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Jonathan Alter The Washington Monthly This is a first-rate political biography. To understand why the shorthand on this man [Clinton] is so insufficient, this book is essential.
Joan Duffy The Commercial Appeal Finally, a real book on Bill Clinton.
From Chapter 22: The Permanent Campaign
Two months later, on the afternoon of January 11, 1983, the faithful and curious waited single-file in a queue that circled from the second floor of the Arkansas Capitol down to the rotunda and out the steps into the warm winter wind. It was the largest crowd that had ever gathered for an inauguration in Little Rock, there to celebrate the return of the favorite son. Bill Clinton stood in the receiving line inside the governor's conference room, surrounded by portraits of his predecessors, one of whom was himself. Already that day he had belted out redemptive hymns with his Immanuel Baptist Church choir. He had swept back to the Capitol for the swearingin ceremony in the House, the click of his heels echoing in the marble halls as he moved through his old haunt. He had delivered his inaugural address on the Capitol steps and felt the applause wash over him. Now the welcome-back handshakes and bearhugs made the restoration complete. He was blessing and being blessed in the sacred rite of Arkansas politics.
Clinton was back in power; but he was not picking up where he had left off a few years earlier. Everything was different this second time around. The youth crusade atmosphere of the first term was long gone. His staff was almost entirely recast in a more reassuring image, with a grandmotherly receptionist and a good ole boy executive assistant, old enough to be his father, and another senior aide whose duties included praying with fundamentalist preachers when they visited the governor's office. "He realized that he needed some older folks on his staff," recalled Paul Root, who had been Clinton's high school world history teacher and was recruited at age fifty to work in the governor's office on education and church issues, which often intersect in the Bible Belt. "He said the first term he had some of the brightest people he knew, but they were all policy people, and if a right-wing preacher came in, he didn't have anyone to pray with him." The emphasis this time was on how aides got along with the public, state agencies, and the legislature. To sharpen his focus and open up the decision-making process, Clinton began chairing staff meetings every morning at seven while the legislature was in session during the first few months of the year. They were freewheeling, open-door discussions at which interested legislators were welcome to get some coffee and take a seat.
The state's mood had also changed. In place of the pride-and-hope theme of his first inaugural, Clinton now spoke of a battle "with an old and familiar enemy: hard times." Arkansas was in the midst of a recession, with three bad years on the farms and double-digit unemployment in the towns. He attributed the recession in part to the Republican policies of the Reagan administration in Washington, and in part to a larger state and national lethargy in adapting to a changing world economy through a renewed focus on education, information services, and worker retraining, themes that his Rhodes Scholar friend Bob Reich was expounding in his book The Next American Frontier. But the central parable of Clinton's inaugural speech came not from his generational experience but from Depression-era family folklore: the story of when Pappaw Cassidy fell to his knees and cried because he could not afford to buy young Virginia a two-dollar Easter dress.
If the public image Clinton conveyed was one of earnest determination, in private he feared that the state's condition, and his political situation, were more precarious than he had let on. In this moment of vindication, he was nagged by a sense of impending disaster. The bad news had started on the morning after the election, when Frank White's chief of staff had called Betsey Wright, who would be Clinton's staff director, and revealed that there was a $30 million shortfall in state revenues. Much of the transition had been consumed with targeting budget cuts. And there were other worries. In his comeback campaign, Clinton had pounded away at utility companies, portraying them as greedy villains and himself the returning champion who would give consumers a break on spiraling rates. The populist theme had helped him get elected, but now he had to deal with the raised expectations. He did not yet control the Public Service Commission, which set rates. Legislators and editorialists were lined up against his pledge to require that the utility commissioners be elected rather than appointed. A federal ruling, on the state's financial obligations to a regional nuclear power consortium might force rates higher. In the end, he worried, he might appear no better on the issue than White.
An even more difficult predicament loomed. The Arkansas Supreme Court was considering a lower court ruling that had declared the state's system of financing public education unconstitutional because it denied equal opportunities to students in poor districts. A final decision, almost certain to uphold the lower court ruling, was expected sometime during the new two-year term. Clinton's options looked unappealing. He could try to take money from rich districts and give it to poor ones, which would invite class warfare and be of minimal value since education was severely underfinanced in the entire state. Arkansas was at the bottom nationally in student spending and teacher salaries. He could make a concerted push for consolidation among the state's rural school districts, an effort that might reopen the old desegregation wounds and was sure to hurt him politically in areas that would lose their high school sports teams and school identities. Or he could raise taxes for education, the most likely alternative, yet a disturbing prospect for a governor who could not forget that he had lost his job attempting to get more money for better roads.
But among the things that had changed since his first term was Clinton's strategic approach. His political personality was largely unchanged: he was still restless, eclectic, intellectually hungry, eager to please. But this time he had a survival plan: the permanent campaign.
Copyright © 1995 by David Maraniss