On the Ground | At alma mater, president a star

Bill Clinton LAW ’73 is late.

After hours of waiting, his public is getting impatient. So are his bodyguards.

On paper, his itinerary appeared swift and efficient: Swoop in, give a speech, swoop out. The Secret Service planned to have him off campus by 3:30 p.m.

But that just isn’t the Clinton way. As he reconnected with his alma mater, he simply couldn’t get enough.

His visit falls behind schedule before it begins. His talk in Woolsey Hall is slated to begin at 2:30, which is about when two black Chevy SUVs led by a Connecticut state trooper pull up onto Wall Street in front of Woodbridge Hall. Clinton steps out and starts glad-handing Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh and the rest of his welcome committee.

His speech lasts until 3:15, and the 2,000 audience members start filing out shortly thereafter, giddily discussing what they have just heard. As the appointed hour (3:30 p.m.) arrives when Clinton’s motorcade is scheduled to whisk him away, he’s still inside Woolsey schmoozing.

By the time he emerges around 3:45, a small crowd has gathered across Wall Street to catch a glimpse of the 42nd president. He cracks a smile and waves as he walks out behind Woodbridge Hall, but he’s not about to climb into his SUV.

Instead, he and his party of a dozen or so colleagues and Secret Service agents walk past Beinecke Plaza toward the Law School, where Koh invites Clinton into his office. There, Clinton is joined by a handful of classmates as they catch up over refreshments.

Now, Clinton’s stroll in broad daylight through central campus has already attracted a few enthusiasts, pining for a photograph or a handshake. But the Secret Service blocks them off at the end of the hallway.

They want to know when he’ll reemerge so they’ll have another chance at face time with the elder statesman. His aides and agents admit they have no idea.

“He could be in there for hours,” shrugs Yale Law School Associate Dean Mike Thompson.

After the first hour, Koh exits. He has to give a speech of his own at 5 p.m. in the Law School auditorium. Still no Clinton.

Soon it’s 6 p.m. Still no Clinton. A crowd of 50 or so has gathered by his motorcade outside the Law School. Inside, the huddle of a dozen die-hards waiting for him at the head of the hallway starts to disperse while others replace them.

Clinton’s aides pace outside the door where he’s still reuniting with his old classmates. Most bored of all is the plainclothes cop guarding the entrance. She had thought she would be off work over two hours ago.

“When it comes to him, he does what he pleases,” she says. “We just follow.”

It’s 6:30, and everyone is fed up, except, of course, Clinton and his old buddies, who are having the time of their lives.

But now, three hours after Clinton’s scheduled departure, the class of ’73 reunion dinner is starting at the Quinnipiack Club on Church Street. Clinton’s friends naturally want to go, and he’s not about to stay behind.

He finally emerges with an entourage of classmates and personnel. He’s almost a head taller than they all are. The spectators bolt after him but are repelled by irritated Secret Service agents.

Outside, the crowd cheers and cameras flash as Clinton’s white-haired head appears. He walks toward the SUVs but, once more, he’s in no mood for a car ride. He wants to go for a stroll, just like the happy golden bygone days.

So Bill Clinton, sipping from a white paper cup, and his convoy start walking three blocks down Wall Street, ringed in by police officers on foot. The motorcade, wheeling along in the street, separates the former president from the 50-person crowd that proceeds to chase him down the sidewalk.

It’s a scene of euphoric mayhem. Camera phones glow in the twilight, flashbulbs ignite, police officers bark and onlookers coo.

They had been waiting for hours in anticipation of seeing him from across the street. But on the other side, passersby entirely unaware find themselves suddenly and inexplicably face to face with Bill Clinton. Police scurry to hold them back, but they’re petrified anyway.

As Clinton prepares to cross Temple Street, a police cruiser inches into the intersection first and flashes its lights. The driver of the car on the street stops but doesn’t know why until Bill Clinton appears in his windshield. In the next lane, a bicyclist stops short and nearly flips.

At Church Street, an officer breaks into a sprint, sensing an imminent snag at the corner. Clinton has to cross the street, which puts him right in the middle of the exhilarated swarm that has trailed him for three blocks.

It’s at this point that Clinton can’t pretend to ignore them any longer. He embraces them, and they him. People are laughing and screaming. The police scamper to maintain some semblance of a perimeter as people literally dive into the center of the pack, thrusting out their hands in the hopes of grasping his.

Front and center lands Ben Simon ’10, who clicks his camera, then reviews the snapshot and exclaims, “This is the best day of my life!”

Sated by the sudden outburst of affection, the crowd dissipates. They got what they came for, and so did he. Clinton enters the club, glancing behind him for one final wave.

The relative quietude surrounding Clinton’s actual speech couldn’t compete with the official fanfare surrounding former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit two weeks ago. But the spontaneous hoopla that Clinton’s presence kindled dwarfed the excitement surrounding Blair, or former president George H. W. Bush’s ’48 visit to Mory’s last December, or California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s speech last spring, or even Paul McCartney’s surprise appearance at Commencement.

Asked if he would ever consider a teaching position like Blair’s, Clinton told the News, “Maybe if I ever get a little time. I’d love to come back.”

Your move, Yale.

Comments

  • Redbob

    Poor Ben Simon, "'10," whose life has peaked so early, and with such a sordid man…

  • DUSTIN

    AS I HAVE ALWAYS SAID , THE CLINTONS ARE THE BEST . MORE POWER TO THEM .

    "SORDID MAN " ? REALLY ? MR HOLIER THAN THOU, REDBOB , CAN YOU PROVE THAT ? DEAR SIR , IF YOU HAVE TO LIVE ANOTHER 569 LIVES , YOU AND YOUR KIND WILL NOT BE ABLE TO REACH THE STATURE OF THE CLINTONS . YOU SIR , ARE A JOKE . KNOW IT AND LIVE WITH IT . WONDER IF IT'S A CASE OF THE KETTLE " TRYING " TO CALL THE POT BLACK ?

  • Ilana

    This is a great article that really captured the scene. I loved it. Good job.