In September 1991, three weeks before her husband announced his candidacy for the highest office in the land, Hillary Clinton sat in the front seat of her navy blue Oldsmobile, slapping her hand against the dashboard, making her pitch about retail politics and Bill Clinton. If they had any chance of winning, she said, their toughest battle would be to prove to the American people that they, unlike so many other national candidates, were not isolated from the voters. "Bill and I have lived in an extraordinarily personal political environment," she said. "We love the opportunity to go out there and talk to people and listen to them. If a campaign does not teach the candidate, then how can people feel like they have any part of it?"
Hillary's pitch was as old as politics itself. But she seemed so earnest at the time that it was hard not to wonder whether the Clintons, like so many eager candidates before them, would fall victim to the Madison Avenue packaging that has come to dominate presidential politics. Today, 15 months later, the answer is clear. But the surprising twist is not so much that the Clintons clung relentlessly to the notion of "letting Bill be Bill"--after all, they certainly had confidence in themselves-but that their campaign staff first saw the virtue in the strategy--and then made it work.
Random though they may have seemed in the fury of the election, the so-called "turning points" of the campaign--playing the sax on late-night TV, a blizzard of televised town meetings, thousand-mile bus tours, and a radio tete-a-tete with a raunchy shock-jock who'd been calling him "Bubba Butt" for a month--were anything but arbitrary decisions. There was a common thread, the one that Hillary was so adamant about hack in September in the Oldsmobile. Sure, Clinton had policy ideas, but so did Paul Tsongas. And yes, he had experience as an executive, but so did George Bush. What Clinton had that was special was an ability to make a personal connection with voters. And if he had any chance of winning, that was his ticket.
Coming up with the strategy, however, was the easy part. The challenge was putting it into practice, which, of course, is where the campaign comes in. But the skill of chief strategist James Carville and his staff was not merely that they recognized their man's talent, but that they did something truly unconventional in modern day politics: They resisted the urge to make their man into something he isn't, and they let him directly connect with the voters. Here's how they did it. paying to take voters' questions and showing that you had nothing to hide was something else entirely. "We were all thinking that we have to do more to get above the radar screen," says one aide who was at the Greek dinner. "We had to circumvent all the political clutter on TV in New Hampshire. And when James laid it out, it was, like, yeah, that is exactly what we need to do."
The town meetings, of course, worked. Clinton was passionate and at ease, not the candidate-under-siege he sometimes appeared to be when surrounded by a pack of reporters growling about the draft. In the closing days of the primary, thousands of voters returned to the Clinton fold. The lessons of the strategy only reinforced what the Clintons had learned years earlier in Arkansas: The more people know Bill, the more they like him.
Rewind to New Hampshire. Mario Cuomo lets history pass him by and Clinton is anointed front-runner. By January, he has climbed to 40 percent in the polls. Then, disaster: First, Gennifer of the tawdry tapes, and then dubiously-answered questions about his draft history. Clinton drops 15 points in four days, and with nine days to the primary he is still falling. It was, as one aide said, "meltdown."
The night Clinton's infamous ROTC letter surfaced, the key Clintonites, somewhat shell-shocked by the day's events, took a short walk in the freezing New Hampshire weather from the Manchester campaign headquarters to a nearby Greek restaurant. Over Greek salads and tepid moussaka, Carville laid out his plan---one that would soon become a staple of the campaign: paid television time for town meetings. The campaign would buy two half-hour blocks of TV time and let an unfiltered group of voters quiz the candidate on whatever was on their minds.
The idea was not as whimsical as it first appeared. Clinton had excelled in this kind of setting for more than a decade in hamlets across Arkansas. There was a reason, after all, much of Arkansas knew him simply as Bill: Clinton understood that politics in his home state wasn't so much a matter of who you knew, but how many--that you've lugged your big frame on sweltering days to chicken frys in outposts with names like Mt. Nebo and Dumas. Clinton's people figured running in Arkansas wasn't a whole lot different than running in New Hampshire's primary.
The time-worn approach--paid advertising--Carville reasoned to the group, was one thing, but
There were other important events in New Hampshire. One was handing out 20,000 videos about Clinton's life, bringing "Bill" into many living rooms. Another was the way the campaign spun its second-place finish. Clinton, after all, lost the primary, his 25 percent a full eight points behind Paul Tsongas. But Clinton declared himself "The Comeback Kid," which gave him a perceived strength coming out of Such a bruising primary. Such a bold declaration was the result of two key decisions, both aimed at helping Clinton connect directly with the voters.
First, the weekend before the primary, Joe Grandmaison, the legendary Granite State politico, urged Clinton campaign chairman Mickey Kantor to convince Clinton to come out on election night just as the polls closed and--regardless of the results-declare himself a winner. Grandmaison knew Clinton was making up much lost support and a strong and early statement about having climbed back into contention would shape the media coverage for the remainder of election night. But the "Grandmaison Plan" when first proposed by Kantor was viewed with skepticism. It gained momentum only after Hillary signed on.
On election night, the plan played out even better than anticipated. A full two hours before Tsongas went on the air to declare victory, a confident, beaming Clinton stepped up before an enthusiastic crowd of supporters to announce his second place "victory" and declare himself "The Comeback Kid." (That now famous line had been whipped up earlier that same day when Carville, aide Paul Begala, communications guru Bob Boorstin, and consultant Mandy Grunwald, among others, gathered in Carville and Begala's hotel room to hammer out Clinton's speech. "The room was a cross between spring break from hell and a newspaper bureau," said one aide, with computers, food wrappers, faxes, and piles of paper all over the place.)
Far from the resigned appearance that often characterizes second place primary finishers, Clinton appeared full of vigor, determined to fight even harder. He looked, well, presidential. The media ate it up. For two hours, while Tsongas waited for the "official" results, the TV stations ran, and re-ran, Clinton's speech. Americans love characters that struggle against the odds, and Paul Tsongas' miracle in New Hampshire was forced to compete with Bill Clinton's self-declared resurrection.
THE DON IMUS SHOW
The rebirth in New Hampshire provided Clinton with some momentum going into the southern states where he always expected to do well. Even so, both Jerry Brown and Tsongas refused to fold. Despite his 1,082 delegates, there was little sense of certainty about Clinton's gaining the nomination as the campaign moved into New York in April. Brown's upset in the Connecticut primary helped fuel talk that "character questions" might yet force Clinton from the race, and names like Bentsen and Bradley were still being bandied about as possible late entry candidates. And so it was that the Arkansas traveller entered the bare-knuckles ring of New York politics. The tabloids sayaged him, caricaturing him as a southern cracker who couldn't understand the arcane and gritty ways of the city. He was forced to acknowledge trying marijuana and offered what was perceived as the quintessentially slippery "but I didn't inhale" response. A visit to a Harlem hospital turned into a menagerie when a fringe political group disrupted the event.
Enter morning radio talk show host Don Imus, with his more than 5 million "demographically correct" listeners in New York and surrounding states. The irreverent Imus ridicules anything that he comes across, and "Bubba Butt" Clinton provided ample fodder. Clinton aides Boorstin and Grunwald began pushing for Clinton to ask for a spot on the show. It was a chance, they argued, to illustrate that Bill could take a joke, that he was a regular guy. Some Clinton advisors thought Imus was too much of a loose cannon, that the risks of an unfunny womanizing joke were too high.
As the Imus battle raged inside the Clinton camp, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieherman, an early Clinton backer who was a frequent Imus guest, entered the fray. With Clinton battling through New York, the junior senator from Connecticut called the governor of Arkansas and urged him to appear with Imus (who at that point was telling listeners that "Bubba" was lying about the number of times he ran around the Central Park reservoir on his morning jogs). "I told Bill that Imus does pick on people, but he's very funny. Funny and smart," recalls Lieberman. "Bill listened. He was interested." The appearance was clinched when Rick Kaplan, an ABC News executive who knows both Imus and Clinton, called the radio show host to see if he could get the pair together. The answer was yes.
Clinton's staff whipped up a couple of quick one-liners for the candidate (one allowing Clinton to explain that he took to playing the sax because it's the one instrument where you don't have to inhale; another explaining that "Bubba" is "just southern for mensch") and the appearance was a hit. And not only did his winning performance fill New York's radio airwaves, but the campaign had also worked a deal with ABC News's "Nightline," which videotaped the appearance, and later broadcast to viewers across the nation images of a spontaneous politician who could take a joke, even one about adultery. This was no blow-dried pol; it was Arkansas Bill, comfortable, relaxed, regular.
Hoping to repeat the Imus success, Clinton appeared on the "Arsenio Hall Show" the day after he wrapped up the nomination. But he still lagged badly behind President Bush and Ross Perot in the polls. George Stephanopoulos, the communications director, and Grunwald pushed for the Arsenio appearance. Hillary had been an Arsenio fan since the emotional show he'd done the night of the Los Angeles riots. She'd gotten a tape of that show and played it for her husband one night at home in Little Rock. Clinton was convinced.
As the candidate rehearsed his saxophone playing with Arsenio's band in the empty studio, campaign press secretary Dee Dee Myers had an inspiration. The music sounded fine, she said, but what Clinton really needed was a pair of shades. She asked Begala to hand over his Ray Bans. Clinton was skeptical ("a politician's greatest fear is the fear of looking like an ass," explained one staffer), but he finally agreed. Next was the question of Clinton's clothing. He'd worn a typically sedate politician's tie, but the consensus among the staff was that it had to go. Arsenio's wardrobe person arrived with four choices from Arsenio's personal tie rack. Clinton was game and soon his horn playing and jazzy tie became a hallmark of the campaign. This guy was young, energetic and, well, likable. "We cleaned up the youth vote, which no Democrat had done in a generation," recalls Begala, "and Arsenio was crucial to that."
THE BUS TOUR
Clinton's performance on Arsenio--and the wide coverage it earned--helped trigger the June rebound that would catapult him past Bush into a lead he'd never relinquish. Many other factors were important, of course: strengthening the bi-racial coalition Democrats had sought for a generation; wooing Reagan Democrats; hammering away at Bush's inaction on the economy; peppering audiences with one plan after another for jobs and health care and education. But the approach of using pop culture media--and other non-traditional methods of getting out the message had become institutionalized in the campaign. After Imus and Arsenio, the campaign went looking for other ways to introduce Bill to America: MTV, "Larry King Live," morning TV call-ins at every opportunity, and more town meetings.
But perhaps the finest innovation came from campaign manager David Wilhelm. A product of Athens, Ohio, Wilhelm sought a way to recreate the intimate campaign style found in New Hampshire. Again they turned to another throwback to Clinton's Arkansas-based up-close style of politics: Clinton had taken a whistle-stop train tour through northwest Arkansas during his 1990 gubernatorial campaign. The train had stopped numerous times to allow Bill and Hillary to greet hundreds of curious Arkansans along the way. With this in mind, Wilhelm masterminded the event that took the Clintons through America's heart-land and that did more to allow Americans to meet "Bill" than a hundred appearances on Sunday morning talk shows.
For the Clinton campaign, letting America come as close as possible to their man paid off. The beauty of the Clinton strategy was that his campaign team saw that the politician was tailored for this type of politics. "Every campaign takes on the personality of the candidate, and Clinton's was from middle-class people in small town America," Begala said. "if you take too many general lessons from the campaign you just won't get it. He was the thoroughbred and we just let him run."
Matthew A. Saal is a producer for Cable News Network in Washington, D.C.
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|Title Annotation:||Bill Clinton's presidential campaign|
|Author:||Saal, Matthew A.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1993|
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