Column: If You Come to Vermont, Hillary , I Have a Question

Sunday, April 19, 2015
Hillary Clinton’s Secret Service agents were on to me. I knew it the moment one of them began talking into a microphone hidden in his sleeve. As I maneuvered through a crowd toward Hillary, two agents advanced on me. “If you don’t leave now,” one of them, the tall one, said politely, “we’ll take you out of here.”

And so ended my chance to interview first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in Woodstock on June 18, 1993.

Or so I had thought.

In another life I was a newspaper reporter covering politics for The Rutland Herald and  T he Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. My beat included health care reform in Vermont in the early 1990s (another miserable failure). As her husband’s point person on national reform, the first lady was a key to Vermont’s success. So when she came to the Woodstock Town Hall for a major policy address on health care, I was determined to get an interview.

“Can you get me access to Hillary Clinton?” I asked Pat Leahy, Vermont’s senior U.S. Senator, a few days before her speech.

“Oh, yeah” he said, “Stick with me. I’ll get you to her.”

On that day in June, the sun shined on Woodstock — and then came a cloud: one of Hillary’s handlers, Paula, if I recall her name, who had a D.C. attitude and a well-practiced plan for the gaggle of local and national press assembled outside the town hall before the address.

“After her speech, the first lady will walk a parade route, shake hands with people,  and then meet privately with a group of Democrats at Bentley’s restaurant,” Paula told us. The TV cameras could ride a flat-bed truck beside Clinton to film the handshaking.

“So when do we get to ask her questions?” I asked.

Paula paused for a moment, sized me up and said dismissively: “There are no questions.”

“Why not?” I asked.

Paula went on to describe how the day would proceed. As I recall, the first lady would buy some maple syrup. Yeah, maple syrup. Even then, she was such a “polarizing figure.”

“We never get to ask her questions,” a  W all Street Journal reporter told me out there on the street.

In the town hall, the first lady’s speech had all the optimism and rhetoric suitable to the early days of the Clinton presidency and the Democrats’ grand (and failed) promise:  universal health care. Here’s my lead, which appeared on the front page of The Rutland Herald  the morning of June 19, 1993:

Woodstock — Linking the prosperity of the nation to the security of affordable medical care, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the federal government would help states like Vermont redesign their own health-care systems.

Addressing Democratic governors and guests packed into the Woodstock Town Hall, Mrs. Clinton suggested a “national partnership” with states in an effort to provide affordable health care for every American.

“It is clear that health-care reform is an economic issue as well as a human one,” said the first lady, leading the president’s reform effort. “We have to be able to provide the kind of security with a good job and good health care benefits that people deserve to have.”

When it was over, the first lady left backstage from a side entrance. I dashed out the front door and around to the side to find then-Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. Leahy chatting with Clinton, and all three of them surrounded by a crowd of supporters. I considered my options. Then, at one point, the humanity parted to open a narrow path between the first lady and me. So I pulled out my reporter’s pad and went for it.

Halfway there I met a Secret Service linebacker, a burley woman in a brown blazer, who blocked my route. “No press,” she said. From the sidelines, Paula the Handler saw the whole thing. Leahy, my putative wingman, was of no help.

Dejected, I wandered off to watch the parade, flat-bed truck in tow, make its way toward Bentley’s, the first lady’s next stop to meet with assembled Democrats. Bentley’s? Democrats? “Wait a minute, I said to myself, “I’m going to Bentley’s.”

Not one of the Democrats protested when I entered the private meeting room upstairs at Bentley’s. I parked myself near a window in the corner. We were all ready for Hillary, who soon arrived with her entourage. Among friends and partisans, Hillary gave a standard stem-winder speech. I think it was Billie Gosh, a savvy political insider and fundraiser, who snapped a photo of me and the surroundings. (Also in the shot were state Rep. John Freidin and state Sen. Cheryl Rivers, both, sadly, no longer in office. By the way, Rivers was the voice and force of single-payer health care in Vermont in the early 1990s. “Private health insurance is like a hospital gown,” she used to say. “You think you’re covered but you’re not.”

After Hillary’s short speech to the group, the Democrats applauded and began to queue up to greet the first lady and shake her hand. When I drifted toward the line, that secret service agent, probably alerted by Paula, confronted me — and then escorted me from the meeting room.

My interview with Hillary Clinton would never happen. Or would it?

Only when I reached the bottom of the stairs on my way out of Bentley’s did I realize that in the commotion I had left my briefcase and laptop in the meeting room. I turned to head back upstairs. But there, looming above me on the landing, was Paula, her arms crossed, saying, “Don’t even think about it.”

“I only need to get my laptop,” I said. “Really, I’ll grab it and go. I promise.”

My timing, completely accidental, was perfect. As I reached the second floor, the first lady was leaving the meeting room and shaking hands with people gathered in the hallway at the top of the stairs. The first lady smiled at me, and as we shook hands I asked her whether Vermont could get the federal waiver and support it needed from Washington to go it alone on health care reform before the Clinton plan would take effect.

No novice at this game —  not now, not then — Hillary Clinton knew immediately that she was talking to a reporter. She offered the standard rhetoric and window dressing we normally get from politicians, the routine praise for Howard Dean and prescribed enthusiasm for Vermont’s work on health care reform.

“Gov. Dean and I have been talking about that a lot,” she told me, adding that Vermont’s reform plan “is along the lines of what we’re doing anyway.”

With that she was gone, down the stairs and off, I assume, to buy some maple syrup. Paula was fuming. I dashed into the meeting room, scribbled some notes, grabbed my briefcase and was out the door, into the sunlight of Woodstock, having completed my one-question interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Actually, I blew the interview. Back in 1993, I should have asked her about Benghazi.)

Vermont’s health care reform effort would die a year later, in June of 1994. The Clinton plan (remember Harry and Louise?) passed away a few months after that. Democrats lost big in elections that fall, even here in Vermont. Rising from those ashes were Newt Gingrich and his scorched-earth politics. We’ve never recovered.

Last weekend, more than two decades after she visited Vermont, Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for the White House. Maybe, while on the campaign trail, she’ll return  to Vermont — to buy more maple syrup.

And I’ll be ready with tough questions on the new maple syrup grading system and other polarizing matters of public policy. “So where do you stand?” I’ll ask her. “Fancy or ‘Golden Color with Delicate Taste?’ ”

A newspaper reporter and editor from 1985 to 1998, Bryan Pfeiffer now studies birds and insects, and teaches writing at the University of Vermont. Find him online at

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