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The Mean Streets: Bill's Bloody Path to Victory

It was a long way from Hope, but Clinton’s winding, bumpy path to the Democratic presidential nomination required a visit to the mean streets. To get black votes in New York City, one must actually encounter black people in New York City.



Last week Gov. Bill Clinton won 57 percent of the vote in the Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania. It was another step in an extraordinary accomplishment for a small-state governor, his inevitable nomination for president of the United States.

But Pennsylvania was an anti-climax. The race had been fought and won earlier, and not without heavy casualties. Clinton's character and integrity, for example, were severely wounded.

This is an account from two principle and decisive battlefields: New York City, where the fighting was bloody, and Chicago, where the mine fields were fewer.

On the Saturday afternoon before the New York presidential primary April 7, Clinton's 16-car motorcade swept across the East River from Manhattan to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. This was the real city: Haitians, blacks, body counts.



It was a long way from Hope, but Clinton's winding, bumpy path to the Democratic presidential nomination required a visit to the mean streets. To get black votes in New York City, one must actually encounter black people in New York City. That's especially true when the candidate is perceived as a cultural alien from America's version of South Africa.

Clinton got out of his car to be greeted by several blacks shouting, "Go home, racist. Go back to the South," and "Go home, racist. Go back to your country club."

Rodney Slater, the black state highway commissioner and senior travel aide to the Clinton campaign, related the story four days later: "I'd never heard Bill Clinton and racist used in the same sentence. I looked over at Bill. I could tell by the look on his face that it was like someone had stabbed him in the stomach."

But Clinton is the invincible politician, bloodied, battered and

persevering, nicknamed "RoboPol" because he couldn't be killed by any number of wounds. So he forged his way through the street, greeting, waving, answering questions about economic development and housing from blacks inclined more to listen than shout. The throng of shouters was growing and coming nearer to the candidate. Clinton was by then oblivious to the shouts. "He was campaigning," Slater said, as if to explain fully the oblivion. The Secret Service men were earning their money, crowding around Clinton and keeping a keen eye on the growing throng.

Slater, concerned that a false move could lead to pushing and shoving, and Lord knows what else, told Clinton he needed to go, pointing to his watch to leave the false impression that the governor was behind schedule. Slater and the Secret Service men slowly led the single-minded campaigner back to his car. The press cars were loaded. The Secret Service men sighed and wiped their brows. The motorcade traveled maybe 25 yards, then it stopped when Clinton saw a supporter from Arkansas who had been among 50 or so Arkansas blacks who traveled by bus to New York to campaign for him in black churches the next morning. To the Secret Service's dismay, Clinton abruptly jumped out of the car, back to the mean street, to trot over to the sidewalk and say hello to the familiar face.

Slater said later: "When you're out there in the campaign, especially in New York City, an Arkansas face is like family. The Secret Service couldn't understand it. The national press couldn't understand it. But you understood it, I'm sure."

No, I didn't.

If I had been Clinton, I would have long since told New York City to kiss my behind.

It might have happened when I saw the weekly neighborhood newspaper that serves the liberal, upscale upper west side of Manhattan. The front page headline blared, "Upper West Side to Bill Clinton: Drop Dead."

The article inside reported that old liberal neighborhood groups in the section, which date to the John F. Kennedy days, had voted overwhelmingly to endorse Jerry Brown because Clinton played golf at an all-White club and executed a brain-damaged black man. The latter was more troubling to Upper Manhattan whites than to a majority of blacks.

Most likely it would have happened in the restroom of the New York Post, the spiciest of the spicy tabloids. Clinton had gone to the newspaper's offices to be interviewed by the editorial board. (He won the endorsement.) Then he went to the restroom and took a seat in a stall. A columnist followed him and began talking to him through the closed door. The columnist's first paragraph two days later was this: "We caught Bill Clinton with his pants down—again."

Two days later, on the Monday morning preceding the next day's primary, after he had debated Jerry Brown on the "Today Show" at 7 a.m. and made his second appearance in five days on "Donahue," Clinton was walking another New York City street. It was 7th Avenue in central Manhattan, less mean, more like a carnival midway. Hundreds of reporters and photographers engulfed him along with police and Secret Service personnel. Boom mikes were extending toward his head from every direction. Traffic was being stopped by the police, and motorists' lips were easily read. Four-syllable profanities, mostly.

Clinton went into the Stage Deli while his campaign strategist and spin doctor extraordinaire, James Carville, tried to plant some ideas in the minds of reporters at the back of the mob. "This guy is like a great athlete," Carville said; "He has his ups and downs, but he knows what he has to do to win, and when he has to really do it. This guy turns it on with the game face better than anyone I've ever seen."

Yes, the Christian Laettner of presidential politics: good-looking white guy from a good school, can go inside or outside, gets some bad publicity for stepping on the stomach of an opponent, has a miserable first half, then hits the winning shot with a second left on the clock, then gets in trouble for allegedly skirting a rule.

That Monday night, with Clinton back in Arkansas to attend Sam Walton's funeral the next day, the campaign went into the kind of 11th-hour panic common to hard-fought political battles. Brown's campaign had distributed a flyer in black and Jewish communities comparing Arkansas to South Africa, citing Clinton's nine holes of golf at the all-white club and charging, incorrectly, that Clinton wasn't committed to loan guarantees for Israel.

The campaign threw together a quick news conference at the Sheraton Manhattan

Hotel. Leading blacks and Jews from New York came to defend Clinton and berate Brown's tactics. Lottie Shackelford, the city director from Little Rock, also spoke. "I have been frustrated not just by defending Bill Clinton," she said, "but also by trying to explain Arkansas in a place it's not understood. Today's Arkansas is far different from the image of 1957."

Shackelford repeated those frustrations to me later, and I said the fact of the matter was that Clinton deserved trouble for playing golf at an all-white club, if for no other reason than the utter stupidity of doing it at the time he did it."Don't you think I know that?" she said. "Don't you think he knows that?"

Mark Grobmyer, the Little Rock lawyer who played the round of golf with Clinton, and who was photographed with him in a cart, providing fodder for a Brown television commercial, was in New York City to observe the primary.

"That guy just introduced himself to me. Who is he?" Carville asked a trio of reporters in the hotel lobby.

I gleefully told him that he ought to know Grobmyer because it was Grobmyer who was in a photograph being shown in Jerry Brown television commercials in the New

York area. It was Grobmyer who was sitting in that golf cart with Clinton.

"What's he doing here?" asked, shaking his head. "Hasn't he caused us enough problems?"

No more than Clinton was causing himself by repeated evasiveness on his draft status, by providing a series of slippery or foolish answers to the marijuana question, by blatantly pandering to interest groups, by shifting his positions to fit the landscape and by putting out of his own, in Florida, that falsely alleged that Paul Tsongas was anti-Israel. And certainly no more than Hillary Clinton was causing him with her acid tongue, culminating in gossip about George Bush's alleged extra-marital sex life that she shared with Vanity Fair magazine.


On Tuesday, despite all that, Clinton won the New York primary with 41 percent of the vote. He won-three other state primaries. He secured, fair and square, the Democratic presidential nomination. Period.

He got more than 50 percent of the black vote. He got more than 50 percent of the Jewish vote. No one had won both groups in New York since Robert Kennedy did it in 1964.

Still, there was something ugly and incomplete about the victory. The New York turnout was only 27 percent. Half the Democrats polled as they left voting booths said they either didn't trust Clinton or had an uneasiness about him. All Clinton had done

was beat a candidate Widely considered bizarre, Brown, and a man who didn't even run, Tsongas, who had suspended his effort three weeks before and won 29 percent of New York's vote anyway.

Everyone was saying the character issues, the "Slick Willie" image, had stuck. Five days later, a front-page story in the Washington Post addressed the "Slick Willie" problem. It was, reporter David Maraniss said, the prevailing image of Clinton, one that could deny his election unless somehow countered. Time magazine blared on its cover, "Why voters don't trust Clinton."

National polls showed Clinton closer to H. Ross Perot than George Bush. In Texas, Clinton was a distant third. Carville told The New York Times that the campaign strategists had to "re-tool" Clinton's image with a two-pronged attack: Emphasizing his humble beginnings and having him try to engage Bush instead of Brown, who had called Clinton "the prince of sleaze."

In Pennsylvania three weeks later, 39 percent of the Democratic voters said they didn't trust him. Only in comparison with 50 percent was that an encouraging figure. But the improvement lent credibility to the strategy.


Three weeks earlier, on St. Patrick's Day, Clinton had been in Chicago, where they dye the Chicago River green to celebrate, the guy sitting next to you at the bar speaks Gaelic, and blue-collar ethnics marching behind union banners dominate the holiday parade.

Chicago was kinder to Clinton than New York. He got 52 percent of the vote in the Illinois primary, an even higher percentage in the Windy City, where the lone guerilla attack was Jerry Brown's on the Rose Law Firm and the lone snafu was Hillary's catty remark about baking cookies.

Chicago was Clinton's kind of town. Come to think of it, Chicago was where his daddy, Bill Blythe, had gone to get post-war work in 1946. Driving back to Hope to get his pregnant wife, Virginia, for the trip back to Chicago, he was killed in a late-night car crash in Sikeston, Mo.

So the circle was complete somehow. Major presidential candidates get psychoanalyzed by the press, and, as in Clinton's case, sometimes psycho-analyze themselves. The prevailing analysis of Clinton was that he was uncommonly driven, a man in a big hurry to achieve, because his daddy didn't live long enough to lay eyes on his boy, who just might grow up to be president of the United States.

Pundits were divided on the question of just where Clinton won the nomination. I vote for Chicago, but there were other good arguments.

It might have been in New Hampshire, where Clinton rallied against womanizing and draft charges to finish second. Carville, emphasizing the metaphor of the great athlete, said he'd never seen two politicians perform more magnificently than Clinton and former state Rep. David Matthews of Lowell (Benton County), the former Clinton law student who went to New Hampshire to introduce Clinton at speakings and vouch for his character, in the last 10 days of the New Hampshire campaign.

It might have been Georgia the next week, where Clinton benefitted from the staunch support of Gov. Zell Miller, who, by the way, had employed Carville as a consultant for his successful gubernatorial race. Such were the fortuitous connections of Clinton's presidential campaign. He was an insider in an outsider's costume.

It might have been Super Tuesday the next week. It might have been New York. But I still say Chicago, which drove Tsongas from the race.


That was the assessment the day after Clinton's convincing primary victory in Illinois by Don Rose, one of Chicago' s veteran Democratic political operatives. Rose was the architect of Jane Byrne's rise to the mayor's office more than a decade before. He directed the short-lived, ill-fated effort to propel New York Governor Mario Cuomo to the Democratic nomination with an unlikely write-in campaign in New Hampshire. After a 3 percent showing, Cuomo called off the dogs and Rose came home.

Rose shuffled through some papers to verify what he thought was so. Yes, Clinton carried every county in the state. Yes, he carried the black vote, the union vote, the ethnic vote, the down—state rural vote, the white vote, the green vote, whatever vote you have in mind. He carried every section of Chicago except one. That would be the lakefront area where Rose lives. It is dominated by young, well-educated, upscale professionals and traditional liberals, or, as Rose describes them, "hard-core progressives who oppose Mayor (Richard) Daley," the son of the legendary machine mayor and, like Clinton, a new-idea moderate who offends the dwindling left wing of the Democratic Party.

Tsongas won Don Rose's neighborhood, which provided little solace for Rose, who acknowledged that one reason he went to New Hampshire to try to drum up write-in votes for Cuomo was that he didn't like or trust this emerging Southern political phenomenon named Bill Clinton.

"I didn't like his early incarnation as the moderate, and I don't like his new incarnation as the champion of the industrial Midwest," Rose said. "I have a deep distrust."

"He's smart," Rose said of Clinton. "He started a year ago, realizing that the lesson of Al Gore's campaign in 1988 was that a Southern candidate can't come out of Super Tuesday without a plan. He lined up an amazing coalition of supporters in Chicago— blacks, both factions, and whites, who feud with blacks. It was just an extraordinary assembly job. He lined up virtually the whole Democratic political establishment. He rea1ized the importance of Illinois, that this is where he could win it, and he lined up as his national staff several quite good political consultants in Chicago who are close to Da1ey—David Wilhelm(the campaign manager); Rahm Emmanuel (the fund—raising co-chairman) and David Axelrod as a senior strategist. He lined a key Chicago alderman like Bobby Rush.

"I can't tell you what argument he used to do all of that, other than electability. Everyone wants to be with a winner. He started out as the anointed winner, then he survived some incredible hits. There were moments of despair. Alderman Ed Burke, one of his key people, declared him a 'dead man' in New Hampshire. But then he finished second, and then he broke it open on Super Tuesday. And Paul Tsongas had nothing with the blacks, and he was hit hard by Clinton's TV spot calling him a tool of Wall Street who wanted to take us back to trickledown economics."

Clinton's campaign director in Illinois was an Irish trial lawyer from Chicago, an old friend of Hillary, named Kevin O'Keefe. The Clinton campaign was too thorough to have anyone other than an Irishman as its campaign director for a St. Patrick's Day election in Chicago.

Two days before the primary, O'Keefe stood outside the Palmer House ballroom where Clinton was being endorsed by the Asian Americans of Illinois. How did he pull that one off? Typically, it turned out that Wilhelm, his Chicago-based campaign manager, had close ties to the Asian American community in Chicago.

O'Keefe recognized me as a frequent critic of Clinton.

"You guys ease up on him down there," O'Keefe said. "Bill Clinton is a good man. There's no secret to how he is doing so well here. He came in here and connected. And when he starts a sentence, Richard Daley can finish it. They're on the same wavelength and the people are interested in what they say. And I know you call him 'Slick Willie.' But we don't consider him slick. If you want to see slick, we can show you slick."

Some in the Clinton campaign cling to the hope that by continuing to weather attacks, the character problems will evaporate on the premise that Clinton's endurance of the process is a character-builder or character-indicator in itself.

Others suggest that winning cures all ills, and that once Clinton triumphs in glory at the Democratic National Convention—back in New York, you realize—he will emerge for man-to-man combat with George Bush with a new set of dynamics that will submerge the "Slick Willie" and character woes.

Not so, Carville said in New York. Character questions are tough to overcome in politics, he said. But there were two comforts, he said. One was that Bush said to read his lips, and then lied. The other was that the primary campaign clearly demonstrated that when Clinton had time to campaign publicly and meet people, he did well. He did even better, Carville said, when voters got the opportunity to consider his impressive soliloquies on issues.

"If I had to give us a grade so far, I'd give us a B Carville said. "But that's a B that we got in a semester that was interrupted by illness, a death in the family and we got a Dear John letter from our girlfriend back home."

All of that was metaphorical, of course, for problems relating to Gennifer Flowers, the draft, the Rose Law Firm, Dan Lasater and answers on marijuana use that provided little more than comic fodder.

But if Clinton has one overriding talent, it is for maneuvering along the tricky political landscape. He began the presidential campaign as the outsider, the insurgent, the reformer, the man who would take the Democratic Party back to the center by appealing to the middle class. Then when he found Tsongas as his opponent in the industrial Midwest, he slid to the left and courted traditional constituencies like labor. Now he finds himself preparing for a general election campaign at a time of intense backlash against traditional politics with the baggage of the consummate traditional politician. His challenge is to redefine himself as an outsider, an agent of change, and one with at least as much believability as George Bush, which is not an especially high standard.

Those familiar with Clinton's skills and perseverance don't doubt his ability to pull it off, or at least attack it as the invincible

Clinton showed us a glimpse of something on Flatbush Avenue. The question is whether it was character-development, chutzpah or robotic political obsession, and whether he can convince voters it was all of the above, at least as much the first two as the latter.

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