Barrelling toward Chicago on an old-fashioned whistle-stop tour, President Clinton clearly revels in the campaigning, in the flesh-pressing and baby-kissing, of grassroots appearances. But the man himself remains something of an enigma. Elizabeth Farnsworth takes a look at the train tour, and then sits down with three men who know Bill Clinton well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We begin with a look at Bill Clinton, the candidate. As the Democratic convention got underway in Chicago this week, he borrowed a page from candidates of the past.
HARRY TRUMAN: I suppose you'd like to meet my family.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The whistle-stop campaign is a tradition in American politics. Harry Truman's trip through the country's heartland was credited with helping him win a come-from-behind victory in the 1948 presidential race. In the age before television, when few Americans knew what their leaders looked like, the meandering train trips gave ordinary people a rare chance to actually see the presidential candidates.
The 13-car Clinton train, dubbed "The 21st Century Express," includes cars from Truman's train and from Franklin Roosevelt's. The rear platform bedecked with flags evokes those earlier eras, but that's where the similarities end. This train is equipped with sophisticated satellite equipment to beam back images of the President to news organizations like ours.
SPOKESMAN: So now let's go to the President on the right track to the 21st century.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And to the convention floor--an effort to build excitement for Bill Clinton's arrival in Chicago tonight. The President boarded the train in Huntington, West Virginia, on Sunday for a 500-mile excursion through four politically important states. The trip ended this afternoon in Michigan City, Indiana. He'll take a helicopter to Chicago, where he'll be officially nominated at the convention tonight. White House strategists say the trip is designed, in part, to get the President closer to the grassroots.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOLOUS, Senior Adviser to the President: The President wanted to help some excitement, and he'll be on a train. He'll get to go to a lot of little towns that never see a President, never get to touch their President, or hear from their President, in person, and just like he did in the bus trips of 1992. He wanted to generate that same kind of connection in 1996.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For President Clinton, it's been three days of unabashed politics. Crowds line the route to wait, often in the hot sun, for a glimpse of him. In Columbus, Ohio, a hug for a police officer, in Arlington, Ohio, happy birthday to a 98-year-old woman, in Toledo, Ohio, a tour of the jeep plant, and in Wyandotte, Michigan, a reading of the “Little Engine That Could.”
CHILD: And she thought of the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain who won't--won't--
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Would--
CHILD: Would not have any toys or good food unless she helped. (crowd cheering)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Also on board are an average of 160 reporters, many of them from small town papers and stations. The “Toledo Blade” assigned seven staffers to cover the trip, a huge commitment of their resources, according to political correspondent Jack Torry, who thinks the President is scoring points.
JACK TORRY, Toledo Blade: This is one of the great campaigns of our age. Unlike Bob Dole, who seems to loathe the thought of campaigning, Bill Clinton just comes alive at this time of year, and he's having the time of his life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As it rolled through the heartland, the train has dominated the news. The “Chillicothe Gazette” put its impending arrival on the front page for a week. In Columbus, the No. 1 station, WBNS, devoted more resources than any station in their area to the presidential trip. For WBNS Anchor Angela Paste, who is in Chicago reporting on the convention, the extensive coverage was an important public service.
ANGELA PASTE, Anchor, WBNS-TV: Central Ohioans don't get much of an opportunity to go to Washington, to go to the White House. A lot of Central Ohioans cannot afford those $1,000 a plate dinners, fund-raising dinners that Presidents and other candidates often charge when they do visit the heartland. This was our way of bringing the President to the people and putting the people of Central Ohio on that train. They couldn't get on themselves, with their eyes and their ears; we got on for them.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you for coming. It's good to see you. Thank you.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOLOUS: Oh, I think it looks good. I know the President is having a good time with it, and I think the people out in Ohio and Kentucky who have come out in massive numbers to see him appreciate it as well. You know, people feel disconnected from politicians, from their President, and to just have the chance to see him in person and hear from him, from his own mouth his plans for the future is important.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The trip was organized by two Hollywood producers who are consultants to the Clinton campaign and as for the issues, they are carefully choreographed to dovetail with the convention proceedings. On Monday, it was crime; Tuesday, education; today, the environment. But is it news?
JACK TORRY: It's a Kodak moment. There is no substance. I mean, this type of train trip is a brilliant PR move. You have a convention in which there's no news whatsoever being generated, in which it's all kind of a show biz type atmosphere much like the Republican convention two weeks ago. Here they were able to get the President in the news not only in our newspaper but in newspapers all throughout the country, and, as well, they were able to get on the evening news shows at 6 o'clock, whereas, the Republicans two weeks ago couldn't crack that 6 o'clock news or lead off the news that way. So it's a fabulous PR move.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Public relations? That doesn't bother News Anchor Paste.
ANGELA PASTE: I think that in a situation like this we use each other. I mean, face it, it's obvious. They use us, we use them, they use us to get the message out, we use them, hopefully, to get in some numbers, get people to watch. So it's a mutual stroke job. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Hey, we make TV!
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: With me now to discuss the man on that train are three people who have known and worked with him: Vernon Jordan, a Washington attorney and a longtime friend and adviser, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Governor Bob Miller of Nevada, the new chairman of the National Governors Association. Thank you all for being with us. Vernon Jordan, campaigning from a train, was President Clinton in his element?
VERNON JORDAN, Presidential Adviser: Very much in his element. It is a continuation of the journey that he started in New Haven, Connecticut, from the Yale Law School, when he said no to corporate America, to Wall Street, and to big law firms, and went right to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to help save and change the South. And this is just a continuation of that journey. He's a circuit rider, demonstrating that he cares about people and the issues that affect their lives.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is it that energizes him, Mr. Jordan? Is it the--is it the adulation from people along the way, is it the--you know--the issues that he gets out? What--it does seem to energize him. What is it?
MR. JORDAN: He is energized, and I think he's energized by the aspirations of Americans, what they want, what they need for themselves and for their families. It was that basis upon which he wanted to do something about the South, to make it better for black people and for white people, and this is just a continuation of that journey. Does he like it? He likes it. Jay likes it. The Governor likes it. I like it. Uh, so--but the most important thing is that he is taking his case to the people.
SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, West Virginia: Can I speak?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sure.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: I think he likes it for its own taste, and I think that's great. I don't think everything has to be just an issue. He loves people. Let me give you an anecdote. I got on the plane with him in Washington to go down to Huntington, West Virginia, where he started, and he got on the plane, and the first thing he said, you know, I got up at 1:30 last night, and I started to rewrite my convention speech, I am absolutely exhausted. And then he proceeded to talk about the train trip the entire way down, which is just an hour's flight, and then plunged into this four-day trip in which he was just completely turned on. Yes, it was issues, Vernon, but it was also human beings. I think he loves them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, I wanted to ask you about this. There's an interesting poll in the “L.A. Times” today, and an article about his popularity. And one of the points made is that people like it. He likes what he's doing, but he actually enjoys wielding power. Do you think that's true that he does enjoy it?
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: I would expect it probably is true. I think that when he comes close to people and you hear this from people a lot, that they feel empowered by him, that they feel that they really got something from Bill Clinton that was unique from him to them. I've heard this a lot. And I, I treasure that quality. I don't think everything has to be just making the right policies for America. I mean, it's also getting the people behind you, and that's what he's done.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator, what about control? Some have said that he's controlled all of this convention, even going over the outlines of speeches. Is this a person that has to control too much?
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: No. I think--I've never seen Bill Clinton as a control freak, so to speak. I mean, I think there are people around him whose job it is to make sure that happens, and then hopefully it does happen, otherwise, four days can stretch into, you know, seem like four years. But I think it's very smart that he's done this because he's made it exciting. He's going to be here for the nomination, his nomination night, building to a speech tomorrow. Every day's had a theme. That's good. That's merging issues and people.
MR. JORDAN: Also, you cannot con--I'm sorry, Governor.
GOV. BOB MILLER, Nevada: I was just going to add that I think--I wouldn't use the words power and control when I talk about Bill Clinton--I think the words are involvement and assistance, and to me, probably the only thing frustrating about this train ride to him is I suspect he would rather walk across America and shake hands with every single person, and he is better than anybody I've ever met at focusing into that person, listening to exactly what they have to say, and then moving on to the next person. He pays attention.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, that raises another question I wanted to ask, which is, what about the need to please everybody, which is especially in the early days of the presidency there was concern that because Bill Clinton wanted to please everybody, he, he couldn't stick with the issues that he was, he said he would stick with.
GOV. MILLER: If you have to have a fault, that's not a bad one to have. He really cares about people, and he genuinely listens and loves to discuss the issues. He's energized by it. He looks forward to getting out amongst everybody and paying attention and trying to learn from them, and, as the Senator said, I mean, if you spend any time with him in the evening, uh, he'll want to just discuss things, and here what you have to say, and interact with you. To him, that's like, you know, to some people going to a ball game or a movie. I mean, he just loves to know what's important to people.
MR. JORDAN: I don't quite understand this, this is about the need to please people. If he were interesting in pleasing people, he would not have taken the position that he took on NAFTA. His congressional leadership and organized labor, a big part of his party, were against it. If he had listened to the polls on Bosnia and Haiti, he would not have done that. So trying to please people is--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you think that's a bum rap, that he isn't--he hasn't lacked core beliefs, things that he's really willing to go to the mat for, which is of course what many people say about him?
MR. JORDAN: Just take affirmative action.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay.
MR. JORDAN: He went to the mat, not just in his presidency but as a college student. That is a very consistent core value in this man, and it's a core value of this country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And by saying he went to the mat on the presidency, you mean he resisted calls to, to make major changes in affirmative action?
MR. JORDAN: That's correct.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: And then the same thing, of course, would apply to the Brady Bill, to the assault ban weapon, environmental positions. I mean, he's taken an enormous number of stands, and remember, the issues, Reagan who preceded him, there weren't really a whole lot of issues. It was kind of the man. With him, I mean, he has issues all over Congress; we're trying, you know, to keep up with him.
MR. JORDAN: Also, also, I don't know of any politician who is not interested in pleasing and satisfying the needs and aspirations of as many people as he possibly can.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: It's true of lawyers too.
MR. JORDAN: Different for lawyers.
GOV. MILLER: Different motivation, but he listens and learns, but he's very capable of making decisions you can see from the vetoes we saw on policies in which there were basic differences in this last Congress. He's a man that makes decisions.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you don't think the Western states, for example--you're the governor of Nevada, and you have a feeling for, uh, how people are looking at him in the West--you don't think that he's perceived as, uh, wishy-washy, not having core beliefs?
GOV. MILLER: No, not at all. He's taken very strong positions on preservation of our environment. He's taken a position in my home state in Nevada, where he has indicated that he would veto legislation that would bring temporary storage of nuclear waste into our state and in very unfair circumstances, which isn't in the best interests of the rest of the country necessarily, and he's taken a position just on basic fairness. He does things like that all the time, and Vernon outlined several of the others.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the character issue? The polls are now showing the President rates fairly high, quite high, actually, in issues like compassion and understanding, and in leadership too but still his ratings are low in honesty, integrity, character issues. Talk to me about that. What can he do about that, and how much more is that--are we going to see of that in the months to come?
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: You know where I'd start? With Chelsea. I've seen quite a lot of Chelsea in the last couple of weeks because I was out where they were vacationing. That is one of the happiest, best, most independent, strong-minded, loving of her parents. I watched her last night when Hillary Clinton was speaking. She was beaming all the time. Don't you remember all the other children of Presidents who weren't? Uh, I mean, she is--she is a marvelously adjusted, happy result of 21 years of marriage, and, uh, when you start with character, I like to start with the children, in their case one.
MR. JORDAN: I think we confuse about how we define character. I think from your congressional leadership and the large portion of your party is against NAFTA and you go for it and stand for it. That's character. When everybody wants to not do anything about the Mexican peso, and the President says we must do something about the Mexican peso, that's character. When the polls say, don't go to Bosnia, the President says we must go, that's character. And that's enough for me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Governor Miller, how's that going to play in the West?
GOV. MILLER: It plays very well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that's how people are going to see it?
GOV. MILLER: Well, I think that's reality. That's how they should see it. I mean, he has made some very difficult decisions. They've been the right decisions for the country. I think that that's what we will learn during the course of the campaign. He's made a real difference in crime, as we heard, the differences there of protecting people. He's made a difference in environment, and I couldn't agree more about Chelsea. And my children are about the same age as her and knew her early years on, and this is--these are parents who really, really care about their child. They're a great family.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, gentlemen, thank you very much.
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