ABC asks my help with Bill Clinton's obituary
And what I said
A producer at ABC recently asked if I’d be willing to be interviewed for a documentary they’re making about Bill Clinton. I agreed.
Then I asked when they’re planning to show it.
“After he dies,” they said.
“What!? Is he dying?” I asked, shocked.
“Oh, no,” they said. “It’s for the archive.”
“You mean, it’s for whenever he dies, even if that’s twenty years from now?”
“Even if you and I are long gone by then?”
I was relieved, but flummoxed. Was I supposed to talk about Clinton in the past tense? Should I give only the sort of glowing tribute accorded former presidents when they pass? Would it be inappropriate to say anything even slightly critical of him or his presidency?
I just did the interview from my office at Berkeley.
At first it all seemed weirdly morbid but after five minutes or so I forgot the weirdness and just talked.
I met Bill Clinton in September 1968 on the USS United States, sailing from New York City to Southampton, England. We were 22 years old.
He and I, along with thirty other young American men, had won Rhodes Scholarships to study at Oxford. (Had women been allowed to compete then, I doubt either he or I would have won.)
We were heading to England by ship because that had been the tradition for newly-selected Rhodes Scholars. Six days at sea was supposed to give Scholars time to get to know one another.
But on this voyage, the crossing was so stormy that most of us spent a good part of the time alone in our cabins, seasick. I stayed in my bunk and tried not to think about food.
Then a loud knock on my cabin door.
I staggered over to open it. There was a tall, curly-haired fellow with a big grin, holding a bowl chicken soup.
“Hi, my name is Bill,” he said in a syrupy southern accent as the ship rolled and the soup sloshed. “I hear you weren’t feeling well. Thought this might help.”
He handed me the bowl. (He didn’t say “I feel your pain” – that came later on his presidential campaign.)
“Well, that’s awfully kind of you,” I said, taking the bowl in both my hands while trying to steady myself and not barf on him.
“I’m Bob,” I stammered. “I’d invite you in, Bill, but …”
“Oh, that’s okay. We’ll have time later… I’m from Arkansas.”
“Well, that’s really great. I’m from a little town in New York State.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” he grinned.
The soup was sloshing over the sides of the bowl, and I desperately needed to use the john.
“Er, what’s amazing?”
“Small town boys. Did you ever think you and I would be here?”
“No. But sorry, I’ve got to….”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be gettin’ on.” He turned and walked off, his hand on the wall of the corridor as the ship rolled.
“Thanks, again,” I called after him. “Very nice of you.” I was genuinely touched.
He waved as he walked away.
Despite the rough seas, the journey felt restorative — an escape from a nation that seemed to be losing its mind and moral compass.
Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated a few months before. Gene McCarthy’s presidential bid had gone nowhere. Democrats were about to nominate Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Republicans were nominating the abominable Richard Nixon. Several American cities were in flames. The Vietnam War continued unabated.
My other recollection from that voyage, by the way, occurred in the ship’s stateroom, on one of my few outings from my cabin.
The stateroom was almost empty except for a pale, gray, thin man sitting at a far table, smoking a cigarette.
I sat down and introduced myself.
He told me his name was Bobby Baker.
Of all the people to be on this ship, he was the last I expected — or wanted to talk with. (If you don’t remember, Baker had been a crony of Lyndon Johnson’s. He was secretary to the Democratic Party when LBJ was Senate Majority Leader — until Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, exposed Baker’s alleged deals with organized crime and Baker was forced to resign. Kennedy’s investigation led to allegations that Johnson himself received kickbacks from military contractors. It was rotten stuff, even worse when several newspapers found evidence that Baker had also been involved in procuring women for JFK.)
We exchanged a few words and then I excused myself, pointing to my stomach. He said he understood. I headed back to my cabin.
That Bobby Baker had chosen to travel to England on this particular ship seemed a cruel joke — as if to say there was no real escape.
Days later, after landing in Southampton and taking a bus to Oxford, Bill and I were assigned “digs” at the same Oxford college — called University College. (Legend has it that the college was founded around 866 by King Alfred. I recall a disagreement among the faculty over whether it should celebrate its 1,100th anniversary in 1966 — detractors grousing that once they began celebrating every hundred years there’d be no end to festivities.)
Bill and I spent much of the the next two years talking about Vietnam, American politics (he already had his eye on becoming governor of Arkansas), food (he liked British hamburgers, which I found revolting), and British girls. And he had an endless stream of stories about people he knew from Arkansas, Arkansas politicians, and odd and funny bits of American history he’d picked up along the way.
Oh, and we did not inhale together.
To say that Bill Clinton at the age of twenty-two enjoyed people and conversation is to understate the voraciousness of his appetite.
We were so young then — boys, really — and we were out of America for the first time in our lives. It was glorious.
That’s the start of what I told ABC about Bill Clinton. More to come.