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I can picture the first time I met Bill Clinton, even though I was too young to remember it. It was a cool, crisp October day in 1978 in Danville, Arkansas, a small hamlet of 1,600 people in Yell County. The occasion was the Yell Country Fair, a veritable mecca for pols, both local and state.
As my parents tried to calm their petulant 17-month-old baby, a young and bushy-haired fellow approached. Clinton's first words were "Heeey there, you two. I've been wonderin' how long it would be 'fore I met the big guy. Give 'em here." At that point, Clinton picked me up from my father's arms and said, "Lucky for you that you look like your momma." He then tussled my hair, chuckled and handed me back. After that, he became solemn and said, "Len, Avis, I can't tell you how much I've preciated your support for the past four years. I hope I can count on you two again this year. If we can win this election, we can really turn things around."
My parents nodded, and thanked him for all the work he had done as attorney general. His eyes twinkled that twinkle that is now so familiar to all of us. He mouthed an inaudible thanks, and then moved on to the next face. Forty-five seconds, at most. And he absolutely meant it all, the way young couples mean it when they say. "I love you."
I tell this story to illustrate a larger point. To counter the arguments of those who suggest that Clinton is the pure, disingenuous politician, the ultimate vote-getting machine, you must understand Clinton's development as a person and a politician. For it is only by examining his past that we discover the reason for his uncanny ability to sway voters: Bill Clinton is the most successful campaigner of our time because he is the most sincere campaigner of our time.
The roots of Clinton's political prowess go back to his childhood. An awkward, slightly overweight, and very unathletic tyke, Clinton was out of his element in Hot Springs. Not only were these traits obstacles to childhood and adolescent acceptance, but his social life was also hampered by his glowing intellect: Clinton was just too smart to fit in. His only recourse was surely his personality, and what a personality it was. Recognizing this talent, Clinton developed at a young age his easy-going, affable, glib, hail-fellow-well-met attitude that has so characterized him for years.
His well-documented family troubles made him value intimacy in all of his relationships; hence, the capacity for sincerity and empathy. A truly complex man, it would take years to fully understand him. Nevertheless, he can make you feel as if you have known him all your life in less than a minute.
Although these personal attributes may underlie Clinton's political success, that is all they do: They are a simple foundation. Many other traits also explain his remarkable career. From the beginning, fate and a fortuitous sense of timing have ensured that Clinton's electoral opponents have been far from titanic.
In 1976, Clinton drew nominal primary challengers and no general election competition to become Arkansas' attorney general. Same story in 1978, when he became the nation's youngest governor. Even after a near-fatal defeat in his 1980 re-election bid, Clinton faced a weak incumbent in 1982. Skipping forward 10 years, he won the Democratic nomination for president from a field widely considered the party's second-string, and went on to face George Bush, who was not exactly grounded in the political reality of his time. Now, in 1996, he faces Bob Dole. Tough one.
A long with these less than difficult challenges, Clinton has also benefited from practice. While he is wont to say that this is his last campaign, he does not mention that it is his tenth in 22 years. The only biennial years in which he did not have to seek reelection were 1988 and 1994. Only career legislators in the United States House even come close to this record. Couple this with the "permanent campaign" of crafting a legislative agenda through polling, focus groups and public relations blitzes that he and Dick Morris created in 1983 and 1984. Clinton has literally been campaigning his entire adult life. Whoever said that practice does not make perfect?
Always remember that as Clinton journeyed through his electoral life, he continuously solicited advice. What pundits today term as indecisiveness is actually Clinton's conservative tendency to get all opinions before he acts. Although he has always sought counsel from an exceptional number of people, there has been only one constant advisor for the past 21 years. Yes, that's right: Hillary Clinton. Regardless of his own virtue, Clinton would have never made it past county commissioner without his wife. In Primary Colors, the Hillary-character calls the Bill-character an "unorganized, undisciplined, thoughtless, faithless shit." She can say this because she is more organized, more disciplined, more thoughtful, and more faithful than he is, among other things. Leaving the world of fiction, John R. Starr, an Arkansas pundit, was no Clinton supporter until 1983, the year he met Hillary. After that, he cut Clinton some slack because "no husband of hers could be that bad." There could not be a more apposite instance for the phrase "Behind every good man lies a better woman."
Last, but in no way least, is Clinton's own political savvy. Last month, when Morris resigned from the Clinton campaign after the media disclosed his $200-per- hour toe-sucking escapades, others in the Clinton camp said there would be no replacement because Clinton was his own best political strategist. The more skeptical may have considered this spin control by his campaign; it was not. Clinton's only skill is politics, but it is some skill. Arkansas has 75 counties and more than 5,000 voting precincts; Clinton knew the demography and politics of every one of them. On drives through the state with friends, he liked to tell them the vote counts he got from each precinct, and why he got them. No kidding.
Because of my roots, Clinton is not a larger-than-life figure for me. He has been a constant throughout my life. I saw him on the hustings for what was probably the last time ever a few days after the Democratic National Convention last month. A lot has changed since I first met him. Then, the Yell County Fair-grounds did not have metal detectors at its entrances, and no agents stood on nearby rooftops with surface-to-air missiles. Eighteen years ago, Mike Cornwell, the County Democratic Chairman, and a few anonymous aides were Clinton's only companions; he now has a phalanx of Secret Service agents. His only interaction with my parents and me was much shorter: "Great to see you again--Tom, you ever gonna quit growin'?"
Despite these differences, nothing has really changed. He still meant everything he said to every person there. Go see him this fall in New England if you can. When he thanks you for coming, you will know what I mean. As Springsteen would have it, he was born to run.
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