WASHINGTON — They remember him as a wild-haired, garrulous guy who bragged about his home state's watermelons and glided through school seemingly without trying--or, sometimes, showing up for class.
Bill Clinton always "had a tremendous learning curve," remembered Mark I. Soler. "It was a good thing, because he wasn't the most diligent student."
A lover of sentimental reunions, Bill Clinton will join one this weekend as he makes his first trip since winning the White House to the ivied quad of Yale Law School. At a reunion of Yale Law '73, he'll get an award and mingle with 125 ex-classmates who regard him with admiration, affection and the mild annoyance that comes naturally when somebody gets the job you've craved for years.
"Everybody in the class wanted that job, and so far only one of us--or one-and-a-half--has got it," says Chicago lawyer Peter V. Baugher, referring to Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, also a Yale classmate. "Of course, I'm perfectly happy where I am. But I would also accept an honest draft to the White House."
This is a class that raised a bundle for Clinton during the 1992 campaign; one committee alone raised $2.5 million. And Clinton has demonstrated his regard by distributing, to date, at least nine top jobs in his Administration.
But the group, which studied law in the fractious cusp of the Vietnam War and Watergate eras, was also argumentative and famously unruly--so much so that the one dean called those days Yale Law's "dark years."
"There was argument--only argument--endless argument," says Nancy Y. Bekavac, who is president of Scripps College in Claremont, and head of the White House Fellows Program.
In this spirit, Clinton is also likely to hear a few frank critiques of his presidency from the classmates who once chewed on constitutional issues and cheeseburgers together at the law school cafeteria.
All his classmates award him high marks for effort and determination, and some predict his presidency will be among the greatest. But they have their quibbles, as well.
Soler, who runs the National Center for Youth Law in San Francisco and is up for an Administration job, praises Clinton for tackling issues his predecessors ducked. But, in complete candor, he must share his view that Clinton also "seriously underestimated" the weight of the gay troops controversy. Clinton ended up with a policy "that isn't significantly different than it was before," Soler believes.
He gives Clinton a top grade, though, for putting his health reform effort in the hands of another brilliant Yale Law graduate, his wife Hillary.
There's Robert E. Gipson, a Century City lawyer, who voted for Clinton hoping the Democrat could get the nation moving again. He gives Clinton points for caring and for proposing an ambitious agenda. But he worries that Clinton is "too eager to please everybody," and believes Clinton should acknowledge the health plan will entail rationing.
"Everybody's afraid to say the 'r' word," he said.
Others, shielded by anonymity, are more blunt. "I hate that health plan," says a classmate. Several are indignant that Clinton didn't learn about the writing of C. Lani Guinier, Yale Law '74, before nominating, then un-nominating her to head the Justice Department's civil rights unit.
"That's the kind of thing would have driven our class into the streets," the classmate says.
Indeed, some members of the class did spend many hours in the street. The law school building, ornamented with neo-Gothic gargoyles, gave the school a placid appearance, but in the early 1970s the law students were in ferment over Vietnam and civil rights. At one point they threatened to strike over the trials of two Black Panthers going on not far from the school in a New Haven courthouse.
Clinton was immersed in these issues, too, but channeling his energies in the direction of mainstream politics. In his first year at law school--the period that usually requires the most intense toil--Clinton worked for the Senate campaign of Joseph Duffy (now director of the U.S. Information Agency) and didn't start class until November.
In 1972, he was the top state official for the campaign of George McGovern. Clinton's thoughts "were sometimes elsewhere," says Vaugher.
Clinton was also distracted by the relationship with Hillary Rodham that began in the meditative atmosphere of Yale Law School Library. As this often-told tale has it, Clinton stared at Hillary so long and hard that she felt compelled to walk over and introduce herself.
They went out, chewed over foreign affairs concerning Africa, joined forces in a moot court murder trial, and the romance was under way.
For all its professed social activism of the 1970s, the class of 1973 may have been closer to the social center than it then appeared. Now, about 70% of its lawyers are in private practice or corporations, while 6% are law professors, 6% work in nonprofit organizations; and 18% have jobs in state or federal government agencies (the tally was taken before many of the members joined the Clinton Administration).
But if the class has changed, its ambitions have not. Baugher, for instance, confided that he planned to relax and enjoy this week's reunion while Clinton "worries about his speech and 10 other things."
Still, he adds, "I'll trade places with him."