Hillary Rodham Clinton returns to the Buffalo area for the first time in five years at 8 p.m. Wednesday for a speech in the university's Distinguished Speakers Series. Her speech will be among the most unusual in the long chain of at least 20 public appearances she has made since resigning as secretary of state in February.
Many of her appearances so far have been at awards ceremonies and panel discussions. In addition, she has given several highly paid, reporter-free talks before trade groups and businesses – appearances that have prompted Republicans to complain that she's privately selling herself to people who might want to influence her as president. She's made only one political appearance: at a rally for Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, on Saturday.
In contrast, her talk at UB will be a public speech by one of the most famous women in the world, with reporters in attendance and a moderated question-and-answer session at the end. And it will be only the second such event she has done so far this year.
It will be something like what presidential candidates call “town halls,” except that Clinton isn't running for president – at least not yet.
But you could consider the UB speech and her entire year of award ceremonies, private speeches and university appearances as a possible campaign prelude, said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York City.
“She is basking in the glow of being a former secretary of state and former U.S. senator and former first lady,” and all of her public appearances seem to lead to some purpose, said Sheinkopf.
Appearing at campuses like UB offers her “volunteers and energy,” while the award ceremonies produce positive publicity and the appearances before trade groups offer contacts with potential donors if she decides to run for president in 2016, Sheinkopf said.
Those close to Clinton say that there's no great calculation involved in her choice of speaking venues. They said Clinton is simply picking venues based on what fits into her schedule and where she'd like to speak.
Given her fondness for upstate New York, they say it's no coincidence that her schedule for the year includes the speech at UB as well as a speech earlier this month at Hamilton College outside Utica and a coming appearance at Colgate University in Hamilton.
“She's always loved Buffalo and is looking forward to being part of the University of Buffalo's speaker series,” said Nick Merrill, Clinton's spokesman.
Of course, Obama's 2008 race for the Democratic presidential nomination – which derailed Clinton's highly favored campaign – focused heavily on college campuses, as the charismatic young senator scooped up volunteers and new voters in primary state after primary state.
Yet Tracy Sefl, an adviser to the Ready for Hillary PAC who worked on Clinton's 2008 effort, noted that Clinton has long enjoyed speaking at campuses, too, for reasons that have nothing to do with politics.
“She approaches campuses with a great deal of responsibility,” Sefl said. “Her own life was shaped as a college student. From what I've seen, she is very mindful of who it is she is speaking to. The students in Buffalo are lucky to have her.”
UB paying for speech
Undergraduates nominated Clinton as a possible speaker, and UB students who won a lottery will get to see her speak for free. Tickets for sale to the community at large – priced from $36 to $64 – sold out in a matter of hours, said Dennis R. Black, vice president for university life and services at UB.
Clinton made sense for the speakers program for three reasons, Black said.
“The Clintons are sort of one of the main stories of this lifetime,” he noted.
She also has strong Buffalo ties because of her eight years as a U.S. senator, he said.
And the third reason, of course, is a question.
“Is this a potential president of the United States, and is this a very different president of the United States than we've ever had before?” Black asked.
Clinton has said she won't think about another presidential run until next year, and those close to her say she wants to focus for the time being on her work at the Clinton Foundation, which includes projects involving early-childhood development, economic development, youth unemployment, opportunities for women and girls, and measuring the progress of women's rights worldwide.
Yet she has returned to the topic of a woman president at several of her speaking engagements this year.
“We broke the great race barrier with President Obama but it's time that we also really ask ourselves deep down what it's going to take to elect a woman president,” Clinton said last month during a Miami address to travel agents. “And I will certainly do what I can when that time comes to elect somebody – whoever that somebody might be.”
That speech was far more a typical Clinton appearance than the UB speech.
Either she's swooping up awards from groups such as the American Bar Association, the National Constitution Center and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, or she's been collecting speaking fees by talking to organizations ranging from the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce to the KKR private equity firm.
She can collect a fee ranging into the six figures for such events, but critics say such speeches pose a double dose of danger for Clinton.
While many former luminaries routinely collect huge sums from such groups, conflict-of-interest questions could arise from a potential presidential candidate doing so, said Tim Miller, executive director of America Rising, a Republican political action committee that's already online with a website called StopHillary2016.org.
“I do think it's different for her to be doing paid private speeches to a number of organizations that will be very interested in policies that would come before a president,” Miller said.
Then there's the fact that many such speeches are closed to reporters, often at the request of the organizer.
That leaves the reporting of those events in the hands of people such as Georgia Rep. Tom Taylor, a Republican who last week told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a juicy tidbit. While speaking to the National Association of Convenience Stores annual meeting, Clinton criticized Vice President Biden – a potential 2016 rival – for opposing the raid that led to the killing of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, Taylor said.
Those close to Clinton say Taylor quoted Clinton out of context, but there were no reporters in the room to confirm. That fact surprises UB political science professor James Campbell.
“It does strike me as a little strange that she's not inviting the press in,” Campbell said. “It's free publicity. But then again, it's also added scrutiny.”
Scrutiny at UB
What, exactly, will she say?
Perhaps her speech earlier this month at Hamilton College provides a clue. There, she criticized the divisive nature of modern politics and the government shutdown it recently produced.
“Today, too many in our politics choose scorched earth over common ground,” she said. “Many of our public debates are happening in what I like to call an evidence-free zone, where ideology trumps data and common sense. That is a recipe for paralysis, not progress.”
Those are clearly not the words of a diplomat, which is what Clinton was for the past four years as secretary of state.
Instead, they are the words of Hillary unbound, which is just what the people at UB will hear on Wednesday, said Ellen Tauscher, a former California congresswoman and undersecretary of state during Clinton's tenure there.
“This is her first time as an independent, unaffiliated person,” Tauscher said. “This is the first time in decades that she can actually tell people what she's thinking without the constraints of office.”
News wire services contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org