the clinton years

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no photo yetCHAPTER 1: The Campaign The Arkansas governors campaign for the presidency was rocked by scandal almost from the start.  But he refused to be derailed and threw himself into the race, proving himself to be a consummate campaigner.
Love at First Sight

The Campaign Unravels

The Comeback Kid

The Mother of All Campaigners

Buy One, Get One Free

We Are Gonna Win
Love at First Sight
In October 1991, five-term Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton declared he was running for President of the United States. For the team starting to build around him, it was political love at first sight -- Clinton appeared to be the centrist, charismatic candidate for whom they had been waiting...

Stephanopoulos: It's hard to talk about it now, because it's become common wisdom to everybody else. But at that time it was a new experience, this notion of meeting someone who is not just in your face, but kind of in your skin from the moment he meets you. You know, you just feel completely connected to him when he turns to you.

... Oh, the smarts. The guy had thought everything through, both on the politics and the policy. I remember when I interviewed for the job, which wasn't really an interview. It was him -- me listening basically for an hour and a half to Governor Clinton just go through the entire landscape of the campaign. And he basically, the very first time I talked to him, in the seamless web of issues and politics said, "It's all going to come down to Illinois on March 17th. If I win the game in Illinois, I'll get the nomination." Exactly what happened. But he had it in his head back in September.

Begala: I had been in the business for a number of years by then and it was still political love at first sight. I thought he was the ablest guy I had ever met in politics.

Emanuel: Early on, until part of December, there was still the Cuomo cloud that hung over -- that he was going to enter the field. You had two senators. One was Bob Kerrey, and his past, specifically his biography as it related to Vietnam, was kind of the new face of the party. You also had Senator Harkin in there and former Senator Tsongas. So that combination. I remember my father, when I said I was going down to Little Rock to work for Governor Clinton's run for president, he thought maybe somebody needed to check the medication cabinet. He thought somebody was playing around with it. He had never heard of him, he said. I said, "Well, I think he's going to be the next President of the United States."

Myers: I saw a candidate who knew why he wanted to be president and he knew how to get there. He didn't know whether he would be successful but he had in his head kind of a roadmap based on issues. He had a sense of where the country was. There was this uneasiness that there was this kind of economic anxiety and he was pulling together a team that was going to help him get there. But, you know, he was the engine that was driving it, and from the very beginning I was really aware this was a special politician. This was somebody who had more innate talent, both with the substantive side and the politics, than anyone I'd been around. And it was just fascinating to watch him.

Begala: Most politicians, when they meet with a guy like me, or a guy like Carville, tell you about how they can win. They would say, "Look, my wife is from Illinois, which will help me in the Midwest, even though I'm a southerner and I have close alliances with these moderates." They would give you the strategy. Clinton gave us the policy....

I was bowled over. And then he went through the policy specifics, and he focused on these two things. He said, "Economically we're sliding down, and socially we're coming apart." I used to tease him that he had three solutions for every problem, but he went on like this for hours, and we were completely bowled over.
The Campaign Unravels
January 1992 was a bad month for Bill Clinton. First there were the allegations from Gennifer Flowers that she had carried on a 12-year affair with the governor, and then came the charges that Bill Clinton had avoided the Vietnam draft. The lurching from crisis to crisis not only took its toll on the candidate's popularity, but also shook the campaign staff's faith in him.

Carville: December went fine. If you remember, Cuomo was thinking about running, he decided that he wasn't gonna run and we sort of were doing -- picking up pretty good in the polls. We had a pretty good December. Then in January, as we say in the trade, we got a little incoming.

Stephanopoulos: The first [Star tabloid story] came out and it was kind of easy. It was -- the Star alleged that Clinton had affairs with five women, all who had denied it in the past. It had come up in his Arkansas gubernatorial campaigns. And, you know, we just said, "We don't know why everybody's changing their story today or why the Star is printing that stuff. It's just cash for trash. And let's keep moving."

Carville: [on the cash for trash strategy]: I think the strategy was to say that there was a lot of money that was passing hands here. It was all odd that this was coming up this 10 days or whatever it was before the election [New Hampshire primary]. I think the strategy was pretty obvious and I think the strategy worked pretty good.

Begala: A lot of times in a campaign you get in trouble, and the inclination of handlers is to hide the candidate, to so-called "protect" him. Well, in this case, there was no one else who could answer anyway, and he was our ablest spokesman. So we set about looking for a venue where he could go and answer these things.

Myers: I think basically all we tried to do was survive. It was really a tremendous feeding frenzy. I remember we were making a swing through the south right around the time all hell was breaking loose. And Governor Edwards was there and he said, "Now, what's this story about this, this girl?" Clinton kind of said, "Yeah," blah, blah, blah. And he said, "How much did they pay her?" And Clinton said, "Well, that's the point, it's $150,000." And Edwards says, "$150,000? If they paid all my girls $150,000 they'd be broke." And Clinton just cracked up because it was much-needed comic relief at the time.

Carville: You've got to fight back. Yes, sir. And our strategy from day one was to contest at every point. And, to have them out there... the best person to give the explanation of what happened and where it was, was then-Governor Clinton and Mrs. Clinton. And that's why we did the 60 Minutes thing, because it was the biggest deal that there was, and you had to be shown that you were out taking it on.

You advised the president that the best thing he had going for him in that interview was Mrs. Clinton.

Carville: Yeah.

How come?

Carville: Because in the end, if the wife is with... you know, people overwhelmingly, they say, "Look, that's his wife, they're fine." ... Clearly had he gone on without her it would have been a big gap...then my advice would have been if she wouldn't go, don't go.

Stephanopoulos: And what worked for them was, I think, a couple of things. One, they did it together. Again, once the couple is together, it says to the rest of the world, "This is our business, not yours." And two, and it's hard to get back to this at a time when the country is doing so great right now, but in January 1992 a lot of people around the country were worried about the economy. People were hurting. And the very basic message -- that the campaign should be about everybody else's future, not my past -- was very powerful to a lot of people watching, especially in New Hampshire.

Myers: So, you argue the facts and you try to make the case that Clinton has always had political enemies, Arkansas is an interesting state in that regard. A lot of stuff had gone on. But, obviously, over time as Gennifer Flowers gave way to the draft, to other questions, it became harder. And it became hard for people like myself and George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala who had to go out there and defend him every day. You learned to be very careful and you learn to listen very carefully to what he said, and you learn to try not to go further than what he said. And we had a lot of conversations over the months and years about "What do you think that means?" You know, "What can we say? Where's the safe ground here?"

Stephanopoulos: One of things that James and I tried to do very early on was to authorize just a full investigation of our own record, of Clinton's own record, of Clinton's own statements, so that we would -- at a minimum, we wouldn't compound any problems by saying things that weren't true. And that there wouldn't be any problem of, you know, telling the story of what happened in Vietnam. The problem is when you appear to be lying about it. But you know, there was a great reluctance to do that. We ended up doing some. But by the time we really did a full vet of Clinton's background, it was too late. The stories were already coming out.

Begala: We were handed [the draft letter] as we landed in New Hampshire. We had been in Arkansas. The governor had gotten badly sick, a high, high fever. And this story of the draft had broken in the Wall Street Journal, and he had to go home. He was bad sick. So he was home trying to recuperate. We were getting poll numbers that showed us absolutely collapsing in a way we never did with the earlier scandals. And so we stayed up all night writing a speech that basically said, "I'm going to fight like hell." You know, "We're not going to give up. Try this one more time." And we flew up there, and we're landed, and we're all revved up, and he's ready to go. And as we got off the plane, Mark Halperin of ABC hands Georgie and I this letter, and I'm looking over George's shoulder as he reads it, and I see that line, "Thank you for saving me from the draft," and my knees kind of buckled. And George said, "That's it. We're through. We're out. It's over."

Carville: I said, you know, "If anybody who is 21-22 years old could write a letter like this you could almost see kind of a future president there." So we took the letter, published it, put it in the newspaper, and we get a Nightline date.... Nightline did an interesting thing. They read the whole letter.

Begala: Ted [Koppel] read the whole letter to the country, and you could see, even among the press corps, which really did think he was a slick Willie, you could see for the first time they thought, "Well, okay. This is a highly nuanced letter from a tortured young man who's really thinking through these issues just like every other young man of that generation did."

So your initial reaction was wrong? I mean, you initially thought that maybe this was --

Begala: Before I had read it. The first thing I saw was that line. But, no, even me, who did not have much of a feel for that time, I thought, "Yeah, this letter" -- I mean, the line we used was, "This letter is going to be your best friend."
The Comeback Kid
Following the early scandals of the campaign, it looked like Bill Clinton's candidacy was over. Yet the governor refused to give up, even if it meant he had to shake every hand in the state of New Hampshire. Amazingly, he came in second in that primary and declared that "New Hampshire has made Bill Clinton the Comeback Kid."

Myers: Over the course of his public life, he's never been more focused than when his back was up against the wall. I don't want to say it helped him, but it was the fire that steeled him for the rest of the campaign. He was a much better candidate for going through New Hampshire, not just because of the scandals, but getting down there and campaigning and looking in people's eyes. And he really absorbed a lot of -- he really did feel their pain. I mean it was an amazing thing to watch.

But, yeah, he took the scandal, what was handed to him or the situation that he helped create, and he managed to -- he took the energy from that and he did manage to boomerang it. He was the focus. Everybody was watching him, waiting for him to go down. And what did he do? He used that spotlight to turn the thing from being about him to being about what he could do for the people.

Stephanopoulos: There's nothing you can do on election day. Election day in campaigns you basically wait. And we waited in James' hotel suite. And we waited for the first exit polls, which would come in around 11:00 o'clock. And we were a pretty grubby crew at that point. It was kind of James, me, Paul, Bob Boriston. Mandy [Grunwald, media advisor] was around. And what I remember most vividly waiting for the exit polls was James walking around the suite in his undershirt lashing himself on the back with a piece of rope like a medieval penitent and --just lashing himself, lashing himself, lashing himself.

And then the first exit polls come in. And miracle of miracles we're a strong second place. And everything changes. We order cheeseburgers. Paul and Bob start to write out the acceptance speech that night. Clinton is still out campaigning. He's amazing. But the germ of what turned out to be one of the most memorable lines of the campaigns started then. I don't know who takes credit for it now or who gets credit, but I think it was some combination of Paul and Mandy came up with the line, "Tonight New Hampshire's made me the Comeback Kid." And we all felt like comeback kids that afternoon because the campaign had been on life support and now we had a second chance.
The Mother of All Campaigners
Bill Clinton's staff was in awe of his ability to campaign. They had never seen anything like it and in private called him "Secretariat." His volatile temper -- or what was known as the "standard morning outbursts" -- was mainly kept in private. And by the summer of 1992, the governor's grasp of the issues, his ability to empathize, and his sheer tenacity paid off. It was clear he would be the Democrats' choice.

Stephanopoulos: We called him "Secretariat" because he was just the absolute thoroughbred of thoroughbreds of campaigners. Whether it was working a rope line or giving a speech or devising the policy or just having the stamina to last through four 20-hour campaign days in a row and do it with good humor and grace. None of us had ever seen anything like this before. I mean, he is the politician probably not only of his generation, but if you're thinking just pure raw political skills, probably the politician of the century. And it was an awesome sight to watch.

Carville: You had the sense that these were really, kind of, extraordinary people and extraordinarily talented. Okay? And I don't, it's kind of a hard -- you can't really define it, but there was a certain way that he could change a chemistry in a room. He could walk into a room of a hundred people and immediately have the sense of who the most vulnerable person was, whose mother just died or who just had a child that had a crisis or something like that. And it's an instinctive thing. I can't explain it. I've just seen it happen again and again and again.

Myers: I'm a baseball freak. So, I say he's the guy who could throw a no-hitter and hit 50 home runs. I mean nobody can do that, nobody can master the substantive side of policy and genuinely thrive on the human contact of the politics. But he does both. And, I mean he was the best strategist in the campaign, most of the time. He was totally steeped in the details of "How many electoral votes, how many states are we targeting, why are we targeting them, what's our organization in those states, who are the local elected officials who are going to be with us, does this make sense?" Every step of the way he was totally involved in decision-making.

... Sometimes, I shouldn't say save him from himself, he's obviously tremendously successful, but one of his tendencies has been and throughout his presidency at times, has been to try to do everything, to talk about every issue, emphasize everything, which means you're emphasizing nothing. So, that was the flip side of him. He's interested in everything. He has encyclopedic knowledge. He has a voracious sort of appetite for information about everything from the Beatles to the details of nuclear disarmament.
Buy One, Get One Free
Early in the campaign, Clinton declared that he and his wife were basically a bargain deal -- "buy one, get one free." While Mrs. Clinton was credited for keeping the candidate and the campaign focused, she also became an issue herself. In the spring of 1992 -- following criticism of her law firm's work with the state of Arkansas -- she defended her decision not to "stay home and bake cookies." From that moment on, Hillary Clinton was as controversial a figure as her husband.

Myers: And then after January and February of 1992, the Gennifer Flowers thing broke and they appeared on 60 Minutes together. There was a sense that he was in debt to her. And he was obliged to take seriously her advice.

... By defending him and standing by him and saying to the world, "You know, we've had our ups and downs, it's none of your business. We're still together. And, you know, leave us alone." And-- I mean, what could anybody else really say at that point?

So, there was an indebtedness to her because she had saved him?

Myers: Yeah. And I think that that's been a pattern throughout probably their relationship, before I knew them, but certainly in his presidency. I mean, he tends to do worse when he's furthest and then he screws up and she helps save him and then he's sort of much more -- indebted, obliged, mindful, all those things. And I suspect it probably was that way before I was around.

Stephanopoulos: I think I was sitting with Paul, chatting with a few reporters, drinking a cup of coffee in the coffee shop while they did their thing meeting with people. And then all the sudden, Hillary starts to do this kind of impromptu -- reporters had gathered around at this impromptu press conference.

I don't remember much of what she said except the words that everyone would soon know, "tea and cookies." And it was just like bam, all of us all of the sudden perked up and said, "That's going to be a problem." because it was just too good a phrase. You know, it was just impossible for any reporter sitting there that day not to use the most resonant, rich, colloquial phrase she could possibly use to describe her choice to work in a law firm as opposed to staying at home. And we knew it was a problem. But nobody wanted to tell her, because that wouldn't be fun at all.

And I was sitting there with Paul, like the old Life commercial, saying, "No, I'm not going to do it, you go do it." "No, I'm not going to do it, you go do it."... We knew it was a problem the minute she said "tea and cookies." And we knew a lot of people would take it as proof that she is this radical feminist who has no respect for traditional women. And we're going to have to try to clean it up.

Begala: As soon as I heard that, I thought, "People are going to take that out of context. They're going to suggest she doesn't care about stay-at-home moms." So I went up to her and I told her that. I pulled her aside, and I said, "You know, Hillary, you've got to go restate this. People are going to think that's an attack on stay-at-home moms."

And she had the most wounded and naive look on her face. It is -- to think of all she's gone through since then, it's hard to imagine. She had no idea that that might be taken out of context. She said, "No one could think that." She said, "I would have given anything to be a stay-at-home mom. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. I just didn't have a choice because Bill was making $35,000 a year and we needed to support the family."

I said, "I know that." And she said, "Oh, you worry too much." I mean, it was unimaginable to her that that would be a firestorm. I was certain it would be. I had been doing this for a while. So she went back out and tried to clean it up, but it was too late.

Stephanopoulos: What it was was, you know, we're trying to figure out the damage that had been done, not only by the "tea and cookies," but just the overall primary campaign. It looked then like we were on the road to the nomination since Stan [Greenberg, polling advisor] had done some focus groups, dial-up groups, you know. But the footage that was used for Hillary was footage from election night 1992, in New Hampshire where she had this elaborate Nefertiti-style hairdo that night -- one that I've never seen since and had not seen before. And it really was something.

But we were all sitting around the focus group watching these dials, and up until that point they had been pretty steady. And then this picture of Mrs. Clinton comes on and the dial groups go like [noise], and Clinton doesn't miss a beat. He just says, "Oh, they don't like her hair." And I'm sitting next to James on the couch and he starts to grind his fist into my thigh because it was -- for us, it was like someone farted in church and we were about to start laughing uncontrollably. And we were just holding it in and he's grinding his fist into my thigh. And we finally, we're not breathing, we finally run out of the room, get into the hallway, and just break up laughing.

Now, looking back, it was kind of sweet that Clinton said that. His instinct was to protect her -- he's a smart politician and he knew that we had a pretty serious problem coming out of "tea and cookies" and that a lot of people had very strong feelings about Mrs. Clinton. And he was kind of just being protective of her in that moment. We didn't dwell on it that day.
We Are Gonna Win
By the fall of '92, following the Democratic Convention and the nomination of Al Gore as vice president, it started to look like Governor Bill Clinton might win the election. And then, with 43 percent of the vote and 13 months after the campaign began, William Jefferson Clinton won the presidency. His campaign staff recall when they realized their candidate would be the next president.

clinton & dee dee myers In '92 when do you know that you're going to win? When are you pretty sure?

Begala: In Parrot, Georgia. We took a bus trip through Georgia, as I worked for Zell Miller and his campaign in 1990, so I knew the state fairly well. And we were on a bus with Zell, and with some other Georgia politicians. We went through this little town called Parrot, Georgia, and we drew more people in Parrot, Georgia than the total population of the town. And-- it was raining, and I looked out there, and I thought, "You know, we're going to win this race." And that night in some little motel in I don't know where, I called Stephanopoulos, and I was just giggling. I was giddy. And I sat there on some crummy bed in some crummy motel, and I said, "George, I will guarantee you this, we win this election." I can't remember what month it was, but it was in the fall campaign. That was the moment.

Stephanopoulos: I remember the first time I ever really let myself believe we could win and we were going to win. It was late September in the Washington Hilton on a Sunday morning and Clinton was about to go give a speech in North Carolina on NAFTA. And he called me in and had his standard morning outburst on the speech and was yelling about it. But his heart wasn't really in it and I could tell. And I kind of sat there, I was in his bedroom and just took it. He was lying back, propped up in his jeans on his bed, propped up on about two pillows. And he suddenly stops yelling, looks me right in the eye and says, "You think we're going to win, don't you?" I said, "Well, yeah." And he goes, "I do too." And for me, that was just incredible.

He was saying out loud what we all hoped for but could never say. It would be like talking about a no-hitter in the eighth inning. And from that moment on inside we didn't feel like underdogs anymore. We felt like we had this responsibility to win. And as a staffer, it was starting to get a little bit out of control because, you know, I had never been through anything like that and nobody else had either.

Begala: The day before the election we were at the Mayfair Diner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And this is maybe, professionally, aside from the birth of my child during that campaign, the sweetest moment. I was the guy that told Bill Clinton he was going to win. I had gotten the final polling numbers. He had a comfortable lead. He was not going to lose. And as he climbed into the car at the Mayfair Diner, I told him. I said, "Governor, it's over. You're going to be the President of the United States." And he said, "How do you know that? What do you think?" And I gave him the latest numbers, and he said, "That may not hold." So I told him what the latest numbers were for Reagan in '80, and then what the final election was. And I think that historical comparison -- and he didn't say anything then. He just kind of quieted down, and his eyes got big and he sat back. That was very sweet.

Myers: So we finished our little tour and I remember going to the Governor's Mansion and down to the basement about 8 o'clock and-- I mean, by that point we already knew it was pretty much over. I mean, we knew we were going to win. But seeing that map, standing in the basement -- they had a TV down there -- and standing in the basement with him and he kind of had a half grin on his face looking at the map turning whatever color we were. I think it was different on different networks. But, you know, as the electoral college count came in and he was closer and closer to that magic number, and it was just the weirdest. ... It's like, "Wow, here we are and he's the next president and he's just standing here in his basement, watching TV like millions of other Americans right now." It was just very strange -- in an odd way slightly anticlimactic, even though it's the biggest thing that can ever happen in politics to you.

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