Bill Clinton's yearlong journey to the presidential nomination that he will attain tonight at the Democratic National Convention in New York began with a wild goose chase at dawn one morning last August when he slipped into the back seat of his white Ford sedan and told his state police chauffeur to drive west up the Arkansas River valley. It was the start of a trip around his home state that was called "The Secret Tour."
The tour was not truly secret. There were people waiting for Clinton at every stop. But each day's events were kept off the governor's daily schedule, and the state press corps had to scramble to find out where Clinton was headed and when he might get there. He wanted to take the pulse of the people without a caravan of television crews lumbering behind him to record every encounter.
Ten years earlier Clinton had traveled through his state in much the same fashion to apologize for the arrogance he had displayed during his first term as governor and to ask for a second chance after he was not reelected. This time his request for forgiveness was unstated but obvious nonetheless. During his successful campaign for a fifth term as governor in 1990, Clinton had promised Arkansas voters that he would serve the full four years and not run for president midway through his term. Now he wanted to back away from that pledge.
More than 200 people were waiting for Clinton when he reached the town of Rogers in northwest Arkansas. He addressed them with what seemed like the dispassion of the law professor he once was, outlining the positives and negatives of running for president.
"He seemed equally convincing either way," recalled Mike Gauldin, his capitol press secretary. "When he listed the reasons why he shouldn't run -- that he should not break his pledge and that there was much work still to accomplish in Arkansas -- I remember thinking, 'Yeah, that makes sense.' Then when he said why he should run -- that Arkansas could only do so much without changes at the federal level -- I thought, 'Well, that's convincing too.' It was a pretty even debate with himself."
Clinton was not seeking a unanimous mandate releasing him from his 1990 promise. His aides said they knew that the state's largest paper, the Arkansas Democrat, would hound him on the issue. (It did, and when Clinton finally announced, a Democrat editor, Meredith Oakley, began her column with the now-famous lead: "His word is dirt.") The purpose of the trip, Clinton's team said, was to determine whether average voters felt strongly about it one way or another. The sense Clinton returned with was that most of them either did not care or wanted him to run.
That was a welcome interpretation for a politician who showed signs of warming up for his presidential candidacy even months before he made the gubernatorial-race vow of White House abstinence.
The first key decision in the chain of events concerned whether Clinton should seek reelection in 1990. It was common knowledge in Little Rock that his interest in the job had waned somewhat by late 1989. He had said so publicly on a few occasions. Betsey Wright, his chief of staff, and other close aides and friends suggested to him that it might be best for his national political considerations if he withdrew from the glare of the gubernatorial spotlight. In private discussions with several former colleagues in the National Governors Association, he broached the question of whether he could maintain national stature without being governor.
"At several key points the former governors told him he should run again," Wright recalled. "They had a profound and decisive impact on him. These were Democratic and Republican governors who had left office mostly because of term limits. They said they had not done anything as fulfilling since and that being out of office restricted their ability to work on the national level. We don't do a good job of dealing with displaced politicians in this country." Clinton in effect decided to seek reelection with one hand and construct a national base with the other. Early in 1990, while running in the gubernatorial primary, he took over the chairmanship of the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate faction of elected officials who were seeking to reorient the national party and make it more appealing to middle-class voters.
Clinton had been one of the founding members of the DLC in 1985, and the education and welfare programs he had instituted in Arkansas neatly coincided with the council's prescriptions for new Democratic policies. The DLC convention in 1990, at which Clinton was installed as chairman, marked a turning point for him and for the organization, transforming and enlarging them both.
"My own view is that Clinton transformed the DLC from a party rump group into a cause that stood for something," said Bruce Reed, a former DLC aide who now serves as Clinton's policy assistant. "He lifted it out of the left-right spectrum and talked about our ideas in ways that could unite the party. He was able to articulate what we stood for not just through programs but through values and principles."
The DLC in return provided Clinton with a policy resource that he could tap into and identify himself with, as well as give him a means of spreading his name and message across the country. The DLC's policy arm, the Progressive Policy Institute, became the issues center for most of the policy advisers who helped Clinton shape his 1992 campaign. His and their ideas were transmitted around the country through the DLC's magazine, which Clinton, sensitive to the group's image as a bastion of party conservatives, renamed The New Democrat from the Mainstream Democrat.
"The DLC is in no way responsible for Bill Clinton's ideology, but what we helped do is frame it and develop it," said Al From, the council's executive director. "And the reason that worked is because his ideology is very close to ours. Our crusade and his was always to try to modernize liberalism so it could sell again."
The process began with Clinton's opening address as chairman at a March 1990 convention in New Orleans where the DLC issued a statement of principles known as the New Orleans Declaration, which Clinton helped write. "It was all very coordinated," said From. "He helped write the declaration, and we helped write his speech." The central theme of both was one that Clinton had been developing for five years on his own concerning government opportunities and citizen responsibilities.
New policies and ideas, Clinton said, should be the party's only concern. "That is what we ought to be working on and we should forget . . . about who is going to be our nominee in 1992. If we stand for something that makes sense, the party will do just fine." The DLC should not only be the ideas wing of the Democratic party, Clinton added, but "also ought to be the action wing."
The national action had to wait for a few months. "Billy Boy had this campaign back home and he had this scare in the primary," From recalled of the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Arkansas in which Clinton was tested by liberal challenger Tom McRae. "We said, 'Win your election and we'll worry about the DLC when you're done.' "
Clinton stayed in Arkansas most of that summer and fall trying to convince state voters that the governor's job was his top priority. The question arose at a televised debate: If elected for a fifth time would he promise to serve out the term and not run for president?
"You bet," Clinton responded with his typical quick, eager-to-please self-assurance. "I told you when I announced for governor . . . and that's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna serve four years. I made that decision when I decided to run."
Clinton's advisers were taken aback by his words that night. "It's usually a mistake for a politician to give an unqualified pledge for anything," said Wright, who by then had left the governor's staff. "He did not ask for advice, it just sort of came out. I was horrified that it happened."
His general election that year against former Democrat Sheffield Nelson was far tougher than the eventual landslide victory -- 57 percent to 43 percent -- made it appear. It was a dirty, negative campaign from the start, underscored by constant rumors and innuendoes about Clinton and marital infidelity. It was during that campaign that Larry Nichols, a fired state employee, filed his lawsuit alleging that Clinton had had affairs with five women including Gennifer Flowers, who later would accuse Clinton publicly of the affair. Nelson denies that he pushed the Nichols story, but several Republican sources have said his campaign took the high road publicly while spreading the Clinton rumors around the state.
The Arkansas press never wrote about the rumors because Nichols could provide no evidence. He said he had tapes, but he never produced them. In private sessions with key state journalists, Clinton acknowledged that he had had problems in his marriage but said the Nichols allegations were false.As soon as the election was behind him, Clinton returned to his national agenda. From December 1990 to May 1991, he and From traveled to 35 states, spreading the New Orleans Declaration, signing up 23 state chapters of the DLC, refining his opportunity-responsibility speech. "Those trips were very important to his evolution into a presidential candidate," said From.
The culmination of that effort came at the DLC's annual convention that May 6 in Cleveland. Two notable events occurred there. First, Jesse L. Jackson unloaded on the DLC for not inviting him to speak even though he had garnered 7 million votes as a Democratic candidate in the 1988 primaries. From took the brunt of Jackson's public wrath, but personally Jackson blamed the snub on Clinton, and the animosity he felt toward the Arkansas governor then carried over into the 1992 presidential campaign, first when Jackson went up to New York and all but posed as former California governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.'s running mate, later when Clinton criticized Jackson at the Rainbow Coalition convention for embracing controversial black rap singer Sister Souljah.
But it all started in Cleveland, and it was from then on that Jackson, whenever the opportunity presented itself, privately told friends and journalists that he had questions about Clinton's character and his moral authenticity.
Clinton and other DLC officials insisted that they were not trying to make a political statement by not inviting Jackson to speak in Cleveland. The purpose of that year's convention, they said, was to articulate as clearly as possible the themes and policies of their group. Jackson could not help them with that. Clinton did help them. The second key event of the meeting came when Clinton delivered what was considered the clearest and most powerful speech of his career, one that put together all the themes and policy ideas he had been developing since his gubernatorial loss more than a decade earlier.
"I think the political world discovered him in Cleveland when he gave what was generally regarded as the best speech of the year," said Reed. "It became immediately evident that Clinton could run for president if he wanted to."
Clinton went home to Arkansas and began talking to advisers, friends and family about his dilemma. "The only thing he could see at first is that he would be breaking his word to the people of Arkansas," said his mother, Virginia Kelley. "He really agonized over it. I told him it's only a wise man who changes his mind. A fool never does."
Over the Fourth of July holiday last year, Clinton traveled up to the Lowell, Ark., home of his longtime friend David Matthews, who then accompanied Clinton down to Fayetteville. It had been 17 years since Clinton and Matthews first made that trip, Clinton as a young law professor seeking a seat in Congress, Matthews as his student and campaign driver. Matthews remembered thinking during that long ago drive that the man seated next to him might run for president some day. But last year Matthews still did not think Clinton should do it.
"I spent the whole trip to Fayetteville telling him why he shouldn't run, just like I had when he was thinking about it in 1987," Matthews said. "I said he'd get beat. George Bush would win. You can't read Bill Clinton's mind. His great strength is he listens so intently. If he agrees with a point, he says so -- 'I agree with that.' So you leave the conversation thinking he's going to do what you want. I knew he was torn, but I thought he agreed with me."
Later that summer, when Clinton returned to the Lowell area during his Secret Tour, Matthews rose at a public session and said: "Bill, I've changed my mind. It's clear to me that no one else in the national Democratic Party is going to say what you say. So I'm going to encourage you to run."
Over the next month, the opinions of people Clinton trusted came back unanimously. He and his wife, Hillary, spent several nights discussing the inevitable stories they would encounter about his alleged extramarital affairs. Hillary later said she told her husband that if they stood together the stories would fall away. "I told Bill that if the government was doing what it should, improving our schools, health care, eradicating poverty, then he didn't need to be president," she said. "But since the government wasn't doing those things, it was worth the negative stories he might face to run for president."
"It made a big difference to me that Hillary and I were close enough that we could talk about all that," Clinton said. "That made a huge difference. It would have been much more difficult if we didn't have the kind of relationship that we had."
There was still a hope, even a presumption among some of Clinton's advisers, that marital infidelity would not even be raised as an issue in 1992. To the extent that it was, they thought Bill and Hillary could defuse it together by stating that like many modern American couples they had had some troubled times in their marriage but they had worked through them.
That would be enough, they thought. If asked "Have you ever . . . " questions, Clinton would say that he did not have to answer. "It was a perfectly legitimate position, we thought," said John Holum, a Clinton adviser who had also assisted former Colorado senator Gary Hart in 1984. "The plan was to say, 'Look, I'm not going to answer that question.' That's what the plan was from the start."
The moment Clinton had been grooming himself for all his adult life finally came on Oct. 3, 1991. In front of the Old State House in Little Rock, he announced that he was running for president. The lessons of his life came out in that speech, as he hopes they will again tomorrow night in Madison Square Garden.
He recalled his earliest years in Arkansas and the sense of place he felt whenever he looked at a picture on his office wall of him holding his great-grandfater's hand. He evoked the call of his Georgetown University professor who taught him that America's greatness came because each generation felt a moral responsibility to make life better for the next. He reminded his audience what it meant to grow up in a region where blacks and whites had been kept down because they were divided.
That night at the governor's mansion, he held a dinner for the scores of out-of-town friends who came for the announcement speech. Carolyn Staley, his high school friend, entertained the crowd by playing the piano and singing gospel music.
After other guests left, Clinton and Staley and a few other old friends went back to the piano. They talked about the old days in Hot Springs, about going to Washington to shake hands with President John F. Kennedy, about their high school principal, Johnnie Mae Mackey, the woman who gave Clinton an early shove -- and it didn't have to be much of one -- toward a life of politics. Just the thought of Mackey would lift their spirits as they remembered how she would get all fired up at school pep rallies and swing her arms around windmill-style faster and faster as she bellowed: "Hullabaloo kinnick-kinnick. Hullabaloo kinnick-kinnick. Warhee. Warhi. We Win or Die. Ching chang chow wow. Ping pang pow wow. Trojans! Trojans! Go! Go! Go!"
This was the first night of Clinton's campaign, and he wanted to feel the full emotion of the moment. He asked Staley to play his favorite gospel song, and he stood beside her, in full tenor voice, and sang: ". . . If anybody asks you where I'm goin' . . . I'm goin' up yonder."