Clinton heads back to Worcester’s friendly confines

Former President Bill Clinton hits Worcester on Saturday for Democratic Senate nominee Edward J. Markey, the latest chapter in the warm tale of the central Massachusetts city and the 42nd commander-in-chief.

Call it a love affair, of the municipal variety.

It was Worcester where Clinton on August 27, 1998 chose to emerge from the bunker into which he had climbed after acknowledging on national television a relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky that was “not appropriate.” Clinton had been vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, confined mostly to private interactions with wealthy vacation home owners, and in the doghouse with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.

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At the invitation of US Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, Clinton came to the City of the Seven Hills, ostensibly to tout a school safety program, but in reality to gingerly dip a scandal-plagued toe back into the political waters.

McGovern, then a freshman House member, was locked in a tight race with then-state Senator Matthew J. Amorello, who would later head the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority during a star-crossed period in Big Dig history. The invitation had initially been extended months earlier, but McGovern renewed it as Clinton took a political shellacking. As enduringly popular as Clinton is in Massachusetts today, the decision by McGovern to stand alongside the embattled president then was seen as a bit of a gamble.

“This is not a city of fair-weathered friends,” McGovern declared to a cheering crowd in Mechanics Hall, according to a Globe report at the time. “A friend from Worcester is a friend for life.”

Rather than one hour as scheduled, Clinton stayed five. He ordered a steak bomb from Scano’s bakery. And he left heartened, after a reprieve from the onslaught that his own self-described “a critical lapse in judgment” had brought on.

“Congressmen all across the country were canceling appearances with him” before that visit, said former Worcester state representative Vincent Pedone. “I think he was overwhelmed with a sense of appreciation. It got him back on a public-speaking circuit where he could talk about issues, rather than Monica.”

A little over a year later, Clinton was back on far more somber terms, to speak at a memorial for six firefighters killed while fighting a fire at the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse. An estimated 20,000 people filled the Worcester Centrum, part of a turnout of about 50,000 that stood outside and lined a procession route one week after the blaze. Vice President Al Gore also attended, a rare joint appearance by president and vice president at a memorial service not held for a head of state.

Clinton, again at McGovern’s invitation, wheeled out his famous knack for empathy to reassure the grieving city.

“Your tragedy is ours,” Clinton said. “Your men are ours.”

Seven years later, long after he left office, Clinton was back in a more upbeat political role, campaigning for the ticket shared by Deval Patrick and Tim Murray. In the DCU Center, the renamed the Centrum, Clinton recalled, “When the Republicans tried to run me out of Washington, I came to Worcester, and 20,000 people greeted me.”

“I love this city,” Clinton said at that Oct. 25, 2006 event. “The people have been very good to me.”

While big-name Democrats have popped into the Bay State for Markey repeatedly in recent weeks—First Lady Michelle Obama, President Obama, and, according to Markey, Vice President Joe Biden next week—Republican nominee Gabriel E. Gomez has struggled to match with Republicans who could prove helpful. Senator John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have both visited. On Friday, former Senator Scott P. Brown sent out a fundraising email.