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Bill Clinton: Who Is This Guy?

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*From the January 20, 1992 issue of New York Magazine.

‘Aren’t you the guy,” the editor from South Carolina’s largest newspaper asked the governor of Arkansas, “who gave that awful speech for Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention?”

“You want to hear the rest of it?” Bill Clinton laughed. “Go get yourself another cup of coffee.”

“But what does that say about your ability to communicate your ideas to the nation?” the editor pressed.

Clinton shrugged, then retailed some boilerplate. The question seemed moot: The governor had been communicating his ideas quite nicely for the better part of an hour to several dozen editors from across South Carolina. He had, in fact, overpowered them with the clarity and detail of his answer—a Clinton trademark in this presidential year. He appeared to devour each question; he launched himself enthusiastically into each answer. The tougher the better, he seemed to say—hit me with your best shot. “What would you do about the budget deficit?” someone asked.

“Well, there are five things you need to do, but you have to do them all,” and then he was off, in a fury of facts and statistics, using simple words but radiating a well-organized, serious intelligence . . . . “But wait a minute,” one of the editors interrupted. “You said one of the five things you had to do was control health-care costs; how on earth do you do that?”

“Well, there are three areas you absolutely have to deal with,” and off again—to the five-point outlines for what had to be done in each of those subareas. There seemed no bottom to his specificity—indeed, it has become something of a joke among the traveling press; reporters have taken to counting the number of ideas and proposals that seem to erupt from Clinton at each appearance, just as they’ve taken to counting the number of times Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey cites his Vietnam War record or uses the words “fundamental change.”

There was a casual, effortless quality to the performance. Clinton wasn’t reciting. He was having fun. Each new stat had a get this quality to it: “One reason why the average German worker can be paid 20 percent more than his American counter-part is energy conservation—the German can produce the same amount of goods for half the energy.” The clever economy of many of his formulations was exhilarating. On trade: “The Japanese have to understand that if they don’t play by our rules, we’ll play by theirs.” This was a master politician strutting his stuff. The editors clearly were impressed. And yet: Something wasn’t quite right. Clinton had engulfed the audience but still seemed amorphous himself: He didn’t have any edges. It was all just a little too smooth. “Governor, I’ve just experienced you as a torrent of information,” said Gil Thelen, executive editor of The State. “But I feel that I don’t know anything about you as a person. Could you tell me the three values that are most important to Bill Clinton as a human being?”

The room fell silent. For once, Clinton didn’t have a quick answer. He clasped his hands in front of him and stared at them. He took a long time. Finally, he said, “Integrity.” Another long pause. “Family . . . and service.” He proceeded to explain, but the words weren’t nearly so important as the time he’d taken. Afterward, when asked if he was satisfied with Clinton’s response, Thelen said, “I was really glad that he stopped and thought about it.”

But what about that pause? Was it real, or just a very clever calibration? Integrity . . . family . . . service: Was this just another three-point plan? Clinton had shown his brains and spirit, but his essence—his soul—remained elusive. Who was this guy, anyway?

So here we are, at the start of another presidential campaign, and the Democratic Party seems to be moving—quietly, inexorably, tectonically—toward another largely unknown governor, this one named Bill Clinton, in much the same way it moved toward Michael Dukakis in 1988. One of the other leading lights—Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska or senator Tom Harkin of Iowa; or perhaps even former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, a New Hampshire favorite—might still catch fire and steal the show; not a single vote has yet been cast. But a determination has been made: Clinton seems the most solid of this crowd. And a subtle stampede is on in the salons of New York and Washington. “Clinton is the very heavy favorite,” said a prominent New York fund-raiser. “Most people think Bob Kerrey isn’t ready for this. And Tom Harkin just seems dated—something from out of the past.”

In 1988, Dukakis insinuated his way into the conventional wisdom by winning what was then called the “Money Primary,” the first real test of the campaign. He got his credibility by raising a ton of cash and by seeming, well, solid in the early debates (the party learned too late that his “solidity” was emotional catatonia). This time, no one has raised much money. The first primary has been about IQ rather than cash—and Clinton is the easy winner, a fact he likes to joke about: “A fella up in New Hampshire said, 'I hear you’re the smartest guy in the race. That’s sorta like saying that Moe’s the smartest of the Three Stooges.’”


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