October 3 was a beautiful autumn morning in Arkansas, crisp and clear. I started the day that would change my life in the usual way, with an early-morning jog. I went out the back gate of the Governor’s Mansion, through the old Quapaw Quarter, then downtown to the Old State House. The grand old place, where I had held my first reception when I was sworn in as attorney general in 1977, was already decked out in American flags. After I ran past it, turned, and headed for home, I saw a newspaper vending machine. Through the glass, I could read the headline: Hour Arrives for Clinton. On the way home, several passersby wished me well. Back at the mansion I took a last look at my announcement speech. I had worked on it until well past midnight; it was full of what I felt was good rhetoric and specific policy proposals, but still too long, so I cut a few lines.
At noon, I was introduced on the stage by our state treasurer, Jimmie Lou Fisher, who had been with me since 1978. I started out a little awkwardly, probably because of the conflicting feelings flooding through me. I was at once reluctant to abandon the life I knew and eager for the challenge, a little afraid but sure I was doing the right thing. I spoke for more than half an hour, thanking my family, friends, and supporters for giving me the strength to step beyond a life and job I love, to make a commitment to a larger cause: preserving the American dream, restoring the hopes of the forgotten middle class, reclaiming the future for our children. I closed with a pledge to give new life to the American dream by forming a new covenant with the people: more opportunity for all, more responsibility from everyone, and a greater sense of common purpose.
When it was over, I felt elated and excited, but maybe relieved more than anything else, especially after Chelsea wisecracked, Nice speech, Governor. Hillary and I spent the rest of the day receiving well-wishers, and Mother, Dick, and Roger all seemed happy about it, as did Hillary’s family. Mother acted as if she knew I would win. As well as I knew her, I couldn’t be sure if it was truly how she felt or just another example of her game face. That night we gathered around the piano with old friends. Carolyn Staley played, just as she had done since we were fifteen. We sang Amazing Grace and other hymns, and lots of songs from the sixties, including Abraham, Martin, and John, a tribute to the fallen heroes of our generation. I went to bed believing we could cut through the cynicism and despair and rekindle the fire those men had lit in my heart.
Governor Mario Cuomo once said we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose. The statement is basically accurate, but a lot of campaigning is prose, too: putting together the nuts and bolts, going through the required rituals, and responding to the press. Day two of the campaign was more prose than poetry: a series of interviews designed to get me on television nationally and in major local markets, and to answer the threshold question of why I had gone back on my commitment to finish my term and whether that meant I was untrustworthy. I answered the questions as best I could and moved on to the campaign message. It was all prosaic, but it got us to day three.
The rest of the year was full of the frantic activity of a late-starting campaign: getting organized, raising money, reaching out to specific constituencies, and working New Hampshire.
Our first headquarters was in an old paint store on Seventh Street near the Capitol. I had decided to base the campaign out of Little Rock instead of Washington. It made travel arrangements a little more complicated, but I wanted to stick close to my roots and to get home often enough to be with my family and handle official business that required my presence. But staying in Arkansas also had another big benefit: it helped our young staff keep focused on the work at hand. They weren’t distracted by the pervasive Washington rumor mill and they didn’t get too carried away by the surprisingly favorable press coverage I received early in the campaign, or too depressed by the torrent of negative press soon to come.
After a few weeks, we had outgrown the paint store and moved nearby to the old office of the Department of Higher Education, which we used until we outgrew it, too, just before the Democratic convention. Then we moved again, downtown to the Arkansas Gazette building, which had become vacant a few months earlier upon the purchase and subsequent dismantling of the Gazette by the owner of the Arkansas Democrat, Walter Hussman. The Gazette building would be our home for the rest of the campaign, which, from my point of view, was the only good result of the loss of the oldest independent newspaper in America west of the Mississippi.
The Gazette had stood for civil rights in the fifties and sixties, and had staunchly supported Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, and me in our efforts to modernize education, social services, and the economy. In its glory days, it was one of the best papers in the country, bringing well-written and wide-ranging national and international stories to readers in the far corners of our state. In the 1980s, the Gazette began to face competition from Hussman’s Arkansas Democrat, which until then had been a much smaller afternoon paper. The newspaper war that followed had a foreordained outcome, because Hussman owned other profitable media properties, which allowed him to absorb tremendous operating losses at the Democrat in order to take advertising and subscribers away from the Gazette. Not long before I announced for President, Hussman acquired the Gazette and consolidated its operations into his paper, renaming it the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Over the years, the Democrat-Gazette would help to make Arkansas a more Republican state. The overall tone of its editorial page was conservative and highly critical of me, often in very personal terms. In this the paper faithfully reflected the views of its publisher. Though I was sad to see the Gazette fall, I was glad to have the building. Perhaps I was hoping that the ghosts of its progressive past would keep us fighting for tomorrow.
We started out with an all-Arkansas staff, with Bruce Lindsey as campaign director and Craig Smith, who had handled my appointments to boards and commissions, as finance director. Rodney Slater and Carol Willis were already hard at work contacting black political, religious, and business leaders across the country. My old friend Eli Segal agreed to help me build a national staff.
I had already met with one person I was sure I wanted on the team, a talented young staffer for Congressman Dick Gephardt, the Democratic majority leader. George Stephanopoulos, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, was a Rhodes scholar who had previously worked for my friend Father Tim Healy when he ran the New York Public Library. I liked George immediately, and knew he could serve as a bridge to the national press and the congressional Democrats, as well as make a contribution to thinking through the intellectual challenges of the campaign.
Eli met with him, confirmed my judgment, and George came to work as deputy campaign manager in charge of communications. Eli also saw David Wilhelm, the young Chicago political operative whom I wanted on the team. We offered him the job of campaign manager, and he quickly accepted. David was, in political language, a two-fer: besides managing the overall campaign, he would be a special help in Illinois. I was convinced that, with David as campaign manager, along with Kevin OKeefe as a state organizer, we could now win a clear victory in Illinois to follow up on the anticipated sweep of the southern states on Super Tuesday. Soon afterward, we also persuaded another young Chicagoan, Rahm Emanuel, to join our campaign. Rahm had worked with Wilhelm in the successful campaigns of Mayor Richard Daley and Senator Paul Simon. He was a slight, intense man who had studied ballet and, though an American citizen, had served in the Israeli Army. Rahm was so aggressive he made me look laid-back. We made him finance director, a job in which an underfunded campaign needs an aggressor. Craig Smith went to work on our state campaign organizations, a job better suited to his considerable political skills. Soon Bruce Reed left the Democratic Leadership Council to become our policy director. Eli also interviewed two women who would play important roles in the campaign. Dee Dee Myers from California became the press secretary, a job that would require her to handle more incoming fire than she possibly could have anticipated. Though she was very young, she rose to the challenge. Stephanie Solien, from Washington State, became our political director. She was married to Frank Greer, but that’s not why I hired her. Stephanie was smart, politically astute, and less hard-edged than most of the boys. She provided both the good work and the good chemistry every high-tension effort needs. As the campaign progressed, young people from all over America just showed up to pick up the extra load.
On the financial front, we made do in the beginning with generous early help from Arkansans, Bob Farmer’s efforts in Massachusetts and with regular Democratic donors who would give just because he asked them, and donations from friends around the country that helped me qualify for matching funds from the federal government. To do that, a candidate must raise $5,000 in each of twenty states, in amounts not exceeding $250 per contribution. In some states, my governor friends took care of it. In Texas, my longtime supporter Truman Arnold raised a much-needed $30,000. Unlike many wealthy people, Truman seemed to become an even more committed Democrat as he got richer.
Somewhat surprisingly, a lot of people in the Washington, D.C., area wanted to help, in particular Democratic lawyer and fund-raiser Vic Raiser and my friend from Renaissance Weekend Tom Schnieder. In New York, I got invaluable early help not only from our friends Harold Ickes and Susan Thomases but also from Ken Brody, a Goldman Sachs executive who decided he wanted to get heavily involved in Democratic politics for the first time. Ken told me he had been a Republican because he thought the Democrats had a heart but their head was in the wrong place. Then, he said, he had gotten close enough to the national Republicans to see that they had a head but no heart, and decided to join the Democrats because he thought it was easier to change minds than hearts, and luckily for me, he figured I was the best place to start. Ken took me to a dinner with high-powered New York businesspeople, including Bob Rubin, whose tightly reasoned arguments for a new economic policy made a lasting impression on me. In every successful political campaign, people like Ken Brody somehow appear, bringing energy, ideas, and converts.
In addition to money-raising and organizing, I had to reach out to constituencies that were predominantly Democratic. In October, I spoke to a Jewish group in Texas, saying that Israel should trade land for peace; to blacks and Hispanics in Chicago; and to Democratic Party groups in Tennessee, Maine, New Jersey, and California, all of which were considered swing states, meaning they could go either way in the general election. In November, I spoke in Memphis to the convention of the Church of God in Christ, America’s fastest-growing black denomination. I worked the South: Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia. Florida was important, because its December 15 straw poll at the Democratic convention would be the first contested vote. President Bush was beginning to slip in the polls and didn’t help himself by saying that the economy was in good shape. I spoke to the National Education Association and the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington. I went south again to North Carolina, Texas, and Georgia. In the West, I made stops in Colorado and South Dakota; in Wyoming, where Governor Mike Sullivan endorsed me; and in the Republican stronghold of Orange County, California, where I picked up the support of Republican telecommunications executive Roger Johnson and others who were disillusioned with President Bush’s economic policy.
While all this was going on, however, the main focus of the campaign was New Hampshire. If I ran poorly there, I might not do well enough in the states that followed to last until Super Tuesday. Though I was running dead last in the polls in mid-November, I liked my chances. New Hampshire is a small state, less than half the size of Arkansas, with very well-informed primary voters who take seriously their responsibility to carefully evaluate the candidates and their positions. To compete effectively, a good organization and persuasive television ads are necessary, but nowhere near sufficient. You must also do well in an endless stream of small house parties, town meetings, rallies, and unscheduled handshaking. A lot of New Hampshire citizens won’t vote for anyone who hasn’t personally asked for their support. After all my years in Arkansas politics, that kind of campaigning was second nature to me.
Even more than the political culture, the economic distress and the inevitable emotional trauma it spawned made me feel at home in New Hampshire. It was like Arkansas ten years earlier. After prospering throughout the 1980s, New Hampshire had the nation’s fastest-growing welfare and food-stamp rolls, and the highest rate of bankruptcies. Factories were closing and banks were in trouble. Lots of people were unemployed and genuinely afraid—afraid of losing their homes and their health insurance. They didn’t know if they would be able to send their kids to college. They doubted Social Security would be solvent when they reached their retirement years. I knew how they felt. I had known many Arkansans in similar situations. And I thought I knew what needed to be done to turn things around.
The campaign organization began with two gifted young people, Mitchell Schwartz and Wendy Smith, who moved to Manchester and opened the state headquarters. They were soon joined by Michael Whouley, a Boston Irishman and world-class organizer, and my friend of forty years Patty Howe Criner, who moved up from Little Rock to explain and defend me and my record. Before long we had a big steering committee co-chaired by two lawyers I’d met through the DLC, John Broderick and Terry Schumaker, whose office, fortuitously, was in the same building that more than a century earlier had housed the law office of Governor Franklin Pierce.
The competition was stiff. All the announced candidates were running hard in New Hampshire. Senator Bob Kerrey, the Medal of Honor winner and former Nebraska governor, attracted a lot of interest because he was a political maverick: a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. The centerpiece of his campaign was a sweeping proposal to provide health coverage for all Americans, a big issue in a state where the number of people losing their health insurance was rising daily after a decade in which the cost of health insurance nationally had risen at three times the overall rate of inflation. Kerrey also had a powerful argument that his military record and his popularity in conservative Republican Nebraska made him the most electable Democrat against President Bush.
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa was the Senates leading advocate for the rights of the disabled; an authority on science and technology issues, which were important to the growing number of New Hampshire suburban voters; and a longtime ally of the labor movement. He argued that it would take an authentic populist campaign to win in November, not a DLC message, which he said had no appeal to real Democrats.
Former senator Paul Tsongas of Lowell, Massachusetts, had retired at a young age from a successful career in the Senate to battle cancer. He had become a fitness fanatic who swam vigorously, and publicly, to demonstrate that he was cured and able to be President. Tsongas argued that his premature brush with mortality had liberated him from conventional political constraints, making him more willing than the rest of us to tell voters hard truths they didn’t necessarily want to hear. He had some interesting ideas, which he put forward in a widely distributed campaign booklet.
Governor Doug Wilder had made history by becoming Virginia’s first African-American governor. He argued that his ability to win in a conservative southern state and his record on education, crime, and balanced budgets proved his electability.
Soon after I entered the race, former governor Jerry Brown of California also announced. Jerry said he wouldn’t take contributions in amounts over $100 and tried to position himself as the only genuine reformer in the race. The focus of his campaign became a proposal to scrap the complex tax code in favor of a uniform flat tax of 13 percent on all Americans. In 1976, as a young governor, Jerry entered the late primaries and won several of them in a last-minute effort to stop Jimmy Carter. In 1979, I served with him in the National Governors Association, where I came to appreciate his quick mind and often unusual analysis of current events. The only quality his unique political persona lacked was a sense of humor. I liked Jerry, but he took every conversation awfully seriously.
For more than two months after I announced, the campaign was shadowed by the specter that there might be yet another candidate, Governor Mario Cuomo of New York. Cuomo was a huge figure in Democratic politics, our finest orator and a passionate defender of Democratic values during the Reagan-Bush years. Many people thought the nomination was his for the asking, and for a good while I thought he would ask. He took some hard shots at the DLC, at me, and at my ideas on welfare reform and national service. I was magnanimous in public, but I fumed in private and said some things about Mario I regret. I think I was so stung by his criticism because I had always admired him. In mid-December he finally announced that he wouldn’t run. When some of my hard comments about him became public during the New Hampshire primary, all I could do was apologize. Thank goodness, he was big enough to accept it. In the years ahead, Mario Cuomo would become a valued advisor and one of my strongest defenders. I wanted to put him on the Supreme Court, but he didn’t want that job, either. I think he loved his life in New York too much to give it up, a fact the voters didn’t fully appreciate when they denied him a fourth term in 1994.
At the outset of the campaign, I thought my strongest competitor in New Hampshire would be Harkin or Kerrey. Before long, it was clear that I had been mistaken: Tsongas was the man to beat. His hometown was practically on the New Hampshire state line; he had a compelling life story; he demonstrated the toughness and determination to win; and, most important, he was the only other candidate who was competing with me on the essential battleground of ideas, message, and specific, comprehensive proposals.
Successful presidential campaigns require three basic things. First, people have to be able to look at you and imagine you as President. Then you have to have enough money and support to become known. After that, it’s a battle of ideas, message, and issues. Tsongas met the first two criteria and was out to win the ideas battle. I was determined not to let him do it.
I scheduled three speeches at Georgetown to flesh out my New Covenant theme with specific proposals. They were delivered to students, faculty, supporters, and good press coverage in beautiful, old, wood-paneled Gaston Hall, in the Healy Building. On October 23, the topic was responsibility and community; on November 20, economic opportunity; on December 12, national security.
Together, these speeches allowed me to articulate the ideas and proposals I had developed over the previous decade as governor and with the Democratic Leadership Council. I had helped to write, and deeply believed in, the DLC’s five core beliefs: Andrew Jackson’s credo of opportunity for all and special privileges for none; the basic American values of work and family, freedom and responsibility, faith, tolerance, and inclusion; John Kennedy’s ethic of mutual responsibility, asking citizens to give something back to their country; the advancement of democratic and humanitarian values around the world, and prosperity and upward mobility at home; and Franklin Roosevelt’s commitment to innovation, to modernizing government for the information age and encouraging people by giving them the tools to make the most of their own lives.
I was amazed by some of the criticisms of the DLC from the Democratic left, who accused us of being closet Republicans, and from some members of the political press, who had comfortable little boxes marked Democrat and Republican. When we didn’t fit neatly in their ossified Democratic box, they said we didn’t believe in anything. The proof was that we wanted to win national elections, something Democrats apparently weren’t supposed to do.
I believed the DLC was furthering the best values and principles of the Democratic Party with new ideas. Of course, some liberals honestly disagreed with us on welfare reform, trade, fiscal responsibility, and national defense. But our differences with the Republicans were clear. We were against their unfair tax cuts and big deficits; their opposition to the Family and Medical Leave bill and the Brady bill; their failure to adequately fund education or push proven reforms, instead of vouchers; their divisive tactics on racial and gay issues; their unwillingness to protect the environment; their anti-choice stance; and much more. We also had good ideas, like putting 100,000 community police on the streets; doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit to make work more attractive and life better for families with modest incomes; and offering young people a chance to do community service in return for assistance to pay for college.
The principles and proposals I advocated could hardly be called Republican-lite or lacking in conviction. Instead, they helped to modernize the Democratic Party and later would be adopted by resurgent center-left parties all over the world, in what would be called the Third Way. Most important, the new ideas, when implemented, would prove to be good for America. The 1991 Georgetown speeches gave me the invaluable opportunity to demonstrate that I had a comprehensive agenda for change and was serious about implementing it.
Meanwhile, back in New Hampshire, I put out a campaign booklet of my own, outlining all the specific proposals made in the Georgetown speeches. And I scheduled as many town meetings as possible. One of the early ones was held in Keene, a beautiful college town in the southern part of the state. Our campaign workers had put up flyers around town, but we didn’t know how many people would show up. The room we rented held about two hundred. On the way to the meeting, I asked a veteran campaigner how many people we needed to avoid embarrassment. She said, Fifty. And how many to be judged a success? A hundred and fifty. When we arrived, there were four hundred people. The fire marshal made us put half of them in another room, and I had to do two meetings. It was the first time I knew we could do well in New Hampshire.
Usually I talked for fifteen minutes or so and spent an hour or more answering questions. At first I worried about being too detailed and policy wonky in the answers, but I soon realized that people were looking for substance over style. They were really hurting and wanted to understand what was happening to them and how they could get out of the fix they were in. I learned a lot just listening to the questions I got from people at those town meetings and other campaign stops.
An elderly couple, Edward and Annie Davis, told me they often had to choose between buying their prescription drugs and buying food. A high school student said her unemployed father was so ashamed he couldn’t look at his family over dinner; he just hung his head. I met veterans in American Legion halls and found they were more concerned with the deterioration of health care at Veterans Administration hospitals than with my opposition to the Vietnam War. I was especially moved by the story of Ron Machos, whose son Ronnie was born with a heart problem. He had lost his job in the recession and couldn’t find another one with health insurance to cover the large medical costs he knew were coming. When the New Hampshire Democrats held a convention to hear from all the candidates, a group of students carrying a CLINTON FOR PRESIDENT banner, who had been recruited by their teacher, my old friend from Arkansas Jan Paschal, led me to the podium. One of them made a particular impression on me. Michael Morrison was in a wheelchair, but it didn’t slow him down. He was supporting me because he was being raised by a single mother on a modest income, and he thought I was committed to giving all kids a chance to go to college and get a good job.
By December, the campaign was on a roll. On December 2, James Carville and his partner, Paul Begala, joined us. They were colorful characters and a hot political property, having recently helped elect Governor Bob Casey and Senator Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania, and Governor Zell Miller in Georgia. Zell first got Carville on the phone for me so that I could set up a meeting with him and Begala. Like Frank Greer and me, they were part of an endangered but hardy political species, white southern Democrats. Carville was a Louisiana Cajun and ex-marine who had a great strategic sense and a deep commitment to progressive politics. He and I had a lot in common, including strong-willed, down-to-earth mothers whom we adored. Begala was a witty dynamo from Sugar Land, Texas, who blended aggressive populism with his Catholic social conscience. I wasn’t the only candidate who wanted to hire them, and when they signed on, they brought energy, focus, and credibility to our efforts.
On December 10, I spoke to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and two days later I delivered the third and final Georgetown speech, on national security. I got a lot of help with the speeches from my longtime friend Sandy Berger, who had been deputy director of policy planning in the State Department during the Carter years. Sandy recruited three other Carter-era foreign policy experts to help—Tony Lake, Dick Holbrooke, and Madeleine Albright—along with a bright, Australian-born expert on the Middle East, Martin Indyck. All would play important roles in the years ahead. In mid-December, it was enough that they helped me cross the threshold of understanding and competence in foreign affairs.
On December 15, I won the nonbinding Florida straw poll at the state Democratic convention with 54 percent of the delegates. I knew many of them from my three visits to the convention in the 1980s, and I had by far the strongest campaign organization, headed by Lieutenant Governor Buddy McKay. Hillary and I also worked the delegates hard, as did her brothers, Hugh and Tony, who lived in Miami, and Hugh’s wife, Maria, a Cuban-American lawyer.
Two days after the Florida win, an Arkansas fund-raiser netted $800,000 for the campaign, far more than had ever before been raised at a single event there. On December 19, the Nashville Banner became the first newspaper to endorse me. On December 20, Governor Cuomo said he wouldn’t run. Then Senator Sam Nunn and Governor Zell Miller of Georgia gave the campaign a huge boost when they endorsed me. Georgia’s primary came just before Super Tuesday, along with Maryland’s and Colorado’s.
Meanwhile, President Bush’s troubles mounted, as Pat Buchanan announced his intention to enter the GOP primaries with a George Wallace-like attack on the President from the right. Conservative Republicans were upset with the President for signing a $492 billion deficit-reduction package passed by the Democratic Congress because, in addition to spending cuts, it contained a five-cent gas-tax increase. Bush had brought the Republican convention to its feet in 1988 with his famous line Read my lips—no new taxes. He did the responsible thing in signing the deficit-reduction package, but in doing so he broke his most visible campaign commitment and violated the anti-tax theology of his party’s right-wing base.
The conservatives didn’t direct all their fire at the President; I got my fair share, too, from a group called ARIAS, which stood for Alliance for the Rebirth of an Independent American Spirit. ARIAS was led in part by Cliff Jackson, an Arkansan whom I’d known and liked at Oxford, but who was now a conservative Republican with a deep personal animosity toward me. When ARIAS ran TV, radio, and newspaper ads attacking my record, we responded quickly and aggressively. The attacks might have done the campaign more good than harm, because answering them highlighted my accomplishments as governor, and because the source of the attacks made them suspect among New Hampshire Democrats. Two days before Christmas, a New Hampshire poll placed me second to Paul Tsongas and closing fast. The year ended on a good note.
On January 8, Governor Wilder withdrew from the race, reducing the competition for African-American voters, especially in the South. At about the same time, Frank Greer produced a great television ad, highlighting New Hampshire’s economic problems and my plan to remedy them, and we moved ahead of Tsongas in public polls. By the second week of January, our campaign had raised $3.3 million in less than three months, half of it from Arkansas. It seems a paltry sum today, but it was good enough to lead the field in early 1992.
The campaign seemed to be on track until January 23, when the Little Rock media received advance notice of a story in the February 4 issue of the tabloid newspaper Star, in which Gennifer Flowers said she had carried on a twelve-year affair with me. Her name had been on the list of five women Larry Nichols alleged I had affairs with during the 1990 governors race. At the time, she had strongly denied it. At first we didn’t know how seriously the press would take her about-face, so we stuck with the schedule. I took a long drive to Claremont, in southwestern New Hampshire, to tour a brush factory. The people who ran it wanted to sell their products to Wal-Mart, and I wanted to help them. At some point, Dee Dee Myers went into the plant’s small office and called headquarters. Flowers was claiming that she had tapes of ten phone conversations with me that supposedly proved the truth of her allegations.
A year earlier, Flowers’s lawyer had written a letter to a Little Rock radio station threatening a libel suit because one of its talk-show hosts had repeated some of the allegations in a Larry Nichols press release, saying the station had wrongfully and untruthfully accused her of having an affair. We didn’t know what was on whatever tapes Flowers might have, but I remembered the conversations clearly, and I didn’t think there could be anything damaging on them. Flowers, whom I’d known since 1977 and had recently helped get a state job, had called me to complain that the media were harassing her even at the place she was singing at night, and that she felt her job was threatened. I commiserated with her, but I hadn’t thought it was a big deal. After Dee Dee went to work trying to discover more about what the Star was planning to publish, I called Hillary and told her what was going on. Fortunately, she was staying at the Georgia Governor’s Mansion on a campaign trip, and Zell and Shirley Miller were wonderful to her.
The Flowers story hit with explosive force, and it proved irresistible to the media, though some of the stories cast doubt on her accusations. The press reported that Flowers had been paid for the story, and that she had vigorously denied an affair a year earlier. The media, to their credit, exposed Flowers’s false claims about her education and work history. These reports, however, were dwarfed by the allegations. I was dropping in the New Hampshire polls, and Hillary and I decided we should accept an invitation from the CBS program 60 Minutes to answer questions about the charges and the state of our marriage. It was not an easy call. We wanted to defend against the scandal coverage and to get back to the real issues without demeaning ourselves and adding fuel to the fire of personal-destruction politics, which I had deplored even before it burned me. I had already said I hadn’t lived a perfect life. If that was the standard, someone else would have to be elected President.
We taped the program at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston on Sunday morning, January 26, for showing later that night, after the Super Bowl. We talked to the interviewer, Steve Kroft, for over an hour. He began by asking if Flowers’s story was true. When I said it wasn’t, he asked if I had had any affairs. Perhaps I should have used Rosalynn Carter’s brilliant response to a similar question in 1976: If I had, I wouldn’t tell you. Since I wasn’t as blameless as Mrs. Carter, I decided not to be cute. Instead, I said that I had already acknowledged causing pain in my marriage, that I had already said more about the subject than any other politician ever had and would say no more, and that the American people understood what I meant.
Kroft, unbelievably, asked me again. His only goal in the interview was to get a specific admission. Finally, after a series of questions about Gennifer Flowers, he got around to Hillary and me, referring to our marriage as an arrangement. I wanted to slug him. Instead, I said, Wait a minute. You’re looking at two people who love each other. This is not an arrangement or an understanding. This is a marriage. Hillary then said she was sitting in the interview with me because I love him and I respect him and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck, don’t vote for him. After the early mud wrestling, Kroft grew more civil, and there were some good exchanges about Hillary’s and my life together. They were all cut out when the long interview was edited, down to about ten minutes, apparently because the Super Bowl shortened the program.
At some point during the session, the very bright, very hot overhead light above the couch Hillary and I were sitting on came loose from its tape on the ceiling and fell. It was directly above Hillary’s head, and if it had hit her, she could have been burned badly. Somehow I saw it out of the corner of my eye and jerked her over onto my lap a split second before it crashed on the spot where she had been sitting. She was scared, and rightly so. I just stroked her hair and told her that it was all right and that I loved her. After the ordeal, we flew home to watch the show with Chelsea. When it was over, I asked Chelsea what she thought. She said, I think I’m glad you’re my parents.
The next morning I flew to Jackson, Mississippi, for a breakfast organized by former governor Bill Winter and Mike Espy, both of whom had endorsed me early. I was uncertain whether anyone would come and what the reception would be. To my immense relief, they had to get extra chairs for a larger-than-expected crowd that seemed genuinely glad to see me. So I went back to work.
It wasn’t over, however. Gennifer Flowers gave a press conference to a packed house in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. She repeated her story and said she was sick of lying about it. She also acknowledged that she had been approached by a local Republican candidate who asked her to go public, but she declined to name him. Some of her tapes were played at the press conference, but except for proving that I had talked to her on the telephone, a fact I hadn’t denied, the content of the tapes was anticlimactic, given all the hoopla about them.
Despite some later coverage, the Flowers media circus was ending. I think the chief reason was that we had managed to put it in the right perspective on 60 Minutes. The public understood that I hadn’t been perfect and wasn’t pretending to be, but people also knew that there were many more important issues confronting the country. And a lot of people were repelled at the cash for trash aspects of the coverage. At about this time, Larry Nichols decided to drop his lawsuit, and he issued a public apology for, in his words, trying to destroy me: The media has made a circus out of this thing and now its gone way too far. When that Star article first came out, several women called asking if I was willing to pay them to say that they had had an affair with Bill Clinton. This is crazy. Questions were raised about the tapes that were played at Flowers’s press conference. The Star declined to release the original tapes. A Los Angeles television station retained an expert who stated that while he didn’t know that the tape was, in his words, doctored, it definitely had been selectively edited. CNN also ran some critical coverage, based on the analysis of its own expert.
As I’ve said, I first met Gennifer Flowers in 1977 when I was attorney general and she was a television reporter for a local station who often interviewed me. Soon afterward, she left Arkansas to pursue an entertainment career, I believe as a backup singer for country music star Roy Clark. At some point, she moved to Dallas. In the late eighties, she moved back to Little Rock to be near her mother and called to ask me to help her find a state job to supplement her income from singing. I referred her to Judy Gaddy on my staff, who was responsible for referring the many job seekers who asked for help with state employment to various agencies. After nine months, Flowers finally got a position paying less than $20,000 a year.
Gennifer Flowers struck me as a tough survivor who’d had a less-than-ideal childhood and disappointments in her career but kept going. She was later quoted in the press as saying that she might vote for me and, on another occasion, that she didn’t believe Paula Jones’s allegations of sexual harassment. Ironically, almost exactly six years after my January 1992 appearance on 60 Minutes, I had to give a deposition in the Paula Jones case, and I was asked questions about Gennifer Flowers. I acknowledged that, back in the 1970s, I had had a relationship with her that I should not have had. Of course, the whole line of questioning had nothing to do with Jones’s spurious sexual-harassment claim; it was just a part of the long, well-financed attempt to damage and embarrass me personally and politically. But I was under oath, and of course, if I hadn’t done anything wrong, I couldn’t have been embarrassed. My critics leapt on it. Ironically, even though they were sure the rest of the deposition was untruthful, this one answer they accepted as fact. The fact is, there was no twelve-year affair. Gennifer Flowers still has a suit against James Carville, Paul Begala, and Hillary for allegedly slandering her. I don’t wish her ill, but now that I’m not President anymore, I do wish she’d let them be.
A few days after the firestorm broke, I called Eli Segal and pleaded with him to come down to Little Rock to be a mature, settling presence in the headquarters. When he asked how I could want the help of someone like him, who had worked only in losing presidential campaigns, I cracked, I’m desperate. Eli laughed and came, becoming the campaigns chief of staff in charge of the central office, finances, and the campaign plane. Early in the month, Ned McWherter, Brereton Jones, and Booth Gardner, respectively the governors of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Washington, endorsed me. Those who had already done so, including Dick Riley of South Carolina, Mike Sullivan of Wyoming, Bruce King of New Mexico, George Sinner of North Dakota, and Zell Miller of Georgia, reaffirmed their support. So did Senator Sam Nunn, with the caveat that he wanted to wait and see what further stories came out.
A national poll said that 70 percent of the American people thought the press shouldn’t report on the private lives of public figures. In another, 80 percent of the Democrats said their votes wouldn’t be affected even if the Flowers story was true. That sounds good, but 20 percent is a lot to give up right off the bat. Nevertheless, the campaign picked up steam again, and it seemed that at least we could finish a strong second to Tsongas, which I thought would be good enough to get me to the southern primaries.
Then, just as the campaign seemed to be recovering, there was another big shock when the draft story broke. On February 6, the Wall Street Journal ran a story on my draft experience and on my relationship with the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas in 1969. When the campaign began, I was unprepared for the draft questions, and I mistakenly said I had never had a draft deferment during my Oxford years; in fact, I did have one from August 7 through October 20, 1969. Even worse, Colonel Eugene Holmes, who had agreed to let me join the program, now claimed that I had misled him to get out of the draft. In 1978, when reporters asked him about the charge, he said he had dealt with hundreds of cases and didn’t recall anything specific about mine. Coupled with my own misstatement that I had never had a deferment, the story made it seem that I was misleading people about why I wasn’t drafted. That wasn’t true, but at the time I couldn’t prove it. I didn’t remember and didn’t find Jeff Dwire’s tape relaying his friendly conversation with Holmes in March 1970, after I was out of the ROTC program and back in the draft. Jeff was dead, as was Bill Armstrong, the head of my local draft board. And all draft records from that period had been destroyed.
Holmes’s attack surprised me, because it contradicted his earlier statements. It’s been suggested that Holmes may have had some help with his memory from his daughter Linda Burnett, a Republican activist who was working for President Bush’s reelection.
Closer to the election, on September 16, Holmes would issue a more detailed denunciation questioning my patriotism and integrity and saying again that I had deceived him. Apparently, the statement was drafted by his daughter, with guidance from the office of my old opponent, Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, and had been revised by several Bush campaign officials.
A few days after the story broke, and just a week from election day in New Hampshire, Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC’s Nightline, called David Wilhelm and said that he had a copy of my now famous draft letter to Colonel Holmes, and that ABC would be doing a story about it. I had forgotten all about the letter, and ABC agreed to send us a copy, which they graciously did. When I read it, I could see why the Bush campaign was sure that the letter and Colonel Holmes’s revised account of the ROTC episode would sink me in New Hampshire.
That night Mickey Kantor, Bruce Lindsey, James Carville, Paul Begala, George Stephanopoulos, Hillary, and I met in one of our rooms at the Days Inn Motel in Manchester. We were getting killed in the press. Now there was a double-barreled attack on my character. All the television pundits said I was dead as a doornail. George was curled up on the floor, practically in tears. He asked if it wasn’t time to think about withdrawing. Carville paced the floor, waving the letter around and shouting, Georgie! Georgie! That’s crazy. This letter is our friend. Anyone who actually reads it will think he’s got character! Though I loved his never say die attitude, I was calmer than he was. I knew that George’s only political experience had been in Washington, and that, unlike us, he might actually believe the press should decide who was worthy and who wasn’t. I asked, George, do you still think I’d be a good President? Yes, he said. Then get up and go back to work. If the voters want to withdraw me, they’ll do it on election day. I’m going to let them decide.
The words were brave, but I was dropping in the polls like a rock in a well. I was already in third place, and it looked as if I might fall into single digits. On Carville’s and Mickey Kantor’s advice, we took out an ad in the Manchester Union Leader containing the full text of the letter, and bought two thirty-minute segments on television to let voters call in and ask me about the charges and whatever else was on their minds. One hundred fifty Arkansans dropped what they were doing and came to New Hampshire to go door-to-door. One of them, Representative David Matthews, had been a law student of mine and one of the strongest supporters of my legislative programs and my campaigns at home. David was an eloquent and persuasive speaker who soon became my chief surrogate after Hillary. After he warmed up the crowd for me at several rallies, I think some people thought he should have been the candidate. Six hundred more Arkansans listed their names and home phone numbers in a full-page ad in the Union Leader, urging New Hampshire Democrats to call them if they wanted to know the truth about their governor. Hundreds of calls were made.
Of all the Arkansans who came to help, no one made a bigger difference than my closest childhood friend, David Leopoulos. After the Flowers story broke, David heard TV commentators say I was finished. He was so upset, he got in his car and drove three days to New Hampshire. He couldn’t afford a plane ticket. When he reached our headquarters, Simon Rosenberg, my young press aide, scheduled him for an interview on a Boston radio station with a large New Hampshire audience. He hit it out of the park, just by talking about our forty-year friendship and making me seem more human. Then he spoke to a gathering of our discouraged volunteers from across the state. When he finished, he had them in tears and full of resolve for the final push. David worked the state for a whole week, doing radio interviews and passing out homemade flyers with pictures of our childhood friends as proof that I was a real person. At the end of his journey, I saw him at a rally in Nashua, where he hooked up with fifty other Arkansans, including Carolyn Staley, my old jazz partner Randy Goodrum, and my grade-school friend Mauria Aspell. The Friends of Bill probably saved the campaign in New Hampshire.
A few days before the election, I went down to New York for a long-planned fund-raiser. I wondered if anyone would come, even if only to see a dead man walking. As I made my way through the Sheraton Hotel kitchen to the ballroom, I shook hands with the waiters and kitchen workers, as I always did. One of the waiters, Dimitrios Theofanis, engaged me in a brief conversation that made him a friend for life. My nine-year-old boy studies the election in school and he says I should vote for you. If I do, I want you to make my boy free. In Greece, we were poor but we were free. Here, my boy can’t play in the park across the street alone or walk down the street to school by himself because it is too dangerous. He’s not free. So if I vote for you, will you make my boy free? I almost cried. Here was a man who actually cared about what I could do for his son’s safety. I told him that community police officers, who would walk the blocks and know the residents, could help a lot, and that I was committed to funding 100,000 of them.
I was already feeling better, but when I walked into the ballroom, my spirits soared: seven hundred people were there, including my Georgetown friend Denise Hyland Dangremond and her husband, Bob, who had come from Rhode Island to show moral support. I went back to New Hampshire thinking I might survive.
In the last few days of the campaign, Tsongas and I had a heated disagreement over economic policy. I had proposed a four-point plan to create jobs, help businesses get started, and reduce poverty and income inequality: cut the deficit in half in four years, with spending reductions and tax increases on the wealthiest Americans; increase investment in education, training, and new technologies; expand trade; and cut taxes modestly for the middle class and a lot more for the working poor. We had done our best to cost out each proposal, using figures from the Congressional Budget Office. In contrast to my plan, Tsongas said that we should just focus on cutting the deficit, and that the country couldn’t afford the middle-class tax cut, though he was for a cut in the capital gain’s tax, which would benefit wealthy Americans most. He called me a pander bear for proposing the tax cuts. He said he’d be the best friend Wall Street ever had. I shot back that we needed a New Democrat economic plan that helped both Wall Street and Main Street, business and working families. A lot of people agreed with Tsongass contention that the deficit was too big for my tax cuts, but I thought we had to do something about the two-decade growth in income inequality and the shift of the tax burden to the middle class in the 1980s.
While I was glad to debate the relative merits of our competing economic plans, I was under no illusion that the questions about my character had gone away. As the campaign drew to a close, I told an enthusiastic crowd in Dover what I really believed about the character issue:
It has been absolutely fascinating to me to go through the last few weeks and see these so-called character issues raised, conveniently, after I zoomed to the top by talking about your problems and your future and your lives.
Well, character is an important issue in a presidential election, and the American people have been making character judgments about their politicians for more than two hundred years now. And most of the time they’ve been right, or none of us would be here today. I’ll tell you what I think the character issue is: Who really cares about you? Who’s really trying to say what he would do specifically if he were elected President? Who has a demonstrated record of doing what they’re talking about? And who is determined to change your life rather than to just get or keep power? . . .
I’ll tell you what I think the character issue in this election is: How can you have the power of the presidency and never use it to help people improve their lives till your life needs saving in an election? That’s a character issue. . . .
I’ll tell you something. I’m going to give you this election back, and if you’ll give it to me, I won’t be like George Bush. I’ll never forget who gave me a second chance, and I’ll be there for you till the last dog dies.
Till the last dog dies became the rallying cry for our troops in the last days of the New Hampshire campaign. Hundreds of volunteers worked furiously. Hillary and I shook every hand we could find. The polls were still discouraging, but the pulse felt better.
On election morning, February 18, it was cold and icy. Young Michael Morrison, Jan Paschal’s wheelchair-bound student, woke in anticipation of working a polling place for me. Unfortunately, his mother’s car wouldn’t start. Michael was disappointed but not deterred. He rode his motorized wheelchair out into the cold morning and onto the shoulder of the slick road, then wheeled himself into the winter wind for two miles to reach his duty station. Some people thought the election was about the draft and Gennifer Flowers. I thought it was about Michael Morrison; and Ronnie Machos, the little boy with a hole in his heart and no health insurance; and the young girl whose unemployed father hung his head in shame over the dinner table; and Edward and Annie Davis, who didn’t have enough money to buy food and the medicine they needed; and the son of an immigrant waiter in New York who couldn’t play in the park across the street from where he lived. We were about to find out who was right.
That night, Paul Tsongas won with 35 percent, but I finished a strong second with 26 percent, well ahead of Kerrey with 12 percent, Harkin with 10 percent, and Brown with 9 percent. The rest of the votes went to write-ins. At the urging of Joe Grandmaison, a New Hampshire supporter I’d known since the Duffey campaign, I spoke to the media early, and at Paul Begala’s suggestion said New Hampshire had made me the Comeback Kid. Tsongas had annihilated me in the precincts closest to the Massachusetts state line. From ten miles north into New Hampshire, I had actually won. I was elated and profoundly grateful. The voters had decided that my campaign should go on.
I had come to love New Hampshire, to appreciate its idiosyncrasies, and to respect the seriousness of its voters, even those who chose someone else. The state had put me through the paces and made me a better candidate. So many people had befriended Hillary and me and lifted us up. A surprising number of them worked in my administration, and I kept in touch with several more over the next eight years, including hosting a New Hampshire Day at the White House.
New Hampshire demonstrated just how deeply the American people wanted their country to change. On the Republican side, Pat Buchanan’s upstart campaign had won 37 percent of the vote, and the Presidents national approval ratings had dropped below 50 percent for the first time since the Gulf War. Although he still led both Paul Tsongas and me in the polls, the Democratic nomination was clearly worth having.
After New Hampshire, the rest of the primaries and caucuses came on at such a pace that the kind of retail politics New Hampshire demands became impossible to replicate. On February 23, Tsongas and Brown were the victors in the Maine caucuses, with Tsongas receiving 30 percent and Brown 29 percent. I was a distant third at 15 percent. With the exception of Iowa, the states with a caucus system drew far fewer people into the delegate-selection process than primaries did. Thus, the caucuses favored candidates with a hard core of intense supporters. They usually, but not always, were more left-leaning than the Democrats as a whole, and well to the left of the general election voters. On February 25, voters in the South Dakota primary gave more support to their neighbors Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin than to me, though I made a respectable showing on just one trip to a rally at a horse ranch.
March was a big month. It opened with primaries in Colorado, Maryland, and Georgia. I had a lot of friends in Colorado, and former governor Dick Lamm was my Rocky Mountain coordinator, but the best I could do was a three-way split with Brown and Tsongas. Brown got 29 percent, I received 27 percent, with Tsongas right behind at 26 percent. In Maryland, I started out with a strong organization, but some supporters shifted to Tsongas when I dipped in the New Hampshire polls. He defeated me there.
Georgia was the big test. I hadn’t won a primary yet, and I had to win there, and win convincingly. It was the largest state to vote on March 3 and the first in the South. Zell Miller had moved the primary date up a week, to separate Georgia from the southern Super Tuesday states. Georgia was an interesting state. Atlanta is a diverse, cosmopolitan city, with one of the highest concentrations of corporate headquarters of any other city in America. Outside Atlanta, the state is culturally conservative. For example, despite his great popularity, Zell had tried and failed to get the state legislature to take the Confederate cross off the state flag, and when his successor, Governor Roy Barnes, did it, he was defeated for reelection. The state also has a large military presence, long protected by its congressional leaders. It was no accident that Sam Nunn was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. When the draft story broke, Bob Kerrey said that when I got to Georgia, the voters would split me open like a soft peanut, a clever hit, because Georgia grows more peanuts than any other state. A couple of days after the New Hampshire vote, I flew to Atlanta. When my plane landed, I was met by Mayor Maynard Jackson, an old friend, and Jim Butler, a prosecuting attorney and Vietnam veteran who smiled and said he was one soldier who didn’t want to split me open like a soft peanut.
The three of us rode downtown for a rally in a shopping mall. I got onto the stage with a large crowd of prominent Democrats who were supporting me. Before long, the stage built for the occasion couldn’t support all of us; it just collapsed, throwing bodies everywhere. I wasn’t hurt, but one of my co-chairs, Calvin Smyre, an African-American state representative, wasn’t so lucky. He fell and broke his hip. Later, Craig Smith joked to Calvin that he was the only one of my supporters who literally busted his ass for me. He sure did. But so did Zell Miller, Congressman John Lewis, and a lot of other Georgians. And so did a number of Arkansans who had organized themselves into the Arkansas Travelers. The Travelers campaigned in almost every state with a presidential primary. They always made a difference, but they were particularly effective in Georgia. The political press said that to go forward I had to win decisively there, with at least 40 percent of the vote. Thanks to my friends and my message, I won 57 percent.
The following Saturday, in South Carolina, I picked up my second win, with 63 percent of the vote. I had a lot of help from Democratic officials, plus former governor Dick Riley, and friends from Renaissance Weekend. Tom Harkin made a last-ditch effort to derail me, and Jesse Jackson, a South Carolina native, went around the state with him criticizing me. Despite the attacks, and the crass response to them I carelessly made at a radio station in a room with a live microphone, other black leaders stayed hitched. I received a large majority of the black vote, as I had in Georgia. I think it surprised my opponents, all of whom had strong convictions and good records on civil rights. But I was the only southerner, and both I and the Arkansas blacks supporting me brought years of personal connections to black political, educational, business, and religious leaders all across the South and beyond.
As in Georgia, I also got good support from white primary voters. By 1992, most of the whites who wouldn’t support a candidate with close ties to the black community had already become Republicans. I got the votes of those who wanted a President to reach across racial lines to attack the problems that plagued all Americans. The Republicans tried to keep this group’s numbers small by turning every election into a culture war, and turning every Democrat into an alien in the eyes of white voters. They knew just what psychological buttons to push to get white voters to stop thinking, and when they got away with it, they won. Besides trying to win the primary, I was trying to keep enough white voters thinking to be competitive in the South in the general election.
After Georgia, Bob Kerrey withdrew from the race. After South Carolina, Tom Harkin did, too. Only Tsongas, Brown, and I headed into Super Tuesday, with its eight primaries and three caucuses. Tsongas defeated me badly in the primaries in his home state of Massachusetts and neighboring Rhode Island, and won the caucuses in Delaware. But the southern and border states made the day a rout for our campaign. In all the southern primaries—in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—I won a majority of the vote. In Texas, with the help of friends I’d made in the 1972 McGovern campaign and a big majority among Mexican-Americans, I won with 66 percent. In all the other primary states I did better than that, except for Florida, which, after a hotly contested race, went 51 percent Clinton, 34 percent Tsongas, 12 percent Brown. I also won the caucuses in Hawaii, thanks to Governor John Waihee, and in Missouri, where Lieutenant Governor Mel Carnahan endorsed me, despite having his own primary campaign for governor. He won anyway.
After Super Tuesday, I had just a week to cement my strategy of building an insurmountable lead in Illinois and Michigan. Only a month earlier, I had been in free fall, with all the media experts predicting my demise. Now I was in the lead. However, Tsongas was still very much alive. On the day after Super Tuesday, he quipped that, because of my strong showing in the southern primaries, he would consider me as his vice-presidential running mate. The next day he, too, was in the Midwest, questioning my character, my record as governor, and my electability. For him the character issue was the middle-class tax cut. A new poll showed that around 40 percent of the American people also doubted my honesty, but I doubted that they were thinking about the tax issue.
There was nothing to do but stick to my strategy and press on. In Michigan, I visited the small town of Barton, near Flint, where a large majority of the residents had come from Arkansas, looking for jobs in the auto industry. On March 12, I spoke in Macomb County, near Detroit, the prototypical home of the Reagan Democrats, voters who had been lured away from our party by Reagan’s anti-government, strong-defense, tough-on-crime message. In fact, these suburban voters had begun voting Republican in the 1960s, because they thought the Democrats no longer shared their values of work and family, and were too concerned with social programs, which they tended to see as taking their tax money and giving it to blacks and wasteful bureaucrats.
I told a full house at Macomb County Community College that I would give them a new Democratic Party, with economic and social policies based on opportunity for and responsibility from all citizens. That included corporate executives earning huge salaries without regard to their performance, working people who refused to upgrade their skills, and poor people on welfare who could work. Then I told them we couldn’t succeed unless they were willing to reach across racial lines to work with all people who shared those values. They had to stop voting along the racial divide, because the problems are not racial in nature. This is an issue of economics, of values.
The next day, I gave the same message to a few hundred black ministers and other activists at the Reverend Odell Jones’s Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in inner-city Detroit. I told the black audience, many of whom had Arkansas roots, that I had challenged the white voters in Macomb County to reach across the racial divide, and now I was challenging them to do the same, by accepting the responsibility part of my agenda, including welfare reform, tough child-support enforcement, and anti-crime efforts that would promote the values of work, family, and safety in their neighborhoods. The twin speeches got quite a bit of attention, because it was unusual for a politician to challenge Macomb County whites on race or inner-city blacks on welfare and crime. When both groups responded strongly to the same message, I wasn’t surprised. In their heart of hearts, most Americans know that the best social program is a job, that the strongest social institution is the family, and that the politics of racial division are self-defeating.
In Illinois, I visited a sausage factory with black, Hispanic, and Eastern European immigrant employees to highlight the company’s commitment to giving all employees who hadn’t finished high school access to a GED program. I met a new citizen from Romania who said he would cast his first vote for me. I worked in the black and Hispanic communities with two young activists, Bobby Rush and Luis Gutierrez, both of whom would later be elected to Congress. I toured an energy-efficient housing project with a young Hispanic community leader, Danny Solis, whose sister Patti went to work for Hillary in the campaign and has been with her ever since. And I marched in Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, to the cheers of supporters and jeers of opponents, both enhanced by the beer that was in ample supply at bars along the parade route.
Two days before the election, I debated Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown on television in Chicago. They knew it was make-or-break time, and they went after me. Brown grabbed the spotlight with a harsh attack on Hillary, saying that I had steered state business to the Rose firm to increase her income and that a poultry company her firm represented got special treatment from the Department of Pollution Control and Ecology because of her. The charges were ridiculous and the vehemence with which Jerry made them angered me. I explained the facts, as I had done when Frank White attacked Hillary’s law practice in the 1986 governor’s race. The Rose firm had represented the State of Arkansas in the bond business since 1948. It represented the state against the utilities that wanted Arkansas to pay for the Grand Gulf nuclear plant. Hillary had all legal fees paid by the state deleted from the firm’s income before her partnership share was calculated, so she didn’t receive any benefit from them, as even rudimentary research would have shown. Moreover, there was no evidence that the Rose firm’s clients secured special favors from any state agency. I shouldn’t have lost my temper, but the charges were plainly baseless. Subconsciously, I suppose I also felt guilty that Hillary had been forced to defend me so much, and I was glad to be able to rise to her defense.
Everyone who knew her knew she was scrupulously honest, but not everyone knew her, and the attacks hurt. On the morning after the debate, we were shaking hands at the Busy Bee Coffee Shop in Chicago when a reporter asked her what she thought of Browns charges. She gave a good answer about trying to have both a career and a family life. The reporter then asked if she could have avoided the appearance of a conflict. Of course, that’s exactly what she did and what she should have said. But she was tired and stressed. Instead, she said, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life. And I’ve worked very, very hard to be as careful as possible, and that’s all I can tell you.
The press picked up the tea and cookies remark and played it as a slam on stay-at-home mothers. The Republican culture warriors had a field day, portraying Hillary as a militant feminist lawyer who would be the ideological leader of a Clinton-Clinton administration that would push a radical feminist agenda. I hurt for her. Over the years, I don’t know how many times I’d heard her champion the importance of ensuring choices for women, including the choice to stay home with their children, a decision most mothers, single and married, simply couldn’t afford anymore. Also, I knew she liked to bake cookies and have her women friends for tea. With one off-the-cuff remark, she had given our opponents another weapon to do what they did best—divide and distract the voters.
It was all forgotten the next day when we won in Illinois, Hillary’s home state, with 52 percent to 25 percent for Tsongas and 15 percent for Brown, and in Michigan, with 49 percent to 27 percent for Brown and 18 percent for Tsongas. If Browns attack on Hillary had any effect, it probably hurt him in Illinois. Meanwhile, President Bush handily defeated Pat Buchanan in both states, effectively ending his challenge. Although the division in the Republican ranks was good for me, I was glad to see Buchanan defeated. He had played to the dark side of middle-class insecurity. For example, in one southern state he visited a Confederate cemetery but wouldn’t even walk across the street to visit the black cemetery.
After a great celebration in Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel, complete with Irish green confetti in honor of the holiday, we got back to business. On the surface, the campaign was in great shape. Underneath, things weren’t so clear. One new poll showed me running even with President Bush. Another, however, showed me well behind, even though the Presidents job approval had dropped to 39 percent. A survey of Illinois voters as they left their polling places said half the Democrats were unhappy with their choice of presidential candidates. Jerry Brown was unhappy, too. He said he might not support me if I won the nomination.
On March 19, Tsongas withdrew from the campaign, citing financial problems. That left Jerry Brown as my only opponent as we headed toward the Connecticut primary on March 24. It was assumed I would win in Connecticut, because most of the Democratic leaders had endorsed me, and I had friends there going back to my law school days. Though I campaigned hard, I was worried. It just didn’t feel good. The Tsongas supporters were mad at me for driving him from the race; they were going to vote for him anyway or switch to Brown. By contrast, my supporters had a hard time getting stirred up, because they thought I had the nomination in the bag. I was worried that a low turnout could cost me the election. That’s exactly what happened. The turnout was around 20 percent of the registered Democrats, and Brown beat me, 37 to 36 percent. Twenty percent of the voters were die-hard Tsongas supporters who stood by their man.
The next big test was in New York on April 7. Now that I had lost in Connecticut, if I didn’t win in New York, the nomination would be in danger again. With its tough, insatiable twenty-four-hour news cycle and its rough-and-tumble interest group politics, New York seemed to be the ideal place to derail my campaign.