It started as an aside in a longer interview, but it became an Internet sensation within hours.
Anita Esterday, a waitress at the Maid-Rite in Toledo, Iowa, told NPR's David Greene in a report that aired on Morning Edition Thursday that "nobody got left a tip" on Oct. 8, when Clinton sat at the lunch counter and ordered up the restaurant's famous loose-meat sandwich.
Esterday served Clinton, chatted with her and later ended up as an example of a hard-working single mom in Clinton's stump speech. She told NPR she's considering voting for Clinton, but was disappointed the senator and her staff didn't make sure she got a tip for her labor.
The tip issue was a small part of an eight-minute piece about how everyday people get caught up in political campaigns. Half the story was about an incident in which another presidential candidate, Barack Obama, failed to follow up on a letter he said he might send to a supporter he met at a rally. The Obama campaign Thursday said they fired off a letter to the supporter after the story aired. But that part of the story received little mention in the blogosphere after airing Thursday.
Not so the reference to Hillary Clinton and the tip. As soon as that story aired in the 5 o'clock hour Eastern Time, it was picked up by a number of political blogs. And the Clinton campaign immediately contacted news organizations to tell its side of the story. Clinton spokesman Phil Singer wrote to NPR in an e-mail: "The campaign spent $157 and left a $100 tip at the Maid-Rite Restaurant. Wish you had checked in with us beforehand."
Esterday said "nobody got tipped that day," and NPR should have checked with the Clinton campaign before the story aired to see if any tip was left and how it was done. We regret that this was not done. On Thursday, Esterday was sticking by her story.
"Why would I lie about not getting a tip?" she told NPR. She also maintained that her co-workers at the restaurant had not received tips.
A Clinton campaign staffer called on Esterday at the restaurant Thursday after the story aired. The staff member apologized to her and gave her a $20 bill, according to Esterday. The Clinton campaign confirmed that visit. The campaign also produced photocopies of receipts showing $157.46 was paid to Maid-Rite on a VISA card on Oct. 8 for meals consumed by the candidate's entourage. The tip was supposed to have been paid in cash, and the campaign insisted such a payment was made but has declined to make available a staff member who was present at Maid-Rite and left tip money.
Maid-Rite's manager, Brad Crawford, said Thursday that while he was not present at the restaurant on Oct. 8, he knew that a bill was paid by the campaign that day. He also said that he believed three of six servers working that day received tips from people he thought were working for or affiliated with the Clinton campaign.
Crawford said he didn't know if campaign staffers meant "for their tips to be distributed to everybody" or whether they were meant only for individual servers.
The manager said he can't say for sure if Esterday was tipped for serving Clinton and her guests, Christie Vilsack and Ruth Harkin. (Vilsack is the wife of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Harkin is the wife of Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin). But Crawford said he believes Esterday's account that she received no tip.
"Where Hillary was sitting, there was no tip left," Crawford said.
The restaurant has a lunch counter, where Clinton and her guests were seated. Esterday and several other servers were working behind that counter. There are a dozen or so other booths and tables around the restaurant, and other servers were helping diners seated there.
Esterday, speaking to NPR from home later Thursday, said the Clinton campaign staffer who visited the diner apologized to her and said a $100 tip was left on a credit card the day of Clinton's visit. Esterday said the staff member said the money was meant to be shared.
"I explained to her that our credit card machine, you know, doesn't add on the tip," Esterday said. "And she said, 'Well, then, they left a $100 bill there.' And I said, 'Well, it didn't get divided up amongst us, because I had gotten nothing.'
"She just said, 'Well, there was one left,'" Esterday said. "She just kept repeating, 'There was one left.'
After the campaign staffer stopped at the diner Thursday, Esterday said, the $100 tip was a hot topic.
"Two others that had worked with me that day turned around and said, 'We didn't know about any $100 tip,' because they both turned around and said 'We didn't get a part of it.' And they didn't. So, it's like 'OK, where did it go?' That's the mystery question: Where did it go?"
Esterday said it would surprise her if money that was intended to be split among the staff was never shared.
"The ladies that were working that day have been working there for years — some of them for 30 years, some of them for 25 years," Esterday said. "And I've known a lot of these ladies most of my life living here, too. And I can't imagine them pocketing it."
The campaign has made the the tip question the top feature on a new Web site it has created called "Fact Hub." Campaign spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement: "In the minute-to-minute media cycle we live in, we believe it is critical to correct the record in real time."