Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and have lived the entirety of my life in Searcy, Arkansas. I believe in southern hospitality, and I believe there is no greater entertainment than watching fast horses run in a circle while wearing a ridiculously large hat.
Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow
In 1996, eager to experience the world, I went with two fellow college freshmen to Little Rock on election night. We thought we knew our futures and our beliefs, but in reality we were thoroughly naïve and mistaken. Under brilliant fireworks and a canopy of trees filled with twinkling lights, we watched as William Jefferson Clinton, The Boy from Hope, held hands with Hillary and Chelsea and looked into the sky and the future. And the three of us felt the effects of this evening for twenty years.
As this presidential election approaches, with Hillary on the ticket, I’ve talked to my two accomplices—J.A. and Lindsey—to discuss this monumental evening.
J.A., who now goes by James, said, “That was so long ago on so many levels.” At the time, J.A. was a political science major who aspired to be an attorney and a politician. Freshman year, he volunteered for Tim Hutchinson’s campaign for U.S. Senate. Two weeks before election night, he was driving on the highway to Little Rock in his blue Ford Escort to work at campaign headquarters, and he hit a cow and decapitated it. The cow’s head landed squarely in the passenger seat of his car.
On election night, J.A. was excited to claim his earned spot at Hutchinson’s watch party. Lindsey and I were just tagging along for a good time. Only now do we now why J.A. invited us: “Because I’d coordinated Hutchinson’s campaign on our college campus, I got to know most of the students who might be interested in attending his election night party. You and Lindsey were the hottest of the girls I met, and I thought I might impress one of you. With my Ford Escort with cow blood stains. It wasn’t well thought out.” We left our conservative, Christian college, and J.A. drove us in the cowmobile. I hoped the body shop had removed all the blood and guts from my seat. Although I had never attended a meeting, Lindsey and I would gain admittance to the Hutchinson soiree by affiliating with our campus’s chapter of College Republicans. For us, the evening was kind of about Hutchinson, but it was mainly about Bill. After all, when would a presidential candidate be 45 minutes down the road from us on election night again?
J.A. and I were both eighteen and, earlier in the day, had experienced the thrill of voting for the first time. “I voted for Bob Dole, of course, obviously, because I was a ‘good’ Christian,” J.A. says now, with a tone of mischief. My naïve self was anxious to be part of the democratic process but didn’t even have a cursory understanding of the issues our country was facing at the end of the millennium. So I turned towards my capitalist CPA father and voted like he did: also casting my ballot for Dole. Now I think it’s a bit ironic that my backstabbing Arkansan self exited the voter’s booth and headed straight to Little Rock for Clinton’s party.
Twenty years later, Lindsey has fewer recollections of this evening, and I believe this is because she had already experienced a much more intimate, awful, awesome encounter with Bill.
It was the summer of 1995. She was a member of the Searcy Youth Council, a group created by our mayor to encourage high school students to become involved in government. At that time, the state senator from our town went way back with President Bill Clinton. Although virtually everyone in Arkansas claims to go way back with Clinton, his version of “way back” meant he could get twelve high school students into the Oval Office on a Saturday morning to listen the President’s radio address.
At some point early that morning, while it was still dark outside, Lindsey shot straight out of bed and raced to the bathroom to throw up violently. Despite her sincere wish that the worst was behind her, it became very clear within ten minutes she was in the throes of a stomach virus.
Lindsey was able to dress and limp to the White House gate. Her only thoughts were of getting there; she did not consider the wait while background checks were performed.
After several hours, the Searcy Youth Council was finally granted admittance into the Oval Office, and Lindsey’s sense of awe was very quickly eclipsed by the swell of nausea that became more intense as a college basketball team arrived and was seated around her group. They were packed onto the couches and on the Great Seal of the United States emblazoned on the floor in front of President Clinton’s desk. Lindsey frantically attempted to peer between bodies of 7-foot basketball players to form an exit strategy.
“As soon as the president entered the room and started his address, I knew that I would not make it until the end of his speech or through the next five minutes, so I scrambled to the closest door,” Lindsey said. “In my memory, I had to pull out a section of curved wall, an act made more difficult by the Secret Service agents working against me. I mimicked the act of throwing up with wild hand gestures because I was terrified vomit would spew if I opened my mouth. Their failure to understand my game of charades made my situation more urgent with each passing second, and it became clear that actual words were going to be necessary to avoid (a) federal prison or (b) throwing up in a very public venue.
I finally exclaimed, perhaps a bit too loudly, I NEED TO THROW UP. I do not know if the President heard me or if his eye was just drawn to the disturbance, but we made eye contact as I sprinted to what later became the Monica Lewinsky bathroom. I threw up before the door finished closing, and I remember spending the remainder of the address cleaning up vomit and wondering if the entire United States heard me puking over the radio.”
But Lindsey’s harrowing story did not end there: “We were all given the opportunity to meet President Clinton and have our pictures made with him afterward. He made a point to say something to everyone he shook hands with, and when it was my turn, he jokingly asked the room if anyone had any hand sanitizer. I blame nerves and nausea, but my response was to fake like I was about to throw up on him. I spent the next week watching the news to see if the President had caught the plague from me.”
Months after the throw-up incident, Lindsey and I lost interest in the Hutchinson watch party. We left J.A. to his shameless networking and went exploring in the streets. Here, we met up with upperclassmen from our school. The jubilation in the streets: the music, the exultant crowds, the celebrity sightings and experiencing history provided the perfect backdrop for us to quickly fall for these guys. I took a picture of them with Maria Shriver. I paired with Jason, a gorgeous guy that I couldn’t believe was looking at me. He held my hand as we worked our way through the swells of people.
Hutchinson’s victory over Winston Bryant was declared fairly early in the night. Somehow, we were able to find J.A. again even though we didn’t have cell phones. We wandered the streets as the anchors of the major networks were seated in elevated areas, reporting the returns that were also displayed on the jumbotrons in the streets. And at almost 11:00 p.m., Bill, Hillary and Chelsea and Al Gore and his family took the stage at the Old State House.
One detail James said he would always remember is just before Bill Clinton came on stage, the U2 song “Where the Streets Have No Name” blared, and then the principals emerged from the Old State House as “Hail to the Chief” played. “At the time I thought I hated Clinton,” he said. “But at that moment I was in total awe of the spectacle of seeing a US President for the first time.”
“I think about that night every time I hear the first minute or so of ‘Streets,’” James said. “It’s also how the LA Dodgers run onto the field, too, so it’s just a big goose bumps kind of song for me, even now in 2016.”
Jason pulled me to a window ledge in a building across the street where we were able to see the Clintons better. It was an enchanting perspective on the scene: some of the biggest magic my 18-year-old self had ever experienced. I still live in the Little Rock area, and I think about that night every time I see that window ledge.
Jason and I went on a few dates after that evening. The first few were filled with excitement, but the further we got away from the allure of election night, the spark between us dwindled. He did not call me when school resumed after Christmas break. James did not become a lawyer or politician. He is now the director of a library consortium in California and lives in Los Angeles. He can’t imagine life without cell phones or working for a Republican. It’s been several years since he voted for any Republican.
Lindsey became a lawyer. Her Clinton encounters contributed to her considering politics. She had one more brush with Bill, an interaction that illustrates his famed ability to remember people.
Fast forward to the summer of 2000, President Clinton’s last year in office. Lindsey graduated from college in May and would start law school in August, and she was excited when she was offered a summer internship in DC working for U.S. Senator Tim Hutchinson. Even though Senator Hutchinson was a Republican, Lindsey had many friends who interned or worked at the White House, and everyone from Arkansas, even the Republicans, basked in glow of an Arkansas president. A college friend of hers had taken a job at the White House several years before, and he invited Lindsey to attend the Fourth of July fireworks display on the Front Lawn. Although the Clintons watched the fireworks from a balcony, afterward they came to the lawn to greet the VIP stragglers still left on the lawn. Lindsey’s friend walked her over to introduce her. “As the President shook my hand, he looked at me carefully, then smiled, patted my hand and said, ‘I’m glad to see you’re feeling better this time.’ Before I could even respond, he had already moved on to the next person standing behind me, thus depriving me of the chance to, once again, pretend like I was going to throw up on him,” Lindsey said.
Today, Lindsey advises clients on multi-million securities deals.
I don’t know if it was a Clinton crush or, like James, the rush of seeing the most powerful man in the world in person, but after election night I paid more attention our president was doing. I cheered his appointment of Madeline Albright. I was impressed by the balanced budget. I hung on every revelation of the Lewinsky scandal and read every word of The Starr Report.
On election night in 1996, I was an English major certifying to teach. And, after taking a non-linear path, today I am an eighth grade English teacher. In my spare time, I write about horse racing, a pursuit very far from my conservative upbringing. My home track is Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, a spot Virginia Kelley, Clinton’s mother, frequented when she was alive. The Clinton and Kelley references occasionally jump into my articles.
But more importantly, Bill influenced how I view the students in my classroom.
I urge them to take full advantage of the American Dream, where they can accomplish anything they wish, even becoming president. I cite Clinton’s humble beginnings in the house in Hot Springs that had no indoor plumbing to his ascension to the White House. In fact, in that 1996 victory speech, Bill articulated these wishes I have for my students:
“I got here tonight, my fellow Americans, because America gave me a chance. That is what all the children of America deserve. Our people have to give them the tools to give them not a guarantee, but that real chance to live up to their God-given potential.
“And I ask you to join me in that commitment. Every child deserves the main chance that I was given.”