(From a letter in 1998)
President Clinton was in the Valley in January. He gave a speech in front of a big gathering in the football stadium of Mission High School.
We got there hours ahead of time, like everybody else, it seemed. Close to the stadium the road was cordoned off on both sides by school buses parked bumper to bumper. Men in Black made sure nobody slipped through.
Approaching the metal detectors, about an hour after we parked, we were worried that we’d have a problem, because we were the only ones in the crowd with backpacks (with our breakfast). From a distance the Men in Black with their dark sunglasses didn’t look very flexible, but in person they were actually quite friendly, and sure, we could take our backpacks, no problem. One suit did look through the contents of the main compartments, but that was all. I could have had a gun in one of the side pockets and nobody would have been the wiser, because I went through the metal detector, but not my backpack. So much for the security for the most powerful man in the world.
We had to wait quite a while inside the stadium as well, but a PR Man in Black was at the microphone, keeping the spirits high. He announced the various school bands, a group of high school mariachis, and the girl who sang the national anthem. The superintendent of the Mission school district gave a speech and thanked the congressman for his efforts to get Clinton to come to the Valley. That was funny. Because the congressman’s most recent election champagne had gotten completely out of hand, and he had a debt of several hundred thousand dollars. Clinton was here for a fund raising dinner to get that debt paid for him. It works two ways, though. After that the congressman will be forever in Clinton’s debt, and so the president can always count on his vote in the future. That’s how politics work here.
Looking around me during the superintendent’s speech, I noticed the Mission high school mascot: a bald eagle, how convenient. The commentator’s booth was filled with Men in Black with the biggest binoculars you’ve ever seen, and men with guns were climbing onto the roof. A helicopter circled the stadium, presumably to see if any snipers were hiding in the palm trees. The band began playing “Hail to the Chief”. I had to smile. I had seen a movie with Jack Lemon and someone else as grumpy old ex-presidents, and the only funny thing in the whole movie was the words that Jack Lemon’s character had made up for the tune: Hail to the chief, he’s the chief and he needs hailing… Doesn’t seem so funny on paper, but I just about peed in my pants at the time.
The PR Man in Black had everybody practice yelling hooray and clapping for all the towns that people had come from for the occasion, and in the meantime little American flags were handed out. Once everybody had one (I declined), the Man in Black had everybody practice waving them. “And what are you going to do when the president steps onto the platform?” (yell-wave-yell) “Very good!” He emphasized again the importance of Clinton’s visit. Clinton would only give ten major speeches this year, and one of them was right here in Mission! Well, yes, and a few more in his backyard at the White House, possibly one in Berlin, in London, in Sydney and Rio de Janeiro or God knows where, but those are minor compared to this one in Mission!, South! Texas! And again we were reminded of our flags: “President Clinton wants to see every flag when he comes here.” Yep, I’m sure it’s one of his major hobbies, taking notes of all the towns where people do a really good wave with their little flags. And if the waving leaves something to be desired, things are mighty tense at the Clinton dinner table that evening.
Just when the teenagers around us were getting to be really annoying, they were announced: The President of the United States William Jefferson Clinton, Secretary of Education something Riley, the congressman, and the president of the Mission High School Student Body.
The congressman gave the first speech. He pointed out to the president that here was a group of people who Believe in Themselves, who Believe in America, who Believe in Government, and who Believe in the President!” Yeah, yeah. Above us a large flock of birds was circling upward; when they flew in one direction they were silver, when they flew in the other direction they were black and white. They took their time, as if they were enjoying the view of that large flock of people on the ground, mostly with various colors, but every now and then changing to a flapping red, white, and blue.
The secretary of education talked about the last time he visited Texas. He was in Dallas, where he met a dog that had been the star in a children’s television series, and that he met another on this trip: the one the president brought to his birthday party. He had just turned sixty-five, he beamed. He went on about the snacks the president’s dog had stolen, and that he would make sure to have dog treats next year. Okay then.
Moving right along to the president of the Student Body. Clinton gallantly helped her up the steps, which was followed by much yelling and flag-waving. Even from a distance it was obvious that she grew a few inches right there. She pointed out to her fellow students that the president didn’t come from a rich family, and that thanks to Personal Motivation and Parental Involvement he had become the president of the United States. In other words, the sky is the limit if you believe in yourself. The students get to hear this all the time, but it did seem very concrete right then. As long as you forget that apart from yourself and your parents you are also dependent on your teachers for your success, and that therefore most people in South Texas are screwed. At the end of her speech she had the honor of announcing Clinton. I have to say it was touching to watch her. It has to be quite something for a girl like that to announce the president. And she did it wonderfully.
Clinton thought so, too, and then he talked about his pet project: Internet in every classroom and every school library by the year 2000. Mission has just achieved that, way ahead of schedule (flags). He threw in the sentence that all teachers adore: “All children can learn” (more flags), and then discussed the law that had just been signed that would give a tax credit to every family with a college student. $1,500. That sounds wonderful and it’s a step in the right direction, but $1,500 doesn’t buy you much. The local university is one of the cheapest in the country (you get what you pay for) and one semester-long course costs me $275, not including books and other expenses. If you want to get your bachelor’s degree in four years, you have to take four courses a semester, so eight per year. $1,500 will get you to halfway the first year, assuming you live with your parents and don’t have any other expenses. He ended his speech with emphasizing that the students should finish high school and get at least two years of college, because in the long run they will then have better chances of getting a permanent job and a decent salary. And that’s true. Even with this lousy education system it makes a big difference if you have stopped high school halfway or if you made it farther up. Dropouts work in the onion fields and college graduates at least have an office job in an air-conditioned building.
His speech was nice because he was mainly addressing the high school students, who made up the majority of the audience. But judging by the students around me, who were blowing bubbles with their gum, chatting with each other, taking each other’s pictures, and being disruptive, most of it went over their heads. Someone should have explained to Clinton that it was pointless to tell these kids that they are part of the Global Economy, because they don’t know what that means. And I know at least one teacher who doesn’t know what economy is either, let alone a global one. I have met teachers who have lived here all their lives who don’t know where Mexico is. They know how to get there, but not whether they’re driving north, east, south, or west.
Clinton shook all the band members’ hands and then got down into the audience to shake some more. We had to wait until he and his entourage had gone before the gates opened and we could all head back home.