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Eye on the Prize

The party did introduce its five women candidates for the Senate (Carol Mosley Braun, Jean Lloyd-Jones, Lynn Yeakel, Barbara Boxer, and Dianne Feinstein) as well as four of its most visible ingĂŠnues (Kathleen Brown, Barbara Roberts, Sharon Pratt Kelly, and Pat Schroeder), but had originally hedged the possibility that the presence of too many women might threaten any viewer by ghettoizing them, scheduling them, with Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson and the AIDS presentations, on Tuesday night, which on the Monday-through-Thursday convention schedule had traditionally been known as “losers’ night.” (After some complaints the Senate candidates, although not the ingĂŠnues, got moved to the Monday schedule.) “What used to be losers’ night we’re making women’s night,” Ron Brown had said about this to one woman I know, a prominent Democrat in the entertainment industry.

The proceedings ran so relentlessly on schedule that it was sometimes necessary to pad out the preprime events with unmotivated musical interludes, and on one occasion with an actual ten-minute recess. “The people running this convention are just impossible,” an aide to Governor Ann Richards of Texas, who as convention chair might in past years have been thought to be one of the people running the convention, said on its second evening. “Wouldn’t give a minute of time when the networks were on. Finally she [Governor Richards] said to us, girls, my ego doesn’t need this, so don’t let yourselves get dragged down.” Jodie Evans, who managed Jerry Brown’s campaign, was told that to enter his name in nomination would “clutter up the schedule.”

Governor Brown, who did not get to be governor of California for eight years by misunderstanding either politics or the meaning of political gestures, remained a flaw in the convention’s otherwise seamless projection of its talking points. It was not by accident that he had been the only one of the six Democratic primary candidates who, on the evening of the primary campaign’s first Washington debate, did not go to dinner at Pamela Harriman’s. He maintained so apparently quixotic a guerrilla presence in New York that Maureen Dowd in the Times began referring to him as The Penguin. He worked out of the Rolling Stone office. He got messages at Dennis Rivera’s Hospital Workers Union Local 1199. He camped one night at a homeless shelter and other nights at my husband’s and my apartment. He passed up the balloon drop and the podium handshake to end the convention with his volunteers, finishing the night not at the DNC’s four-million-dollar fund-raising gala but at Elaine’s.

He told Governor Clinton that the ticket would have his “full endorsement” in the unlikely eventuality that the platform was amended to include four provisions: “a $100 ceiling on all political contributions, a ban on political action committees (PACS), universal registration undertaken by government itself (together with same day registration), and finally election day as a holiday.” That these were not provisions the Clinton campaign was prepared to discuss (“I want to work with you on these critical issues throughout my campaign,” the response went) freed Brown on what was for him, since he had shaped his campaign as a “fight for the soul of the Democratic party,” a quite sticky and isolating point, that of endorsing a ticket that could be seen as the very model of who his adversary might be in any “fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.”

I’d like to thank someone who’s not here tonight,” he said on the evening he declined to endorse but nonetheless did opt to clutter up the schedule. “Someone who’s missing his first Democratic Convention since the Depression. Someone I think of as the greatest Democrat of all. My father, Pat Brown.” Referring as it did to a Democratic past, a continuum, a collective memory, this was in context startling, deliberately jarring, off the beat of a party determined to present itself as devoid of all history save that one sunny day in the Rose Garden, preserved on film and repeatedly shown, when President John F. Kennedy shook the hand of the Boy’s Nation delegate Bill Clinton, who could be seen on the film elbowing aside less motivated peers to receive the grail: the candidate’s first useful photo opportunity.


More recent opportunities had given us, early on, the outline of the campaign the Democrats planned to run. There was, first of all, the creation, or recreation, of Governor Clinton. By all accounts, and particularly by certain contradictory threads within those accounts, this was a dramatically more interesting character than candidate, a personality so tightly organized around its own fractures that its most profound mode often appeared to be self-pity. “I was so young and inexperienced,” Governor Clinton told The Washington Post about his 1980 Arkansas defeat, “I didn’t understand how to break through my crisis and turn the situation around.” In his famous and extremely curious letter to the director of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, Colonel Eugene Holmes, who could not reasonably have been thought to care, he had spoken of his “anguish,” of his loss of “self-regard and self-confidence”; of a period during which, he said, he “hardly slept for weeks and kept going by eating compulsively and reading until exhaustion set in.” He spoke of the continuing inclination of the press to dwell on this and other issues as “the trials which I endured.”

When people are criticizing me, they get to the old ‘Slick Willie’ business,” he explained to Jonathan Alter and Eleanor Clift of Newsweek before the New York primary. “Part of it is that I’m always smiling and try to make it look easy and all that. And part of it is the way I was raised. I had such difficulties in my childhood.” Governor Clinton spoke often about these difficulties in his childhood, usually, and rather distressingly, in connection with questions raised about his adulthood. Such questions had caused him to wonder, he confided to The Wall Street Journal, “whether I’d ever be able to return to fighting for other people rather than for myself. I had to ask myself: what is it about the way I communicate or relate? Was it something in my childhood? I didn’t wonder if I was a rotten person. I knew I was involved in a lifelong effort to be a better person.”

That he was sometimes demonstrably less than forthcoming when confronted with contradictions in this lifelong effort (by mid-May this year he was still undertaking what he called an “enormous effort” to reconstruct his draft history, which had first come into question in Arkansas in October 1978, but was clear on one point: “Did I violate the laws of my state or nation? Absolutely not”) could be seen, from this angle, as evidence of what came to be called his “reaching to please,” his “need to bring people together.” “I’m always trying to work things out because that’s the role I played for a long time,” he told David Maraniss of The Washington Post at one point, and, at another, “The personal pain of my childhood and my reluctance to be revealing in that sense may account for some of what may seem misleading.”

He frequently referred to “my pain,” and also to “my passion” or “my obsession,” as in “it would be part of my obsession as president.” He often spoke, at low points in his primary campaign, of those who remained less than enthusiastic about allowing him to realize his passion or obsession as “folks who don’t know me,” and about his need to “get the people outside Arkansas to know me like people here do”; most of us do not believe this about ourselves. “I can feel other people’s pain a lot more than some people can,” he told Peter Applebome of the New York Times. What might have been self-delusion was translated, in the reinvention, into “resilience,” the frequently noted ability to “take the hits.” “The comeback kid” was said at the convention to be Governor Mario Cuomo’s tribute to the candidate, but of course it had initially been the candidate’s own tribute, a way of positioning his second-place finish in New Hampshire as a triumph, and there was in Governor Cuomo’s echo of it a grudging irony, a baroque New York edge.

What else did we know about this candidate? We knew that he, or his campaign, was adept at what is generally called negative campaigning. There was the knockout punch in Florida, on the eve of Super Tuesday, when Clinton supporters distributed leaflets, each stamped “authorized and paid for by the Clinton for President Committee,” suggesting that his principal rival there, Senator Tsongas, besides being against old people, was against Israel. (Governor Clinton, who had himself campaigned in Delray Beach wearing a white yarmulke, allowed after the primary that the Israel leaflets had been misleading.) There was, on the weekend before the New York primary, the Clinton radio commercial, run for a few hours and then pulled off the air (not in this case because it was misleading, according to Governor Clinton, but because it “made the wrong point—from my point of view”) accusing Jerry Brown, the only Clinton challenger then extant, of being against choice.

In fact Governor Brown’s position on choice in California had been precisely that of Governor Cuomo in New York: each had said that he personally accepted the position of the Catholic Church on abortion but as governor supported both the right to choose and full public funding for abortion. This was a notably less equivocal position than that previously taken by Governor Clinton, who had signed into Arkansas law a measure requiring minors to notify both parents before abortion and had apparently taken no position on the state’s 1988 constitutional amendment banning public financing for abortion. There remained some cloudiness about this amendment. “I opposed the vote of the people to ban public funding on that,” Governor Clinton had said when he was asked about it during a WNBC discussion with Gabe Pressman and Jerry Brown, the Sunday before the New York primary.

That was in April. Then, in July, a letter turned up (according to the New York Post, which printed excerpts from it, the letter was “made available” to news organizations by “Republican operatives”) that had been written by Governor Clinton in 1986, when an earlier version of the amendment had been proposed, to Arkansas Right to Life. “I do support the concept of the proposed Arkansas Constitutional Amendment 65 and agree with its stated purpose,” Governor Clinton’s 1986 letter read. “I am opposed to abortion and to government funding of abortions. We should not spend state funds on abortions because so many people believe abortion is wrong.”

Apparent accidents, and even some apparent mistakes in judgment, had emerged over time as less accidental than strategic. There was Hillary Clinton’s “gaffe” in complaining to Gail Sheehy, interviewing her for Vanity Fair, that the press was following a “double standard” in dwelling on her husband’s alleged friendship with Gennifer Flowers, since Anne Cox Chambers (“sittin’ there in her sun-room”) had told her about “Bush and his carrying on, all of which is apparently well known in Washington.” This was an “embarrassment,” a “mistake,” and yet the appearance of the Vanity Fair piece coincided with Clinton strategists issuing the same preemptive warning to the Bush campaign; with Ron Brown suggesting that if questions about adultery were to persist, he thought similar questions should be put to Bush; and with Democratic consultant Robert Squier suggesting on the NBC Today show that Bush be asked what he called “the Jennifer question.”

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