In the summer of 2002 I was “between jobs,” which means that brief, liberating yet nerve wracking time when I stupidly, I mean boldly, quit a job without having another. I was thrilled at the freedom to explore opportunities and do freelance work at home in my pajamas but terrified by the idea of running out of money before I had built up enough work or secured another “real” job.
So when my friend Kate called and asked if I wanted to participate in a Milwaukee area Democratic fundraiser for Tammy Baldwin featuring none other than the former President Bill Clinton, I quickly declined. The $250 minimum price tag was just too much even though I really liked Tammy and wanted to see her reelected. Besides, Bill pissed me off. I was still really mad about how he cheated on Hillary with that dumb Monica Lewinsky and tried to deny it. What a chump! How could a whole country trust a man whose own wife couldn’t?
But Kate called back whining about how much she really needed my help and offered to comp my ticket in exchange for volunteer time. I was still reluctant. Then she reminded me how many “important” people would be there and how it would be good for my career to be networking. And my husband butted into the conversation with a snide comment about it not being “healthy” to hang around the house in my pajamas every day. “Okay, fine. I’ll do it,” I finally said.
The Performing Arts Center where the midday event was to take place was abuzz with activity when I arrived. I was helping to organize name tags while scary looking federal security personnel lurked around with their curled chords plugged into their ears. They looked like “Men in Black” and it gave the ambiance a kind of surreal feel to it. And Clinton’s so called advance team was intimidating in their efficiency. A terse young woman in very high heels and a prim suit answered her cell phone with a piercing verbal jab. “Go!” was all she said. Kate and the rest of us volunteers scurried around like peptic crazy people to a constant barrage of announcements—“He’s 30 minutes out; He’s 25 minutes out; He’s 22 minutes out.”
Frenzied guests began to arrive and move through the security check. It felt like the Easter Parade with everyone in their best business formal ware, men in dark suits with their best silk ties in spite of the heat; women gussied up with colorful summer suits, sheer hose and light colored pumps.
“He’s 19 minutes out.”
The guests were a bunch of nervous nellies. “Where’s my name tag?” “I know I made a reservation.” “When will President Clinton arrive?”
“He’s 14.2 minutes out.”
The Men in Black paced faster.
“9 minutes out.”
The air felt electric. I could hear the distant sound of sirens, the police escort. The guests were literally tittering.
“5 minutes out.”
The Men in Black and the sharp young woman and other campaign workers stood outside the entrance at straight-back attention, hands crossed behind their backs while we volunteers rolled our eyes.”
“2 minutes out”
No one was breathing.
“30 seconds out.”
And with amazing accuracy, Bill’s motorcade pulled up at exactly zero. He got out of the car like a celebrity surrounded by his fans only in this case it was the Men in Black. He whispered something to the sharp young woman, who scurried over to Kate to whisper something in her ear. Kate made a gesture to point down the hall. Bill had to use the bathroom. Even former presidents have to go potty.
Just like everything else about this event, the photo taking proceeded with amazing efficiency. In less than 30 minutes more than 75 couples or individuals assembled themselves in poses with Tammy and Bill and shots were taken. I could feel the righteous smirk still lingering on my face but I had to admit that Bill looked good. He had lost weight and wore a trim black suit with a pink shirt and a pink and blue striped tie with small flowers in the pink stripes. His thick white hair was well cut and coifed and the small pompadour poof gave him a 60s rock star swagger. I swear I could smell Aqua Velva.
Kate gave me a nudge and knocked me out of my stupor. “Your turn.” What? Me? No kidding. Me and the other women volunteers (there were no male volunteers) got in the end of the line for our turn for a group photo.
“Go” said the terse young woman and five of us stepped into the frame. I stumbled around like a fool uttering “where should I stand? where should I stand?” “Right here,” said Bill and he put his arm around my waste and pulled me in for the shot. And just as quickly, he moved his hand to my back and gently shoved me away so that the next group could move in.
“Oh my god, oh my god,” I practically shouted as I joined everyone else in my group beaming from ear to ear .
We transitioned on to our new role of helping to seat people in the theater. I wound up filling a seat in the front row. I hardly remember anything anyone said except that Bill talked about forming a more perfect union. I remember most clearly the look on every single woman’s face in the audience. Regardless of age, race, or economic status, we looked at Bill with an upward tilted face, adoring glistening eyes and a smiling slightly agape mouth. He was Elvis. The King. We hoped he would look in our direction and give us a personal moment. Just one.
And just like that it was over. Elvis had left the building.
Kate grabbed me and said, “It’s ok that we have the ‘wheels up’ party at your house, right?” Wheels up? What? Apparently it is tradition for campaign workers to have a few drinks together after the president’s jet has taken off and I happened to live close to the airport.
But first, we were all to scurry to the private chartered flight part of the airport where I had never been before and help Bill shake hands with a few more donors. It was my job to stand outside the airport and peer down Layton Avenue to watch for the motorcade. I got excited when I saw a limo make a u turn into The Nite Owl, a well known custard and burger stand. Bill was known for his love of fast food, but it wasn’t him. A decoy, maybe. But then Bill showed up in the biggest blackest SUV I’ve ever seen.
More hand shaking and photos and then everyone jumped in their cars and headed to my house. The wheels were up! Everyone included about 30 members of Clinton’s and Baldwin’s staffs, my friend Kate, and a few of the other volunteers.
The guests emptied the refrigerator of beer and drained every bottle of wine, including the supply Kate brought, into every glass I had in the house. Ninety percent of the revelers were smoking in the small closed in space that connects the house to the garage when the squeaky automatic garage door announced my husband’s arrival home from work. I reached the door of the garage just as he opened it.
“Hi,” he said as he quizzically scanned the bar scene from Star Wars going on in our house. “What did you do today, honey?”