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