It's been far too long since my last Clintonaut post. So here we go -- and this is one of my favorites.
Two great things about this story. The first is that it provided a very valuable political lesson very early in my political career. You can't make promises to people if you're not willing to follow through -- even if that means doing something you don't really want to do. (I also learned that politics goes to people's heads, but I think that lesson speaks for itself.)
The other is that it's way too good to be made up.
I hadn't been doing campaign work long, just a few weeks. Already I loved it. I loved the excitement of the crowds, I loved the electric atmosphere in the campaign headquarters. I loved doing the boring research in a quiet office by myself after I moved over to the transition.
I love getting paid. Hardly amounted to anything at all, but to a 21 year-old with no college degree it was a veritable fortune. Enough for pizza, gas, and beer. What else could there possibly be. I didn't mind working every weekend and all hours for it, either.
Mostly what I loved was that every day was wildly different than the last. That's a bug I picked up then and carry with me today, by the way. Not knowing what the day will bring is what makes it worth going in each day to begin with.
I had no idea what would come with the dawn. A day on the phones? Standing at the photocopier? Maybe. Would I be opening mail? Filling file rooms full of folders and papers? Anything was possible. Maybe going to the Little Rock Airport to pick up a VIP and driving them back to the campaign. Maybe driving them from the campaign back to the airport, or the governor's mansion.
I don't remember the date (in this regard, Google, along with my own poor diary keeping from that time, has not been kind), but it was late in the campaign. There was an air of winning around the Clinton/Gore Campaign, though it was far from a done deal.
Bill Clinton was ending a bus tour at a homecoming event in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a town about an hour south and west of Little Rock. By this time, he had Secret Service protection, and getting to Hot Springs meant a full-blown campaign motorcade.
My job was to drive one of the vans full of press and media types. As I recall, my particular van had some camera men and maybe a sound guy. Maybe an assistant producer or two. I put on the Grateful Dead, which they appreciated, and we were off.
Everything about driving in a motorcade is counter-intuitive. In the normal course of driving, you want to stay several feet behind the person in front of you. Not in a motorcade. In a motorcade, you want to stay as close to the guy in front of you as you can. You go through red lights, you go through stop signs. The traffic is blocked for you. Still -- it feels funny to run through a red at twenty miles over the speed limit.
One thing to remember is that a fair chunk of the stretch leading to Hot Springs is a simple two-lane road. It goes back and forth with the occasional lane appearing so you can pass slow-moving traffic, but for miles and miles, it's just you and oncoming traffic. Adds a whole new dimension to the concept of a motorcade, complete with presidential candidates in buses, motorcycle cops, and Grateful Dead music in a bus full of veteran media professionals.
We were going at a pretty good clip on our way to Hot Springs -- a road I've traveled many times -- when a car behind me decided to try and pass the whole motorcade when one of the sporadic passing lanes opened up.
This was a bad idea, because the motorcade was easily more than a dozen cars, including two buses, three or four extended vans like the one I was driving, several police cars, at least for motorcycle cops, a couple of Secret Service SUVs, and maybe more. You can pass one, maybe two cars in those passing lanes. Not much more. A presidential candidate motorcade? No way.
Instead, as the passing lane narrowed to a close, the angry driver just pulled in front of me, the last vehicle in the motorcade, and the one guy hanging back a bit. I thought nothing of it, as the van in front of me was packed full of press people, just like the van or two in front of it.
Hot Springs was like nothing I'd ever seen. I always knew it as a quiet little resort town with great water and neat, old buildings. It was packed full of people. The streets were jammed. The sidewalks were overflowing. People hung out of building windows and were standing on roofs. It was incredible, a sight I'll never forget.
The motorcade vehicles were directed to a side-street where we parked. I had no idea how we were going to get turned around, but I didn't care. Hot Springs looked like fun.
There was a tap on the van window.
Two guys in dark suits and sunglasses were standing there, looking every bit the security detail cliche. I rolled down the window, and had the presence of mind to turn down the music.
"Could you please let me see your driver's license?" one said. They were really very polite.
"Sure!" I handed it over, still caught up in the excitement of the crowd.
They pretended to confer for a minute.
"Says here you're only 21. That right?"
"Yes, sir," I said. "That's right."
"Now," the other one said, "In the motorcade on the way down, why did you let that guy get in front of you? Could have been a lot of trouble."
"Well, he was just trying to pass us. No big deal, right?"
"Don't get smart with us!" the first one said. They were doing a version of Good Cop/Bad Cop, but I wasn't smart enough to have figured it out. He leaned in to the window aggressively.
"Hey," said the second one. Then, to me, "Could you step out of the van?"
Wordlessly, I climbed down from my van, leaving the keys in it.
The second one put his hand on my shoulder while the first one looked away and mumbled something into his sleeve microphone.
"Look, the law says you have to be 25 to drive a rental vehicle. These vans are rented, and we don't want a liability issue, right?"
"Right...?" I said, unsure of which liability was worse, me possibly wrecking the van, or the campaign pissing off home-state voters on their way to Hot Springs. "But... how am I going to get home?"
Now it was time for the first one again. "You figure it out, kid." The second one smiled a tight smile, patted me on the shoulder, and they both walked away.
To my credit, I recall being a lot less panicked than I maybe should have been, fifty-something miles from home. Hot Springs was full of campaign people -- my campaign people. True, I didn't know most of them, but I figured someone had a seat in a car somewhere -- when the event was over, I'd find it.
And in fact, I did. There had been an entire bus which brought advance staff in for the event. After it ended and after some of the packing up and breaking down of the stage, the same bus would carry advance staff home.
I initially spoke with the driver. He was the very guy who think of when you think of a bus driver. Older, maybe in his sixties. Overweight, gray hair. He'd done some hard living, you could tell. A good old country boy, and as nice a guy as you could hope for. He'd told me that there had been plenty of seats coming down to Hot Springs, and he didn't know why on earth I couldn't sit in one going back.
Still, he told me, it wasn't his call. He sent me on my way to the "bus director," which sounded funny to me, but that was her job, I guess: direct the bus. When I asked her if I could ride back on the bus to Little Rock, she paused and looked at -- no kidding -- a manifest.
"Well," she clucked, "since you don't have a way to get back, I suppose we can sit you in 12E." I was happy just to have the seat.
The midnight bus ride was raucous, a real party. One sign of a winning campaign is that the staff is more energized after a big event. That crew should have been exhausted. It was the caliber of event which I am sure required days, probably weeks of planning. I also don't doubt that no one on the team slept much the night before, or even the week before.
But it was a home-run. And they were loving it. Someone had passed out beers. Someone else had a bottle of whiskey. It was a party, and for the hour it took to get back, people were having a pretty good time.
I was one of the last ones out as we stepped off the bus in Little Rock at around midnight or so. The good-ol'-boy driver looked at my shirt and told me he liked it. He liked it so much so that he wrestled himself out of his seat and held my shoulders in his meaty hands.
"I really do like that shirt, son."
Honestly, I don't remember what the shirt said. I have no doubt it was a Clinton/Gore shirt of some design. Maybe "Arkansans for Clinton/Gore". I really don't know.
The point is, he really liked it. And I felt I owed him a debt. After all, he'd gotten me home on his bus.
There was better news: there was a giant box of shirts on the seat next to me. They were for the Hot Springs event, and to be honest about it, they were horrible. The design was gaudy and weird. Just an unattractive shirt.
But worth a trade to pay forward a good deed.
I pulled my shirt off, handed it to the bus driver, and, grabbing one of the ugly shirts out of the box, I finally stepped off the bus. The driver could not have been more grateful. He looked me in the eye and said he was giving it to his son, who really liked Clinton. I thought that was a lovely gesture.
And then I heard, "ahem."
The "bus director" and another young woman, just a few years older than I was at the time, stood at the front of the bus, arms crossed, lists in hand.
"Where'd you get that shirt?" the bus director asked.
"Um, in the box full of shirts in there...?" I said, employing my terrible habit of answering a question with a question when I'm nervous and suspect things are about to not go my way. I ask a lot of questions.
"Is your name on this list?" the second girl shoved a crumpled list in my face that I clearly couldn't read.
"I don't know...?" I said. I figured it wasn't.
"Well, unless you were staff for this event, you don't get a shirt." she spat, glaring at me. The bus director sneered.
"But you have a whole box left over in there." I pleaded.
"Were you staff for this event?" she asked, threateningly.
"Well, I drove a van down to Hot Springs today."
"Were... you... staff... for... this... event? her tone was condescending, downright rotten.
I just stood staring like an idiot, because honestly, I thought I'd answered the question.
Finally the bus director spoke up. "You don't get a shirt." Her smile was malevolent. They were having fun with me.
"Can't I just have this one? It's just one shirt. I wasn't staff for this event, but I work for the campaign." I was pleading, but to no avail.
The second woman, leaning in to me aggressively, gritting her teeth in anger, finally spoke. "I'm in charge of shirts. And you don't get one."
At this point, the bus driver had discreetly but not noiselessly closed the bus door.
Defeated, I slowly took off the shirt.
Shirtless, I walked to my car, got in. I drove the forty or so minutes it took me to get home with the window down, and the breeze on my bare chest felt good.
As a footnote to all of this, I retain no bitterness to whoever the person was in charge of shirts. Think about it. The person in charge of shirts. That's often the kind of stuff you have to deal with in a campaign. There is a certain order to things. Kind of like life, actually. Anyway, I lost a shirt, but I got a far better story out of it than whatever a shirt is worth.
I also harbor no ill will towards the Secret Service -- those guys were just doing their job, and in every intereaction I've ever had with them, they have been polite, courteous, professional, and sharp. We're a lucky nation to have the Secret Service doing what it is they do best.