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Outpouring of Love for Clinton at Signing

June 27, 2004|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

A conservative, most likely, could not have endured it.

At least 2,000 cheering, swooning, chanting Bill Clinton fans flocked to Eso Won bookstore in Los Angeles on Saturday morning to tell him, about 12 times per minute, that they loved him.

They did not care about Monica. They did not care whether he inhaled.

Inside the independent bookstore dedicated to African American literature, most told Clinton they were honored to meet him; some said they had waited all their lives for this.

If they could, they told him, they would vote for him again.

And, please, would he be the vice presidential nominee?

That plea elicited a bark of laughter from Clinton, who kept signing books and shaking hands, pausing only to sip a Diet Coke.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Clinton signing -- A photo caption in Sunday's California section for an article about Bill Clinton's book signing reversed the names of the two men pictured: Anthony Wright, 19, is on the left and Jason Gabbert, 35, is on the right, above.

(While waiting for the ex-president to arrive, several customers even reasoned that if Clinton were No. 2 on the Democratic ticket and "something happened" to John Kerry, Clinton could be president again!)

Although customers were advised not to ask for more than a signature and a handshake, Clinton obliged almost anyone who asked him for favors.

While Marvin Gaye crooned in the background, Clinton signed photos and accepted mementos. He encouraged bashful children and shook hands with their dolls.

And although a display of books barricaded him from the public, he frequently leaned over to hug the women who absolutely insisted.

There is something about a squad of Secret Service agents that imposes a wordless restraint on a crowd, but after they left the store, many a woman let her true feelings show.

"That man is gorgeous!" shouted one woman, raising her hands and her autographed book.

While Clinton lovers, hard-core Democrats and a few savvy capitalists (EBay sellers who pre-sold the books for hefty profits) seemed to predominate, others said just meeting any president inspired them with a sense of history and patriotism.

Days before the signing, Clinton-mania had already engulfed the store. When the media announced that co-owner James Fugate's shop on South La Brea Avenue would host the former president, friends called from his hometown in Detroit, NPR did an interview with him and city bigwigs sought to make personal arrangements to meet Clinton.

"If Bill Clinton stayed here for two weeks, 10,000 people would show up every day," Fugate said.

He said his only disappointment in landing the book tour coup of the year was that many regular customers and thousands of others weren't able to buy the book Saturday. More than 750 copies of the 1,500 books Clinton promised to sign had been sold by Friday afternoon. The rest went on sale by telephone at 5 a.m. Saturday and were gone an hour later.

But to the small bookstore that was struggling to stay afloat just last year, Clinton's selection of Eso Won for a stop on the tour has been monumental.

Listening to Fugate talk about Clinton's visit, regular customer Deborah Rogers added: "Now you know Clinton was going to come to our community. He's not going to leave us out -- he never left us out."

It is no secret that African Americans have a strong relationship with Bill Clinton. His small town Southern roots and struggle up from a troubled and impoverished childhood endeared him to many blacks who identified with that experience. Books have been written on the topic, and most famously, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison called him the first black president.

"I think it means a great deal for the community for him to come here," said Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who was on hand to welcome Clinton to his district. "For so long, elected officials have taken us for granted, and they think they don't have to come here and rejuvenate the relationship."

Tired of hearing Clinton's personality lauded while he waited in line, Charles Brister, of 1-800-UNITE US, a black business referral service, pointed out that there were concrete reasons for the affection many black people hold for Clinton. Clinton appointed more African Americans to Cabinet positions and judgeships than all previous U.S. presidents combined, he said.

"It's the jobs that count," Brister said. "Jobs, jobs, jobs."

As for Clinton's vaunted "blackness," the truth is that Clinton is a master communicator with all kinds of people, Parks said. "You can stand in a crowd of 1,000 people, and you think he's looking right at you."

Jason Gabbert, 35, and Anthony Wright, 19, are banking on that Clinton star quality to help them turn a nice profit. Both are regular sellers on EBay and on Saturday were buying $35 signed copies of the book for which they already had found online customers willing to pay more than $200. "Guys like Gerald Ford, or Nixon or Jimmy Carter? They never achieved it," said Gabbert, who flew in from Minneapolis with Wright. "Why do you think people voted in Schwarzenegger? Reagan had it, and Clinton had it. George Bush the first certainly did not -- not to say he wasn't a good man or a good president, but come on, he's a drone. This Bush has a little more personality, but he's not like Clinton."

Wright, a college student, is too young to remember Ronald Reagan, but the outpouring of nostalgia at his recent death made it a no-brainer for him to grab up as many Clinton autobiographies as possible: "People realize that larger-than-life figures won't always be with us."

While the two were hustling to ensure they'd make at least a hundred bucks a book, they, too, said they felt swept up by a sense of history.

So when they were done at Eso Won, the two planned to drive up to Simi Valley to pay their respects at the Reagan library. Then it's north to San Francisco to buy more books at the Book Passage on Monday and shake Clinton's hand again.

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