The Day I Managed To Render Bill Clinton Speechless
One thing is certain about Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States.
That boy could talk up a storm.
First of all, I've never seen a president who could give a better stump speech. He could stir a crowd; he could practically wake the dead, with a rhetorical style that had more in common with a Baptist preacher than the typical staid politician reading off a tele-prompter.
I had a number of opportunities to interview the man, both as candidate and president, and he had an insatiable appetite for fielding questions from reporters. Most national politicians would rather be whacked in the head with a rubber mallet, but Bill Clinton seemed to relish the back-and-forth with reporters.
He had an answer for everything.
Well, almost everything.
There was one time – in, of all places, an airplane hangar in March 1996 at Port Columbus Airport – that I saw him completely stumped by a reporter's question. The man was rendered totally speechless.
And it was a question I asked.
Not that I was some sort of genius, the champion of Stump The President.
I just asked him a question and Bill Clinton had no answer.
It was astounding.
Here's how it came about.
I had known for some weeks about President Clinton coming to Columbus on March 23, 1996 – during a re-election year – for a rally in an agricultural hall at the Ohio State Fairgrounds. He was to be the headline attraction at an Ohio Democratic Party fundraiser.
Four years before, Clinton had eked out a narrow victory in Ohio over the Republican incumbent, George H.W. Bush, in a three-way race with Ross Perot peeling off a little over one million votes.
So, he was more than happy to do whatever he could to make the leadership of the Ohio Democratic Party happy.
I had a phone call from the White House press office about a week before the fundraiser asking me if I wanted to be part of a small group of Ohio reporters who would have a Q&A session with the president after the rally.
I said, sure, count me in.
By this time, interviewing Bill Clinton was getting to be a little old hat. As I recall, it was to be my fourth session with him since he won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.
But no politics reporter complains about face time with an American president, no matter who is in office.
And Clinton was especially good because he ignored the rules his press aides and the Secret Service had set down. If they told the reporters they had 20 minutes with the president, Clinton would manage to turn it into 45. He'd beg for more. His staff practically had to drag him out of the room.
I told my editors about the event and the interview opportunity; they said to go, by all means.
There was only one thing they wanted me to do – they wanted me to use some of my very limited time with Clinton to ask about Fernald.
Fernald, at the time, was a huge local story. Formerly known as the Feed Materials Production Center, the site – located in Crosby Township in Hamilton County and Ross Township in Butler County – processed uranium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program, from 1951 to 1989.
In 1984, it was learned that the plant was pumping millions of pounds of uranium dust into the atmosphere, causing massive radioactive contamination of the surrounding area, putting the nearby residents – many of whom also worked in the plant – at risk of serious health problems.
It was in the ground water, in the soil and dispersed in the air around Fernald. It was a major environmental disaster.
By 1996, the plant had been shut down and it was on the U.S. EPA's list of Superfund clean-up sites.
My editors at the Enquirer wanted me to ask Clinton for a detailed description of where the Superfund clean-up stood and how long it would take to complete.
I told them I would try. I explained that I was going to be in the room with four or five other reporters from major Ohio daily newspapers. The White House press office, I said, was giving up less than a half-hour to do our round-robin series of questions; it was going to resemble the lightning round on the TV game show Jeopardy!
I had grave doubts that Clinton would know what I was talking about. After all, he was not Jimmy Carter, who was not a nuclear engineer, but had worked in the Navy's nuclear submarine program and was a detailed-oriented president who probably could have told you how many free-range chicken eggs were in the refrigerator of the White House kitchen.
Clinton was a Big Picture guy.
Just ask the question, they said.
I'll do what I can, I said.
On the day of the rally, I drove up to the general aviation area of Port Columbus Airport, which was where Air Force One was to land; picked up my credentials and talked to the local and state pols who were lining up to greet Clinton as he came off the plane.
The instructions to the Ohio reporters were as usual – break for one of the motorcade press vans when the president came down the ramp of Air Force One.
The plane landed, more or less on time (quite an accomplishment for the Clinton White House, which was ordinarily late), and we headed into the motorcade vans for the trip to the Ohio State Fairgrounds.
Ohio's senior senator, John Glenn, was with him on this trip – flying into an airport that would someday be named after him.
With then-Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Leland, a crowd of about 4,000 jammed into a too-small and incredibly hot livestock building, all of them chanting "Four more years! Four more years!" as Clinton strode on to the stage and shook hands with all the top Ohio Democrats who were on stage with him.
Clinton spoke for about half an hour in what was mostly a recitation of his accomplishments in his first term and a pledge that he wanted "more change, not less."
When he took office, he said, "the deficit was twice as high." Unemployment, he said, was two points higher. Eight million new jobs had been created and wages were going up for the first time in 10 years.
He even took note of two people who had passed out in the heat of the room.
"Is there a doctor? Can we get a doctor over here? This lady has passed out ... Oh, she's back on her feet. She's OK. She probably just wanted to hear more jokes ... Oh, wait a minute, can we get a doctor over on the other side? Someone's passed out over there."
Once he had gotten all of the audience's medical problems solved, he wrapped up his speech and bounded down to the rope line in front of the stage, where he did what he does best – shake hands and pose for photos with everyone in sight.
We were hustled back into the vans for the ride back to the airport.
The Ohio reporters were escorted into an empty hangar, with five or six folding chairs in a semi-circle around another metal folding chair – this one for the president.
We did a draft on the order in which we would ask questions. I was three or four, if I remember correctly. We were told we had 20 minutes. Five reporters, 20 minutes. Even I knew enough that would mean four minutes per reporter.
Bill Clinton couldn't say hello in four minutes.
After 15 or 20 minutes, the doors burst open and the president came in, followed by a squad of Secret Service agents and about half a dozen staff people.
We all shook hands, settled in our seats. He was ready to go.
Alright, fellas, fire away. Who's first? (And, in those days, it was all "fellas," that would not be the case if you put five politics reporters in a room with the president these days.)
When it came to be my turn, I couldn't bring myself to ask about Fernald. Instead, I asked something about budget negotiations with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Things moved along. Soon, the 20 minutes was up. The staff tried to get him out of the building and on to the plane.
Then, Bill came through again.
Wait now, these fellas came out here and they probably have some more questions. We'll do another round.
John Glenn was standing nearby, smiling. I swear I thought I saw him give me a little wink. He knew Clinton wouldn't leave in 20 minutes.
It came around to my turn again. I had been agonizing about what I would ask. I had at least a dozen on my list.
Forgive me, but I gave in to the editors. I just couldn't go back to Cincinnati and listen to them whine about Fernald for the next month.
So I asked him: Mr. President, can you give me an update on the second phase of the Superfund nuclear clean-up at Fernald?
Now, Bill Clinton had this way of talking to people where he would look you in the eye, rest his hands on his chin and give you a look like, You are telling me the most important thing I have ever heard.
He had that look when I first started talking, but in a few seconds I could see in his eyes that he was running that word through his computer-like brain, doing a mental Google search for "Fernald."
And it was obvious he was coming up with nothing.
He started to talk…..Well, I have to admit I'm not up on…..
At that point, Glenn, seeing the desperation on Clinton's face, jumped in.
Howard, let me handle that for you….
Glenn was deeply involved in the Fernald clean-up; he knew the subject inside and out.
Yes, Sen. Glenn can help you with that, Clinton said.
And Glenn did, giving me a detailed and coherent answer that I could use in my story. And say in that same story that Clinton did not appear to be familiar with Fernald.
Soon, the interview was over. Glenn walked by on the way out, patted me on the back and gave me a wink.
He had that famous grin on this face: Saved your bacon this time, didn't I?
Yes sir, I said. I owe you one.