Captive Audience

Bill Clinton came to town last week in search of some good tamales and a legacy.

While Hillary was sipping lemonade with retiring Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan on his 900-acre farm in upstate New York, Bill was touring an un-air-conditioned tortilla factory in southwest Phoenix. Legacy-building is hot, sweaty work.

The presidential machinery was in high gear last Wednesday, humming along with the gigantic fans that were propped up in a vain attempt to cool the hundreds of business people, community leaders, elected officials and journalists who packed into the La Canasta warehouse to wait for Bill.

I'd heard the term "business round table"--which is how this event was advertised--and I envisioned an intimate gathering.

But as soon as I see the five port-a-potties, I know there will be nothing intimate about this day. State legislator Christine Weason looks disappointed as she approaches the line at the metal detector and realizes that her invitation is all but meaningless; just about every Democrat in town--and even some Republicans--has been invited to this gig. Weason is good-natured about it, though. "I've got my camera!" she says, patting her purse and heading in to take her back seat.

There are so many people, in fact, that golf carts are deployed to drive attendees from their cars to the event, a block away. Outside the building, satellite dishes snake up toward the sky, the telejournalists set up like carnies at the fair.

Inside the cavernous warehouse, blue plastic curtains and piles of brown flour bags marked "tortilla" separate the working factory from the "business round table" setup. There's a lot to look at and a lot of time to look at it, since everyone has to be in the building by 4:30--some have been here since 3--and the president isn't slated to show 'til 5:30.

A mariachi band plays, which only makes the room feel hotter. Young men in khaki pants, white shirts and khaki vests--the kind you usually see on photojournalists and hunters--stand stock still in doorways and in front of the dais. They look more like Banana Republic models than Secret Service agents, except for the telltale plastic tubes sticking out of their ears.

Local journalists are confined to risers at the back of the room, behind a red velvet rope, but the local pols are free to work the room. The rumors about Terry Goddard running for office again must be true; he's in constant motion, sweating in his button-down, his hair damp.

State Senator Scott Bundgaard scoots past, and when he's told he's the only Republican in the room (that's not quite true, Senator Mark Spitzer is here, too), he looks panicked. "Are you going to write that Jack Kemp already said all this?" he says of Clinton's free-enterprise shtick, then disappears into the crowd.

Back in the press stands, cameramen jockey for position and reporters talk on cell phones. Frank Camacho and Kent Dana look limp, but Leah Fasten is practically bouncing. Fasten is the photo editor of Arizona State University's daily State Press, and this is the second big event she's covered. The first was the christening of the Tempe Town Lake. Fasten is wearing painter's pants and tennies, a long lens and a big smile. She can't wait. So innocent and unjaded.

Next to Fasten, a reporter for the Ahwatukee Foothills News asks his photographer, "Want to give me your camera and I'll get a picture of you standing here with everyone, looking bored?"

She jumps up and he shoots. "How 'bout you, looking bored?" she asks, taking the camera.

At 5:10, a huge metal door rolls down to the ground, sealing the building and sending the temperature even higher. The mariachis come front and center, launching into "La Bamba." State Representative Herschella Horton sings along, swaying.

"Look, there he is!" someone calls, signaling that the president has begun his tour of the tortilla factory. All I can see is a fuzzy TV microphone bobbing over the top of the bright blue curtain.

La Canasta employees file in wearing new white tee shirts and baseball caps. They've been shoved to the back three rows of the room--just in front of the press quarters--but they do have headphones that will allow them to hear the president's remarks translated into Spanish.

The national media move in; they're relegated to a space just to the right of the dais. They're easy to tell apart from the local hacks--generally better dressed, better looking and less interested.

Up at the front, Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox slips in, having finished the tour with the president. Not far from her is the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Suddenly, there's a swarm.
Bright lights flood the stage. Reporters are scribbling and cameramen are pushing and the fans are blowing and I crane my neck to see over the crowd, up to the front, and there he is, the President of the United States.

It's a letdown, since he's all the way across that huge warehouse and some photographer's standing in my way and all I can see is the president's back--a pale blue dress shirt and that silver head of hair and perhaps the reddest neck I've ever seen.

Clinton turns toward the business people crowding the stage in rows (no "round" table anywhere) and gives a little one-two air punch, then sits down to speak.

I'm sure everyone wants to hear what the president has to say, really, but the fans are so loud and it's so crowded and so hot that few people pay attention. Reporters are schmoozing pols, pols are schmoozing pols, and some people are even pleading with the Banana Republicans to be let out of the building. Bundgaard slips out.

And yeah, I have to admit, the speech itself and the ensuing "round-table discussion" turns out to be a big rah-rah, say-nothing political event. But what did everyone expect? Great Thoughts? Tangible Breakthroughs?

By 6, the whole thing is over. Clinton's done the grip 'n' grin and heads out to his motorcade, where he--surprise!--pops out to shake more hands.

The warehouse is still officially sealed, and this time they're not letting anyone out. Leah Fasten is still pointing and shooting.

What did she think of the speech?
"I think there's news and I think there's advertising," she says. She trains her camera on the crowd again.

Outside, it's actually cool. A dust storm kicks up and a group of locals stands at the entrance to the parking lot, selling Clinton tee shirts, reduced now, from $10 to $5.

Contact Amy Silverman at 602-229-8443 or at her online address: [email protected]

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at