Nav Bar
Nav Bar

Nancy Bekavac, Friend of Clinton and President of Scripps College. She went to Vietnam as a reporter before she went to Yale Law. She and Clinton shared the experience of growing up in small towns with no fathers and big ambitions.

Interviewed June 28, 1996


What is your first specific memory of Bill Clinton?


I first met Bill Clinton in the fall of 1970 when we [were] law students together at Yale. The first time I met him was in the front hall, this tall, sort of shaggy, reddish hair, ginger-haired, fellow came up to me and asked me if I was Nancy Bekavac, and I said yes. And he said "Can I borrow your notes." And I said, "Well, who are you?" He said "I'm Bill Clinton." And I said "Well, that's really nice but why do you want to borrow my notes?" And he said "Well, I need them because I haven't been in class." And I said "Are you in my class? I have never seen you before." And he said "Well, uh, yes, I've been running Joe Duffy for the Senate and we just got beat, so I'm, coming to law school." I said, "Well, it's November and we started in September." He said, "Well, don't worry, I bought the books, but I want to borrow your notes." And I said, "Which ones?" And he said, "All of them." I said, "For all the classes?" And he said yes. And I think I said something like why don't you borrow [Bob R.'s]. And he said because Bob writes too much. And I said, so you know Bob. And he said yes. And I said, "All right, well I'll lend them to you, but first I have to go through the notebooks." And he said, "What do you have, love letters in there?" And "I said, no, bad poems and I don't want you to read them, so I'm going to take them out of the back." And so I lent him half the notes the first night and half the notes the second night. And that's how I got to know him. We had lunch. He started showing up in class. And I got to know him and we got to talk. And that's how I met him.

FL: How did he do out of curiosity?


I'm sure he did extremely well. One of the things I always thought about him was that it was easy to misunderstand how smart he was. A lot of people, I think it was a Northern prejudice, people who had Southern accents weren't treated as though they were fully formed adults minds, it was just a prejudice. And Bill had a sort of shambly way about him and an aw-shucks way about him, but he was very bright. Very bright. And I remember second semester we took a class in natural law in the philosophy department at Yale. And he would come up with the most amazing things from Thomas Aquinas. And I remember thinking this is not somebody you would easily read the first ten times. There was a lot more there than it was easy to understand on the first knowing.

He had a long coat, it was navy blue wool. And I think he told me that he bought it when he was in England. It had the look of navy surplus coat or something, it must have weighed 50 pounds. And everyone had one winter coat, actually one coat period. And his was this huge blue coat. And I remember walking around at Milford, he lived with some friends out at a beach house, and marching around on the beach, it was very cold in the winter in Connecticut. And I remember him marching along with this long coat, his hands jammed in the pockets, I'm sure none of us had gloves, and talking about whatever. And I remember, now I have a predilection for associating people with characters in books. And he always reminded me of Pierre inWar and Peace. Sort of well-intentioned, always looking for answers, always looking for ideas. Basically a good person. And the description of Pierre in War and Peace is that he's a very bear-like, large bulky, bear-like person and that's what Bill looked like in that coat. He looked like Pierre in War and Peace.

FL: Could you describe the sort of unique style friendship that Bill had .....


Well, when I first met him, I'd never met anything like this. I remember, he was so brazen. Here we were at an Ivy League law school, and he shows up in November, and expects to do well, expects to get my notes and go on, and I remember just being amazed that anybody would try it. There were a lot of brazen characters, but he had this quality, a sort of moving towards you, moving in on you, just physically, and he's big. I didn't know quite what to make of him. And I think one of my early impressions though, was very early on the word politician lodged in my brain. This is what a politician is like, this is what a politician is. And one of the things that had really fascinated me at Yale, was that at lunch you would sit at lunchtables full of people all of whom expected to be Senators or Governors or Congressmen. Not one of whom could have been elected dog catcher. All they did was talk about themselves, they were arrogant, they were silly, they were brittle, they obviously never talked to a normal working person in their lives.

And his demeanor was so utterly different, because one of the things he did was talk to you about you. At a typical luncheon he would ask people why they thought what they thought, he'd really engage them. And it wasn't inquisitorial. It wasn't I'm prepping to be Mike Wallace. It wasn't like that. It really was a kind of churning. He would roil things up, he would get people going. He would launch into some long absurd story about back in Arkansas, we... and you would think what on earth is he doing? But it was never just a shaggy dog story, there was always a point to it. And he got people talking and got people thinking. I remember watching him, again because most of us were Northerners and Midwesterners, and there was this unspoken prejudice against Southerners, very frequently people misunderstood him and underestimated him and it was great to be there for the punch line when they would talk about something and they would espouse something and he would say, well you know, H.L.A. Hart says "x," Hart is the great English philosopher of law whose lectures he had sat in on at Oxford. And he didn't do it often, and he didn't do it in the kind of squash, you know stomp and destroy way which was the standard operating method at Yale. But if you were paying attention, you realized at the end the score was Clinton 100, opponent 0. And at some point during the day, they'd figure it out too. It was just amazing to watch him move and operate. Warm, colloquial, funny, but he didn't play dumb. He let--other people expected him to play dumb. And it was just fascinating to watch.

I remember early on, he came to a party at my house, I lived in a house with a lot of other law students, and a friend of mine came up from New York who worked in publishing, and I said listen there's someone I want you to meet, and when he introduces himself as Bill Clinton, just say "Oh, Mr. Clinton, don't worry, I'll vote for you." She said why, I said just do it. And she did it, and he stopped and he got this huge look on his face and he just laughed, and he looked over and he said, "You been talking." And I said, "What you're not running?" Early on, I thought, that he was one of the few people I met who could be President. And when he ran in '92, I knew a boy who was an undergraduate at Yale. I had worked in a summer science program, he'd been one of the students. I ran into him at the Yale co-op. And I said listen, I'm playing in a touch football game why don't you come out, because we don't actually have enough bodies. There's somebody I want you to meet, you'll like him. [Matt S.] was from from Sea Island, Georgia. And Matt clearly wanted to be a politician. And I said, Matt, I want you to meet this guy, I think he's going to be President. And he looked at me and he said, oh sure. And I said, just come on. And he came out and I introduced them, and we were playing touch football and we were all pretty terrible. And Matt remembered meeting him and watching him play. And he called me up in '92 and he said, "You were right, he is going to be President." I said, "See I told you."

FL: What does a politician, what did a politician mean to you then? How did you see that in him?


What I saw in him that I didn't see in other people was the way he related not just to other law students, but to the people in the serving line. He was the one white student who would go sit at the black table with no self-consciousness, with no awkwardness. He talked, I told you he got there in November, by the end of the semester, he knew more people in the class, in the law school than anyone else. Not, he knew their names, and knew something about them, he remembered something about them. So he would tell me stories about who these people were. And I just gave up asking how he knew. But he knew the people in the serving line, he knew the secretaries, he knew the people in the registrar's office, he knew their names, he could tell you things about whether their kids had had polio or ah, he just knew these things. It was important to him. What I meant by a politician, was someone with that knack for relating directly to people.

But the other thing was that you wouldn't wander into Yale law school to be a cardiac surgeon, or you wouldn't talk the way he talked at lunch if you were going to be a law scholar. That's not what you'd do. He also had a passion for the political issues of the day which were all around. The peace talks in Vietnam were going on, the residue of the Black Panther trials that had occurred just the spring before we got there in New Haven, were going on. He had already been involved in a Senatorial campaign in Connecticut. [I]t was clear he was political in that sense of being interested in public policy. But what I meant, everyone at Yale was interested in that. But what he had was this dimension of relating to people.

The standard line in law school, almost a sort of pecking order, I'm sure there's an equivalent in wolf packs and gorilla packs, but, one of the things you did was ask everybody where they went to college, what they'd done, and I was surprised that he'd gone to Georgetown. And I said are you Catholic? And he said, "Oh no, I'm a Southern Baptist." And I said, well why did you go to Georgetown. And he said because it's in Washington D.C and I could work for Senator Fulbright. And I said did you? And he said I did. And I said well what did you do? And he said well I did two jobs. And he started talking about working on the foreign relations committee which sounded to me like heaven. And I asked why he'd gone to Washington and he said he was interested in politics and here was Fulbright a Senator from a Southern state, who was important, and a force, an important force, I mean for all of us who cared about Vietnam, Fulbright was an early and a critical voice against the war. And Bill had worked on some of the most important hearings that had developed testimony.

And the connection with Fulbright, as I came to realize, was not just if I go to Washington I could work for a Senator from Arkansas, it was a kind of identification. The thing that my generation grew up with knowing about Arkansas, was the disaster of the integration effort, where Governor [Faubus] had stood in a door and tried to prevent the integration of Little Rock High School. That was what I knew about Arkansas pretty much. That's what anybody who was coming to consciousness then would have known. And he knew that about Northerners. And he was anxious to say that Fulbright was the right kind of politician from Arkansas, that he had a world view, that he was committed to education, he was committed to rational processes, that Fulbright represented for him what he wanted to be. It was clear to me that he identified with Fulbright, that Fulbright had brought honor to Arkansas, and in some sense he had redeemed ah Arkansas politics in the eyes of the nation, because if you came to consciousness ten years after Little Rock, what you would have know about Arkansas politicians wasn't [Orville Faubus] but J. William Fulbright.

And the difference between those two, between Faubus, who was seen at least as a race baiter, and Fulbright, who stood for the aspirations of America in the world as the moral leader, as the educational leader, that was what, it was clear that's what Bill aspired to be. And it was very personal. And he'd, clearly, he'd learned a lot. He'd listened a lot. I didn't have to ask him, I mean, I figured out that he'd probably went through college the way he went through law school, doing politics most of the time and school on the side. And being as bright as he was, he could do it.

My guess is he didn't spend a lot of time in the Georgetown library, that he spent a lot more time up on Capitol Hill, going to hearings, and reading transcripts. And he has, he has a genius for remembering facts. And for having, delving deeply into something in a way that brings it alive for him and anybody he's relating it to. One of the things I remember, of course I cared a lot about the war, and about the war coming to an end, the Vietnam War coming to an end. And I can remember so clearly, Bill talking about hearings they had held about American prisoners of war coming back and they had been held by the VC and either gotten away or been freed, and that they'd had lived, they had lived on a diet of rice for so long, that when they got back into American hands, they literally couldn't digest our food. And they had to be weaned away with a little protein and a little vegetables. But if they came home and had a steak they couldn't digest it at all. And I can still hear his voice saying, imagine coming home and wanting more than anything to have a steak, and you get sick when you have it, when your own country's food makes you sick. And I, I mean, a person who at 20 or 21 understands that, cares to remember that, understands what that means, that's a very unusual person.

FL: Could you tell us more about his relationship with Fulbright....


He really cared for Fulbright, he identified with Fulbright. And he was excited, I think it was early in the spring semester, some time in the winter of our first year. Fulbright was coming to Yale to give an important address. And he was delighted. And one of the things he, he said to me was he wanted me to meet Fulbright. And it was important to him. It was something he wanted to give me. We had talked about Fulbright and I told him how much Fulbright had meant to me. So, um, I understand now, being a college president, how visits work with important people, you have important donors or academics, it's all on a very tight schedule.

I had no familiarity with this, but Bill knew from working with the Senator, it would be very tight. So he told me to come over to the place where Fulbright was speaking at dinner and then going down to make a formal address. And he stationed me half-way up the stairway on a landing. And he ducked out, and looked, and he said, no, not there, come up the stairs and wait right here. When the doors open, stand forward and I'll bring him by to meet you. And I thought well it's a little strange, so I'm standing around like a rubber plant in the hallway waiting, and the doors open and chaos breaks out. There are lights, there are cameras, there are cameramen, there are 50 people in blue suits and I barely had time to breathe. And right at my side was Bill Clinton and next to him was Senator Fulbright, shorter than I had imagined him to be, and Bill was guiding him over and introduced me to him and he shook my hand and we said a few words, and then this huge parade swept by, and I remember Bill looking back giving me the high sign, and I remember thinking what an incredible thing he'd done. I mean, I now understand how much to-ing and fro-ing he had to go through even to get me that 60 seconds or 50 seconds with J. William Fulbright. And I was thinking how wonderful it was, and the point of it wasn't for me to think that Bill Clinton was wonderful, the point of it was for me to meet J. William Fulbright. No chance I would have met him otherwise.

One of the things people need to understand is that he does nice things for people. He's very kind. He was always very kind to me. And I thought that was really a wonderful thing for him to have done. Vietnam was an obsession for my generation, and certainly for me. And the role that Fulbright played in it was to me a most honorable and heroic one. And the chance to meet him, which never came my way again, was really quite wonderful.

FL: Did he ever discuss the paradox about Fulbright, a redemptive figure and yet Fulbright voting so often against civil rights ..the lessons learned from that, because it had to be a painful issue for him.


He didn't talk about that in relation to Fulbright. But he talked about race and the connection with Southern politicians. That Southern politicians were really the ones who had to lead on race and that it was a tragedy that so many of the great figures of Southern politics could not be credible nationally because of the stand they had taken on race, and he understood that. That the decisions they had made earlier in their careers, in the 50s or early 60s, had taken them out of the running. And so on race, the person who was most interesting to Bill Clinton was Lyndon Johnson. And the problem was, I wasn't awake for all of it, but I did hear him talk about an analysis of Lyndon Johnson's political career and his genius.

In the fall of '72, Bill and Hillary had gone down to Texas to work on the McGovern campaign, they were there in the fall of '72, again he showed up in November for the fall semester, this is now our third year at law school. Bill came back, I ran into him on the street, and he looked pretty tired, but he came by and I think we had tea or something, there were about six or seven people sitting around the living room. And Bill started to talk about the McGovern campaign in Texas, the problems of Democrats in the South and the role race played in the working out of national politics in the South. I don't have, as I say, it was late, I should have paid more attention, I should have been more awake for it, but what I remember was the sense of passion, the thoughtfulness, the complexity of his analysis of all these threads. I remember him talking about the confederacy and the lost cause, about race baiting, about the Dixicrats, about Lyndon Johnson taking the lead in '64 with the Civil Rights act and changing history, and that it had to be a Southerner who did that.

And the question was, in the aftermath of the '72 election, what was the possibility of another Southerner ever winning the Presidency as a Democrat. And you knew as you heard him, that it was about Lyndon Johnson and about Bill Clinton. That he was already beginning to work out the future. I mean I knew that then, that this was about his possibilities, not in an abstract academic sense, but in a real ah, tough, gritty how could it be done. From the roots of -- will there be enough organization in the Democratic party, -- to what would the message be? Where would you have to come from, what kinds of things would you have to have done? I think that night, had I paid more attention, I would have understood better, what was going to happen twenty years later. Because it was twenty years later that he ran.

FL: But never ever a discussion about Fulbright and race relations.


One thing he did say was it was a tragic flaw that Fulbright had not, and I don't remember whether he hadn't been able to or he hadn't done what needed to be done. But then, as I said, I mean I remember saying to him there weren't a lot of heroes in the U.S. Senate. There were no heroes from the South and there was a reason. They wouldn't have been there very long. And then I think we went on to talk about the Southern judges who were heros.

stories of bill | stories of bob | interact | photo gallery | four colloquies | readings | reactions | tapes & transcripts | explore frontline | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation


Solitary NationApril 22nd