Former President Bill Clinton likely didn’t plan to spend more than a quarter of his speech in Bluffton Friday talking about Benghazi and partisan squabbling.
But after about 40 minutes trumpeting the economic, education and health care policies of his wife and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, things took an unexpected turn.
A man with close-cropped hair and dressed in a crisp suit interrupted the 42nd president’s speech, demanding Clinton address the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
“Your wife tried to cover it up,” the man, who would identify himself only as “the Marine sergeant,” said of the of the attack in which four Americans were killed.
The protester and his comments immediately drew boos from many in the crowd of around 500 packed into the Bluffton Recreation Center.
While Clinton tried to calm the crowd, the verbal spat continued.
“You listen to me, as I’ve heard you,” Clinton said, his voice — already hoarse from days of campaigning — rising. “... I’m not your commander-in-chief anymore, but I were, I’d tell you to be more polite.”
The protester began yelling, and the crowd responded in kind.
Cries of “shut up” and “get him out” could be heard throughout the room.
As the scene grew more tense, Beaufort County sheriff’s deputies moved in, took the man by the shoulders and escorted him from the building. A second protester, a woman, also was escorted away.
In the parking lot of the venue, an Island Packet/Beaufort Gazette reporter caught up with the protester, who claimed to have served in the Marines from 2003 to 2011.
“I’m ‘the Marine sergeant,’ ” he said. “I don’t need to be identified by my name, my color or anything like that.”
“I wanted answers, and I wanted to make my point,” the man said. “The deputies started coming over, so obviously my point wasn’t able to be made.”
The man called for Hillary Clinton “to take responsibility for dropping the ball” on protecting American lives in Benghazi.
“The fact that (Hillary Clinton) is not in prison now is mind-blowing,” he said.
Meanwhile, inside, Bill Clinton quickly regained his composure and soldiered on.
He defended his wife, saying several of the men killed in Benghazi “were a personal friends of Hillary’s.”
“You can imagine how she feels when people make these charges,” Clinton said.
He stood up for his wife’s actions before and after the attack and used the opportunity to attempt to differentiate Hillary Clinton from her potential Republican challengers in November’s election.
Republicans, he said, have tried to “politicize the deaths of brave Americans because (they) want to win this next election.”
Hillary Clinton “has never once played politics with the lives of the men and women in uniform,” the former president said.
Bill Clinton took aim at media outlets such as Fox News, which he said foster polarization and partisanship.
“We have overcome so many of our bigotries. We are less racist, less sexist, less homophobic than we used to be,” he said. “But Americans have one remaining bigotry, and I don’t want our party to get here: We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us. … So, we stand up and scream but won’t listen to people’s answers.”
Bill Clinton ended his roughly hour-long speech by calling Hillary Clinton “a world-class changemaker.”
“We have got to change the culture in Washington,” he said. “We have got to stop the screaming and start having arguments as civilized human beings.”
He left the stage to thunderous applause while Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” blared over the loudspeakers.
After the speech, several in the crowd remarked on Bill Clinton’s poise and ability to overcome the interruption.
“It was really impressive that he was able to keep his cool,” Wanda Jones of Beaufort said. “Bill was a great president, and I think Hillary will be, too.”