Bill Clinton, Doorman

A presidential fantasy of a life in uniform


On page 172 of his just-released thousand-page memoir, Bill Clinton rewards patient readers—those who get that deep into My Life—with an unexpected personal fantasy. "I had fantasized from time to time," he writes, "about being a doorman at New York's Plaza Hotel, at the south end of Central Park. Plaza doormen had nice uniforms and met interesting people from all over the world. I imagined garnering large tips from guests who thought that, despite my strange southern accent, I made good conversation."

(I should note right here that I myself didn't get to page 172 of Clinton's book: Not reading the various Clinton memoirs is one of my hobbies. Rather, the passage appears in Slate's estimable "Juicy Bits" department ["We read the book so that you don't have to."]. I commend the feature to you, not least because it also contains this interesting passage from the ex-president: "I was so exhausted I fell asleep while the stripper was dancing and the goat head was looking up at me.")

Anyway, back to Clinton's doorman fantasy. I share Clinton's admiration for doormen. After all, they bring order and security to the business of hailing a cab and getting its door open—even when it's raining, and they have to grasp those giant umbrellas in a brisk wind. Moreover, they fill this role while wearing the most memorable uniforms this side of prancing drum majors. They even bring a touch of show business to the otherwise drab experience of walking into a lobby. Who can blame Clinton for his dream of piercing the New York air with a shrill, commanding whistle even while filling his pockets with tips from rich, admiring hotel guests?

But is this the sort of thing presidents dream about before they become president? Maybe it is. We've never had a president so prone to outbursts of (purported) confessional candor, at least as long as he was not responding under oath to a prosecutor. Thanks to this reflex of his, we unfortunately even know Clinton's underwear preferences. Maybe we'd know whether FDR and Eisenhower preferred briefs to boxers, too, if only anyone had thought it appropriate to pose such a question to them.

In that sense, maybe the young Jefferson, if he'd been fully candid with posterity, might have revealed a daydream of combing out the dress wig of an impressed master. Lincoln, that man of the people, might once have aspired to being the best groom in the livery, requested by well-dressed and generous horsemen as the man to go to when their tired mounts needed refreshing. Teddy Roosevelt might have dwelled on a future as a Pullman porter, offering service to important travelers who would admire his interesting conversation, and would tip him handsomely. Who knows?

Don't get me wrong: All these jobs are honest work; they're a lot more appealing than some of the jobs I've held (and they're surely more practically useful than the one I've got now). Doormen, wig-combers, grooms, and porters who are good at what they do are rightfully proud of their roles, their tips, and any admiration they inspire. There's nothing necessarily wrong with Clinton's one-time daydream; it's the dreamer I wonder about.

The plot of Clinton's fantasy is pure Horatio Alger, a recognizable version of the ragged New York shoeshine boy who impresses the rich and powerful with his quickness, and rises through their benevolent patronage. But even Alger probably would have hesitated to include Clinton's rendition in one of his hack novels. It may work well enough as a pulp rags-to-riches plot, but as a flashback it threatens to stop the story.

"I was so humble," this plot intends to say, "that my only dream of associating with power was one of subservience to it. Persons of wealth and position would see through my low origins, recognize my true worth, and reward me for it."

Fine so far. But when the teller of this tale has been the President of the United States, the story loses its quality as a confession of humble beginnings, and takes on another tone altogether. "Look at me now!" it suggests. "I used to think that those characters who stayed in the Plaza were important; I used to think that a room off Central Park meant power. Shucks, those people don't know what real power is. I do." Clinton isn't the only figure to make such use of his class origins, of course; it's common enough in American politics. But Clinton is probably among the few who could—or more importantly would—turn a confession into a self-aggrandizing boast without drawing a breath.

On the other hand, maybe there's another way to look at Clinton's doorman fantasy. Maybe we should think of it as a fantasy that came true. All those rich and powerful people checking in and out of their desirable rooms sort of adds a useful context to the scandal of Clinton's habit of giving the Lincoln Bedroom to political contributors, doesn't it?