Dinner With The Clintons

In 1978, the newly-elected Governor of Arkansas and his wife came to London for a holiday

Counterpoints
Perfect guests? The Clintons in the 1970s (©SIPA Press/REX/Shutterstock)

My father telephoned me shortly before Christmas 1978. I was a struggling young barrister in London and had just become engaged to my first wife, whom I had met when she was the shorthand writer and I was a junior on a sensational murder trial at the Old Bailey. Dad was in his third year as Rabbi of the Jewish Temple in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Surprisingly, that remote place hosted a thriving Jewish community centring mainly around an arthritis hospital and the natural spa waters which gave the town its name. A heart attack a few years earlier had contributed to his leaving England and his large and demanding congregation in Manchester to accept what was effectively a retirement job in the sun. He is still remembered as a charming and charismatic man, and whenever he met any American planning a trip to London he would proudly invite them to get in touch with his son. While invariably these were nice people, I was getting fed up with return invitations to faraway places like Gary, Indiana, which I knew I would never take up.

“I have a lovely young couple whom I have just met,” he now told me. “They are spending Christmas in London, and I promised them you would show them around. They are both lawyers like you, and he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.” I replied angrily, “For heaven’s sake, no, Dad. You’re always doing this to me, and anyway Alexis and I are going skiing in a few days’ time.”

He begged me to relent, adding that this was the newly-elected Governor of Arkansas who was grabbing a short vacation before taking up his position, and that in the time-honoured way things work in America it might conceivably do him some good in return. “OK,” I said, “for a Governor I will make an exception, and hopefully it may do you some good. But this is absolutely the last time, Dad.”

The phone rang again in my tiny apartment a few days later, and a deep southern accent that I could hardly understand announced, “Hi Jonathan, it’s Bill here. Your Dad said Hillary and I could visit with you, and we would love to go with you to court.” They were staying at a cheap hotel in Earl’s Court. All I could offer was that I was defending a burglar the following day in a nondescript jury trial at Inner London Crown Court. To my surprise, they arrived promptly at 10 o’clock and spent the whole day sitting behind me, watching intently. At lunchtime I sent a message to the judge informing him that the young couple sitting behind me were the newly-elected Governor of Arkansas and his wife, and perhaps he would be willing to greet them in his chambers. He replied that he was much too busy.

Alexis and I spent the weekend with them. We took them out to restaurants twice and also to the theatre. They were the guests so I paid. We were going to France the following week, and I lent them my car, an old BMW, while we were away. I have often wondered what happened to it. Perhaps I should try to find out if it still exists and put a plaque on it.

Bill came across to us as an unsophisticated country boy — a real redneck. Although he was obviously clever, Hillary struck us as wearing the pants in their relationship. He would start a sentence and she would butt in and finish it for him, saying, “Don’t be silly, Bill.”

And she looked absolutely nothing like the person she is today. She had dark straggly hair and wore thick bottle-lens spectacles and long woolly socks. She looked every inch the typical bluestocking feminist intellectual of that era. But the Clintons were good company and we enjoyed our time together. When we parted they invited us to stay with them at the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock the next time we were in Arkansas.

Sadly, that next visit was for my father’s funeral. They were out of state at the time but Bill sent a warm message, which was read out. My father was a popular man locally who had just been nominated as Arkansas Man of the Year. He was buried the same day that President Sadat was assassinated in Egypt. My father’s funeral was item one on the Hot Springs local television news; Sadat’s assassination was item two.

Arkansas elects its Governor for a two-year term; Bill lost the next election but was returned the one after that. When the “Comeback Kid” next hit the headlines by standing as a long shot for President, I wrote him an encouraging note asking if he remembered me. He did, and sent me a charming reply inviting me to stay at the White House, if he made it there. I never took up the offer. My American friends all tell me that I was foolish not to, and that the welcome was probably genuine, but my English reserve simply got in the way of my asking.

My new and somewhat pushier American wife is insisting, however, that if events transpire in a certain way in November, I will definitely not be allowed to be so shy again.