In his no-holds-barred memoir On Air, one of Australia’s most high-profile media figures, Mike Carlton, 72, tells the story of a colourful career in journalism spanning more than half a century.
In the following exclusive extract, the award-winning radio presenter takes us inside his 1996 meeting with the leader of the free world…
On a yacht with the most powerful man in the world
Bill Clinton was working the room like crazy. He moved from table to table, grinning broadly, pumping hands, clapping a friendly arm around the occasional shoulder, listening earnestly, throwing his head back in gusts of laughter.
I had never seen anything quite like it. Of Australian politicians, only Bob Hawke could come anywhere near him in the touchy-feely stakes, and then a fairly distant second. I was watching an artist at work.
The invitation had come embossed with the Australian coat of arms: ‘Dinner in honour of the Honourable William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States of America, and Mrs Clinton. Aboard Aussie One, Sydney Harbour Cruise, Wednesday November 20, 1996. Dress: smart casual.’
Our hosts would be the Honourable John Howard MP, Prime Minister of Australia, and Mrs Howard. It was the hottest ticket in town. Clinton was on an official presidential visit, but there was a lot of socialising.
Aussie One was a big white catamaran with a saloon large enough to seat around 150 people, usually employed carting tourists on sightseeing trips around the harbour.
On a cool spring evening we queued to board her at Darling Harbour: cabinet ministers and senior politicians, a few corporate tycoons, sporting names, a handful of selected media hacks.
There was a buzz of excited chatter as we passed through metal detectors and got the once-over from both the Australian Federal Police and the US Secret Service. Normally such a high-octane guest list would be the very epitome of cool, blasé even, but not this time.
The 42nd president and his wife were hot, and we were agog to see them, like kids on a school excursion. They came on board with the Howards at the wharf below Admiralty House, Clinton in a dark-blue blazer, pullover and open-necked check shirt.
A few steps behind him came a US Navy lieutenant commander in full uniform, neat as a pin but unsmiling, one hand clutching a black leather briefcase. The codes! She was guarding the famous ‘football’, as it’s nicknamed in Washington, containing whatever it is that a president needs to instantly launch thermonuclear war around the globe. Food for thought there.
We glided eastwards down the harbour, sipping champagne before we were called to sit at tables of eight places each. I kept the menu as a souvenir: wattle seed and buckwheat blinis, tartlet of Atlantic salmon, peking duck crepes, rare beef on rye, and more for starters.
The main course was billed as ‘Australian crayfish tails, served with prawns, scallops, oysters and cold smoked ocean trout, baby leaves and vegetable salad’. Your choice of a Leeuwin Estate chardonnay or a Mountadam cabernet/sauvignon/merlot. Howard made a brief speech of welcome, and Clinton replied.
We were into the ‘great Australian cheeseboard’ and somewhere off Taronga Zoo when the president got to his feet unprompted and began to circle the saloon. He came to the nearest table, where I was sitting.
‘Hi. Bill Clinton. How you doing?’ He extended a hand. I shook it, trying to rise from my seat. As you do.
‘Mike Carlton. How are you?’
‘I’m fine. Siddown, siddown. Great to meet you. Anything you guys want to ask me? Anything at all.’ He grinned. His face was pink and boyish, the hair silver-grey.
It is a stunning thing to realise that you are one-on-one with the Most Powerful Man on the Planet, or the Leader of the Free World, or the Occupant of the Oval Office, or whatever other cliché you want to employ. And he wants to speak to you. A couple of people at the table were literally dumbstruck by this apparition.
Trained to talk under wet cement, I leaped into the breech. I should have asked about his reckless expansion of NATO up to the Russian border, a provocative and unnecessary piece of triumphalism that had cruelled relations between Washington and Moscow.
But I thought of that question only as I am writing now, Diderot’s esprit de l’escalier 20 years too late. Wanting Bill to love me, I kept it light.
‘Mr President, I understand you played rugby at Oxford. Would you tell us about that?’
He gave a big Arkansas guffaw. ‘Well, I was no good at it. Didn’t know the rules or how to play. But I was big, bigger than most of the guys. So they just pushed me out on the field and said, “Bill, you get on out there and break heads.” Which I did. I enjoyed it, but I was no good.’
The table laughed. I remember that conversation pretty much verbatim because that’s what I do. It was far as I got. Clinton – my mate Bill – was already gliding smoothly to his next chat, as politicians will. A National Party MP wanted to ask him about beef exports or something.
It was a masterclass in the art of the schmooze, and I have never seen anyone better at it. Clinton had the gift of making you feel he’d been waiting all day to meet you, a remarkable facility. For more than an hour he circled around, chatting to everyone in the room.
I went out on deck and had a word to the trim lieutenant commander who held the future of the world in her hands.
‘Can I get you a drink?’ She gave me an icy glare, as if she had just been propositioned by Yasser Arafat.
‘No, thank you.’
Back inside, Hillary Rodham Clinton was not doing as well as her husband. She looked bored, summoning up a mechanical smile as required, but not engaging.
The word was that she and Janette Howard had not exactly hit it off at a women’s afternoon tea that day at the Opera House. Hillary had wanted to meet movers and shakers, policy people who shared her interests.
Janette had lumbered her with stuffy Liberal matrons. Seated glumly at her table in the Aussie One saloon, she looked like the wife who wanted to leave the party but didn’t have the car keys.
On Air by Mike Carlton, (RRP $49.99, Penguin Random House). Available now from all bookstores and online retailers.