THE BLOG
04/15/2008 08:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It Takes One Elitist (i.e. Bill Clinton) to Recognize Another

Jennifer Bucy, 36, whom Wall Street Journal reporters identified as an Obama supporter, was recently quoted as saying that she had gone to hear Bill Clinton speak the week before in Clinton, Indiana. The former president was wearing what Bucy described as looking like snakeskin boots. "They weren't working boots," she said.

I was struck by the "snakeskin boots" anecdote that closed Amy Chozick and Nick Timuraos's WSJ piece. They were covering, like almost every other political reporter, Obama's rift -- on April 6, to a mostly well-heeled group of San Franciscans at a fundraiser in Pacific Heights -- about blue-collar Pennsylvanians being bitter over disappearing jobs and prone to clinging as a crutch to religion, guns and prejudices.

The AP writer Ron Fournier who goes way back with Clinton -- he covered Governor Clinton for the Arkansas Democrat and then moved to the AP where he covered the Clinton White House, reported in 1996 that Clinton "used to buy his shoes at a discount self-serve store in Arkansas -- one black pair, one brown pair. 'That's all anyone needs,' he'd say." A far cry from snakeskin.

Al Gore was belittled for hiring writer Naomi Wolf to give him wardrobe advice -- which colors made him appear more alpha male? -- and John Kerry took flack for his expensive bicycle and the accompanying cycling outfit, not to mention his wind surfing ensemble.

Bill Clinton somehow manages to pull off an image of a regular guy, even though he wears more money on his back (in his suits, shirts) and on his wrists (in the form of mechanical watches that cost almost as much as a working man's house) than did either of the failed presidential candidates. Campaigning in Pennsylvania last weekend, Bill played the common man card, repeating in two separate venues -- a high school and a middle school -- that people had told him pretty much the same thing; they weren't bitter, just proud and wanted a different direction for the country.

While writing Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, my look at Bill Clinton's post-presidency, I interviewed Michael Kobold, a young, late 20s German watchmaker whose company is headquartered in Pittsburgh. Kobold, who met Clinton in 2004, is a huge admirer of the former president -- both of his soaring style and leadership abilities.

Anyone who follows Bill Clinton saw a seismic change from his days as Arkansas governor and his early years as president. In those years he wore a battery-operated Timex, a savvy political move because Timex had extensive operations in Arkansas and was a major local employer, and-- best of all -- was known for making the first watches affordable to the working man. "He was infamous for wearing a cheap plastic Timex Ironman," says Michael Kobold.

Even while he was still president, before he started to earn millions on speeches and potentially conflict-of-interest laden consulting contracts (recently released tax returns showed $109 million raked in over the last seven years), Bill Clinton piece by piece acquired a personal style that had nothing in common with his roots or with the lives of ordinary Americans. .

Today Clinton wears "high-end mechanical watches," says Kobold, "...very exclusive" -- Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Audemars Piguet. At least one of his watches -- he has some 50 in his collection -- is said to be worth more than $100,000.

Clinton and Kobold clicked on another level. Kobold makes watches for Jim Gandolfini (aka Tony Soprano), who has become a close friend and is also a friend of the former president's. Clinton has three watches courtesy of Kobold, all on loan (i.e. he didn't have to pay for them but is supposed to return them) and one that was a gift from Gandolfini. For Michael Kobold, eating the cost is well worth it because Clinton gives his watches plenty of "wrist time." He sported one on the cover of Ladies Home Journal, and he also wore one that was worth close to $4,000 when he appeared on Larry King Live.

(Kobold watches, "their components made and assembled in factories in Switzerland and Germany," retail for between $3.200 and $25,000. They appeal to a certain kind of armchair adventurer -- George W. Bush owns one -- but also to the real thing. According to Kobold's advertising they're the preferred "wrist instruments" of Polar explorers, NASA test pilots, CIA agents, SWAT teams.)

Kobold says that he would never use the "Dear Mike" notes he receives regularly from the former president to advertise, but the Ladies Home Journal photographer sent Kobold a blowup of Clinton wearing his watch, and Kobold has it in his office and people notice and say, "Wow, Bill Clinton's wearing the watch."

George H.W. Bush, the ultimate WASP, was ribbed for wearing watches with cheap striped bands -- not Bill Clinton's style -- or the style of the current president who ordered a Kobold in 2001, paid for it, and that was that.

At one point in the Kerry campaign, the candidate who was lampooned by Rush Limbaugh as the "French-looking John Kerry" had to give up his Hermes ties. He began to wear American-made ties, some from Vineyard Vines, a company founded on Martha's Vineyard. That "the Vineyard" reeks of elitism and the clothes reek prep school seemed not to matter because the ties were made in America. Bill Clinton also loves neckties. One of his Chicago supporters, Mike Cherry, who slept in the Lincoln bedroom, got into the habit of handing a tie to the president every time he saw him -- most of the ties hand-made and Italian.

Clinton is known to be very vain about his hands, and Kobold pronounces that vanity justified. They are "not a farmer's hands, refined looking" and tipped by manicured nails. The late Eppie Lederer (aka Ann Landers) used to comment on Clinton's "beautiful digits."

No one has reported which watch the former president sported when he traveled in Pennsylvania bashing Obama as an out-of-touch elitist. But it's worth betting the week's food budget on one thing: it wasn't a Timex.