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Crowd reaction to Clinton: intelligence and charisma make the man
31 January 2002

By Nancy Chapman, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - 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 senior, Bill Clinton was the first president for whom they ever voted. "I’ve always loved him" she said. "I had confidence in him. After Sept. 11, I was really scared and wished he were there."

For another, Clinton was a good role model 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 on globalization, but he could have talked about vertebrate limb formation and still drawn a full house. His charisma, celebrity, and intelligence were paramount.

"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 were hanging around to see if they could snag a last-minute seat.

The more fortunate told stories, as they waited in the pale winter sunlight, about the challenges they’d overcome in order to score a ticket. "I was among the front 20 in line," said one student. "I got an apple thrown at my head."

Staffer Sheila Slavin wanted to see Clinton so badly that her boss gave her a ticket.

"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, but he’s not the only one who’s done that."

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 the Haas Pavilion, to which 300 were admitted.

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."

With such high expectations, surely the audience would feel some letdown as they streamed out of Zellerbach afterward. Not so. Kathleen Barry, who attended 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.

Another departing audience member, sophomore Samir Gupte, called Clinton’s appearance "entertaining, good, informative, enlightening. You absorb a lot of information." Gupte had bought a ticket off a fellow student for $50 just that afternoon. "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 from the former president as he 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."

>>> Full coverage of former President Bill Clinton at UC Berkeley