West Virginia Book Festival

Former president Bill Clinton (left) is introduced by U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Pa., at a campaign rally for President Obama in Pittsburgh on Monday. AP Photo by Gene J. Puskar

Did you hear about the time a former president of the United States almost came to the West Virginia Book Festival?

If not, Election Day seems like a good time to tell the story. (I wasn’t there for this bit of Book Festival history, but I heard the story several times afterward, including from one of the direct participants, so I’ve got the gist right. If not, I’m sure someone will correct me.)

It was Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007, the first day of the festival. It was also the day of the state Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner and fundraiser. The two events often coincide, but don’t clash, because the JJ Dinner is in the evening at the Marriott.

That year, though, West Virginia Democrats hooked a big fish: former president Bill Clinton. They broke all kinds of records with their ticket sales (surpassing that first-term Illinois senator who was here the previous year; whatever happened to him?).

So expecting a crowd of several thousand, the Democrats moved their event to the Civic Center, home of the Book Festival. Things were a little crowded, and as I recall, the festival got some spillover crowd from early arrivals to the Clinton event. The backstage rooms and hallways were also set up differently to accommodate the 42nd president.

Late Saturday afternoon, Secret Service agents asked Book Festival workers and attendees in a few rooms to stay where they were as the former president made his way through the hallways of the arena. Everyone agreed, and the Secret Service set up curtains along the route that Clinton was to take.

After a while, a few Book Festival workers heard approaching footsteps. I don’t know if they heard that familiar Arkansas drawl, but they knew who it was, and it was too much for one of them.

As the footsteps were nearby, she yelled (or at least said audibly), “Yay, Bill!”

The footsteps stopped. The curtains flew open.

In his best Elvis style, Bill Clinton said, “Hello, ladies.”

I gather the reaction, although enthusiastic, was more restrained than, say, a Beatles show in 1964. Clinton walked around and shook everyone’s hand. One of the workers asked if he was coming, or wanted to come, to the Book Festival.

Clinton sighed, and said, “I wish I were going to the Book Festival.”

And then he was gone, whisked off to his fundraiser.