They cheered Bill Clinton here Thursday night as the keynote speaker at BookExpo America, the annual gathering of members of the American Booksellers Association and the publishing industry.
They screamed for him as the former president. Yes.
They applauded him as a global celebrity and Renaissance man. Yes.
And they went Bill-istic for him as the author of the soon-to-be-published "My Life." Yes.
But will the 900-plus-page political memoir, due out June 22 with a first printing of 1.5 million, pull booksellers from the econo-doldrums with "Da Vinci Code"-like sales? Yes, they said, yes it will, yes.
"I have no earthly idea if this is a great book," Clinton told the throng, "but it's a pretty good story."
He's still got the gifts, the crackling voice, the lip-biting, the tongue in the cheek, the self-deprecating humor, the immediate and immense grasp of minutiae and massive concepts, his innate storytelling skills and his unbounded optimism and faith in the American people.
Sonny Mehta, president and editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf publishers, introduced Clinton. "If the law were different and he were able to run again," Mehta said to wild screams and applause, "he would win by a landslide."
Clinton was running Thursday night. Late, of course. And, perhaps, with a 45-minute speech, a little too long. But standing on the podium in the large convention room before more than 3,000 people, he seemed larger than life. And his video image, projected on a giant screen behind him, made him even larger than larger than life.
He didn't appear to be using notes. He shuttled back and forth between cornpone anecdote and cosmic geopolitical observation with the greatest of ease. The speech contained southern humor and a sophisticated crash course in political partisanship.
The rancor in this year's presidential campaign, Clinton said, should cause no particular alarm because we have been through it all before and the country almost always emerges stronger and more unified and more inclusive. What John Adams's supporters said about Thomas Jefferson in 1796, Clinton said, would "blister the hairs off a dog's back." About the 1960s, he said, if you think that more good things than bad things happened in the decade, you're probably a Democrat. If you think more bad things happened, you're probably a Republican.
He spoke of his affection for Bob Dole and the first President Bush. He said he would support the current President Bush if he decided to send more soldiers to Afghanistan. He said he did not agree with use of the USA Patriot Act to snoop on what someone is reading. And "politics is not religion. We should govern on the basis of evidence, not theology." The challenge of the future, he said, will be to fight terrorism in an interdependent world without compromising the character of America or jeopardizing the lives of its children.
He told down-home stories. He has a cousin in Arkansas, he said, who plays chess on the Internet every week with someone from Australia and, Clinton said, without dropping a stitch, the two men take turns deciding who will stay up late. He told of his one-lunged uncle who in his eighties liked to take a couple of older women for drives in the automobile. Clinton asked if he was partial to older women, and his uncle said yes, "it seems like they're a little more settled."
Knowing that his bibliophilic audience was fascinated with the writing process, he explained that he wrote the book in longhand in 20 or more notebooks, then turned them over to someone who entered the notes into a computer. He told of feeling sheepish when he ran into Mehta at a restaurant. He said he knew Mehta must be wondering, "Why did I pay you all this money if you're going to take time to eat lunch?" He played small tricks on his editor, Robert Gottlieb. In one draft Clinton arbitrarily added this sentence: Robert Gottlieb is the greatest editor in history. Gottlieb excised the sentence from the book, Clinton told the audience, "somewhat reluctantly."
Clinton said he is telling two stories in the book. One is personal, chock-full of colorful characters. He said Gottlieb once asked him about his early years in Arkansas, "Did you know any sane people as a child?" The other is the story of a political life in America. The memoirs of politicians are usually dull and self-serving. He said he hopes his are interesting and self-serving. But, he added, he doesn't try to settle scores, although writing about "what Kenneth Starr did to Susan McDougal" made him so angry he had to stop for four hours.
"I think it's going to be a verrry important book this summer," said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., and president of the booksellers association. "Independent booksellers are really excited. This is a book they can get behind."
Some 25,000 conventioneers are expected to swarm the vast McCormick Place during the four-day event. The largest group, said show manager Greg Topalian, comprises independent booksellers. There are also a lot of librarians and buyers from chain bookstores. More than 2,000 exhibitors -- publishers, remainder brokers, knickknack hawkers and others -- will try to persuade booksellers to carry their wares.
Judging by Thursday night, the convention -- and perhaps summer book sales -- belong to Clinton.
As if speaking before his own sales reps, Mehta pumped up the booksellers about potential sales. "You are," he promised them in his understated Manhattan manner, "going to have the time of your life."