Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A President at the Book Store

That's Brent, UW Class of 2001. He appears—in photographic form—on this blog for a very special reason. He was first in line at our recent Bill Clinton book signing. And in order to be first, he spent 12 1/2 hours in line.

I asked him if he would mind sending this blog a little recap of his day, and he delivered this wonderful report:

“Bill Clinton will be at the University Book Store signing copies of his latest book, Giving, November 1st…” The quick three-sentence blurb in the Seattle P.I. sparked my interest immediately. “Oh, my mom’s going to want to know about this,” I thought to myself. I phoned her right away with the news. Big fans of the former President, my parents celebrated his landslide in 1992 with champagne. My mother in particular loves Clinton’s sincere demeanor and wit. She’s always been disappointed to miss past opportunities to meet the President. Unfortunately, this time around would not be any different for her. Much of her time these days goes towards her brother’s cancer care. Her commitment to my uncle wouldn’t allow a day off, but my schedule did. I figured that my mom was owed a signed copy of Clinton’s latest book, so with stockpiled vacation time banked at work, and no money to spend on a vacation, I put in for November 1st right away and got my rear down to the U Book Store to purchase my book voucher.

I have never lined up for a book signing before, but have seen them happen at the U Book Store in the past. Spending four years at the UW, you see all sorts of academics, fiction writers, and random celebrities come through the store. During my freshman year, shock rocker Marilyn Manson brought an interesting crowd. I remember the line going South on University Way and taking a left on 43rd, so for this signing, I figured I would start there. I absolutely wasn’t going to be denied a book (“Sorry, folks! The President only has a limited amount of time tonight!”), so I planned to arrive sometime before 9:00 AM, before the store opens.

I packed all one would need for a day in out in the cold. I had on long underwear, a folding chair, waterproof blanket, multiple sandwiches, snacks, and water. I took off for a quick trip on the bus and arrived at 8:15 AM. No one was at the alley entrance, so I moved on to my plan of lining up on the Ave. Coming up to the doors, I was surprised and amused to find I was the first one there. I kicked open my chair, got out my Seattle P.I., and began the 12 and 1/2 hour wait.

It was the beginning of a day interacting with all different kinds of people. From homeless Russians boisterously supportive of former Communist regimes, to hot-shot TV reporters, the day hardly ever had a dull moment. Every 10 minutes, my weak effort at finishing a book would be interrupted by one of two questions: “Is this the beginning of the line?” and, “How long have you been waiting?” It was fun to answer the first few times, then I began to wonder if the Book Store could put up a sign to keep traffic moving along: THE LINE BEGAN HERE AT 8:15 AM. NO, THIS GUY’S NOT “CRAZY”. PLEASE, DO NOT FEED HIM.

It was terrific to share stories and political ideas (go figure) with newly made friends. The U Book Store had the crowd come inside when it opened and the line never left the building, winding all the way to the back of the gift shop and then downstairs to the text book section. They did an awesome job at keeping the crowd out of the chilly weather. They even provided refreshments of juice and pretzels, just in case someone didn’t come prepared.

The day went by quickly and slowed down to a turtle’s pace at about 7:30 PM. Anticipation was all over the line of about 1,200 people. Items like cell phones, cameras, and such were not allowed upstairs and were surrendered to book-check. Then it was about another 30 minutes until Clinton would arrive. A table was set up with copies of his book stacked everywhere. There was a big chair for him to sit in and a large cup stuffed with at least 50 pens. The press was positioned for the best photos and everyone stared down the hall that President Clinton would eventually come through. His armored GMC Denalis (3 or 4 of them) pulled into the alley behind the store and a rush of applause greeted his entrance into the store. We would catch a glimpse of him as he reached the 2nd floor from the rear staircase, before he would dash into the restroom. I suppose any smart person would take a bathroom break before signing over 1,000 books.

After a quick break, he was back and ready to sign. The President came down the rest of the hall and, instead of taking his seat behind the table, he stood in front of his books, signing with his left hand and greeting each of us with a handshake from his right. This simple gesture meant a lot to me. Here is a former President of the United States going out of his way to personally greet everyone who came to see him. His smile was inviting and his eyes were wrinkled with happiness. He’s usually described as tall, but was about my height at 6’1”. His nose is huge.

I was not the first to get a book signed. There was a group of about a dozen folks with disabilities that were to go first before the main line was to move on. This was a great opportunity to observe and watch people interact with Clinton first hand. It was amazing to see how personal this experience was going to be. With the President out front of his table, there was no intermediary. There sure was a lot that went into coordinating the event, but it was special to see that this is what it was going to come down to; a simple face to face greeting from President Clinton. People pay $1,000 a plate for this kind of experience. I paid around $22 for a book.

I had been playing with the question, “what will I ask President Clinton?” all day in my head. Would I really ask him a question or just tell him thanks for being here? Would I ask him a serious question, the kind the press asks him every day? Or would I ask him something about pop culture that you wouldn’t read about in Time or Esquire? Who is Bill Clinton’s favorite Beatle, anyway? There was one person left in front of me when I figured out what I would say.

The last person in front of me pulled away, and there was President William J. Clinton looking right at me with a big smile (and a big nose). He put out his hand like he was opening the door of his home to family at Thanksgiving. He said to me a comfortable, drawn out “Hiiii.” I replied, “Hi, President Clinton,” as he shook my hand easily, not too firm, not too weak. I then thanked him for his work on federal student loans during his term and let him know that it helped me get through school. His smile stopped for a brief moment, his forehead wrinkled upward about a centimeter and he said as he patted my left shoulder, “We’re working hard to bring that back.” I assumed he was referring to Hillary and himself. “Thank you,” I said back, and swiped one more hand shake from him. I slowly moved on with a satisfied smile on my face, took one more look back at the former President, then was ready to go home.

Waiting for a signature from President Clinton may seem like a waste of time to some, but it was absolutely worth it. I walked away with a priceless experience and my mom gets a wonderful signed first edition. I will enjoy telling my friends and family about my brief experience with the former President. If you get the chance to meet a former President, you should go for it. Like I told KING 5 TV, there’s not many of them left, so you should take the opportunity when you have it.

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