Jewish World Review June 25, 2004 / 6 Tamuz 5764

Paul Greenberg

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The History of Slick Willie — from the coiner of the moniker | The e-mails have been clogging the system, the phone calls have started, Fox News called . ... It's just like the old days, aka the Clinton Years.

Yep, Slick Willie is back, not that he was ever completely gone. But this time he's been resurrected by his alter ego, Bill Clinton. While pushing his memoir on "60 Minutes," Arkansas' prodigal son mentioned that, of all the nicknames he's acquired, he likes Slick Willie the least.

I swelled with pride. And sighed at the prospect of having to write still another column on the history of Slick Willie, going into his life and times, his birth and ... apparent immortality.

Just when you think Slick Willie belongs to history, he pops up on "60 Minutes." He's like some Golem you've invoked for what seemed perfectly good reasons at the time, but who then refuses to go away when his time is over. Kind of like Bill Clinton himself.

This time Slick Willie has drawn fire from Bill Clinton himself, who says there's "a very good reason" he dislikes the name: "No one could fairly look at my political life and say I didn't believe in anything."

Really? And just what political belief wouldn't he modify if his popularity depended on it? He didn't specify. He seldom does. It wouldn't be Clintonesque (another term he inspired) to be specific. If there was a single constant to which he adhered throughout his political career, it was probably triangulation.

Bill Clinton may be confusing the term Slick Willie with Empty Suit. Both might apply in his case, but in addition to equivocation - at which he remains the master - the term Slick Willie implies duplicity. Which is why I used it to describe his political persona.

Back in 1996, a book publisher talked me into putting out a collection of my Clinton editorials and columns over the years. I went though roll after roll of microfilm at the Pine Bluff, Ark., public library to see when I'd first used the term Slick Willie. It turned out to be September 27, 1980. It was in an editorial for the Pine Bluff Commercial that had been inspired by the two-faced attack he made on his gubernatorial opponent that year, Frank White.

On the one hand, Bill Clinton was trying to place himself in the honored tradition of Arkansas' post-Faubus reform governors when he spoke at his party's state convention that year - even though he had embraced Orval Faubus himself, literally, at the outset of his first term.

He would also criticize Frank White, quite rightly, for demagoguing the issue of how to handle the Cuban refugees who'd arrived in Arkansas that summer. Then-Gov. Clinton welcomed the refugees at first, but by September of that year he was badmouthing Jimmy Carter for sending the Cubans to Fort Chaffee. In the dishonorable tradition of Orval Faubus, he threatened to defy the whole United States Army if Washington sent any more our way. It was all pretty slick. Hence the sobriquet Slick Willie.

It caught on. Because politicians aren't just given nicknames. They earn them. At some point, a nickname engages the public imagination with an almost audible click - Old Hickory, The Rail Splitter, Tricky Dick, The Great Communicator ... and, of course, Slick Willie.

Slick Willie had a long incubation period. As early as 1979, I was still trying out nicknames for the state's new governor. Most played on his youth - Kid Clinton, Boy Governor, Young Smoothie - for he was the youngest governor in the Union at the time. But nothing clicked till Slick Willie, and it would go national when Bill Clinton did in 1992.

By now I've seen myself credited with coining the nickname Slick Willie so often that I expect it will be noted on my tombstone. (I should have known that Devoted Husband and Father was too much to hope for.) Databases generations hence will doubtless contain the entry, "Slick Willie - Nickname given 42nd pres. of U.S. by obscure Ark. newspaper editor."

But history is never simple, and neither is the history of Slick Willie. So I hasten to add that a letter writer to the old Arkansas Democrat -Mr. J.L. Crosser of Calico Rock, Ark. - used the phrase some time earlier in 1980. And wasn't there also a bar-and-grill, maybe combined with a pool hall, named Slick Willy's around at the same time?

All I know is that, almost a quarter of a century ago, deep in darkest Arkansas at Pine Bluff, I was blissfully oblivious to all these other Slick Willies. I was having too much fun dreaming up nicknames for our boy governor, scarcely suspecting that one day he would become our boy president.

So who really created Slick Willie? That's easy: Bill Clinton.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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