I Had Coffee With Clinton

Feb. 9 1997 3:30 AM

I Had Coffee With Clinton

The inside story of those notorious White House "coffees."

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Actually, I had a Diet Coke. I was too nervous for coffee. Until these White House "coffees" became controversial a few weeks ago, I had regarded the meeting as one of the great happenings in my life. I was ushered into the Map Room at the White House--the room that shows the Allies' progress against the Nazis, frozen the day Roosevelt died--and poked around a table to see where I was to sit.

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My God, I thought when I saw my placard, I'm next to the president. The president of the United States. Me and the president. Wow! What would my mother have said about that? A few minutes passed by, and I realized I knew no one in the room. But then, in walked Mack McLarty. I recognized him not from any political connection but from his previous career as head of a publicly traded utility called Arkla. Arkla was one of my worst investments ever.

I stuck my hand out, and he grabbed it. I asked him if I could ask the president anything I wanted. He asked me what I had in mind. I said that I had a whole bunch of things I wanted to say, but mostly I wanted to let the president know that cutting capital-gains taxes would just be a windfall for the rich, and that the American worker wasn't getting as good a deal in these "downsizings" as the big dogs were.

He told me that these were fine topics. He did not ask me for money. He did not ask me for support. He did not ask how much I had given to the party. In fact, neither did Democratic National Committee Finance Chair Marvin Rosen and DNC honcho Donald Fowler, both of whom were in the room. No one did.

Sure, I wouldn't have been there if I hadn't given money to the party. But there is a simple nonsinister reason that I gave to the Democratic Party: I am a Democrat. I want my party and its candidates to win. Beat the Republicans. Pretty clear. Now what would have been interesting is if I had given money to the Republican Party, or the Communist Party, or heck, the Pajama Party. I am a lifelong Democrat, and the last time I looked, it was neither interesting nor indictable to help a political party.

In walked the president. Everybody mobbed him. I hung back, but he worked his way toward me and shook my hand. Light bulbs flashed. I was dizzy.

We took a seat. I got my bearings. Had a refill. The president mentioned that things were going well and wanted to know what was on our minds. Someone asked an innocuous question--I don't remember what. Someone else said the president was doing an excellent job with the economy. The president said it was important to try to balance the budget and keep interest rates low.

A lawyer said he didn't want tort reform. Lawyers. It figures that they would use this session for a bit of self-interest. I scribbled, "He is asking you for a raise, Mr. President," on my notepad and tried to show it to Clinton, but I couldn't get his attention.

Then it was my turn. Mr. President, I remember saying, I would like to use this time to tell you about an idea I had, an idea to give stock options to downsized workers so they could participate in the increase in stock prices generated by their firings. I had just written about this plan for New York and the New Republic.

Go on, he encouraged.