NEW ORLEANS -- Hillary Clinton, whose choice as NADA keynote speaker caused such controversy, was warmly received by dealers this morning as she gave an hour-long speech to a near-packed house at the Morial Convention Center.
Clinton -- former first lady, U.S. senator from New York and U.S. secretary of state -- largely steered clear of controversial issues in an hour-long, non-partisan speech filled with anecdotes about her experiences in public life and a few folksy anecdotes about cars she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, owned.
Dealers applauded loudly when Clinton paid tribute to their value to communities and the American economy.
"Building and selling cars to a great extent created the American middle class. The resurgence of the auto industry over the past few years has been a driving force behind our economic recovery. It's not only that. I know the dealers here and across our country play a vital role in communities. Before coming here, I checked employment figures. Employment at dealerships is on the rise -- up more than 3 percent over the last year."
Clinton paid tribute to General Motors for choosing Mary Barra as CEO.
"I'm excited about GM's new CEO. You might guess I would be. I guess you could say she broke through the steel ceiling, not the glass ceiling. Her father spent four decades as a GM die maker. I can't imagine he dreamed his daughter would head the company."
Kudos to GM plant
She described a 2011 visit to a GM plant in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, when she was secretary of state.
The plant helped give "the U.S. influence in a region where both Russia and China are vying for influence. It lifted my spirits to see one of our great American companies lifting the flag in central Asia. That plant in Tashkent was filled with American technology and machinery."
She cited America's Marshall Plan, which aided Germany and Japan in rebuilding after World War II as an example of how American leadership can stabilize the globe, even when those countries had been enemies. American business can contribute in the same way in the 21st century.
"Now we're seeing increases in exports. Nobody is doing more than the auto industry," she said. "American auto exports surged more than 80 percent between 2009 and 2012. We are engaged. We are leading because we care about our values, we care about democracy, human dignity."
Defending the bailout
She defended her support of the auto industry bailout in a question-and-answer session with David Westcott, outgoing chairman of NADA.
"This was a tough set of choices that those of us in the Congress faced," she said of the decisions Congress made when she was a U.S. senator from New York. "I became convinced with information I was presented by ... the [George W. Bush] administration..., especially [then Secretary of the Treasury] Hank Paulson."
She said Paulson convinced her of the need for the bailout when he said: "We have to take steps to prevent a collapse that was worse than the Great Depression."
"I know the NADA lost dealerships, lost jobs at the core of a lot of communities. But the overall picture turned out to be positive."
'My old Cutlass'
Clinton laced her speech with folksy anecdotes about cars she once owned, including a 1963 Oldsmobile Cutlass she had when she was in law school.
"When my old Cutlass had problems I didn't know what to do," she said.
During cold weather, she would take the battery out of the car at night and carry it into her dorm room in a bag.
"That was the limit of my understanding," Clinton added.
When Westcott asked her the most obvious question -- the one about her possible presidential candidacy, Clinton replied, "I have to say I don't know. I know that's not a very satisfactory answer."
She said America has a lot of problems that need working on now and that the rest of the world is watching.
"Whether Republican or Democrat or conservative or liberal, I want them to see we're all on the same team," she said. "We're on the American team. We can worry about the next election later. We spend too much time looking over the horizon."
Clinton's speech surprised Austin, Texas, Honda dealer Jim Olmstead and his wife Diana, who hadn't been sure whether they would come or not. They said a number of their dealer peers decided not to come to the speech because they didn't share Clinton's views.
"They missed an opportunity to hear a great speaker," said Diana Olmstead. "I didn't expect to enjoy the speech as I did," said Diana Olmstead. "We're Republicans."
"She was very engaging," said Jim Olmstead.
Asked whether they might vote for Clinton if she runs for president, Diana Olmstead said she wasn't sure.
"I will pay a lot more attention to what she says based on our experience today."