David Matthews A friend of Bill Clinton's for over two decades and a former Arkansas state legislator.
Interviewed May 15, 1996
A lot of people have talked through the years about what a great campaigner
Bill Clinton is. I've been surprised that no one has ever expanded on the
impact of growing up in the Baptist church on that. I mean it's a classic
Baptist preacher effect. He embraces people, he hand shakes with people, he
claps them on the back, he focuses on them, he gets 'em right in their face,
eye ball to eye ball. I mean that's pure Baptist church. I've been in one all
my life. It's just a combining really of spirits. Where you're in touch with
people and you care about them. It's very genuine. It's very real. But it has
a profound effect on people that aren't used to it. They're not accustomed to
someone that's in high office that actually cares about them and listens to
them and for that moment when you've got him in your gaze, he belongs to them.
It has a tremendous effect.
What are some of the other elements in him?
He campaigns better than anyone in part because he has a wonderful memory. He
can go back to a place that he's been three years before and call people by
their first names. It amazes them. He has an ability to, when he focuses in
on them and listens to them, he remembers their name, he remembers their
circumstance, he remembers what they talked about the last time they were
together. It is a unique ability. Not many people have it. In fact I don't
know any other politician that's ever had it. That stood him in good stead in
Arkansas for sure. People used to say, "Bill Clinton knows half the people in
the state on a first name basis." And it was true.
You had [a] wonderful phrase about the comfort of the Baptist church. How does
Clinton use that comfort?
Another facet of the impact of the Baptist church on Bill Clinton is his
attitude that there's always time for redemption. Baptists never give up on
you. We believe there's always an opportunity for you to be saved. And I've
heard the President say, "I believe in deathbed conversions." The best way to
be in touch with Bill Clinton, some folks say, is to be against him because
then he's going to work you. He's going to do whatever it takes to convince
you of the rightness of his position. Because he always has hope that two
people can reason together. Baptist churches of late have done a very good
thing in trying not to push people aside. In my church at home we call
ourselves the Hospital for the Broken. We don't care where you've been. We
don't care what you've done. We don't care what the scars are you're carrying.
We're just interested in where you're going. I think you see that in Bill
Clinton's attitude. He never gives up on people. He's unwilling. Some of us
that are in politics, we want to punish our enemies and reward our friends.
With Bill Clinton it's, we don't want to punish anybody. We want to find a way
to reason together and make everyone comfortable. We want to find consensus.
What about the emblematic moments, qualities and attributes.
One of the things that's happened in politics in the '80's and '90's is with
the move to television you don't have that interaction that one used to see.
That's not true with Clinton. I remember in 1976, when he was running for
Attorney General, he had run for Congress two years before and had been
defeated so he was running for Attorney General again. And the very first
rally of the year was in the Arkansas River Valley rally. And
there were two other candidates, both of whom were probably more qualified to
be Attorney General than Bill Clinton was. And they were there for the rally
and each of them was asked to speak, each of the opponents and they get up and
make a very nice talk, and they get polite applause and sit down. Comes time
for Clinton to speak. He gets up. He doesn't say a word about being Attorney
General. He doesn't say a thing about his qualifications. He wants to take
this opportunity to express his thanks to the people of Pope County and the
Arkansas River Valley for all that they did for him two years before when he
ran for Congress. He'll never forget the people that took him into their home,
and drove him around, and fed him, and introduced him to their friend. And he
begins to call them by name and before he's done he's got every town, every
little town in Pope County and when he finishes he hasn't said a thing about
being AG. And there's just sort of this grand pause and then the room explodes
in applause. People are standing, they're whistling, they're cheering. One of
the guys that was running against him told me later, "I knew right then I
wasn't going to be Attorney General of Arkansas."
Can you give us more of the flavor of that speech?
He's looking around and he sees people and he begins to call them by name. And
he talks about the time he was walking on the streets in Russelville, or he was
on the square in Clarkesville, and how much he appreciated the folks in Dover
or Dardenelle, and all the little towns he begins to name, talking about the
things that had gone on in those cities, in that campaign and how much [he]
appreciated it. And we knew then that we weren't just anonymous to him.
Let's talk about what many people describe as a searing experience of loss.
Sometimes some of the best lesson that we learn in life, we learn in defeats.
And I sure think that's true in Bill Clinton's case. He had been a lifetime of
being a boy on the rise. Everyone's rising star. The world is at his doorstep.
And every step along the way, even the loss to Hammersmit in 1974 didn't impact
because nobody expected him to win.
But comes 1980, he's been the youngest governor in the State, in the nation.
He's been well respected. He thought he was well on his way to his career. And
then the people of Arkansas said, "Well, you're getting a little big for your
britches. And we don't really like some of the things that you've proposed.
You've been a little arrogant. You've tried to take us further than we want to
go." And he got defeated by a man no one had really ever heard of. And it
was, it had a very profound effect on his life and, I think, sent him into a
real tailspin for a while. But as I say, out of the darkest moments sometimes
come the best changes. And I think it was a great impact on him. Because when
he came back he said, "I'm never going to make that mistake again." He began
by apologizing to the people of Arkansas on statewide TV for the mistakes he
had made and acknowledging that he had, and asking for another chance. If you
give me another chance I won't make those same mistakes. And he didn't. He got
elected and you could see right away that things were different. The first
term in office, for example, he had a list, and I mean it was long list of
things we were going to accomplish. Never mind the first hundred days. Why in
the first 90 days Bill Clinton was going to have Arkansas transformed from
48th or 50th in everything, to the top of the mark in
every issue. And the people had resented it. One of the ways that he had dealt
with legislators, for example, was he kept a roll call. He kept it right in his
desk. He could just open the drawer and see how many legislators had voted for
his particular bills. And if a legislator wasn't voting the way he wanted him
to, he'd summon him up to the office and he'd say, "I notice that you've only
voted for three of my administration's bills. And I want to know why?" And
the legislators, as you might expect, resented it deeply. Just the opposite in
1982. He gets elected. We begin in 1983 and instead of "You're not voting for
what I want." It is "What can I do to make this palatable to you?" Everybody
began to see, well if you want something from Bill Clinton just hold out a
little bit. Hold out a little bit. He's going to try and convert you. Hold
out a little bit and he'll sweeten the pie. And I think that is all a product
of the lesson he learned which is this. You can never take people where you
want them to go by force. But if you can persuade the people to come along, if
you can build a consensus, you can go anywhere. He realized it's better to make
some progress toward a laudable goal, than to set a high standard and say
"We're going to get there or we're not going anywhere." And that's how we got
education reform in Arkansas. If he'd a come in the very first session in '83
and said, "Here's what we're going to do and you better do it or else." We'd a
never had it. But instead he took the time and let that demand for education
reform be formed throughout the state. Hillary played a tremendously important
role in that. Going around to all 75 counties and hearing from the people. And
he let that education reform movement come from the people, not from him. As a
result of that I think you saw him form a leadership style that he uses now.
Let's find consensus. If we work at it long enough, if we keep the issue on the
table long enough, if we have an open enough mind, we can find a way that we
can move forward together, not fractured. It paid great dividends in Arkansas.
And I think that's the principal lesson learned from the 1980 defeat. You can't
make people do anything. But if you can persuade them and make it their idea,
then they'll come along.
In 1983 there was a particular legislator from South Arkansas who had always
been a supporter of Bill Clinton's. And he wasn't voting for one of the things
that the Governor wanted. And nobody could understand why. One day one of the
Governor's aides came to get him and said, "The Governor wants to see you." So
he goes upstairs, walks into the office and the Governor says, "Hubert, I don't
understand. We've been friends. I've done all these things for you and I don't
understand why you're not voting for my bill." And Hubert says, "Well, I'm for
your bill, Governor. I've always been for your bill. But I've been trying to
get in to see you for the last two or three days, and I knew that if I voted
against one of your bills you'd want to visit."
One of the observations commonly heard is that that loss was so profound came
some very good lessons, but at the same time it took away confidence.
Some people have suggested a down side to the loss in 1980 was that he lost
confidence and therefore became too easy to find a compromise so that he
wouldn't have to suffer defeat. I reject that notion quite frankly. There are
some issues I don't believe Bill Clinton would ever compromise. I think the
issue of civil rights, for example, is one of them. I think the issue of
education for children is another. Now there is room within that context for
debate on how we go about getting to our goal, but I don't think anyone would
suggest that Bill Clinton would ever, for the sake of winning a bill or a vote
or an election, would abandon his commitment to education for children. It's
even true in his own life. He believes so strongly that we ought to
participate in our children's education that he even tries to educate Chelsea
on things he probably knows little about. I get a big kick out of the notion
of him trying to teach her how to drive. That ought to be scary to watch
probably. The truth is that in this macho world we living in now, when you've
got the radio broadcasters and all the other who want to, to draw lines in the
dirt and you're either for me or against me, and the rancor level has been
raised so high I can see where they'd say, "You must be soft or you wouldn't be
willing to compromise." I don't think that's true at all. If you look back
over most of the important leaders this country has ever had, there were some
points on which they would not compromise but on others the effort was, "How do
we move forward? How do we make progress? How do we get to our goal
ultimately?" Not "It's my way or the highway." Lyndon Johnson was famous for
"it's my way or the highway." But he was also famous as the best compromiser
there ever was. He didn't get to the point that he got to in the Senate
without being able to maneuver things around, do some horse trading to get to
the ultimate goal.
It is unfortunate that Vietnam is tied to him, because his record otherwise
would be wonderful.
How do you see the first two years of the Presidency?
People have opined that the first two years as Governor are similar in some
ways to the first two years as President. There's an ambitious undertaking and
maybe not handled as smoothly as one would have liked. I think it's important
to remember that Bill Clinton learned a lesson in 1980 and the people around
him learned a lesson in 1980. The folks that were with him in the White House
maybe hadn't learned that lesson. I think that can't be underestimated. And I
certainly don't mean that to be criticisms of the folks that he brought on, but
I think there's a natural tendency, Democrats hadn't been in the White House
except for one four year term in most of the folks that were around [his] adult
lifetime. There was a lot of pent up demand for change with a Democratic
President and so folks get put in positions that "we're going to make it
happen. We're going to do it our way." Without having learned that lesson of
consensus. I frankly think you've got to give credit to the President for
realizing that some things were awry and tightening up the ship and moving back
to the fundamental basics of, "Let's find consensus. Let's not just say if the
Republicans are for it, we're against it. Let's not be afraid to say that's a
good idea. We're going to embrace it as our own." I think he has brought...
Not that the people that are around him have changed him. He's changed them.
He's brought them along to that notion that there's nothing wrong with
compromise, there's nothing wrong with finding consensus, if we all move
forward toward the laudable goal that we're after.
FL: I think he himself would say that these last few years have been
painful. What would you single out as the most painful and dramatic defeat and
the greatest victory.
I think the thing that's been the hardest for him to accept is the realization
that for basically no other reason than the fact that he's President, an awful
lot of good people have had their reputations called into question, have had to
spend money to hire lawyers, have had to deal with things they've never, ever
dealt with in their lives. I think that's really been a very great
disappointment to him. He was prepared, I think, to be President and lead the
country. I don't think he was prepared for the meanness of life in the
Beltway. And it took a couple of years to realize that, "My goodness when the
elections over, the fighting doesn't start!" See in Arkansas, you'd fight an
election and it'd be hard. But when the election was over you'd see him
appointing some folks that had never been historical supporters of his to
important leadership positions, because we knew everybody's heart was, "How can
we make Arkansas better?" I don't think he was prepared for the fact that when
you get to Washington, the election's over, the votes are counted, you're
President, people are not willing to say, "Okay. Let's put all that aside.
What can we do to help you Mr. President?" It's "Okay. The elections over,
but you just wait. We're going to have another one in four years and we're
going to make your life a living hell 'til then." I don't think he was
prepared for that and I think it has been disappointment to him. And I think
it's been difficult for he and Hillary at times to just force themselves to
rise up above that and keep your chin up and keep on going. It wouldn't be fun
for anybody to pick up a newspaper every day and have somebody calling him bad
names and not get down.
Of all the programs, legislatively, which was the most disappointing?
If he were going to list "What are my greatest disappointments legislatively?"
I think the one he'd put at the top would be health care. But be it because he
is the optimist, I think he in the next breath would say, but that fight was
worth it and we can see that there are reforms being made in health care. While
we didn't get the bill we wanted, we are seeing reform of the health care
system. Things are getting better. I think it's important that people know
that about Bill Clinton. He learns from defeats, but he doesn't let defeats
kill him. I mean he goes on. I suspect he's ready to fight the next battle the
next day. It's over. Close the book. Get on down the road.
Back in 1974 when he was campaigning for Congress and I was driving for him, we
met a lady in Hiawassey, Arkansas, a little old bitty town. A lady by the name
of Fleeta Dunaway. She invited us in and had some peach pie and the Dunaway's
have been supporters of Bill Clinton's ever since. Now they're not well to do
people, they're not big campaign contributors, they're not Congressmen, they're
not on any committees. They're just local folks in Hiawassey, Arkansas. 1992.
He's been elected President of the United States and I go by to visit him at
the Governor's Mansion and we're standing in the parking lot and I'm
congratulating him and he's just come from the state house convention center
where he's announced some of his cabinet designees. And it's an important time
for him. And right out of the blue he says, "Say David, how's Fleeta Dunaway?
I heard she had been sick." I said, "Well, as a matter of fact she's in the
Gravitt Hospital. She fell and broke her hip." Two days later she gets [a] card
from the President-elect of the United States of America. "Dear Fleeta, Sorry
you're sick. Hope you get well soon. Bill." That's why he's the best
campaigner there ever was.
FL: In conclusion, how long have you known him, what kinds of jobs.
We met in 1973. I was selling jewelry in a local store and this gangly, curly-
headed fellow walks in and we struck up a conversation that ended up lasting
about two hours and I learned he was about to start teaching at the law school
and he learned that I was about to start going to the law school. We've been
friends since then. I drove for him when he ran for Congress, when the only
requirement to be a driver was you had to have your own car and a tank of gas.
And ended up serving with him when he was governor and I was in the
legislature. I, unfortunately, was the Benton County campaign chairman when he
didn't get but 35% of the vote in that ignominious defeat. So I have been with
him in victories and losses. Fortunately he never blamed me for it.
If you look at Bill Clinton's political career from 1974 to 1996 you're always
going to find about a 25% group of the population that really intensely
dislikes him. It's not a question of just we don't think we're going to vote
for you because we don't like your ideas. I mean they hate him. And more
often than not that group is made up of the folks that are like him. White
Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, in his age group. Whatever age group he may be in.
I've always found that curious. I don't know whether it's just he's been
successful at things other men would like to be and it's jealousy or they
resent the fact that he is comfortable with women and comfortable with
minorities and this innate knowledge that if he's successful this white men
only world that we've been in is going to end. And that certainly is true.
You know there's two groups of people who don't like Bill Clinton. There's
those that frankly expect more of him than he delivers in their estimation and
therefore they're disappointed. Or those that fear him the most, that he is
going to change their world. That the thing you've always got to remember is
Bill Clinton all of his life has been about change. Fundamental change. And
there's always a group. They don't want to change. They've got it real good.
They like it that way. And I really think that white Anglo Saxon men in his
age group are probably the principal ones in that group. It's been okay for us.
Most of the history of this country and we're not really wanting to see these
changes that are going on that he embodies. That's one man's theory on why the
Do you think that Bill is particularly expressive of his generation?
I think of Bill Clinton as being particularly expressive of the best of his
generation. This is a guy that, my goodness, when Washington's on fire in
1968, he loads up in his car and drives in to see what help he can be. That's
the kind of person that he has always been. He has always been for the
underdog. You talk to his friends that grew up with him in Hot Springs. He was
the one that would make friends with the new kid in town. He was the one that
would go to the aid of some child that was getting picked on. He was the one
who would stand up to his step father when he was being abusive to his mother.
He represents all that's good. Now he's not perfect. I don't mean to imply
that. I think everybody knows that. But he wants to be. If he's not perfect
it's not from lack of trying. He wants to be.
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