News & Politics

Bill and Me

He was a white kid working in a Senate office, I was his African-American supervisor, and we both loved Elvis.

All of the committees in the Senate have college students serving as messengers and interns. Messengers receive a salary, and interns volunteer their services to get a foot in the door. Interns are often the children or friends of campaign contributors; messengers tend to be bright college students studying in Washington.

Interns and messengers usually come from the same region as the committee chair. In the late 1960s, I was not only Senator William Fulbright’s chauffeur; I was also clerk of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and it was my job to supervise its interns and messengers. With Arkansas’s Fulbright as chair, most of them came from the South, and all were white.

I sensed a lot of the kids were a little uncomfortable working with a black person. They were polite, but there were few of the friendly interactions staff members have. Everybody knew his place.

The exception was Bill, a thin 21-year-old kid with a baby face and brown wavy hair who was a junior at Georgetown. Bill was a mama’s boy; the first thing he did after he got the job was call his mother. He told me he hadn’t known whether he was going to be able to finish college because his family didn’t have enough money. He’d tried to get a job on the committee before and had been unsuccessful, but this time, he told me, God had answered his prayers. Bill was very religious.

Bill’s job as a messenger was to go through newspapers looking for relevant articles, cut them out, and get them to Fulbright’s speechwriters. Bill was a fast reader with an exceptional mind, and he seemed to enjoy the work.

There were times I’d catch him cutting articles from the Style or Sports section of the Post. “Man, what kind of foreign-relations story can you find there?” I’d ask. But darned if he hadn’t found a connection.

What really made Bill stand out was that he was not only smart but good company. I could tell by his warmth, outgoing nature, and comfort level that this wasn’t his first time being around black folk. He was perfectly at home gabbing with me—both respectful and inquisitive, not only with me but also with a lot of the older “downstairs guys” who had worked in the Senate a long time. He wanted to know what their jobs were and loved picking up stories about former senators. Many times Bill could be found down in the basement chewing the fat with these guys.

He worked hard, and I cut him slack when he needed it. After he’d been up all night writing a paper, I’d look the other way when things slowed down and he got into a chair in the corner and dozed off.

We had a little radio in our office, and we both loved Elvis. Whenever an Elvis record came on, we’d turn the radio up and sing along. His favorite was “Love Me Tender,” and mine was “Blue Suede Shoes.” We tried to dance along, but neither of us could dance. One slow day we got carried away, and when Pat Holt, chief of staff of the committee, came into the room, he said, “No one invited me to the party.” He laughed at the two of us—each with a broom—singing along with Elvis and pretending to be onstage.

Another time, the mimeograph machine broke, and we needed to get copies of an article out to the committee. Bill could fix anything. He tore the machine apart and put it back together, and we were both ecstatic that he’d managed to get it to work—until we looked down at our clothes.

Purple ink was all over my suit as well as Bill’s shirt, arms, face, and hair. We mopped the floor, threw away at least two reams of paper soaked in ink. Every time one of us looked up and saw how purple the other was, we started laughing.

I had no idea that purple face would belong to a future president. But it did. Bill’s last name was Clinton.

This article is from the May 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here.

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Society Photos