FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.--Gordon Cummings was studying at the University of Arkansas Law School here in 1974 when his father, a local circuit judge, told him about a young law professor who was challenging the incumbent Republican congressman.
“My father spotted him as an up-and-coming Democrat,” Cummings said. “He could see he had a lot of potential.”
The law professor was Bill Clinton, then just 27 years old, launching his first political campaign. Clinton was taking on Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, a genial and popular lumber dealer who had represented the Third Congressional District since 1966. But the Watergate scandal and rising fuel and food prices had created a sour climate for Republicans, and Clinton believed he had an opening.
He caught the attention of Judge Maupin Cummings, who urged his son Gordon to back the first-time candidate. Just days after Clinton officially announced his bid in February 1974 at the Avenelle Motel in Hot Springs, surrounded by family and a few friends, Gordon Cummings wrote the Clinton for Congress Committee a check for $400.
The law student was among the first donors to Clinton’s campaign, the beginnings of what would eventually become a global fundraising network that would finance the Clintons’ careers for four decades.
The foundation of what Clinton and his soon-to-be wife Hillary Rodham built during those early years can be found in private archives scattered around Arkansas and on microfiche files stored at the Federal Election Commission in downtown Washington.
Most of Clinton’s Arkansas papers are located at The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, with access limited by the Clinton Foundation. But details about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s early political partnership are also stashed away in dusty attics, storerooms and the memories of Arkansas residents whose state was transformed by the 18 years that the couple worked together there.
In his first few weeks as a candidate, FEC records show that Clinton was buoyed by donations from friends who would remain staunch allies for years: New York banker E. David Edwards, who Clinton had met while studying at Oxford; James B. Blair, the attorney for chicken magnate Don Tyson and eventually a close Clinton friend; and Thomas “Mack” McLarty, the Hope, Ark., native who would rise to become chief executive of Arkansas’s largest gas utility and eventually Clinton’s White House chief of staff.
Clinton’s upstart campaign needed all the help it could get.
“It seemed absurd on the face of it,” the former president wrote of his 1974 bid in his autobiography “My Life,” but added, “I was young, single, and willing to work all hours of the day and night. And even if I didn’t win, if I made a good showing I didn’t think it would hurt me in any future campaigns I might undertake.”
Clinton’s uncle, Raymond Clinton, and family friend Gabe Crawford signed a $10,000 bank note to get the operation off the ground. And Clinton plumbed his Rolodex for support, signing up to 50 letters a night to his network from Georgetown University, University of Oxford and Yale Law School, asking for their help.
“It was just a paupers’ life for the first couple of months,” recalled Ron Addington, then a graduate assistant at the University of Arkansas who served as Clinton’s campaign manager in the primary. “Once those letters got out, we started getting checks in the mail. He would come in at night and go through all the checks and tell stories about this person or that person.”
Among those who sent donations were writer Taylor Branch, who had shared an apartment in Austin with Clinton when they were working on George McGovern's 1972 campaign, and journalist Strobe Talbott, a friend from Oxford who went on to serve as deputy secretary of state under Clinton.
Hillary Rodham, then Clinton's girlfriend, was working as a staffer for the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate inquiry and would call in regularly from Washington to check in on the campaign. That August, she moved to Arkansas to join Clinton for the final months of the race. Her input can be seen in the drafts of speeches they worked on together, now stored in the Clinton House Museum. The little-known private archive is located in the Fayetteville home where the couple lived during the first years of their marriage.
Read Bill Clinton's handwritten speech from the Democratic State Convention in 1974:
“She was his most trusted adviser, partner really, in every campaign and on every important issue,” said Steve Smith, then a state legislator and an early Clinton aide who helped start the museum. “That was a good thing, because she was thoroughly informed and just plain brilliant. Combined with Bill's knowledge and unique political sense, they were a great team.”
As Clinton traversed the largely rural district, he began to win over local power brokers from the northern Ozark counties where Hammerschmidt was dominant to Hot Springs and the communities along the Arkansas River.
“He just had that special quality that endeared him to people,” said Hugh Kincaid, then a state representative who Bill consulted with about getting into the race. “He could talk to anybody. That’s how he was able to do so well. He could sit down with them and walk away with their willing help.”
Fayetteville attorney Erwin L. Davis was sitting in his third-floor office on Fayetteville's downtown square one day when Clinton popped in. They had met briefly in court months earlier, when they were on opposite sides of an election contest. Now Clinton wanted a favor.
“He said, ‘I know all the professors at the university, but don’t know any of the lawyers here except for you,’” Davis recalled. “He just said, ‘Will you help me?’ I didn’t know any better, so I said sure.”
Davis got right up and walked Clinton around the square -- introducing him to 32 out of Fayetteville’s 36 lawyers in one afternoon, he said.
“Bill had a knack for figuring out who was important in the community,” said Davis, who later made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Clinton when he was governor.
The race also displayed Clinton’s innate ability to make working class voters feel like he was on their side. His jingle -- by a country singer who sounded a lot like Arkansas native Johnny Cash -- included the refrain: “Bill Clinton’s ready, he’s fed up too. He’s a lot like me, he’s a lot like you.”
Among those who thrilled to his campaign were the state’s trade unionists, who whooped and applauded the populist speech Clinton delivered at the 1974 convention of the Arkansas AFL-CIO in Hot Springs.
"Our people just fell in love with the guy," J. Bill Becker, then the state AFL-CIO president, recalled in an interview years later with Arkansas journalist Meredith Oakley.
Labor unions contributed more than $18,000 out of the $178,000 that Clinton raised, FEC records show. And that didn't include in-kind contributions provided by steelworkers who flooded northwest Arkansas on Clinton's behalf, or the Arkansas Teachers Association, which went door-to-door for him in nearly every community. Hammerschmidt’s papers at the University of Arkansas library collection include a tally by the National Republican Congressional Committee showing that Clinton received more national labor money than any other Democratic challenger in the country.
The race was so close that two weeks out, Hammerschmidt was warned by his pollster, Eugene Newsom, that he was “running slightly below Clinton district wide.” But, Newsom reassured him, the congressman had an advantage with older voters, who voted in disproportionate numbers.
Ultimately, Clinton lost, by 6,000 votes, one of the tightest contests in recent memory. The next day, he was up early, standing on the courthouse square in Fayetteville, shaking hands and saying thank you.
“It would be a good while before I realized the congressman had done me a favor by beating me,” Clinton wrote in his autobiography. “If I had won and gone to Washington, I’m sure I never would have been elected President. And I would have missed the eighteen great Arkansas years that lay ahead.”
McLarty and many other allies from the 1974 race remained close to both Clintons, helping them expand their fundraising network over the years. One key duo was Maurice Mitchell, a storied senior partner at a Little Rock law firm, who teamed up with Skip Rutherford, then a young public affairs executive who worked with McLarty at Arkla Gas.
As Clinton contemplated a presidential run, the two became known as “Batman and Robin” as they worked to round up donors – determined to show that the small state had political fundraising heft. “It was Arkansas pride,” said Rutherford, recalling their round-the-clock tag team efforts.
Still, some of the support Clinton cultivated in the early days fell away, at least temporarily.
Steve Smith left his post in Clinton's gubernatorial administration after the young governor suddenly withdrew his backing for a Smith-designed forest protection proposal opposed by Arkansas’s powerful timber industry. Labor chief Bill Becker broke with the Clintons' over tax and labor issues. And the teachers unions were infuriated for several years over the couple’s advocacy of an education reform proposal that mandated teacher testing.
Cummings, one of Bill's first donors, is now a 67-year-old retired attorney in Owasso, Okla. He speaks admiringly about the accomplishments of his fellow Arkansans. Hillary Clinton is “a very articulate lady, highly intelligent,” he said. “I think she has amazing aplomb.”
But he isn’t planning on supporting her current White House bid. Cummings is now a GOP supporter.
"I would be disappointed," he said, "if a Republican didn’t win."
Gold reported from Washington and Hamburger reported from Fayetteville, Ark., and Washington. Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.