Part One: The Den of Iniquity that is Bill Clinton’s Basement
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Bill Clinton’s got an eye for the ladies. I know because he hit on my (then-, now ex-) wife, Barb.
Barb was a press advance person on the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign. For those of you who don’t watch C-SPAN all day for fun, advance people are the behind-the-scenes people, the small team that travels days ahead of a presidential candidate to stage events for the media. Each camp sends about 300 of these presidential carnies crisscrossing the country, renting stages, chairs, tables, stanchions, rope, generators, lights, U.S. flags, state flags, sound systems, mult boxes, CD players, balloons, drapes, bunting, and nowadays, high-speed Internet access. Their job is to get footage on the evening news and worry about the smallest of details, like bending clothes hangers into diamond shapes and duct-taping them to the backs of flags to make them drape elegantly behind the candidate.
They are professional worrywarts who leave nothing to chance because they know the press corps will make an issue out of anything. Heaven help the presidential contender who walks into the Merrimack restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire during primary season and orders a ham and swiss sandwich. For the next two weeks all he’s going to hear is, “Swiss cheese, huh? What’s the matter, Lord Fauntleroy? American cheese ain’t good enough for you?”
Barb had done the same thing in 1988 on the doomed Dukakis/Bentsen campaign and had many fond memories of those days, like the time Dukakis told a group of workers at a St. Louis auto parts plant, “Maybe the Republican ticket wants our children to work for foreign owners, but that’s not the kind of a future Lloyd Bentsen and I and Dick Gephardt and you want for America.” Dukakis’s advance staff failed to tell him that the workers he was addressing had been employed by an Italian corporation for eleven years.
Then there was the infamous tank photo op, when Dukakis’s handlers let him take a spin in an Abrams tank, wearing a goofy helmet three sizes too big, looking really uncomfortable and not unlike Rocky the Flying Squirrel.
Good times, good times.
Luckily, Barb’s fingerprints were on neither of those two debacles. And so, in the summer of 1992, in perhaps the only situation when the words “Dukakis campaign” looks good on your resume, she landed a job doing national press advance for the Clinton campaign.
Being of German descent, Barb had exacting standards for everything in life, from T-shirt folding to permissible carpet vacuuming patterns. Her perfectionism extended to advance work and she often called me from the road after the news aired a clip of her event. “What did you think? Should I have used more bunting at that rally in Amarillo?” she would ask, forcing me to actually have an opinion about bunting. At an event in Carbondale, Illinois, she learned a painful lesson: Make sure you know who owns every building in camera range and their political leanings. The owner of one building unfurled a huge Bush banner behind Clinton in the middle of his speech, making that the picture of the day. Hers was a glamorous high-stakes job, with stratospheric highs and benthic lows.
Meanwhile I slogged away in my cubicle. I was the Director of Business Development for a company that made remotely-piloted aircraft, fittingly called drones because that’s what I felt like. While Barb was having cocktails with Wolf Blitzer in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, discussing policy options for health care reform, I was drinking burnt coffee with electrical engineers in an aircraft hangar in Manassas, Virginia, arguing over who would win in a fight between Batman and Spiderman.
As if her life wasn’t cool enough, Barb even managed to land a cameo in the Clint Eastwood Secret Service thriller In the Line of Fire. Director Wolfgang Peterson incorporated digitally-altered footage of a Clinton campaign rally she staged in Denver, and when the film was released, there was Barb.
It was fitting that she appear in a film about the Secret Service considering how much interaction she had with them. Advance people and the Service have conflicting desires. The Service would prefer that candidates campaign by waving at people from inside a bullet-proof Lexan bubble. Advance people want the candidate pressing the flesh on the rope line, shaking hands and kissing babies. Or is it shaking babies and kissing hands? I always forget. Anyway, Barb was an asset to the advance team because she had phenomenal pull with the Service and usually got her way. Later I learned that her clout with these presidential guardians may have been enhanced by her willingness to let Secret Service agents hide their Oswalds in her school book depository.
When the truth came out, I asked Barb, “Why?” Was it the dark suits and sunglasses? The microphones in their sleeves? The concealed Uzis? Their laconic air of unflappability? Their heroic self-abnegation? Did her Secret Service fetish stem from overexposure to The Wild Wild West featuring Robert Conrad in skin-tight pants and his saucy little bolero jacket? Her answer: she just got bored after seven years of marriage to a drone. I suppose I should have expected as much considering Barb allegedly had sex with my best friend during our engagement. Yes, I realize that the fact that I married her anyway makes me as dumb as a bag of Tony Danza pilots.
Aside from her liberal interpretation of our marriage vows, Barb and I had other differences. While Barb is a political junkie, I’m more of a recreational user. I can take it or leave it. Sure I’d had some fun pitching in with the campaign here and there. I ripped “Bush/Quayle” posters off telephone poles, but that was just because I consider illegally-posted signs to be ugly street spam. I helped assemble the briefing book to prep Gore for the Vice-Presidential debate, but that was just for the free pizza. I agreed to drive a Lincoln Town Car in candidate Clinton’s motorcade, but that was just for the thrill of speeding through red lights with a police escort.
So you can imagine my tepid response when Barb asked me to fly from Washington, DC to Little Rock, Arkansas, on election day to join her and, with luck, celebrate victory: “I’ll only come if you get me some face time with the member of the Clinton family I admire most.”
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll make sure you meet Socks.”
While some believe spoiler Perot cost Bush the election, I humbly suggest to future historians that Clinton rode to victory on the strength of my wife’s flag-draping skills. That evening when Clinton made his acceptance speech on the front steps of the Old State House, Barb maneuvered us a position right next to campaign strategist James Carville. I studied him and decided it was grossly unfair of Republicans to suggest that Carville looked like an alien, or a serpent, or a shaved cat. These are terrible exaggerations of his actual appearance, which is more like a Sleestak from Land of the Lost.
At the victory party, a Clinton aide pulled us aside at midnight and told us that the phones in the Governor’s Mansion were ringing nonstop as congratulatory calls poured in from around the world. Would we mind manning the phones? Right now.
Answer phones for the president-elect? Visions of telephonic mayhem danced in my head. Leader of the Free World’s residence. Speak, supplicant! Boris who? Yeltsin? Never heard of ya! Click.
Little Rock, Arkansas, capitol of the New Confederacy. Guess what? We secede!
So off we trotted to the Governor’s Mansion: Barb to play her role in history, me to start World War III. A guard escorted us to the mansion’s basement communications nerve center which also doubled as the Clinton’s rumpus room.
Soon Bubba himself stopped by. I even made him laugh by saying, “So, now that you’re President, do you think you’ll get President’s Day off?”
“Heh, heh. Why don’t you look into that and get back to me,” he said.
“I will, Mr. President.”
Although technically the proper form of address was still “Governor” or “Mr. President-Elect,” I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to punctuate a sentence with the words, “Mr. President.” As presidential joke-writer, Mark Katz, has noted, they add a certain gravitas to any sentence you might say. Consider the sentences:
“Hooters buffalo wings are delicious.”
“Hooters buffalo wings are delicious, Mr. President.”
See? No contest.
Though Clinton and I spoke for several minutes, I have absolutely no recollection of anything either of us said after the joke. That’s because our entire conversation was drowned out by my own blaring inner monologue.
Oh god, I am talking to the President. Don’t say anything stupid.
Jesus Christ! The President just said something to me.
Wow. He’s pretty funny. Laugh. Wait! Not too much. Don’t look like a suck-up.
He’s still talking to me. I am the one person in the world talking to the President of the United States right now. Not the National Security Advisor. Not the Secretary General of the United Nations. Little old me. I wish Tracy Nolan was here to see this. She’d be sorry she turned me down for junior prom!
Damn, he’s the President. He could order me to stand on my head or punch Al Gore and I’d have to do it.
Where the hell is somebody with a camera right now? A dozen shots of me and the Chuck E. Cheese rodent and not one of this? Oh fate, you are indeed cruel.
If I make him laugh maybe he will like me.
If he likes me maybe he will appoint me to some cushy special assistant position on the Federal Maritime Commission.
I don’t even know what the Federal Maritime Commission does.
I wonder if my lack of knowledge about maritime issues is hindering my career.
Holy shit, this guy is charming. He’s making me feel so special. I can see why women get weak in the knees around him. Whew, is it hot in here?
Ask me to punch Al Gore, Mr. President. Or at least give him a wedgie.
Oh my god, there’s a letter opener on the desk! For all they know I could be some wacko and decide to stab the President with that letter opener. That is so irresponsible of them to let some random guy like me in here.
If I lunged at the President with that letter opener, I wonder how quickly the Secret Service agent in the corner would react.
I bet I could draw blood.
Not that I want to! God, what a bizarre thing to think.
That agent would sure be surprised though. He’d probably be aghast and thrilled at the same time. I bet he dreams about stopping assassinations.
Why is that Secret Service agent inching closer to me? Did he notice my eyes darting nervously between the letter opener and the President’s jugular vein?
I wonder if the Secret Service still has a file on me from that little incident at M.I.T.
It’s so selfish of me to tie up the President. He must have important things to do.
Wait, Mr. President! Don’t go! Not yet.
Oh well. At least I’ll always be able to tell my friends, “As the President of the United States once said to me…”
Oh god. I have no idea what he just said to me!
After my mind-erasing encounter with Clinton, he greeted Barb like they were old pals and even knew her name. I was impressed. Next, Clinton gave what might have been the first executive order of his presidency. Barb and I were supposed to forward calls from heads of state and governors directly to him, patch threatening calls to the resident Secret Service agent, and take a message from everyone else. We took our places at a couple of desks and discovered the aide wasn’t kidding. It was pandemonium. Press calls, V.I.P. calls, family calls, even drunken Villanova frat boys and San Francisco wine-and-cheesers phoned to invite Clinton to their parties, already in progress.
Barb was far more competent at this telephonic triage than I. At one point late in the night, I fielded two calls simultaneously: one from German leader Helmut Kohl and the other from a deranged Kentucky man describing how he was, at that very moment, carving the initials B.C. into a rifle cartridge.
That’s when I committed the first of three major errors.
I accidentally got the lines crossed and patched Billy Joe directly to Clinton and forwarded Helmut Kohl to the Secret Service for a shakedown. I would have loved to have heard that conversation. “Sure pal, you’re the Chancellor of Germany and I’m the Queen of Sheba. Now why don’t you tell me where you live?” On line two, I noticed that Clinton kept the psycho on the phone for a good twenty minutes. He was probably sweet-talking the guy out of hating him. He’s just that good.
Around four a.m. the calls tapered off, so I took some time to scope out the artifacts in Clinton’s basement like some nosy date rifling a medicine cabinet for incriminating prescriptions, searching for insights into Bill’s character. My earth-shattering conclusion: This guy is a reader. Or someone in the family is. Bookcases overflowed with biographies, history books, political treatises, and not just for show. These tomes had cracked spines, dog-eared pages, and big highlighted passages throughout. I wished I had a book to plant. Can you imagine Hillary stumbling across The Joy of Sex with Bimbos on his shelf?
Just when I got tired of snooping, to my rescue came a certain quadrupedal member of the First Family. Socks looked a lot like my own tuxedo cat, and turned out to be very friendly, no cattitude at all. I noticed he still had his claws and imagined him using Mary Todd Lincoln’s celebrated rosewood bed as a scratching post. I stroked him, gave him little paw massages, and told him all about the fancy living quarters he’d soon be occupying. I told Socks not to worry since it had been twelve years since Amy Carter’s cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang, had traipsed around the White House and they had probably swept up all traces of her by now. I suggested that, issues of territoriality aside, Misty Malarky Ying Yang was a damn good name for a cat. My beastly charge purred his assent. At sunrise he got restless and started mewling at the door, so I let him outside.
Around this time, the racket returned as morning drive time DJs called and tried to trick us into putting them through to Clinton. They feigned ridiculous yokel accents and pretended to be Roger Clinton. They impersonated gubernatorial mistress Gennifer Flowers. One caller claimed to be Virginia Kelley, the President’s mother. I didn’t want to foul up again, so I interrogated her. “If you’re the real Mrs. Kelley, can you please tell me where Bill Clinton was born.”
“Hope,” she said.
“Nice try, lady. The answer is Hot Springs,” I said and hung up. I knew my Bill Clinton trivia. That’s when an ashen aide sidled up to me and explained that although Bill Clinton was raised in Hot Springs, he was born in Hope. That was my second mistake of the night. When Mrs. Kelley called back a minute later I apologized profusely and put her through to her son.
Then the aide asked me where Socks was. Turns out ol’ Socks had a photo shoot that morning—Cat Fancy magazine or something. I told her I let him outside. That turned out to be my third mistake. Apparently, Socks was an indoor cat.
It was, even for me, an unparalleled flurry of bungling. In just eight hours I had managed to aggravate the German head of state, put a potential assassin in direct contact with the President of the United States, hung up on the President’s mother, and lost the First Cat. After a tense 48 hours, Socks returned to the Governor’s Mansion. Amazingly, so did I, although I was relieved of all phone duties. Basically, I hung out in Bill Clinton’s basement for the week, pretending to look busy.
Barb, as usual, was performing splendidly and was assigned additional responsibilities. One of her new assignments was managing the deluge of incoming mail. Now I don’t know if all president-elects get such a motley collection of missives, or just this one, but from day one, people sent him the weirdest stuff: allergy remedies, black velvet Elvis paintings, used books, cat toys, baseball caps. It was as if Clinton won the election and all over America people got the same idea: Let’s send the President the crap in our basement!
Some mail required special attention: requests for Clinton’s signature on a football to be auctioned off for charity, autograph requests from terminally-ill children, and other tear-wellers. Now I don’t think I’m divulging a state secret when I say that not everything bearing a presidential signature was touched by a president. The word “autopen” has been in the public consciousness for years. But I didn’t know there were human autopens. My wife was one of them.
Clinton himself coached her in the fine art of presidential signature forgery. Before long her “Bill Clinton” looked better than his. Hers was neat, confident, and stylish. His appeared rushed and sloppy. Like some harbinger of disillusionments to come with his Administration, the signature subterfuge really bothered me. At least with the autopen you’re still getting the President’s own personal holographic idiosyncrasies, albeit mechanically reproduced. With this setup, you’re just getting conned. Clinton wasn’t the first president to disappoint me (I’m still waiting for my “Whip Inflation Now” button, Mr. Ford). And I did envy Barb. Being able to mimic the President’s autograph does present some intriguing possibilities. If only eBay had existed back then.
At the end of the first week Barb introduced me to the three new basement aides who would replace the floaters. They were all cute, young, blonde things and all named Michelle. Barb and the Michelles were not oblivious to their eye-pleasing qualities and immediately dubbed themselves the “Basement Babes.” Barb asked me to do a better job at looking busy while in the basement, because it was becoming apparent that, aside from pilfering official stationery, I had no real purpose being there. A few minutes later Barb looked over my shoulder and noticed I was hurriedly scribbling equations.
“What are you doing?” Barb said.
“No. I mean what the hell is that?”
“Combinatorics. It’s a branch of probability theory.”
“Why?” she said, her patience gone.
“I just thought it was interesting that you and the three other permanent staffers in Clinton’s basement would be attractive young blondes, so I decided to calculate the odds of it happening purely by chance. See?” I said and offered her my sheet:
“Are you nuts?” Barb said, tearing up my work. “What if CNN got ahold of that? Jesus! After that stunt you’re now three times more likely to be killed by me!”
I guess I was getting bored and missed my fellow engineers. They were simpler people who didn’t worry about politics. Or fashion. Or hygiene. Or social graces. I felt more at home with them. But I had to admit, life was interesting in central Arkansas in November, 1992. Anything could happen. The next morning Barb and I decided to get away from all the hubbub. The press was swarming around the Governor’s Mansion like wedding guests around an open bar, so we drove an hour to Hot Springs to check out the famous geothermal springs and Gilded Age bathhouses. We were walking by Bill Clinton’s boyhood home when a camera crew pounced on us.
“Can I ask you why you came here today?” an ABC news reporter asked.
Barb, who never saw a TV camera she wasn’t eager to speak into, immediately starting spinning. “I came to Hot Springs because I admire Bill Clinton so much that I just had to see his boyhood home. It’s a tribute to our country that someone from such humble origins can still grow up to be the President. He’s a man of the people who hasn’t forgotten where he came from. And I think the family values of this town will always be the bedrock of Bill Clinton’s moral fiber.”
The reporter gave Barb a thumbs up, then turned to me. “How about you, sir?”
Barb’s revisionist Norman Rockwell whitewash rankled me. Family values? Whose family? Which values? We’d just finished a tour of the town and the locals made no secret of Hot Springs’s colorful past. It wasn’t called the “Las Vegas of the South” for nothing. So I chimed in. “I agree. Family values like bathhouses, speakeasies, gambling, and brothels put Hot Springs on the map and made it a destination of choice for gangsters like Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde. I’m sure Hot Springs made Bill Clinton the man he is today.” Barb elbowed me, a little harder than necessary, so I continued. “Say, are you familiar with probability theory?”
“Okay, that’s enough,” said Barb. “We’ve got to get going.” Our interview aired the next day on Good Morning America.
My final night at the mansion it became clear to me who wears the jackboots in the Clinton family. It was around one in the morning and I was busy cramming Presidential Transition Team letterhead into my briefcase so I could send some fake letters to my friends appointing them Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs and whatnot, while Bill was in the basement clowning around with Barb and one of the Michelles. They were modeling a cowboy hat someone had sent Bill. Suddenly, in walked Hillary wearing a bath robe and no make-up, her hair up in rollers. Her face was contorted into a scowl that made my balls retract into my stomach. It was truly an Elsa Lanchester moment. If she didn’t actually have a rolling pin in her hand, I think my mind just connected the dots and drew one in.
“Bill,” she hissed.
“Okay, okay, just a minute,” he said.
“Now! I mean it!” The subtext of the situation was pretty clear. Theirs was a frosty marital bed. A forlorn Bill silently skulked out of the room while the rest of us pretended to be too preoccupied with the nearest piece of paper to notice the whip cracking on our nation’s next Commander-in-Chief. I felt perversely sorry for the most powerful man in the world. We all did. And in that moment I got the sense that everything that had been written about Bill Clinton’s skirt-chasing ways was probably true—he needed the outlet. Because never in my life have I seen a woman more corrosive to libidinous urges than Hillary Rodham Clinton. The sight of her that night haunts me still.
The next day I flew back to D.C. leaving my wife behind. To work long hours in Bill Clinton’s house. In his basement. On the night shift. Dear God! What was I thinking?
A couple weeks later, on Thanksgiving, I was polishing off my Swanson’s Turkey Dinner when the phone rang. It was Barb. She said that Hillary put the kibosh on the Michelles and had them replaced with less alluring aides. Then she said she had a special guest who wanted to say something. Bill Clinton got on the line and said, “Steve, ah jus’ wanna tell you that I sure enjoy havin’ your wife in ma’ basement. I don’t think I can let her go.”
Thinking quickly for once, I replied, “Well sir, to paraphrase Nathan Hale, I regret that I have but one wife to give for my country.” Did my pun go too far? Did I tempt the president and invite the mischief to come?
I don’t want to name names, so let’s just say that one night in mid-December Barb found herself alone with a certain priapic president-elect of a certain North American superpower in a narrow corridor of his basement. In the midst of talking about correspondence, he pinned her against the wall between his two forearms, looked at her with puppy-dog eyes and said, “Ya know, even presidents need hugs, too.” Then he proceeded to hug my wife for a period of time which was, as she put it, “uncomfortably long, much longer than a normal hug, like thirty seconds.” Barb pushed him away, feeling shocked, flustered, flattered, and vaguely insubordinate at the same time. She got back to work and they never spoke about it.
A harmless hug? Doubtful, given what we now know about Bill Clinton. As Vincent Vega observed in Pulp Fiction, a foot massage is never just a foot massage. Well, sometimes a hug isn’t just a hug. I wouldn’t last very long in cubeland if I tried a little hallway frottage with the buxom hottie from payroll. I liken Bill Clinton’s technique with women to that of a hotel burglar. He goes down the hallway checking doorknobs, looking for easy targets. If it’s locked he doesn’t beat the door down; he just moves on and tries the next one. Eventually he finds an unlocked door.
Given Barb’s past you may wonder whether more transpired and I only got part of the story. I know Barb. She freely confessed all her other affairs to me, so I’d have been the first person she bragged to if she’d actually banged a U.S. President. In fact, back in 1992 when my wife first told me about the incident, I must admit, I was kind of proud. I mean, he was the ultimate alpha dog and he wanted my woman. It’s not like it was the pizza guy putting the moves on her. Subsequent revelations about Clinton’s choosiness have devalued the compliment considerably.
In a way, Hillary and I made the same deal with the devil, though hers was on a massive scale. It’s incontestable that Hillary ignored her husband’s infidelities because he brought her closer to power. Likewise, I overlooked Barb’s affairs because she brought adventure into my life. Once I discovered I could create my own adventures, I was able to end my hollow marriage. It’s a shame Hillary can’t do the same.
Part Two: Becoming a Footnote to Scandal
The preceding essay was sparked by a Georgetown book release party I attended in the spring of 1998. The Lewinsky story had just broken, the press was beginning a two-year run of sustained batting practice with Bill Clinton’s balls, and people at the party were arguing about whether any of it was true. “Of course it’s true,” I said. “Clinton’s a total horndog. Hell, he even hit on my wife.” Bill Thomas, editor of Washington, D.C.’s Capital Style magazine, perked up his ears.
“If you can prove it, I’ll publish it,” he said. I was reluctant, feeling it might be a tad disloyal, but I told him I’d think about it.
At home that night I tried to work out the moral arithmetic, aided by my mental lubricant of choice, cranberry juice and vodka.
Cape Codder #1: Barb will go right up the flue if this story becomes public! But does anybody want to read a “hug and tell” story? Plus, how am I going to prove any of this? And for all his faults Clinton is still a pretty likeable guy. Do I really want to pile on? I’ll call Bill Thomas tomorrow and tell him I don’t feel right doing this.
Cape Codder #2: Besides, the Clinton machine has lots of foaming political attack dogs eager to bite inconvenient mailmen like me. They’ll call me a liar on national television. Remember what they did to Kathleen Willey? (A year earlier a widowed campaign worker named Kathleen Willey accused Clinton of groping her in the Oval Office in a manner very similar to what my wife experienced. The White House and its unblushing apologists smeared Ms. Willey brazenly.)
Cape Codder #3: No, I definitely can’t do this to Clinton. For Christ’s sake, I’ve gone jogging with the man. (Though lacking in the fidelity department, Barb did come with a few fringe benefits. In 1993 she wrangled me an opportunity to jog with the President. Surprising fact: despite all the jokes about Clinton stopping at McDonald’s to scarf down Big Macs during his jogs, he’s actually quite a fast runner.)
Cape Codder #4: Okay, wait a minute. No omerta binds me. What obligation do I have to either my ex-wife or Bill Clinton? Why should I be worried about loyalty to a serial adulteress? As for Clinton, he made his bed. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.
Cape Codder #5: Come to think about it, I’m pissed at Clinton. Those jerks on his Transition Team stiffed me! It’s only fair that I get paid for the story, considering how they owe me. (After my week in Little Rock I went home to Virginia, quit my job in the drone factory, and weaseled my way into a staff position on the Presidential Transition Team in Washington, D.C., working with astronaut Sally Ride scoping out new directions for NASA. The Clintonites promised me a salary, but were slow to pay. I continued to work while their excuses piled up. In the end they reneged, so I ended up volunteering my time for three months. This stuck in my craw.)
Cape Codder #6: Screw ‘em! I’ll do it. This is a true story. Clinton’s behavior with women is deplorable. (Full disclosure: I’m a registered Independent who has gone Donkey more than Elephant. I voted for Clinton in 1992, figuring he was our best hope for health care reform, and in 1996, as a favor to comedians everywhere.) Let the chips fall where they may. Maybe the story won’t get much attention anyway.
At that point I committed the grievous sin of E.W.I., emailing while intoxicated. I wrote Thomas and told him I’d do the piece. (To avoid having to write “Bill Thomas” and “Bill Clinton” every time, from now on I am going to refer to Bill Thomas as Thomas, and Bill Clinton as Clinton) The next morning I woke up a little worried about what I’d gotten myself into. But soon the fun of writing the piece overtook my misgivings and I got lost in the process.
I realize that many people, especially female people, might think I’m a prick for writing the piece. They’re probably right. Keeping silent would have been the chivalrous thing to do. I could offer the William Faulkner Defense and insist that a true writer will use any material or circumstance available to him to tell his story. Said he, “Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate. The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” I could argue that, though I’m no Keats, ex-wives surely cannot expect more compassionate treatment than mothers.
Or I could point to my lingering resentment stemming from Barb’s vindictive heel-dragging our divorce proceedings, making a six-month process take two years and needlessly costing me thousands of dollars. The lesson for Barb being: before you jerk someone around, ask if they plan on ever becoming a memoirist, because paybacks are a bitch.
But my primary impetus was the righteous state of mind I reached around the sixth Cape Codder, a feeling of solidarity with the Clinton accusers, whose ranks now included Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Willey, Dolly Kyle Browning, former Miss Arkansas Sally Perdue, former Miss America Elizabeth Ward Gracen, flight attendant Christy Zercher, and others. (At this point nursing home executive Juanita Broaddrick hadn’t yet publicly accused Clinton of raping her back in 1978 when he was attorney general of Arkansas, although I’d heard rumors about the incident when I worked on the 1992 campaign.) Their claims rang true to me based on Barb’s experience. Seeing the White House involved in efforts to discredit, bribe, audit, threaten and intimidate these women incensed me as a feminist. That’s right, I said it. Revoke my fishing license and donate my plaid shirts to Goodwill. Call me gay as a clutch purse at the Tony Awards, but the writings of Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi and Camille Paglia speak to me. I am a feminist—hear me roar. “Go ahead,” I said, baiting unseen political attack dogs, as I wrote the piece. “I dare you to call me a liar. You’ll rue the day!” Yes, I actually said, “rue the day,” the histrionic threat of the hopelessly outmatched. And, I’ll admit, a certain amount of shadow-boxing was involved.
A month later I sent Capital Style a version of “Bill Clinton Hit on My Wife” similar to the one here, minus the references to my wife’s marital lapses (how discreet of me!). Thomas called me the next day, sounding concerned. While he liked the piece he didn’t think he could run it. It seemed impossible to fact-check. I agreed. Verifying a six year-old clandestine embrace between two people, both of whom are highly motivated to deny it, does pose some problems. Especially since there were no witnesses. Thomas told me to come to his Capital Hill office and bring every shred of evidence I had.
I dumped on Thomas’s conference table the contents of my Clinton campaign shoe box, to wit, my Presidential Transition Team ID badge and some photos I took at the Governor’s Mansion. It was a strange assortment of photos: Socks sitting regally next to a flower pot, the back of James Carville’s head, George Stephanopoulos asleep on a couch with his hand shoved down the front of his pants, a photo of Clinton’s new Washington, D.C. driver’s license, aide Loretta Avent putting a pair of cowboy boots embossed with the Presidential Seal on Clinton, and… what have we here?… Clinton with my wife. On her knees.
Thomas stared in amazement at the photo, which showed my wife wearing a leopard-print blouse on her knees with an arm around Clinton’s shoulders. Clinton was slouched in a basement chair, legs wide apart, talking on the phone, wearing a cowboy hat, blue jeans, and a sweatshirt that said “City Year,” except the fabric puckered in a way that made it look like, “Oh Yea.”
“Wow,” said Thomas.
“Yeah. I know.”
“Do you realize your wife looks a lot like Gennifer Flowers?” he said.
“Mm-hm. They’re both big-haired, bottle-blondes who resemble Hillary, but without the hard edge.”
My credibility had moved up a notch. But Thomas still needed proof that something happened between them. “She didn’t write you any letters about it?”
“No, she told me over the phone and in person.”
“Did she tell anyone else?”
“Her best friend, Natasha. But Natasha would deny it. And I know she told a journalist, but I can’t remember his name.”
“I’m surprised the journalist didn’t run with it,” Thomas said.
“I think they were talking off the record.”
“Sorry, Steve, but if that’s all you’ve got, I’m afraid this story is dead in the water. But I’ll give you a couple hundred for that shot of Stephanopoulos groping himself. It’s fucking hilarious.”
Perfect, I thought. Another month’s work down the drain to go with my three months unpaid tour of duty on the Transition Team. My finances were shaky enough. I didn’t have the luxury of volunteering months of my time.
Then I remembered The Email.
The day after Clinton’s affair with Monica became public Barb sent me a nastygram telling me to keep my big yap shut. I couldn’t remember exactly what she had written, so I told Thomas there might be something else. I drove home and searched my email archives. There it was:
Subj: Loose lips
Date: 98-01-22 11:36:59 EST
I need complete confidence that you are not going to say a word to anyone. I’m staying out of this. Matt Cooper is a friend and he would never reveal what happened. Clinton is going down without my help, so it doesn’t make any difference. Anyway, I still like him, so I’m not interested in adding to the fire. Thanks. Go make your own news!
Classic Barb. Ask a favor then sign off with a jab. I appreciated her jogging my memory about Matt Cooper, the reporter she told about the incident. (Barb was dead right about Matt Cooper. That man can keep a secret. He’s the same Time magazine reporter who was held in contempt of court and was willing to do eighteen months in the hooscow rather than reveal his confidential sources in the Valerie Plame / Joseph Wilson / Robert Novak / Karl Rove / C.I.A. / Uranium from Africa / Man from U.N.C.L.E. Affair.) Her email convinced Thomas that I was telling the truth. He called Barb and told her he was going to publish the article. Thomas told me later, “Her reaction gave me all the confirmation I needed.”
Wednesday, September 23, 1998. The October issue of Capital Style hit the stands, featuring “Bill Clinton Hit on My Wife” in a highly edited form—about one-sixth the size it appears here. I guess I should have asked Thomas how long a piece he wanted. Stripped of humor due to space constraints, it was mostly accusation. Alongside the article ran the suggestive photo of Barb on her knees with Clinton, although Thomas had pixilated Barb’s face at my request. I didn’t want to turn her life upside-down. I just wanted to make people laugh.
Thomas called around noon and said that he was getting calls from journalists around the world. He wanted to know if I wanted to talk to them.
“No, I think the article speaks for itself.”
“Good plan. It’ll add to the mystery,” said Thomas.
I wasn’t trying to be crafty. But what was I going to say at that point? That I was an aggrieved husband who wanted to go all Aaron Burr on Clinton’s ass and challenge him to a duel?
“Have the journalists figured out Barb’s real name?” I asked.
“No. They’re referring to her as Barb Altes,” Thomas said. Luckily for Barb, she kept her maiden name during our ten-year marriage, so the press was busy hunting for a “Barb Altes,” who didn’t exist.
“Good,” I said. “I don’t want her dragged into this if possible. She still has to work in this town.”
A few hours later Thomas called back, sounding excited. “How does it feel to have the White House press secretary discuss your article in a press conference?”
“Oh god. What happened?” I asked, freaking out.
“A reporter asked Mike McMurry if he had any comment on the article.”
“What’d he say?”
“He ducked and weaved. Said he hadn’t seen the piece yet. But the reporter was persistent. Asked about it three times. Also, Extra and Inside Edition want to interview you. What should I tell them?”
“Tell them the author is in seclusion. No, tell them the author is in South America hiding from Clinton’s hit squads.”
I was kidding, but my paranoia was real. I’d just finished reading an article about the untimely deaths of a statistically large number of people who were witnesses in the numerous Clinton scandals. The article said that the average life expectancy for Clinton scandal witnesses had hit an all-time low. The median age of death was now just 45 years old. If this keeps up life insurance agents are going to have to ask prospective customers, “Do you smoke, motorcycle, skydive, or have any connections to Bill Clinton?”
I got up and made sure my apartment door was deadbolted. For the third time that hour.
Thomas said, “It looks like Page Six might cover the story tomorrow.”
“What’s Page Six?” I asked, revealing myself to be hopelessly unsophisticated.
“You don’t know what Page Six is?” Thomas asked incredulously.
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s Richard Johnson’s gossip column in the New York Post.” He paused, perhaps expecting me to say, “Oh that Page Six!” Nothing. He might as well have been talking to a cow. “It’s the first thing celebrities read in the morning. A lot of people would give their left arm to be written about in Page Six.”
“Cool. I’ve never been written about in a gossip column,” I said. “Do you think it’ll help me get into Studio 54?”
Thursday, September 24, 1998. The next morning I drove to my local Centreville, Virginia, drugstore and bought a New York Post. I flipped to page six but it wasn’t there. Rube that I am, I did not know that Page Six appears anywhere but page six. But on page eight, there it was: seven column inches on the story and the photo of Barb on her knees with Clinton. I stared at the caption in disbelief. Jaw agape, I read it several times just to be sure.
The caption said, “Clinton poses with the Little Rock ‘Basement Babe’ he is said to have propositioned after he was elected in 1992. Her face is pixilated because she is the alleged victim of a sex crime.”
Sex crime? Who said anything about a sex crime? This story was mutating faster than a Chernobyl fruit fly. In one day, it had gone from “hit on my wife” to “sex crime.” What would the headline be tomorrow? Clinton Gave my Wife a Dirty Sanchez? Suddenly I felt sorry for Clinton. Sorry I’d told the story. And afraid for my life.
I went home, turned on the tube, and just happened to land on the opening drumbeats of Inside Edition. Maybe it won’t be a big deal, I thought. Deborah Norville’s first words: “Another day, another indiscretion is being alleged against Bill Clinton.” Uh-oh.
Craig Rivera, Geraldo’s kid brother (double uh-oh), covered the story. He deepened his voice and added ominous color to key phrases like, “But there’s more.” When he got to the part about Clinton pinning my wife against the wall, the segment’s background music suddenly switched to a porno-sounding track and the stock footage of Clinton was slowed down, making him look blameworthy somehow. It’s a neat trick. For some reason our brains say, That guy moves slow! He must be guilty! I hear porno music. That guy’s gotta be a sex fiend! TV news producers know this and exploit it.
About this time the media figured out how to reach me without going through Capital Style and my phone started ringing. Journalists from all over the world—the United Kingdom, Russia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela—were doing stories and wanted to talk to me. Producers from CNN, ABC News, Fox News, and The Oprah Winfrey Show called. Tabloid reporters begged for exclusives.
Once again, I freaked out.
It’s a surreal experience to suddenly go from private citizen to tabloid fodder. You just don’t know when it’s going to end. Am I going to be the butt of jokes in tonight’s Leno monologue? Am I going to be the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question twenty years from now? I called Thomas for advice. He was an old hand in Washington, a seasoned journalist and author of several books on Washington scandals. Surely he would know what to do. He told me, “These media frenzies burn out quickly. My advice to you is don’t answer the phone and drink heavily.”
“Good plan,” I said. “Alcohol got me into this mess. Maybe alcohol can get me out.”
Friday, September 25, 1998. The calls continued and my answering machine captured a message of support from an unlikely source—Sydney Biddle Barrows, the Mayflower Madam. (For the benefit of readers born after 1966, the blue-blooded Ms. Barrows was busted for running a high-class New York escort service in 1984, causing quite a sensation. And she actually is the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.) I’d met her at a party a couple years earlier and was surprised she remembered me. No stranger to intense worldwide media coverage, she said she enjoyed my article and told me to hang in there. She then she offered some insights about notoriety being a blessing and a curse and, if you play it right, profitable. I wanted to write down her exact words, but in my alcoholic fog when I went to hit “repeat,” I accidentally hit “delete.” Tabloids and Mayflower Madams? I thought. This is not my life. Where do I go to get my life back? I wondered if Barb was thinking the same thing. Then I had another drink and contemplated the question, “exactly how big a bastard am I?”
Saturday, September 26, 1998. I awoke to the sound of—what’s this?—peace and quiet. The media had moved on. They were probably having a hard time figuring out whether the story was real. They couldn’t track down Barb. I refused to take their calls and had a history of writing humor essays. Maybe they decided the whole thing was a gag. Or maybe, it being Saturday, the media just decided to take a day off from covering The Hug of the Century.
Whatever the reason, I was simultaneously grateful and perturbed. Happy to have my privacy back, but annoyed that my rollercoaster ride was so short. In two days I had grown accustomed to the media hounding me. It made me feel important. Ducking reporters was just another vexation of celebrity, like finding a decent supply of melted glacier water for one’s Chihuahua or slapping injunctions on ex-lovers to prevent them from releasing your private sex videos. It was the price you paid and definitely something I could get used to.
It dawned on me that perhaps I’d played too hard to get. So I decided to do one, and only one, interview before the story got stale. The choice was easy—it had to be Matt Drudge’s eponymous talk show on Fox. My reasons were many. Drudge’s producer, Kristine Kotta, was the most persistent, charming and cajoling of all the producers who had contacted me. The Internet muckraker was the point man for Clintonian dirt. He broke the Lewinsky story, after all. The show was taping that evening and I could do it by satellite from the Fox News offices in downtown D.C. And, best of all, Drudge offered to interview me in silhouette, Mafia-informant style. What’s not to love?
Drudge interviewed Thomas and me for a solid six minutes. Thomas waxed philosophical about The Sociopolitical Implications of The Hug, sounding very intelligent and suggesting that it was part of Clinton’s “modus operandi” and “behavioral mosaic” and that “psycho-historians will look to this later to try to piece together what makes this president tick.” Meanwhile I hid in the dark and did a bad impression of Clinton’s cheesy pick-up line, “Even presidents need hugs, too.” Drudge closed the segment with, “Steve Altes, a brave man.” I had to replay this line several times at home on videotape and run it through my irony-detector, since “brave” is not the first word that comes to mind when discussing a man cowering in the shadows.
Sunday, September 27, 1998. By Sunday my life was back to normal though the story lived for months in the tabloids. It’s an odd feeling to be buying a bag of Double Stuf Oreos at the supermarket, look up and see the headline “Angry Hubby: Bill Tried to Force Himself on my Wife,” and know they’re talking about you.
Before long I got wistful for my fleeting moment in the spotlight. If I hadn’t been so worried about White House death squads I could have had more fun with it. Why don’t schmoes like me who thrust themselves into the limelight ever take the opportunity to say something entertaining? Why can’t the nightly news be more like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart? Why didn’t I stage a press conference and give absurd answers? It would have been a fun experiment. Would the media get it? Would they brand me a kook?
Here, then, is the transcript from the press conference I wish I’d held:
Q: Don’t you think the public is growing tired of these salacious accusations against President Clinton?
A: Well, I’m of the mind that, and I think public opinion polls will back me up on this, that as the economy goes to hell in a handbasket, there is no more pressing national issue than Investigating the President’s Genitals. And will said genitals withstand intense media scrutiny.
Q: Are you concerned about libel?
A: For that I refer you to the legal doctrine of “Is So vs. ‘Fraid Not.”
Q: Was your story fact-checked?
A: This story has more checks than a Prague phonebook.
Q: Isn’t this a tacky thing to do to your ex‑wife?
A: Well sure, in a perfect world I wouldn’t do this. But in a perfect world Superman wouldn’t be vulnerable to kryptonite, Krispy Kreme donuts would have zero calories, and I’d be wearing underwear right now.
Q: Isn’t telling this story being disloyal to the President?
A: Bill Clinton already turned the presidency into a three‑ring circus. I’m just selling cotton candy in the bleachers.
Q: What is your political affiliation now? Are you still a Clinton supporter?
A: I have switched allegiances to the Whig party.
Q: What caused the break‑up of your marriage? Was it this incident with President Clinton?
A: No, we got divorced for reasons totally unrelated to this. But, gosh, go into the reasons for my divorce on national TV? Such a tempting offer. But I think I’ll pass. Because that’s my private life and if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it is to see a person’s private life invaded by the media.
Q: Your reputation as a humorist has some observers questioning the veracity of your account. Can you confirm for us that this is a factual story rather than satire?
A: I swear by the rumpled fedora of Matt Drudge that every word I wrote in that article is the truth. As far as you know. Let me reiterate: I am not a liar. I’m writer. I’m a blabbermouth. I’m a liar. But I am not a porn star.
Q: Is the timing of your story politically motivated?
A: [with rising indignation] Are you telling me that an average citizen like myself can’t grow up to make lurid accusations about his own President’s sex life without getting hounded by you jackals? Are you telling me that fifty million men gave their lives in the Korean War fighting for my freedom of speech just so some cub reporter from a two‑bit fish wrap like The New York Times can tell me what I can and cannot say? You make me stink! Dan Rather is probably turning in his grave. This press conference is over! [storm out]