W hile I was trying to decide whether to run again, the governors race was shaping up to be a real donnybrook, whether I ran or not. Years of pent-up ambitions were being unleashed. On the Democratic side, Jim Guy Tucker, Attorney General Steve Clark, and Rockefeller Foundation president Tom McRae, whose grandfather had been governor, all announced they would run. They were all friends of mine, and had good ideas and progressive records. On the Republican side, the contest was even more interesting. It involved two formidable former Democrats: Congressman Tommy Robinson, who didnt like Washington, and Sheffield Nelson, former president of Arkansas-Louisiana Gas Company, who said he had switched parties because the Democratic Party had moved too far to the left. It was the standard explanation white southerners gave, but more interesting coming from him because he had supported Senator Ted Kennedy against President Carter in 1980.
Robinson and Nelson, and their backers, all onetime friends, went after one another with a vengeance, in a race full of name-calling and mudslinging, which included Robinsons charge that Nelson and Jerry Jones, a long-time friend of both men who owned some of the gas fields that supplied Arkla, were rapacious businessmen who soaked Arklas ratepayers for personal gain, and Nelsons charge that Robinson was unstable and unfit to be governor. About all they agreed on was that I had raised taxes too much and had too little to show for it in terms of educational improvement and economic development.
On the Democratic side, Steve Clark withdrew from the race, leaving Jim Guy Tucker and Tom McRae, who took a different approach, more clever than that of the Republicans, to discourage me from running. They said Id done a lot of good, but I was out of new ideas and out of time. Ten years as governor was long enough. I couldnt get anything done in the legislature anymore, and four more years would give me too much control over all aspects of state government. McRae had met with focus groups of representative voters who said they wanted to continue the direction Id set in economic development, but were open to new ideas from a new leader. I thought there was something to their argument, but I didnt believe they could get more out of our conservative anti-tax legislators than I could.
Finally, still uncertain of what to do, I set a March 1 deadline to announce my decision. Hillary and I hashed it over dozens of times. There was some press speculation that she would run if I didnt. When asked about it, I said shed be a great governor but I didnt know if she would run. When I discussed it with her, Hillary said shed cross that bridge if I decided not to run, but what she might do should be no part of my decision. She knew, before I did, that I wasnt ready to hang it up.
In the end I couldnt bear the thought of walking away from a decade of hard work, with my last year marked by repeated failures to fund further improvements in education. I never was one for quitting, and whenever I was tempted, something always happened to give me heart. In the mid-eighties, when our economy was in the tank, I was about to land a new industry for a county where one in four people was unemployed. At the last minute, Nebraska offered the company an extra million dollars and I lost the deal. I was crushed and felt I had failed the whole county. When Lynda Dixon, my secretary, saw me slumped in my chair with my head in my hands, she tore off the daily scripture reading from the devotional calendar she kept on her desk. The verse was Galatians 6:9: Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. I went back to work.
On February 11, I witnessed the ultimate testimonial to the power of perseverance. Early that Sunday morning, Hillary and I got Chelsea up and took her down to the kitchen of the Governors Mansion to see what we told her would be one of the most important events shed ever witness. Then we turned on the television and watched Nelson Mandela take the last steps in his long walk to freedom. Through twenty-seven years of imprisonment and abuse, Mandela had endured, and triumphed, to end apartheid, liberate his own mind and heart from hatred, and inspire the world.
At the March 1 press conference, I said I would run for a fifth term, although the fire of an election no longer burns in me, because I wanted another chance to finish the job of improving education and modernizing the economy, and because I thought I could do a better job of it than the other candidates. I also promised to keep bringing new people into state government and to bend over backward to avoid abuse of power.
Looking back on it, I can see how the statement looked ambivalent and a touch arrogant, but it was an honest expression of how I felt, as I began the first campaign since 1982 that I could have lost. I got a break soon afterward, when Jim Guy Tucker decided to withdraw from the race and run for lieutenant governor instead, saying a divisive primary would only increase the chances of a Republican victory in the fall, no matter who won. Jim Guy had made a judgment that he could win the lieutenant governors race easily, then become governor in four years. He was almost certainly right, and I was relieved.
Still, I couldnt take the primary for granted. McRae was waging a vigorous campaign and had a lot of friends and admirers around the state from his years of good work at the Rockefeller Foundation. When he made his formal announcement, he had a broom in his hand and said he wanted to make a clean sweep of state government, clearing out old ideas and career politicians. The broom tactic had worked for my neighbor David Boren when he ran for governor of Oklahoma in 1974. I was determined that it wouldnt work this time. Gloria Cabe agreed to manage the campaign, and she put together an effective organization. Maurice Smith raised the money. And I followed a simple strategy: to outwork my opponents, do my job, and continue to preach new ideas, including college scholarships for all high school students with a B average or better; and a plant the future initiative to plant ten million more trees a year for a decade to do our part to reduce greenhouse gases and global warming.
McRae was forced to become more critical of me, which I think made him somewhat uncomfortable, but which had some impact. All the candidates hit me for my involvement in national politics. In late March, I went to New Orleans to accept the chairmanship of the Democratic Leadership Council. I was convinced the groups ideas on welfare reform, criminal justice, education, and economic growth were crucial to the future of the Democratic Party and the nation. The DLCs positions were popular in Arkansas, but my high profile was a potential liability in the race, so I got back home as soon as I could.
In April, the AFL-CIO refused for the first time to endorse me. Bill Becker, their president, had never really liked me. He thought the sales-tax increase was unfair to working people, opposed the tax incentives Id supported to lure new jobs to Arkansas, and blamed me for the failure of the tax-reform referendum in 1988. He was also furious that I had supported a $300,000 loan guarantee to a business involved in a labor dispute. I spoke to the labor convention, defending the tax increase for education and expressing amazement that Becker would blame me for the failure of tax reform, which I had supported but the people voted against. I also stood by the loan guarantee because it saved 410 jobs: the company sold its products to Ford Motor Company, and the loan enabled it to build a two-month inventory, without which Ford would have canceled the firms contract and put it out of business. Within two weeks, eighteen local unions defied Becker and endorsed me anyway. They didnt fall into the classic liberal trap of making the perfect the enemy of the good. If the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 hadnt made the same mistake, Al Gore would have been elected President.
The only dramatic moment of the primary came when I was out of state again. While I was in Washington presenting the report of the Delta Development Commission to Congress, McRae called a press conference at the state Capitol to criticize my record. He thought he would have the Arkansas press all to himself. Hillary thought otherwise. When I called her the night before, she said she thought she might show up at the conference. McRae had a cardboard likeness of me by his side. He attacked me for being absent from the state, implied that I had refused to debate him, and began to criticize my record by posing questions for me and supplying the answers himself.
In the middle of McRaes routine, Hillary stepped out of the crowd and interrupted him. She said Tom knew I was in Washington promoting the Delta commissions recommendations, which would help Arkansas. She then produced a prepared summary of several years of Rockefeller Foundation reports praising my work as governor. She said that he had been right in the reports, and that Arkansas should be proud: Weve made more progress than any other state except South Carolina, and were right up there with them.
It was unheard of for a candidates wife, much less the first lady, to confront an opponent like that. Some people criticized Hillary for it, but most people knew she had earned the right to defend the work we had done together for years, and it broke McRaes momentum. When I got home, I lit into him for his attacks and went after his economic development strategy, saying he wanted to build a wall around Arkansas. I won the election with 55 percent of the vote over McRae and several other challengers, but Tom had run a smart campaign on a shoestring budget, and had done well enough to encourage the Republicans about their prospects in the fall.
Sheffield Nelson beat Tommy Robinson in the Republican primary and promised to run against me on my tax and spend record. The strategy was flawed. Nelson should have run as a moderate Republican, praised my work in education and economic development, and said ten years was long enoughI should be given a gold watch and a respectable retirement. By switching from his original position in support of the school standards and the sales-tax increase to pay for them, Nelson allowed me to escape the straitjacket of tired incumbency and run as the only candidate of positive change.
The fact that Nelson was running against the education program and taxes had the added benefit that, if I won, I could argue to the legislators that the people had voted for more progress. As we moved toward election day, the AFL-CIO finally endorsed me. The Arkansas Education Association recommended me because of my commitment to raising teacher salaries, Nelsons promise not to raise taxes for four years, and AEA president Sid Johnsons desire to bury the hatchet and get on with business.
Nelson, meanwhile, moved farther to the right, advocating a reduction in welfare benefits for illegitimate children and hitting me for vetoing a bill the National Rifle Association had pushed through the legislature. The bill would have prohibited local governments from enacting any restrictions on firearms or ammunition. It was a smart move by the NRA, because state legislators were invariably more rural and pro-gun than city councils, but I thought the bill was bad policy. If the Little Rock City Council wanted to ban cop-killer bullets in the face of increasing gang activity, I thought they should have the right to do so.
The work of the governors office didnt stop for the campaign. In June, I approved the first executions in Arkansas since 1964. John Swindler was convicted of murdering an Arkansas policeman and two South Carolina teenagers. Ronald Gene Simmons killed his wife, three sons, four daughters, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, four grandchildren, and two people he had grudges against. Simmons wanted to die. Swindler didnt. They were both executed in June. I didnt have qualms about either of them, but I knew there were tougher cases awaiting us.
I had also begun to commute the sentences of a few murderers with life sentences, so that they could be eligible for parole. As I explained to the voters, I had not commuted a sentence for years, after the bad experience during my first term, but both the Prison Board and the Paroles and Pardons Board pleaded with me to resume commuting some lifers. Most states made lifers eligible for parole after serving several years. In Arkansas the governor had to commute their sentences. The decisions werent easy or popular, but were necessary to keep peace and order in a prison system where 10 percent of the inmates were serving life terms. Its fortunate that many lifers are unlikely to repeat their crimes and can return to society without risk to others. This time, we made extensive efforts to contact the victims families for comments. Surprisingly, many did not object. Also, most of those whose sentences were commuted were old or had committed their crimes when they were very young.
In mid-September, a disgruntled former employee of the Development Finance Authority first raised the sex question against me. Larry Nichols had made more than 120 phone calls from his office to conservative supporters of the Nicaraguan Contras, a cause the national Republicans strongly supported. Nicholss defense was that he was calling the Contra supporters to get them to lobby congressional Republicans to support legislation beneficial to his agency. His excuse didnt fly, and he was fired when the calls were discovered. Nichols called a press conference on the steps of the Capitol and accused me of using the finance agencys funds to carry on affairs with five women. I drove into my parking place in front of the Capitol not long after Nichols had made his charges and was hit cold with the story by Bill Simmons of the Associated Press, the senior member of the political press and a good reporter. When Simmons asked me about the charges, I just suggested he call the women. He did, they all denied it, and the story basically died. None of the television stations or newspapers ran it. Only one conservative radio announcer who supported Nelson talked about it, actually naming one of the women, Gennifer Flowers. She threatened to sue him if he didnt stop. The Nelson campaign tried to stoke the rumors, but without corroboration or evidence.
At the end of the campaign, Nelson put on a television ad that was misleading but effective. The announcer raised a series of issues and asked what I would do about them. To each question, my own voice answered, Raise and spend. Nelsons campaign had lifted those three words from a section in my State of the State address, in which I compared Arkansas budget with that of the federal government. While Washington could engage in deficit spending, if we didnt have money, we had to raise and spend, or not spend at all. I put out a response ad comparing Nelsons claim to what I had really said and told the voters that if they couldnt trust Nelson not to mislead them in the campaign, they couldnt trust him to be governor. A couple of days later, I was reelected, 57 to 43 percent.
The victory was sweet in many ways. The people had decided to let me serve fourteen years, longer than any other Arkansas governor in history. And for the first time, I had carried Sebastian County, which was then still the most hard-core Republican big county in the state. In a campaign appearance in Fort Smith, I had promised that if I did win there, Hillary and I would dance down Garrison Avenue, the towns main street. A couple of nights after the election, along with a few hundred supporters, we kept our commitment. It was cold and raining, but we danced away and enjoyed every minute of it. We had waited sixteen years for a general-election win there.
The only really dark moment of the general election was purely personal. In August, Mothers doctor discovered a lump in her right breast. Forty-eight hours later, while Dick, Roger, and I waited in the hospital, Mother had the lump removed. After the procedure, she was her usual chipper self and was back at work on the campaign in no time, though she faced months of chemotherapy. The cancer had aleady spread to twenty-seven nodes in her arm, but she didnt tell anyone thisincluding me. In fact, she never told us how bad it was until 1993.
In December, I resumed my work for the Democratic Leadership Council, launching the Texas DLC chapter in Austin. In my speech, I argued that, contrary to our liberal critics, we were good Democrats. We believed in keeping the American dream alive for all people. We believed in government, though not in the status quo. And we believed government was spending too much on yesterday and todayinterest on debt, defense, more money for the same health careand too little on tomorrow: education, the environment, research and development, the infrastructure. I said the DLC stood for a modern, mainstream agenda: the expansion of opportunity, not bureaucracy; choice in public schools and child care; responsibility and empowerment for poor people; and reinventing government, away from the top-down bureaucracy of the industrial era, to a leaner, more flexible, more innovative model appropriate for the modern global economy.
I was trying to develop a national message for the Democrats, and the effort fueled speculation that I might enter the presidential race in 1992. During the recent campaign, I had said on more than one occasion that I would serve out my term if elected. Thats what I thought I would do. I was excited about the coming legislative session. Though I strongly disagreed with many of his decisions, like killing the Brady bill and vetoing the Family and Medical Leave Act, I liked President Bush and had a good relationship with the White House. Also, a campaign to defeat him looked hopeless. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and the United States was beginning its buildup for the Gulf War, which in two months would drive the Presidents approval ratings into the stratosphere.
On the morning of January 15, 1991, with ten-year-old Chelsea holding the Bible for me, I took the oath of office in Little Rock for the last time. Following the custom, I delivered my informal address in the crowded chamber of the House of Representatives, then, at noon, made a more formal address at the public ceremony, which was held in the Capitol rotunda because of inclement weather. The new legislature had more women and blacks than ever. The Speaker of the House, John Lipton, and the president pro tempore of the Senate, Jerry Bookout, were progressives and strong supporters of mine. Jim Guy Tucker was lieutenant governor, probably the ablest person ever to hold the job, and we were working together, rather than at cross-purposes, for the first time in years.
I dedicated my inaugural address to the men and women from Ar-kansas serving in the Persian Gulf, and noted that it was appropriate that we were making a new beginning on Martin Luther King Jr.s birthday, because we must go forward into the future together or we will all be limited in what we achieve. Then I outlined the most ambitious program I had ever proposed, in education, health care, highways, and the environment.
In education, I proposed a big increase in adult literacy and training programs; apprenticeships for non-college-bound youths; college scholarships for all middle-class and low-income kids who took the required courses, made a B average, and stayed off drugs; preschool programs for poor kids; a new residential high school for math and science students; conversion of fourteen vo-tech schools into two-year colleges; and a $4,000 raise for teachers over two years. I asked the legislature to raise the sales tax half a cent and the corporate income tax half a percent to pay for them.
There were also several reform measures in my package, including health insurance for pregnant women and for children; the removal of more than 250,000 taxpayers, more than 25 percent of the total, from the state income tax rolls; and an income tax credit to offset the sales-tax increase for up to 75 percent of the taxpayers.
And for the next sixty-eight days, I worked to pass the program, bringing legislators to my office; going to their committee hearings to argue personally for bills; cornering them in the halls, at nighttime events, or early in the morning at the Capitol cafeteria; hanging around with them outside the chambers or in the cloakrooms; calling them late at night; and bringing opposing legislators and their allied lobbyists together to hammer out compromises. By the end of the session, virtually my entire program had passed. The tax proposals received between 76 and 100 percent of the vote in both houses, including the votes of a majority of Republican lawmakers.
Ernest Dumas, one of the states most distinguished and astute columnists, said, For education, it was one of the best legislative sessions in the states history, arguably the best. Dumas noted that we also passed the largest highway program ever; greatly expanded health care for poor families; improved the environment by passing proposals for solid-waste recycling and reduction and for weakening the hand of polluting industries at the states pollution control agency; and spurned a few religious zealots by providing school health clinics in poor communities.
The legislature had its biggest fight over the school health clinics. I favored allowing the clinics to distribute condoms if the local school board approved. So did the Senate. The more conservative House was devoutly anti-condom. Finally the legislature adopted a compromise offered by Representative Mark Pryor, who in 2002 became Arkansas junior U.S. senator: no state money could be used to buy condoms, but if bought with other funds, they could be distributed. Bob Lancaster, a witty columnist for the Arkansas Gazette, wrote a hilarious article chronicling the struggle of the condom Congress. He called it, with apologies to Homer, the Trojans War.
The legislature also passed the National Rifle Associations bill to prohibit cities and counties from adopting local gun-control ordinances, the same measure I had vetoed in 1989. No southern legislature could say no to the NRA. Even in the more liberal Senate, this bill passed 267. At least I got the Senate to pass it late, so I could veto it after they went home and they couldnt override it. After the bill was sent to me, I had an extraordinary encounter with the young NRA lobbyist who came down from Washington to push the bill. He was very tall and well dressed and spoke with a clipped New England accent. One day he stopped me as I was crossing the rotunda from the House to the Senate side of the Capitol. Governuh, Governuh, why dont you just let this bill become law without your signature? I explained for the umpteenth time why I didnt support the bill. Then he burst out, Look, Governuh, youre going to run for President next year, and when you do, were going to beat your brains out in Texas if you veto this bill. I knew I was getting older and more seasoned when I didnt slug him. Instead, I smiled and said, You dont get it. I dont like this bill. You know gun control will never be a problem in Arkansas. Youve just got a chart on the wall in your fancy office in Washington with this bill at the top and all the states listed below. You dont give a damn about the merits of this bill. You just want to put a check by Arkansas on that chart. So you get your gun and Ill get mine. Well saddle up and meet in Texas. As soon as the legislature went home, I vetoed the bill. Soon afterward, the NRA began running television ads attacking me. It wasnt until I began writing this account that I realized that in my confrontation with the NRA lobbyist, I had acknowledged that I was considering running for President. At the time, I didnt think there was a chance Id do it. I just didnt like to be threatened.
After the session, Henry Oliver told me he wanted to leave. I hated to lose him, but after decades of proud service in the marines, the FBI, and local and state government, he had earned the right to go home. For the time being, Gloria Cabe and Carol Rasco took over his responsibilities.
I spent the next few months making sure our massive legislative program was well implemented and traveling the country for the Democratic Leadership Council. Because I was out there making the case for how we could regain mainstream, middle-class voters who have left the party in droves for twenty years, the press continued to speculate that I might run in 1992. In an interview in April, I joked about it, saying, As long as nobody runs, everybody can be on the list, and its kind of nice. It makes my mother happy to read my name in the paper.
While I still didnt believe I could or should run, and President Bushs approval ratings were still above 70 percent in the afterglow of the Gulf War, I was beginning to think a DLC Democrat who could relate both to the partys traditional base and to swing voters might have a chance, because the country had serious problems that werent being addressed in Washington. The President and his team seemed determined to coast to victory on the wings of the Gulf War. I had seen enough in Arkansas and in my travels around the country to know America couldnt coast through four more years. As 1991 unfolded, more and more people came to share that view.
In April, I went to Los Angeles to speak to a luncheon for Education First, a citizens group dedicated to improving public education. After Sidney Poitier introduced me, I recounted three recent experiences with education in California that reflected both promise and peril for Americas future. The promise I had seen more than a year earlier when I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles to students with roots in 122 other nations. Their diversity was a good omen for our ability to compete with and relate to the rest of the global community. The perils were evident when Hillary and I visited with sixth-graders in East Los Angeles. They were great kids who had big dreams and a deep desire for normal lives. They told us their number one fear was of being shot going to and from school. They also said they did practice drills crouching under their desks in the event of a drive-by shooting. The childrens number two fear was that, when they turned thirteen, they would have to join a gang and smoke crack cocaine or face severe beatings from their contemporaries. My experience with those kids had a profound impact on me. They deserved better.
On another California trip, this time to discuss education with the Business Roundtable, a telephone company executive told me that 70 percent of his job applicants flunked the companys entrance examination, even though virtually all of them were high school graduates. I asked the audience if the United States, fresh from victory in the Gulf War, could hope to lead the postCold War world if childhood was dangerous and our schools were inadequate.
Of course, it was one thing to say the country had problems and quite another to say what the federal government should do about them, and to say it in a way that could be heard by citizens conditioned by the Reagan-Bush years to believe the federal government was the source of our problems, not the solution. Making that case was the mission of the Democratic Leadership Council.
In early May, I went to Cleveland to preside over the DLC convention. A year earlier, in New Orleans, we had issued a statement of principles intended to move beyond the tired partisan debate in Washington by creating a dynamic but centrist progressive movement of new ideas rooted in traditional American values. While the DLC had been criticized for being too conservative by some of our partys leading liberals, like Governor Mario Cuomo and the Reverend Jesse Jackson (who said DLC stood for Democratic Leisure Class), the convention attracted an impressive array of creative thinkers, innovative state and local officials, and businesspeople concerned about our economic and social problems. Many prominent national Democrats, including several prospective presidential candidates, were also there. Among the speakers were Senators Sam Nunn, John Glenn, Chuck Robb, Joe Lieberman, John Breaux, Jay Rockefeller, and Al Gore. Besides me, the governors there were Lawton Chiles of Florida and Jerry Baliles of Virginia. The House members there mostly represented conservative constituencies, like Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, or had an interest in national security and foreign policy, like Steve Solarz of New York. Former senator Paul Tsongas and former governor Doug Wilder of Virginia, both of whom would soon be running for President, were there. A number of talented black leaders participated, including Governor Wilder; Mayor Mike White of Cleveland; Vince Lane, the creative chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority; Congressman Bill Gray of Pennsylvania; and Congressman Mike Espy of Mississippi.
I opened the convention with a keynote address designed to make the case that America needed to change course and that the DLC could and should lead the way. I began with a litany of Americas problems and challenges and a rebuke of the years of Republican neglect, then noted that the Democrats had not been able to win elections, despite Republican failures, because too many of the people that used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class we are talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into our social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline.
I applauded the leadership of the Democratic Party under Ron Brown, our first black chairman, whom I had supported. Brown had made a real effort to broaden the partys base, but we needed a message with specific proposals to offer the American people:
The Republican burden is their record of denial, evasion, and neglect. But our burden is to give the people a new choice, rooted in old values, a new choice that is simple, that offers opportunity, demands responsibility, gives citizens more say, provides them responsive governmentall because we recognize that we are a community. We are all in this together, and we are going up or down together.
The opportunity agenda meant economic growth through free and fair trade, as well as more investment in new technologies and in world-class education and skills. The responsibility agenda required something of all citizens: national service for young people in return for college aid; welfare reforms that required able-bodied parents to work but provided more support for their children; tougher child-support enforcement; more efforts by parents to keep their kids in school; a reinvented government, with less bureaucracy and more choices in child care, public schools, job training, elderly care, neighborhood policing, and the management of public housing. The community agenda required us to invest more in our millions of poor children, and to reach across the racial divide, to build a politics based on lifting up all Americans, not dividing them against one another.
I tried hard to break through all the either/or debates that dominated national public discourse. In the conventional Washington wisdom, you had to be for excellence or equity in education; for quality or universal access in health care; for a cleaner environment or more economic growth; for work or child-rearing in welfare policy; for labor or business in the workplace; for crime prevention or punishing criminals; for family values or more spending for poor families. In his remarkable book Why Americans Hate Politics, the journalist E. J. Dionne labels these as false choices, saying in each instance that Americans thought we should not choose either/or but both. I agreed, and tried to illustrate my beliefs with lines like Family values will not feed a hungry child, but you cannot raise that hungry child very well without them. We need both.
I wound up the speech by citing the lesson I had learned in Professor Carroll Quigleys Western Civilization class more than twenty-five years earlier, that the future can be better than the past, and that each of us has a personal, moral responsibility to make it so: That is what the new choice is all about, that is what we are here in Cleveland to do. We are not here to save the Democratic Party. We are here to save the United States of America.
That speech was one of the most effective and important I ever made. It captured the essence of what I had learned in seventeen years in politics and what millions of Americans were thinking. It became the blueprint for my campaign message, helping to change the public focus from President Bushs victory in the Gulf War to what we had to do to build a better future. By embracing ideas and values that were both liberal and conservative, it made voters who had not supported Democratic presidential candidates in years listen to our message. And by the rousing reception it received, the speech established me as perhaps the leading spokesman for the course I passionately believed America should embrace. Several people at the convention urged me to run for President, and I left Cleveland convinced that I had a good chance to capture the Democratic nomination if I did run, and that I had to consider entering the race.
In June, my friend Vernon Jordan asked me to go with him to Baden-Baden, Germany, to the annual Bilderberg Conference, which brings together prominent business and political leaders from the United States and Europe to discuss current issues and the state of our transatlantic relationship. I always enjoyed being with Vernon and was stimulated by my conversations with the Europeans, including Gordon Brown, a brilliant Scottish Labour Party member who would become chancellor of the exchequer when Tony Blair was elected prime minister. I found the Europeans generally supportive of President Bushs foreign policies but very concerned by the continued drift and weakness of our economy, which hurt them as well as us.
At Bilderberg, I ran into Esther Coopersmith, a Democratic activist who had served as part of our UN delegation during the Carter years. Esther was on her way to Moscow with her daughter Connie, and she invited me to join them to observe firsthand the changes that were unfolding in the last days of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin was about to be elected president of the Russian Republic with an even more explicit repudiation of Soviet economics and politics than Gorbachev had espoused. It was a brief but interesting trip.
When I got back to Arkansas, I was convinced that a lot of Americas challenges in foreign relations would involve economic and political issues that I understood and could handle if I were to run and actually become the President. Still, as July dawned, I was genuinely torn about what to do. I had told Arkansans in the 1990 election that I would finish my term. The success of the 1991 legislative session had given me a new burst of enthusiasm for my job. Our family life was great. Chelsea was happy in a new school, with good teachers, good friends, and her passion for ballet. Hillary was doing well in her law practice and enjoyed great popularity and respect in her own right. After years of high-tension political struggles, we were settled and happy. Moreover, President Bush still looked unbeatable. An early June poll in Arkansas showed that only 39 percent of the people wanted me to run, and that I would lose my own state to the President 57 to 32 percent, with the rest undecided. Moreover, I wouldnt be stepping into an empty primary field. Several other good Democrats seemed likely to run, so the nomination fight was sure to be hard. And history was against me. Only one governor of a small state had ever been elected President, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire in 1852.
Beyond the political considerations, I genuinely liked President Bush and appreciated the way he and his White House had worked with me on education. Though I strongly disagreed with his economic and social policies, I thought he was a good man and nowhere near as ruthless or right-wing as most of the Reaganites. I didnt know what to do. In June, on a trip to California, I was picked up at the airport and driven to my speech by a young man named Sean Landres. He encouraged me to run for President and said he had found the perfect theme for the campaign. He then put on a tape of Fleetwood Macs hit Dont Stop Thinkin About Tomorrow. It struck him, and me, as exactly what I was trying to say.
When I was in Los Angeles, I discussed the pros and cons of running with Hillarys friend Mickey Kantor, who by then had become a close friend and trusted advisor of mine as well. When we started, Mickey said I should hire him for a dollar, so our conversations would be privileged. A few days later, I sent him a check for a dollar, with a note that said I had always wanted a high-priced lawyer and was sending the check in firm belief that you get what you pay for. I got a lot of good advice for that dollar, but I still didnt know what to do. Then came the phone call that changed things.
One July day, Lynda Dixon told me that Roger Porter was on the phone from the White House. As Ive said, I had worked with Roger on the education goals project and had a high regard for his ability to be loyal to the President and still work with the governors. Roger asked me if I was going to run for President in 1992. I told him that I hadnt decided, that I was happier being governor than Id been in years, that my family life was good and I was reluctant to disrupt it, but that I thought the White House was being too passive in dealing with the countrys economic and social problems. I said I thought the President should use the enormous political capital he had as a result of the Gulf War to tackle the countrys big issues. After five or ten minutes of what I thought was a serious conversation, Roger cut it off and got to the point. Ill never forget the first words of the message he had been designated to deliver: Cut the crap, Governor. He said they had reviewed all the potential candidates against the President. Governor Cuomo was the most powerful speaker, but they could paint him as too liberal. All the senators could be defeated by attacks on their voting records. But I was different. With a strong record in economic development, education, and crime, and a strong DLC message, I actually had a chance to win. So if I ran, they would have to destroy me personally. Heres how Washington works, he said. The press has to have somebody in every election, and were going to give them you. He went on to say the press were elitists who would believe any tales they were told about backwater Arkansas. Well spend whatever we have to spend to get whoever we have to get to say whatever they have to say to take you out. And well do it early.
I tried to stay calm, but I was mad. I told Roger that what he had just said showed what was wrong with the administration. They had been in power so long they thought they were entitled to it. I said, You think those parking spaces off the West Wing are yours, but they belong to the American people, and you have to earn the right to use them. I told Roger that what he had said made me more likely to run. Roger said that was a nice sentiment, but he was calling as my friend to give me fair warning. If I waited until 1996, I could win the presidency. If I ran in 1992, they would destroy me, and my political career would be over.
After the conversation ended, I called Hillary and told her about it. Then I told Mack McLarty. I never heard from or saw Roger Porter again until he attended a reception for the White House Fellows when I was President. I wonder if he ever thinks about that phone call and whether it influenced my decision.
Ever since I was a little boy I have hated to be threatened. As a kid, I got shot by a BB gun and slugged by a much bigger boy because I wouldnt walk away from threats. In the campaign and for eight years afterward, the Republicans would make good on theirs, and as Roger Porter had predicted, they got lots of help from some members of the press. Like the childhood BB shot in my leg and the roundhouse blow to my jaw, their attacks hurt. The lies hurt, and the occasional truth hurt more. I just tried to keep focused on the job at hand and the impact of my work on ordinary people. When I could do that, it was easier to stand up against those who craved power for its own sake.
The next three months rushed by in a blur. At July 4 picnics in northeast Arkansas, I saw the first Clinton for President signs, but was encouraged by some to wait until 1996 to run and by others, who were angry at me for raising taxes again, not to run at all. When I went to Memphis for the dedication of the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was slain, several citizens urged me to run, but Jesse Jackson was still upset about the DLC, which he saw as conservative and divisive. I hated to be at cross-purposes with Jesse, whom I admired, especially for his efforts to persuade black youngsters to stay in school and off drugs. Back in 1977, we had marked the twentieth anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High with a joint appearance at the school, in which he told the students to open your brains and not your veins.
Drugs and youth violence were still big issues in 1991. On July 12, I traveled to Chicago, to visit the public-housing projects and see what they were doing to protect kids. In late July, I went to a Little Rock hospital to visit the black comedian Dick Gregory, who had been arrested for staging a sit-in in a store that sold drug paraphernalia, along with four members of a local anti-drug group, DIGNITY (Doing In Gods Name Incredible Things Yourself). The group was led by black ministers and the local leader of the Black Muslims. It represented the kind of adult responsibility for solving our social problems that Jackson also espoused, the DLC advocated, and I thought was essential if we were going to turn things around.
In August, the campaign began to take shape. I gave speeches in a number of places and formed an exploratory committee, with Bruce Lindsey as treasurer. The committee allowed me to raise money to pay travel and other expenses without becoming a candidate. Two weeks later, Bob Farmer of Boston, who had been Dukakiss chief fund-raiser, resigned as treasurer of the Democratic National Committee to help me raise money. I began to get help from Frank Greer, an Alabama native who in 1990 had produced television commercials for me that had both intellectual and emotional appeal, and Stan Greenberg, a pollster who had done focus groups for the 1990 campaign and had conducted extensive research on the so-called Reagan Democrats and what it would take to bring them home. I wanted Greenberg to be my pollster. I hated to give up Dick Morris, but by then he had become so involved with Republican candidates and officeholders that he was compromised in the eyes of virtually all Democrats.
After we set up the exploratory committee, Hillary, Chelsea, and I went to the summer meeting of the National Governors Association in Seattle. My colleagues had just voted me the most effective governor in the country in the annual survey conducted by Newsweek magazine, and several of them urged me to run. When the NGA meeting concluded, our family took a boat from Seattle to Canada for a short vacation in Victoria and Vancouver.
As soon as I got home, I started touring the state, including a lot of unannounced stops, to ask my constituents if I should run and whether they would release me from my pledge to serve my full term if I did. Most people said I should run if I thought it was the right thing to do, though few thought I had a chance to win. Senator Bumpers, Senator Pryor, and our two Democratic congressmen, Ray Thornton and Beryl Anthony, all made supportive statements. Lieutenant Governor Jim Guy Tucker, House Speaker John Lipton, and Senate President Jerry Bookout assured me they would take care of the state in my absence.
Hillary thought I should run, Mother was strongly in favor of it, and even Chelsea wasnt against it this time. I told her Id be there for the important things, like her ballet performance in The Nutcracker at Christmastime, her school events, the trip to Renaissance Weekend, and her birthday party. But I knew, too, that Id miss some things: playing another duet with her on my sax at her piano recital; making Halloween stops, with Chelsea in her always unique costume; reading to her at night; and helping with her homework. Being her father was the best job I ever had; I just hoped I could do it well enough in the long campaign ahead. When I wasnt around, I missed it as much as she did. But the telephone helped, and the fax machine did toowe sent a lot of math problems back and forth. Hillary would be gone less than I would, but when we were both away, Chelsea had a good support system in her grandparents, Carolyn Huber, the Governors Mansions staff, and her friends and their parents.
On August 21, I got a big break when Senator Al Gore announced that he wouldnt run. He had run in 1988, and if he had run again in 1992 we would have split the vote in the southern states on Super Tuesday, March 10, making it much harder for me to win. Als only son, Albert, had been badly injured when he was hit by a car. Al decided he had to be there for his family during his sons long, hard recovery, a decision I understood and admired.
In September, I visited Illinois again and spoke to the leading Democrats of Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska in Sioux City, Iowa, and to the Democratic National Committee in Los Angeles. The Illinois stop was particularly important because of the primary calendar. The nomination fight began with the Iowa caucuses, which I could pass up because Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa was running and was sure to win his home state. Then came New Hampshire, then South Carolina, then Maryland, Georgia, and Colorado. Then the eleven Super Tuesday southern states. Then Illinois and Michigan on March 17, St. Patricks Day.
Senator Gores campaign had been derailed four years earlier when he didnt follow his impressive showing in the southern states with other victories. I thought I could win in Illinois, for three reasons: Hillary was from there, I had worked in southern Illinois with the Delta Commission, and a number of prominent black leaders in Chicago had Arkansas roots. In Chicago, I met with two young political activists, David Wilhelm and David Axelrod, who would become involved in the campaign. They were idealistic, tempered by the fire of Chicago election battles, and in tune with my politics. Meanwhile, Kevin OKeefe was driving all over the state, building the organization necessary to win.
Michigan voted on the same day as Illinois, and I hoped to do well there, too, thanks to former governor Jim Blanchard, Wayne County executive Ed McNamara, and a lot of people, black and white, who had come to Michigan from Arkansas to work in the automobile plants. After Michigan and Illinois, the next big state to vote was New York, where my friend Harold Ickes was busy lining up support, and Paul Carey, son of former governor Hugh Carey, was raising money.
On September 6, I finished organizing the governors office for the campaign when Bill Bowen agreed to become my executive secretary. Bill was the president of Commercial National Bank, one of the states most respected business leaders, and the prime organizer behind the so-called Good Suit Club, the business leaders who had supported the successful education program in the 1991 legislature. Bowens appointment reassured people that the states business would be well taken care of while I was away.
In the weeks leading up to my announcement, I began to get a taste of the difference between running for President and a campaign for state office. First, abortion was a big issue, because it was assumed that if President Bush were reelected, he would have enough Supreme Court vacancies to fill to secure a majority for reversing Roe v. Wade. I had always supported Roe but opposed public funding of abortions for poor women, so my position didnt really please either side. It wasnt fair to poor women, but I had a hard time justifying funding abortions with the money of taxpayers who believed it was the equivalent of murder. Also, the question was really moot, since even the Democratic Congress had repeatedly failed to provide abortion funding.
Besides abortion, there were the personal questions. When asked if I had ever smoked marijuana, I said I had never broken the drug laws in America. It was a tacit but awkward admission that I had tried it in England. There were also a lot of rumors about my personal life. On September 16, at Mickey Kantors and Frank Greers urging, Hillary and I appeared at the Sperling Breakfast, a regular meeting of Washington journalists, to answer press questions. I didnt know if it was the right thing to do, but Mickey was persuasive. He argued that I had said before that I hadnt been perfect, people knew it, and You might as well tell them and try to take the sting out of what may or may not happen later in the campaign.
When a reporter asked the question, I said that, like a lot of couples, wed had problems, but we were committed to each other and our marriage was strong. Hillary backed me up. As far as I know, I was the only candidate who had ever said as much. It satisfied some of the reporters and columnists; for others, my candor simply confirmed that I was a good target.
Im still not sure I did the right thing in going to the breakfast, or in getting onto the slippery slope of answering personal questions. Character is important in a President, but as the contrasting examples of FDR and Richard Nixon show, marital perfection is not necessarily a good measure of presidential character. Moreover, that wasnt really the standard. In 1992, if you had violated your marriage vows, gotten divorced, and remarried, the infidelity wasnt considered disqualifying or even newsworthy, while couples who stayed married were fair game, as if divorce was always the more authentic choice. Given the complexity of peoples lives and the importance of both parents in raising children, thats probably not the right standard.
Notwithstanding the personal questions, I got more than my fair share of favorable press coverage in the early days from thoughtful journalists who were interested in my ideas and policies and in what I had done as governor. I also knew I could start the campaign with a core of enthusiastic supporters across the country thanks to the friends Hillary and I had made over the years, and lots of Arkansans who were willing to travel to other states to campaign for me. They were undeterred by the fact that I was virtually unknown to the American people and far behind in the polls. So was I. Unlike 1987, this time I was ready.