On a crisp, sunny, winter day in 1997, I was sitting in the luxurious office of a Washington, DC, power broker, when his administrative assistant intruded on our conversation.
“Excuse me for interrupting, sir,” she said, “but Mr. Erskine Bowles is on the phone for you.”
I knew that Bowles was the White House Chief of Staff, and I certainly understood the interruption. Erskine Bowles was a hell of a lot more important than I was.
“I’m sorry, Charlie, I have to take this.”
“Of course,” I replied. “I’ll go outside and wait till you’re finished.”
“Oh, no, no,” he replied. “Stay where you are. I won’t be long.”
I stayed in my chair, feeling honored to be at the opposite end of a conversation with a man whose name I read daily in the newspapers. Little did I know that this would be no ordinary phone dialogue. I pretended not to listen, but I hung on to every word. Soon, I realized the urgency of Bowles’ call, as I eavesdropped on my host’s startled responses.
“He did what?!”
“What’s her name again?”
“That dumb shit! I don’t believe it!”
“What’s going to happen next?”
I had no idea who “he” was or what “he” had done to or with this mysterious woman named Monica Lewinsky. Eventually, my host asked Bowles to keep him informed and hung up. His face ashen, he seemed to catch his breath before he remembered that I was in the room.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just got some disturbing news. Let’s get back to our conversation. Where were we?”
Some thirty minutes later, I walked out into the street, not realizing that this meeting would have an afterlife—one totally unrelated to me.
In the weeks and months that followed, Monica Lewinsky’s name was everywhere—in newspapers, on TV and radio, and on the lips of nearly everyone with whom I spoke. It did not take me long to discover that the mysterious “he” of the telephone conversation had been President Bill Clinton himself, a man for whom I had voted and whom I admired. As I found out more details of the sex scandal between the President and the young woman, I could not help but feel that I had been among the first to hear about it, albeit without a clue about what I was hearing at the time. In a weird way, I felt that I had witnessed a little piece of sordid history.
Although I would never have reason to meet the infamous Miss Lewinsky, I did have the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the other, more prominent, player in the scandal. In 2011, I introduced myself to William Jefferson Clinton in the green room of a Walden University commencement in Minneapolis. From the moment we shook hands, I was mesmerized by his charm, his intelligence, and his uncanny ability to make the person with whom he was speaking—in this case, me—feel that he was the only person who mattered at that moment. He seemed genuinely interested in my life story after one of my colleagues informed him that I was about to publish a memoir titled Prague: My Long Journey Home.
A couple of years later, I saw President Clinton again in yet another green room. As soon as he saw me enter the room, he broke away from a group of admirers and stuck out his hand.
“Hi, Charlie,” he said, much to my astonishment. “Great to see you again. I read your book, and really enjoyed it.”
I felt foolish as I stood there with my mouth wide open, amazed that the former President of the United States not only remembered my name, but that he had actually read my memoir. No wonder that Bill Clinton’s ability to relate to people had gotten him elected twice to the nation’s highest office!
Yet, while completely taken in by him, I could not exorcise from my mind that conversation I had heard sixteen years before in Washington. Nor could I rid myself of the thought that this white-haired world leader had done something so damned stupid.