Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Clinton, Finally

Elvis was about to enter the building.

Last Friday, as former president Bill Clinton charmed group after group back in Colorado -- starring at two Democratic fundraisers, surprising a confab of Denver Public Schools principals, picking up a rumored quarter-of-a-million bucks to talk to a national meeting of apartment owners, then committing $50,000 of that to the Columbine Memorial fundraising drive — staffers with the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies were finalizing details for Clinton's speech the next day in Little Rock at a national meeting of more than a hundred newspapers. Except that no details were ever final; the terms of the speech (no charge) had been a moving target for weeks — in duration, in format. By this point, Clinton's handlers had arranged for a delegation of five AAN representatives — myself among them — to greet him backstage, after which Clinton would deliver his speech and maybe, just maybe, take a few carefully vetted questions.

By 1 p.m. the next day, when our Clinton staff-approved quintet gathered backstage amidst more handlers and security guards, the details had morphed again: There would be two questions — don't bother to ask about Hillary, one handler said, since Clinton would just sidestep it — and I would be the one to ask them, moving onstage after Clinton's speech to sit beside him "Charlie Rose"-style. While we waited for Clinton, an aide walked me through the rules: I was to not only watch for wackos in the audience but keep an eye on him, and when he tapped his chest, it was time to wrap up things up. I could ask no more than two questions, and it would be nice if one of them was about Clinton's new school of Public Service. Hey, I said, if I was going to ask that question, then our group should get at least three. He agreed — if President Clinton was willing.

And then Clinton came in, flanked by Secret Service agents and more handlers, and all bets were off. Greeting the publisher of the Arkansas Times, who would introduce him, Clinton declared that he was eager to take questions from the audience. He continued schmoozing down the line -- "I had so much fun in Colorado," he said when he met me — and then while the others were ushered into the audience, he was whisked up on stage, where he would launch into a speech that lasted an hour.

I didn't hear a word of it. I was still backstage, still negotiating details with the handler, who'd just insisted that despite what Clinton had said, there would be no questions from the audience. Hey, I whispered back, if the publisher doing the introduction announced that Clinton would be taking questions, then we were taking questions. And right then, the publisher did just that, and we were back revising the details -- going over the Public Service school question, the chest-tapping -- while other handlers were betting on how long Clinton would talk after he said the word "finally." The first time.

And then, finally, I was on stage, shaking Clinton's hand, sitting down next to him, asking three questions — including the previously forbidden "If Senator Clinton is elected president, what will your role be?" — and then throwing it open to the audience.

When the aide started tapping his chest, Clinton showed no signs of winding down — and the everyone in the ballroom was glued to their seats. Finally, two hours into what had been estimated at no more than forty minutes, and with more than 400 orders of rubber chicken (and 47 vegetarian ravioli) cooling outside the door, I pointed out that Clinton's staffer seemed to have collapsed. He'll get over it, Clinton said. Next question.

Finally, Clinton decided that the question-and-answer session was done, stood, shook my hand again — and then went up to the security ropes, where he signed autographs and chatted with people for close to another hour. If he was erudite during his speech, and impressive during the Q&A, now he was positively iridescent, sparking energy with each handshake. In this group of usually cynical newspaper folks, he was a rock star.

I went backstage, where the handler was furious that I'd referred to him while on stage. Hey, I said, Bill Clinton's your boss. You stop him from taking the next question.

Finally making it into the ballroom, I was barraged by another round of questions. What was Clinton like? Smart. So smart that even as I was thinking about the next question, about potential trouble-makers in the crowd, about the fact that I would have packed something other than flip-flops had I known my feet were going to be on stage (but then, Clinton had a scrap of toilet paper on his shoe), I kept wondering how he could have been so stupid during the Lewinsky era. Whether Gore would be president today, if Clinton hadn't been sidelined back in 2000. The devil is always in the details.

And then, finally, Elvis left the building.