Jewish World Review Nov. 17, 2004 / 3 Kislev5765

Paul Greenberg

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The unwelcome guest: Slick Willie | LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - It's started all over again. The calls from visiting journalists. The requests for television interviews. The grand opening of the Clinton Library and Nostalgia Bazaar has brought 'em all out again, like the furies.

But, thank goodness, they're not really interested in me. Or, for that matter, in Bill Clinton. No, they want the inside scoop on his alter ego, his evil twin, the Banquo at this otherwise cheery banquet, the notorious, the resilient, the absolutely unkillable . . . Slick Willie!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, He-e-e's Back! I blame it on Bill Clinton. (Don't I always?) If only he hadn't let it slip on "60 Minutes" that of all the appellations he's acquired over a long and still political career, the one he likes least is Slick Willie.

Well, sure. I understand. It's never the unfair criticisms that really hurt, it's the fair ones. Whenever one of my columns draws a response that gets my dander up, that sets me to muttering to myself about how unfair and untrue and unacceptable this is, and starts me rehearsing a variety of eloquent ripostes in the shower . . . it's a sure sign the critic is on to something. And I'm going to have to include another correction in my annual Where I Went Wrong column. And the manila folder I use to store items for this year's is already bulging.

As we say in this business, they don't squeal till they're stuck. And this nickname has stuck. Slick Willie is like some Golem you've conjured up for what seemed perfectly good reasons at the time, but who then refuses to go away. I suspect that, somewhere in the recesses of the Clinton Library, there's a portrait of him. Maybe it's in the attic, like Dorian Gray's.

When I'm interviewed these days, it doesn't take long for the interviewer to reveal the real subject of his interest: Where did Slick Willie come from? How long's he been around? Was he inspired by some particular incident or by Bill Clinton's mastery of equivocation in general? Once again I'm reduced to Slick Willie's biographer.

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It's been years now since I went through roll after roll of microfilm at the Pine Buff pubic library to see just when Slick Willie made his debut on the editorial page of the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial. His first appearance turned out to be Sept. 27, 1980. It was in an editorial inspired by one of Bill Clinton's attacks on his gubernatorial opponent that year, Frank White.

At first then-Governor Clinton had criticized his rival, quite rightly, for demagoguing the issue of the Cuban refugees who were being housed in Arkansas that summer. But by the fall, Bill Clinton had realized which way the political wind was blowing, and he was badmouthing the Cubans himself, and blaming Jimmy Carter for sending them here. In the dishonored 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, an almost audible click can be heard as a nickname engages the public imagination - 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, for he was the youngest governor in the Union at the time. Among the names that didn't catch on were Kid Clinton, Boy Governor, Young Smoothie . . . but nothing clicked till Slick Willie, and he would go national when Bill Clinton did in 1992. I knew Slick Willie had made Broadway and the big time when Howell Raines used him in an editorial for The New York Times.

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. 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 are the origins of Slick Willie. When the question of Slick Willie's origin came up a few years ago, Meredith Oakley - our op-ed page editor - dug up a column by the late great John Robert Starr, a legend in Arkansas journalism, dated April 11, 1980, in which he reported that a reader of the Arkansas Democrat had suggested a Slick Willie Award for boondoggles in state government.

For a while the Democrat actually gave out such an award. That reader would later identify himself as a Mr. J.L. Crosser of Calico Rock, Ark.

There was also a bar-and-grill, maybe combined with a pool hall, named Slick Willy's around at the same time.

But 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 a nickname for our boy governor, scarcely suspecting that one day he would become our boy president.

Who really deserves the credit for creating 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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