1992: Road To The White House
Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia joked to TIME in January 1992 that Bill Clinton was "the only politician to be a rising star in three decades." He started the campaign as the most organized and well-funded of all the Democratic candidates. Clinton considered running as far back as 1988, but decided at the last minute to forego an presidential bid until 1992.
Clinton quickly became the front-runner in 1992. He put together the best nationwide organization. That helped him win a straw vote at the Florida Democratic convention in December of 1991, when Clinton captured 54 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Sen. Tom Harkin and 10 percent for Sen. Bob Kerrey. Clinton also collected endorsements from Democratic leaders in a number of states before the campaign began. In late December, one poll showed Clinton trailing Paul Tsongas 23 percent to 21 percent in New Hampshire. Clinton was gaining momentum. He appeared on the cover of the January 27, 1992 issue of TIME Magazine.
Then the Gennifer Flowers story broke. On January 17, the New York Post, New York Daily News, the Boston Herald and the Fox TV Network began reporting a story from an upcoming issue of the tabloid "Star." The story quoted Larry Nichols' allegations that Clinton had had affairs with at least five women. Nichols had first made the allegations in 1990. Questioned by reporters, Clinton called the story "totally bogus." After both Bill and Hillary denounced the story during a joint appearance in Bedford, New Hampshire on January 18, most major news outlets picked up the "Star" story and the denials. On January 23, the "Star" leaked an upcoming article in which an Arkansas State employee, Gennifer Flowers, alleged (in a paid interview) she had a 12-year affair with Clinton. The next day, Clinton said "The allegations in the Star are not true...She's obviously taken money to change her story."
Clinton and his wife appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes program on January 26, the night of the Super Bowl. Clinton said Flowers was a "friendly acquaintance" and they spoke on the phone a number of times after her name surfaced in rumors about his personal life.
The Flowers story prompted Clinton to again acknowledge having had marital difficulties in the past. During the "60 Minutes" he said: "You know, I have acknowledged wrongdoing. I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage. I think most Americans who are watching this tonight, they'll know what we're saying, they'll get it, and they'll feel we have been more than candid." Hillary said: "I love him, and I respect him and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together. And you know, if that's not enough for people, then heck, don't vote for him."
Clinton accused the press of playing a "game of gotcha" and argued that the press scrutiny would have been less if he had gotten a divorce rather than trying to work out his problems with his wife. The Clinton interview was seen by an estimated 34 million people.
Clinton said the standard for media coverage of his personal life should be current status of his marriage. Clinton later said he was running for president "on my life's work, not my life story."
On January 27, 1992 Flowers told a news conference that Clinton was "absolutely lying." She was fired from her state job on January 29 for unexcused absences. The Gennifer stories were published in the January 28, February 4, and February 11, 1992 issues of "Star." Some contained purported transcripts of telephone recordings between Flowers and Clinton. In one conversation, Clinton agrees when Gennifer refers to New York Governor Mario Cuomo as a "Mafioso" and a "mean son of a bitch." Clinton issued a statement apologizing to Cuomo.
On February 6, The Wall Street Journal published an article saying Clinton had received a Vietnam draft deferment for a ROTC program he never joined. The article said Clinton was granted the deferment while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England in the summer of 1969. (Later, it was revealed Clinton had actually received an induction notice while in England in April 1969). He promised to join ROTC when he returned to the University of Arkansas to study law. The article says the promise exempted him from the draft in September and October of 1969, two months when he likely would have been called up. By October, Clinton had changed his mind about entering ROTC. He subjected himself to possible induction, but the draft lottery was about to take effect and Clinton's lottery number was high enough that he was never called to serve.
The "Gennifer" and "Draft" stories gave birth to a serious campaign problem called the "character issue," which caused Clinton to plummet in the polls. At one point, he trailed Tsongas by 20 points in New Hampshire. But Clinton barnstormed New Hampshire in the last weeks before the February 18 primary, and ended up in second place behind Tsongas, 33 percent to 25 percent. Clinton was upbeat, calling himself "The Comeback Kid."
After finishing second to Paul Tsongas in the New Hampshire primary February 18, Clinton headed to his native South to begin his comeback. He scored his first primary win in Georgia on March 3, and picked up South Carolina on March 7. (Kerrey dropped out of the race on March 5, Harkin on March 9.) Clinton then swept five southern states on "Super Tuesday," March 10. His biggest wins were in Florida (where he attacked Tsongas for not ruling out limits on Social Security) and Texas (where he capitalized on contacts reaching back to 1972, when he was in the state working for McGovern).
With Senators Harkin and Kerrey out of the race, the campaign became a contest between Tsongas, Jerry Brown, and Clinton. Neither could match the Clinton campaign's superior organization. Clinton's wins in the Michigan and Illinois primaries on March 17 forced Paul Tsongas out of the race on March 19.
The showdown between Brown and Clinton came in New York, which held its primary April 7. The campaign was brutal. Clinton attacked Brown's proposed 13 percent flat tax as "the biggest rip-off in American politics" because, he said, it would increase taxes on the working poor and the middle class. Brown claimed Clinton was "unelectable" because of all the negative stories about his past.
Indeed, negative stories continued to surface. In March, black leaders had criticized Clinton for playing golf at a Little Rock country club that has no black members. (All Arkansas governors are allowed to play at the Country Club of Little Rock). Clinton said he made a mistake and promised not to play there again until the membership policy changed.
Also during the New York campaign, Clinton revealed that he tried marijuana when he was a college student, but "never inhaled," a comment that drew widespread ridicule. There were questions about Clinton's past business dealings and his stand on ethics legislation in Arkansas. The New York Daily News compared Clinton to Mister Bill on the old Saturday Night Live shows "who kept getting bashed, mauled and splattered in new and horrible ways."
Brown and Clinton faced off in a series of debates, including appearances (separately and together) on the Phil Donahue show. Even though polls showed Clinton ahead in New York, his advisors told Clinton the debates were necessary to go directly to the voters and around the tabloids. On April 7, Clinton won with 40.5 percent of the vote. Brown finished third with 26 percent, behind non-candidate Paul Tsongas who took 28.8 percent. Clinton also won primaries in two other states (Kansas and Wisconsin) and a beauty contest in Minnesota the same day.
After April 7, people began to acknowledge Clinton would be the party's nominee. A long break in the primary schedule gave Clinton a much needed chance to regroup and rest his voice. The next major contest was Pennsylvania on April 28. Clinton defeated Brown 56.6 percent to 25.6 percent. The May primaries drew little interest. Clinton piled up win after win. Ross Perot's presidential candidacy was starting to take off and grab headlines. By late May, Clinton was zeroing-in on the nomination at the same time he was slipping into third place in the national polls.
Clinton finally clinched enough delegates to win the nomination on Tuesday, June 2. California was the largest prize on that day, and Clinton worked hard to avoid being embarrassed by a loss to Brown the same day he sewed up the nomination. Polls during the long primary season showed Brown could win in California, since it was his home state. Clinton was forced to spend the entire weekend before the primary in California, bypassing such major states as New Jersey and Ohio, which also held primaries June 2. It paid off: he won all the June 2 Democratic primaries.
The wait for the Democratic convention found Clinton lingering in third place in the national polls, although he no longer was losing ground. He tried to broaden his base, reaching out to organized labor, which supported Tom Harkin's campaign, as well as black and Jewish voters. Three major events took place between the end of the primaries and the start of the convention. During a speech to the Rainbow Coalition in Washington on June 13, Clinton angered Jesse Jackson by criticizing a rap artist named Sister Soulja.
Clinton said: "You had a rap singer here last night named Sister Soulja. I defend her right to express herself through music, but her comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight. Just listen to this, what she said. She told the Washington Post about a month ago, and I quote, 'if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?' Last year she said, 'you can't call me or any black person anywhere in the world racist. We don't have the power to do to white people what white people have done to us. And even if we did, we don't have that lowdown, dirty nature. If there are any good white people, I haven't met them.'"
The second major event of the pre-convention period came on June 21 when Clinton released a detailed economic plan called "Putting People First." Clinton's plan came out at the beginning of a week of angry fighting between the Bush and Perot campaigns, which gave Clinton a chance to talk about "issues" and appear above the Bush-Perot fray.
The final major event of the pre-convention period was the U.S. Supreme Court's June 29 decision on a Pennsylvania abortion case, which gave Clinton a chance to highlight his abortion-rights stance against President Bush's anti-abortion position. Clinton indicated he would appoint justices who favor abortion rights, and choose a running mate who shared his abortion rights views.
The week before the Democratic Convention found Clinton moving up in the polls. The convention week was a resounding success for the Democrats. In addition to a trouble-free four days in New York (July 13-16) the week saw Ross Perot's withdrawal from presidential campaign on July 16. However, Perot told Larry King he would allow his supporters to continue working to get his name on state presidential ballots. That same day, (July 16) a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Clinton had overtaken the president, 56 percent to 33 percent. On July 17, Clinton and Gore left New York on a six day, eight state bus tour. The tour drew large, friendly crowds and lots of media attention.
The Republican convention was in Houston, Texas from August 17-20. It was criticized for presenting a sometimes-angry, sometimes-intolerant face to the country. Conservative pundit Pat Buchanan said the Clintons were on the wrong side of a "cultural war ... for the soul of America." George Bush caused a stir by hinting he would shake-up his cabinet if elected to a second term. The next day, after reports that HUD Secretary Jack Kemp's name was on the list of those to go, Bush called Kemp to express his support. During the third day of the GOP convention, Clinton and Gore stole a few headlines by helping Jimmy Carter build a Habitat for Humanity house in Atlanta.
Hurricane Andrew hit Florida on August 24th. President Bush changed his schedule to see the damage. The quick reaction was credited to James Baker, on his first day on the job as White House Chief of Staff. Hurricane Andrew hit Louisiana on August 26th. Bush visited there, too. On September 9, Bush tried to undo some of the damage done when he broke his "no new taxes" pledge in 1990, saying "I'm not going to do it (raise taxes) again. Ever, ever."
The next day, press spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters the "ever ever" statement was not a pledge. The president detailed his economic plans during a speech September 10 in Detroit and his campaign issued a compilation of the plan, called the "Agenda for American Renewal."
On September 15, Bush and Clinton made separate appearances before a National Guard convention. Clinton omitted a section of his speech dealing with this draft status after Bush (who spoke first) did not directly attack Clinton's actions to avoid being drafted. Clinton scored a significant coup on September 19th, when he was endorsed by former Joint Chiefs Chairman William Crowe. On September 25th, he was endorsed by basketball star Magic Johnson, who had resigned from President Bush's AIDS commission two days earlier.
On September 18th, Ross Perot told NBC he might get back into the presidential race in order to talk about his plans to fix the U.S. economy. On September 22nd, Perot told CBS he'd made a mistake by not entering the presidential race. On September 28th, representatives of the Bush and Clinton campaigns went to Dallas, Texas to brief the Perot volunteers on what their campaigns had to offer. That same day, Perot told Larry King he would announce a decision about the presidential race on October 1. That day, Perot re-entered the race.
One week later, a presidential candidate debate schedule finally was announced. (Debates scheduled for September 22nd and September 29th had been canceled after the Bush campaign refused to agree to the proposed formats.) The first debate was October 11th in St. Louis. The vice presidential debate was October 13th in Atlanta. During the October 15th presidential debate in Richmond, Va., members of the studio audience were allowed to ask questions. The third debate was October 19th in East Lansing, Michigan. While no knockout blows were delivered in any of the debates, Perot hurt his credibility with an October 25th declaration that he backed out of the presidential race in July because of Republican plans to use "dirty tricks" targeting his family.
Clinton won the election November 3, 1992. He captured 43 percent of the vote to Bush's 37 percent and Perot's 19 percent. Clinton won the electoral college vote 370-168.