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Political Narratives: The Day I Met Bill Clinton

It was a hot day in mid-July 1992 and the Democrats had arrived in New York for their convention at Madison Square Garden. I had voted in the primary—yes, I am a Democrat—but not for William Jefferson Clinton. I’d read a lot about his tenure as Governor of Arkansas and when I’d learned that he had refused to stay the execution of a retarded man, that was enough for me. Clinton was also a union buster. I believe in unions—though belief is a scary word to use these days—and have belonged to two unions in recent years: the National Writers Union and ACT-UAW at NYU. The National Writers Union is also affiliated with the UAW, a quaint touch, no? UAW: United Auto Workers. At NYU, the union has negotiated salary rises, working conditions, and benefits. Prior to the union, the University, one of the richest in the country, was exploiting its labor—clerical, adjunct, and graduate students—to whose benefit? Not ours.

I wasn’t thinking of any of this on the day I met Bill Clinton except perhaps that he’d also cheated on his accomplished and intelligent wife, with impunity. His spin machine was spinning a new narrative/story which I, of course, did not entirely believe. I wasn’t his Good Wife so didn’t have to forgive him. I voted for Jerry Brown.

It was 7:30 in the morning, dripping hot, and I was trying to run my two laps around the reservoir. I stopped at the water fountains on the track near the Metropolitan Museum and took a long drink. And there was Bill Clinton, dripping hot, at the fountain to my right. Flanked by two beefy security guards, he began running again and so did I. I suppose I was giving chase. Whoopee! But soon lost them, their 8 minute mile to my 10 on a good cool day. So, great, I saw Bill Clinton on the track, I thought. In our celebrity driven culture that story alone would have some cachet at a dinner party. But there was more: When I stopped to stretch at the bars at the 90th street entrance to the track, he came up from behind—yes, dear reader, he lapped me—and, dripping hot, we stretched together—me, Clinton and the two beefy guards. We stood up at about the same time and Clinton extended his sweaty hand. “I’m Bill Clinton.”

“Yes I know,” I said.

Of course I had known this for the better part of fifteen minutes as I was giving chase around the track, but was loath to admit it.

The next ten minutes were quite an experience: No one else around and there I was being regaled by Bill Clinton. I could have been anyone. I could have been wallpaper. I stood and listened. I tried to open my mouth to say something intelligible. I wanted to ask about the retarded man who had been executed, for example. But I was stymied by the spin machine in front of me. Clinton regaled me with rehearsed, exaggerated stories about all he had done as Governor and would do once he became President of our United States. Were the stories fact, fiction or factoid? Was there any difference any more? I had no chance to even voice a doubt. To the very end of our brief encounter, I didn’t have a chance to get a word in sideways. Clinton didn’t ask my name, whether I was a Democrat or not, or whether I had voted for him in the primary. He made good eye contact and was very handsome, however. His sweaty handshake was not slippery, it was strong.

Eventually, we walked down the steps to the bridle path and, as I was about to say goodbye, good luck, bon chance, and so on and so forth, the paparazzi arrived, first in a helicopter, then in cars. They descended, deus ex machina, and then they surrounded. A few more joggers came along, some with babies in those over-sized special strollers and they all hovered and the paparazzi snapped photos. A mature female jogger sidled up to Clinton and slipped him a piece of paper. I marveled at her foresight—to carry a paper and pen with her as she jogged. Perhaps she is a writer, I thought. I get my best ideas on the track or in the swimming pool. Yes, I must carry pen and paper with me from now on, I thought. Enough of bending down to the ash track and scrawling dirt letters on my arm.

Dear reader, this is not a factoid: Clinton took the piece of paper and slipped it into a pocket in his shorts. And though I witnessed this and experienced a political regaling, I voted for him anyway.
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