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Hoyt Purvis, Former staffer for Senator William Fulbright. Current head of the Fulbright Institute , University of Arkansas.


FL: Why was the Senator an inspiration for Bill Clinton and many others in Arkansas?

PURVIS:

Well, I think you have to understand the situation that existed at the time when Bill Clinton was a young man and others. Senator Fulbright was a man who had a national and an international reputation. He was someone who was respected around the world. Arkansas was not a state which was associated very much with national and international affairs. It was a state deep in the middle of the country, a small state, in many ways thought of as being rather provincial or backwards. And Fulbright in many ways defied that image. He was a sophisticated, well educated, well respected man. Very knowledgeable about world affairs. And the fact that Arkansas could send someone of that standing to Washington, I think was an inspiration to young people from Arkansas who were interested in politics, who were interested in national and international affairs.

FL: If you could talk about your first memories of Bill.

PURVIS:

What I remember about the young Bill Clinton was he was always on the move but always stopping to talk to people. A big part of his job when he was in the Senate, and he was a part time employee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator Fulbright. One of the things that he did basically was to carry documents between various Senate offices, between the Committee office and Senator Fulbright's office and other offices. And I'm sure within a very short period of time Bill Clinton knew everybody along the way and everybody knew him. That was just the nature of Bill Clinton. Very friendly, very outgoing. Always interested in what people had to say. You felt that this was a guy who was just soaking this all up and loving it.

My first memories of Bill Clinton, I had heard Clinton's name mentioned, I knew he had started to work for the Committee and I remember the first time that I saw him, he was talking to another staff member, engaged in a serious discussion. He had his hands full of documents that I'm sure he was supposed to be delivering them somewhere but instead he was stopping for a conversation. And that was typical for what I remember of Clinton in those days. But I also remember, of course, that Bill Clinton made it a point to know what was going on. He kept on top of things. He was knowledgeable about the schedule of the committee and who was going to testify. This was during the Vietnam period and a lot of very important hearings were going on and Bill Clinton always made it a point to be there, to be around, to listen to what the Senators were saying and the senior staff members. In many ways it's hard to imagine that he was only a part time employee, and a full time student because there were times when he seemed to be there virtually every hour of the day.

But he obviously loved what he was doing. He was fascinated by it. He was very well informed. And of course it was a great learning experience because not only was he going to school at Georgetown but he was supplementing that education with practical experience and first hand observation of a really critical period in American history and American foreign relations.

FL: And his job entailed what? What would they allow him to do and see?

PURVIS:

Basically his job was really carrying documents, papers, messages, information, back and forth between the Senate Foreign Relations Committee office and other offices in the Senate. Particularly Senator Fulbright's office. But the important thing here is that this gave him access. This opened the doors for him into the office of all the key members of the Committee, the key members of the Senate, to Senator Fulbright, the Chairman, with the key staff members and when hearings were taking place and sometimes even when closed sessions of the Committee were taking place, which were not open to the public. So he was, for a young man, something of an insider simply by the access coupled with his own interest. Some people could simply carry out the functions of their job and be content with that. Bill Clinton was not content with that. He wanted to know what was going on, he wanted to meet everybody, he wanted to be acquainted with everybody, and I suspect that at that time there were very few people, staff members and Senators and even some members of the press, and others who were around who didn't know Bill Clinton because he made it a point to meet them. And he was such an interesting conversationalist and an energetic and enthusiastic young man, I think he made an impression on very many people.

FL: There are some legendary stories about Bill Clinton and Senator Fulbright.

PURVIS:

What I can tell you is because of these characteristics of Bill Clinton that I've been talking about, the fact that he was so interested in what was going on and he wanted to soak it all up and he wanted to learn, and he wanted to be involved. That's his nature, to be in the middle of things and he wanted to and in some cases he jockeyed himself into position of, for example, driving Senator Fulbright during the 1968 campaign. Now that would have seemed like a very nice arrangement because here you had this delightful young man, interested in what was going on, knowledgeable, from Arkansas, working in the campaign in Arkansas, about to be a Rhodes Scholar, about to leave for Oxford where 40 years ago before Senator Fulbright had studied as a Rhodes scholar, it would have seemed like a very good match.

The problem was, Bill Clinton loved to talk and loved to ask questions and I think he was unrelenting in that way, and I think, campaigning is a very difficult chore. And I often campaigned with Senator Fulbright. And I know that frequently riding in the car or on the plane he just liked to sort of kick back and rest and prepare for the next stop. But instead he was being subjected to this barrage of questions and conversation form Clinton and it was all well meaning and I think Senator Fulbright understood that perfectly, but he also let it be known to others of us on the staff that he would prefer to have someone who was a little less eager than Bill Clinton.

And one of the famous stories of that time was they were driving somewhere in Southwest Arkansas and they had a new car that was being used for the campaign and Clinton was so much into the conversation and so eager, and so happy to be with Senator Fulbright that they turned on the air conditioning but they had the vents closed off in a way so that they basically were fogging up the car from the inside and neither of them understood the way, what needed to be done to properly ventilate the car so that the air conditioning didn't fog up the windows from the inside. And I think at one point they actually had to stop and call and say there was something wrong with the car, when in fact the only thing that was wrong with the car was that they were not running the air conditioning properly. You know there are other things. Although Senator Fulbright was not the greatest driver himself, I think he found that with Clinton who became so wrapped up in the conversations during these campaign drives that he frequently was waving his arms and gesticulating and telling stories and so caught up in things that it made Senator Fulbright very nervous having this young man as his driver. So after a relatively short time it was agreed by all parties, except perhaps for Bill Clinton, it would be better not to have him drive the Senator on a regular basis. At least on any lengthy trips during the campaign.

FL: What are the lessons that he might have learned from Fulbright?

PURVIS:

I think he was strongly influenced in a variety of ways by Senator Fulbright. But certainly from those major experiences, those difficult decisions that Senator Fulbright had to make. On the one hand on the civil rights issue where Senator Fulbright basically deferred to his constituency, in order in many ways to maintain his political viability. He felt like there were other areas in which he could make important contributions and he was willing, at least for a time, to defer to the views of his constituency in Arkansas which at that time basically was opposed to the major civil rights legislation, many of the controversies related to school desegregation and other issues, and very, very controversial at that time in Arkansas and in other Southern states. So Senator Fulbright basically took what might be called the pragmatic view there. And I think certainly that at times has been reflected in President Clinton's approach to things.

But there was also of course the case of Vietnam in particular, there were other foreign policy issues like détente with the Soviet Union and a variety of others where Senator Fulbright took a very difficult and often lonely position in opposition to the sort of prevailing policy in Washington to the major political interest. In the case of Vietnam opposing a popular President from his own party, at least popular initially. President Johnson, someone who he had been closely allied with. But it was Fulbright's view that this was contrary to our interest. And it was, as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, it was an area where he had the authority and the responsibility to speak up, even at some political cost. And he did so. And in the early period of that opposition, it was a very lonely opposition. It was very difficult and that was a time when Bill Clinton was there and he had the opportunity to observe that first hand and he knew the strain under which Fulbright was operating and he knew all the political forces which were pulling against him and he knew that the pressure that was coming from the Johnson White House against Senator Fulbright. But Senator Fulbright held firm and stuck to that position and I think ultimately was proven of course to be correct in that position. But it was a hard and difficult struggle and particularly in those early days of opposition it was a very lonely struggle.

FL: What do you think the lessons were for Clinton?

PRUVIS:

My own view is that probably what Bill Clinton learned from this is the complexity of politics and first of all, how no two issues are the same. The political environment, the policy environment is not always the same and you have to be prepared to respond accordingly. I think Clinton understood in many ways the importance of having people behind you, of having, of building support. At the same time I think he recognized there are certain occasions when leadership is called for and you have to be willing to step out and take the difficult stand and try to bring the support along with you. Fulbright was great, one of his main beliefs was it was the responsibility of public officials to educate the public. He tried to do that in his hearings in the Foreign Relations Committee, and I think in many ways Bill Clinton follows in that same, Clinton loves to talk to people to try to bring them along, to try to educate them. I think he always feels that if he can talk to people enough he can bring them around to his point of view. Or at least he can find some common ground with them. I've always believe that in many ways that experience of observing Fulbright in those formative years for Clinton has been very influential over his political career.

FL: Do you remember having your own conversations and arguments with Fulbright about race?

PRUVIS:

Sure. Yeah. That was a rather common occurrence among the staff members and even among his wife, his first wife Betty, who disagreed with him very strongly on that issue. But he felt that that was the position that he needed to take for his constituency. And no matter how much you argued to the contrary he wasn't going to change. At least in the early years he didn't.

For a long time, Fulbright had argued that the key to progress in race relations and in other areas was through education. And that he was one of the early supporters of Federal Aid to Education. But then when civil rights became a big issue, he kind of stepped back and -- it was a very emotional issue with his constituents. And I think that you have to factor in that it was an emotional issue about which people felt very strongly. And I think for a period of time, some of the early civil rights legislation, Fulbright opposed that and went along with the majority Southern view. As more and more of these issues came up, I think Fulbright began to distance himself from that position. And took a position more in accord with what might be called the pro-civil rights position. And I think he felt at that stage more free, more willing to take a stand, but clearly there was this evolution over a period of time in which by his last term in office I think he supported many of the positions he would have opposed at an earlier stage.

FL: Did you discern an evolution in his thinking?

PURVIS:

My sense is that certainly by the time that Clinton came to work for the Committee and in that two year period there while he was working with the Committee and as a student at Georgetown, opposition to the war was beginning to solidify. And Senator Clinton was taking a very strong stand. What I remember about Clinton is that he educated himself. He knew all the arguments. He knew what people were saying. He wasn't operating on just kind of an emotional level. He wasn't operating just because a lot of young people were opposing the war. He informed himself. And I think at that point, it was Clinton sort of working within the system. You had the other students, you might say, who were on the outside and were protesting and in some cases demonstrating in the streets and holding rallies and various things. I think Clinton was kind of in some ways a link between the two. He knew, he had access to the inside and he knew what was going on and he understood the issues in a way that it wasn't simply a kind of an emotional opposition on his part but something, in which he was just going along with a group, but something about which he really informed himself, became very knowledgeable about and had first hand experience by being involved with the Foreign Relations Committee.

FL: Is there any particular memory you have?

PURVIS:

I remember in Washington in the Dirkson building in the Senate. What I remember is Bill Clinton with a box, a wooden tray, or else file folders stuffed under his arm, but stopping to talk to people and getting engaged in these intense conversations, not just being friendly and sociable, which he certainly was, but really engaged in serious discussion about politics, about Vietnam, about what was going on in the country, what was going on in the world. And that's an image that I will always retain of the young Bill Clinton and I can certainly picture that still, quite vividly.

There were also in that summer of 1968, before he was leaving for Oxford and Senator Fulbright was up for reelection, and facing what might have been a fairly difficult reelection campaign, and Bill Clinton came to Arkansas to work in the campaign before leaving for Oxford, and I can remember seeing Clinton around these campaign events and around the campaign headquarters, and as I look back on it now I have this sense of him soaking it all up and thinking about it. And wanting to contribute, there he was 22 years old or something like that, but very much involved and sort of wanting to be a voice at the table and wanting to participate actively and always learning, always engaged, very intense.

So there was combination of sort of Bill Clinton, very sociable, very friendly, knowing everybody, but also of Bill Clinton taking it all in, very much aware of what was going on and wanting to be involved and wanting to be in the middle of things. That's the Bill Clinton that I remember from those days.

FL: Was it usual for a young kid to be huddled like that?

PURVIS:

I think in some ways it was unusual for that time. In those days nearly 30 years ago, there were far fewer young people around Capitol Hill than there are now. There were some. Students who worked there and other young people, but not that many. But you also have to remember, here was Bill Clinton, a tall, good looking very personable, outgoing fellow, who knew everybody. The policeman in the hall, the women who worked in the cafeteria, talking to all of them. And I think he was in many ways distinctive in that regard, 'cause he simply knew everybody, talked to everybody, was interested in everybody, made it a point to know everybody.

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