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)

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            Austen Risolvato

            Austen Risolvato

            Austen Risolvato is a Los Angeles based, Atlanta born Photographer, specializing in music and celebrity photography. Her free time is spent watching the Los Angeles Lakers, at Disneyland, at her favorite local LA coffee shop, or hanging out with her amazing collection of friends.  http://www.austen.la http://austenrisolvato.tumblr.com/

            9 Comments
            1. Matthew Wright

              Captured picture-perfectly! I would rather spend my time saluting the achievement rather than finding some fault with the process.

            2. Austen Risolvato

              Thanks for the kind words. I simply got tired of hearing people try to spin this as something other than the safe return of these two citizens.

            3. Brilliant Austen! Thank you for your incredible piece! Love it!

            4. Loved your story and article. Oh, to have been in the room to watch our Bill in action. Thank you.

            5. “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?”

              Wrong on two points. First, then-President Clinton did not “send” Carter anywhere. Carter went on his own. This was, I believe, the first of Carter’s famous freelance dimplomacy efforts in his two-decade long adventure to resurrect his image, after building, ahem, quality low-income housing for the poor. Such freelancing efforts culminated in Carter “certifying” the sham elections in Venezuela that gave us Mr Chavez.

              Second, North Korea did not “freeze its nuclear arms development program.” On the contrary, they advanced it. Carter negotiated for the NorKs to get two “peaceful” reactors which they did not have and allowed them to enrich plutonium. It was Carter who actually allowed them to scale up their armaments. Carter was the first who led the NKoreans down the path of proliferation we’re struggling with today. Many in the Clinton administration were furious at Carter in private while in public they praised him faintly for managing a peaceful succession from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il.

              Many of the more seasoned readers of this website will recall that Carter was largely despised by Democratical establishment after losing in 1980 to Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t until 2004 — yes, 24 years after being PRESIDENT — that he was welcomed back to the convention. Clinton went out of his way during his ascent to power and presidency of ignoring Jimmy Carter.

              Good for Clinton for the getting those two journos back. But it’s naive to think that this mission was successful because of his engaging personality alone. Kim calculated what he could extract diplomatically, plain and simple. He had made this decision to legitimate his profile to the western world while receiving a former American head of state. He also seeks to maneuver, whenever possible, outside of the six-party talks. He used this as a wedge to pull the US away from our Japanese and SKorean allies. But for what it’s worth, Nice job, Bill. Glad those two young ladies are home safe.

            6. Austen Risolvato

              Brenden,
              “Sent” was the wrong word. Carter expressed interest in going, Clinton sent Bob Galucci to Plains, GA to talk to Carter, and then agreed to let Carter go.

              As for them not freezing their nuclear arms program:

              “On June 16, President Carter called from Pyongyang and then did a live interview on CNN saying that Kim would not expel the inspectors from its nuclear complex as long as good-faith efforts were made to resolve the differences over international inspections. Carter then said that because of this “very positive step,” our administration should ease it’s sanction efforts and start high-level negotiations with North Korea. I replied that if North Korea was prepared to freeze its nuclear program, we would return to talks, but it wasn’t clear to me that North Korea had agreed to that.

              Based on previous experience, I was unwilling to trust North Korea and would leave the sanctions hanging until we received official confirmation of North Korea’s change in policy. Within a week we got it, when President Kim sent me a letter confirming what he had told Carter and accepting our other preconditions for the talk. I thanked President Carter for his efforts and announced that North Korea had agreed to all our conditions, and that North and South Korea had agreed to discuss a possible meeting between their two presidents. In return, I said that the United States was willing to start talks with North Korea in Geneva the following month, and that while they were taking place we would suspend our sanctions efforts.” P.603 from My Life by President William Jefferson Clinton

              I didn’t say Kim’s supposed request of Clinton (I only say supposed because I wasn’t there, I didn’t talk to him, I don’t know for sure what happened) wasn’t calculated. I just disagree with the many friends who’ve argued that it gave him the legitimacy he sought from it. I feel that the vast majority of the world could see it for what it was.

              One thing I do find interesting is that the Carter/Clinton/Kim situation happened not so long before the latter of the three left office. And we find ourselves in a similar position again. It makes me wonder what needs to be done so that changes as drastic as those that have occurred in the past, don’t happen again with the changing of the guard in North Korea when it comes.

              And as to the subject of Carter on the whole. Like I said, I’m 25. Reagan was in office by the time I was born. Anything I’ve learned of politics let’s say pre 1996 was either in elementary school or through books. Which I practically eat, particularly pertaining to our 42nd president. I have read many of them from various view points (interestingly the least biased on either side of these that I’ve read is called The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton by Joe Klein) and most of them are very clear as to how President Clinton treated President Carter post Carter’s time in office. I don’t approve, but again, I wasn’t there. It actually to me reflects on a greater problem within the party I typically vote for (not always, I vote based on a candidate and not their party…I just lean to the left more often than not), which is the bickering, jealousy, disorganization, and childish behavior Dems tend to show leading up to conventions. But that’s a whole different issue.

              Thanks for your thoughts, while we seem to disagree it’s nice to have informed discourse rather than arguments fueled by blind hatred.

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