CUMBERLAND — Speaking to a full house at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre Wednesday night, a jovial Bill Clinton held forth on a range of topics, from North Korea and cyberterrorism to President Donald Trump’s relationship with U.S. allies and the nation’s political dysfunction.
The former president, whose wife won Cobb County in the 2016 presidential election much to the dismay of local Republicans, received applause from a friendly audience throughout his talk. He sat on stage opposite Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee for Senate who lost to U.S. Sen. David Perdue in 2014.
Nunn questioned the 42nd president about his new book and the state of world affairs.
Monica Lewinsky was never mentioned and there was no opportunity for the audience — or reporters — to ask questions.
The event was part of a book tour for the political thriller Clinton partnered with novelist James Patterson to write, titled “The President is Missing,” which centers on a cyberterrorist attack.
“The idea behind the book is everything can be hacked,” Clinton said, noting the U.S. spends a dangerously low amount of its defense budget on cybersecurity.
Nunn said the U.S. saw a direct cyberattack by the Russians in the 2016 election, asking Clinton if he believed the U.S. had taken proportional and vigilant action in response to those attacks and whether Americans were appropriately galvanized around the issue.
“No,” he said.
The federal government has a permanent staff designed to help states take care of their election systems, but only two states have taken advantage of the assistance. Clinton said there are states that sign contracts with voting machine companies that say the states can recount the votes all they want, but they cannot open the machines and examine the software to see if it’s been tampered with because that’s the company’s proprietary technology.
“Which means (their) commercial interest is worth more than your constitutional right to vote,” he said.
The former president said he understands Virginia is using the same voting machines Georgia uses, sharing how then-Virginia Gov. Terence McAuliffe sent one of those machines to the annual hackers’ convention in Las Vegas where it took hackers a mere six minutes to break through.
“And they said if they had two or three more minutes they could rejigger the votes in every single election in the machines and people wouldn’t be able to tell,” Clinton said.
Virginia switched to New York’s system, which creates paper ballots that are marked and scanned electronically. That paper trail allows monitors from each party to review the ballots in a close race.
“You should care about this even if you think the hackers of the world are on your side,” Clinton said. “They’re not doing this because they care about you.”
The range of hacking options is not limited to elections, of course, as the city of Atlanta recently found out when it was the subject of a ransomware attack.
“Anything can be hacked,” Clinton said. “If you lose your 401(k), it doesn’t much matter whether you’re Republican or Democrat. This is something America should get ahold of. … It should really bother you that a couple of geniuses half a world away can shut your country down.”
THE NORTH KOREAN SUMMIT
Turning to Trump’s recent summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Nunn asked Clinton what he thought of the meeting and the potential of North Korea denuclearizing.
Clinton said he was glad the meeting took place. He said the dictators club in the world believes the way to stay in power if people hate you is to have nuclear weapons. Clinton said that club believes Ukraine made a mistake when he and Boris Yeltsin were presidents and he convinced Ukraine’s president to give up its nuclear weapons. That’s because Russian President Vladimir Putin decided not to honor Yeltsin’s commitment not to interfere with Ukraine’s territorial integrity and invaded Crimea.
“They believe — the dictators club — that Putin might not have risked that if they kept nuclear weapons. A lot of people believe (the late president of Libya, Muammar) Gaddafi would still be ruling Libya if he had not given up his nuclear weapons to Tony Blair. I don’t necessarily believe either one of those things, but I’m just telling you they do.”
What then would motivate Kim Jong Un, running a military dictatorship, to give up his nuclear weapons and missile technology? Two things, Clinton said.
One is South Korea has a president that has gone out of his way to get along with the North Korean leader because he doesn’t want the expense and political headache of trying to take over that country.
“So he’s a hero in all this if you believe as I do it’s a good thing they talk because he got North Korea to the Olympics. … He built up President Trump and built up Kim Jong Un and said you two were made for each other and all that. … This is not a bad thing. Kim Jong Un might be willing to give up his nuclear capacity and his missile capacity because he thinks President Trump likes dictators better than democrats, small D,” Clinton said.
And while it is important to be careful about saying how much better North Korea’s 100,000 political prisoners are going to be, Clinton said everyone should want that country not to have nuclear material so they don’t have the temptation to sell it to other bad actors that could use it in terrorist attacks.
“Would I hate to see us accept the police state that’s North Korea forever? I would,” Clinton said. “But would I do it if I were president and the South Koreans were willing to and the Japanese were willing to and the Chinese were willing to in return for you never having to worry about a nuclear bomb exploding even somewhere in the Pacific and missile technology and nuclear stuff going to somebody else? Yeah, I’d do that. That’s be a good deal for us.”
Nunn wanted to know if Clinton worried about the U.S. withdrawing from the G-7 after Trump’s contentious visit with the other world leaders in the group earlier this month.
“If you look at the G-7 meeting and other things, it looks like we’re saying we would like to swap the alliances we have had since World War II and many of these countries going back well over 100 years with democracies in Europe and North America with Canada and Mexico. We’d like to swap out all that and be closer to Russia and China,” Clinton said. “And I’m all for working with Russia and China when we can, when we need to. … But my experience in an increasingly long life is it’s a very good thing to have old friends. You don’t have to watch your back, and you know when the chips are down they’ll be there, so I’m worried about that … I really don’t get — after everything Russia has done — why we would abandon our G-7 partners over whether Russia should get back into an organization, the primary requirement of which is to be a democracy, is beyond me. … I like this Korea thing, however it comes out. … I’m glad he’s trying. But I think we throw away our relationships with Europe and our North American friends at our peril.”
On the immigration front, Clinton said the primary reason Trump did so well in the election is because he convinced a lot of people immigration was terrible, Muslims and Mexicans in particular were a terrible threat and “the dumbest thing in the world we could do is take in any Syrians.”
In fact, Clinton said, between 2010 through the end of 2014, 150,000 more Mexicans returned to their country than came here. One of the reasons Clinton said cross-border traffic has been at its lowest is because Mexico’s previous president built 140 tuition-free universities that graduated 100,000 engineers a year, compared to the U.S.’s 120,000 a year, and people like to stay home if they have a job. The people at the border by and large are fleeing violence in Central America. Clinton said it was crazy that the U.S. hasn’t passed an immigration reform bill since 1983 and that the lack of action was purely because of politics.
“The birthrate of native born Americans is only at replacement level. For the first time since we’ve been keeping statistics, we now have jobs available for every person who is unemployed,” Clinton said. “Since we’re not having babies, if we want to grow this economy, we probably are going to have to take immigrants.”
Moreover, “the crime rate among native born is twice that of the crime rate of immigrants, including undocumented (immigrants),” he said, adding that people should not be hysterically worried about immigrants.
“I think every country has a right to control its borders and an obligation to do so,” he said.
But he said the picture of immigrants being portrayed to many Americans is factually incorrect.
“Countries take in immigrants for two reasons. One, they think it’s good for them. They need the workers. Or two, people are in trouble and they want their country to do their part in helping them.”
‘WHAT KILLS PEOPLE IS WHEN THEY FEEL STUCK’
Speaking of those with whom he disagrees politically, in the last election there were, among other things, 25 percent Scotch-Irish Americans who live in small towns and who have worn the uniform of the U.S. in all the conflicts since the Revolutionary War.
“And if your house caught on fire, you’d be glad if most of them were your neighbors because they’d come in and save your kids’ lives and help you put the fire out,” he said. “But Irish people are vulnerable to ‘us and them’ politics and ‘us and them’ means in order for me to win, you got to lose. And that’s great in sports contests, but it’s a terrible way to win in a modern economy.”
Clinton said he understands what they were mad about and it wasn’t so much about poverty, given in the last election the median income of a Hillary Clinton voter was slighter lower than the median income of a Trump voter, although the Hillary votes in the counties she carried were about 64 percent of the nation’s GDP.
“What kills people is when they feel stuck. And the stuck counties voted against all this diversity because they read about it and saw about it and didn’t feel any of the benefits about it. They felt stuck. You got to get over that,” he said. “It’s not going to help you to turn these children away from our border when their lives are going to be killed if they’re stuck in El Salvador. What I think you got to do is find a way to slowly expand the definition of ‘us’ and shrink the definition of ‘them.’ That’s America’s whole story.”
BECOMING CLOSE WITH 41 & 43
Clinton said he became very close with former President George H. W. Bush after he left the White House, praising his service in World War II. Relations with his son were initially cool.
“President Bush 43 didn’t like me at all because I beat his dad — and I didn’t blame him — but I’ve actually become close to him. And I’ve strongly disagreed with a lot of his foreign policy and almost all of his domestic policy, but we go around the country together and give speeches together, and give a leadership development program with both Republicans and Democrats to talk about how to govern and how the Constitution could have basically been subtitled ‘Let’s make a deal.’”
‘THIS FEELS MORE LIKE THE 1950S TO ME.’
The last question Nunn asked was if Clinton would offer a set of reasons that would give the audience hope for the future. Clinton said it was a challenging time.
“This feels more like the 1950s to me,” he said. “There’s no difference in fact and fiction. People think facts are irrelevant. Only feelings and resentments count. I’m worried about that.”
At the same time, Clinton said the U.S. is still relatively young compared to other rich countries. It has the best science and technology base.
“We have the most diverse population in a world where diverse groups make better decisions than homogenous groups … We have every advantage and requisites for the 21st century except for a functioning political system.”
One of the best things that could be done for people who live in small-town America and feel stuck is to have a big national infrastructure program that doesn’t just built roads and bridges, but affordable broadband technology, he said.
The U.S. should be doing that here and around the world, he added.
“The Chinese think it’s great that we like dealing with them and Russia and could care less about Africa. They just built a railroad across half of Africa. They hope we don’t give a rip about Africa. Why? Because half of all the arable land not being tilled today in the world is in Africa. And because no matter what certain people say about African countries, those people are really smart,” he said.
The former president called for “inclusive tribalism.”
“In other words, you should still cheer for Georgia Tech or University of Georgia or whoever you’re for, but that shouldn’t affect what neighborhood you’re willing to live in or how you treat people at work,” he said.
Clinton said the message of his book is that Americans should be hopeful because the country is brimming with assets. Anything that evolves as fast as information technology will have a downside, but that’s to be expected, he said.
“This is a job for people working together for what I would call inclusive tribalism. Be proud of your heritage. Don’t change anything. But make a little room to recognize that our common humanity is more important and also the key to our economic social and political survival. And the biggest problem we’ve got is dysfunctional politics. We’ve got to stop trying to keep people from voting. … We’ve got to get politics back on the basis of doing things that are good for all of us instead of demonizing people and pretending they don’t have half-good sense. That’s what I think. That’s the biggest problem we’ve got. … The ultimate lesson of this book is not just that we should invest more money in cyber defense, but that our best minds come from all over and we need to do this together.”
Among those in attendance Wednesday was Marietta attorney David Trivino, who describes himself as an independent.
“It’s not every day you get to see your former president come to your hometown, especially at the Energy Centre, which is our backyard, so we wanted to come to see what the president had to say about his new book and see him in person, get the executive summary from the man himself,” Trivino said.
Trivino said he found the talk on North Korea the highlight of the conversation and that he wasn’t surprised the Lewinsky affair didn’t come up.
“Every president has a sore spot, and of course it is a sore spot for this president and everybody knows it’s the big elephant in the room, but he kept it clean, kept it above board, kept it to a nice conversation, used language everyone understood. You leave with a good feeling,” Trivino said.