How a frustrating morning led to a presidential powwow

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 12, 2008

By Kevin Chiri

Imagine my surprise when I got an early morning phone call from Danny Becnel on Friday, asking if I could drop what I was doing and jump in the car with him to head to Dillard University.

Former President Bill Clinton was about to speak there, part of a day-long zip across South Louisiana as he campaigned for Hillary, since the Louisiana presidential primary was on Saturday.

Even though I am a Republican, it is still very interesting to get to meet some of Danny’s big political friends, such as the previous trips he took me to New Orleans for when he was backing the likes of John Edwards and others.

But the chance to meet Clinton, which would have happened since I was going with Danny, was still enticing. The only problem is that Friday and Tuesday mornings are our deadline time when we are getting our paper finished, and being a small staff as we are, I just didn’t think I could get away. So I very reluctantly had to decline.

No sooner did I hang up the phone than I began trying to figure out how I could work it out, and within 10 minutes I had gotten enough people to help out here at L’Observateur. I quickly called Danny back, but he was already on the other side of St. Charles Parish.

Darn it! Danny suggested I try to find my way down to Dillard since the speech didn’t start until 9:30, but I knew that wasn’t as easy as going with Danny, who knew the drive down there like the back of his hand.

So again I let him know I probably wouldn’t be making it, and I figured that was the end of it.

As I got to work on our paper, I was still aggravated that I wasn’t able to get in on that trip, and about an hour later, the phone rings again, with the infamous Mr. Becnel on the other line.

Now anyone who knows Danny knows that he never beats around the bush with what he wants, or in what he may be planning and want to tell you about. But I was still a bit surprised when I heard the next thing out of his mouth.

“If I get President Clinton to stop in LaPlace, can you be ready to meet him in about an hour?” I was asked.

A bit stunned, I assured Danny I could be ready and he should just call and let me know when and where.

I hung up, went into overdrive at work, and started getting ready for what would eventually be one of my more interesting mornings as a newspaper guy.

The next thing I did was call my wife and ask if she wanted to meet President Clinton. Also the good Republican as myself, it didn’t make any difference since she also valued the opportunity to meet any president. And as a homeschool mom, she hustled our 12-year-old son out of school and they headed this way, making it a field trip from their home classroom for the day.

I got a call from one of Danny’s lawyers at his office, and was told to get out to Bully’s Halfway House on Highway 51 near the interstate. Upon getting there, I saw Devon Becnel, one of Danny’s sons, along with his wife Toni, and my buddy Kevin Klibert, one of Danny’s attorneys from his office.

Obviously the word about Clinton coming to town wasn’t getting around just yet. But the excitement didn’t take long to begin brewing when we saw one sheriff’s office car after another pulling in. All total, there ended up being at least a dozen cars from the St. John Sheriff’s Office, which made a nice reception area for what would eventually be Clinton’s entourage.

So the wait began. Of course being a former president, you don’t keep any exact schedule, and we all would have been surprised to see Clinton pull in right on time. And when he finally showed up about an hour or more late, it didn’t actually seem too bad.

During that wait, it was amazing to see how quickly the word was getting around. From many public officials to others who got a call as friends of friends, the parking lot began to fill up.

Suddenly we got the word that the president had just gotten off the interstate and was about to be here, and sure enough, there comes an impressive stretch of vehicles coming down the road, led by none other than Danny Becnel himself, zooming in first to the parking lot in his black Mercedes.

Right behind him came a half dozen more cars, and out of the first black SUV we suddenly hear a loud cheer go up from the small crowd as Clinton gets out of the car. Dressed in a casual looking shirt and tie with no jacket, the former president looked every bit the part of the guy we have all heard so much about. He was as relaxed as could be from the moment he got out of the car, clearly eating up the attention he obviously enjoys so much.

Maybe 100 people had gotten the word that out of nowhere, a former president was about to make a quick stop in LaPlace, but the group made up for its lack of numbers with enthusiasm for Clinton, and clearly made sure he felt appreciated.

St. John Sheriff Wayne Jones got plenty of time with Clinton, who then posed for pictures with Jones and a pack of his officers. Jones said he thanked Clinton for passing a bill during his administration that helped provide over $300,000 for local law enforcement agencies, and helped St. John add 16 new officers at the time.

But otherwise, there was no official chatter for Clinton and anyone else. Forget any official press conference, or talking with the press. This was Bill Clinton at his best, just rubbing elbows with the common folk, shaking as many hands as he could, and always giving them a sincere hello as he looked in their face with that twinkle in his eye.

One thing you can’t deny is that Clinton is a charismatic man who people seem to feel comfortable around. And as for the former president, he obviously enjoys the attention he gets, as much as the people enjoy what he gives back.

Clinton made sure to make several rounds in the parking lot, took a quick step into the restaurant at Bully’s to say hello, then headed back for his car as he took off for stops in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, hoping to help his wife win the Louisiana primary.

In between, he took a moment to stop and shake my son’s hand, put his arm around him and ask his name, clearly slowing down for a moment to give a 12-year-old a thrill he would never forget. Thankfully his dad was ready with the camera to get some pictures.

And perhaps lost in all this commotion was the simple fact that Danny Becnel obviously convinced the president to stop in LaPlace, despite no such appearance ever being planned.

For those who wonder how close Becnel has become to some of those people running for president, this day left no question about it. I mean, how many people could have asked a former president to “stop in my town and say hello to some friends on your way to Baton Rouge,” and the answer would be, “sure.”

It just left me wondering what might have been different had I caught the ride with Danny to Dillard on Friday morning. Did that actually have anything to do with Danny getting Clinton to stop in LaPlace? I guess now we’ll never know. All I can say is that for this one time, I sure was glad I was sidelined here in the office. Otherwise I might never have gotten such a good chance to photograph Clinton up close, and with so many of our own St. John people.

That made it a day I, nor many others, will soon forget.

Kevin Chiri is Publisher of L’Observateur and can be reached at (985) 652-9545 or at