Chautauqua conversations: For Clinger, a comfortable presence on the grounds

Sitting on the porch of Bill Clinger’s traditional Chautauqua cottage near the lake on the south end of the grounds, it was very easy to relax in the company of this accomplished former congressman from northwestern Pennsylvania whose Chautauqua lineage is much longer than most.

Clinger just seems to fit the Institution like a glove. Tall and soft-spoken, he lives during the off-season in Alexandria, Virginia, and remains involved in numerous activities in Washington, D.C., years after retiring from the House of Representatives.

A former chairman of the Institution’s Board of Trustees, he presided over several critical board decisions — including the appointment of current president, Tom Becker.

His wife and partner for over 62 years, Judy, joined our conversation.

Bill: I was born in Warren, Pennsylvania, in 1929. I went to local schools there until finishing high school at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. After that, I wanted very much to attend Amherst College, and applied only there and to Johns Hopkins. I was abysmal at mathematics so I didn’t get in at Amherst, but Johns Hopkins accepted me and that’s where I went. I fell in love with Hopkins. I still work at the university.

My family had a place at Chautauqua, and I spent entire summers here working at The Chautauquan Daily. I worked for four summers at the Daily. We had a staff of about four in those days — including the editor, a critic and two reporters, of which I was one.

I met my wife at Chautauqua. This was the summer before my senior year. She was going steady with someone else. I was supposedly going steady with someone …

Judy: This guy actually had two people pinned at the same time!

Bill: I guess I wasn’t a very reliable beau. [Both laugh.] By the end of the summer, that other stuff was all off.

Judy: I was a model at the art school. I sat there and people sketched my face. That was the only thing I could get. It was something to do. My sister was at the art school, and I think she got me the job. I did love the morning lectures; they are still our favorite part of Chautauqua.

But, as I wandered around the grounds, I sensed this presence behind me. He is tall, so it was hard for him to be very discreet.

Bill: I was stalking her. Then, later on, some aunts of ours thought we should get together — that she should actually come after me. I covered the morning lectures, and when I next saw her at the Amphitheater, it was the morning after the night before, and I hardly felt presentable. But I guess we survived.

I inherited Chautauqua. My family goes back a long ways here. I admire the people who want to come here and really steep themselves in the intellectual atmosphere; I can’t honestly say that I did that.

My grandmother was actually here for the first assembly in 1874. Her cottage was right behind where we are sitting. I used to come and visit her from Warren, for about a week or two in the summertime. I hated the place. I didn’t really like Chautauqua at all. She would send me off to the Boys’ Club, which was full of cliques, so if you were only here for a week, you were really out of it. I really didn’t take to Chautauqua at all.

The only reason I came back was because I really wanted to be a journalist. I tried to get what we now call internships all over the place, in Meadville, Jamestown, etc., but no takers. Then I interviewed up here and they said, “OK, we can use you.” I never turned out to be a newspaperman, but I guess I became a Chautauquan.

When I got out of college, the country was in the Korean War. I knew I would have to serve, and thought I would be better off in a ship than in a foxhole. I got into the Naval Reserve in Jamestown, and went off to boot camp. I wound up getting commissioned as an officer, and I had an intelligence specialty. I served four-and-a-half years in the Navy, including a stretch in Morocco. We were married by then and Judy came with me.

After the Navy, I was still interested in journalism, and actually got an offer from The New York Times as a stringer for $35 a week. But, by then, we were expecting a child, and living in New York City would be too expensive on that salary. This was in 1955. 

So we went back home to Warren, and I began working for the New Process Company, later called Blair Industries, whose enormous mail-order business made Warren’s the third busiest post office in Pennsylvania. [That post office was, much later, renamed to honor Clinger.]

In time, I got bored. Judy said I should go to law school. At age 32, with three children, I applied and was admitted to the University of Virginia law school. We loved Charlottesville.

After I graduated, we moved back to Warren where I practiced law for seven years. I got interested in politics there, and got to know then-senator Hugh Scott, who helped me get a job in the Commerce Department. It was a political appointment, made while Gerald Ford was still president. Then, Ford lost the 1976 election and Jimmy Carter came in. A big political broom swept through the federal government as usually happens when the party in charge changes.

An assistant secretary of commerce, Bob Hall, came in and told me to clean out my desk.

Two years later, after I was elected to Congress, I got on the Appropriations Committee that oversaw the Economic Development Administration (EDA). My old friend Bob Hall came before us to defend his budget. I can tell you, Bob Hall had a most unpleasant 15 minutes while I questioned him.

Judy: Don’t get mad, get even.

Bill: Anyhow, back in Warren — after Bob Hall threw me out of D.C. — I resumed the practice of law. A first-term Democrat was representing the district. I pretty much got drafted to run against him. The general political feeling was that the best time to go after an incumbent is after his or her first term. That proved true in this case and I won.

I served 18 years in Congress, some of it as chairman of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee. Newt Gingrich was in my freshman class on Capitol Hill. My committee is the same one that Darrell Issa (R-California) now heads. We did some tough oversight when I was chairman, but it was never so ugly or confrontational as it has now sometimes become.

I’m proudest that we were able to totally change and make more efficient the way the federal government does most information technology procurement and management. 

I got on the board of trustees here at Chautauqua just after I left Congress. I was appointed as chairman of the Asset Policy Committee in 1998. After the end of my neighbor Bill Karslake’s term as board chairman, I was approached about replacing him.

Judy: I thought it was a lousy idea. I knew how much time would be involved.

Bill: The Institution leadership was in rough waters. Some changes were needed. President (Scott) McVea had come here from a foundation, where he was accustomed to spending money. There, he didn’t have to raise money. Here, the roles were reversed. He was expected to raise money. It wasn’t working out. He was not renewed.

Our current president, Tom Becker, was appointed to lead the Institution forward. 

That was certainly a signature moment of my tenure as board chairman. There are two others that stand out for me.

We instituted a 1 percent tax on buyers and sellers of property on the grounds. That measure was not universally popular, but it provided the funds that are still used to pave the streets in the Institution. From my old public works days in Washington, I knew you have to have money to maintain your infrastructure.

The third measure was our decision to serve beer and wine in the Athenaeum Hotel. We bucked the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) sentiment but we thought the time was right. Our decision was controversial when we made it.

Nowadays, in addition to fully enjoying Chautauqua, I co-chair the Institute for Representative Government in Washington, D.C. We bring in new legislators from emerging governments from around the world to the U.S. and share some of the American experience with them. We’re funded out of the State Department budget.

I am also a fellow in the government studies program at Johns Hopkins. I get a parking space for that.