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The Clintons’ Visit: Behind the Scenes

Protecting the Secretary of State and a former President is a massive undertaking, Redondo Beach school and city officials find.

Preparations for the June 15 visit to Redondo Beach of former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton read like a novel—a cross between high comedy and a thriller, with Secret Service agents dressed like "Men in Black" conducting walk-throughs of local facilities; warnings of possible bomb threats; and President Clinton insisting the focus be kept on local festivities and away from himself.

The graduation of Bill Clinton’s nephew, Tyler Clinton, 18, prompted the couple’s visit. Clinton spoke at the commencement ceremony, as well as at a mini fundraiser for the Redondo Beach Educational Foundation (RBEF) at . Later that evening, the Clintons attended a family dinner at the on Yacht Club Way.

A phone call from the President's brother

It all began two months earlier, when Redondo Union Principal Dr. Nicole Wesley received a phone call from Roger Clinton, the President’s brother.

“He told me that President Clinton and possibly the Secretary of State of State were coming, and would I consider allowing (the President) to speak,” Wesley said.

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Although Wesley knew there was a possibility the President might attend the event (Clinton had traveled to Redondo for his nephew’s eighth-grade graduation from Riviera Hall in Torrance), she was thrilled he wanted to speak, but told the President’s brother she would have to check first with the superintendent, Dr. Steven Keller.

“You’re playing a joke on me,” Keller said when he got the call from Wesley.

Her response, “Do I ever call you on your cell phone?”

Like Wesley, Keller was elated. “Oh, man, that’s great!” he said.

The next thing Keller knew, he was on a three-way phone conversation with Wesley and a Clinton foundation assistant in New York, who confirmed the visit and asked how long they wanted the President to speak.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Wesley said, “about five or ten minutes?”

The assistant laughed. “What? The President speak only five minutes? I don’t think so. More like 20 or 30.”

Wesley and Keller, who would later joke about the moment, agreed Clinton could speak for as long as he liked—although the President had stipulated to his assistant that no time should be subtracted from other speakers or the graduation itself.

During the same conversation, Keller said, “We begged for an Education Foundation fundraiser, too.”

When the assistant said no, Wesley approached Clinton’s brother, who "is really nice, very personable (and was) just as excited about the day and his family coming" as anyone could be, she said.

But “Roger stressed, as did Clinton’s assistant, that this really was a day for the family to get together for Tyler’s graduation, and they didn’t want to take away from that,” the principal said. Wesley described Tyler as “a good student, a very cool kid—not a showboat type.”

The administrators refused to give up, and two weeks prior to the visit, the President agreed to a mini meet-and-greet to benefit the Redondo foundation.

There followed numerous back-and-forth phone calls between New York, Washington, D.C. and Redondo; a barrage of questions; and requests for names for background checks for anyone who would have direct access to President Clinton and the Secretary of State—should Hillary decide to come, which she did, along with a whole other team of security people.

The 'suited-up' Secret Service

The Sunday before the Friday graduation, Keller, Wesley, and RBEF President Brad Serkin were to meet Secret Service agents and members of the President's and Secretary’s staffs at 9 a.m. for a walk-through of the Redondo Union campus and Parras, where the fundraiser was to be held.

“I went very casual—a jean skirt, sandals and a shirt,” said the high school principal. But when she pulled up at the school, she “saw all these guys, probably half a dozen of them, in suits and sunglasses.”

Fortunately, Wesley said, Keller soon arrived wearing jeans, a Claremont College sweatshirt and baseball cap. Brad Serkin was dressed in shorts.

Noted for his sense of humor, the superintendent described how the motley trio, surrounded by “suited-up agents,” walked the entire area, “including the motorcade route from RUHS to Parras for the fundraiser.” With residents looking on, Keller said, “we were worried that if someone (recognized the three of) us, they might think we were being arrested. It was a bit surreal—funny but not.” 

Where Serkin described the security preliminaries for the fundraiser as “a lot easier than I would have expected,” Wesley, who considered the Clintons’ appearance at the graduation “historic,” found it “a lot of fun (but) a lot of work.”

Along with providing blueprints for a “holding room” (a secure waiting area for the Clintons), Wesley wrote a history of the school (requested for the President's speech), and went over every aspect of the graduation with the agents, who made detailed drawings of routes, exits and entrances, where the California Highway Patrol-escorted motorcade delivered the dignitaries, where it parked, etc.

Possible bomb threats

Where both Clinton staffs asked that media be placed a distance away from the the couple (“They didn’t want (reporters) asking any direct questions of either of them,” Wesley said), the Secret Service warned of possibly receiving possible bomb threats via phone.

“They gave us a form and asked that we try to take down as much information as possible,” the principal said. “So I called all my secretaries together and gave them the form and told them what to do.” It didn’t happen, she said, “but that was something we were prepared for.”

Through it all, the Secret Service and Hillary’s security people were extremely gracious, cracking jokes, yet apologetic, Wesley said. “This is your event, your show, and we’re trying not to be too invasive,” the agents stressed over and over.

Wesley developed “a nice relationship” with one of the agents, who was at the school "every single day" for a week. “It got to the point where he would just walk into my office and say, ‘Hey, Nikki, change of plans. The President is not going to be walking out with you in the processional...’”

Plans were changing all the time, she said. “I just decided to wait and see what happened the day of.”

For starters, the former President and Secretary Clinton arrived 45 minutes early. Keller and Wesley, wearing small, kite-shaped pins inscribed with an “S” (signifying their security clearances), greeted the motorcade as it pulled up outside the Field House (the designated holding room), a detached building with a spacious conference room that overlooks a putting green.

Should have brought her golf clubs

Watching the Secretary of State emerge from the limo, followed by President Clinton, was "surreal," Wesley said. "We were so excited." They all shook hands, Bill Clinton effusively thanking Keller and Wesley for having them, while Hillary admired the putting green, later joking that she should have brought her golf clubs.

Coffee and Diet Cokes awaited them inside, Wesley told the Clintons. (She had been instructed to have hot coffee for Mrs. Clinton and—"specifically" for the President—cans of Diet Coke on ice.)

Hillary Clinton, wouldn't you know, asked for hot tea. Wesley quickly dispatched an assistant to Starbucks.

The best part, Wesley said, was that she and Keller were able to talk to the Clintons for about 20 or 25 minutes. "They were very personable, very talkative, clearly knowledgeable, it was really neat," the principal said.

The President told his hosts he had originally planned to spend the weekend in Redondo and regretted they had to fly back to Washington that night to prepare for a trip to Mexico on Sunday for the G20 Summit.

At one point, Clinton asked Wesley what she would like him to emphasize in his speech. She mentioned the school's highly-rated jazz band ("I know (the former President) plays jazz," she said), and the winning decathalon, football and lacrosse teams (Tyler plays lacrosse).

"He didn't need me to tell him what to say," she said, laughing.

Clinton queried Keller on how he maintained the quality of Redondo schools. "The President was very interested in knowing more about 'marketing' our schools and how we passed our bond," Keller said.  "He loved the (Redondo Union) facilities."

The conversation soon turned to more serious matters, however, like the menu at the Chart House, where the Clintons planned to celebrate Tyler's graduation that night. "Although I pitched the mud pie," Keller said, the President "insisted that his nephew wanted the lava cake. He actually stood his ground on the dessert menu."

Increasingly, however, Keller and Wesley were aware of the growing number of people taking pictures and watching them, including members of the RBUSD Board of Education.

Monitored by Secret Service agents, the administrators knew they were prohibited from inviting the board members over to meet the Clintons, Wesley said. "Dr. Keller and I (were) thinking, 'Oh, my gosh. These are our bosses.'"

As they dashed to get ready for the processional, the two devised a plan. "After (Clinton’s speech)," the principal said, "I would immediately go up to him and ask if he would mind taking a picture (with the school board members) while they were all sitting on stage."

Lest she weaken, Keller whispered to Wesley during the President's speech, “Nikki, you have to make it happen. We have to have that picture. Be assertive.”

Clinton couldn't have been more cooperative.

"A proud uncle...a proud aunt"

Rather than leave the campus following his speech (during which the President told the assembled, "I'm here mostly as a proud uncle ... the Secretary of State as a proud aunt"), Clinton wanted to stay for the entire graduation.

“He wanted to see the Unity Circle,” Wesley said. “That’s a traditional part of the ceremony, where the seniors march out to the end of field and form a circle—their last act of unity as a class.”

Sitting on the bleachers like every one else, the Clintons “went out of their way to blend in,” Superintendent Keller said. “They were relentless about minimizing their presence … gracious, kind, and incredibly giving of their time.”

Much the same reaction occurred at the fundraiser at Parras, where Bill Clinton mesmerized the small gathering of about 50 RBEF donors, who each paid $750 dollars to meet the former President, hear him speak and have their pictures taken with him.

Vickie Gallion, vice president of the foundation that is devoted to raising funds for K-12 projects within RBUSD, said the event held in the school library raised about $50,000 and “was just fabulous.”

Knowing Clinton had limited time, Gallion said, "We were able, with (the President’s) help, to carve out a wonderful, kind of intimate event of an hour and a half.”

Chosen because of its proximity to Redondo Union, the middle school was on lockdown during the event, Serkin said. Only those whose names appeared on a guest list were admitted inside.

Although the Secretary of State did not make an appearance (she remained in the designated holding room), President Clinton “was so charming,” Gallion said, “shaking hands, asking people their names, hugging them… “

'People loved it'

In a speech that ranged from the progress of his own foundation, to how “vital” the RBEF is if education is to remain strong in a struggling economy, to the need for less partisanship in government, Clinton avoided political soundbites, Gallion said, and was “clever and articulate … People loved it.”  

Gallion said she was aware of the Clintons' security teams “because I was the event planner,” she said. But the agents were “unobtrusive to the general patrons.”

Over at the Capt. Jeff Hink, commander of the Operations Bureau, had been preparing for the Clintons’ arrival for weeks.

“We always coordinate with the various security groups [that] are involved with the person who is visiting,” said Hink, who was willing to talk in general terms about department’s otherwise confidential procedures.

In the case of the Clintons, two security forces were involved, he said: the U.S. Secret Service for the former President; and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) for the Secretary of State.

Although the police department is customarily contacted by the appropriate agency prior to a dignitary’s visit, Hink said, “We were just kind of fortunate in that we got word in advance.”

Still, it was just rumor. When evidence mounted the trip was for real, the captain said, "We proactively reached out to the Secret Service and developed a game plan.”

The plan included the normal advance team duties for visiting dignitaries as listed on the Secret Service website: conducting site inspections; coordinating all law enforcement, including the CHP; and establishing checkpoints.

Along with alerting local fire, rescue and public service personnel (people such as Mayor Mike Gin and City Manager Bill Workman), the agents assess hospitals, evacuation routes (in case of emergencies), and equipment.

“We basically cater to (the security team’s) needs,” Hink said.

Part of the job was outlining emergency options and discussing intelligence information. A lot of what the police department does, Hink said, “depends on the threat level” for the particular person who is visiting.

A quick and rapid response

“Are there any planned protests? Are there any concerns regarding security? Biggest thing we do is work to develop a partnership with the particular agency that is responsible for protecting those people,” Hink said. That way, “if anything occurs where there is a law enforcement concern,” the security team is assured of getting “a quick and rapid response.”

The Chart House, the restaurant where the Clinton family dined after the graduation, did not escape security assessment.

Erin Brack, one of the managers, said agents “did their walk-through and told us what they needed ... to see the facility, nothing more.”

There were 22 people in the Clinton party, the manager said, and they did not request a private room. “They were seated in the main dining room amongst all the other diners, and people were very respectful of them.”

No one went up to their table, or asked for autographs, Brack said.

Although everyone on the staff was excited about the presence of the Clintons the restaurant made every attempt “to keep the focus on Tyler’s graduation," Brack said. "We wanted them to be able to come in and enjoy themselves in a family setting … and make it very nice for everyone.”

Still, management knew that two senior security agents were to be seated in the vicinity of the pair but not at the same table, Brack said. Additional agents and members of the CHP were seated elsewhere.

Keller may have summed it all up the best, praising the two security teams, the police department and CHP as “excellent—proactive, positive, and professional. They earn an A+ grade, each and every one of them.” 

As for the Clintons? “It was a day that no one will ever forget,” the superintendent said.

Bonnie Daybell June 26, 2012 at 07:05 PM
The Clintons showed a lot of class in my opinion. I can picture it all and am impressed with the way the school and community handled the visit. Great article, thank you!
Katharine Blossom Lowrie June 26, 2012 at 10:12 PM
Jennifer S of Manhattan Beach commented: "What a great story! Interesting, informative, hilarious and well written."
Julie June 27, 2012 at 03:17 PM
What an enjoyable article. I am impressed with Bill and Hilary Clinton and how nice they were to all who came into contact with them. They created a wonderful memory for many students and school personnel! Thanks for sharing all the details - it was was truly fun to read.
Mickey Marraffino June 28, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Reallly enjoyed the detail and spirit of this story! Great job!

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