LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — “You haven’t changed a bit!” Kirk Hanlin, an advance man for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, told Stanley Greenberg, the campaign’s pollster, as they stood in an airy room at the Clinton Library here on Friday. “Well, maybe your hair. I kept looking for the hair, for the afro, for the mustache.”
Scores of former Clinton aides descended on downtown Little Rock last weekend to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his announcing his candidacy. It was a “Don’t Stop Thinking About Yesterday” bash amid pervasive Democratic anxiety about President Obama’s electoral future.
The class of ’92 cast its reunion as a tacit — and sometimes not so tacit — rebuke of the current president and his un-Clintonian aversion to the political fray. Some erstwhile Clinton aides wore “I Miss Bill” T-shirts and “It’s Still About the [Expletive] Economy, Stupid” buttons. Others privately regretted Hillary Rodham Clinton’s acceptance of the secretary of state post — the theory being that she would be better positioned to replace Obama if she had stayed in the Senate.
For the Clinton faithful, the escape from Obama reality amounted to a therapeutic retreat. “It’s like going to get a shot to make you feel better,” said Clinton loyalist Vernon Jordan, who suggested that the weekend’s good memories could help boost ailing Democrats and have a “positive effect on the Obama campaign.”
Clinton himself — when he wasn’t touting his accomplishments or proposing strategies for winning the upcoming election — expressed understanding of the current president’s plight. “When they do the comparisons, they are comparing him now to me in my last year in office,” Clinton said in a brief interview. “This is really him now to me in ’95. In ’95, Time magazine had a cover of me and I was about two inches tall, called ‘the incredible shrinking president.’ ” The bottom line, he said, was that Obama was on “an upward trajectory.”
So, for a fleeting 48 hours, were Clinton’s former staffers.
“It started on the plane ride down,” John Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff, said. “It was like a campaign charter!” chimed in Bob Barnett, Clinton’s former counsel.
The top campaign brass spilled out of the plane with Clinton, but some of the junior staffers from ’92, now in middle age, hung back.
“I used to answer the phones at the campaign!” Ashley Merryman, 43, told a befuddled-looking Greenberg. She explained that she had gone on to become the best-selling co-author of a child-rearing book called “NurtureShock.”
Hanlin, 51, boasted about taking the call in which George H.W. Bush conceded the election. “My hand was shaking!” he said.
“Hey, Kirk,” said Richard Strauss, 42, the campaign’s radio director, peering at one of the event’s exhibits. “Check it out. There’s a radio credential here. I made that!” Hanlin pointed at a picture of Clinton in sunglasses, blasting the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” “I said, ‘You got to put them on,’ ” Hanlin recalled, pointing at the shades. “I told him, ‘It’s all about the demographics.’ ”
The staffers stepped out of the library and flagged down a ride. As they traveled down President Clinton Avenue, the women in the car complimented Strauss, whose hair was slicked back, for still looking “suave.” Someone got a text that said the Capital Hotel’s bar was dead and suggested they go to the bar at the Peabody Hotel across the street. Inside, a performer billing himself as Belvis, “the black Elvis,” told everyone he once sang “Blue Suede Shoes” to Hillary Clinton.
The champagne-sipping Clinton class of ’92 listened politely, then returned to assessing each other’s career and corporeal advancements. And mingling.
“It’s Ashley Merryman!” Merryman said to a woman with a blank smile. “I answered the phones!”
People headed to James Carville’s party. Strauss and company commandeered a hotel shuttle for the ride. (“This is called M.T.H.,” Strauss said as he plopped into his seat. “Making things happen.”) The bus passed the Old State House, bathed in white light, where Clinton announced his campaign and celebrated on election night. “Afterwards,” Strauss said, “we stormed the stage and grabbed the flags and ran through the town with them.”
He paused reflectively as the shuttle sped along the river. “You know,” he said, “the president became president when he was 45. For a lot of us, that is within four or five years of our own age now.”
The shuttle dropped the junior staffers at Doe’s Eat Place, which, back in 1992, was a key redoubt for senior staffers. Now the junior guys got to sit around red-and-white checked tablecloths in the front room applauding the familiar faces as they came in. Paul Begala got rousing applause. He hugged Merryman and, without prompting, called her “a big-shot author.” Begala walked through the kitchen onto a rear patio, where staffers drank beer and gobbled fried shrimp, steak and tamales around Bill Clinton doll centerpieces.
Carville, the party’s host, sat with other architects of the campaign below a blown-up photo of them at the same restaurant 20 years earlier. “I’ve always been afraid to be that guy who clings to the past,” he said, cutting into some steak. “Tonight, I’m going to do it. I needed to let it go, and this gives me leave to let it go.” He took a bite. “We’re partying like it’s 1992.”
A few minutes later, Clinton arrived from another party, where he’d told friends that Obama’s fortunes would improve once he had an opponent; Hillary entered soon after. Both were in high spirits. On the patio, Bill sipped through a straw in a foam plastic cup and draped his arms over the shoulders of old friends, leaning into Hanlin to share a laugh about his “Don’t Mess With Clinton-Gore” T-shirt.
Asked if he was enjoying his reunion, the president looked up, cheeks aflame.
“Oh,” he exclaimed. “God, yes.”