August 1991, Bill Clinton told state Sen. Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff, a good friend, that he might seek the Democratic presidential nomination because better known figures in his party were bowing out like fallen dominoes. Opportunities were to be seized. But he said something was worrying him.
“What if I get the nomination?” he asked. His dread was that he’d then have to go man-to-man with George Bush, the hero of Desert Storm, and risk a career-ending whipping of Mondaleish proportions. A month later he met with friends at the Governor’s Mansion, seeking advice, and heard them say such things as, “Bill, my God, the man has an 80 percent approval rating.”
But the waters were parting for him, and any man worthy of his ambition was obliged to walk across, even if drowning was a distinct possibility. Clinton was worthy of his ambition, as few should have doubted.
He formed an exploratory committee, hiring Craig Smith, a young Little Rock lawyer who was working on his gubernatorial staff and had coordinated Gary Hart’s campaign in Arkansas in 1984, as his first, and at the time only, employee. Then he made his run official in mid-October.
On Tuesday, 15 months after fretting that he might get stuck with his party’s booby-prized nomination, 10 months after Gennifer Flowers threatened him with extinction and a letter he wrote at the age of 23 about his draft status nearly killed his lifelong aspiration, seven months after his primary campaign ran out of money and he had to lay off more than 100 field workers and six months after New York City treated him as a Southern buffoon before embracing him, Clinton was convincingly elected president of the United States.
He defeated Bush by a rather smashing electoral majority, redefined and revitalized a Democratic Party that had wondered if it would ever inhabit the White House again and emerged, like John F. Kennedy, as the first of his generation to be elected to what is still the world’s most prestigious political office.
The voters retired Bush because of his non-performance on the economy, to try to end the Washington gridlock and because the Republicans ran a poor campaign that became focused only at the end. By then it was too late to emphasize trust as an issue, mainly because Bush was vulnerable on the point himself.
“The real deal was we had to run a flawless campaign because we knew they would,” Craig Smith said amid last minute efforts to get out the vote on Tuesday. “We did. And they didn’t.”
Credit goes first to the hoarse candidate, who was ever energetic, almost error free and ever adaptable in bringing Reagan Democrats into his fold while satisfying the traditional Democratic constituencies.
Kevin O’Keefe, a Chicago lawyer and old friend of Bill and Hillary who directed Clinton’s sterling win in Illinois, said Chicago polls began calling him the last two weeks of the campaign to say, “You were right. This guy is the best politician I’ve ever seen.” “He’s a typical big city politician,” O’Keefe said. “I think Arkansas politics being able to appeal to diverse groups is much like big city politics.” Secondary credit, and star status, goes to James Carville, the quirky Louisiana born strategist and romantic interest of Mary Matalin, whose own star status as a spin doctor for Bush was dealt a mighty blow while her boyfriend on hold became a Democratic guru.
Each evening in the , Clinton campaigns famous “war room” designed for quick, in-your-face responses i.e., the antithesis of Dukakis’ campaign Carville would conduct strategy meetings, often lying on his back in the middle of the floor and shouting profanities when someone would propose something he found ill advised. Once at the end of a meeting he offered $100 to any staff member wanting to crack an egg on his pointy head, then cracked an egg on the head of the staff member who had done the deed.
“That’s a wrap, see you in the morning,” he said as the egg ran down his and the staff members faces. “In an environment like this, sometimes these kids get caught up in the rarefied air and think they’re important,” Carville said later. “Every once in a while you need to bring yourself down to earth, and cracking an egg on your head is always a good way.”
Late in the campaign, Carville explained his philosophy of politics to the Downtown Little Rock Rotary Club. He asked the assembly to consider the most popular tourist attraction in Virginia. Was it Monticello, Mount Vernon of Colonial Williamsburg? No, none of those. It was the factory outlet mall outside Alexandria. “Thats America, worrying about the economy, worrying about healthcare, looking for a way to get by,” he said.
Overlooked in the candidates virtuoso performance and the Carville celebrity was the so-called field operation, which was headed by David Wilhelm, the campaign manager, and the same Craig Smith who had been the exploratory committees first employee. It was eventually joined later by Skip Rutherford, the Arkla executive who, like his friend Clinton, couldn’t resist the opportunity to come aboard the campaign.
The field operation had charge of the 50 state campaigns organizing the headquarters, getting out the vote, trying to dominate the vast opportunity presented by local television and responding to state specific charges that the Bush campaign began making in targeted radio spots late in the campaign. That was among Rutherford’s assignments.
For example, the Bush campaign in Maine broadcast a radio spot saying Clinton’s policies would increase utility rates in Maine by 144 million a year basing the finding on a partisan study by a Republican researcher.
“We we’re on the air with a response in two hours,” Smith said. “By having a coordinated campaign with field operations, research and issues people working side-by-side, we were able to have a faxed response in the hands of the Maine campaign practically by the time they could turn around.”
The Bush campaign also placed radio spots on black stations across the country alleging falsely that Arkansas did not observe Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday. It was the job of Smith’s field operation to identify the areas that had been targeted with the ad, and get the quick response into the right hands.
Probably most important, though, was the field operations emphasis on exploiting local television stations, an oft-untapped Source of mass exposure, in key states. “We had two goals: GOT &emdash; get out the vote. And GOTV &emdash; get on TV,” Smith said.
While the Bush campaigning was running a traditional campaign heavy on national television advertising, the Clinton campaign was spending sparingly on national TV, emphasizing well-placed spots on stations in key states, and making itself irresistible to the local television stations news operations.
“We had a goal: Dominate local television from August 1 on, and we did it, using mostly 26-year-old field workers,” Smith said. “And this campaign is dominated by people with media and journalism backgrounds. Understand the media: That was a theme. The Bush campaign was stuck in a traditional strategy. They kept making mistakes. They tried to demonize Hillary; then they went with family values. At the end, their emphasis on trust played into our hands with the Weinberger indictment on Iran-Contra.”
Finally,the Arkansas factor in Clinton’s victory:
• He raised nearly 4 million in Arkansas, more than 1.50 per capita, providing him a base that no other Democratic aspirant could match.
• When he had a cash flow problem, Worthen National Bank arranged a bridge loan, based on certified but unreceived federal matching funds, to keep him going.
• World Wide Travel of Little Rock coordinated the nationwide flight and lodging arrangements for the campaign, devising a way to quickly collect media charges to keep the campaigns cash flow healthy.
•Arkansas Travelers, a collection of people like Jay Bradford, David Matthews, state Sen. Jerry Bookout and countless other friends of Clinton, invaded New Hampshire and vouched for their man when he looked beat.
• Much of Clinton’s ability to garner black support around the country &emdash; he was the first candidate since Bobby Kennedy to carry both the Jewish and black votes in New York City &emdash; was attributable to testimonials for him delivered by black ministers from Arkansas.
In the end, it was altogether fitting that Clintons triumph set off the biggest celebration ever seen in Little Rock, a city redeemed, at least in part, after being held up to international scorn 35 years ago during the Central High integration crisis.
This story originally appeared in print with the title, ” The anatomy of a miracle. Even Bill Clinton had reservations about the run that changed America.” On Nov. 5, 1992.