The front of the line is where you find the book-signing junkies, the ones looking for a brush with fame, the ones who otherwise might hang around outside David Letterman's Manhattan studio waiting for stars to duck in.
Would they turn out for an Al Gore or a John Edwards book signing?
"No. It really has to be someone big," says Cherry Grazioso, by which she means someone big enough for the tabloids.
Grazioso has done Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Teresa, Frank Gifford. She thought about doing Hillary but instead she's here, third in line, waiting for Bill Clinton, ahead of almost 1,700 others.
Last week this low-key commercial strip on upper Connecticut Avenue in the District was transformed by a bank heist. Yesterday the mood was more like a July 4 parade, or one of those endless lines at the Six Flags theme park for Magic Mountain.
"We're getting closer . . . to Bill Clinton," one lady is singing and waving her arms. She's wearing a big American flag shirt and a short short skirt. She's sashaying her way toward the front door of Politics and Prose bookstore.
Politics and Prose! With Nabokov in the window and gingerbread lattes downstairs. And now one Jaama Buckley, trying to tamp her exuberance down to a kitten whisper as she confesses:
"Women have told me that he mesmerizes them," she says. "I want to experience that. I'm already feeling some of that," she says as she presses her palm to her bare inner thighs and then sneaks inside.
Pity the earnest campaign volunteers who showed up with their Kerry for President buttons and their Anybody but Bush T-shirts. This may be Washington during election season and Bill Clinton may be a recent ex-president, but this is not in any sense a political scene.
Even the protests are tabloid, men with crazy hair and flannel shirts smoking cigars, holding lurid signs about Monica Lewinsky, shouting, "Slick Willie. Come out with your pants up!"
Clinton is not like the others. He is not old and wizened by power. He does not belong in that stale part of our collective memory where Gerald Ford sits in a corporate boardroom and Jimmy Carter, wrinkled and worthy, observes suspect foreign elections.
His hair is gray but he has twice as much as he needs. The wrinkles around his eyes are like arrows, pointing somewhere definite. His fingers are long and smooth and his nails are neat and shiny as dimes. Those fingers! The ladies outside talk about them, how they held the pen, how they moved over the page, how they felt when he grabbed their hand, how they might feel if . . . well forget it, that's going too far.
There are presidents who were famous and then became stars (John F. Kennedy), presidents who were stars and became politicians (Ronald Reagan), and then there is Clinton, who was a nobody from nowhere who's already moved beyond the presidency and now could star in his own movie.
There are buttons for sale of Clinton playing his saxophone in those "Risky Business" sunglasses. "Clinton Still Rocks!" they say, but they feel like a memento from a long-ago era, when Clinton was still the overeager fan, desperate to get on Arsenio Hall, to meet Barbra Streisand and David Geffen, desperate to be loved and even more, to show he was cool. Now he is bigger than all of them, with the audience to prove it.
Here people wait in the hot sun, not even looking for shade. Women, women, women, 70 percent, 80 percent of them women. Bush-hating women from Chevy Chase, taking a break from gardening, fresh from seeing "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the nearby Avalon Theatre. African American women, from church ladies in Sunday hats to sorority girls from Howard. Budding policy wonks poring over the newspapers. Women who are unmistakably dolled up, hair teased, lots of cleavage, high-heeled polka dot mules. Then the composites, the sexy serious types, their curiosity all coiled up behind a pair of wire frame glasses.
What will she say when she gets to the front of the line?
"Other than I love you?" answers Erica Jackson, 20. "I'm just so excited I don't know what to do with myself."
But this is not what it seems. Because when Jackson was in sixth grade she announced to her class that Nelson Mandela had been released that day. She remembers every Clinton policy achievement and obscure strategic campaign victory. Because, like many sassy girls her age, her idea of celebrity is generous: Bill Clinton, Janet Jackson, Nelson Mandela, Alicia Keys.
Needless to say, people in line say they haven't read the book, at least not all 957 pages. Some have read the early chapter about his childhood and, says Marion Higgins, "it's like he's talking right to you."
But here again Clinton is tabloid star more than president. Former presidents confess their secrets in the form of religious testimonials, single incidents over which they triumph. Clinton releases them haphazardly, with cringing detail: One Easter when he was young and fat, he was sent to church in "pink and black Hush Puppies and a matching pink suede belt. It hurt." The time he started at a new school, "which I loved until I broke my leg one day."
This style is more VH1 than Ulysses S. Grant. It exemplifies the modern conundrum of the pop star: The more they reveal the more they recede into myth, and keep us guessing: Why did J. Lo break up with Ben Affleck?
Earlier this year, a former senior Clinton aide watching John Edwards work a room described the difference between the two charming southerners this way: Although both could draw in their listeners, Edwards had boundaries. He kept his audience mesmerized but at a distance, and when he left, the show was over. When Clinton left a room people felt he really might go fishing with them the next day, and Clinton believed it a little, too. The need was mutual, and, the aide said, a little pathological.
"I've heard that he makes you feel like you're the only person in the room, that he makes you feel special, like he's only talking to you," says Sharon Sullivan as she waits in line.
If this is true then a book signing is the true test. People are shuttled through, one after another, for nearly four hours. And still he managed to connect, a little. As they mentioned their uncles, cousins, bar mitzvahs, home states, "I love Montana!" he says. Or "Sure I remember him. I love that guy!"
"He just connected with anybody who said anything personal," says Carla Cohen of Politics and Prose. "It was remarkable and the customers were in seventh heaven. They just said they were so nervous and their hands were trembling and they couldn't believe it was happening."
Clinton answers one question about Edwards. Asked what Edwards would add to the ticket, he offers one bland compliment, "I like him," and then launches into strategic, state-by-state analysis of his strengths and weaknesses.
What's in it for Clinton? Why does he still walk into a room and try to win people over? Why does he still kiss all the babies?
This must be the part of Clinton who likes to be reminded that he can fix things, that people need him. Tiara Dews stood outside the bookstore in her Miss D.C. sash because she hadn't gotten a ticket to get inside. When she was 9, she tells reporters, she was chosen by the community to hand Clinton flowers as he walked down Georgia Avenue. After he took the bouquet, she chased him down the road.
"Mr. Clinton. I have so many pretty dresses in my closet," she told him. "Can I go to your inaugural ball?"
And he said: "You know what. I'll buy you the prettiest dress. And you can come," and indeed he took her shopping at Nordstrom's, bought her a dress, sent her a ticket to the ball. And to this day she hangs around his Harlem office. "Everything I do is because of what he did for me," she says. "If he knew I was out here now, I'm sure he would let me inside."
Inside, the crowds keep coming. Clinton is looking dignified in a navy suit and pink tie, trapped behind a marble counter, signing book after book with a smile, taking occasional sips of water, making small talk.
"I'm so glad you wore that," he says. And from the back one saw: a woman in a tight short dress, her hair swinging appreciatively. Did he just say that? Does the man never learn? Now this is getting good!
And then she turns around to reveal a "Bill Clinton. I still believe in a place called Hope" button.