Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House - Carol Felsenthal (2008)
Chapter 8. A LUDDITE MEETS THE BLOGGERS
WHEN BILL CLINTON MOVED INTO THE WHITE House in 1993, there were approximately fifty websites; by the time he moved out, there were more than fifty million.1 In speeches and conversations during that period, the president often ruminated on the Internet and its impact on the nation and the world. His friend Howard Tullman remembers that as far back as the late 1980s and into the early 1990s “he was very much interested in the power of the computer for education.” In a speech Clinton gave to a DNC fund-raiser the night before the Monica story exploded in January 1998, he correctly described the Internet as “the fastest growing means of communication in human history.”2
In a recent speech in which Clinton credited bloggers with fundamentally changing the accountability of governments around the world, Clinton showed, says New Democratic Network president Simon Rosenberg, a “deeply sophisticated” understanding of the power of the Internet. Clinton pointed out that, in the old China, if a SARS epidemic had broken out, the government might have hidden it and a global pandemic might have resulted. In the new China, activists, using cell phones and the Internet, reported on the outbreak and forced the government to act. “Clinton said some of the most…remarkable things about this global phenomenon that I’ve ever heard…. He understands it better than most of the people I work with here.”3
Clinton has said that the Internet is a more important advance than the telephone, but unlike his friend George H. W. Bush who is constantly fiddling with his BlackBerry, Clinton is a Luddite, a complete computer klutz. For him, the high-tech challenge was figuring out, postpresidency, how to use his cell phone.
His newfound interest in blogs was piqued by Chelsea, by his insatiable appetite for political news, and by his wife’s likely run for president, at a time when YouTube was changing the way the game was played. He reads blogs the old-fashioned way; his assistants print them out for him.4
Hillary put an actual blogger on her staff before she announced her decision to seek the nomination. Peter Daou, whose title is Head of Internet Outreach, was obviously focused on Bill as well as Hillary, when he invited a group of fourteen bloggers to Harlem to meet with the former president over lunch on September 13, 2006.5
The bloggers had one thing in common; all were left of center—they call themselves, says one, “the progressive bloggers”—and not one of them saw anything of value in The Path to 9/11. They came from around the country; Clinton, they said, covered their expenses.6
Clinton knew how important the “netroots” (the Internet grassroots, mostly from the Left) were in the upcoming 2006 midterms, and he knew that the people sitting around the table with him were supporting the same candidates he was. If Bill Clinton had his way, by the end of their two-hour lunch, they would leave sufficiently impressed by him to support Hillary, or, at least, to go a bit easier on her when she ran for the nomination for president. Jane Hamsher, a movie producer who traveled to New York from Mill Valley, California, and claims 60,000–80,000 people a day visit her blog (firedoglake), suggested, “…while Hillary Clinton may never be the bloggers’ darling, opening…a channel for communications might…blunt a lot of the more overt criticism [from] the liberal blogosphere.”7
From all accounts, these bloggers fell in love with the triangulator-in-chief. One of them remarked on the “overwhelming earnestness of this guy. He’s so smart.”8 Jeralyn Merritt (talkleft) talks as if she believes that Clinton has outgrown his centrist streak: “We’re so energized and…he’s so with it. He gets it…. We could tell his values…were our values.” They talked about everything from Iraq to Iran to criminal justice—Merritt, a criminal defense attorney in Denver, was one of the principal trial lawyers for Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber—to health care.9
The conversation started with Clinton talking, but then he turned it into a lively discussion. It was difficult, at first, says one blogger, to interrupt the former president, “but after a while we just all got into it.”10 All of them, women and men, seemed charmed. “When he was responding to one of us,” says Merritt, “he totally would turn his body to face that person. He always engaged in direct eye contact. He was very animated with his hands. And it was like being at a family dinner.”
Merritt was impressed that Clinton seemed to know everybody in the room, and their blogs, and knew that many had day jobs and what they did for a living. They wore no name tags.11
Much of the conversation, says Jane Hamsher, was about how the opposition to The Path to 9/11 bubbled up out of the blogosphere. “So a lot of the meeting was spent discussing taking action and working together.” It was an exciting prospect, Hamsher says, because “it was the first time a major politician had come together with bloggers…. We really pushed back [against The Path to 9/11], and frequently our issues don’t get echoed by major politicians. I think that kind of really emboldened President Clinton to step out and push back against it.”
A week after the Harlem meeting, Hamsher, who freely admits she never watched the miniseries—“it sounds like an endurance contest”—appeared on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown on MSNBC and described what sounded like a close working relationship between the bloggers and the former president. “We worked with him very effectively over the course of the last couple of weeks in order to get the message out about…The Path to 9/11.…”12
Fans of the miniseries, such as Los Angeles radio talk-show host John Ziegler, credit the bloggers for spooking Disney, the parent company of ABC, and for spooking the New York publisher Scholastic into dropping the study guide.13 “We were really hitting Scholastic hard,” agrees Jane Hamsher.14
Clinton, wearing a suit and tie, looked fine, although older. “He’s great looking,” says Jeralyn Merritt. “He looks thinner…. There are more lines on his face…. He…looks like somebody who was probably sick at one time.”15 Jane Hamsher offers a rosier prognosis: “He looked healthy, robust, rested; he seemed like a happy fellow.”16
Lunch was intended to be healthy. Catered by a neighborhood restaurant, the chicken was baked and so were the sweet potato “fries.” While the bloggers drank sweet tea, Clinton stuck with Diet Coke. Jeralyn Merritt was somewhat surprised to note that he ate the large sweet potato slices with his fingers. He did not eat his vegetables.17
At the end of the lunch, they decided that they’d meet again soon, but the bloggers expect that next time he’ll invite a different group.
Before the bloggers left, several encouraged the former president to try his hand at blogging and suggested that he could do so under a screen name. Merritt says when she urged Clinton to contribute to her site, he told her he might take her up on it, but he has not so far.18 Another participant says that Clinton does not use a computer or send e-mail, and he certainly has never blogged. Kinko’s founder, Paul Orfalea, says both he and Clinton have their e-mails printed out for them.19
Bill Clinton will likely continue to have blogs printed out and handed to him. Friends say he does not seem inclined to learn to use a computer or e-mail. When he was president, his diarist Janis Kearney recalls, he had made a stab at it. “I’ve got this really great photo of us standing in the Oval Office as he learned to order something…online.” (He was ordering Christmas gifts.)20
Al Gore may not have invented the Internet, but he did use it while vice president. “Gore used to make fun of Clinton all the time for not knowing how to turn on his computer,” says Elaine Kamarck, “and not using e-mail.”21 Leon Panetta explains that Clinton simply “prefers the telephone.”22 When friends, such as John Emerson, want to reach the former president, they “typically e-mail Doug Band who travels with him all the time…[Clinton’s] a guy who picks up the phone and talks to people. He operates on the cell phone a lot.”23
LATER THAT MONTH, Bill Clinton’s new blogger friends took some credit for his enraged response—“pushback,” they called it—to Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace. When Wallace suggested that Clinton was distracted and did not do enough to fight terrorism during his presidency, making him partly responsible for 9/11, the raw anger, the refusal to back down, the avalanche of words, made him sound, they said, just like a blogger.
“When we announced that you were going to be on Fox News Sunday,” Wallace said, “I got a lot of e-mail from viewers. And I’ve got to say, I was surprised. Most of them wanted me to ask you this question: Why didn’t you do more to put Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda out of business when you were president? There’s a new book out I suspect you’ve already read, called The Looming Towers. And it talks about how the fact that when you pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993, Bin Laden said, ‘I have seen the frailty and the weakness and the cowardice of U.S. troops.’ Then there was the bombing of the embassies in Africa and the attack on the Cole…. And after the attack, the book says that Bin Laden separated his leaders, spread them around, because he expected an attack, and then there was no response. I understand that hindsight is 20/20.”
That’s when Clinton exploded: “So you did Fox’s bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me…. At least I tried. That’s the difference between me and…all of the right wingers who are attacking me now. They ridicule me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried. So I tried and failed.” He also got personal, telling the mild-mannered and surprised Wallace, “And you’ve got that little smirk on your face and you think you’re so clever.”24
“My reaction,” says one of the bloggers, “is this guy has clearly been reading blogs…. I have a feeling that his reading the blogs got him to the point where he said, ‘That’s enough.’” This blogger says that the fact that Wallace works for Fox News would send any lefty blogger into the sort of red-faced, finger-wagging tirade that viewers saw.25
Some people who are close Clinton observers say he went loaded for bear to the Wallace interview, that he had rehearsed his rant. “It was clear that he had been waiting for that question for a long time,” says Leon Panetta.26
Others say that he was genuinely offended by the question, that he had been promised that the interview, taped just as the CGI conference was concluding, would focus on the highly successful—$7.5 billion was raised—meeting, and that he felt sandbagged by Wallace’s question, which, says Sandy Berger, was not even a question but “a speech, basically, saying, ‘Why did you fail?’…He just decided that he was not going to sit back and take that.”27
Clinton had grown unaccustomed to harsh treatment from mainstream broadcast and even cable hosts. For the last couple of years, since his bypass surgery, he was more likely to be tossed softball questions, as if a tough one might cause a spike in his blood pressure and spark a coronary or a stroke. Clinton had come to expect star treatment, obsequious interviewers—that same day MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann led off the interview by handing Clinton a check: “Here’s eight more schools in Kenya from me.”28
Conservative commentators tried to use the exchange to take Clinton down a notch. John Podhoretz called it “the Bubba blowup…a full-bore tantrum on the small screen,”29 and others pointed out that the last time Clinton wagged his finger on national television, he was lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Slade Gorton attributes Clinton’s fury to his habit of reacting “very unfavorably to any kind of criticism.”30
Yet the exchange was certainly more of a positive than a negative. It boosted the spirits of friends and colleagues—Robert Torricelli says, “It gave the first shot of adrenaline through the ranks of the Democratic Party in a year,” bucking up the base for the midterms then less than seven weeks away.31 Republican strategist Scott Reed argues that it was a major factor in the Democrats taking back both the House and Senate the next November. “This was a scripted, set-up event…. Clinton needed to get the Democrats off their asses.”32
To Elaine Kamarck it was about time that Clinton punched back. “My only criticism was he should have been doing it all along; instead of making kissy-face with George Bush Sr., he should have been letting them have it between the eyeballs.”33
Many people on both sides agreed that the two men were unevenly matched. Conrad Black compares Wallace versus Clinton to “sending a chipmunk to deal with my Siamese cat.”34
To Tom Kean, Clinton’s anger was all about the thing most important to him now—more important even than Hillary becoming president, although that is tied to it—and that’s his legacy. “He’s got a very hot button these days and I think it is his legacy…. He doesn’t like to hear Monica mentioned at all.”35
“HE’S LIKE an old fire horse; he hears that bell and he’s just gotta go running in there,” Paul Greenberg says about Bill Clinton and almost any election.36
As the 2006 midterm election approached, Clinton seemed to be in demand almost everywhere. He left the liabilities of 2002—bad reputation—and 2004—bad reputation and health—behind. One consultant says happily that Bill Clinton campaigned for several of his candidates in 2006 and they all won.37
Clinton was taking his marching orders that year from his buddy Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who aspires to be Speaker of the House or president of the United States, but for the time being was representing his district in Illinois and running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Not everyone believed the frenetic, cocky Emanuel when he said the Democrats could win the fifteen seats they’d need to take back the House, but Clinton believed in him. Emanuel says he talks to Clinton every day, and when asked whom Clinton is closest to in the House, he names himself.38 Constantly on the telephone cajoling candidates to run, promising that Clinton would campaign for them and delivering Clinton, Emanuel was relentless. He was a student of the game of politics who, like Clinton, digested the most minute details of precinct politics, and, being smarter than most of his adversaries, often defeated them.39
Elaine Kamarck, the Kennedy School professor who was a senior adviser to Al Gore, continues to insist that Clinton remained a turnoff to a certain kind of Democrat and had to be handled carefully. She claims that Clinton might have been seen at a lot of fund-raisers with fat entrance fees, but he was still not seen in tight races at open rallies, covered by the national press. “The reason is…that he is still not universally loved among the swing voters. He is universally loved among the Democratic base, but you don’t win…elections just with the base.”
When it’s pointed out to Kamarck that Clinton did campaign for candidates whom she specifically mentions as trying to distance themselves from him, she argues that he was not doing television commercials for those candidates and that “he remains almost as toxic as Dick Cheney…. He drives away our swing voters.”40
That might be almost wishful thinking on the part of Kamarck, who still blames Clinton for eight years of George W. Bush. In an analysis in the New York Times during the height of the campaign season, reporters John Broder and Anne Kornblut wrote, “Bubba’s back…. He remains in perpetual campaign mode.” Beyond recognizing that Clinton’s tirade at Chris Wallace did buck up the Democrats, Broder and Kornblut describe Clinton as “serving as an overarching strategist and spokesman.” Writing with just a bit more than a month to go before election day, they had him making forty political appearances in sixteen states.41
That November Clinton, like his new friends, the bloggers, supported Ned Lamont for the Senate in Connecticut. The antiwar Democrat had bested the state’s veteran, hawkish senator, Joe Lieberman, in the Democratic primary. Lieberman remained in the race as an independent and was Lamont’s major rival in November. But in the primary, Clinton, in close consultation with Hillary, and in opposition to the progressives, bloggers and otherwise, had supported Lieberman.
Clinton’s friendship with Lieberman dates back to his Yale Law days, when he supported Lieberman in one of his early runs for the Connecticut state senate. Yet Lieberman had taken to the Senate floor in September 1998 to condemn Clinton for his behavior with Monica Lewinsky. Some saw Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as “the conscience of the Senate”; others saw him as a posturing scold.42
Bob Kerrey, then in the Senate, credits Lieberman’s sermon/speech with saving Clinton from impeachment by suggesting that the proper punishment for the president was a resolution of censure. “The president himself,” says Kerrey, “when he offered his apology to all of us said things approximately the same as Joe Lieberman did.”43 Still, former DNC chief Steve Grossman is one of many Clinton friends who says that the president was “deeply hurt” by the public rebuke.44
In the heated primary battle, Lieberman, recognizing that he was in trouble, approached Hillary on the Senate floor to ask if she would ask Bill to come in and campaign for him. Speculation as to why Clinton said yes mostly focused on what was best for Hillary. Clinton realized, says Jonathan Alter, “that it was in Hillary’s interest for Lieberman to win because the forces that have been unleashed against Lieberman could swallow Hillary, too.”45Clinton really doesn’t much like Lieberman anymore, says one friend, but he needs to keep that door open because Clinton does not want to offend Jewish and pro-Israel voters and moderate voters—again because Hillary will need them.46
As model Democrats, the Clintons explained, they would support the incumbent, Lieberman, in the primary, but they both made clear that whoever won the primary would get their support in the general election. The real story is that Bill Clinton made it possible for Lieberman to win in November by preventing a blowout in the primary. With Clinton’s help, Lieberman went from down ten points to barely losing, giving him the legitimacy he needed to run and win as an independent. Lieberman can’t “bitch at Clinton,” says Tony Coelho, because “Clinton went there and helped him and obviously closed the gap and gave him the capability to run again.”47 (In late 2007, Lieberman endorsed John McCain as he battled to win the Republican nomination.)
CAMPAIGNING FOR Lieberman in that primary and later campaigning in the general election for Jim Webb in his race for the Senate in Virginia highlighted a Bill Clinton character trait: when it comes to politics and, in Clinton’s case, that’s like saying when it comes to life, Clinton is pragmatic. He does not hold grudges. “It’s all part of his picking himself up off the floor,” says one friend. “Not in his interest to look vindictive.”48 Another friend depicts Clinton as a man who “makes love to his enemies.”49
Rod Blagojevich, now governor of Illinois, formerly a congressman, remembers being at the White House for a meeting with Clinton postimpeachment. Republican congressman James Rogan, one of the managers during the impeachment trial, was also there. Blagojevich describes being in a “little holding room and…[Clinton] comes in and spends a little time with you.” He recalls Clinton and Rogan chatting amiably. Blagojevich was fascinated by the fact that here is one of the “chief architects” planning Clinton’s destruction, but “unlike Nixon, he didn’t obsess about his enemies and hold these grudges to the extent that they destroyed him.”50 (Rogan was defeated in the next election.)
Clinton laughingly told a reporter, “It was said of me when I was governor that I’d never remember who I’m supposed to hate one day to the next.”51
The Senate race in Virginia—Republican incumbent George Allen against Democrat Jim Webb, a decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam—is an even more striking example of Bill Clinton’s pragmatism. Webb, a prickly former Republican, did not care much about Clinton’s sexual history, but he could not forgive Clinton’s lies about the draft. Joe Lieberman’s criticism of Clinton was said out of sorrow for an old friend who went astray. Jim Webb’s blasts at Bill Clinton were said out of genuine disdain.
“I cannot conjure up an ounce of respect for Bill Clinton when it comes to the military,” Webb said. “Every time I see him salute a Marine, it infuriates me. I don’t think Bill Clinton cares one iota about what happens in a military unit.” Webb called Clinton’s presidency “the most corrupt in modern memory.”52
In 2000, Webb, secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration, had first promised to endorse Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb, but then had switched to George Allen, because, says Robb, who lost to Allen that year, “he was absolutely fit to be tied because he thought Bill Clinton had completely ruined his [Webb’s] military…. Because I hadn’t somehow stopped him from ruining his beloved military, that was all he seemed to care about at the time.”53 Webb supported Bush over Gore in 2000.
Cynics say that Bill Clinton would do anything—even support a man who had been so blunt in his criticism—to see that there was a Democratic Senate because that would help Hillary. Others, such as former Clinton counsel Lanny Breuer, see this as Clinton at his best. “I think he cared a lot about policy and I think [he thought] Jim Webb…would be better for the country than George Allen. He takes a deep breath and does what many people wouldn’t do, which is to support someone who said pretty mean things about him.”54
“If I only supported people who never criticized me, I’d have no one to support,” Clinton said, according to the Newport News Daily Press, while campaigning for Webb.
That Webb ended up winning the Senate race and that the Democrats ended up taking the Senate, as well as the House, may have more to do with George Allen calling a young Indian American at a campaign rally by the slur “macaca,” but, in 2006 in Virginia, having Bill Clinton at his side didn’t hurt.
He was in top form that election season at a fund-raiser for Jim Webb at the Virginia home of Chuck and Lynda Robb. He spoke to a sold-out group of about 450 people and had the audience “absolutely spellbound,” says Chuck Robb.
If there was one problem with Clinton’s talk, says Robb, for all “his usual rhetorical magic,” it was that he did not even mention Webb during the first ten minutes. Robb was beginning to worry. During a pause, he whispered, “‘You’ve got to say something nice about Jim,’ at which point,” Robb says, “[Clinton] started weaving his story around Webb and all of his accomplishments. It was masterful.”
The star of the show was definitely Bill Clinton; Jim Webb, whom Robb calls extremely bright and very passionate about his beliefs, but “a little bit aloof on occasion, not anything like as gifted or nimble a speaker,” did not seem to mind. “He did his pitch and said, ‘I know who you’re here for,’” and while Clinton spoke, “you could have heard a pin drop.”
When it was over, Robb could not get Bill Clinton to leave. “I expected him to be arriving late; what I didn’t expect him to do is stick around more than an hour after the party was supposed to be over. He wanted to sign every picture that people had brought. I tried to get him to go,” Robb says, “because his motorcade was blocking our driveway and other guests couldn’t get out.” Before leaving, Clinton wanted to talk to Robb, a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, about the war. The two old friends stood on the porch, and, says Robb, “in his usual thoughtful, comprehensive way, [Clinton] went through the whole Middle East…. He had a fully thought-out vision for what he thought should be done…. This was a tour de force recap of all the key players in the entire Middle East with all the nuances and the internal dynamics.”55
BILL CLINTON’S pragmatism also, on occasion, extended to journalists.
“The thing about him,” says Jonathan Alter, “is that he’s not really a grudge holder unless you seem like you’re an implacable enemy.” Alter had landed squarely on Clinton’s enemies list in the fall of 1999 in the presidential limousine: “I asked him if he was seeking psychiatric counseling and he got very pissed off…. ‘I can’t believe you asked me that question.’” Clinton exited the limousine without saying good-bye.
Alter, who obviously likes Clinton, hated to see a relationship, which stretched back to 1984 and the Gary Hart campaign, end. At the last Clinton White House Christmas party in 2000, Alter recalls, “I saw Jake Siewert…. ‘You know every magazine from Toenail Illustrated on down has gotten an exit interview with Clinton. Why can’t I get in to see him?’”
“After that ‘Are you crazy, Mr. President?’ question?”
In the fall of 2001, as Clinton’s star continued to dim, he relented a bit. Alter interviewed him for a column about Clinton’s plans for his memoir. His agent, Robert Barnett, “went crazy,” Alter recalls. “Clinton was under contract not to talk about it and he talked about it with me by mistake…. Sort of as a favor to them, I didn’t mislead the reader, but I didn’t make it seem as if I had talked to him when I had.” That helped Alter land the interview for Newsweek’s cover story.
When Alter was undergoing chemotherapy, Clinton wrote him a note; and when Clinton had his bypass, they commiserated. In March 2006, “I was standing in Kmart…and he called on my cell phone and told me that he liked the piece I had written about Eli Segal—the architect of AmeriCorps—who died the month before.”56
BILL CLINTON also gets his entertainment the old-fashioned way, with a pen and the dead-tree edition of the New York Times. He is not a tournament-level crossword solver, but he’s way above average, and he might have been a contender if he had not had other responsibilities.
His love of puzzles and his longtime ties to puzzle aficionados were the impetus behind his agreeing to appear in the movie Wordplay—that his friend Harvey Weinstein was the money behind the movie helped also—a small but well-received documentary about the people who love the puzzle. The brainchild of director, cameraman, editor Patrick Creadon and his wife, Christine O’Malley, who produced it, the film focuses on Will Shortz, the puzzle editor of the New York Times and a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Sunday.
In March 2005, when Creadon was filming at the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Shortz, who directs the tournament, provided Creadon and O’Malley with a list of famous people who are crossword aficionados. Bill Clinton was at the top of Shortz’s list. Also on it was Jon Stewart, whom the young filmmakers wanted almost as much.
One of the tournament competitors in 2005 was Clinton’s friend, from Little Rock, Judge Victor Fleming. He had already agreed to appear in the movie and persuaded Clinton to do likewise. For the first-time documentary filmmakers, landing the interview with Clinton made their movie. “Having President Clinton in our film,” says Creadon, “elevated the entire project. It suddenly became much more than the story of a man [Will Shortz] who is sort of a cult figure.”
Creadon and O’Malley had an appointment to interview Clinton in early July 2005 in his Harlem office. (It was postponed until mid-July when Clinton spent an extra day with George H. W. Bush at his home in Kennebunkport.) That, says Creadon, opened the door to Jon Stewart. “We really weren’t getting anywhere with his people…. Once the Bill Clinton interview was on the books, and we were flying to New York, we called Jon Stewart’s people one final time. ‘Bill Clinton’s going to do an interview? OK, we’ll call you back in a few minutes,’ and they called us back and said, ‘Jon would love to do the interview.’”
The Clinton interview was scheduled for July 14 at 6:30 P.M., but they arrived three hours early just to be sure everything was flawlessly set up.
A Clinton aide warned the increasingly anxious Creadon, “He’s had an extremely full day; there’s a good chance he might be running a little bit late.” By 8 P.M. Creadon was seriously worried. At 8:15, he recalls, “someone in the room says, ‘OK, they’re walking, they’re walking down’; suddenly everyone in the room…just practically stood at attention…. A moment later, two Secret Service men walk into the room…. They didn’t say a word to us…. They looked around the room, looked through our gear real quickly and then stood there very quietly with their arms folded, and then someone else said, ‘OK, they’re in the hallway.’…The door opens up and eight more people walk in the room and they have books and clipboards and…Palm Pilots…and the last person to walk in is President Clinton.”
Creadon handed Clinton the section of the New York Times that contained the puzzle, which was created by Merl Reagle, syndicated crossword puzzle constructor, and edited by Will Shortz, and had run in the Times on Tuesday, May 31. (The day of the week is important because Monday is easiest and it becomes harder as the week progresses; the Tuesday puzzle is not nearly as challenging as the Saturday puzzle.) The puzzle’s theme was “Wordplay,” the title of the film.
How did they know that Clinton hadn’t already solved it when it appeared in the newspaper? “He typically only solves the Friday and Saturday puzzles,” Creadon explains, “and maybe the Sunday puzzle. He doesn’t do the beginning of the week because the beginning-of-the-week puzzles are really pretty easy.”
“I’d like you to…almost pretend that we’re not here and just open up the paper and solve the puzzle like you normally do,” Creadon told Clinton. Clinton “starts solving the puzzle and doing the interview at the same time. He’s doing it in pen.” As he was working, Clinton told them that he recently read in a medical journal that crossword puzzles can fend off Alzheimer’s and dementia. “You know, I’m not getting any younger and so I feel like I’ve reached the point in my life where I need to do everything I can to ward off that sort of condition.”
Creadon estimates that it took Clinton six or seven minutes to finish it—they didn’t time him—no mistakes, although he did change one letter while solving it. “And he looked at it when it was done and said, ‘Yeah, that was fun.’”
Camera off, Clinton shook hands with everyone. “Would it be okay if we took a very quick picture?” Creadon asked. “Come on in.” Clinton answered. “He stood there with his arms outstretched like a big mother eagle and we all kind of climbed in under his arms and he pulled us all tightly to him and we took a picture.”
Clinton continued to support the young filmmakers, even going to bat for them with another famous politician they wanted to interview. On election day 1996, the New York Times ran what some consider to be the greatest crossword ever made. The main answer running across the middle is “headline in tomorrow’s newspaper,” two words, seven letters each. The most obvious answer is “Clinton Elected.” According to Creadon, the Times “got flooded with phone calls: ‘How dare you run that?’ ‘Who are you to assume that he’s going to win?’” The less obvious answer was “BobDole Elected”—an answer that would be obvious to people, like Bill Clinton, who know that Dole is given to referring to himself in the third person as “Bobdole,” as if it were one word.
Creadon and O’Malley had contacted Dole earlier about appearing in the film, but his people said no, explaining that Dole is not a particular fan of crosswords.
Clinton then called Dole and persuaded him to give the interview. When Creadon walked into Dole’s office, he didn’t even say hello: “Boy, you have quite an advance man on your team!”57
People who are into crosswords call Clinton—the only president living or dead who is a fan of the puzzle58—solver in chief.59
Clinton has “the kind of brain that we like in the puzzle business,” says Reagle. “We call it a sponge head…. He…sops up useless and useful knowledge and he can…talk on virtually any subject you mention. He retains most of, if not all of, what he reads.”60
As a boy of ten or twelve, Clinton was inspired by the fact that a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, George Rose Smith, made puzzles, some of which were published in the Sunday New York Times.61
When Victor Fleming would go to the Governor’s Mansion on weekend mornings to pick up his daughter, who had spent the night with Chelsea, “Bill would be working the crossword puzzle,” Fleming says, “and I’d sit down and participate with him.” He once had the Saturday puzzle finished except for one word. Fleming looked at it and immediately got it. “The clue was ‘early summers’ and…he had all but two letters filled in and the answer was ‘abacus.’” In November 1995, Fleming, his wife, and daughter were spending the day and night at the White House. Just after lunch, Bill, Victor, and his wife, Susan, were solving the Saturday New York Times puzzle while watching a college football game. Hillary, not a puzzle or football fan, was elsewhere, working on her book It Takes a Village. The phone rang and the person on the other end informed the president that Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had been shot. Clinton began to tell the Flemings how much Rabin meant to him and to the world. About thirty minutes later a second call came and he said, “I understand.” And this time he said, “Yep, that was just to confirm that Rabin has died.” He put the puzzle down, got up, and said, “I’m going to have to go to work now.”62
GEORGE MCGOVERN asked Bill Clinton to be the speaker for the dedication, in early October 2006, of the George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University in the former senator’s hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota. McGovern describes the school as “a little Methodist college” where McGovern met his wife, earned his undergraduate degree, and taught history for a few years. Clinton declined because Victor Fleming’s daughter was getting married that day in Little Rock and Chelsea was her maid of honor.
But McGovern, eighty-four, whose ties to Clinton date to 1972, really wanted him. “I called him directly at his New York office and told him how much it would mean to me.” Clinton thought some more about it and called him back to say he’d do it if they could provide him with a private plane to fly him there and from there to Little Rock. Clinton did the speech pro bono.
In introducing the former president, McGovern quipped to the audience of more than five thousand seated on a lawn under gorgeous blue skies: “I understood that being Methodist doesn’t save you from sin, but it does take the fun out of it.” Clinton responded with an earnest tribute: “I’ve been married to a Methodist for thirty-one years; I know every move that John Wesley ever made.” He spoke of Wesley’s concern for the poor and the coal miners and the factory workers in London and his antislavery role in Europe, and then he said, “I’ve read a lot about John Wesley and I think John Wesley would be proud of George McGovern.”
“He couldn’t have said anything that would have struck a better response with that audience,” says McGovern. “Just being familiar with John Wesley’s life and embroidering that to tie it in with my battles against human hunger and so on—it brought down the house.”
After Clinton and McGovern unveiled a life-sized standing bronze of George and Eleanor McGovern, Clinton saw the crowd that was behind the restraining ropes, and, says McGovern, “he just reached across the ropes and grabbed as many hands as he could…. Once we got him inside the library where there were probably a couple of hundred other people, he didn’t want to leave. The Secret Service and his staff were trying to pull him to Little Rock, and he was still chatting with the people.”63
Eleanor McGovern, suffering from heart disease, was not there and died soon after.
When Clinton arrived at Elizabeth Fleming’s wedding back in Little Rock and saw the father of the bride, he walked over to him, put his arms around him, gave him a big hug, and said, “Boy, we were pretty good in that crossword puzzle movie, weren’t we?”64