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Danny Thomason, Opthamologist in Little Rock and longtime friend of Clinton.

Interviewed May 11, 1996


FL:

Hot Springs...tell us about your impressions when you first moved there.

THOMASON:

Hot Springs is a unique place because of, I think, its diversity. I grew up in a small town of 800 in South Arkansas, some of the most wonderful people on earth, but we didn't have the wide diversity that Hot Springs does. When I moved to Hot Springs, it was a real eye-opening experience for me because I met probably the first Jewish person I'd ever met. I met the first Catholic person I'd ever met. I always thought the biggest church in every city in the country was the Southern Baptist Church. I was shocked. I met the first Greek person. I met the first Lithuanian. I met the first Russian. I started to going to dinner with the first race track people I'd ever been with. I worked at the race track. I met the casino owners. They were some of my best friends there, and yet they were all wonderful people. And I saw that people from all backgrounds and all cultures, and all ethnicities could be wonderful, wonderful people. So Hot Springs was unique in that respect.

FL:

You at one point compared Hot Springs to Tarsus....

THOMASON:

Well, Tarsus. I've taught a Sunday school class for the past 19 years in the church where the President and I attend in Little Rock, Emanuel Baptist. So I've had to study a lot. And you know I've often thought that Bill would have never been President had he not grown up in Hot Springs because he learned to relate to so many people in so many different ways. And approach people on their own level. I think it was a big help to him.

You know Paul, the great apostle, was unique suited to carrying the gospel throughout the world because he grew up in Tarsus, the capital of what is now modern day Turkey. And it was a great center of learning. They had Greeks, and they had Romans and they had Orientals. And there was a great university there, they said, second only to Athens and Alexandria. And it was a center of politics and culture and music and learning. So Paul, by the time he had had his encounter with Jesus Christ and became a Christian, he was uniquely suited to carry the gospel throughout the Roman Empire because he had learned in the town that he grew up in, to relate to all different kinds of people in a spiritual way in the same way that Bill Clinton learned in the town that he grew up in ... how to relate to all these different kinds of people maybe in a political way.

FL: It also was unique and quite sophisticated in a way because of the co-mingling of this legal world and illegal world. And glamour and straightlacedness. Talk a little bit about that.

THOMASON:

The gambling was actually illegal in Arkansas yet it flourished in Hot Springs. And you had the Southern Club and The Vapors and so on, and all the big stars came to town like Phyllis Diller and Liberace and so on, and it was an exciting time and yet it was illegal. Yet on the other hand you had the churches on every corner and you had deeply religious people and then you had the gamblers come to town, sitting by us in the same pew, you know, who were wonderful people.

FL: How about bringing Virginia alive for us, with all of her sort of big, bold primary colors.

THOMASON:

I met her not long after I moved to Hot Springs and she is a bigger than life person. She had the eye brows painted up here, and the bright red lipstick, and the white streak in her hair and just dressed in vivid colors, but I loved her. You know Virginia, she just loved everybody. She loved every down on their luck person and every stray person that needed a home and she just had great big heart, it just engulfed people with her love. I loved her. She was the last person I talked to on New Year's Eve before she passed away on January the 8th. She was in Las Vegas getting ready to go to Barbra Streisand's concert out there. And I said, "Boy, Virginia, you're stepping in high cotton for a little girl from Hope, Arkansas." And she said, "I am, aren't I? I'll tell you what. It's going to be a great year for all of us." And then of course, she passed away days after that. But I loved Virginia. She was a great person.

FL: What kinds of friends did she have and what are the kinds of things they did?

THOMASON:

She was a character. Virginia loved of course, as you know, to go to the races. I mean she loved to be at that track every day and to bet on the ponies, and she loved to go to dinner, and she loved to go to parties, and to sing. I was really good friends with Marge and Bill Mitchell, Marge was like Virginia's sister. And that's actually where I met Bill for the first time -- through the Mitchells. And we would have parties over at her house with the owner of the race track, and we would gather around the piano and we would sing all the old standards like "Danny Boy" and "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain." Virginia just loved to have a good time. And she never was a down and out type person. I remember her telling me one day on day on a plane after Roger, her younger son, has signed his first record contract, he was complaining that he had to pay so many taxes. And she said, "I looked at him and said, "Son, have you ever made so much money in your life?" And he said, "No." And she said, "Well, then I don't want to hear it any more." I mean, she was just a positive, upbeat, fun loving person.

FL: A number of her friends have said of all the wonderful things Virginia gave Bill, churchgoing wasn't one of them. Where do you think that came from in Bill?

THOMASON:

I don't know. I suppose his churchgoing came from growing the first six years of his life, or seven, with his grandparents in Hope, where the Baptist church is not only the center of religious life, and often times in small Arkansas towns, but of social life and community life as well.

But even from a little kid on, I guess you've heard the story, Bill would walk a mile to church with a bible in his hand by himself. And almost never missed church. We were members of the same church in Hot Springs, Park Place Baptist Church, as we are members of the same church at Emanuel Baptist Church, and I think Virginia would probably say it came from a lady named Mrs. Walters, I believe was her name, that she hired to help her look after Bill and Roger who was a deeply religious woman and who always thought Bill would be a preacher, because he has such a great spiritual side. And I thought many, many times Bill has such a great spiritual side but he's chosen to play it out in the political arena to help as many people as he can, you know? I think Virginia would probably give a lot of the credit to her parents and to this lady, who was a wonderful Christian woman, always thought he'd be a preacher.

FL: Why does Bill find the Baptist church so congenial?

THOMASON:

I think he probably became a Baptist originally because maybe his grandparents were, or maybe that was just the church to belong to in Hope and in Hot Springs. You know, growing up in Arkansas, it's like I said I thought the biggest church in all the world was the Baptist church in every town. That was the number one religion. I was shocked to find out that it wasn't.

But I think there are certain things about the Baptist church, I've heard him laugh and joke he says he and Jesse Jackson love the Baptist church because "we believe in deathbed salvation." And of course I know he was thinking about that in a political sense. Somebody could be converted at the last moment.

But on a more serious note, I think I know him well enough to know that he would think like me. We love the part "once saved, always saved." You know by that we mean that once you're in God's hands, you're always in God's hands. That we didn't do anything to save ourselves and we can't do anything to unsave ourselves. It's all because of God's love for us. And I think he loves the part that Baptists believe that God loves all the people of the world. And that there is nobody beyond the reach of God's love and beyond his forgiveness. And I know I love the priesthood of the believer. That's where we believe that once we go positive in our mind set toward God and we accept the responsibility of living our lives toward him, we believe that we have direct access, in our case through Jesus Christ, to him and that we can directly talk with God and tell him our needs.

You know one of his favorite songs is called "In The Presence of Jehovah." And actually he and I sang that at the First Pentecostal Church of Lonah one time as a duet. He had a mike and I had a mike. We were both nervous, but he was more nervous. It started out -- 'In and out of situations that daily tug at me. All day long I struggle for answers that I need until I come into the presence of Jehovah and there I find healing and peace and answers. ' That's his favorite song, "In the Presence of Jehovah." So I think he likes the priesthood of the believer, that we have direct access to God, and I just think he just loves that overall view that we know God through Jesus Christ, yet God loves all the people of the world. That was the theme of the Book of Jonah.

I was sitting and talking with him at Caroline Staley's home about five years ago on Christmas Eve and we were sitting the three of us around the Christmas tree, I guess it was two nights before Christmas Eve, actually and he has just finished reading again C.S. Lewis's book, Mere Christianity, which is one of the great Christian treatises. And he said, "Danny that book is going to affect the way I live my life on a daily basis more than any other book I've ever read except the Bible." And we talked about the resurrection and we knew his mom had cancer and my mom had died of cancer, and I said, "We'll see them again and if Virginia ever passes away, of course which she did, that he would see her again." So he's deeply religious and I think the Baptist church just nourished a lot of that in him, those doctrines like that.

FL: He told his biographer David Maraniss, that he felt most comfortable in the Baptist church because God's mercy toward the sinning man was so central. Can you talk about this?

THOMASON:

Exactly, I know how he feels. It's kind of paradoxical. A lot of people think that people who have lived a "perfect" life, in other words they've belonged to the right clubs, they've given to the right charities, they've never taken a drink and they've never said a swear word and so on, people like that have the capacity to love God the most but actually that's not true.

Jesus told a story in the bible, he was at a Pharisee's house for dinner and this woman of ill repute broke a bottle of perfume over his feet and wept, and the Pharisee said, "He must not know what kind of person this is or he wouldn't have anything to do with her." And Jesus said to the Pharisee, "I have something to say to you. There were two men and both owed their master a lot of money. One owed I think like 10,000 talents and the other 1,000 and he forgave them both. Which one do you suppose loved the master the most?" And the Pharisee said, "I suppose the one who had been forgiven the most." So paradoxically the bible seems to teach that a person who has stumbled and fallen a lot but has experienced God's mercy and will give that mercy and forgiveness back, actually has a greater capacity to love God.

Whatever else you say about Bill, he is a wonderful, merciful person. And the Bible says, blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. And I laughed and I told Hillary and him right before the election, I said, "You're going to win this election." Even when he was third in the polls behind George Bush and Ross Perot. I said, "Because the poll number they keep overlooking is this. Whenever people say who cares most about you, Bill Clinton, George Bush or Ross Perot? People by a huge margin would say, "Bill Clinton." I said, "If people think you care about them, they'll forgive a multitude of perceived or alleged sins."

And actually that's what's happened. I think that's his strongest number in all the polls is that people perceive that he cares about them. So I heard him say on ABC TV that he knew God through Jesus Christ, and that he had experienced God's grace and mercy in his life a number of times and through that picking himself up and experiencing God's forgiveness, that made him a stronger person trying to correct those mistakes and live a better, more responsible life to God. So I understand that.

You know I wrote a little poem the other day, I was thinking about this. I jotted it down on my way down here. It went something like this. It said, "I see his wounds more clearly now than when at first we met. I see the price my Savior paid to satisfy my debt. And when one day I see his face along with heaven's host, if grace and mercy count for aught, then I should love him most." And I know Bill well enough to know that that's the way he feels too.

FL: Your relationship with Bill started in the church didn't it?

THOMASON:

Actually we didn't meet in the church. We had these mutual friends, Bill and Marge Mitchell. They were kind of like second parents to Bill and they were very good friends of mine, too. I met Bill through Marge Mitchell at her house. He played the saxophone, I played the piano, and we would talk and then when he went away to Oxford we corresponded, we wrote each other. And it also turned out that we belonged to the same church in Hot Springs, in Park Place Baptist Church. And so we became friends like that, then he went away to law school, I went away to optometry school and then when I moved back to Little Rock, I joined Emanuel Baptist Church and then just a few years later Bill also joined Emanuel Baptist Church and we were once again singing in the choir together. And we were seat mates in the choir for ten years. And so we're good friends through just a whole lot of different ways. I'm of course his eye doctor, Hillary's eye doctor, Chelsea's eye doctor, but more than that we're just good friends through church and through family and through knowing the Rodhams and so forth.

FL: What's it like to sing in the choir with him?

THOMASON:

Oh, it's great. He sings with an enthusiasm. We sang tenor at the time. The tenors always had those high notes and he and I never backed off from a high note. I mean we would go for it with gusto, high up and then we'd look at each other and he's say, "Boy we hit it that time didn't we?" And I would say, "We really did hit it that time."

In fact he was back at Emanuel Baptist Church this past December, and I set with him in church and we were singing Christmas carols, "The First Noel", to the top of our lungs. And I saw two or three ladies in front, I think they turned around hoping we'd leave. But when it got to the chorus where you "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel" or you have the choice of going "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel," I knew where Bill was going. He hit that high note with gusto. And then he looked over his little half eyes at me and I said, "You still got it."

FL: Is there something about the emotionalism of the Southern Baptist church where the heart is on the sleeve, that fits Bill's own personal style?

THOMASON:

I think the emotionalism in some Southern Baptist churches and the heart on the sleeve thing, yeah, I think ... You know Southern Baptists churches are so independent. You know each one is independent. And each one, one church may be more emotional than the other. But of course when we grew up in South Arkansas, you know, back some years ago, I mean these evangelists would come through and they were powerful and they would tell these great stories, these great tragedies and tears would come down their face and everything. It would touch the heart.

In fact, I told our pastor not long ago, the Reverend Rex Horn, who is the President's pastor and my pastor, I said, "You know, if we didn't have air conditioning a lot more people would be converted today." Because when I grew up in the 1950's and people would come in and start preaching on how hot Hell was, I would get so thirsty and we just had those little church fans and I wanted a drink of water so bad I thought if hell's any hotter than this, I'm going down and rededicating my life, which I did. And I suspect Bill has rededicated his life a lot of times when he thought about how hot Hell could be too. But now we sit in that air conditioning and it's so cold, when they preach on the fire in Hell is doesn't seem like as urgent a priority as it used to be. But of course it is. And these Southern Baptist evangelists could sometimes tell incredibly great stories.

But Bill can tell the greatest stories. He was at a meeting one time in a church and they were having worshipping and really getting into the spirit. And this guy in a motorized wheelchair came rolling down the aisle real fast, and he had it on high gear you know, and suddenly when he got near the altar he threw the brakes on and it just catapulted him out of the chair right on to the altar. Bill has never forgotten that. It's exciting. That's the Virginia in him. He likes the wonderful, outgoing, emotional aspects of religion. Although he knows that it's based on fact and that's just the fact that God's word will never fail.

FL: Why is the deathbed conversion important to Bill?

THOMASON:

Well, like I said, I think when he was talking about both he and Jesse Jackson both love deathbed conversions, I'm sure he was talking about it in a political sense. He might even convert a Republican to be a Democrat right on his deathbed.

But in a more serious sense, I think he loves that about the Baptist faith, and the Bible teaches that one can come late and still receive the mercy of God. You know there is a parable in the Bible. This man needed a bunch of people to harvest the harvest, and he hired a bunch of people at 6 AM. Then he found out that he didn't have enough, so he hired some more at noon. And then he finally didn't have enough so right before the harvest was over and right before sunset, he hired some more and paid the full wages to those like he did to the people who worked all day. Which is an illustration that you can come late, even on your deathbed, even though I wouldn't recommend it because you might just be in a car wreck and be gone before you had a chance. But you can come late and still receive the full benefit of God's love and blessings. And I know Bill loves that. Nobody's beyond the reach of God and that just goes with his merciful, loving persona, I think.

FL: You said that Hillary and Bill together is a complex complicated relationship. Can you talk about their differences and similarities?

THOMASON:

Well, they may not appreciate me talking about their... but I think there's kind of a synergy there, Hillary's mother who's a good friend of mine used that word, actually used that word, a synergy, where they complement and help each other. Areas where one is weak and the other strong and vice versa. And it just works.

I guess if I had to sum them up I would say Bill is the visionary and Hillary is the doer. And Bill maybe is more the dreamer and Hillary the pragmatist. And Bill is more unguarded and Hillary is more wise to the world. Maybe it's from growing up in Chicago, more guarded. I told Hillary one time "Bill and I are alike and you and my brother, Harry Thomasson are alike." I said, "Bill and I," somebody comes up to you and says, "Hey I'm your new best friend!" We go, "Oh great, let me tell you all about myself. You're my new best friend." And whereas Hillary and my brother say, "Oh I don't think so. I haven't known you for 25 years. I've got to know a little more about you."

But they really complement each other in a wonderful way. He's more open, she's more guarded, but she cares so deeply. I told another interviewer one time, "I don't think you'll ever really understand Hillary until you understand how deeply religious she is." And she takes the rule in the Bible, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" where Jesus said "I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you visited me, inasmuch as you have done to the least of my brothers, you have done it unto me." Hillary takes those things in the Bible very, very seriously. Like I said again, I think she feels a spiritual call in her, that plays out in the political arena and feels that God has put her in a unique position at this time in history to do a lot of good for a lot of people.

I wrote them a note one day, I said, "Don't ever forget. Always come down on the side of grace and mercy because God's been graceful and merciful to us. You won't go wrong if you do." I said, " You may be persecuted but you won't go wrong coming down on the side of grace and mercy."

FL: How did that play out in his life? The "I feel your pain" and the need to please. How do you see that?

THOMASON:

I was so fortunate to grow up in a wonderful house with a loving mother and father who were never divorced and we didn't have that. And Bill, going through what he did, I think he sees what strife can do and what dissension can do and he wants to be a peacemaker and he's always looking for that common ground where people can come together and make some progress.

I've always said that Bill is never one who throws the baby out with the bath water. He always proposes more than he knows he'll get. But he feels like by bringing people together on common ground that he will finally get something in the end which is better than having nothing.

But I guess growing up in a troubled household and seeing the effects of alcohol and sorrow and things like that, I think it's made him a much more compassionate, a much more empathetic person. I think when he says, "I feel your pain." I think he really does. I know he does. But another paradox about him I think is that he's able to feel pain and but then yet move on. That's actually I think a great strength.

FL: It's ambiguous and one of the criticisms made of him is that he can feel your pain and tell you what you want to hear at the moment and then move on to the next person.

THOMASON:

I suppose it's valid to some extent. I'm very prejudiced you know, he's one of my best friends. I would see what people mean. He can feel your pain and I think when he tells you that he's one of the most empathetic, sympathetic people, compassionate people I've ever known. I think he really does. I think he can move on because he's been given the opportunity to do something about that pain and if he's just so burdened down and never moves beyond feeling somebody's pain then he's not focused enough to actually bring about some political gain or some Executive Order than can actually help people in the areas where they're hurting. Kind of an ambiguous thing, I understand.

FL: One poet that I spoke with talked about the performance quality of the Baptists sermons. Do you see his performance as rooted in part in the church?

THOMASON:

Absolutely I do see that. I think one of the reasons Bill is able to give such great extemporaneous speeches and to be so moving and so upbeat and run the gamut of emotions is growing up in the Baptist church we saw that and really the best evangelists, we had these travelling evangelists that came through every summer to put on the big revival. And it was not only a big spiritual event but a big social event. And the evangelist that could tell the best story with the most embellishments always got the biggest crowd and got the most people to come down front and rededicate their life and I think Bill witnessed that and [that's] very much a part of him now and the reason why he's able to make those speeches.

I remember one time we had an evangelist in church and his name was Dickson Rile. And when he would tell the story of Lot and Abraham and Lot's wife he said, "Lot lived back there with Abraham, but he had two pink cadillacs in every garage. And he wore gold cufflinks and his wife wore gold jewelry around her neck and they belonged to the country club there." And so on. You know it just made it so real and so exciting you sat up and you paid attention. And he made Biblical stories come alive. So yeah, I think the reason why Bill's able to make those great speeches today is very much rooted in listening to Baptists preachers. Especially traveling evangelists who came through town every summer when he was a youngster.

FL: Are there any qualities of Southernness that you see in this man?

THOMASON:

Well, he loves catfish. And he loves to go to church. And he loves to sing on Sunday afternoon. And he loves watermelon. And he loves to go down to the creek and he loves to smell magnolia blossoms.

I think one of the greatest qualities of Southernness is his courtesy. Being courteous. He's extremely, extremely courteous. And I had a friend that moved down here from the North one time and she said, "I made a big mistake." She said, "I confused friendliness with courtesy." And I said, "Oh right, you don't do that down here."

Because up North, you see, I went to school, I went to school at the University of Connecticut and I loved the people up there. They were great. But you know if they didn't like you they didn't waste your time. They just passed you by on the street and they didn't waste your time. But down South, you know, two people will meet each other and they know they hate each other but they'll go, "Hi. It's good to see you again. How are the kids?" "They're fine. How are your kids?" "They're just doing fine." "Well, we sure hope we see you again soon. Maybe we can get together for lunch some time." And then they walk off and they both know they didn't mean it, and they both know they can't stand each other, and yet it's this ritual that they have to go through. Courtesy.

... Bill is extremely courteous. I don't mean he's not friendly..., in a real sense of the word. That courtesy, women and children first, opening doors, the manners there, picking up the dropped handkerchief, you know, and never saying anything that would offend anyone. You know down here, we're always so afraid of being blunt that many times we will shade the truth, or what we really think, to make sure that we don't hurt somebody's feelings. That's more important to us, and I think that's a lot of his personality too.

FL: It's the classically Southern and quintessentially Bill Clinton, but he gets criticized at the same time for speaking out two sides of his mouth, not being authentic. But it's very much a part of Southern culture.......

THOMASON:

Absolutely. I think part of the criticism he receives, from people [who] say "sometimes he talks out of both sides of his mouth" or "he's so indirect," is rooted in the fact that in the South we believe in courtesy above all. That no matter what, you do not hurt somebody's feelings. And if you have to tell those little white lies, or shade your feeling[s] and not let anybody know how you really feel, then that's better than hurting somebody's feelings. So I guess sometimes we get accused of not giving our exact opinion or not speaking our mind when really we have good motives, you know the motives are good, they're altruistic, but maybe sometimes we should tell the truth a little more directly. Although I still, even today, I just, it's so difficult for me to hurt anybody's feelings. I think it is for Bill too.

FL: What is the defining quality of a friendship with Bill? What is it like? Is it intense, is it fun, is it on and off?

THOMASON:

I think some of the things that make friendship with Bill Clinton so much fun is that he's so much fun. He's always having a good time. I was in Washington one time and I'd just been touring everything and came back to the White House and here he'd been working hard all day and he said, "Are you having fun? Are you having a good time? I want you to have a good time!"

And I think he's very stimulating. I think he makes you think. Actually back in 1968 when we became friends, I'm ashamed to say that I carried a lot of prejudice, that I carried a lot of prejudices from growing up in the Old South. And I didn't have probably the feelings toward African Americans that I should have and didn't see how they'd been mistreated so much and Bill Clinton was the one that opened my eyes to that. We would sit at the Aloha Lodge and Motor Hotel and he would say, "Danny, blacks have been mistreated. They deserve their rights. They are human beings. They are real people." And he opened my eyes to things like that.

So he's intellectually stimulating. He's fun. He's loyal. I mean his friendship is constant. He's just great to be around. And never ashamed. We may be standing in the White House in the East Room and somebody will come up, maybe the Secretary of State or maybe the foreign ambassador, "Here I want you to meet my good friend Danny Thomasson. We've been friends forever." He starts telling these great stories about church and singing and he's just a great, fun, loyal person.

FL: When Bill was growing up, just the look of Hot Springs.....Set that scene for us.

THOMASON:

Well, the geography. You have the mountains and the lakes and yet it was an old town and there were so many strange, antique buildings nestled up against the mountainside, cut into cavernous rocks there. And the streets were kind of crooked and one would go one way and one the other. There was kind of no rhyme nor reason to the streets. And you would see tourists walking down the streets with their shorts and their loud shirts on and the ducks rolling by on their way to Lake Hamilton, the motorized ducks, and you had co-mingled there with the people dressed to the nines going into the casinos and the gambling halls.

FL: What did it look like?

THOMASON:

The old hotels looked like they were built in the `20's and `30's which I guess they were, with huge edifices and all kinds of complicated carvings along the top and marble floors and marble columns. And the Arlington Hotel had this large, large verandah all the way around it where the retirees and all the people visiting from the North with their strange Yankee accents would come and sit out on the verandah and take in the Hot Springs sun. Of course, you had the fountains where the hot water would actually flow up to the fountain and people would come and fill up their jugs with that good mountain water that was going to cure them of what ailed them. So it was a great town, a unique town.

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