Winnipeg waits for Clinton


Lecture: The former president keeps the crowd - and the empty seats - waiting, but still he "wows" his Canadian audience during a speaking engagement.

December 12, 2003|By Cyril T. Zaneski | Cyril T. Zaneski,SUN STAFF

WINNIPEG, Manitoba - When the lights came up and a long ovation ended, former President Bill Clinton must have been taken aback by the sight of all those bright red seat backs.

Presidents do not speak to empty chairs. But Clinton spoke to almost 900 of them here one night this week.

More than a third of the 2,305 seats in Centennial Concert Hall went unsold for Clinton's Tuesday night lecture urging nations to cooperate to cure disease, eradicate poverty and battle terrorism. And a few seats were vacated, as the lights came on, by people eager to beat the rush to the coat-check room as Clinton prepared to field questions. The empty seats were big news in this provincial capital of about 500,000 people. The Winnipeg Free Press, a sponsor of Clinton's appearance, stripped news of lagging ticket sales across its front page the morning of the speech, quoting nervous organizers saying that it would be Clinton's first appearance before anything less than a sellout.

If Clinton was bothered by the empty seats, he didn't show it. He left the stage smiling, waving and shaking hands with people in the front row. "Clinton wows city," yesterday's newspaper proclaimed.

Given that tickets cost $120 to $250 a pop, Clinton didn't do badly. He is almost certain to outdraw the three other players in the Winnipeg lecture series - sex advice expert Ruth Westheimer, television entertainer Ed McMahon and Cable News Network anchor Wolf Blitzer. People who bought the entire series got a price break of $305 to $475 for all four speakers.

It's possible that some who might otherwise have walked up to the box office to see Clinton had their wallets frozen shut. People in this broad-beamed prairie city brag lustily about their ability to endure punishing winter cold. But this week has been unseasonably bitter.

Temperatures at the scheduled 8:30 p.m. start of Clinton's speech had plummeted to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, en route to a nighttime low of 9 degrees below zero. Just for good measure, a light snow was falling, laying a slick carpet over streets still icy from a weekend of freezing rain.

About two dozen protesters bundled against the cold waved signs and shouted from the sidewalk beyond the hall's front door. The protesters were Canadians of Serbian descent who accuse Clinton of backing NATO military action in the 1990s against Serbians in the former Yugoslavia while ignoring crimes committed by other ethnic groups against Serbs. The protesters contended that Clinton was responsible for a continuing wave of terror by Albanian paramilitaries against Serbians in the province of Kosovo. "Welcome to the terrorist convention!" protesters shouted.

The atmosphere in the hall bedecked with holly and wreaths was festive. The crowd wore dark suits and stood in lines to buy books about the Clinton presidency, or beverages at lobby bars.

There was a lot of extra time for book shopping and drinking because Clinton was late. The former president showed up an hour late for an $1,100-a-plate dinner at a riverfront restaurant before the lecture and then ran late for a $250-a-person dessert and photo session backstage at the concert hall.

An organizer, Jerry Shore, said the dinner and photo session were aimed at helping defray Clinton's $100,000 speaking fee and the cost of chartering the plane that brought him to Winnipeg. Senate financial disclosure statements for Clinton's wife, Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton, show that the former president earned $9.5 million in speaking engagements last year, charging fees that ranged from $35,000 to $400,000.

Clinton is the second former U.S. president to visit Winnipeg. Former President Jimmy Carter came in 1993 to build houses for Habitat for Humanity and to speak at a $75-a-plate funding dinner for the organization, the Free Press reported.

At the scheduled start of Clinton's speech, the hall announcer said there would be a 10-minute delay. Ten minutes later, another 15 minutes' delay was added. "Mr. Clinton is in the building," the announcer assured the crowd. "He'll be with you shortly."

The drinking took its toll on some. A group of thirty-somethings began wagering on whether Clinton would wear a tie. (He did). One woman said she had brought a pair of panties to toss onto the stage. When Clinton appeared after a long, flowery introduction by Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray, she whooped wildly. She quieted as Clinton began a 50-minute lecture, "Embracing Our Common Humanity: Security and Prosperity in the 21st Century."

Clinton offered advice on how to contain North Korea, encouraged widened involvement of the United Nations in Iraq and urged wider international cooperation in combating illiteracy, poverty and disease. He employed statistics and anecdotes to make his points. "We are interdependent in ways that go way, way beyond economics," he said.

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