The ex-President packs 'em in at a Barnes & Noble all-nighter.

Bill Clinton, Rock Star 

The ex-President packs 'em in at a Barnes & Noble all-nighter.

William Jefferson rocks the mic. - REBECCA  MEISER
For the life of her, Action News reporter Lynna Lai cannot light a goddamn lighter. She keeps pressing her thumb down hard on the metal lever -- playing it like a joystick -- as her finger grows raw with the effort.

It's nearing 9:30 Monday night, and behind Lai sit a few dozen of Bill Clinton's biggest fans, all of them gathered outside the Woodmere Barnes & Noble more than 12 hours before the President's scheduled book-signing. Organizers promised access to the first 1,000 in line. Some folks just leave nothing to chance.

"Seeing President Clinton in person -- it's an honor and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says 33-year-old Sally Arnold, who is second in line. "There's no way I'd miss it."

In the sheltered corridor of the store's west entrance, they recline on picnic blankets and folding chairs. Most of them sport Kerry/Edwards buttons. Almost all of them want face time on the news.

It was Lai's idea to compare the Clintonheads to rock-star groupies. Clinton, she theorizes, is the ultimate rock star. Hence the Bic-flicking.

Cathy Zwolan is a 38-year-old mother of two, with a sweet, peach-shaped face and big blue eyes that widen with excitement when she speaks about her favorite President. She got to Barnes & Noble at 2:30 in the afternoon and was bewildered that no one else was there when she arrived.

"I didn't expect to be the first person there," she says. But from the moment she got there, she's been romanced like a princess -- everyone wanting to touch, talk, and quote the one who got there first. "I should be careful," Cathy says with a laugh. "I could get used to all this attention."

Soon after her arrival, the line grew three-deep. "When we heard he was coming, we didn't think twice about seeing him," explains Jason Dare, in line with Sally, who works with him at the Brook Park IHOP. "We took two days off of work."

"I'm thinking of taking a third," adds Sally, who has never camped out for anything. In fact, there are only two people in the world besides Clinton that she would ever considering camping out for.

"And that's Billy Graham and Barbra Streisand," she says solemnly.

Cathy looks at her questioningly. That's an odd pair.

"Not when you think about it," Sally insists. "Billy Graham's done so much for the Christian community. He's like -- who can I compare him to? Jesus. He's like Jesus! And besides that, he's a really great writer too."

Just like Clinton?

"Well, Clinton's done so much for our country. He's like JFK -- except better. JFK was overrated. I think Clinton's the second-best President ever -- behind FDR, of course."

Cathy nods. "Clinton was the first President I voted for," she says. "My oldest was just born, and I remember handing him to my husband while I voted for Clinton. Then my husband handing him to me while he voted for Clinton too. If he were running for reelection, there wouldn't even need to be a debate."

Their conversation is silenced for an Action Newsbrief: Quite a line forming here, Lynna Lai informs viewers.

"These people don't have to worry about missing work," she says dramatically, nodding toward Sally and Jason. "Because she's his boss."

"Did she have to keep mentioning that?" Jason murmurs. "Just for that, You've got fat ankles!" he cries out. Lai doesn't hear him, or tries very hard not to show it.

Once the newscasts are over, boredom sets in. Some of the 40 or so people in line by midnight thumb through Clinton's 957-page book, My Life. It's required for admission, but it also turns out to make a better than adequate footstool, head rest, or hardbacked seat. An informal poll reveals that 29 out of 30 people who wait in line to have Bill Clinton sign his memoir have not actually read Bill Clinton's memoir.

"I'm going to tell the President I read the whole book," says Shane Winnyk of North Royalton, who has actually read the whole book. "And if he asks how I'm doing, I'll say 'Great -- but I was better four years ago.'"

As the night lumbers on, the line continues to expand and the vibe turns philosophical.

"Do you think Hillary Clinton loves her husband?" Sally asks Cathy.

"Well, there's a strain on their faces when you see the two of them together," Cathy offers after a long pause. Then another. "I think they love each other, but I don't think they're in love with each other, you know?"

Sally knows.

"What will you say to the President when you see him?" she asks dreamily.

Cathy doesn't know. Maybe "Thank you"? Maybe something like "Will you run for another term, please?"

"Maybe 'I love you.'"

"You know, I've been thinking about that for days," Sally says. "What to say when I finally get to see him. And you know what? I don't think it matters. Maybe I'll tell him a crotchless-panty joke."

By 6 a.m., the line stretches on for eternity. "Twelve hours ago, I felt stupid," says Jason, "but now . . ." He pauses to stick his tongue out at the 500 people behind him. "I feel good."

Five hours later, Clinton appears, looking distinguished in a blue jacket, white-collared shirt, and a red American-flag tie. He sports terrific hair -- staticky, but controlled -- and he looks like a voluminous cloud. The Bush years, it turns out, have not been entirely kind to him either: Upon closer inspection, the crow's feet around his eyes are looking eagle-sized now, and when he leans down to shake hands, a small but unmistakable bald spot is revealed. "Good thing we have Photoshop," one cameraman mutters.

With a raggedy voice and assured smile, Clinton greets his admirers. He hugs everyone who wants a hug and holds handshakes a touch longer than necessary.

Waiting her turn, Cathy bounces around nervously. She's been practicing her lines for 10 hours now, but when her eyes finally meet Bill's, she falls apart. Everything she'd planned to say is wiped from her memory.

"I've been here since 2:30!" is all she manages. "I was the first one here!"

"Two-thirty," says the President as he inscribes an autograph. "Wow!"

He touches her hand and Cathy's eyes widen again. She smiles the smile of a believer.

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