Paper Trails

PAPER TRAILS: Origins of Bill Clinton nickname 'Slick Willie' a bit slippery

Cast your memory back to last week, when we discussed how former Democrat-Gazette Editorial Page editor Paul Greenberg's name appeared on a recent episode of "Jeopardy."

Under a category about nicknames, the clue was: "Arkansas columnist Paul Greenberg first used the nickname 'Slick Willie' for this man in 1980."

The answer, of course, was Bill Clinton.

But was ol' Inky Wretch Greenberg, who died April 6, the first to coin the term?

A friendly reader points out that former Democrat-Gazette Voices Page editor and columnist Meredith Oakley, in her 1994 book "On the Make: The Rise of Bill Clinton," credited the term to Jess L. Crosser of Calico Rock, "a crusty septuagenarian who often berated the young governor in letters to the editor of the Arkansas Democrat."


In a 1998 Washington Post story by Kevin Merida, Greenberg dated his first Slick Willie reference to a Sept. 27, 1980, column in the Pine Bluff Commercial, where he was editorial page editor from 1962-92.

Writing about the Cuban refugee crisis at Fort Chaffee, Greenberg compared Clinton with Gov. Orval Faubus "who might well be his mentor when it comes to appealing to the worst in the electorate. Nor is that the only disturbing similarity between Slick Willie and old Orv."

Five months earlier, on April 11, 1980, Arkansas Democrat managing editor and columnist John Robert Starr was touting the paper's new Boondoggler of the Month contest, which let readers vote for the public official who was doing the best job of wasting taxpayer dough that month.

The "winner" was given the Sweet William Award, named for Clinton.

In his column, Starr noted that a reader -- later identified as Crosser -- had suggested a second-place award, the Slick Willie, also named in Clinton's honor.

Years later, Greenberg wrote about all this Slick Williness in his bemused, graceful, Greenbergian way.

"By now I've seen myself credited with coining the nickname Slick Willie so often that I expect it will be noted on my tombstone," he playfully lamented in a June 23, 2004, column.

He mentioned Starr's 1980 column and said he was "blissfully oblivious" of the earlier reference. He ended with this bit of wisdom:

"So who really created Slick Willie? That's easy: Bill Clinton."

Thanks to Style editor and Old News columnist Celia Storey for help with today's Trails.

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