 2016 ― also served as a gentle reminder that the Clintons themselves represent different eras in their party.
Hillary Clinton, for her part, was asked why certain areas of the country have switched from Republican to Democratic, like the Chicago suburbs where she grew up. The economic reasons were complex and geographically specific. But the major point was not.
“This is a debate we should be having in a civil, respectful way ― and instead we have really drawn lines where people are on one side or the other and almost afraid to talk with or listen to somebody of a different political affiliation,” she said.
She returned to the issue of political civility throughout the night, referencing her work with Republicans after the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as her strategy as secretary of state for maintaining a healthy working relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“You have to keep working to try to find common ground that is good for you, both of your people and the future,” Hillary Clinton said.
Perhaps the crowd felt nostalgic for a bygone political era when bipartisanship was at least a superficial goal. But those who spoke to HuffPost were also well aware of the Clintons’ diminished stature in the political world.
Liz Bostian, 58, was a steadfast Hillary supporter in 2016, she said. But this time around, she isn’t sure if the Clintons’ endorsement would “hurt or help” a Democratic candidate.
“I kind of feel like I need them to go away for this cycle,” she said. “Just this one cycle.”
Sneha Goud, a 30-year-old writer in Brooklyn, said she loves the Clintons, adding, “It’s an honor to hear them speak.” But she also said she understands why the Democratic Party is distancing itself from them right now.
“The climate is not good for them. I understand why they’re not selling tickets,” she said. “I don’t even know if it would be good for the nominee for them to endorse anyone.”
“I would listen to them,” Goud added. “But I do not know if the general public would. And I do not want to harm the nominee.”
Daniel Marans contributed reporting.
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