OF LEE ATWATER
The chances are that hardly anyone noticed the two political operatives from Arkansas who slipped in and out of Republican national headquarters on an autumn day in 1989. Neither had a famous face, unlike the man they had come to visit. They had flown in from Little Rock to meet secretly with Lee Atwater, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Discretion was of the utmost importance in this matter. No doubt that was why Atwater had brought his guests to Washington rather than traveling to Arkansas himself, much as he enjoyed pressing the flesh out in the hinterlands. But now he was a celebrity, often recognized in airports and on the street. As the outrageous party animal who ruled the Grand Old Party, Lee Atwater had been featured on the covers of national magazines and on countless news broadcasts. In Little Rock, he would have been spotted right away, and someone there might have realized what he was up to.
Honored traditions as well as party rules generally forbid the Republican National Committee and its chairman from taking sides in a state primary. But that was precisely what Atwater was preparing to do in Arkansas, where he was anything but neutral in the upcoming race for governor. The two operatives had come to discuss the prospects of Atwater's handpicked candidate, a flamboyant congressman and former county sheriff named Tommy Robinson.
Elected to the House as a Democrat, Robinson had switched parties only months earlier, and faced a serious challenge in thegubernatorial primary from a wealthy Little Rock businessman who had long been his benefactor. He needed the party chairman's advice and instructions.
Atwater was taking a risk in supporting Robinson. Any proof of his direct interference in the Arkansas primary might be used to embarrass him by rivals in the party hierarchy and the White House. More than a few powerful Republicans were irritated by his swaggering, Blues Brothers style and his lust for notoriety. Many also envied Atwater's close personal bond with George Bush, the president who had rewarded him with the power and prerogatives of the party chairmanship. But he had not become a national legend at the age of thirty-eight by obeying rules and avoiding risks.
In Arkansas he was trying to deal with a problem that dwarfed any nitpicking about neutrality. Though he would never say so publicly, he was worried about the future.
"Bush and this crowd are going to screw it up," he had told his former consulting partner Roger Stone a few months earlier. "Bush won't get reelected."
Atwater's clandestine meeting with J. J. Vigneault and Rex Nelson was informal but businesslike. He didn't pick up his guitar and start singing, as was his frequent habit in the daily staff meetings. There were no cigars or liquor, either, just Cokes brought in by Mary Matalin, Atwater's chief deputy. She remained in the room when the door was closed.
Atwater didn't know Nelson, whom he was trying to recruit to the Robinson campaign, nearly as well as he knew Vigneault, a longtime friend and associate who had overseen the successful Reagan and Bush campaigns in Arkansas. After Atwater had taken over as chairman early in 1989, he had brought Vigneault onto the RNC staff as a regional political director, based in Little Rock. It was a sign of Atwater's concern about the Arkansas race that his protégé Vigneault had abandoned a top party position so suddenly to manage an insurgent campaign in a small, overwhelmingly Democratic state.
Nelson, a former Little Rock political reporter who had signed on as Robinson's campaign press secretary, still remembers Atwater's blunt explanation of his interest in their candidate.
"You boys have to remember, I don't give a fuck who the governor of Arkansas is," he said. "My only job as chairman of the Republican National Committee is to get George Bush reelected. The media's full of talk about Mario Cuomo or Bill Bradley. We know how to paint them up as northeastern liberals like Dukakis. That's easy! What scares me is a southern moderate or conservative Democrat, and the scariest of all, because he's the most talented of the bunch, is Bill Clinton."
As Atwater understood, Clinton possessed qualities of mind and personality that could make him a formidable national candidate. During a political career that spanned two decades, the friendly young governor had established alliances across his party's ideological divide. Somehow, Clinton had sponsored the creation of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council without injuring his own long-standing ties to liberals, blacks, and women's organizations. Intellectually fluent in the public-policy issues that bored pols like Atwater, the ambitious, hardworking, opportunistic Arkansan also had the special unteachable gift for remembering the names, faces, and concerns of people he met that is characteristic of the most successful American politicians. For Bush's sake, it would be prudent to eliminate Clinton before he could exercise those talents in a presidential campaign.
"We're going to take Tommy Robinson and use him to throw everything we can think of at Clintondrugs, women, whatever works. We may or may not win, but we'll bust him up so bad he won't be able to run again for years."
Rex Nelson was impressed by Atwater's political prescience. A native Arkansan with a shrewd knowledge of the game, Nelson understood and respected Clinton's political mastery. "Lee had his eyes on the prize. He saw Bill Clinton as the real hurdle to Bush's reelection.... He spotted Clinton way out ahead of anybody else in the national party. All we had to do was get Tommy into the general election." Atwater's commitment to this project was total, he told Nelson and Vigneault. "He promised us everything: top pollsters, consultants, media people, money."
The reference to Clinton's alleged "skirt problem" didn't surprise Atwater's guests. In Washington as well as Little Rock, insider gossip compared the young Arkansas governor with Gary Hart, another once-bright presidential prospect whose career had been ruined by exposure of an extramarital affair. Some even believed that Clinton would never run for president because he couldn't withstand the inevitable scrutiny of his personal life. "My friends in the Bush camp dismissed him with a single word whenever his name was mentioned," as consultant Ed Rollins, an Atwater rival, put it. "Women."
In the fall of 1989, Atwater's allusions to Clinton's misbehavior were more or less "generic," according to Rex Nelson. "There were no individual women mentioned at all." But when push came to shove, generic rumors wouldn't stop Bill Clinton, as Atwater probably understood; after all, they had never stopped him before.
Whether Clinton's rumored and real indiscretions came close to rivaling Atwater's own remained an open question. As early as 1984, the long-married Atwater's reputation for compulsive, reckless womanizing was so well known, at least among fellow Republicans, that George Bush's closest advisors had urged Bush to avoid him altogether. According to Atwater biographer John Brady, "He reveled in telling stories of conquests, sharing details with office colleagues.... Disposable sex without commitment was a huge piece of his ego, a badge of honor." Nothing changed after he was appointed Republican national chairman, wrote Brady, except that Atwater began using his new RNC credit card to pay for weekends with a girlfriend at a Virginia hotel. He told his wife he was traveling on business.
In late November 1989, Atwater weathered a brief crisis brought on by his flagrant misbehavior. A Washington Post reporter confronted him with photographs that showed Atwater at an apartment building where a female White House staffer lived. He was indeed having an affair with the woman, as he admitted to several senior RNC staff membersbut the story never ran, Brady wrote, because Atwater "leaned on" the Post reporter with the plea that "innocent bystanders would be hurt." He thus escaped the same wound he was simultaneously planning to inflict on Bill Clinton. In the politics of sexual morality, hypocrisy was a common occupational hazard.
Lee Atwater's disreputable public image, however, owed nothing to his sexual adventures. He had cultivated a reputation as the meanest and most devious campaign strategist in the business, a man who would do anything to defeat an opponent. It was a persona he cherished, and he had no intention of changing his identity simply because he had reached the pinnacle of party leadership. "I don't want you to squeal on me," he once told an applauding crowd at a Republican cocktail fund-raiser, "but I'm not going to be kinder and gentler."
Kinder and gentler didn't win elections, a lesson Lee Atwater had learned well and taught the rest of the country by example. Born and raised in South Carolina, he had entered politics as an intern to Senator Strom Thurmond, the former Dixiecrat segregationist who was the first important southern politician to defect to the Republicans. Young Lee's introduction to national politics came with the 1968 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon, whose darkly negative approach to politics influenced everyone around him. The men who made Nixon president routinely resorted to vicious pranks, spying, and underhanded personal attacks against the Democrats, those dirty tricks that the boyish Watergate trickster Donald Segretti memorably called "ratfucking." During Nixon's second term Lee had served as executive director of the College Republicans, where the same ethos prevailed. Back then Lee had blurted out to Nixon's RNC chairman, George Bush, that he wanted to be the party chairman someday.
Nor was kinder and gentler the way Atwater had finally won that job after fifteen years in the trenches. Sometimes he exaggerated his own viciousness to burnish his image. He liked to brag about how he had destroyed one early opponent's morale by mentioning the man's psychiatric history to a reporter. "I understand he once had to get hooked up to jumper cables," Atwater had quipped. In 1988 that story echoed again in the Republican campaign against Michael Dukakis, when rumors that the Democratic nominee once suffered from clinical depression were traced back to the Bush campaign. This canard was first raised by followers of the fringe political organization of Lyndon LaRouche, at the Democratic convention and then at a White House press conference. But conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported that as Bush's campaign manager, Atwater had been "investigating the details and trying to spread the findings without leaving any vice-presidential footprints." That the rumors were utterly false didn't mean they couldn't be used. It only meant that someone else had to take the blame.
The same principle applied to the ugliest cheap shot of the 1988 campaignthe television attack ad that featured a mug shot of Willie Horton, murderer, rapist, and escapee from a Massachusetts prison furlough. Its blatantly racial thrust was disavowed by the official Bush campaign, which pointed out that the commercials had been produced and aired by an independent committee called Americans for Bush. After a while, the Bush campaign counsel even sent a letter asking the commercial's makers to desist. By then, of course, all the damage had been done.
At least six months before Rex Nelson and J. J. Vigneault came to Washington, Atwater had begun formulating his plan to preempt Clinton's presidential campaign. In May 1989 he had stopped off briefly in Little Rock, ostensibly for other purposes, and dropped a hint during a press conference in the pillared and carpeted lobby of the downtown Capital Hotel, an elegantly refurbished establishment on the banks of the Arkansas River where President Ulysses S. Grant had sojourned in 1870. The Democrats would have to nominate a southerner for president if they were to have any hope of winning the White House in 1992, he told the rapt audience of local reporters. But, he warned, they had better not choose the governor of Arkansasbecause unlike some of the region's other leading Democrats, Bill Clinton just wasn't a "good, solid Southerner."
Atwater didn't elaborate on Clinton's faults, but his tart observation elicited questions about the upcoming 1990 race for governor. Asked about growing speculation that Democratic representative Tommy Robinson might defect to the Republicans and run against Clinton, Atwater replied that the GOP would welcome Robinson. And if Robinson did run for governor, he added, the party had lined up an excellent candidate for the congressman's vacated seat. Atwater glanced over at Ron Fuller, a Republican state legislator of no particular distinction. Many months later, Fuller's name would come up again, along with that of J. J. Vigneaulton a surreptitious tape recording of a conversation between Bill Clinton and a former lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers.
Running Robinson against Clinton was an idea that appealed greatly to the Republican Party's most important patrons in Little Rock, eighty-year-old billionaire Jack Stephens and his second wife, Mary Ann Stephens. Unlike his older brother Witt, a traditional conservative southern Democrat who had run Arkansas like a country store during the six terms of segregationist governor Orval Faubus, Jack Stephens was quite literally a country-club Republican. He had long served as chairman of the nation's ultimate country club, the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, annual home of the Masters tournament. With its downtown Little Rock headquarters, Stephens, Inc., the nation's largest investment bank outside Wall Street, represented only a fraction of the family's multibillion-dollar holdings in oil, natural gas, and coal across several western states and a half dozen countries. Their corporate empire included considerable newspaper and broadcast holdings as well.
For decades a decisive power in Arkansas politics, the Stephens dynasty had seen its influence sharply reduced under Governor Bill Clinton, who had thwarted its wishes on any number of issues. Having financed the campaigns of Frank White, a Republican banker who had defeated Clinton in 1980 but lost two subsequent elections to the charismatic Democrat, Stephens, Inc., would have been delighted to replace the governor with Tommy Robinson.
But it was Jack Stephens's wife Mary Ann, a glossy, vigorous brunette married to a man thirty years her senior, who had found a calling in the Republican Party. She had helped win Arkansas for Bush in 1988, and the experience apparently had awakened a desire for a bigger, more glamorous role. "Mary Ann's plan was to become the Pamela Harriman of the GOP," according to a Little Rock political consultant who knew her well. "After Jack was gone, she saw herself maybe living in the Virginia horse country, having the Bushes over for dinner, hosting high-society party functions. Even an ambassadorship wouldn't have been out of reach." For the moment, Mary Ann's ambitions were tied to those of Tommy Robinson.
From Atwater's point of view, Robinson would have seemed perfect even without the Stephens endorsement. A rabble-rousing orator with an instinct for publicity, Robinson appeared to have discovered the universal solvent of southern politics: how to stir up blue-collar whites without alienating blacks. Plucked from obscurity as a small-town police chief by Governor Clinton in 1979 and appointed director of the Department of Public Safety, he had swiftly become embroiled in dramatic, highly publicized feuds with every agency in his department. In 1980 he abruptly resigned to run for sheriff of Pulaski County, which encompasses Little Rock, and won.
The glib, handsome lawman had a natural television presence and an instinctive feel for the hot-button issues of crime and drugs. His "supercop" exploits led the evening news night after night, turning him into a cartoonlike populist hero. Robinson hid armed deputies in liquor stores and convenience marts with orders to shoot to kill. Peering down the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun, he bragged to the cameras: "My basic policy is to kick the butts of criminals. If I have to use excessive force, I will." Robinson once settled a dispute with state prison officials by chaining a busload of mostly black inmates to the penitentiary gates, then placing armed deputies around the county jail and defying state police to try to return them. Soon known statewide simply as "Tommy," the new sheriff often outraged judges, prosecutors, and other cops with his publicity-seeking antics.
What made "Tommy" a household word, however, was his prosecution of a Little Rock criminal defense lawyer named Bill McArthur for the murder of McArthur's wife. McArthur was ultimately cleared, but not before his life was shattered by Robinson's lurid and ultimately baseless accusations. Combining elements of murder mystery, soap opera, morality play, political crusade, and multimedia extravaganza, the McArthur case was all anybody in Arkansas talked about during 1982 and 1983. Playing an important bit part in the affair was a Little Rock municipal judge named David Hale, who did Robinson's bidding during one of the strangest court proceedings in the state's history. To law enforcement professionals and the majority of educated Arkansans, the outcome of the McArthur case revealed the sheriff as a demagogic buffoon and a menace. "May the Almighty save the people in Arkansas," prayed one newspaper editorial, "from themselves and their fascination with characters like the current occupant of the Sheriff's office in Pulaski County."
Still, most blue-collar Arkansans of both races embraced Robinson as the scourge of the lily-livered establishment. Few noticed that this populist's upward climb had been bankrolled by a consortium of wealthy backers with holdings in timber, banking, natural gas, and electric utilities. Dubbed "the Power Company" by local journalists, this elite group helped him win election to Congress as a Democrat in 1984. From the beginning, Tommy established himself as a "boll weevil" Democrat who voted on critical issues with the Reagan Republicans. Overtures from the other side of the aisle came soon enough, but Robinson resisted crossing over until, toward the middle of his third term, he responded to one from President Bush and Stephens, Inc. The former sheriff had never understood the appeal of Washington life. His family didn't relocate there. An ardent outdoorsman, he came home to his district to duck-hunt with his cronies at every opportunity.
On July 28, 1989, ten weeks after Lee Atwater's stopover in Little Rock, Robinson announced that he was changing parties at a nationally televised press conference in the White House Rose Garden with the president. At the time, such conversions were sufficiently rare to merit the same treatment as a visit by a foreign dignitary. The newest Republican congressman stood shoulder to shoulder with Bush as he explained his decision. "The hard fact is that there is and will be no room for conservative southern Democrats in today's national Democratic Party," Tommy declared. In the front row sat an applauding Mary Ann Stephens, resplendent in a Nancy Reagan red dress. Atwater stood to one side, grinning. The president praised the former sheriff as "a man of exceptional caliber."
Back in Little Rock, Clinton and other Democrats professed little sorrow over Robinson's departure from their ranks. But privately, many worried that with the backing of Lee Atwater and Stephens, Inc.as well as his own undeniable knack for demagogythe former sheriff might be virtually unbeatable.
The immediate obstacle to Atwater's anti-Clinton strategy was Sheffield Nelson (no relation to Rex Nelson), another former Democrat who had turned Republican in 1989. Nelson had coyly announced his candidacy for governor earlier that year without telling reporters under which party's banner he proposed to run. When he finally declared for the Republican primary, a fierce nomination battle was assured. A sharecropper's son who had risen from poverty under the tutelage of the Stephens family, Sheffield Nelson had grown accustomed to getting his way.
Blue-eyed, blond, and quite handsome, Nelson radiated a sartorial elegance and aristocratic bearing that belied hardscrabble origins. He had started out as a summer intern in Witt Stephens's office and worked his way up into a job as chief executive officer of Arkansas-Louisiana Gas Company, the state's largest natural gas utility. At Arkla he had demonstrated an unseemly independence by refusing to carry natural gas owned by the Stephens interests at what he deemed to be preferential rates, thus initiating a feud of Shakespearean malevolence with his onetime benefactors that played out in the 1990 election.
Sheffield Nelson had been an ally of Bill Clinton's, as well. In 1984, the governor had appointed him to head the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, the state agency once used by Winthrop Rockefeller as a steppingstone to the governor's mansion. But by 1990, Nelson had grown impatient waiting in the shadows for Clinton to move on. He believed Clinton had reneged on a deal they had made in 1986, when Nelson first considered running for governor but didn't in return for Clinton's promise to step aside four years later. He had expected the governor either to make a presidential move in 1988 or to run for the U.S. Senate in 1990. Clinton's decision to run for reelection instead apparently triggered Nelson's abrupt switch to the Republican Party.
If Nelson saw little chance of defeating Clinton in a Democratic primary, his chances against Robinson in a Republican race at first seemed little better. Following Atwater's advice, the former sheriff went negative early with a classic populist theme. The Robinson campaign portrayed Nelson as a corporate fat cat who had enriched himself and his millionaire friend Jerry Jones while cheating the state's humble "biscuit cookers."
The specific accusations revolved around a 1982 deal between Arkla and Jones's natural gas exploration firm, Arkoma. The deal had made Jones wealthy enough to buy the Dallas Cowboys football team, but had almost ruined Arkla. In essence, Nelson had ignored the advice of Arkla geologists by selling rights to what turned out to be one of the richest natural gas fields in North America to Jones's exploration company for a paltry $15 million. Having also contracted to buy gas from Jones's company at what became ruinous rates after a worldwide glut sent prices plummeting, Arkla was ultimately forced to pay Jones almost $175 million in 1986 to buy the rights backa transaction that drove the company's stock prices down sharply and left an enormous bill to be paid by the many thousands of households that cooked and heated with Arkla's gas.
Worse still, Nelson had retired from Arkla in 1984 and cashed out millions in stock options just before the roof fell in. Robinson charged that the Arkla-Arkoma disaster had been a corrupt sweetheart deal between Jones and Nelson. Observers more sympathetic to Nelson thought that Jones had simply won a huge gamble, and that Nelson, distracted by a contemporaneous family tragedy, had simply failed to predict the future and made an unwise business decision.
The corruption charges destroyed another longtime friendship. Tommy Robinson and Jerry Jones had been childhood pals in North Little Rock, and both Jones and Sheffield Nelson had been among the supporters of Robinson's early political career. For years, Tommy had been the high-salaried "manager" of a well-appointed duck-hunting club owned jointly by Nelson and Jones. Over the years the three men had hunted and partied together frequently, and they were the subject of rumors and tall tales as sensational as anything said about Bill Clinton until after he became president.
In the past, Jones had paid Robinson's children's medical bills and bought him life insurance. The grateful Robinson had hired Jones's daughter Charlotte, a recent Stanford graduate, to work in his congressional office. The twenty-six-year-old Charlotte was still on the job, earning $80,000 a year, on the day in November 1989 when the Robinson campaign launched its first public attack on Nelson and Jones over the Arkla-Arkoma deal. Jones reportedly became livid. "I paid that sumbitch's medical bills when his kids were sick!" he shouted at a Robinson adviser who had been sent to calm him. "Now he says I'm a crook?"
The inevitable payback was delayed to ensure the maximum effect on primary voters. A few weeks before the May 1990 primary, copies of Robinson's confidential medical records from the House of Representatives were leaked to the Little Rock news media. As a freshman member, Robinson had told the House's attending physician that he drank upwards of a pint of bourbon every day and used a powerful sedative suspected of causing paranoia in some patients. In a state whose two largest religious denominations, Baptist and Church of Christ, forbid alcohol and where forty-three of seventy-five counties remain dry by popular vote, this was a bombshell. Robinson accused Nelson of leaking the records, but his protests only kept the story alive.
The rancorous campaign took its toll on both Republicans, but a decisive factor may well have been the brain tumor that eventually killed Lee Atwater. Falling ill in March 1990, he could no longer provide guidance during the final crucial weeks as the May primary approached. Nobody in the Robinson camp paid sufficient attention to the fact that a significant number of Democrats were prepared to cross over into the Republican column for the sole purpose of ending Tommy Robinson's career. Under the state's open primary law, Republicans had been doing the same thing for decadesvoting in Democratic primaries, then supporting Republican candidates in general elections. Statewide, Sheffield Nelson defeated Robinson by just over eight thousand votes out of eighty-six thousand cast.
Had the crafty Atwater not succumbed to cancer, he might have detected the plan in time to devise countermeasures. With well over five hundred thousand Democrats casting primary votes in 1990across much of rural Arkansas, the Democratic primary is in effect the general election for most local officesa populist appeal to Tommy's core constituency could have alerted them to their hero's peril. But it was not to be.
Clinton's Democratic primary opponent was an idealistic foundation executive and former Peace Corps volunteer named Tom McRae, whose great-grandfather had once occupied the governor's mansion. Poorly financed, and no match for Clinton as a campaigner, McRae was discounted as a serious threat to the incumbent governor. But before the primary ended, Clinton's enemies on the right quietly approached McRae with a deal.
A man whom McRae declined to identify showed up in his campaign office one day with a generous check and a file of smutty opposition research on Clinton. The main topics were women and drugs. Under the distinct impression that the messenger had come from Stephens, Inc., McRae said he had no use for that kind of material.
"Then you don't want to win," said this would-be benefactor. Angrily, McRae asked, "Has it ever occurred to you that there might be something more important than winning?"
"That's why I can't work with you," the man replied as he stood up and left McRae's office. The check left with him.
On the morning after Sheffield Nelson's primary victory, all talk of converting Arkansas to "New South" Republicanism stopped at Stephens, Inc. To the Stephens family and their allies, Bill Clinton at his worst was vastly preferable to the detested Nelson. Even the governor's successful effort to break the Stephens, Inc., near-monopoly on Arkansas municipal bonds, which had cost the company millions in revenue, didn't matter anymore.
"The Stephens people had spent thousands on anti-Sheffield research," said a Republican who was there. "They stuck it in boxes and carried it over to Clinton headquarters on the morning after the primary."
Never one to miss a winning campaign tactic, Clinton seized upon Tommy Robinson's accusations about the Arkla-Arkoma deal. He ordered a special state Public Service Commission Panel, all of whose members he had appointed, to begin a highly publicized probe of the deal and its impact on Arkansas ratepayers. Not long after the November election, Clinton's regulators criticized Arkla's deal and ordered the company to refund $17 million to ratepayers.
By all accounts, Clinton's exploitation of the Arkla-Arkoma charges left Nelson feeling doubly betrayed: first by the governor's abandonment of his supposed pledge to step aside, and then by his campaign tactics, which portrayed Nelson as a corporate shyster whose hard-earned success was actually achieved through a scandalous fraud. He stood to lose not only the election, he told campaign aides, but his reputation as well. With his hated enemies at Stephens, Inc., suddenly taking Clinton's side, an infuriated Nelson apparently thought no blow against the governor would be too low.
As Clinton's politicized probe of the Arkla-Arkoma deal continued to create headlines, the Nelson campaign decided to respond in kind. With the Republican lagging thirty points behind Clinton in the latest polls, Nelson's aides produced a pair of negative television commercials aimed at the governor. The first, which lifted and distorted a phrase from a budget speech by Clinton, backfired badly. The second was a sex-and-drugs smear, questioning Clinton's "character and moral judgment." Although that ad never aired, it had the more lasting impact.
The budget commercial was crude but initially effective. Addressing the state's budget problems, Clinton had once given a speech pointing out that unlike the U.S. government, the state of Arkansas was forbidden by law from running deficits or printing more money. Rather, he said, the state was obliged to "raise and spend" all the funds needed during each fiscal year. With a bit of editing, Nelson's advertising team turned the phrase into a seeming call for ever-higher taxes. The state soon resounded with radio and TV ads that featured Clinton's voice, repeating the words "raise and spend" over and over like a trained parrot. In less than a week, Clinton's poll ratings sank by as much as ten points.
The second ad played on long-standing rumors about the governor's personal life. Three years earlier, the annual "Gridiron Show" put on by the Pulaski County Bar Association had featured a skit with two lawyers impersonating Bill Clinton and Gary Hart, singing a duet of the Willie Nelson classic "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." Most knowledgeable observers thought that whatever Clinton's availability to adventurous women early in his marriage and political career, he had cleaned up his act in the wake of his brother Roger's 1984 arrest for cocaine possession and an ultimatum from Hillary. But nobody really knew. In a mostly rural state like Arkansas, populated by large numbers of fundamentalist Christians, sexual gossip about prominent people is epidemic. A list of leading political figures who had never been the subject of lurid fantasy would have been very short. Neither Sheffield Nelson nor Tommy Robinson would have been on it.
One of the Nelson aides who saw the sex commercial described it as "an innuendo-type ad" which "never named any names or made any concrete charges.... The idea was to make people think, 'I wonder about all those rumors I've heard.'" It didn't even mention Clinton's name, but showed his face superimposed over shadowy silhouettes of anonymous women. The voiceover script asked voters to consider the "character and moral judgment" of the candidates. "They were scared to flat point a finger at Clinton," the Nelson aide said. "I thought it should have been a lot stronger."
Long after the 1990 election was history, Sheffield Nelson would tell ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson that he had compiled evidence documenting Bill Clinton's moral lapses. Nelson's millionaire friend and backer Jerry Jones likewise boasted later to Texas reporters that he had hired private detectives, who uncovered a Clinton paramour. Neither ever released any documentation.
There are various explanations as to why the sex ad never aired. One is that the misleading "raise and spend" commercial did so much damage to Clinton that using the second ad was deemed unnecessary overkill. Another is that the Nelson campaign's internal polls showed that the ploy would backfire badly by emphasizing the ruthless image Nelson had earned during the primary fight against Tommy Robinson. A third is that Nelson's wife, Mary Lynn, vetoed the sex ad on the grounds that an attack on Clinton's family should be off-limits. There are no copies of the commercial, according to a former Nelson aide who said he had destroyed the videotapes.
Clinton reacted to the "raise and spend" ad with a last-minute ad blitz of his own. During the campaign's final week he took out an emergency $50,000 bank loan which he used to pay for TV and radio spots exposing the deceptive nature of his opponent's commercial. Clinton himself went into the studio and recorded ads telling voters that Nelson was trying to play them for suckers. On the Sunday before Election Day, he personally persuaded the Little Rock TV stations to replace previously scheduled spots with the new commercials, and spent an additional $100,000 on radio. Aides in borrowed single-engine planes dodged torrential thunderstorms that Sunday flying all over Arkansas to make sure the Clinton campaign's brand-new commercials aired everywhere. A last-minute loan was obtained from the Bank of Perryville, a tiny institution owned principally by former state Democratic Party chairman Herbie Branscum.
On November 7, the incumbent governor defeated the Republican challenger in a landslide with 59 percent of the vote. Sheffield Nelson had entered the 1990 gubernatorial race angry at Bill Clinton. Now his crushing defeat and personal humiliation left him seething. He would find sufficient opportunities for revenge.