Star-struck crowd savors historic night

DAN BERRETT

STROUDSBURG — A nearly three-hour, partly waterlogged wait did little to dampen the enthusiasm felt by the faithful for former President Bill Clinton.

"He's a great advocate for her," Lauren Wolfe, a substitute teacher at Stroudsburg High School, said after Clinton's 50-minute stump speech for his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., at Stroudsburg High on Wednesday night.

His remarks, delivered without notes and peppered with folksiness and statistical citations, ranged from economic policy and health care to education and national defense.

Those topics were very much on the minds of the several members of the roughly 1,200 people who waited inside the balmy gymnasium after the doors opened at 5 p.m., and some of whom had been waiting outside in the rain for nearly an hour before then. Audience members who could not be accommodated sat in the auditorium, where the speech was broadcast via closed circuit.

"The economy sucks right now," said Glenn Benninger, 61, of Milford, who said he was leaning toward voting for Hillary Clinton. "What package would she have to stimulate the economy?"

That was the first topic addressed by Clinton after he took the stage following an introduction from U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-11.

Clinton deplored the spikes in the home foreclosure rate, and described many besieged homeowners as traditionally timely payers. He also assailed the notion that the economy was not yet in a recession, since many American workers are experiencing stagnant wages and soaring cost of living expenses. "Most Americans think they're already in a recession," he said, to shouts of, "Amen!"

The other big item of concern among people waiting before the speech was Iraq. One was Lisa Georgia, 47, of Stroudsburg, and a widow of a Navy veteran. "If Hillary were elected president, I'd like to see that change," she said regarding U.S. policy there.

Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the start of combat operations in Iraq. Sen. Clinton said the United States should leave Iraq, so that the warring factions can start reconciling on their own.

"Hillary believes it's time to bring our soldiers home from Iraq," her husband said to applause, before drawing a parallel with the conflict in Vietnam. "We will not make the shameful mistake of confusing an unpopular war with the people who fought it."

Apart from the issues that drove people there, many said they simply wanted to be a part of history.

"It's more just the experience," said Brenda Moscatell, 22, a student at East Stroudsburg University, who said she supported Hillary Clinton.

"We're disillusioned, full of cynicism and borderline apathetic," said John Pavlovsky, 38, who had traveled from Nashville to Stroudsburg to visit his girlfriend. "But it'll be interesting to hear an icon."

Conor Gillis, 19, a sophomore at East Stroudsburg University, came to listen to the former president even though he supports his wife's likely Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"(I'm here) just to see the president. No matter if he's a Democrat or Republican, he's still the president," Gillis said. "You've got to have respect for the office."

Others sensed the significance of the event for the Poconos. "They're actually coming here," said Jarrett Kidd, 18, a junior at Stroudsburg High School. "I'm guessing we're on the map now."

The buzz in the gym was palpable before the event, albeit in a family-friendly way. Artists such as U2, K.T. Tunstall and the Foo Fighters played in a loop over the loudspeaker, alternating with performances from the Stroudsburg High School band, which Clinton later acknowledged. Small children ran around on the rubber mat covering the gym floor, and school-age students were well-represented.

Security struck some as relatively relaxed, considering Clinton's celebrity. While Stroud Area and Pocono Mountain regional police forces manned the event, along with school district security and the Stroudsburg Fire Department, no metal detectors or other visible precautions were evident.

"I'm shocked," said Corey Reed, 19, a sophomore at East Stroudsburg University. "I don't feel safe."

After Clinton's speech, which was recorded by many outstretched hands holding cell phone cameras, he left the stage to the strains of Tom Petty's "American Girl" to shake hands and sign books in the crowd.

While a few people left before the former president was finished, others stayed and marveled at the experience.

"I didn't think I could clap any harder," said Justyna Nowak, 16, a sophomore at Pocono Mountain East High School.

Standing next to her was Natalie Podjorski, 15, a freshman at Stroudsburg Junior High School, who had an "H" and "C" painted on either cheek. She said she had only just stopped crying several minutes after shaking Clinton's hand.

His star power has occasionally raised the question of how effectively his speeches serve Hillary Clinton's presidential prospects. Wolfe, the Stroudsburg substitute, summed up the opinion stated by many throughout the evening. "I wish I could vote for him again," she said.