Hail to the Kinkster

What's the one thing George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have in common? They both have the political savvy to call me a friend.

ALONG WITH BERNARD BARUCH, BILLY GRAHAM, AND JESSE JACKSON, I belong to a small, tight-knit fraternity whose members are known primarily for being a friend of presidents’. Baruch died in 1965, so unless they dig him up and use him as a hand puppet, he can safely be said to be out of circulation. Graham is barely ambulatory these days, though he did speak recently at the National Cathedral. They tell me he still talks regularly with God. Jackson has not been welcome by the current administration, partly because of his personal scandals and partly because his voice is too loud. That leaves me with the sometimes awesome, sometimes humbling burden of being the only active professional friend of presidents this country has left. How did I attain this lofty position? How the hell should I know?

I was just minding my business one day seven years ago, promoting my latest mystery novel at a book-signing in Austin at Barnes and Noble. I had just told the crowd that the reading and signing were free, but there would be a two-latte minimum. A guy came up to me and said, “Sign one for the president.” I didn’t think the book was really going to Bill Clinton, so I signed one of my standard inscriptions, “Yours in Christ” or “See you in hell,” and forgot all about it.

Two weeks later the postmaster in Medina brought me an express envelope and said in an excited tone, “Kinky, you’ve got a letter from the White Horse Saloon! You know, that place in Nashville where they do all that line dancing!” I looked at the envelope. It did not say “White Horse.” It said “White House.” Inside the envelope was a letter from President Clinton, and at the bottom he had written, “I have now read all of your books—more please—I really need the laughs.”

That was the beginning of a three-year pen-pal relationship, during which we discussed many things, from foreign affairs to more metaphysical matters. Regarding Israel, the former president wrote, “I appreciate what [your father] said about my friendship to Israel—I have to do it. Jesus was there too, you know!” And speaking of why there are mostly white pigeons in Hawaii, land of mostly brown-skinned people, and dark-colored pigeons in New York, land of mostly white-skinned people, Bill wrote, “The white pigeons are in Hawaii and the dark pigeons are in New York because God seeks balance in all things. People seek logic and symmetry, which are different.”

Our friendship culminated in January 1997, when the president invited my father and me to the White House. The event was a gala dinner for more than two hundred people, several of whom commented rather negatively about my wearing a black cowboy hat in the White House, but I didn’t let it bother me. At first I couldn’t find my name at a table setting, but when I did, I was surprised to discover that the card next to mine read “The President.” Once I sat down, people stopped bitching about the cowboy hat. They said, “Who is that interesting man from Texas sitting next to the president?”

Sherry Lansing, then the president of Paramount Pictures, said that Bill had mentioned to her that my books would make wonderful movies. “But who,” she asked, “do you see playing Kinky?” “I see Lionel Richie,” I said. Negotiations broke down from there. Before I left the White House that night, as a token of my gratitude, I gave Bill a Cuban cigar. I told him, “Mr. President, don’t think of it as supporting their economy—think of it as burning their fields.”

I first met George W. Bush about four years ago at the Texas Book Festival. At the time, he was just thinking about running for president, and I was just thinking about having another Chivas Regal. In a flash of misguided inspiration, I had taken Larry McMurtry’s unclaimed name tag and slapped it on. In a matter of moments people were coming up to me and telling me how much they admired my work. Not wanting to burst their bubble, and fairly hammered by then, I played along. “You’ve done so much for Texas, Mr. McMurtry,” one lady told me. “Thank you kindly,” I replied. The governor, having witnessed this little exchange, eyed me quizzically.

“Look, Governor,” I said. “McMurtry’s a shy little booger. He’d never do this for himself. I’m just helping the old boy out with a little PR” George laughed and whispered something to several of his aides, leading me to believe I was soon to be 86’ed from the affair. But nothing happened. I asked one of the aides what he’d said, and he told me that the governor had said, “I want that guy for my campaign manager.”

A few years later I got the first and only job I’ve ever had in my life, writing for Texas Monthly. My maiden column, titled “All Politics Is Yokel,” was about my failed race for justice of the peace in 1986 in Kerrville. Out of the blue I received a letter from Camp David. The folks at the Medina post office knew there wasn’t any line dancing at Camp David, so they were duly impressed. The newly elected president thanked me for mentioning his name in the column and for doing so “without any curse words.” He invited me to visit him and Laura at the White House, saying of Washington, “This place can sure benefit by laughing—and you make us laugh.” At the bottom of the letter he wrote a P.S.: “Are you running again for J.P.?”

I wrote George back and told him I had four dogs, four women, and four editors, and could he check with Laura and let me know if the four dogs and the four women could sleep with me in the Lincoln bedroom? The answer to my query came back promptly. “I don’t know about the women,” George wrote, “but the four dogs, maybe.”

Some might ask, particularly

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