This Week in History, August 17, 1997: The President’s walk

Tue, 08/21/2012 - 1:03pm

This week in history 15 years ago, on August 17, President Bill Clinton visited Block Island and created the grandest spectacle in the town’s history since French privateers stormed ashore on Crescent Beach to pillage the island in the 1690s.

Both visits essentially captured the entire island. But the earlier one, centuries ago, wasn’t at all cheerful for Block Islanders, while Bill Clinton’s trip here was savored as no other person’s visit to the island has ever been.

Although three other United States presidents came to Block Island during their presidency, none ever approached the audacity of Bill Clinton.

The singular event on August 17, 1997, of the First Family’s several hours on the island was Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea’s famous stroll down the entire length of town, from one Victorian-era icon, the Surf Hotel, to another, the statue of Rebecca.

A pandemonium of emotion swept with the Clintons along Water Street, rippling through the various streams of workers and vacationers who gathered by the hundreds from sidestreets, from anchored boats, from hotels and stores, rushing in near disbelief towards the calm at the eye of the storm: the President of the United States walking — walking! — casually, unannounced, in the open, through the heart of Old Harbor.

Although the president was known to be on the island, there was no inkling this would happen; a UFO landing in the parking lot would have seemed more likely. Workers fled their businesses, jobs forgotten, cash registers left unattended. Customers left drinks and meals, suddenly unneeded. All to capture in their minds what they instinctively thought would be but a fleeting glimpse of the world’s most important man, before fate, as it usually does in our lives, cheated us of the chance.

But Bill Clinton did not disappear, he did not flee or dart for cover, nor vanish back behind the darkened windows of the official cars lingering behind him. He stood there, and stood there, slowly moving along the lines of greeters, as more well-wishers poured out of Chapel Street, out of the Harborside Inn, up from the ferry parking lot, lining Water Street four, five, 10-people deep, the president now like a one-man Fourth of July parade.

And if ever a group of Americans learned the rules of the game fast, it was there on Water Street, where the end of the line was a goal, where you either stood behind someone as Bill Clinton shook their hand, or you risked going ahead to find a place further along. Would he disappear too soon behind the tinted windows of the ever-following tan van?

But you could do it — you could reach the end of the line, because he kept going.

There you were suddenly in the front row, one of a chosen few, standing with other T-shirted, bathing-suited, sandal-wearing, wide-eyed Americans, knowing the president was approaching down that row of greeters. You faced the Secret Service bodyguards, as they squarely faced you, heard their instructions for the event: “Keep your hands in front.” You were not wrestled to the ground by them. You had become special, accepted, ready for a two-second handshake at the least, and a two-minute discussion for a privileged few. It’s never happened like this here before.

To restrained elation, the slow procession of official vehicles and grim-faced guards advanced along the street — but there were no horses here with reversed boots in the stirrups, as many of us remember from our childhood, watching television in late-November 1963. There was no slow cadence of beating drums, no weeping widow, or darkness. The sun was out, everyone smiling, talking, chattering away to utter strangers about every nuance of when we first saw Bill, saying “You shook his hand, too” and “He’s so good-looking.” We talked to strangers as people do when facing a common foe in sport or battle — although here we were, with no enemy in sight, on Water Street on a summer afternoon.

And when he took his first step onto the porch to enter Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shop, the crowd roared — he was going for it, going for the gold, risking his life, quite literally, you know. He walked a quarter of a mile down an utterly mobbed street in the tiniest town in the tiniest state in America, to buy an ice cream cone — and to see us. America is great.