Thursday 8th December

Clown in town? Have gone with missing President (7)

It is not every day you get to play golf against the former President of the USA. I didn’t even have it on my Bucket list! Since his extraordinary offer to come and play, I have been assuming that the re-count in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin would inevitably intervene and the great man would send his presidential regrets or that he would suddenly regain possession of his senses and pull a sickie. But the fateful day has arrived and neither of these things has happened. It is to be a “low key” visit we are told, strictly no fanfares and the ex-President will take care of all his own security. Vlad the Impaler has somehow failed to have the whole thing cancelled. Word has it that Bill Clinton is in the country, although no one at Univ is too sure where, and he will show up at Frilford Heath Golf Club at the designated hour, mashie niblick in hand.

It is a surprisingly mild December morning and the serried ranks of stormclouds that have marched across Southern England depositing their freight have temporarily found better things to do. One of Frilford’s three courses has been set aside for our exclusive usage and a set of tee-times established. I am to play as part of a threesome with Clinton and the former Master of University College, Lord Houseman, himself an ex-member of Frilford as well as a rugby blue (on this day in 1959; indeed, he’s missing the Varsity Match today in order to be here) when it was possible for ordinary mortals weighing less than 18 stone to aspire to the Varsity XV.

I am far from sure I’m looking forward to this particular golf game in such illustrious company. It is always a privilege to play with Bob Houseman, himself a USPGA founder member, although even now I still feel I have to mind my p’s and q’s. But the former President of America? What on earth should I call him? How can I hide my true feelings about Iraq, American foreign policy and the recent farcical Presidential election?

I try to ease the tension in my shoulders by swinging my three wood to and fro. All the other threesomes have long since departed from the first tee on Frilford’s Red Course. At last the Presidential buggies trundle down the damp path from the clubhouse, while the Master, pulling his own ancient trolley, struggles to keep pace.

“Ah, Alex, can I introduce you to Bill Clinton? He used to be something big in the States.” There is a little polite laughter from the great man. “Mr President, Alex Hogg used to be one of our most talented young Eng Lit prospects and now we’re lucky enough to have him in the Development Office. And he’s a bit of a bandit off a nineteen handicap.”

“Yes, we’ve spoken on the phone, Bob. I am particularly looking forward to Alex’s company round your fine course.” My adequately-sized hand is enveloped in the huge American paw – not quite the full body grip – and I am treated to the orthodontic miracle of the 1000-megawatt presidential smile. “I hope you’ll go easy on a couple of old buffers like us?”

“Well, it’s just a social event really. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Oxfordshire’s finest course. Should I call you Mr President too?”

“That’s way too formal. Just call me Bill. It sure is good to be back in God’s own country! What’s the handicap situation?”

“I’m off 16 these days,” admits the Master, “and Alex plays off 19. What shall we put you down for?”

“24 sounds about right. What would you say, Dwayne?”

Clinton gestures to the thick-set man in dark glasses gripping the wheel of the buggy behind. Security, no doubt. The big man grunts non-committally.

“You’re not a 12-handicapper these days then?” asks Bob.

“Officially, yes, but it’s a different game on your British courses and I hardly get the chance to practise nowadays.”

The Master winks ostentatiously at Alex.

“24 it is, then. Perhaps you’d like to show us the way?”

Univ’s most distinguished alumnus removes the tea-cosy from his chosen weapon. His driver is about nine feet long and has a head the size of a football. Clinton essays a few tentative swings.

“Kryptonite,” he explains. “Half the weight of conventional titanium and diamond-hard. I had the guys at NASA run a few tests on it. Even Jordan Spieth will be using it one day.”

“We’re seriously impressed,” I assure him. Perhaps this is going to be fun after all.

After a few final adjustments to his glove and his visor. Bill draws the club back in an enormous arc. There is a blur of kryptonite, an explosion of turf and a few muttered oaths as the little white ball dribbles off the left edge of the tee and into the bushes. Then there is an embarrassed silence.

“Damn, damn, damn!” Clinton mutters. “I’m going to have to use one of my mulligans. I was hoping to save those for later.”

“A mulligan?” I ask involuntarily, trying not to snigger.

Clinton carefully tees up a second ball an extra inch off the ground.

“You’ve heard of mulligans, surely? If you shout “mulligan”, you get to play the shot again without penalty.” His second strike disappears into the gorse on the right. “Mulligan!”

“I can see I’ve had a very sheltered upbringing,” I sigh.

At the third attempt, the vast club head makes satisfactory contact with its target and the ball exocets 300 yards up the fairway, not far short of the green. It should be an easy par from there. The Master and I drive off in more conventional fashion and the round is under way.

“You’re surely not going to carry those clubs, are you, Alex? Why not stick them in the back of the buggy and take a ride with me?”

“That’s a very kind offer, er, Bill, but golf is just about the only exercise I get these days. I’ll walk, thanks.”

“You should try jogging, Alex. How do you think I stay looking forty-two?” he twinkled.

Botox and a regular nasal hair wax, I would guess, but I don’t feel I know him well enough yet to offer such an opinion.

“What is your academic area, Alex?” Clinton asks as he motors briskly down the first fairway.

“This and that. Victorian stuff mostly. And a Spanish woman called St Teresa of Avila.”

“Hey, wasn’t she the gal who was famous for her wet dreams?”

“That’s one way of putting it,” I agree reluctantly.

“And now you’re putting the screws on old members?”

“I’m developing Alumni relations in a variety of interesting ways, one of which happens to involve donations and legacies.” This seems to be a little defensive. What have I got to lose after all? “And what do you do for a living, Bill?”

Clinton pretends to take my question seriously.

“You mean since the White House? Well, I lecture a bit. I act as an unpaid ambassador for my country. I write my memoirs and support Hillary. I still chase the girls but I’m too slow to catch them these days.”

“Unless you’re driving a buggy, I take it. Have you got a licence for that thing?”

Bill’s laugh booms across the misty fairway. But his chip to the first green is hopelessly topped. It races through the green and into the undergrowth beyond. I know from experience that there is no hope of playing it from the tangle of weeds and gorse roots there. Surely he will call for another mulligan?

The Master comes over to help us search for the ball and the presidential minder even emerges from his own buggy. I glimpse a gun-sized bulge in his hip pocket. I happen to look across at exactly the moment when a pristine white ball emerges from the minder’s trouser leg and rolls across a small patch of relatively clear ground amidst a sprinkling of dead leaves.

“Is this it, Mr Clinton?” he drawls.

“Well done, Dwayne. Where would I be without you?”

The man in dark glasses keeps his own counsel on that one. Clinton fetches his pitching wedge and lobs the unblemished ball back onto the green, oblivious to the heather crushed under his left boot. He ambles cheerfully onto the putting surface. By the time he has marked his ball a few times, it has moved so close to the hole that it is no surprise when he one-putts for his four.

“Let’s see, is that three or four Stableford points?” he asks.

The first hole is an accurate foretaste of what is to come. Clinton needs several mulligans to get him through the first few holes but it is not that long before he begins to play like the erratic 12-handicapper the Master knows him to be. As he has claimed 24 shots, his Stableford score grows at what would have been an embarrassing rate to any other player.

On two occasions, he “finds” his ball in a convenient spot some thirty yards away from where it has penetrated the undergrowth. To me it is all hugely comical but the Master seems to be simply embarrassed. There is just a chance he will ask the American to play up and play the game and then perhaps we will have an international incident on our hands.

“Written any good reports lately, Bob?” Clinton asks as we make our way down the seventh fairway. I take this as a reference to the Houseman Report on the origins of the second Iraq War, a report that had raked over the entire WMD dung-heap with multi-pronged acuity.

“One was quite enough,” Lord Houseman observes quietly. “No one took a blind bit of notice anyway. How long did we spend in Afghanistan?”

The sensible thing would have been to have left it there but I have some strong views on Iraq and it seems a shame to waste them.

“The British press has never really forgiven Tony Blair for that one, have they?”

Lord Houseman takes this as a personal affront.

“They don’t seem to realise that our system of government is as good as any in the world. But it’s a fragile asset. If we throw too many stones at it, we could find ourselves with a government that is incomparably worse, led by some rabble-rousing populist with no political experience. As you’ve found yourselves …”

“And that justifies the months of propaganda, the distortion of military intelligence, the bugging of Kofi Annan and Hans Blix ….”

“That wasn’t us, that was ….”

“The Americans?” chips in Clinton as he emerges from his buggy once more and measures the distance to the pin with his smartphone.

“Well, you tell me!”

“I couldn’t possibly comment!” laughs Clinton. “Thank God I’m beyond all that now. You’ve no idea how much more pleasurable life is when you don’t have to walk down the street surrounded by a team of bodyguards.”

“So who’s the big guy in the rather menacing shades?” I ask.

“Oh, Dwayne, he’s more of a friend than a bodyguard. But he does look out for me, I guess.”

“Has no one ever had a pop at you?”

“I’ve been lucky. When you think what happened to Jack and Bobby. No, if someone was going to bump me off, they’d’ve done it years ago. It’s the good lady I’m most worried about. But she’s got a thick skin!”

Once again Clinton’s laugh can be heard in Wiltshire. “But you can’t spend your whole life watching your back. It doesn’t half cramp your style with the ladies as well.”

Perhaps distracted by his own locker-room banter, Clinton tops an attempted pitch but his ball skips conveniently up to the green and pulls up about six feet from the flag.

“Did you have any girlfriends while you were at Oxford?” I can’t believe I have just asked that question.

“Dozens!” he booms. “Back in the summer of ’69, as my old pal Bryan Adams still sings, there was no shortage of free love. Yes, the summer of soixante-neuf, if you’ll pardon my French. But the kids don’t seem to be wearing flowers in their hair any more. Back then …. don’t tell anyone but I even had a bit of a thing going with Marge from the office. Marge still works at Univ, doesn’t she, Bob? Lovely slim young thing.”

“Margot Hesmondhalgh!” It is the Master’s turn to laugh. “She’s a very well-upholstered and respectable middle-aged woman now, Bill. Truth to tell, she runs the college these days and I’m not sure she’d want to be reminded of any such youthful indiscretions.”

“My lips are sealed. And I remember some honey from one of the women’s colleges – gee, what was her name? Just a one-night stand and it all ended rather messily but she was a peach.”

“It’s a shame your autobiography doesn’t say too much about your love life at Oxford,” I suggest as Clinton drains his six-footer.

I should have known this moment was coming. How could I have been so dim? My anagnorisis comes on the tricky 16th. Bob Houseman hooks his tee-shot short and a long way left. Clinton’s drive traverses the canyon that lies between the tee and the fairway but then slices viciously into a copse of sycamores to the right of a bunker where my own ball has landed. There will almost certainly be no shot to the green from there – at least, not until Clinton finds his ball somewhere else altogether.

“I can show you exactly where that has gone,” I say.

“That would be very kind, Alex. Hop in!”

For once, I accept the proffered lift. The buggy is parked next to the bunker and I lead him into the dark glade, pointing to a ball nestling in a clump of twigs. Dwayne waits by the fairway, just out of earshot.

“Alex, are you carrying some kind of recording equipment? A camera, maybe?”

I am genuinely surprised by the question.

“No, of course not! Why would you think that?”

“You know what, I believe you! Dwayne has run a few tests. So we can talk frankly, off the record. What have you got on me, Alex?”

“I … I …”

“What information do you have that you think is so damaging that I would be prepared to write a big cheque just to keep you quiet?”

Even in the darkness of the glade, Clinton’s piercing gaze pins me back. I have no idea what to say.

“I was a very young man in 1969, Alex. One or two people at Univ got the wrong idea, altogether. Who have you been talking to? The old Master? The Senior Tutor?”

“I don’t want to …”

“No, I’m sure you don’t. A lot of folk have tried to blackmail me over the course of a long career in politics. It’s not going to work. There isn’t a shred of evidence to back up the stories you’ve heard. If you or anyone else connected with University College says a word out of turn, well, there will be consequences.”

“Consequences?”

“Consequences. I think you know what I mean. Now let us finish our game of golf in a civilised manner. I think my ball is still moving …”

And with that Clinton applies a hefty left boot to his Titleist Pro Vi-x and the ball skitters out of the undergrowth and back on to the short grass next to the bunker. From there, Clinton plays nervelessly onto the green while I miss the ball completely in my attempt to splash out from the sand. Somehow my mind is not quite on the game any more.

The round draws to a close. The Master’s golf is simple but effective, generating 35 Stableford points, while mine plumbs new depths of incompetency. I am flattered by a score of 20 points. Clinton, on the other hand, has buggied his way from one cropped gorse bush to another and yet always come out smelling of rhododendrons.

The combination of a generous handicap, numerous mulligans in the early stages, some presidential ‘good fortune’ in the rough and a late burst of form means that he will finish with a score of 51 Stableford points – a notional 15 shots inside his handicap.

“Do you think 52 points will be enough?” Clinton asks as Lord Houseman is signing his scorecard.

“51, Bill. I can’t sign for any more than that. Will it win? Put it this way, I don’t think anyone has ever scored more than 38 in the history of the USPGA. So you may be in with a chance.”

“I guess I just got lucky,” he grins. “Still, only a game, eh? I have to get home to the grandchildren but Dwayne will be around to pick up the trophy.”

It has been an extraordinary encounter. Will I go down in Univ history as the man who accidentally blackmailed President Clinton? Should I send him a sworn affidavit that I’ll never bug him again. Will he decide, on reflection, that I am simply too big a threat and must be “dealt with”? Will a couple of heavies turn up on December 30th with a set of concrete overshoes? Right now, it does seem the most likely cause of my imminent unexplained demise.

But what has he got to be so embarrassed about? Clinton, famously, did not inhale in his student days. No one would be at all surprised if it turned out that he had indulged in a few illicit substances … well, who didn’t, back in the summer of soixante-neuf? I google ‘Bill Clinton Oxford 1969’ and there is surprisingly little there. Surely even the Presidential machine would be unable to airbrush its way across the vast prairies of e-history?

What would the Master and the Senior Tutor have told me? Back in 1968, the Tutor for Admissions was the late John Albery, a Chemistry Fellow who eventually became Master and persuaded Clinton to come back for a high-profile visit in 1994, a few years before his daughter, Chelsea, also studied at the college. Did Albery know where the skeletons were buried? What about Douglas Millin, the voluble Porter who figures so prominently in Clinton’s memoirs? Why did they have a private meeting in Clinton’s old rooms in Helen’s Court in 1994? Was Clinton checking that some inconvenient secrets had been quietly forgotten?

I scour My Life for clues. Clinton had won a Rhodes Scholarship and was scheduled to take his finals in PPE in June 1970. Yet “soon after [he] arrived in Oxford”, for no clear reason, he is deflected from his structured undergraduate degree onto the altogether more nebulous B.Litt. in Politics, entailing a 50,000 word thesis. Then he switches again, to a B. Phil., also in Politics, and after that all pretence at study seems to have been quietly abandoned.

Later there is the small matter of the draft and Clinton’s enrolment, in the Summer of ’69, at the law school linked to the Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Arkansas. Was that simply a draft-dodging ruse? Clinton evaded the one-way ticket to Saigon all that summer and, at the last possible moment, negotiated a deferral of his law school placement in order to return for his second year at Univ. Clearly, he was a lot safer in Europe and, by the end of 1969, with the introduction of a ballot (for a reduced number of draftees), the spectre of conscription had retreated altogether.

But the second year at Oxford was purely notional. Clinton found digs with some of his American pals in a Leckford Rd “commune” but does not seem to have set foot in college much after September ’69, taking the opportunity to further his education in Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm and a variety of other European capitals.

His Grand Tour took him from Helsinki to Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then known) at the very end of the calendar year, following much the same route as Lenin himself back in 1917 and Lee Harvey Oswald in 1959. There are brief mentions of term-time lectures but no name-check of Univ or its denizens at all. It is as if he no longer has a college – is there an untold story there? A drugs-bust on Hyde Park, perhaps? Was there some sort of drama in mid-’69 which resulted in the bearded American being hauled up in front of the college authorities and told to do one? Was it even possible for a college to send down a Rhodes Scholar? It would have caused major diplomatic ructions.

The truth would probably have been much fuzzier. Perhaps the college told him he was ‘no longer welcome’ and Clinton told them there was no point in expelling him because he had been drafted and was off to law school anyway. Did he dodge the bullet in Oxford too? Was he allowed back in autumn 1969 on the clear understanding that he would no longer darken the doors of University College?

I find a book called Naughty Boys: Ten Rogues of Oxford by Rob Walters. Clinton is one of the ten, along with the likes of Shelley and Howard Marks, the drug-smuggler, an earlier occupant of Clinton’s house in Leckford Rd. Walters collates a number of tales told about Clinton’s time in Oxford including a story that appears in former FBI Agent, Gary Aldrich’s book, Unlimited Access (1998) about an accusation of sexual impropriety made against the young Rhodes Scholar. Surely Clinton doesn’t think I have the inside story on that?The story was embellished by the infamous but influential website Capitol Hill Blue whose journalists headed for England in search of a scoop. The ‘victim’ was traced but declined to co-operate, desperate to preserve some element of privacy. So I will not repeat her name here.

Without her testimony, it is hard to establish the story’s veracity. Clinton has not sued Aldrich, Walters, Capitol Hill Blue or any of the other gossipmongers, but I’m wary of giving it much credence. One thing I do feel sure about is that if the college bigwigs had heard of such an accusation, they would have taken a very dim view indeed. Rhodes Scholar or not, the young American would have been told in no uncertain terms that he was now persona non grata.

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