The day after Governor Clinton announced his candidacy for President outside The Old State House in Little Rock, Arkansas, Mickey Kantor, a friend of my then-boyfriend, called and asked if I would advance the Governor at 7:00 the next morning. The Clintons, Bruce Lindsay, and a friend of theirs from Colorado, who pretty much made up the entire campaign, were coming to Los Angeles where Governor Clinton was to be a guest on Michael Jackson’s radio show. All I knew about him was that he could not stop talking when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention in 1988 and I wasn’t at all sure that he would be my candidate. I said no. No. No. No. Absolutely not.
At 6:30 the following morning, I found myself driving down La Cienega to KABC Talk Radio. In what would become the norm, The Governor arrived forty minutes late. I rushed him into Michael Jackson’s studio, hustled the others to the green room, got a Styrofoam cup of tea out of a machine (elegantly appointed KABC was not,) and set it down in front of the Governor.
I closed the door behind me and listened to the call–ins. Every one of the Governor’s responses was clear, empathic, and incredibly smart.
I began writing openers for him almost immediately and in September 1991, I was sent to Little Rock to work out of Clinton Campaign Headquarters. I was excited. I was a Northern girl who’d dreamed of the South ever since I saw “Gone With the Wind.”
Which brings me to the Blue Plate Special Restaurant. Several days after I’d arrived, I found myself sitting at one of the Formica tables. Jimmy Weisman, who had owned the Blue Plate in the 80’s, was obviously retro-chic before anyone else had thought to put the two words next to each other. He’d had all the furnishings made to look like old kitchen dinette sets. The laminated chintz-backed chairs were padded with an extra inch of foam so they were actually comfortable to sit on. The oval mirror and sconces were designed to resemble those of the 50’s. The floor was a mosaic of one-inch, octagonal white tiles with black grout separating them, giving the place a homey, country-style feel. Jimmy had had Wellington on the menu. And Chicken Parmesan. And he liked to tell the story of the customer who brought his bowl of Gazpacho to the counter to complain that his soup was cold.
In the late 80’s, Jimmy sold the restaurant to May, a hard-working country girl with five country children. The décor remained but Chicken Parmesan was replaced with fried chicken and everything on the menu ended with gravy. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Biscuits and gravy. Meatloaf (with two vegetables) and gravy. Grits and gravy. I marveled at the menu. I loved it. I somehow felt like I did when I first arrived in France to go to school and sat down at a café by myself for the first time.
I had just learned I was going to be staying in Little Rock longer than the four or five days I’d anticipated. And the hot and humid weather had suddenly turned to cool fall. I hadn’t even brought a sweater. When I went to the cash register to pay my bill, I asked May where a department store was. She gave me a critical once over.
“There’s a mo-all, “ she drawled, “about a mile off.”
“Pardon me? “ I asked.
“A mo-all,” she repeated. “A MO-ALL! They have a Dillards there.”
“Oh,” I said, “A mall.’ I thanked her but as I started to leave, she took my arm, stopping me.
‘I’m gonna tell you somethin’ and I want y’all to listen, hear?” When you get there, don’t make eye-contact with no one. Not no man. Jes keep your head down and your eyes down. Go ‘bout your business and you be alright. Y’all hear what I’m saying?” Frankly, I didn’t have a clue.
On the cab ride over I couldn’t help but wonder what she was trying to tell me. Was it that I was a Northerner girl in a Southern state? Or was it that I was just a girl? Maybe she was trying to protect me from those red necks, the ones with the shotguns in the backs of their trucks. Or maybe, she was trying to protect those red necks from me. What exactly was she saying? Don’t stand out? Don’t call attention to yourself. I suddenly felt alone. And foreign.
I walked quickly into the mo all, into Ann Taylor, a don’t-call-attention-to-yourself store if ever there was one. I bought a plain, navy blue cardigan without trying it on, which I lent, several weeks later, to Bruce Lindsay’s soon-to-be-ex-wife and never saw again.
When I got back to headquarters, the phones were ringing, the halls were filled with policy wonks and communications geniuses, sharing information, laughing. The uber-efficient war room was humming loudly. Someone stopped me to try out a line. Suddenly, my spirits lifted. I didn’t feel like an outsider. As I came around the corner, I could hear James Carville on the phone. “Guv-na” he boomed at Clinton, “Guv-na, I got no doubt we gon’ win this thing.” And in that moment, I knew it was true.
Katherine Reback was born and raised in Connecticut. She is a screenwriter, speechwriter and essayist. She lives in Beverly Hills, California with her husband, the artist Sonny King and their cat, Harry.