I Had Coffee With Clinton
The inside story of those notorious White House "coffees."
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.
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.
I told him how AT&T's stock had jumped when Robert Allen announced those layoffs. I took out the proxy statement showing how much Allen paid himself--it just happened to have come that morning. And I mentioned that if AT&T would have just awarded options struck at the price the day before the firings, these people would have had enough money for a down payment for a new business or a mortgage or college bills, instead of being angry at their company and their country.
Someone interjected that this seemed pretty fanciful. But the president waved me on. I talked some more. He told me he liked the idea and would look into it. My mind's a blank after that. It seems like there was some chitchat about foreign affairs and the campaign. And then it was over. As the president went by me, he gave me a big hug and said the stock-option plan was a "darn good idea."
I was as high as a kite. I recall nothing else until the time that I got to the airport to fly back to New York. There I called, in order, my wife, my sister, and my dad and told them that I had sat next to the president and told him about my stock-option idea, and that he had liked it. I was very proud. Still am.
No one ever called and asked me for money after the session. In fact, the only call that was made was by me, to try to get the picture of my meeting with the president. I subsequently gave more money to the party, but I still haven't gotten the picture. Nor did my stock-option idea go anywhere. So much for my influence.
But what I have gotten is a raft of phone calls from some of the best investigative reporters in the world, asking me all sorts of questions about quid pro quos and what I did to get the meeting and how much money I was shaken down for. The questions all sound like I was some sort of criminal for meeting with the president.
The other day, when I bought my Philadelphia Inquirer, I read the huge headline--"For Democrats, a little coffee, a lot of cash"--out loud while I was at the register. "Bunch of crooks," I heard somebody say. Everyone seemed to nod in agreement. Suddenly I realized that the press had transformed me from Jimmy Stewart to Claude Raines, as if I were stuck in a weird Bizarro anti-Capra version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
"No," I said. "It was all very innocent."
They looked at me like I was crazy.
Maybe I am. But next time, I want the picture.
So would you.
James J. Cramer is president of Cramer Berkowitz, a $400 million hedge fund in New York, and a daily columnist for TheStreet.com, a financial Web site he co-founded.