Election Section

A Personal Take on Bill Clinton’s Book Tour

By PAUL PARISH Special to the Planet
Friday July 02, 2004

I had dinner with Bill Clinton this week, a good friend for the last 36 years—though he’s always been better than me about keeping in touch. 

When he lost his fight for re-election after his first term as governor of Arkansas, he paid me a visit here in Berkeley—and while we were hanging out, he showed me the apartment building on Derby near College Avenue where he stayed one summer. 

He sent me a whole lot of Beethoven when I passed my Ph.D. orals at UC, and later, he invited me to his first presidential inauguration. He was a great help when my father was dying. 

During his terms in the White House, I wrote him a lot of long letters. He’d write back within a week (a short letter, half of it typed, half a P.S. in longhand). Over those eight years, a group of us old friends would get together with him whenever he’d be in town. 

The man’s got a great heart, and it really bothers me when his critics say he’s insincere, that he really doesn’t care about people. I’ve never known anyone who cares so much about people…and he’s been that way since I first met him in 1968 when we were Rhodes Scholars in the same class at Oxford. 

His political gift is like a great singer’s—it’s a talent, a gift for people. He wasn’t a radical in the ‘60s, nor later. Basically, he’s a Fullbright-style progressive populist, born of rural America. 

The tradition starts with Andrew Jackson and it’s Southern. Elvis is an artist in that tradition. What Bill had, and still has is that earthy, humble-folks emotional penetration. He really gets it how people feel, how groups of people feel, and why their leaders take the positions they do. 

One of the first things I noticed at Oxford was the way someone he’d just met would suddenly be telling him the most important things in their lives. People were always saying, “You know, I never told anyone that before!” 

I discovered someone who’s powerfully intuitive and hugely intelligent—he reads as much as any intellectual, but he’s really a man of action. The thing that’s hard to believe is how much energy he has—all kinds of energy, stamina like an ox—but most of all, his heart is big and generous, and people respond to him in kind. 

I saw it Tuesday outside Cody’s Books where Bill was signing books here in Berkeley. A young man walked up the sidewalk holding a copy of “the book” in his hand. A woman approached him who seemed agitated, disturbed. It was obvious she wanted the book. 

And he just smiled and gave it to her. 

That kind of thing happens a lot around Bill. 

He used all that when he was in the White House. He worked hard to understand how the Israelis feel, and how the Palestinians feel, and then worked to help them understand a little about each other. 

All that said, it’s somewhat maddening and somewhat just plain weird, knowing someone as famous as he—for one thing, the Secret Service makes it so nobody knows exactly what a former POTUS (that’s president of the U.S.) is going to be doing, not exactly—not even people who’ve been invited to see him. 

So I got a call at 4:30 Monday afternoon saying there was a chance I’d get to see him if I came to the San Francisco Ferry Building at 7 p.m., where he was signing copies of his autobiography at Book Passage. That’s ALL they’d divulge. 

When I got there, I learned the store had vastly oversold him—instead of the 2,000 he’d been scheduled to sign, the store had handed out 4,000 tickets, maybe more. When I got there at 7, I ran into my friend Jeremy—whom I know from swing dancing (the guy can go down into the splits and rise back up, no hands involved)—and he had ticket number 3,723, and Bill had already signed it. 

But he hadn’t been able to sign them all and there were hundreds, maybe a thousand people around the side of the waterfront building chanting “Sign our books, Sign our books, Sign our books, Bill, Sign our books.” 

The Secret Service took about six of us who’ve known him since way back to some picnic tables by Hog Island Oysters, where Hog Island and Slanted Door fed us more protein than I’ve had in years. 

We’d all known him since forever. There was Susan Mase, a recently-retired San Francisco schoolteacher who’d gone to kindergarten with him; Abby Ginzberg, a documentary filmmaker who’d been at the London School of Economics at the same time we were at Oxford; Martha Whetstone, an old friend from Arkansas who now runs the San Francisco Bar Association, and Dan, who works with Martha. 

Willie and Linda Fletcher sent their regrets—it was their thirty-fifth anniversary, and they went where they were sure to be fed, to Chez Panisse. Willie was another Rhodes Scholar from our class who’s now a Berkeley resident serving on the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and holding a professorship at Boalt Law School. The Justice Fletcher and Ms. Whetstone had run Clinton’s Northern California campaign back in 1992. 

Bill was in great form. We talked about seeing him on television, how he’d done on Oprah, on Rather, on Larry King.  

He’s always been good company, but it wouldn’t be politic to go into any specifics of our dinner. He’d never forgive me, and neither would any good Democrat.  

I can tell you that at the end, he turned to me and asked, “You want a book, Paul?” 

I hadn’t arrived in time to buy a copy, so I was glad when he hauled one out and signed it. I took it with some trepidation. 

“You’re in it, Paul,” he’d told me this when I saw him last summer in New York—which made waiting for his memoirs to hit the stands a little like waiting for a tidal wave, both for me and most probably thousands of other FOBs—“FOB” meaning “Friend of Bill.” 

When Clinton began his run for the White House back in 1991—running full tilt, that is—journalists coined the phrase to describe people like me who seemed to be showing up all over the place. The FOBs were really a journalistic artifact. 

Reporters needed to talk to people who knew him when, since Clinton was “new” on the national scene and the reporters who covered presidential politics were caught with a candidate quite unlike Gephart or Harkin or the other usual suspects already familiar to them.  

They already knew that Clinton talked a great game, but could he be trusted? We said yes, and the FOBs saved him in the New Hampshire primary. 

Journalists continued digging us up, and one after another, we vouched for him whenever they came with questions like, “Do you trust him?” or “Did he inhale?” I answered that second one by saying that if you know anything about marijuana and you’d inhaled yourself, you weren’t likely to remember what anybody else had done. 

When 1991 came round and the only issue on which he was really vulnerable seemed to be Vietnam and the draft, a lot of journalists started calling—even one particularly hostile hack who staked me out in hopes of getting some detail that could get blown up into a federal case against him. 

Since he’d written a letter to my draft board in 1969 vouching that if he’d ever seen a true conscientious objector, I was one. I was a natural for them. 

If you were of draft age during the Vietnam War and had to decide what you’d do when the time came when they called you—or if you can imagine it—you should know what a dilemma we faced. It was simultaneously an academic question and a life-or-death decision. 

Since most of us came from very patriotic families, we cared how they felt about our decisions. 

Bill’s Oxford roommate Frank Aller, whose father was a career civil servant, became a draft resister in protest against the war, and a few years later he shot himself. My own anxieties about the war made me so depressed that I ended up hospitalized for a while. 

It’s a subject only Dostoyevsky could do justice to; when I read The Idiot some years later, I was reminded uncannily of my time at Oxford. 

So when Bill told me I was in his memoirs, I wasn’t looking forward to reliving those times and being flooded with all those feelings. 

That said, Dostoyevsky didn’t write Bill Clinton’s memoirs. The book isn’t “deep”—but is good; it’s penetrating, in fact, it’s gripping. He’s a political animal, and his account of 1968 has a sweep worthy of a fine historical novelist. (Read from his father’s death, p. 112, through p. 145.) It’s as good as The Year of the French, if not on a par with The Red and the Black. 

For those of us who knew him, Bill’s My Life is like a look into a fourth dimensional mirror—a weird angle on your own life, seen from a perspective that’s amazingly consistent and informed by an analysis that is sane and refreshing and impressive. 


Paul Parish, dance critic for San Francisco magazine, has lived in Berkeley since 1973. He covered the first Clinton Inaugural Ball for the New Yorker and Ballet Review. He also teaches dance history at Berkeley Ballet Theater, and tends bar at the Faculty Club.