Mr. President

In last week’s issue, I mentioned that one of the perks of this job is meeting interesting people. Within days of writing that, I met some others—including a former president of the United States.

I spent four days in Little Rock, Ark., at the national convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. The hosts outdid themselves with the list of guest speakers: Wesley Clark, Susan McDougal and Bill Clinton.

It would take too long to share golden nuggets from the talks. The retired general uncorked a speech that could double as a 2008 campaign stump, the Whitewater indictee gave her side of the saga, and the former president … well, there just is no quick way to encapsulate his appearance.

First off, it wasn’t quick. He was slated for 90 minutes and stayed almost twice that long. His speech touched on partisan politics, international relations and the single mother he met while walking out of the presidential library that morning.

In other words, vintage Clinton.

He sat down to take three questions from a journalist moderator, followed by question after question from the audience of journalists. Off the cuff, he gave detailed answers about Somalia, Darfur, petroleum, gay rights, the Plame leak investigation, etc. Then, unexpectedly, he stepped down to the front of the stage, where he spent another 45 minutes shaking hands, giving autographs and engaging in conversation. Just like before, he did not rush or skimp on specifics.

I got a chance to shake his hand and get an autograph for a friend. (No, really, it’s for Joe, a sportswriter buddy.) I’ve seen two other presidents from a distance, and I’ve met numerous athletes and TV celebrities. So I don’t find myself star-struck. Yet I walked away with increased respect for “Mr. President,” as I quietly said in thanking him.

Whatever opinion you have of Bill Clinton, know this: He is as friendly as he is charismatic, and even more intelligent.