once upon a time in arkansas
interview: david watkins
A long-time Arkansas friend and supporter of Bill Clinton, David Watkins served as campaign manager for Clinton's 1992 Presidential bid.  After the election, Watkins went to Washington where he ran day-to-day operations at the White House until, in 1993, he was let go for playing a round of golf while on an advance trip to Camp David.

David Watkins: Hope was a wonderful place to grow up. It, I guess, was the stereotypical Southern town of 8,000 people, with Friday night was the big football game and the whole community was involved in that. Good friends and fellowship. It was just a great place to grow up and I would not take anything for my upbringing in Hope, Arkansas.

The President left Hope when he was quite young and I'm five years older than the President. My family knew his family; I'd met Bill Clinton when he was two or three years old. But, you know, eight- or nine-year olds didn't run around with two- or three-year olds at that time. So, I didn't really know Bill Clinton at that time. But, Mack McLarty and Vince Foster, I knew quite well. In fact, I think when I played Little League baseball or Pony League baseball, Mack McLarty's ambition at that time was to be a major-league baseball announcer. So, he announced games; he was an announcer for the Little League games. That's when I first got to know Mack McLarty.

Peter Boyer: So, then comes 1980 and a young, new politician on the statewide scene, Bill Clinton, runs for governor.

A: Well, actually, Bill Clinton, as a really young man in his early to mid-twenties, ran for Congress from the northwest Arkansas, second district, in `74.

Q: Were you aware of him at all?

A: Well, obviously, I knew the name from Hope. But, I had not seen Bill Clinton, you know, since he was two or three years old. So, I don't think and I don't recall having come across him during that campaign. But, then, in `76-- I think it's `76-- he ran for Attorney General; and, I did-- you know-- he was in Little Rock and I did come across him then. But, I really got, became involved with him in politics, or in representing him, in 1982.

Q: But, in 19--, you, at some point, you go up to him and make a contribution; an actual--

A: Well, it's a little different than campaign financing today. I think. In the summer of `80, I felt that Bill Clinton and, I guess there were polls out even then that he was in a horserace with Republican candidate, Frank White. I called, to show you how it worked back then; I called Bill Clinton myself, from my office, one day; and they patched me through to him and I said: "Bill, David Watkins. I want to contribute to your campaign. I want to come out and see you and give you my check." And, he said: "Okay". So, thirty minutes later, or sometime later--it may have been the next day, I don't recall that; but, I go out, visit the Governor (he is then Governor) and write him a check and hand it to him. And, he says: "I really appreciate this and thank you." That was my first political contribution of which I am aware. I think it's my very first one; certainly my most sizable one.

Q: And, two years later, you were working for him?

A: That's right.

Q: What moved you to make that call, make that contribution?

A: I had been exposed to Bill Clinton through, not so much exposure as his role as Governor and what he'd done for the state of Arkansas or his performance as Governor; although I'd not been unimpressed. I had, at one time I was in this sales and marketing association, president of the sales/marketing association of Arkansas, Little Rock. And, he came and spoke to a national group that we had in here; and, made such an impression on talking to him about all kinds of issues. And, I was so impressed with the way he dealt with people. The way he was, one-on-one. And, in fact I've used this description of Bill Clinton before and later, is that he's the greatest seducer I've ever met. And, he, through his manners and through his one-on-one ability, he seduced me sometime a long time ago, back in the early `80s.

Q: I seem to remember a rather extraordinary film clip from his campaign what would have been then 1982, I guess; in which he, more or less, apologizes or--

A: That kind of kicked off the 1982 campaign, in January. Which, mostly back then, you didn't start running a media campaign until before, right before the election. You know, six weeks, two months before. This, and the election was in May--This started in January; and, that was referred to as the Mea Culpa advertising campaign. Something that was developed, written by, Dick Morris.I'd been hired by then, and that's something I produced.

Q: What was the perceived need for it?

A: The need was to come back and to try to apologize for a lot of mistakes he had made when he was Governor. And, to talk to the voters in Arkansas and the people of Arkansas. That he realized he had made mistakes; but, he wanted another chance. And, he promised that he would listen. One of the big things, and one of the big things that he had been accused of as a first-term Governor, was that he didn't listen. He didn't listen; he had all the answers. And, he didn't listen to people out in the state. That defeat, in my opinion, was probably one of the best lessons Bill Clinton ever had as a politician. And, I think it really was great for him to have had that in his quest for President in 1992.

Q: the thing you called the Mea Culpa spot, was it something he readily signed off on?

A: I think so. I don't think there was any question that he saw that was the thing to do.

Q: And, you produced it?

A: Yes.

Q: Remind me exactly what it was. He looks into camera,--

A: He's in the camera about from here up. And, very one-on-one; talking to the viewer and doing, as I said earlier, apologizing for some of the mistakes he had made as Governor. And, sort of a promise that, not to do it again.

Q: It worked.

A: It worked well. In fact, it worked so well that-- the leading contender at that point in time was Jim Guy Tucker. And, we pretty much knocked Jim Guy out of the race early. And, then the Lieutenant Governor, Joe Purcell, who was also in the race, actually finished second. Jim Guy was a distant third. Joe Purcell was second and we had a run-off against Joe Purcell. And, in fact, the weekend before the run-off election on a Tuesday; the run-off was two weeks after the primary election. Joe Purcell was leading in our polls. And, we did an advertising campaign over that weekend. Distributed radio ads and TV spots by volunteers. Did a caravan across the state. And, to Memphis and Tulsa and Shreveport. And, we had spots on the air; we got this information on the poll like Friday. And, produced the spots Friday night, all night; sent them out Saturday morning, early, and during the night. They were running on Saturday and Sunday. And, Bill Clinton wins like by 51/49 or something like that. So, he was very close to losing to, in the Democratic primary in 1982.

Q: So, that was an extraordinary effort. I mean, a quick turn-around. And, a very challenging--

A: Very challenging for everybody, yeah.

Q: I'm just curious as to whether or not that was, at that point, it was something you thought you would do? You worked with Dick Morris. Tell me how that relationship worked? Morris comes in and he's a fellow, not from Arkansas certainly, and--

A: Dick's not an Arkansan. He was not your typical Arkansan. But, Dick was terrific to work with back then. I personally enjoyed him. I would have to say that others in the campaign that paid his bills and worked with him on, I think Betsy Wright would-- had a love/hate relationship with Dick Morris. He could be awfully frustrating, because he was always on an airplane going somewhere and he would drop in Little Rock, literally, for an hour meeting and be gone to Austin, Texas, or somewhere immediately thereafter. And, I would usually end up being the one rushing him to the airport after we got through.

But, I thoroughly enjoyed working with Dick Morris. I thought he was a creative genius. I thought he was very, very astute; in fact, I've often said to others, long before Dick got back involved with Bill Clinton and the White House back in the last election, that he was the only person that I had ever met that could go toe-to-toe with Bill Clinton in a debate and win 50 percent of the time.

Q: Back then, what did he bring to the enterprise, Dick Morris?

A: Well, Dick was a pollster. He was more than a pollster. And, he did them, I think, better than anyone else. We thought it so; we thought his information was very good. He would do polling on a very regular basis. Dick brought a creative flair of writing and honing the message. What the polls said; where the troubles were; where the opportunities were. Dick could hone in better than anybody and say: This is what we need to do.

And, he would sit there on a typewriter and he could do it. He could turn around things that would take my copywriters, and I thought I had good copywriters; they weren't political copywriters; but, it would take them two or three days to, you know, concept, have a concept and then get it in production. Dick Morris could do it in three minutes. He was unbelievable.

Q: So. Working from his gut and from his numbers, his numbers magic, Morris would help to shape the Clinton message through these every-other-year campaigns.

A: Every other year, back then. Well, there was a small group of us and--

Q: It was your job then to actually make the message and get it out there?

A: Yeah. But, what he would do, the way we worked, it was incredible. Everybody, usually Betsy, the players for hearing, approving the scripts and everything. There'd be Betsy Wright, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, myself and a person then who was his secretary, Joan Roberts, press secretary. And, so, and Dick would come in; we'd have this meeting scheduled because we only had Dick for so much time. He would come in and, usually, he hadn't, didn't have the spots then. But, he'd give a poll. He'd give the reports of this poll. And, usually, he'd be on the phone.

First, when he first got there, he'd get on the phone and get it by phone. And, it'd be handwritten. And, he would say, well this, this, this and this. And, this is what we need to respond to. And he would say, Give me five minutes. And, he'd go downstairs or go off in another room and type a spot and come back in. "Here's what we need to say". And, then we'd all hone that down. Bill Clinton would say, "Dick, you're crazy. That's terrible." Or, "That's great". And, then it would be refined, somewhat. And, I would take it then, and produce the spot. Do all the, you know, pictorial parts of it. You know, do the video and produce it, ship it out, buy the media time....We used to be able to do; oh, we've turned around spots in thirty minutes.

Q: Is it the sort of circumstance repeated over and over, every couple of years, that sort of, basically, this on-going ceaseless campaign. Is it the sort of circumstance that brings this group of people around the politician close together?

A: I thought there was great bonding, if that's a good word now, back in during those elections. Because, we were, it was, you know we were at war. We were at war to win that election. And that's, even to a greater extent, that was my feeling about the `92 campaign. That's what was so great. There was great bonding; because, we were an underdog and we didn't have a chance to win early on.

And, then, each week it was like a football season; we'd go in the first, into New Hampshire. Well, we lose that one. Then, we go into Super Tuesday; and, then we win that one. Then, we go to another state. And we win; and we win; and we win. And, it looks like we're going to go 10 and 1, you know. And, then New York jumps up and we have a Rhode Island, I guess, behind that. We lose one, right before New York. So, it makes New York real important; like a Bowl game. So, we knock `em crazy in New York and we win New York. After New York, we got the support-- and I'm jumping ahead, Peter; but, we get the support of the Democratic National Committee and Ron Brown and, after New York, we all pretty much feel like we got it made. And, we go on and finally achieve the top, of California...

BACK TO THE 1980'S...

Q: In that time when you all are now drawn into the Clinton circle. He's Governor Clinton. He's running every other year. There is the distant prospect of even a larger role for him in national politics. Did you all much socialize with that group? They came into your sphere in some way, certainly.

A: No, we didn't. And, we attended events, functions, at the Governor's mansion, the capital, and other things on

occasion. But, to say that we socialized or, with the Clintons, we did not.

Q: You were sensitive to the sort of social order of Little Rock, if I can use that term. Do you have any memory of the place in that order of Jim and Susan McDougal, during this time?

A: Well, I mean, she was always on TV. I mean, you couldn't miss that. But, who they were-- you know I do remember him driving around in that Bentley, I believe that's what it was. And, I just laughed. I mean, I thought it was funny. I think he's a lot smarter than I realized he-- Well, I didn't know much about him. He obviously is a very bright man. Did not have any idea his involvement.

.... I don't think I ever met Jim McDougal. I don't think I've ever met him personally. I don't recall having ever met him. You know, I guess for clarification, you ask if we were socially connected to the Clintons. We weren't back in those years of Governor, except there were so many races; we ran so often; and we ran a primary and the general election. And, we started planning or running on it in February. So, February through May, every night we were involved. Did I eat at the mansion? I ate chocolate chip cookies, probably about ten pounds worth, from Ashley's chocolate chip cookies. And, sandwiches and all those kinds of things. We ate-- we met almost every night for a period of weeks and weeks in the spring and in the fall; every two years. So, I felt like-- I mean, the mansion staff knew me; the state policemen knew me; and, those kinds of things. But, to go to private dinners there at the mansion, we didn't do that.

Q: He calls on you, I believe it was the next summer probably, in somewhere of `91, to be one of the very first people drawn into that circle that is deciding whether or not to go. And you were one of the very first people to get into that presidential campaign.

A: Right.

Q: I'd like you to help me get some sense of what goes through your mind. I mean, that's a huge undertaking. Did you--

A: You know, it's like most things in life, you stick your toe in it and the water feels okay. Then, you get in it and you're suddenly, you step off and you don't find the bottom. That's sort of what happened. Bill Clinton, I don't recall the specific dates; but, the summer of `91, probably July, early July, brings some people down from Washington. Three or four media types; a researcher-- Stan Greenberg was one of them, to talk about what you did, how you-- how did you run for president.

So, he brought some people in; and, rather than their meeting in the Governor's mansion, Gloria called me and said: "Do you think we could meet at your office? Your conference room? And, have these guys where the press will not see people coming into the mansion?" I said, "Sure". And, obviously, she asked me to attend. So, there was a group of five or six of us there; meeting in my conference room in July, to discuss what you needed to do, and what you had to do, to run for president.

Q: And, it was sometime shortly thereafter, when you were asked to get ultimately became the first campaign office up and running.

A: Right.

Q: How'd you go about doing that?

A: Well, we had used this particular campaign headquart-- this particular location, The Paint Store, as we fondly called it, in one of the gubernatorial elections. I don't think it was the one right before. But, anyway, I knew the guy that owned the store, owned the property. So, I called him up and leased that space.

Ordered the telephones; got an easy-to-remember telephone number. And, set up office in The Paint Store.

and this was the period that Bill Clinton was canvassing the state to ask Arkansans if they would let him out of his pledge of not leaving Arkansas and remaining as Governor, to run for President and be President, if he was elected.

So, he was doing that and we were at one of the meetings and I, as I recall, Hillary asked me if I would actually go down and kind of run things with the volunteers. We did have some volunteers at this office; and, if I would kind of go down and oversee things-- Until Bill announced if he was going to run or not. And, so this was like Labor Day weekend; first of September. And, he was supposed to make that decision by September 15. So, I said: well, two weeks out of my life; that's--I've done this before. So, sure.

But, to me our objective was to make it to the Michigan and Illinois primary, which was March 17th. Or, make it as long as we could. What we hoped for is to get enough money to do that well, that long, and see what happened. And, if we didn't win, didn't win in `92 our name, Bill Clinton's name, would have been out there and set him up as a candidate for `96.

Well, early on, a lot of good things happened. In Florida; straw polls; in Chicago, at a meeting with Democrats; Bill Clinton emerged as a pretty strong candidate among that field of Democrats. So, things looked pretty good and we got excited. People joined the bandwagon. We started hiring consultants. We started doing this, and this, and this. Money started coming in, a lot better. And, then, we had ups and downs after the first of the year and before New Hampshire, that were difficult times.

But, I never knew how long I was going to be there, after I signed on in October. It might have ended in one day. And, that's the way it was.

Q: So, come the winter of, that late fall and the winter of `91, it's turning into `92. The election year. You have Iowa coming up, New Hampshire coming up. There has been some encouragement over the winter. Florida, all kinds of encouraging signs. The group is growing. The Clinton bandwagon is swelling.

A: Had to move out of our Paint Store, into temporary head-- another headquarters on Third Street.

Q: And, you're going along, building momentum. Must feel as a group, and also he as the candidate, encouraged and then, Bam. The Clinton campaign hits like what seemed like a brick wall. Tell me about those dark days of that winter.

A: Oh, I think, obviously, the early, right before the New Hampshire primary, was very dark. A lot of things; I mean just the-- Gennifer Flowers issue, hit us; hit us real hard. It was something that could have derailed the campaign. There were those that felt it had; felt: Boy, this is it. It's the end.

But, everybody held together. We did hold it together. And, we went on and finished second in New Hampshire. And, after that, it was pretty positive.

Q: What was the role, retrospectively, of the Arkansans? As opposed to the political professionals around the campaign at that moment, from elsewhere. But, the Arkansans in keeping that enterprise together during those dark moments?

A: Oh, Peter. I don't know. Some of the outside influences or outside conversations, perhaps, with Bill Clinton himself, I'm not aware of what role they played. I can say that, see Mack McLarty, Vince Foster, those that you're-- who later went on to play key roles in the White House, were not involved in the day-to-day workings of the campaign. They, Vince was a lawyer for the Rose law firm; and Mack was running Arkla Gas.

Bruce Lindsay was very much involved. He had been with the campaign from the start. Was sort of on loan from his law firm. And, he traveled with the President. And, I guess in a senior role, I was the other person there in the, the other Arkansan there in the campaign.

Q: What was your input at that moment? Did you, you obviously couldn't help but despair a little bit; but, were you trying--

A: Well, I think, not to give anything undue credit, or pat myself on the back at all; I felt like, you know, we needed to hunker down and stick together and work this thing out. And, try to convey that to-- we had a lot of young staffers. Most of these people, so many of them were volunteers. Didn't get paid. And, if they got paid, they got paid very little. And, they--young people had come in from all over the country to do-- This was a mission; it was a quest.

And sort of be, and I was about the oldest person in the campaign. Certainly on staff. And, so I would just try to be pretty solid and steady and say: This is the way life is. You know. You have ups and downs and we can make it through this. And, a person that played a huge role in that was Virginia Kelly, Bill's mother. She came to the campaign every week; and, the first thing should would do is come in my office and said: "David, we're going to work this thing out." and just hug me and then go on. And that, you know, people saw that. They saw the people that, from Arkansas, like Mrs. Kelly and other people saying we can make this work. Let's just stick to. We've got a job to do; we've got Georgia coming up, we've got Super Tuesday, let's bear down and we'll get through it.

And, the tide turned in New Hampshire, when we finished second. That second, that close, at that time, was almost like a victory to us. We were not down after losing New Hampshire. We were really up.

Q: And, then it was pretty much not a coast, but it was certainly a much smoother go to the convention; to New York.

A: Well, actually, I think it's not reported very much, at least I haven't seen it; Peter, one of the most amazing things-- and I forget how a lot of things sometimes, but certain things stick in my mind just so strongly; like dates, certain dates. Seems to me we had a meeting with senior campaign staff at the Governor's mansion. This was after California; it's like June 19. And, we had taken a poll and Ross Perot is like at 28 percent; George Bush is 26 percent; and Bill Clinton is 19 percent.

Q: That's right.

A: There were not any happy campers in our camp; no any. Bill Clinton is, can't believe it. Here, we've won the Democratic nomination and we've got 19 percent? And, that turn-around from June 19 to July 19, which I believe if you look back, was the day after, the Friday after, his acceptance speech on Thursday night, where we are suddenly like 56 percent. Perot has dropped out; he dropped out the week of the convention. And, George Bush is like 40 percent, or 38.

Well, and again, I'm not a political animal or an astute politician or politico. But, I remember numbers and, I mean, I can add. And what happened that time was phenomenal. Just over a period of a month, to go from 19 to 56. And, then even better was when the Republicans had their convention. For one of the few times in history, they didn't get a bump. They stayed. George Bush stayed around 40 percent after the Republican Convention.

So, we felt very comfortable and confident soon after the Republican Convention.

Q: Tell me where you all spent election night.

Mrs. Watkins: Right here in this hotel.

A: Yes. Part of the night; we had two hotels, really.

We had an opportunity at a suite at both hotels; which, once you left one and got to the other one, we soon found that you don't leave again. I mean, had to have help to get into the doors with the (inaudible) on horseback.

A: It was a madhouse. Were you here? It was a madhouse; it was unbelievable. You literally had to use mounted policemen to get us through the door into the Excelsior; and that's where we needed to be.

A: Yeah. I think our trip from the steps of the Capitol Hotel to the entrance of the Excelsior, which has to be 50 yards at most, took an hour, at 7:00 at night.

Q: So, that is the moment of euphoria?

A: That is a moment of euphoria.

Mrs. Watkins : Well, then I think David enjoyed when he met with Bill that night, before the actually--

A: Yeah. That was the highlight.

Mrs. Watkins: That's the time he talks about.

A: Yeah. That was really special to me and it always will be. No matter what our relationship is today or will be ten years from now. I was one of the very few people back in sort of the staging area, before the Clintons came out on the stage to accept, make the acceptance speech and so forth. And, when he first saw me, he came up to me and hugged me and put his arms around me and said: "Well, David, I want you to know I couldn't have done it without you. For many years. This is not just this time; but for many times." And, that, you know, shoot, that was a big deal to me. It's still a big deal to know that you played,

that someone felt you played an important role. And, that was a big deal.

Q: It's got to be a very powerful and affecting moment.

A: Yeah, it was. It was.

Q: And, I suppose it carried over to your, to the next big and important you all made in your lives, which is: Let's uproot and go to Washington. Tell me about how that decision was made.

A: I think that was a mutual decision. We talked about it. We felt, because we had been there-- First of all, we're so naive. I mean, we are so naive and everybody is. I mean, heck, we've elected a president; but, I, for one, I didn't know what jobs there were in the White House. I had never looked; I didn't know what an assistant to the president was, or what.

So, everybody went out and bought these books. Or, got them shipped in from Washington or somewhere. That puts all the things in Federal Government; they have a name, I don't know what they are, Peter. But, they're blue books and gray books and it says Undersecretary of Commerce or Secretary of Commerce, or what-- and, so, you spent the night; Ileene and I, two or three nights, we spent looking over these books. Well, what-- If I'm going to go to Washington and, if I'm pro-active and I want a particular job or if I'm asked for any job, what am I going to say? I didn't know. You know. So, we looked at these and tried to get job descriptions of what was available.

Q: Describe to me what that must feel like. To have had a role in delivering the President of the United States. And, then what it's like to be going to be part of it.

A: Was that for Ileene or for me? I want Ileene to answer that and give her perspective. I'll tell you mine. It's like I said, the election night was very special to me. The other special time where it just came so heavily on me and made such an impression was at the, when he is sworn in on January 20th. And, I think it did; I think that was very meaningful to Ileene, too. We walked down with the next President of the United States. We're in his party; we're seated very close to him and the other people that are close associates. And, his speech and being there and looking out at that, at the crown and thinking: Golly. This is what history is. This is what I read in Civics and I'm participating in it. I mean it was bigger than life. Bigger than life.

And, that was for about 25 minutes; because, then I had to go back to the White House to make sure that everybody could get in.

Mrs. Watkins : My special moment, I think, keeps, really puts everything in perspective is when we walked through the arches and a Marine salutes you when you're getting ready to go out on the balcony where all the inauguration actually took place. There was something about someone in the military saluting us--

A: That was the first good salute we had, Ileene. That was better than the second.

Mrs. Watkins: Well, that's the one I care to remember. But, that was touching. Not really for Bill Clinton, as much as it was for-- You know. David's the one that worked hard for Bill Clinton. But, just to be an American that day. That was-- It was one of those things that you can only dream about.

A: Right. And, then the next thing, I guess, is when you really have, and you get to walk in and you get to drive in through the gates. And, park on West Executive Avenue. And, I can tell you another story about the battle for parking positions; but, that's something we won't discuss. But, I had to make those decisions and selections, too. And, you don't know how important that is, Peter. Who parks where.

... But, anyway, walking in, driving in through those gates the first time that you're allowed to do that. And, pulling in and parking and walking in the West Wing and going to your office. I live here; I work here. And, literally, we did live there for many months, early in the campaign--I mean early in the administration.

Q: During these extraordinary moments, do you recollect ever having conversed, shared feelings with your fellow Arkansans, with Lisa and Vince Foster, with Susie and Webb Hubbell, with the other folks from Little Rock and what they were experiencing? In the same way?

A: I think I did, Peter. And, Ileene certainly has an answer to that. And, did in some ways, certainly with Lisa

Foster, more than I did. But, yeah, Vince Foster and I talked some. Bruce Lindsay, a little a bit. Webb Hubbell, not being in the White House, you really didn't have time to sit around and have much of these conversations. I mean, you really didn't have time. I mean, no one did. We were all overwhelmed. I often use comparatives. It's like starting a new business and, suddenly, you had like $500 million in sales and the phone's ringing and you had no inventory. That's sort of, in the business world, a comparison of what we were like in the early days.

We all commented, or the two of us to each other, it was just how much there was to do. I mean, how overwhelming the place was. And, it really was. It was, you know, you're putting out fires. My position was such, that's what I was expected to do. And, I think Vince was sort of a point man in the Council's office for all those issues that came up.

And, there was just too much to do to really do them well. And I think Vince had a sense of that. Gosh, he'd always wanted to and had done everything very well. Was a perfectionist. And he just really didn't have time to do that. You had to make decisions that, because you had to make decisions, you didn't get to think about them that much. And, had you thought about all the ramifications, which suddenly to me and to Vince, I'm sure, there was another perspective that we'd never had before.

That was the political fallout. I'd never had that before.

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