Bill Clinton was hard to miss in the autumn of 1970. He arrived at Yale Law School looking more like a Viking than a Rhodes Scholar returning from two years at Oxford. He was tall and handsome somewhere beneath that reddish brown beard and curly mane of hair. He also had a vitality that seemed to shoot out of his pores. When I first saw him in the law school’s student lounge, he was holding forth before a rapt audience of fellow students. As I walked by, I heard him say: “. . . and not only that, we grow the biggest watermelons in the world!” I asked a friend, “Who is that?”
“Oh, that’s Bill Clinton,” he said. “He’s from Arkansas, and that’s all he ever talks about.”
We didn’t talk to each other again until the last day of classes in the spring of 1971.We happened to walk out of Professor Thomas Emerson’s Political and Civil Rights course at the same time. Bill asked me where I was going. I was on the way to the registrar’s office to sign up for the next semester’s classes. He told me he was heading there too. As we walked, he complimented my long flower-patterned skirt. When I told him that my mother had made it, he asked about my family and where I had grown up. We waited in line until we got to the registrar. She looked up and said, “Bill, what are you doing here? You’ve already registered.” I laughed when he confessed that he just wanted to spend time with me, and we went for a long walk that turned into our first date.
We both had wanted to see a Mark Rothko exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery, but because of a labor dispute, some of the university’s buildings, including the museum, were closed. As Bill and I walked by, he decided he could get us in if we offered to pick up the litter that had accumulated in the gallery’s courtyard. Watching him talk our way in was the first time I saw his persuasiveness in action. We had the entire museum to ourselves. We wandered through the galleries talking about Rothko and twentieth-century art. I admit to being surprised at his interest in and knowledge of subjects that seemed, at first, unusual for a Viking from Arkansas. We ended up in the museum’s courtyard, where I sat in the large lap of Henry Moore’s sculpture Draped Seated Woman while we talked until dark.
I was starting to realize that this young man from Arkansas was much more complex than first impressions might suggest. To this day, he can astonish me with the connections he weaves between ideas and words and how he makes it all sound like music. I still love the way he thinks and the way he looks. One of the first things I noticed about Bill was the shape of his hands. His wrists are narrow and his fingers tapered and deft, like those of a pianist or a surgeon. When we first met as students, I loved watching him turn the pages of a book. Now his hands are showing signs of age after thousands of handshakes and golf swings and miles of signatures. They are, like their owner, weathered but still expressive, attractive and resilient.