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04.05.10

My Date With Bill Clinton

In an exclusive excerpt from her new memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, Norris Church Mailer details how she was courted—and seduced—by a 27-year-old Bill Clinton.

There was another man I saw a bit of that year. Oddly enough, the same friend, Toni, who had introduced me to Edmond, called me up and said she was giving a fundraiser for an attractive young man who was running for Congress. She said I should meet him. He was 27 years old, single, and named Bill Clinton. I came in late, just as he began his talk, and he later said that when he saw me walk in, he forgot his speech—and then he forgot his name. I suspected he said that same thing to quite a few women, but it’s a good line, so why not use it? He was the embodiment of charisma: When he talked to you, he had the ability to make you feel like you were the only person in the room. He looked you in the eye and never once glanced over your shoulder to see who else was there. The only other person I have met who had charisma to that extent was Jackie Kennedy.

“I guess he slept with every woman in Arkansas except you, Norris.”

Bill came up to me after his speech, and after the introductions, compliments on the speech, and pleasantries, he told me I had the old-fashioned kind of beauty that should wear cameos and he was going to get me one. That never happened, but then I never thought it would. It was just party talk. I was lucky to get that much attention. I could see that everyone wanted his ear, so I just stayed for a short while and then started for the door. When he noticed that I was about to leave, he said “Wait a minute, Barbara,” walked me out to my car, and asked if he could see me again when he had more time. Why would I say no? To ensure he would remember, a day or two after we met, some of my students and I decorated one of our papier-mâché animals, a donkey, with a Vote for Clinton banner and took it to his headquarters, which greatly amused him.

He invited me a few times to campaign with him and his group in nearby towns, handing out cards and buttons and telling people why they should vote for him and clapping and cheering when he spoke. He was usually mobbed, mostly by women, but would always find a little time somewhere in the evening to talk to me alone. I stood next to him once in a receiving line, and was amazed at his memory for names and faces. One young man shook hands with him and said, “I’m honored to meet you, Mr. Clinton.” Bill said, “I think we’ve met before.” The other guy said, “No, I don’t think so,” and Bill studied him for a minute and said, “You were at Boys State with me in 1963.” The guy was astounded; he really didn’t remember meeting him. During his speeches, Bill could pull facts and figures easily out of some file cabinet in his head.

book-cover---ticket-to-the-circus
A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir. By Norris Church Mailer. 432 pages. Random House. $26 ()

He also had a trick of holding and caressing my hand while carrying on a conversation with someone else in a crowd, which made me feel like I had some kind of inside track. Occasionally he would invite me to sit beside him in the car on the way to or from an event, which was a big treat, since there were so many people vying for his attention. But we were never alone. He was sorry, he said, but he had no time to take me out on a regular date. Everything was always a campaign event. “That’s OK,” I said, and really it was. I was busy enough anyhow, and just liked being in his glow once in a while. Then one night, late and unannounced, the doorbell rang. It was him.

Years later in New York, after all the scandals broke, a man I knew socially who was in politics said, “I guess he slept with every woman in Arkansas except you, Norris.” “Sorry, Russ,” I replied, “I’m afraid he got us all.”

He was pretty hard to resist, I must say. So I didn’t, although I stopped campaigning with him. I hated talking to strangers, handing out cards, and trying to articulate the reasons why they should vote for Bill. I had no idea what to say when people pinned me down on his policies. Still, when he happened to be near Russellville, he would call. What we had was by no stretch of the imagination a romance, with his heavy campaign schedule and his seldom being alone except in the wee hours of the morning. He didn’t have the time, and I didn’t like being part of his pack of admirers. I was still dating several other men—mainly the lawyer at this point, who later became a judge—and while I had no idea how many other women Bill was seeing, it was apparent by the number of starry-eyed followers that there were a lot of them. I liked him immensely anyhow, and had no illusion I would become anything more than a friendly warm place for him to go from time to time, and frankly I didn’t want to be more. Even then, I knew he was going to be president one day. It didn’t take a psychic to see his prowess as a speaker, his genuine concern for the people, and his huge ambition. Not to mention his love of women. And I wasn’t the girl for that gig.

On election night, he invited me to headquarters in Fayetteville to wait for the returns, and I went with several friends. There were, of course, a lot of women there, but there was one I’d never seen before who seemed to be running things, rushing around answering phones, obviously in charge. Her name was Hillary, she wore enormous thick glasses, no makeup, and rather ugly colorless baggy clothing. Someone whispered that she was the girlfriend. I said, “ Really?” surprised at first, but as the evening wore on, I could see there was something extraordinary about her. She had an intelligence that none of the prettier girls in the room had. If I ever had a pang of jealousy, it was for that, when I knew he and she must have had a relationship that was fired by intellect. I would have so liked to be able to talk to him about world affairs and politics, or art or literature, or anything, really. I had the conceit that I had a good mind, too. But we frankly never talked much. He was always exhausted and wanted to catch two or three hours of sleep, or he was dashing out the door on his way somewhere and had no time. I would have liked just once to have a leisurely dinner and sit and talk, but that never happened.

He lost the election, by a smaller margin than had been expected, since his Republican opponent, John Paul Hammerschmidt, was popular and had been in office since 1963. But it was clear he was going to make it big sometime, somehow. He had the hunger. I had illustrated a little memoir called Idols and Axle Grease by my friend Francis Irby Gwaltney, and I inscribed a copy to Bill with something like, “I’ll see you in the White House.”

By that time, I’d started to feel used. The last time he’d called at two in the morning to see if he could drop by, I’d said no. I was done, and that was probably the final time we saw each other in that way.

He moved to Fayetteville with Hillary to teach in the law school, and we didn’t keep in touch too often, but when I decided to move to New York with Norman Mailer, I called him to say goodbye, and I don’t know how it happened—maybe he’d had to come to Russellville for another reason entirely—but he drove up into my yard just as I was walking out the door with my yellow luggage, on my way to the airport.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” he asked.

“No,” I said, and smiled, “but I’m doing it anyhow.”

He carried my suitcases to my car, gave me a little kiss, and I drove away. Several years later he became governor, and we reconnected when I had a show of my paintings in a gallery in Little Rock. He and Hillary had dinner with Norman and me in a Chinese restaurant and they invited us to one of his inaugurations. (Norman wrote a speech for him, but he never used any of it. I was sorry; it really was pretty good.) Through the years, we would occasionally bump into each other at functions in New York, or he would drop a note or call just to keep in touch. Norman liked them, especially Hillary, and would have supported her in the presidential primaries if he had lived. He said she had earned it. I still consider Bill and Hillary friends, if distant ones.

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Norris Church Mailer is the author of a memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, and two novels, Windchill Summer and Cheap Diamonds . Raised in Arkansas and now a resident of Brooklyn, Norris is the mother of two sons, two stepsons, and five stepdaughters, as well as a grandmother to two and step-grandmother to nine.