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Former U.S. president Bill Clinton speaks during his "Embracing Our Common Humanity" speech at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.


In a time before the era of lucrative speaking circuits, former presidents led a different life.

One had to wait in line for hours at a book signing, hope for a chance encounter, or head to a national convention to hear one of the former leaders speak.

Not so any more. Saturday, at least, any fairgoer with five bucks could see a president.

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The bargain-bin ticket program was a Hail Mary effort by Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition to fill the seats for a speech Saturday by former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton's address, titled Embracing Our Common Humanity, was announced August 11 and initially meant to fill BMO Field - home of the city's Major League Soccer franchise, Toronto FC - with 25,000 Clinton-mad ticket buyers.

But when The Globe and Mail revealed that ticket sales were lagging at 7,000 sold with only two days before Mr. Clinton's arrival, organizers offered $5 door tickets to CNE guests, reconfigured the stadium and cut attendance expectations by 60 per cent.

The move was somewhat effective, with 12,000 people taking in the speech - a 30-minute affair about multiculturalism, climate change and fighting poverty.

Officials aren't saying how much Mr. Clinton will earn for the appearance, though his fee is typically around $175,000. And this time around (he's given dozens of paid speeches in Canada in the past few years, and in Toronto as recently as May), the appearance was partially funded by a $3-million grant given to the CNE by Ottawa's tourism stimulus fund.

There were fears that the recent death of Senator Ted Kennedy would derail the speech, and the morning's forecast included a chance of rain, but Mr. Clinton's appearance went off without a hitch.

The Globe and Mail live-blogged the event from the CNE.

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3:12 p.m.

The lines are 30-deep outside for same-day tickets, and Ex staff appear to be overwhelmed by demand. A large banner near Gate 1 urged CNE guests to "Get Tickets to President Clinton here!"

Asked how many tickets were left with an hour left, a CNE staffer said "lots."

The details of his address are planned out to the minute, from 4:12 p.m. (Playing of "Let's go to the Ex" intro) to 6:02 p.m. (Bye bye Bill). The schedule says Mr. Clinton will give a 45-minute address before taking questions for half an hour.

Ron Barzilay, 48, stood in line to get five dollar tickets for him and his three daughters - age 17, 15 and 12.

"I saw it was five bucks a ticket, so I came. Nice opportunity for the kids to see a historic figure for cheap, as opposed to 200 bucks at the Sheridan Centre downtown," he said.

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He was unsure what to expect from the "Embracing our Common Humanity" speech.

"We were in the car and nobody had any idea," he said.

4:06 p.m.

At the front of the stadium, first in line, stood Andrew Leis, a 25-year-old University of Guelph student.

Mr. Leis first heard about the appearance of Mr. Clinton a week ago through the Huffington Post. As the date bore down, he assumed the event would sell out.

He checked online Friday night for tickets, bought his and took the hour-long bus ride Saturday to take his place in line.

"I was surprised there were still tickets," Mr. Leis said, wearing a leather jacket and a New England Patriots hat. "I've always been inspired by him... He's a voice of reason in American politics."

Sophia Kant, a 62-year-old Toronto resident, jumped at the chance for a cheap ticket when she heard they were still available. The expensive tickets, priced at $50, are the only price point that sold out.

"When I heard (about Mr. Clinton's scheduled appearance), I said 'oh I want to see Clinton.' Fifty dollars I can't afford, but $19.99, I can do that," a smitten Ms. Kant said. "He's very classy, very classy when he talks."

The line-ups are now 100-deep with would-be viewers. The weather conditions are ideal.

4:20 p.m.

Inside the BMO Field, 6400 seats had been laid out on decking placed over the stadium's turf, while crowds filed into the east grandstands.

Seats to the south and west of the field weren't offered for sale under the new configuration, which left the west-facing crowd wincing into the setting sun as they looked towards the stage.

The crowd was largely middle-aged and seniors, and seemed to be dominated by women.

Mr. Clinton is scheduled to speak at 4:30 p.m. - shortly after a performance by the Canadian Tenors, who were, according to the announcer, offering an "exciting new blend" of music as an introduction to the former president.

4:27 p.m.

The announcer says "ladies and gentlemen, now the moment you've been waiting for." Three minutes of silence follows, leaving the crowd wondering, precisely, what moment that was. Then, CNE boss David Bednar came out and began his introduction. The crowd looks restless. Mr. Bednar's arrival is not what they'd hoped.

4:33 p.m.

Mr. Clinton walks out to a full standing ovation and cheering. With a cough and a "thank you, Dave," a hoarse Mr. Clinton took the podium. He is wearing khakis, a blue jacket, a lighter-blue shirt and yellow tie, and began by proclaiming his affection for fairs like the CNE. "I have wonderful stories about some of my visits there (to the state fair in his native Arkansas), and some of them I can actually share," he deadpanned, earning laughs.

4:36 p.m .

Mr. Clinton speaks about the funeral for Ted Kennedy. He praised President Barack Obama's speech, and then used it as a segue to push his support for Mr. Obama's ambitious health care plan.

4:40 p.m .

Mr. Clinton is very close to the microphone, giving him the unfortunate sound of sticky saliva when he speaks. Someone at the CNE must be scrambling to get him a bottled water. That, and the hoarse voice, seem to have taken something off Bill's charm.

4:43 p.m.

Over the course of his political career, Mr. Clinton seems to have mastered one thing if he has anything: the one-hand-gesturing, one-hand-still method of speaking. His left hand is as much a part of this speech as anything, waving and pointing and moving airily to strong effect. It also has the added bonus of flashing his wedding band and gold-faced, black-leather-band wristwatch.

4:50 p.m.

President's mouth still sticky, as he talks about the absence of clean water in Africa. Sounds gross.

4:55 p.m.

Moves back to health care again, saying he understands Canadians' confusion at the debate.

"Why don't they pass some bill? Anything. How could it be worse, right?" he said.

The president said money, fear and confusion dominated the process that is holding up American health care reform.

"The money's going somewhere, and the somewhere doesn't want to give it up," he said to laughter, as any jab at health insurance would get.

"If we had your (health) system or the French system... Or any other system, if we put them in America it would cost them $800-billion less."

4:57 p.m.

Mr. Clinton praises the diversity of the crowd he's addressing, including the women and, in a clunky bit of Americanism, "people of colour."

4:58 p.m.

Halfway into his speech, Mr. Clinton makes first mention of his theme - "Common humanity." He said Western multiculturalism will support the embrace of common traits across cultures.

"This is a much more interesting country than it was 30 years ago, and so is the United States, because of the interdependent world we live in," he said.

He has so far been more academic than inspiring. He's spoken about climate change (lauding the windmills visible on the drive from Toronto's airport) and solving poverty, but revealed few anecdotes from his time in power, his wife's work or his recent success in negotiating the release of two Americans from North Korea.

In addressing his theme, he contrasted the sub-par living conditions of many people in rural communities worldwide. He cited the lower living conditions in Canada's "north country."

5:03 p.m.

Mr. Clinton finishes speaking, sparking surprised applause and head-turning. He spoke for only 30 minutes, far less than advertised.

5:04 p.m.

Mr. Clinton sits down with David Bednar for a question and answer session. It is not explained where the soft-ball questions came from. Mr. Clinton does, however, finally get a bottled water. Sounds much better.

5:06 p.m.

In his Q&A, Mr. Clinton sat relaxed in a white chair, right leg crossed over left. A fern has appeared behind him. He's holding the microphone with his right hand, while his left still works hard gesturing.

Mr. Clinton told Mr. Bednar that the single-most globally influential decision the United States could make would be to "radically change the way we produce and consume energy." He also stressed this has to be done without losing jobs.

"We're not going to fight climate change if the way we do it is to tell people in Alberta they have to lower their income 10 per cent. It is not going to happen."

Mr. Clinton is evoking his former vice-president, Al Gore.

5:10 p.m.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bednar are sharing one cordless microphone. Can't they borrow one from the tenors?

5:19 p.m.

Mr. Clinton earns applause for saying he came to Canada five times as president, more than any other before him. He called Toronto "a real city of the future. Having a huge windmill turning as you go from the airport to the downtown is huge for you." He loves that windmill.

"There are a lot of people who would kill to live in an environment like this. You should be very proud of it."

5:21 p.m.

Mr. Clinton was asked what he might have done other than politics, and said he had three possible other careers.

He chose not to follow his passion to be a professional jazz saxophonist because he didn't think he could be the best that ever lived, even though he practised as a teenager "until my lips bled."

He also considered being a doctor. "But I didn't think I'd be the best surgeon there ever was."

He briefly considered becoming a journalist, but decided it was a "cop-out" from chasing a career in politics, which he chose because "I just thought I'd be good at it."

Assembled media seem, strangely, flattered. Even though he may have just called us all cop-outs.

5:27 p.m .

Mr. Bednar thanks him and Mr. Clinton gets up and leaves the stage, pointing and waving at the crowd. Event wraps up 30 minutes early.

6:20 p.m.

There is a point of contention among those asked for their thoughts on Mr. Clinton: was he as charming as they hoped?

"He wasn't very charming today," said Kristin, a 31-year-old who came with three of her friends, all women. "Maybe he's better when he has more than two hours sleep and wasn't at a four-hour funeral."

Mr. Clinton had come to Toronto after the Boston funeral for Senator Ted Kennedy.

"I'm sure he's very charming at parties and things, but he had a long day," said her friend, Jennifer.

"The guy could shovel charm," countered Toby, an older woman with large sunglasses and a leopard-print purse. "I thought he was terrific. He really has sex appeal."

Reaction to the speech itself seemed positive.

"I thought it was great," said Jill Dundas of Whitby, Ont. "Most of it you've heard in pieces, but it's nice to hear it all at once."

6:45 p.m.

Organizers said the final attendance tally was just over 12,000 - 2000 more than what was hoped on Thursday but half the original projection of 25,000.

"The combination of the appeal of Mr. Clinton and the good weather worked in our favour," CNE spokesman Chris McDowall said. "We were certainly very happy with how things turned out. Extremely happy."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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