My most interesting presidential encounter did not occur at a cemetery, but rather inside a bookstore. As he sat at the kitchen table one day, my father looked through the newspaper and saw that in a few days former President Bill Clinton was set to deliver a lecture on foreign and domestic policy at Brown University, preceded by a book signing at the campus bookstore. Afterward, my parents together presented me with the idea of attending the book signing and meeting Clinton. With such little preparation time, I was actually reluctant at first, but in the end I was so excited about the prospect of meeting a living president that I knew I had to go.
My family realized my encounter with the former president would be a moment that should be documented with a picture, but unfortunately, photography was prohibited at the event. This did not deter my father. Several years prior, he had been featured in an article in The Providence Journal, for which his picture was taken by a staff photographer. My father still had the photographer's contact information and reached out to him seeking help, but it was explained to us that if he took a picture of President Clinton and me, we could not access it unless it appeared in the Journal. Our options were extremely limited, and we were left with the scofflaw approach of sneaking a disposable camera into the book signing. Because I was just ten years old, it was decided that it would be best for me to hide the camera, as I would likely be in less trouble if the device were discovered.
There were other matters apart from photography we had to address, including my attire. The night before the event, my mother took me to the mall to pick out some formal clothing that fit the occasion. Meanwhile, my father geared up to spend the night outside the Brown Bookstore. The former president was scheduled to be at the store for two hours, which would allow him to sign approximately five hundred copies of his autobiography, My Life. We had no idea how many people were planning on attending the book signing, so my father figured the best way to ensure I got to meet President Clinton was to wait in line overnight. I was to be dropped off by my grandmother in the morning by 9:30, which was when the doors were going to open.
When my father got to the bookstore on cold, windy Thayer Street in Providence, he was the ninth person in line. By the time 9:30 arrived, several hundred people had gathered with the hope of meeting the forty-second president. The doors soon opened, but I was nowhere to be found. My grandmother and I had to see my sister off on the school bus before we could leave for Providence, and we encountered an extraordinary amount of traffic on the way. When we reached Thayer Street I saw my father waiting anxiously by the entrance to the bookstore. Since I was not on time, he had no choice but to step aside and let others in ahead of him. I ran up to him and he lifted me over the temporary metal barrier, by which point he had fallen to approximately eighty-fifth in line.
As we entered the Brown Bookstore, my father quickly handed me the disposable camera, which I stuck in my pants pocket. Inside, we almost immediately came upon the station for purchasing the former president's autobiography. Once we had our copy of My Life, we stepped over to the section of the store where the Secret Service was conducting security checks. Before I was wanded, an agent asked me if I had anything in my pockets. I felt conflicted about sneaking in the camera, so I whirled my head around to look at my father for guidance. He had anticipated my move and turned away to maintain a semblance of plausible deniability. I looked back at the Secret Service agent and replied "No." The cheap, plastic camera was not picked up by the wand, and were were permitted to go upstairs and resume waiting.
The event was not supposed to start until 10:30, and though I was generally patient, it was still a long wait for a ten-year-old. To help pass the time I brought along two items: an Eyewitness book about presidents and my photo album I had gotten from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum a few months prior. Inside I had photos of me at the eighteen president graves I had visited by that time, and the album and book did a good job of keeping me occupied. Keeping my book was not an easy task, however. On three separate occasions, snippy event workers approached us and said they would have to take my book away, as former President Clinton was to sign his autobiography only. Each time, my father explained that I had the Eyewitness book only to read during the wait, and that I was not going to ask Clinton to autograph it. After the third employee tried to confiscate it, I felt like it was essentially against the rules to read in a bookstore.
It was fortunate that I was able to maintain possession of my book, as the event was delayed and did not begin at the planned 10:30 start time. In line my father and I were interviewed by Brown Alumni Magazine, The Brown Daily Herald, and The Providence Journal, which helped the wait seem to go by a little quicker. Eventually, applause erupted throughout the store, and although my vision was blocked by tall bookshelves, I knew that former President Clinton had arrived.
After the clapping came to a stop the line began to move. There were over eighty people ahead of us, so this also took time. At some point, we moved up far enough where I could see the former president greeting people and signing copies of his autobiography. My father commented on the fact that he was standing as he autographed the books, while most people sit at such lengthy events. At this time my father asked for the disposable camera, which I handed to him before he discreetly put it in his pants pocket. Before long it was our turn, and we walked up to the former commander-in-chief, who charismatically greeted us. My father introduced me to President Clinton and explained to him that I was ten years old and had visited the burial sites of eighteen presidents. I was mortified, as this essentially told the former president that we were going to travel to his grave someday in the future, but Clinton looked at me and said "That's amazing, Kurt!"
Suddenly, my father instructed me to move closer to President Clinton, slowly removing the disposable camera as he did so. I was sure that he was going to be gunned down or tasered by the Secret Service agents that were standing nearby, but he was at such an angle that they could not see what he was doing. My father then asked President Clinton if it would be okay to pose for a photograph with me, and he agreed! The former president put one hand on my copy of My Life and his other on my shoulder, and my father took a picture. We took the autobiography, thanked the former commander-in-chief, and started to walk away when someone behind us asked me if I wanted my other book signed. When we spun around we saw it was President Clinton, pen at the ready!
We returned and I handed Clinton my Eyewitness book, which had been bookmarked at his section because I had been reading it in line. As the former president signed and dated one of the pages of the book several employees insisted he wouldn't sign, my father said he was going to take an insurance shot, in case the first photograph did not turn out well. When he heard this, the former president, a consummate professional, raised his head to look at the camera. My father snapped the picture, President Clinton finished writing, and we again thanked him and headed away. As we passed by the press area, one of the reporters who interviewed us gave me two thumbs up.
An hour or so later I was at school, most likely the happiest person there.
Content copyright 2009-2017. Kurt Deion. All rights reserved.