Close encounter

Yvonne Chiu Hays & Steven Schultz

Crowd relishes access to president


Clinton posed for photos and discussed policy issues with students in a tent outside Alexander Hall following his speech.


They competed in a lottery to fill Richardson Auditorium and hear him speak in person. They packed overflow rooms around campus to watch him on special monitors. They stood four to five deep behind a rope line in a tent outside Alexander Hall. They lined the streets of his route.

The star power of a sitting president always brings out a crowd.

Students and other passers-by, hoping to catch a glimpse of Bill Clinton touching down in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, started to line the make-shift heliport on Poe Field hours before he arrived Oct. 5. Several hundred stood or sat patiently -- even picking themselves up a few times to oblige Secret Service agents who gently prodded them farther away from Elm Drive as the landing became imminent. Many waited longer than expected because Clinton was about 30 minutes behind schedule.

In the meantime, an elaborate security procedure, started days earlier, picked up momentum and unfolded. A team quietly set up telephone lines for the secure transmission of communication between agents. White House advance officers, with the help of some student volunteer drivers, assembled a motorcade -- rented vans and cars -- adjacent to Poe. The motorcade later carried the White House support staff and the group of national reporters who follow the president on all official trips around the campus after they arrived in three helicopters accompanying Marine One.

When the Secret Service agents swooped in, they scoured the area. The field, examined days before the event, had been under careful watch. A crew of workers in solid blue and gray jumpsuits checked under each of the nearby manholes. In case of an emergency, fire engines set up beside the field with their hoses attached to hydrants and an ambulance parked in the corner.

Scores of state troopers arrived in an intimidating parade of patrol cars, along with township and borough police. Then the president's limousine and a decoy flown from Washington were driven onto the field.

The helicopters, flying from Trenton-Mercer Airport, landed one by one at about 2:30 p.m. Clinton's limousine quickly pulled up alongside his aircraft.

Visit organizer and American Studies Program Director Sean Wilentz, along with his wife, History Professor Christine Stansell, and their two children, were escorted to Marine One, where they greeted Clinton and posed for pictures with him.

A crowd of mostly students next to Scully Hall cheered when Clinton waved at them, prompting the throng of onlookers along Elm Drive to try to rouse his attention with a warm welcome. He rewarded their efforts with a sustained wave and appreciative smile. A pool of local reporters and photographers watched from underneath an arch in Scully. Some hoped for a chance to obtain an off-the-cuff comment, but the president was too far away.

The motorcade then whisked the president, reporters, special guests and White House staff members to Alexander Hall. On the way, they passed about 20 demonstrators who were protesting over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Clinton entered and left the auditorium to a standing ovation.

Students who packed into the tent outside Alexander Hall were rewarded for their patience. They stood pressed against a rope line waiting for what many thought would be a quick handshake. Instead, the president surprised them with his warmth and interest.

The president strode toward the line and began talking and posing for pictures with a level of ease and enthusiasm that energized the students. Often he leaned into the crowd so that the students could press their faces around his while someone snapped a picture. A few times, he grabbed a camera himself and, mugging next to the camera's startled owner, held his arm out and snapped a picture.

Many students asked detailed questions about policy, eager to engage the president in the kinds of discussions usually reserved for the classroom. The president was happy to indulge, launching into mini preceptorials on a dizzying array of subjects.

Katherine Roberts, a freshman, asked the president about the parallels he drew between his own foreign policy and that of the Progressive Era presidents, and questioned "whether there were really as many similarities between the two as he made it out to be."

"From there, we got into a discussion of his policy in the Balkans," she said. She argued that Roosevelt and Wilson had a more focused definition of what foreign intervention would be in America's best interests and that Clinton has gone "a little far afield."

She pressed him on why, apart from general human rights issues, it was in the country's best interests to intervene in the former Yugoslavia. "He presented an evaluation of why he thought we did have direct interests in the Balkans," she said. "I was glad that he didn't give me a lot of runaround about the human rights issues. He really addressed what I was talking about, with the politics and the economic ramifications of what was going on there. I felt that he gave me the straight talk on what he thought."

His conversation with Roberts and the students next to her was one of his first after the initial flurry of handshakes. As the conversation lengthened, students shook their heads in amazement to see that he was settling in for a serious visit that lasted about 40 minutes.

"I am so impressed that he is taking so much time to answer everyone's questions," said senior Jessica Moffett. "They think he's going to move right along and he just stays there and talks. It's really amazing,"

For Moffett, who is majoring in politics, it was a chance to quiz the president on some of the issues she is wrestling with in her senior thesis, which happens to be on progressive government in Chile.

"I asked him if his vision of progressive government could be applied to less developed countries," she said. Shaping a dissertation of his own, Clinton discussed differences in economic opportunity, strategies to avoid environmental degradation in the developing world, and the politics of India and China.

Clinton even obliged in performing the perennial presidential duty of holding babies. He hoisted three-month-old Malachai Freeman into the air as his mother, Annamie Paul, a graduate student in the Woodrow Wilson School, watched proudly. "What's really neat about it is that I am Canadian, but he was born down here, so he is an American and he got to meet his first president."

After taking his picture with Clinton, freshman Jonathan Hsu said he was grateful he lost the lottery and ended up in the tent. "This makes for a better memory," he said.

The president's address attracted more than 50 local and national reporters, photographers and television crews.

Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for The New Yorker magazine, said that he attended the speech for general background material and that he planned to sit in on other events during the conference. Seeing Clinton in action is always impressive, he said. "The force of his presence and personality is undeniable, whatever you think of his presidency. Some people have that presence and some people don't, and he obviously does. There is a rock-star persona about him."

A rock star who can also fire off encyclopedic policy statements.

"That is what makes him such a compelling figure, that he is both personally compelling and extremely intelligent," said Toobin.

October 16, 2000
Vol. 90, No. 6
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Close encounter: Crowd relishes access to president
Clinton claims he's an heir of the era
Behind-the-scenes work pays off

Imaginations drive wall
Scholars cross disciplines to spark new ideas
Visitors spur lively exchange

Spotlight / People
Calendar of events
Nassau notes

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Staff writer: Yvonne Chiu Hays
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Contributing writers: Marilyn Marks, Steven Schultz
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett,
Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett