It was on a trip through St. Louis nearly twenty years ago that I first appreciated Bill Clinton was a force of nature. I was newly married, and Bill Clinton was also on a honeymoon of sorts--in the Oval Office, new to the job, the man from Hope. We were staying with former business colleagues of my husband's who were eager to share with the world their opinion of the Clintons via fax machine.
I'd never seen such vitriol directed at a political figure, stuff about state troopers and sexual escapades and apparent unfitness for the office.
They made a copy for us, somehow assuming it would change our lives or our opinions, and we continued our drive south.
The next eight years were, as Nicholas Cage so perfectly intones in "Raising Arizona," the salad days.
Life seemed peaceful and prosperous. We were very much in love, and Bill Clinton was in The White House. We didn't much care whether the person occupying that office was a Democrat or a Republican, as long as the world seemed that idyllic. I'd loved Jimmy Carter--the first vote I'd ever cast as a young college student, absentee ballot--but had slowly come to appreciate that he wasn't the most effective president. No, Bill Clinton seemed to be successful, and effective, and was leading the country that direction. Things were good.
We were in London a few years later, August 1998, walking through the electronics department of Harrods, and on the first plasma screens we'd ever seen, complete with $10,000 price tag, was Bill Clinton, clarifying to citizens everywhere his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, undone by careless behavior and a dress.
Of all the things that didn't make sense in that particular scandal, the reputed charisma and star power of Bill Clinton seemed to be displaced. Jack Kennedy had a Hollywood icon. Bill Clinton had an intern.
Whatever anyone thought of the Clintons personally or politically, it was impossible not to find them compelling and intriguing, and like many, I wondered if Bill Clinton the person actually matched Bill Clinton the idea, the notion, the possible myth.
It was a beautiful summer day in Washington, D.C., June 7, 2008, that I finally got to answer that question when I met the Clintons. I had been invited to attend Hillary's final speech of her campaign for president, something I couldn't, and wouldn't, miss. Following the speech I met Bill Clinton, then Hillary and finally Chelsea, and was absolutely thunderstruck by the force of something that exceeded simple charisma. It was, as the French say, that certain je ne sais quoi.
How could that be? Bill Clinton had been bloodied by a very public impeachment and a nasty primary campaign at his wife's side. But there it was. It radiated. It was more than an expensive haircut, impeccable grooming, and gracious manner. He was personable and engaging. He had many people to meet, but looked me directly in the eye as he extended his hand, treating me, yes, as if I was not just the only person in the room, but the only person in the world. He thanked me for coming up all the way from Florida, for making the sacrifice, asked about my husband, who was not then well enough to travel with me and had stayed behind, thanked me for his service.
Was it seductive? Yes. But Hillary did exactly the same, extended her hand, locked eyes, acted sincerely interested, set aside a minute or two of her time just for that moment, that person. Above all, I was struck by the enormous beauty of her person and presence. The camera, the media clearly do her no favors.
I had met the Clintons. I'd unlocked a secret of the universe, satisfied that they indeed had their own orbit. It centered on their extraordinary people skills, something few possessed.
A few months later, I had the honor of also meeting a newly inaugurated president, Barack Obama, on his first official outing to Florida, and the experience was quite different. The hand came out but the eyes went one direction and the mouth still another, no connection. Perfunctory. I knew then, this new young president would really need to learn that handshake, that moment, but maybe it was something that couldn't be taught, couldn't be gifted, and was something that just was. Ineffable je ne sais quoi.
Last night, as Bill Clinton was the star attraction and pinch hitter in Charlotte and Hillary Clinton was a world away on a diplomatic mission, denied the presidency, now Secretary of State, I knew. I knew not only how angry and disappointed Bill Clinton was at the end of his wife's campaign four years ago, because I'd witnessed it, I knew he was the only person for the job. He wasn't there to shake just one hand, but millions, and he did just that.
I knew, because I'd shaken that hand. I knew.
Photo courtesy of William Jefferson Clinton Library