ATLANTIC CITY - Hillary Rodham Clinton said the nation's political leaders could use some time at adult sleepaway camp to learn how to cooperate across the partisan divide, and decried the nation's "huge fun deficit" during a speech Thursday to a conference of professionals who run children's summer camps.
"The red cabin and the blue cabin have to come together and actually listen to each other," Clinton told about 3,000 attendees at the Tri-State Camp Conference, run by the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey. "Wouldn't that be a novel idea?"
It may have been Clinton's last paid appearance before she declares her candidacy for president, which aides have signaled could come as early as next month. In an hour on stage, she reminisced about a childhood scrape with a bully, talked about her love of the outdoors, praised summer camp, and admitted she was a binge-watcher of the Netflix drama House of Cards ("Great acting, unrealistic stories").
But her path forward was never far away, and Clinton used the occasion to preview what is shaping up as a campaign theme: finding consensus and ending partisan gridlock in Washington.
"If you don't build relationships with people and all you do is show up to argue or show up to point fingers, you can't get anything done," Clinton said.
She recalled reaching out, as a new senator from New York, to then-Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) and then-President George W. Bush, to get recovery money for the city after the 9/11 attacks. And during her husband's administration, the former first lady said, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.) would "stand up and say the worst things about Bill and sometimes me," but he would still come over to the family quarters of the White House to work out compromises with the president.
It's hard for members of Congress to get to know one another and build productive relationships given the "insatiable pressure" to raise "insane" amounts of money, Clinton said. The Supreme Court made it worse with the Citizens United decision, she said to applause.
Not to mention, Clinton said, "you are under 24/7 scrutiny and everybody is leaking and talking," and the media thrive on conflict-driven stories.
Clinton has drawn controversy for using her fame to rake in millions in appearance fees since leaving the State Department in 2013, charging $200,000 and up to speak to groups such as Goldman Sachs, Fidelity Investments, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, and universities. She also has made unpaid speeches.
The camp association confirmed that Clinton was paid for Thursday's speech but declined to disclose the amount. Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton's office, did not respond to e-mailed questions.
"We all saw it as an investment," said Andy Pritikin, owner and director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Burlington County, who is president of the camp association. He added that the cost was "nowhere near" the estimates he had seen in news reports and said that Clinton drew the group's biggest attendance.
"She articulated very well what we do at camp, and she brings more notoriety and press coverage than we could pay for," Pritikin said.
The four-day conference, which meets yearly in the Atlantic City Convention Center, bills itself as the largest gathering devoted to children's camps in the world.
In addition to her prepared remarks, Clinton sat down for a chat with Jay Jacobs, a camp director and also chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Party on Long Island.
Clinton did not address the three-week firestorm over her use of a personal e-mail server while she was secretary of state in the Obama administration. At a United Nations news conference last week, she acknowledged that she had deleted more than 30,000 e-mails from that time that she deemed personal in nature. Federal rules require officials to use agency government e-mail addresses and to preserve records of e-mails of official business for the national archives.
That episode handed critics and political enemies more ammunition to blast Clinton for a lack of accountability and transparency, issues that have bedeviled her and former President Bill Clinton throughout their political careers.
Instead, Clinton recalled her mother stopping her at the door as she was running inside from a confrontation with a neighborhood bully. "There's no room for cowards in this house," Clinton quoted her mother, Dorothy Rodham, as having said.
She also returned to familiar themes of her career, such as the need for more early childhood education programs. She praised preschool initiatives in Oklahoma and New York City.
"We don't have a national program, but we're doing it a local and state level," Clinton said. "This is not just about how nice it is to do things for our kids, all of our kids, every kind of kid. This is about what we're going to be able to do in terms of economic growth and jobs and opportunity into the future."
She attended only day camps as a girl, she said, but recalled how difficult it was when her daughter, Chelsea, went at age 8 to a sleepaway camp in Minnesota.
Clinton called it "the worst week," drawing laughter as she corrected herself. "Well, I've had a few bad weeks . . . but it was up there."
At the end, Jacobs handed her a gray sweatshirt emblazoned with "Camp David." He said, "You will like the activities and be well supervised."