A week or two ago I watched former president Bill Clinton give an amazing speech at the Democratic National Convention. These days my sweet daughter, President Clinton is the distinguished grey eminence of the Democratic Party and his command of the world stage is legendary. His speech took me back to his salad days when he was first running for president, and to the very private exchange he and I once had in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It happened like this.
I’d always had an interest in politics, so in early 1992 I called a friend who worked for our local city councilman and asked him how I could get meaningfully involved in a political campaign. Without hesitation he told me to go to the nearest headquarters of any candidate I was passionate about and start licking envelopes.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realize my friend gave me great advice. In many ways political campaigns are the truest of meritocracies. Because campaigns have little time and even less money, for the most part all anyone cares about is whether you can get the job done. You can be licking envelopes today and be the deputy campaign manager tomorrow.
Of course I didn’t know that then, and in my arrogance I thought licking envelopes was beneath me. I thanked my friend for the advice, told him I would take it under advisement, and asked him to keep me in mind if anything interesting came across his desk.
Sure enough, a few weeks later my friend called. “Governor Clinton is coming to Southern California on a campaign trip” he said, “and they need volunteers to drive staff vans in the motorcade.” In those days I barely knew who Clinton was, but I thought it could be a fun way to spend a day. I felt very important when someone in Arkansas called me to get information for my FBI background check “since I was going to be in proximity to the candidate”.
The night before Clinton was to arrive, someone on his advance team called me to say they couldn’t use me as a driver. Before I could voice my disappointment he said “but we have the perfect job for someone with your skill set. We want you to oversee press movement at the event.” I didn’t think to ask how he could possibly know what my skill set was, and I excitedly agreed.
What I didn’t know was that the press movement volunteer is simply the person who holds up a big sign that says “press follow me”. He was certainly right that I had the necessary skill set. I have two arms and two legs.
As instructed, I arrived the next morning at 7AM at the appointed location, wearing a suit and tie. A sign on the wall welcomed Governor Clinton “at 4PM today”. It was already about eighty degrees and I saw only one person at the site. He was in shorts and a T-shirt and was setting up chairs.
I approached him very officiously and told him I was looking for Josh, the lead site person for the event. He looked me up and down and said “I’m Josh.” I told him I was there to do press movement. “You’ll be perfect for that” he said without missing a beat. “In the meantime, why don’t you take off your coat and tie and help me set up.”
Over the years Josh has become a good friend and he and I advanced a number of trips together. On that day Josh made sure I had a lot of fun and then set me up to go to Little Rock for training as a presidential advance person. After two or three trips, the campaign sent me to be part of the advance team for a trip Clinton was taking to Los Alamos. It was my first time being in charge of one of the sites the candidate was to visit, and I was very nervous.
Over the four days before Clinton arrived I probably slept a total of ten hours, which is about par for a presidential advance team. I learned my site inside and out. I memorized the names and titles of all the executives and all the politicos Clinton would meet while he was there. I coordinated with the Secret Service ad nauseam.
As the motorcade sped towards my site on the big day, the lead advance person hit me on the walkie-talkie. “We’re about seven minutes out”. I was ready. “We’re about four minutes out”, the walkie-talkie crackled a couple of minutes later. “And Norm, Eagle (or whatever his code name was at that time) wants to talk to you privately the moment we arrive”.
What? What could I have done wrong already? I had met Clinton a few times on previous trips, but I was reasonably certain Clinton had no idea who I was. “He wants to talk to me?” I gasped. “Yes, he wants a word with you privately. We’re one minute out.”
For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do or say when I saw him. I braced myself for the worst, took my position where Eagle’s car would stop, and resolved to enjoy what for reasons unknown seemed likely to be my last advance trip. The motorcade came around the bend and rolled towards me. Had I not been so scared it would have been an exhilarating moment. The motorcade came to a stop, the door opened, and Clinton climbed out of the car.
“Norm?” he drawled. “Yes, Governor” I answered. “How may I be of service?” And then Eagle, who towered over me by a good nine inches or so, put his arm around me like we’d known each other our whole lives and started guiding me away from the car so no one could overhear us. “Where’s the men’s room?” he whispered.
Such are the secrets of history.
All my everlasting love,