'Friend of Bill'

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs


Paul Parish

Paul Parish, a bartender at the Faculty Club and a figure well known to many on campus, first met Bill Clinton in New Orleans in 1968, when both were named Rhodes Scholars. He appears here at the club with former Chancellor Albert Bowker.
Peg Skorpinski photo

31 January 2002 | When Elvis Presley died, Paul Parish wrote his pal Bill Clinton a long letter of condolence. “He loves Elvis,” Parish says. “He loves African American music, blues, jazz, gospel, but he loves Elvis.”

Parish, a bartender at the Faculty Club, as well as an accomplished writer, dance critic and teacher, is an “FOB,” or “friend of Bill’s.”

“Journalists started calling us that back in 1992, when the Clinton campaign caught fire and they didn’t know who he was,” Parish says. “Everywhere they found all of these old friends of Bill’s, and they found that the gang was networked and making it happen.”

FOB became the acronym for Clinton’s inner circle of friends, about 20 close friends and relatives who, by now, have known Clinton for three decades. When Clinton wants to unwind, these are people he likes to be with.

“The cool thing about Bill is that he keeps in touch with his friends,” Parish says. “He visited me here back in the late ’70s. We walked around town, he showed me the building on Derby just down from College, where he stayed one summer in the early ’70s…. After he was elected attorney general of Arkansas in 1976, I started writing him long letters, because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get through all of his handlers, and he wrote back short ones,” Parish said. “He wrote me a wonderful letter when (my) daddy died. He was already president then. I wrote to him (in 1994) when his mother died.”

Parish, who reviews modern dance and ballet for San Francisco Magazine, Ballet Review and Ballet/Tanz, first met Clinton in New Orleans in 1968, when the two were named Rhodes Scholars. As the winners were announced, Parish, a newly named scholar from Mississippi, was whisked into a room with a handful of reporters and two other recipients, one of whom was Arkansas’ Bill Clinton.

“Clinton told reporters that he was so proud to have made his mother so happy, and I could have killed him!” Parish recalls. “(Because) I was going to say the same thing.”

Only one year apart in age, the two got to know each other on the eight-day oceanliner trip from New York to England, where they joined 61 other new Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University.

Clinton had been working as an aide to Sen. William Fulbright, one of his childhood heroes, who encouraged him to apply for the scholarship. Parish remembers that Clinton was an astute student and observer of the Vietnam War; he could listen to Clinton pontificate for hours.

“He knew more about the Vietnam War than 99 percent of Americans and probably 99 percent of Congress,” Parish says. “And he was a great storyteller. Very interested in knowing what makes people tick.”

Parish enjoyed Clinton’s wit, and their friendship grew at Oxford. He had a penchant for great literature too, Parish says. “He could quote you yards of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky. And he’s a really warm guy, a truly great guy. Intuitive, like his mother.

“He sent my mother a postcard once, to keep her informed about my progress at Oxford, and wrote that at a croquet match at Oxford, the competition was so afraid of me that they didn’t show up,” Parish laughs. “Of course that wasn’t true.”

Clinton left Oxford after two years, while Parish stayed for the full three years of study abroad. Back in the U.S., Clinton kept in touch with Parish and his family, and visited Parish’s parents in Port Gibson, Miss., while Parish was overseas.

Parish stills sees his old friend from time to time, usually for a quick meal together on Clinton’s way out of town.

“It’s always a last-minute thing,” Parish says. “Usually I’ll hear from Willie Fletcher (a Berkeley law professor), who is also part of ‘the gang,’ that Bill wants to see us, and we’ll have breakfast or go over to his hotel for a few hours in the evening.”

The last time he saw Clinton, about four months ago, the former president was wearing his “Stanford Dad” t-shirt. They dined at Postrio restaurant in San Francisco.

“He’s really a proud father,” Parish says.


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