As my wife and I waited to be seated for dinner at New York's 21 Club the other night, we were shocked to see Bill Clinton stroll out of the men's room. When we were led to our table a few minutes later, we found ourselves maybe 15 feet away from the former president. We were so awestruck that it took us a while to realize Hillary Clinton was also part of the large group seated at a round table in the middle of the room. I couldn't resist. As they were leaving, I bolted from my table and approached them.
I should preface this story by saying that I pride myself on my shamelessness. I have no problem walking up to people I admire and shooting the breeze or asking for an autograph or whatever. But talking to Michael Stipe or Tony Bennett didn't prepare me for trying to share a moment with the Clintons.
It sometimes seems like ancient history, that time when the Clintons were in the White House, far-right conservatism was still in its ascendancy, and the Republican party had the heads of both Bill and Hillary in its sights. A whole generation of voters has come of age not remembering a time when it seemed like President Clinton was a one-man firewall preventing the country from going completely insane. (As it turns out, having lived through his post-presidential years, it turned out to be true.)
The more he co-opted the Republican agenda and dulled their extremist edges and showed that pragmatism can trump ideology, the more insane the GOP got, and the more ruthlessly they tried to take down both the President and the First Lady. And what a miracle to discover that, despite all the dirty laundry aired in public, at the end of the day the American people still liked and trusted the Clintons. Today, of course, we all realize that a solid and stable marriage doesn't necessarily translate into a good presidency, and vice-versa. But in 1998, to find out that people cared primarily about whether a president was doing his job was a revelation.
Hillary, who had gotten shot down early in the Clinton presidency with her health care plan, kept her head down, worked hard and weathered the Republican shitstorm with such grace and dignity that she became a respected, twice-elected Senator. Known for, of all things, being able to reach across the aisle and work with the other party.
It broke my heart when the Clintonian era of peace and prosperity was repudiated by their own party during the 2008 primaries. It cheers me to see that, after a few rocky months, the former president seems to have returned to elder-statesman status. And it heartens me to know that President Obama will have Secretary Of State Clinton at his side to try to untangle the messes we've gotten into since 2001.
I've voted for Bill and Hillary five times combined (it would have been six but, I confess, I pulled the lever for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 primary). I've worked on and contributed money to their campaigns. Close to 20 years after the Clintons strode onto the national stage, there's still nobody whose brain I'd rather pick over a leisurely meal, about anything and everything, than Bill Clinton. And what lifelong Democrat wouldn't love to get to know the real, unguarded Hillary behind the cool public demeanor?
It's not an exaggeration to say that I love these two people whom I'd never met. Certainly I'm grateful to them both for everything they've done in the service of their country. And now, at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, I would get to tell them so personally.
I made it just in time to get a quick handshake from the former president, along with a trademark "Thank yew," before he breezed out the door. So much for a téte-a-téte.
I did get to chat a little with Hillary - I mentioned the pieces I'd written for HuffPo about her and the grief I'd gotten for writing them, which she seemed to genuinely appreciate. From there, however, it was all downhill. I was a barely-coherent mess, even calling her "Madame Senator" instead of "Madame Secretary." Thankfully, she handled my babbling gracefully and allowed me to slink away without feeling even more like an idiot.
Having blown the chance to tell the Clintons how much I admire them both to their faces, I'd like to take this opportunity to do so in writing. Mr. President, Madame Secretary (got it right this time!), if you're reading this, I... um... well, it's just that....
Oh, forget it.