Leading With My Heart
The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House
Highwire: From the Backroads to the BeltwayThe Education of Bill Clinton
The first time Imet Bill Clinton, I was sitting next to him at a late-night dinner in New Hampshire. Clinton had concluded that Mario Cuomo would not challenge him for the 1992 presidential nomination, and the governor of Arkansas was having some fun at the expense of the governor of New York. Clinton told us that Cuomo rarely attended governors’ conferences, unless they were held in Washington and involved a visit to the White House, when Cuomo would fly in just for that, his limousine sweeping up in lonely splendor to the president’s mansion. After the meeting, Cuomo would address the clustered journalists, then race straight back to the airport.
Clinton had similar deflationary stories to tell about his other rivals. He replayed a telephone call Jerry Brown made when Clinton was supporting his fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter. Brown hoped that Clinton would back him (Brown) if anything went awry in the Carter bid. Clinton said he was willing to deal, but that he would want a vacation in the Bahamas with a beautiful rock singer. Brown, after a quizzical pause, ventured:”That’s possible.” Clinton, howling, said he answered:”Jerry, you can’t be president till you learn when your leg is being pulled.”
Clinton was funny, unfair, and very shrewd in his political comments. He recounted his efforts to coach Michael Dukakis for his final debate with President Bush in 1988. He told Dukakis it was not enough to answer critics of the ACLU, who accused him of a lack of patriotism, with the defensive claim that the state supreme court of Massachusetts had ruled against requiring teachers to recite the pledge of allegiance. “In the part of the country where I come from, the courts’ approval of a thing is more reason to be against it.” Clinton says he advised Dukakis to say, “I did not fight in Korea so that Amish children can be forced to violate their conscience by reciting the pledge.” The subject of Clinton’s non-fighting in Vietnam had not arisen then. When it did, I thought back to that conversation and wondered if Clinton likes to flirt with danger, or has some ironic sense of his own situation when he gives advice like that. But time seems to reveal that nothing is farther from Clinton, for all his wit about others, than a sense of irony in his own case.
What impressed me most about the conversation was Clinton’s discussion of the rigors of campaigning. Cuomo, he felt, did not want to face criticism and innuendo; but Clinton said a good politician must be able to welcome the bad times along with the good. I doubted that welcome was the right word—“endure” might be more like it. Clinton said people’s opposition shows that you are engaging them deeply, challenging them, and that is what politics should do.
Apparently Clinton’s “welcome” threshold has been lowered since that evening. He is not relishing the assaults now made on him …