Danny Thomason, Opthamologist in Little Rock and
longtime friend of Clinton.
Interviewed May 11, 1996
Hot Springs...tell us about your impressions when you first moved
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.
You at one point compared Hot Springs to Tarsus....
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.
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
FL: How about bringing Virginia alive for us, with all of her sort of big, bold
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
FL: What kinds of friends did she have and what are the kinds of things they
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
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?
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?
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
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.
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
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.
Your relationship with Bill started in the church didn't it?
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
FL: What's it like to sing in the choir with him?
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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
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?
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.
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
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.
Are there any qualities of Southernness that you see in this man?
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."
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.......
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?
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
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
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?
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.