The second installment in a two-part series of first encounters and initial impressions spanning five decades from Gennifer Flowers, Tom Brokaw, Erica Jong, Vaclav Havel and others.
(Compiled by Dana Cook)
Not bluestocking severe
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., historian and author
May 23 
…to the White House for a dinner in [socialite Pamela Harriman’s] honor.
The guests—about 35-40—gathered in the Blue Room . …
After a time the Clintons joined us. Then we went upstairs to dinner. FDR’s old oval office was set up as a dining room with three or four tables. I made the happy discovery that I was seated on Hillary Clinton’s left…I found Hillary altogether charming—cool, composed, amusing and extremely sympathetic. Her public appearances yield an impression of bluestocking severity; but, as Jackie [Kennedy] told me at the Academy luncheon earlier in the day, she has an excellent sense of humor and is great fun. Jackie is right.
September 24 
Hillary is emerging now as a sort of heroine. No longer Madame Nhu or the wicked witch of the west, she is regarded as highly intelligent, flexible and endearing. She received two standing ovations from Congress during the President’s speech [on health care]. One congressman said he likes her so much he always wants “to squeeze her.”
from Journals 1952-2000, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (The Penguin Press, 2007)
Shy and tentative
Edna O’Brien, novelist
…an invitation from Hillary Clinton to dinner in the White House. When I saw her for the first time in that glittering gathering, as she came through a side door into the throng, she looked shy and tentative, as if she too were a visitor like us, being given a tour and standing to look at Lincoln’s rosewood bed with its vast headboard and draped canopy, the bed which some say he never slept in. …(Washington, D.C., 1993)
from Country Girl: A Memoir, by Edna O’Brien (Little Brown, 2012)
Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair
…With Hillary our conversations were more ideas-based [than with Laura Bush], and of course we had our politics in common. To a degree, when she and I first met I was a little in awe. As Bill’s wife, we had already been the First Lady for a number of years and experienced in the job…(mid-1990s)
from Speaking for Myself: the Autobiography, by Cherie Blair (Little, Brown, 2008)
Waiting for The Presence
Erica Jong, novelist
…a Democratic fund-raiser in New York “with other prominent women.”…one of Hillary Clinton’s [1996 presidential election] campaign appearances before the New York Women’s Democratic Leadership Conference.
After her speech, Hillary was led to meet her adoring acolytes, of whom I was one. The Hillary handlers hustled us all into a receiving line behind a rope, and those who had prearranged audiences were told exactly where in line to wait. Secret Service men briskly patrolled the rope lest one of the pilgrims get too close. Hillary went along the “rope line” briefed by her personal assistant and her press secretary about the identity of each of the faithful. Waiting for The Presence, I felt foolish—no, I felt like an idiot. In my time I have hung out with plenty of contemporary icons: Nobel laureates, rock stars more famous than Jesus, movie idols who can’t walk unmolested in the streets, politicians in and out of high office. But waiting for Hillary, I felt diminished. What I had wanted was to know the woman behind the mask. That, after all, is my specialty. And here I was being given only a brief glance at the mask—gleaming with many coats of lacquer. I was determined to use even this brief audience as best I could, but the glazed eyes, the fixed smile, the rather too firm handshake, could only remind me of myself in zombie mode in the midst of a twenty-five city book tour.
What could I say? I admire you? I need more time with you? I empathize with all the shit you’re taking? I said all that and more as we clasped hands and I used the trick so often used on me by fans of not letting her hand go.
“Call the White House to set up more time,” she said, turning to her dogsbody, who most certainly heard. And then she was gone, shaking the tiny brown hand of a little African-American girl, greeting a fundraiser here, a prominent woman there—down the line toward her destiny, beginning with the big speech she was to give for the Democratic hoi polloi in the downstairs arena.
It was over. … (New York)
from What Do Women Want?, by Erica Jong (Harper Collins, 1998)
Sumner Redstone, media mogul (Viacom)
The last time I was invited to the White House, I was Hillary’s dinner partner and was afforded the unusual opportunity to speak at length with her. She was well aware of Viacom’s global expansion and told me how, as she traveled, she ran into MTV all over the world. I liked that.
Their daughter was about to leave for college at Stanford University and Mrs. Clinton was worried that the Secret Service guard around Chelsea would separate her from the rest of the student body and interfere with her life as a normal teenager. I found Hillary very down-to-earth and was touched by her concern for her child.
“Chelsea!” She brought her daughter over to our table. “I want you to meet the man who owns MTV!” Chelsea beamed. (1997)
from A Passion to Win, by Sumner Redstone with Peter Knobler (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
J. Craig Venter, biologist and entrepreneur
…in Hilton Head [S.C.] for the New Year Renaissance Weekend with President Clinton and two thousand others. Before we could get into the New Year’s Eve dinner, Claire and I were pulled out of the security line and asked if anyone had called us about the seating arrangements. To our surprise and great pleasure, we found ourselves sitting next to the Clintons. I enjoyed their company and found them keenly interested in our work [Human Genome Project]. The First Lady was like a sponge eagerly absorbing what I had to say about the genome.
from A Life Decoded: My Genome, My Life, by J. Craig Venter (Viking, 2007)
Finding her political footing
Benjamin Barber, political theorist, author and Democratic adviser
…the last of the White House seminars I participated in…was noteworthy…because it featured not Bill Clinton but Hillary playing Bill Clinton—and beginning for the first time to find her own firm political footing. The first lady pulled off her role with a panache that her earlier, tentative participation in seminars would not have led one to predict.
…this was a full-blown strategic meeting at which senior staff…were in attendance. …
The real aim of the meeting…was to clean up the blood spilled over welfare reform and health care…
Hillary entered only after we were all seated, apparently happy to forgo the preseminar schmooze that the president always found irresistible. She circled the table, greeting us like an efficient restaurant proprietor. Her skills in the flattery department had grown considerably (she must have been studying her husband). I told her I was pleased she was hosting the meeting.
“Any excuse to get you here, Ben; if we have to call a meeting, we’ll call a meeting.” And similarly to others around the table she knew, finding the appropriate flatteries (or not) as required by her profile of the guest in question. …She regretted that the president wasn’t able to be with us, but as the “Michael Jordan of politics” his presence was required at more populous venues… (1998)
from The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House, by Benjamin Barber (W. W. Norton & Company, 2001)
Jean Chrétien, prime minister of Canada (1993-2003)
The more Aline and I got to spend time with Hillary and Bill Clinton, whether at international gatherings or during official visits, the more we saw that the First Lady was just as political as the president. She wanted to participate in important discussions; she wanted to talk about substantial issues; and whenever I was seated beside her at a state dinner, she wanted to know how I handled the problems of health care or welfare reform rather than to hear stories about my grandchildren. She was interested, well briefed, and intelligent, as well as exceptionally pleasant. Watching her and Bill together, I was struck by how little disagreement there seemed to be between them. Sometimes she stated a different point of view or asked a challenging question, but I found they shared many of the same views and a common understanding of the world. She seemed neither to the right nor the left of him, and though Hillary wasn’t the natural charmer that her husband was, she had a strong presence and an impressive personality in her own right. (1990s)
from My Years as Prime Minister, by Jean Chrétien with Ron Graham (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and presidential candidate
…The summer annual  convention of the NAACP in Baltimore…Hillary Clinton’s people called and asked if she could fly down from New York and speak. We met in the holding room. She was pleasant enough, exchanging a few words about her having been on a committee with my sister years ago and our common interest in reducing global infectious diseases. She spoke before me and went beyond her allotted time, thereby pushing me further away from any news coverage. Whatever the motivation behind Hillary Clinton’s last-minute arrival, it worked for her party. The next day’s newspapers featured her appearance and ignored my substantive speech. …
from Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President, by Ralph Nader (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2002)
Jesse Helms, U.S. senator (1973-2003)
Not too long after her swearing-in [in 2000], Senator Hillary Clinton and I happened to be on the same elevator in our Senate office building. Senator Clinton seemed quite surprised when the elevator operator [who, apparently, was black] and I fell into our usual conversation about him and his family.
The Senator, like many others of her political persuasion, still seems to have trouble imagining that people of goodwill can establish friendships outside their races or creeds or nationalities simply based on what Dr. King called “the content of their character,” without the artifice of a public program or a legal mandate. (Washington, D.C.)
from Here’s Where I Stand: A Memoir, by Jesse Helms (Random House, 2005)
Václav Havel, playwright and president of Czechoslovakia
…we went to dinner at Madeleine’s [Albright’s] with Hillary. Hillary made a marvelous impression on me. She looked good. She listened carefully, which not all politicians do. Everything interested her. She spoke concisely and clearly and I understood her American English very well, which gave me the courage to talk on American subjects myself. I think that she would make a wonderful president. I put considerable pressure on her to that end and she merely laughed. … (Washington, D.C., 2005)
from To the Castle and Back, by Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson (Alfred A Knopf, 2007)
Baby oil for Bill
Ronnie Wood, rock musician
…On our…swing through New York we were joined by Bill and Hillary Clinton. He was celebrating his sixtieth birthday at the Beacon Theater and scheduled the event to double as a fundraiser for his charitable foundation, and as the central piece in a film Martin Scorsese was making about the [Rolling] Stones. …
…hanging with the Clintons turned into the biggest meet-and-greet of them all. Bill, Hillary and the Stones shook hands with innumerable high-paying guests…
…Jo [wife] had recently launched her organic beauty range and gave some products to Hillary. She took especially well to the body oil and asked Jo how to use it. Jo mentioned pouring some into a warm bath, putting some on her skin before bed, or even rubbing it all over Bill, which resulted in a Democratic smile. (2006)
from Ronnie, by Ronnie Wood (Macmillan, 2007)
[Dana Cook’s collections of literary, show biz and political encounters have appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and journals. Contact: cooks.encounters(at)gmail.com]