Ye gods, I thought. What’s happening here? This is not what I had in Mind. The interview had turned weird, and so had the governor ... No one else seemed to notice I was paralyzed with fear. But I was not totally brain-dead. Just as I felt myself on the brink of passing out, I remembered I had a gift for Clinton, who continued to stare at me darkly.
I reached quickly into my rumpled shirt pocket and pulled out a brand-new Vandoren tenor-saxophone reed, which had been entrusted to me by the famous photographer Fulton of Aspen, who also plays the tenor sax and had caught Clinton’s act on Arsenio.
I got the governor’s attention by gently waving the elegant little piece of cane back and forth in front of his eyes until he came vaguely alive and smiled at me. Hot damn, I thought. That was close. He seemed almost friendly now. I explained that the reed was a gift from a fellow musician who wished him well, then I pressed it into his outstretched palm. The Secret Service boys reacted like Dobermans when I unexpectedly made uninvited physical contact with the Candidate and then gave him a small, unidentifiable object to put in his mouth, but I waved them off with a friendly smile. “Relax, boys,” I said. “It’s only a harmless reed—a tribute to the governor’s art.”
What happened next was so strange that I would have shrugged it off as one of those random, paranoid hallucinations that occur now and then, even to sane people—except that I have the whole long moment on Sony Hi8 Metal-E60 videotape, and there were also five or six witnesses who later recalled the incident with stark clarity and a creepy sense of dismay that none of them wanted to talk about or even acknowledge at the time. But it was true:
Clinton stared balefully at the reed for what seemed like a very long time, like a Chimp peering into his first Mirror ... There was a sense of puzzlement on his face as he silently pondered the thing.
It was an awkward moment, Bubba. Very awkward. Nobody knew how to handle it. He seemed unhappy, almost angry as he fondled the reed distractedly, saying nothing ... Then he rolled his eyes back in his head and uttered a wild quavering cry that made my blood run cold.
The others tried to pretend that it wasn’t happening. We were, after all, in the South—and in some tangled way we were also the governor’s guests. Or maybe he was ours. Who knows? But there was no doubt at all that somebody was drifting over the line into unacceptable rudeness, and I didn’t think it was me. Greider was sobbing quietly, and P.J. sagged limply in his chair. Jann began jabbering frantically about “the Generation Gap.” A pall of helpless craziness came over the table, a sense of unknowable Doom . . .
Then the governor dropped the Reed on the table like it was just another half-eaten Potato scrap, brushing it blankly aside and suddenly smiling warmly at all of us, as if he had just emerged from a Pod and was happy to be among friends. “No more music,” he said firmly. “Let’s have some food, I’m hungry.” Then he grasped the wicker basket of French Fries with both hands and buried his face in it, making soft snorting sounds as he rooted around in the basket trying vainly to finish it off.
I was afraid, but Jann was quick to recover. “Easy, Governor, easy,” he said in a suave voice. “Let me help you with that, Bill. Hell, we’re all hungry.” He smiled and reached out for the half-empty basket of fries, as if to share the burden—but Clinton snatched it away, clutching it to his chest and turning his back on us—a horrible thing to see.
Somewhere behind me I heard a kind of hissing, moaning sound as Eric, our hapless editor, stood up and bolted out of the room, slamming between two startled SS agents, and then locked himself in the bathroom. I heard a croaking noise, then a rush of water.
Well, I thought. This is probably about as weird as it can get, without all of us going to jail, so why not relax and act normal—or at least try? These things happen. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Welcome to Mr. Bill’s Neighborhood.
I came away from Little Rock with mixed feelings. Bill Clinton and I did not hit it off real well, but so what? I got into politics a long time ago, and I still believe, on some days, that it can be an honorable trade . . . That is not an easy belief to hang on to after wallowing for thirty years in the belly of a Beast that has beaten and broken more good men and women than Crack and Junk Bonds combined. Politics is a mean Business, and when September rolls around in a campaign, it gets mean on a level that is beyond most people’s comprehension. The White House is the most powerful office in the world, and a lot of people will tell you nothing is over the line when it finally comes down to winning or losing it. Nobody is safe and Nothing is sacred when the stakes get that high. It is the ultimate Fast Lane, and the people still on their feet in September are usually the Meanest of the Mean. The last train out of any station will not be full of Nice guys.