Line a signature of Clinton's appeal abroad

Book tour lures thousands to London streets

July 13, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - The line began forming Sunday and by yesterday morning it snaked through the streets and alleyways of Piccadilly Circus, jamming traffic and clogging sidewalks until the management of Europe's largest bookstore said enough already, nobody else would be permitted to queue, the crowd was becoming a safety hazard.

Above the street, office workers opened their windows, leaned outside and peered downward to catch a glimpse of gray hair, if nothing else. Others took off work altogether in hopes of a wave. Round-hatted bobbies pushed the crowds from streets.

The numbers grew steadily. People walking by on their lunch breaks extended it when they learned what was going on, and the buzz became such that the 3,000 people or so gathered could have been waiting for the magical arrival of Harry Potter or the mystical return of Elvis.

They got Bill Clinton.

When he emerged from the bookstore, having signed more than 1,000 copies of his memoir, the crowd cheered as if for an encore, and the ex-president - on this day a larger celebrity than Britain's biggest rock star - practically did a mosh-pit dive into the throng, grabbing hands and pens and more of his tombstone-size books to sign.

"It's the biggest rock 'n' roll show in town," said Martin Shanahan, a 41-year-old self-confessed Clinton nut. He was the first person in line for an autographed book thanks to having plopped down his lawn chair and bag of Mars candy bars outside Waterstone's at about noon Sunday, 25 hours before his idol's expected arrival.

"When you see Bill Clinton, you see greatness," he said. "I've been waiting his eight years in office, plus four, to shake greatness' hand. Things were right when he was the most powerful man in the world."

Clinton, a former Oxford University student, was always popular in Europe when he was president and nowhere more so than in Britain. On past visits, he has sipped pints in the pubs of London's Notting Hill, worked the lines at a McDonald's in the West End on the way to a Big Mac, and generally was greeted with far more excitement than that enjoyed by the queen.

Yesterday's display of affection, though, had the added mix of nostalgia, for days when the "Special Relationship" between the United States and Great Britain seemed to people here a little less forced and a lot less one-sided.

And so it was yesterday that person after person, when speaking of Clinton, did so in the context of his successor.

"We knew Clinton was a smart man and we trusted him, and that was almost universal throughout Britain," said Graham Franklin, who at 62 waited 3 1/2 hours in line to snag his signed copy of My Life. "But honestly, I don't think anybody appreciated him as much as they do now that we've seen Bush."

Of course, people outside the bookstore brought up the Monica problem. And they just as quickly brushed it off as a personal problem that should have remained personal.

Bush is a different story. His favorability rating in Europe is low, and with U.S.-European relations still frayed thanks to events in Iraq, Clinton can add Bush to the reasons for his popularity.

Bush drew tens of thousands of people to the streets of London when he visited in November. But that crowd didn't form so much to greet him as to heckle him.

Kashif Shaikh, a 23-year-old European policy student at the University College of London, was the last person permitted in line before Waterstone's management put an end to it with a beefy security guard.

"He's a fascinating character," he said of Clinton, "but he's much more than a man with charisma. When people listened to him, they knew he knew what he was talking about, so he was able to persuade them rather than bully them around. He had the trust of the world."

Clinton's book has been a best-seller here, and yesterday's event was among the largest put on by Waterstone's, which has also held signings for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the soccer megastar David Beckham and JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.

"We've been receiving a call a minute for information" about Clinton's signing, said Jo Marino, Waterstone's event programmer. "It really doesn't get much bigger than this."

As he did in the United States, Clinton made the television rounds here and the highest-rated afternoon talk show - Richard & Judy, the British equivalent to LIVE with Regis and Kelly - devoted almost its full hour to an interview with him.

Yes, Monica was a big mistake, he said. Yes, he was stupid for not telling the truth right away but had to be careful because of the "maneuvering" of Ken Starr to charge him and Hillary with "he didn't know what." And yes, he feels bad for Prime Minister Tony Blair, his friend, whose association with Bush and Iraq has sent his ratings plummeting.

"You know, at the end of the day his personal life will always be known, but that doesn't make it a relevant issue," said Lee Bulmer, a 32-year-old software engineer who took a half-day off work to see Clinton. "What matters is when he was president, America had allies and that made the world a safer place. All the rest means nothing."

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