From sex scandals to sax solos, Bill Clinton’s journey to office in 1992 has become a legendary part of recent American political history.
With its mixture of sexual scandal (Gennifer Flowers), colourful characters (such as Ross Perot) and national crisis (the deep recession of the early 1990s), Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign had the ingredients of a paperback bestseller or a Hollywood blockbuster. Indeed, it did inspire a successful novel and film, Primary Colors, as well as an Oscar-nominated documentary, The War Room.
From Bill Clinton’s perspective, the 1992 campaign represented the trial by fire he had to survive in order to secure the presidency. The campaign would expose his shortcomings, as well as test his resilience and his political dexterity. Clinton’s journey from the New Hampshire primary at the start of the year to Election Day in November also foreshadowed his presidency: like his time in the White House, the electoral road to it was dominated by issues of character and by his attempt to fashion an effective Third Way brand of politics. And as with his presidency, Clinton’s ability to succeed in the 1992 campaign hinged on perceptions of the state of the American economy and his ability to strengthen it.
The origins of Clinton’s quest for the presidency go back not to 1991–92 but to four years earlier; for in 1987 he had thought seriously about declaring his candidacy for the following year’s presidential campaign. With the Reagan era drawing to a close and the Republicans’ reputation for rectitude damaged by the Iran-Contra scandal, the 1988 election campaign seemed to represent a good opportunity for ambitious Democrats. The young Arkansas governor came very close to throwing his hat into the ring, but at the last minute he decided against it. For one thing, Hillary Clinton was sceptical about the idea, partly because she thought George W. Bush would win what in effect would be Ronald Reagan’s third term. For another, Bill Clinton’s close aide Betsey Wright warned him that his sexual transgressions might well derail his campaign and disrupt his family life. With the recent precedent of Democratic frontrunner Gary Hart being forced out of the 1988 race before it had even begun because of an affair reported in the press, Clinton decided to bide his time. However, the interminable, soporific nominating speech he delivered for Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention appeared to damage severely his presidential aspirations. But an effective appearance on the Johnny Carson show shortly thereafter allowed Clinton to stage what his wife described as, ‘Yet another comeback.’
Following his landslide re-election in 1990 and with his performance as governor receiving national attention and praise, Clinton seemed handily placed as he mulled over his chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination and the presidency itself in 1992. Two other factors enhanced Clinton’s potential. The first, paradoxically, was Bush’s success in early 1991 in prosecuting the war against Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. That military triumph raised Bush’s approval rating to a historically unprecedented 91 per cent, which in turn created a strong but ultimately misguided consensus around the idea that Bush was unbeatable in 1992. As a result a number of prominent Democrats – such as Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Richard Gephardt and Bill Bradley – decided against entering the presidential race; and they would have provided sterner opposition in the campaign for the Democratic nomination than that which Clinton ultimately faced.
Not only were Clinton’s prospects aided by the impact of the Persian Gulf War on the field of Democratic candidates, they were also assisted by the recession that had begun in 1990. That recession served to obscure Bush’s foreign policy accomplishments, transfer the national focus to domestic issues, and to make Bush vulnerable in 1992 in the same way that economic malaise had imperilled the presidencies of Herbert Hoover in 1932 and Jimmy Carter in 1980. What would weaken Bush’s position further was political commentator Pat Buchanan’s announcement that he would challenge the president for the Republican nomination. This put the spotlight on what had long been a problem for Bush: his uneasy relationship with the right of his own party, who viewed him as excessively moderate and hence an unworthy successor to Reagan. Bush’s decision in 1990 to renege on his 1988 campaign promise not to increase taxes, in order to deal with the growing deficit, had angered many conservatives, thereby making them potentially receptive to the sort of challenge from the right posed by Buchanan.
It was on 3 October 1991, in front of the Old State House in Little Rock, that Clinton officially declared that he was a candidate for president. ‘I refuse to be part of a generation,’ he stated in explaining the rationale behind his presidential bid, ‘that celebrates the death of communism abroad with the loss of the American Dream at home.’ During that autumn, Clinton assembled an effective campaign team of predominantly young operatives who saw in the Arkansas governor a candidate capable of loosening the longstanding Republican grip on the presidency. Most notably, Clinton secured the services of James Carville and Paul Begala, the team that had just masterminded Harris Wofford’s surprise, come-from-behind victory in the Pennsylvania Senate race against GOP rival Richard Thornburgh, who had served as Bush’s attorney general. Following Wofford’s victory, Carville and Begala were the hottest property in the world of political consultancy. That they plumped for Clinton rather than the other Democrats who courted them did not escape the attention of the press. George Stephanopoulos, who had built a strong reputation working for Richard Gephardt in the House of Representatives, came on board the Goodship Clinton and would emerge as one of the candidate’s key campaign aides. Dee Dee Myers was appointed as Clinton’s press secretary, whilst Stanley Greenberg served as pollster. Rahm Emanuel proved to be an effectively aggressive fundraiser. Frank Greer, Mandy Grunwald and Bruce Reed also played important roles in the campaign.
By December 1991, then, Clinton had assembled a formidable campaign team. The potential of his candidacy was underscored that month when he won the Florida delegate straw poll. Another piece of good news that arrived just before Christmas was New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s announcement that he would not be a candidate for president. Cuomo was viewed as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, if he decided to seek it. His name recognition far exceeded Clinton’s. He would have been best placed of all the Democratic candidates to raise funds for a presidential campaign. He was probably the greatest orator America had seen since the days of Martin Luther King. The argument can be made than Cuomo would have found it difficult, as someone perceived as a traditional, New Deal-type Democrat, to compete in the South against a centrist Southerner like Bill Clinton. But given the scandals that beset Clinton’s campaign in early 1992, it seems certain that Democrats would have turned in even greater numbers to a Cuomo candidacy. Bush’s success in the Persian Gulf War was Clinton’s first stroke of luck; Cuomo’s non-entry into the race was his second.
With Cuomo disappointing millions of liberals by staying on the sidelines, and with other prominent Democrats deciding that Bush’s post-Persian Gulf War poll ratings made him unbeatable, the field facing Clinton was far less daunting than it would otherwise have been. Nebraska Senator and Vietnam War hero Bob Kerrey appeared to provide the sternest opposition. But he flattered to deceive: his campaign lacked both energy and a strong theme. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin was a traditional liberal who attracted strong union support. Douglas Wilder, who in 1990 became in Virginia America’s first elected black governor, posed a potential threat to Clinton in the South. But he bowed out before the New Hampshire primary had even taken place. Former California governor Jerry Brown developed a rather eccentric brand of populist politics, though he would prove the most durable of Clinton’s rivals. In the early part of the campaign, though, Clinton’s main opposition was provided by Paul Tsongas, a former Massachusetts senator who had courageously won a personal battle against cancer, because – as Clinton later explained – he was the one other Democrat competing seriously in the realm of policy ideas.
By early January 1992 Clinton had moved ahead of Tsongas in the polls for what would be the key early test in the Democratic primaries, New Hampshire. That same month an ignominious episode at a state dinner in Japan appeared to accentuate Bush’s vulnerability: he collapsed, with his head resting in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister. It was due to flu, but that did not prevent rumours of a heart attack from being spread by the media. This incident was, as Bush’s Vice President Dan Quayle recalls, ‘the worst kind of symbolism for a country that was becoming ever more anxious, even paranoid, about Japanese economic strength and business practices.’
Promising beginnings for Clinton, then. But his past was about to catch up with him. Just as he was outshining his Democratic rivals, two scandals threatened his campaign. The first was the allegation, made in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star tabloid, that he had cheated on his wife with Gennifer Flowers, a sometime TV reporter and parttime singer. The second was that he had avoided military service in Vietnam. Sex and war – unsurprisingly, it was grist to the media mill. Thus it was in this inauspicious way that Clinton was introduced to the majority of the American people. With the support of his wife, most notably in a television interview on 60 Minutes, he survived the sex scandal. The Vietnam issue, however, was more damaging. His poll ratings in New Hampshire dropped precipitously. Campaigning indefatigably through the final stretch of that primary campaign, he managed to come second behind Tsongas. Given that Tsongas was from neighbouring Massachusetts and that the weeks preceding the vote had been dominated by an assault on Clinton’s character, it was an impressive result, justifying the candidate’s description of himself as the ‘Comeback Kid’ in his election-night speech.
Though Clinton had survived the buffeting of New Hampshire, things did not go swimmingly thereafter. Tsongas won the Maine caucus, and in the South Dakota primary Kerrey and Harkin eclipsed him. In March, Brown won Colorado and Tsongas triumphed in Maryland. That made the Georgia primary crucial for Clinton, as he had still not won a primary. He prevailed there with 57 per cent of the vote, then won even more convincingly in South Carolina. Kerrey dropped out after Georgia, as did Harkin following the South Carolina primary. In the collection of primaries on Super Tuesday, Clinton strengthened his grip on the nomination. Tsongas won in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and in the Delaware caucuses, but Clinton prevailed elsewhere. He went on to win in Illinois and Michigan. Tsongas dropped out in late March, leaving Jerry Brown as Clinton’s one remaining opponent. Brown inflicted some damage on the Clinton campaign, winning the Connecticut primary. But after a harsh examination by the media in the Big Apple, in which the character issue was used again to damn him, Clinton won in New York. Other primary successes followed, and in June he clinched the nomination with victory in a number of states, including California.
Two factors cast a shadow over Clinton’s sequence of primary successes in the spring of 1992. The first was the emergence of a strong third party candidate in the form of Texan Ross Perot. With his emphasis on the scale of the national debt, Perot’s incipient campaign had focus. His quirky personality, quotable one-liners, palpable dismay at the president’s performance, and background in business rather than politics gave him an intriguing outsider status at a time when many Americans felt cynical about conventional politics and politicians. Polls at the end of April put him ahead of Bush, with Clinton in third place. Exit polls at the end of the primary season in June indicated that a good many Democrats planned to vote for Perot in November.
The second factor to take the gloss off Clinton’s primary victories was the continuing concern over his character. There was a distinct sense that the Democrats were nominating a man whose personal shortcomings made him unelectable. Exit polls taken at the time of the New York primary, for instance, showed that only 49 per cent of voters thought he had the integrity to be president.
Beginning in the spring, the Clinton campaign mounted a rearguard action to rehabilitate his image and transform his poll ratings. Aide Stan Greenberg devised the Manhattan Project in order to present Clinton to the American people in a more positive light. Clinton utilized free media, appearing on shows such as Arsenio Hall, in a manner unprecedented in presidential campaigns. As one journalist who followed the Clinton campaign put it, he began to operate freely within the sphere of popular culture. His selection of Al Gore as his vice-presidential running mate added credibility to his campaign. Ross Perot withdrew on the eve of the Democratic Convention, suggesting that his candidacy was no longer required as Clinton had ‘revitalized’ the Democratic Party. After a meticulously organized convention, Clinton emerged with a lead of 20 per cent in the polls. ‘Clinton-Gore have gone into orbit,’ Bush remarked gloomily to a friend. A post-Convention bus tour, in which Clinton, Gore, and their spouses visited a number of battleground states, sustained the momentum generated by the Convention.
In the fall, the Bush campaign – now led by the astute James Baker, on leave from his post as secretary of state – assailed Clinton on the issues of trust and taxes. The organization and ethos of the Clinton campaign team meant that the Democrats, in contrast to the 1988 presidential campaign, would fight fire with fire. Based in Little Rock, and headed up by the brilliant James Carville, the ‘War Room’ ensured a rapid response to any Bush attack and provided Clinton’s campaign with thematic focus: change, economic revival and health care would be its salient issues.
A late September Stan Greenberg poll showed that no type of Bush attack could prevent a Clinton victory. But Bush’s opportunity to erode Clinton’s lead came with the three television debates held between 11 and 19 October. As Perot had re-entered the race, these debates were three-way affairs. The second debate, in Richmond, Virginia, which was conducted in a town-hall-meeting format, with questions from the audience, provided the fall campaign with its most memorable moment following a question about how the national debt had affected the candidates personally. Bush answered hesitatingly and unconvincingly, whilst Clinton was at his empathetic, knowledgeable best. As journalist Joe Klein observed, this exchange meant that, for all intents and purposes, the campaign was over.
The polls did tighten as the election approached and Bush and Perot stepped up their attacks on the frontrunner. Bush took aim at Clinton’s anti-Vietnam War activities during his time at Oxford. He erred, though, by referring publicly to Clinton and Gore as ‘bozos’; it came across as undignified. The final nail in the coffin of the Bush campaign came four days before the election when Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh indicted former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger over the Iran-Contra scandal, and in so doing made clear that Bush had known about the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal. On Election Day, Bill Clinton received 43 per cent of the vote, Bush 37 per cent, and Perot 19 per cent. In the electoral college, Clinton’s triumph was more impressive, winning by 370-to-168. Bruised, battered, but unbowed, Clinton had survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to bring to an end a period of Republican Party dominance of the presidency. ■
Image courtesy of DaveWard.
Mark White is Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London, and the editor of The Presidency of Bill Clinton. He is the author of six books, including Missiles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, and the 1962 Crisis (1997), Kennedy: The New Frontier Revisited, ed. (1998), and Against the President: Dissent and Decision-Making in the White House (2007). He is Convenor of the Queen Mary Seminar Series on America, has been appointed Associate Fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Americas (at the University of London) and to the advisory board for the United States Presidency Centre, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.