A lot has been said in the last week about President Clinton’s trip to North Korea. Some of us think him a hero, some think him a playboy, and some think him an idiot, but I still believe in a place called Hope. This belief is not born of a presidential campaign for change, but born of living in that place of hope in the 90’s.
In roughly two months I’ll be 26 years old, which made President Clinton, the leader during my formative years. I was in the 3rd grade at Morningside Elementary School, a phenomenal example of the public school system, when he took office in 1993. When he left office in 2001, I was a senior in high school at the Ben Franklin Academy, the single greatest school (of around 13 schools) I attended in said years.
During his two terms, this country experienced many economic changes, one of which was the return of a strong middle class. I’m grateful that I came of age during that time in America. I had parents who were hardworking and earned everything that came their way –and mine — in the trickle down. I never wanted for anything; the 90’s saw us (in the example used here “us” refers to my mother, stepfather, and me) move from Peachtree Hills, to Greenville, SC, back to Atlanta in Ansley Park, to Midtown, and to the final stop of my youth, Buckhead. It was there where my parents transformed one of the worst eyesores of a house I’ve ever seen into their dream house.
The house was not grandiose, as can be the case with that part of town, though certainly it was large enough to house two parents, two dogs, one grandmother, four kids, and their occasional boarding school friends comfortably at any given time. Being the only “full-time,” at-home kid at that point, I got the largest of the non-master bedrooms. Prior to the renovation and addition of the master suite, it had been the master bedroom. It had lovely views of the surrounding forestation, an awesome built in mirrored vanity, and it’s own full bathroom (complete with the only ground level window of the room, featuring prickly bushes beneath it that I promise were not comfortable landing gear when sneaking out at night). That bedroom was basically the size of the entire studio apartment at the base of the Hollywood Hills that I live in now. Oh, if only I’d known!
During those years I received an exceptional education at many of the finest schools the East Coast has to offer, got to begin exploring the rest of world (Switzerland, England, Ireland, France, and Canada), found a passion for photography that has led to a career I love, and saw my mother deal with life on life’s terms by way of a genetic, chronic illness. I was just one of the four children my mother and stepfather provided for in this way, and while certainly they had help from my father and stepmother, there was enough to go around, and still enough left over to cover our healthcare needs.
I mention this, not to dive into the cluster&*# that is the healthcare debate at the moment, but to say thanks to President Clinton. I’m not giving him full credit for the lifestyle we enjoyed, but anyone who thinks he didn’t play a massive role in 90’s prosperity, is simply out to hate him.
Being the girl who, on her second move to Los Angeles from Atlanta, detoured through Little Rock to visit the Clinton Presidential Center, and purchase an “I Miss Bill” bumper sticker for my car, I was thrilled to see that he was named the special envoy to North Korea to ensure the freedom of the two journalists from CurrentTV. So now, let us look at the arguments I’ve been hearing from friends and frienemies alike regarding Bill Clinton and North Korea:
1) “In sending someone as high profile as a former President, we give Kim Jong Il some sort of legitimacy on the world stage.”
Alright kids, that’s great that you think that. But history has shown us that any proud nation, or leader (dictator or otherwise), won’t cooperate unless they’re able to save face. You say we gave them some sort of leg to stand on? I say we saved them just enough embarrassment to ensure the freedom of two Americans who’d just been sentenced to twelve years hard labor they may not have survived. Does the rest of the world really see it as anything else? Probably not.
2) “Clinton wouldn’t have gone if the journalists were ugly.”
Ok, I have a few choice words for those who take this route. I will refrain from their use here, as this is a public forum and I did read my copy of Tiffany’s Book of Table Manners for Teenagers. But for the people choosing to take aim at that, it’s been eleven years, give it up. Those who make this argument disgust me (cough, Joan Rivers). This isn’t a laughing matter, we’re talking about the lives of two American mothers, sisters, and daughters, who had just been through a nightmare and you want to make fellatio jokes? Class up and then we’ll talk.
3) “The United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists in hostage situations.”
People throw the word “terrorist” around far too casually these days. Were Laura Ling and Euna Lee hostages? No, they were prisoners. They had been captured in the process of what North Korea deemed “hostile acts” and entering the country illegally. They stood trial, were convicted, and then sentenced. Hostages are not afforded such “luxuries”. Do I think they deserved 12 years hard labor? No. Do I even know if they entered the country at all? No. Do I have any kind of faith in a judicial system there? No. Do I like North Korea? No. Are they terrorists? No. They’re a hostile state, with weapons I’m not at all fond of, who enjoy flexing those muscles for the rest of the world to see. We didn’t send a former president to North Korea to negotiate with terrorists; we sent one to ask for the release and pardon of two prisoners who’d stood trial in their version of a judicial system.
4) “This hurt our ability to jump-start talks about nuclear nonproliferation.”
Do those who make THIS argument pay any attention at all? Not just to current events, but to history? Did everyone forget then sitting President Clinton sent former President Carter to North Korea and the end result was North Korea agreeing to freeze its nuclear arms development program? The result was a deal that ended up lasting eight years (for those who weren’t paying attention in 2002). While the Obama administration made it clear that Clinton’s trip was not about nuclear talks, he was greeted at the airport by one of Kim Jong Il’s top nuclear advisors. And as Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek said on Meet The Press this past Sunday Morning, “Sending Bill Clinton, whose emotion intelligence is off the charts, was really lucky for us. If anyone can come back and paint a character sketch of what’s going on with those people, it’ll be Bill Clinton.”
Many things can be said about the 42nd President of the United States, but to me, it seems he has never underestimated his opponents, or those surrounding him in a room, and more times than not, they have underestimated him. He can think on his feet and sell ice cubes to Eskimos. Having been a Southern governor, he does “just folks” better than those who actually are, and does it with an Oxford education. Sounds to me like he was just the guy one wants to send to feel out the climate in a room before entering. Beat that with stick.
I watched as these young women got off the plane in California with their families awaiting them. I watched our former President and my heart swelled with pride. Clinton and Al Gore shared an embrace that seemed like the first real one they’d had in ten years. My cranial iPod rolled over to FleetwoodMac singing out “Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow…” as they hugged. I was reminded of the great things Americans are capable of when we simply set our differences aside and work for a common goal. I saw the tears in Laura Ling and Euna Lee’s thank you’s to both the former president and vice president, knowing that Clinton had been a personification of their hope, and knowing they’d been freed. As I listened to them, I saw the man of more words than any other stand in the background and say nothing at all. He was a picture of grace.
I look at the results and I feel they speak clearly enough. The two women are home, orchestrated in large part through the two great Southerners that led us to a place called Hope in the 1990s.
(Photo by one of my heroes, Robert McNeely)