You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Reanointed

"I can't believe we've lost it all," said a bleary-eyed Bill Clinton in the early morning hours before the polls opened for the New Hampshire primary. He had gathered around him in the Days Hotel in Manchester his political directorate for the unveiling of the last tracking poll numbers. Before the story in the Star broke about Gennifer Flowers, his numbers had climbed steadily to a 10-point margin over his nearest rival, Paul Tsongas, a native son from neighboring Massachusetts. Then, to the drumbeat of "scandal," his numbers tumbled rapidly until they matched the temperature outside -- 16 -- and it appeared that the political weather would get chillier. Despite a last-minute orgy of retail politicking, the final poll numbers were crushing. His staffers were stunned. "We just curled up in a fetal position," said one.

Yet Bill Clinton arrives at the Democratic convention in New York City confident -- something few expected even a month ago. There has been a strange fortuitousness about his misfortune. Undoubtedly, in the absence of the successive "scandals" that befell him, his path would have been almost clear. But if Clinton had won that easily, the resentment of his smoothness might have seethed even more powerfully within the party, and the coalition he had built would have been subject to falling apart under stress. He might have won everything swiftly, but established no true base. When the radiant image of the early Clinton was replaced by a caricature of a dissembling, cheating hack, his campaign, by necessity, became a desperate struggle for survival. A real primary campaign that would otherwise have been avoided forced Clinton to fight. The wounded candidate had to confront in his opponents various narrow approaches to the party that would neither have renewed nor unified it.

Clinton's fall sent him on two journeys, each one representing sides of his persona. One track carried him through a political war -- not only against his rivals, but against rumors and articles that relentlessly told the tale of his miserable "character." The other path was a slow slog of earnest policy wonkery, of speech after speech on serious issue after issue. The two journeys seemed divergent for months. Yet, on the eve of the convention, they have suddenly converged to form a whole candidate.

Clinton had never expected any of this. He had not even anticipated becoming the front-runner. In the beginning of his political war, he thought he would face Mario Cuomo, that the campaign would be long and grueling, but that he had a fair chance of winning it. If he did, he believed his stature would be great because he would be hailed as a giant-killer. When Cuomo failed to run, Clinton thought that Bob Kerrey would become a formidable candidate. But Kerrey's inability to shape a campaign thrust front-runner status on Clinton almost overnight. He expected personal attacks, even rumor-mongering. So he and his wife, Hillary, appeared at the Sperling Breakfast, an institution of the Washington correspondents, to explain that, yes, they had had trouble in their marriage, but had patched it up. They were more forthright than any previous political couple. Thus Clinton believed he had preempted difficulty. He had a naive faith in the national media's sense of responsibility. Clinton was relatively unsurprised that a tabloid sheet would publish unsubstantiated claims, but he was shocked when CNN broadcast Gennifer Flowers's press conference live. The respectable prestige press followed suit by using the tabloid "character issue" as the filter for nearly every subsequent story on Clinton.

Clinton's major strategic miscalculation was his belief that because charges against him had been raised by his opponents in Arkansas and dismissed there, the national press would not give them much credence. "They look so small and petty," he had remarked to a friend about his local enemies on the day he announced his presidential bid. But in the wake of the scandals, Clinton's staffers felt that they were caught in an updated version of Poe's Pit and the Pendulum, choked with terror at the inevitably lowering blade. Combating rumors became an all-consuming preoccupation of the campaign. Numerous old stories that had been dealt with in past Arkansas elections, exhumed by Clinton's parochial enemies, were repackaged by reporters eager for a sensational scoop. The Dan Lasater affair was a prime case -- the story of a high-rolling bond dealer, convicted of cocaine distribution, who was friendly with the governor's younger half-brother. In his 1986 campaign, charges that Clinton was somehow implicated in Lasater's wrongdoing were hurled against him by his opponent but knocked down. Now the Lasater business resurfaced in the press as if it were a revelation. Meanwhile, copycat bimbos -- Gennifer wannabes -- appeared on the doorsteps of a number of local television stations and newspapers across the country. The campaign was constantly called for comment on their tales, none of which ever aired.

This arduous journey was essential to forging the Clinton coalition. One of the many things Clinton had not expected was Paul Tsongas as a serious opponent. Derek Shearer, a professor of public policy at Occidental College and an old friend of Clinton's, who played an integral role within the campaign from the start, was perhaps the only one of Clinton's senior advisers who had taken the trouble to read Tsongas's much-touted plan. On election day in New Hampshire he sat down with James Carville, Clinton's shrewd political consultant, to discuss why the Tsongas plan was another version of trickle-down conservative economics. That night, while Clinton proclaimed himself the "Comeback Kid," Carville flew to Georgia, site of the next primary, to brief Governor Zell Miller, a Clinton supporter, who blasted Tsongas the following morning. (Clinton won Georgia big, and Miller is slated as a keynote speaker at the convention.)

By defeating Tsongas, Clinton dispelled good government anti-politics. In effect, he had lifted the rock of Dukakis off the party. Like Dukakis, Tsongas substituted policy (the sacred) for politics (the profane). Just as Dukakis in 1988 broadcast ads depicting a smoke-filled room of pols as the evil with which he was contending, Tsongas cast politics itself as evil. Both Dukakis's and Tsongas's view was essentially a distillation of the New England Yankee's view of the pandering Irish pol. Tsongas fit Clinton into the frame that had once held Curley.

Tsongas quit the contest almost in a fit of pique on the eve of the Connecticut primary. His support went as a protest vote to Jerry Brown. Once again, Clinton was surprised, and in New York he confronted the remnants of a left wing that played a negative-sum game of identity politics based on fragmented categories of race, gender and sexuality. Through this looking glass, anyone who tried to create an overarching coalition was condemned as reactionary. Brown has the identity of someone searching for an identity, a familiar figure in the cults, grouplets, and sects of the left. But the left had drifted so far from its moorings that it found itself defending Brown's principal policy, the flat tax -- an idea that discarded the single most important instrument of economic democracy, the progressive income tax. Clinton attacked Brown for his economics, just as he had Tsongas. In New York, as elsewhere, the one who criticized conservative economics won with a bedrock coalition of working-class whites and blacks.

In striking down Brown, however, Clinton had not finished striking down identity politics. He still had to contend with its champion-- Jesse Jackson. Jackson saw himself as a Democratic candidate, even when he was not running. Clinton's criticism of Sister Souljah's appearance at a Rainbow Coalition conference was an implicit attack on identity politics as the basis of the Democratic Party. Clinton was releasing the Democrats from the Jackson obsession and the complementary anti-Jackson obsession, which share the notion that Jackson alone speaks for blacks. Clinton was quietly backed in his attack by elected black leaders, many of whom, like Congressman John Lewis, a key Clinton supporter, have clashed with Jackson since the civil rights movement.

Clinton based his criticism on common morality, thereby attacking a fiction of identity politics that blacks are a group walled off from the rest of America and that the only conduit back and forth is Jackson. Clinton was able to handle Jackson not simply because Sister Souljah was such an absurd figure; Clinton also had a lengthy record on race. His three speeches after the l.a. riot laid the groundwork for defusing Jackson later, though he'd hardly planned it. With his fight with Jackson, he removed the last real obstacle to his ability to define the party.

Bill Clinton's politics would not have prevailed if he had not linked them to his policies. And as soon as he had vanquished the unanticipated challenges of Tsongas and Brown, he began his march of policy anew. He rejected the notion that he should dispel the "character issue" by making a Checkers-like mea culpa, and doggedly began to focus on Bush on a substantive level. His campaign in Pennsylvania was launched with a policy address on economics at the Wharton School, Michael Milken's alma mater, which provided an ideal backdrop for his critique of what had gone wrong in the 1980s. A long environmental speech followed the economics speech. And each were neglected by the press, especially the network news. Just when the field appeared to be clear, Clinton disappeared from view.

Clinton can talk the talk and walk the walk, but he is never quite the perfect wonk. As a consummate pol, he can never be that one-sided. He has diligently read and studied monographs in almost every area of social policy. He knows the details of apprenticeship training programs in Germany, health care in France, and child care in Israel. He is not donnish, but mind-numbingly empirical and pragmatic. More important, his policy wonkery is about more than the details: it's a central part of his personality, the way in which he has rationalized and defended his ambition.

The source of his policy expertise can be traced back to his relationships at Oxford, and even back to his own way of transcending the limits his background might have imposed on him. His need to escape led him to transform the fatherless poor boy, abused by an alcoholic stepfather, into the 16-year-old representative to the American Legion Boys Nation, who shook hands with President Kennedy, then into the Oxonian, and the longest serving governor in the country. It was also what drove him to confront the byzantine political world of Arkansas with a policy-oriented politics. Among his most hard-won achievements was convincing the state to accept higher taxes for education reforms. (The constitution requires a three-quarters vote for passage of any tax but a regressive sales tax, making any reform almost inherently unpopular.) Clinton's reformism evoked a schizophrenic response of pride and resentment: Hurrah for Clinton! Who does he think he is?

Clinton believed in education as the fundamental way to uplift his backward state, as he believed in it as the only way to escape his origins. Ironically, focus groups conducted by his campaign have consistently interpreted his intelligence to be the result of a privileged upbringing. Many infer that he must come from an old money family. The confoundment is a sign of how well the self-made man has succeeded. And the residue of this journey -- an instinctive recourse to policy -- has emerged throughout the campaign.

Going into the California primary, Clinton was nervous that Ross Perot would soon propose a detailed program to complement his image of a man of "action." Clinton did not want to be second. Every weekend, from mid-May on, his three closest policy advisers -- Robert B. Reich, Ira Magaziner, and Derek Shearer -- all friends from his Oxford days -- gathered at the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock to draw up a national economic plan.

On June 22 Clinton released "Putting People First: A National Economic Strategy for America." It was vintage Clinton in its empiricism: he translated precisely a belief in government into investment in human capital and productive goods. The plan offered the substance to broaden his coalition; his policy capped his politics. Politically, the plan had four impacts. First, it consolidated his position within the Democratic Party. Both the mayors of the big cities and Jackson had criticized Clinton for not agreeing to a plan to reconstruct urban America. Clinton's plan, however, was more comprehensive than theirs. Clinton appeared at a meeting of the Conference of Mayors, where he now received enthusiastic support. And Jackson was isolated. Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, a Clinton supporter, called him from the mayors' meeting to tell him to get on board.

Second, the plan demonstrated Clinton's earnestness to the electorate, dealing indirectly with the "character issue." Incredibly, a poll showed that two-thirds of the voters had heard of his plan and a majority actually supported it. Third, it was crucial in helping Clinton edge ahead of Perot in the polls. Another surprise for Clinton was that Perot failed to propose his own plan. Perot's entry into the race both complicated politics and made it simpler for Clinton to be himself. By persevering on policy, he made his strongest case against the undefined phenomenon without having to engage him head-on. When Perot begged the question of what he would do, Clinton began to be given credit for his substance. Once the conservative notion that the country's social problems would be solved by the automatic operation of the market fell into discredit during the continuing recession, the alternative to Bush had to draw a renewed focus. Perot, by making the argument for governmental action without providing any program, only undergirded Clinton's position.

Clinton's disinclination to pick two or three easy themes all along had frustrated many of his political advisers. One of Clinton's politicos wanted him to study Garry Wills's new book on Lincoln to try to learn how to become more succinct. Clinton studied it and even spoke with Wills. But his inclination is to explain as much as he can. Being succinct strains his powers, as his nominating speech for Dukakis in 1988 made painfully obvious. Clinton sees the interconnections among the issues and wants to tell you all about them. His flaw is more than the desire to please; it also flows from his cast of mind. In the end, reducing his content to easy themes might have made it harder for him to make his case; for what he needed -- and wanted -- to defend was substantive politics. He had to present his character whole -- pol as wonk, wonk as pol, all of a piece.

Clinton's fall forced him to defeat narrow conceptions of the Democratic Party and to forge a new coalition and political identity for himself. The figure who takes governing seriously is what the country wants but has had trouble seeing in Clinton. Now his nomination testifies to his perseverance, highlighting a morality tale that tells itself. And as the Democrats gather in Madison Square Garden, the very early Clinton, who was there all along, is reemerging.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 1992 issue of the magazine.