‘Clinton’s the man’
Students and staff, energized and opinionated, greet former president

By Nancy Chapman, Public Affairs


clinton and crowd

Top: Bill Clinton greets students in Haas Pavilion who had gathered to watch him on the arena’s big screens.
Jeff Wason photo

06 February 2002 | Bundled in mufflers and gloves, a crowd of students and invited guests waited outside Zellerbach Hall last Tuesday in the winter chill to see a past U.S. president. Not just any past president, but Bill Clinton.

Excitement was high.

“Clinton’s the man,” one student said.

Some hadn’t yet graduated from grade school when Clinton took office in 1993. For others, like Robin Witter, a Berkeley senior, Bill Clinton was the first president they ever voted for. “I’ve always loved him,” she said. “I had confidence in him. After Sept. 11, I was really scared and wished he were there.”

Most had strong opinions about the man and his presidency. “He’s the people’s president,” said student Josh Shakill.

Another student admired Clinton because he “came from nowhere, showing that you don’t have to have a presidential father to be president.”

Clinton’s talk in Zellerbach was to be on globalization, but he could have talked about vertebrate limb formation and still have drawn a full house. His charisma, celebrity and intelligence were paramount as a draw for the Berkeley crowd.

“I didn’t even know what he was talking about until I saw it printed on my ticket,” said student Punita Juneja.

Some were ticketless, but hung around to see if they could snag a last-minute seat.

The more fortunate told stories, as they waited outside in the pale winter sunlight, about the challenges they’d overcome to score a pass to the free event. “I was among the front 20 in line,” said one. “I got an apple thrown at my head.”

Staffer Sheila Slavin, who had wanted badly to see Clinton, got a ticket from her boss.

“He’s such a good speaker, and it’s refreshing to hear something intelligent from a politician,” she said of Clinton. Her friend, Janie Ellison of electrical engineering and computer sciences, came because “he’s a dynamic man. Not that I approve of his personal life….”

Michael Rubiano, an aide to Congresswoman Barbara Lee, had a coveted ticket.

So did Jack McCredie, associate vice chancellor of information systems and technology, who considers such events one of the campus’s great perks. “Berkeley attracts such wonderful, controversial speakers,” he said.

“A past president is worth hearing,” said his wife, Yvonne, in less glowing terms than some. “I thought he was a good president, not great.”

With seating in Zellerbach limited, the campus arranged for a live simulcast in nearby Haas Pavilion.

Said Adriana Vera, a student hurrying for a place in that line, “He’s enigmatic, charismatic, pretty popular. He’s a man of the people, connected with students and the working class.”

Given the high expectations beforehand, surely the audience would feel some letdown as they streamed out of Zellerbach afterward. Not so. Attendee Kathleen Barry, who went to Berkeley in the ’60s, jumped up and down in the plaza in mock anguish. “I can’t bear it. He’s so smart. I want him for president. I miss him so much,” she said.

Sophomore Samir Gupte left satisfied, as well. Clinton’s appearance was “entertaining, good, informative, enlightening,” he said. “You absorb a lot of information.” Gupte had gone to great lengths for a seat — buying a ticket off a fellow student for $50 earlier in the day. “I knew I’d get my money’s worth,” he said. “I came expecting a lot, and I got a lot more.”

Berkeley middle school student Rachell Hacker had scored a hand- shake and autograph as the former president worked his way across the front of the stage, following his Q&A with Journalism Dean Orville Schell.

“I can’t believe it,” beamed the sixth grader. “I’ll never wash my hand again.”


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