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Here in California, motorcycle police, lights flashing on their giant Harley-Davidsons, halt traffic at each intersection and entrance ramp. As soon as the motorcade whooshes by, the police officer starts his cycle with a roar and hurtles forward, passing the motorcade to take up a position in front to block a new intersection. It is a motorized ballet, the dance that accompanies the unstoppable force that is a president on the move.
It is a cool October night, and only the occasional street light reflects from the flashing black shapes of the motorcade. Bill Clinton is on his twenty-eighth trip to California since becoming president, a fact that reflects two things: First, California has many wealthy people who like to give money to political causes (especially if those causes will provide them with a night in the Lincoln Bedroom), and second, it has 54 electoral votes, one-fifth of what a candidate needs to win the presidency. Think of it another way: If you deny California to your opponent, he has to win a lot of other states to make up for it. And Clinton intends to deny California to Bob Dole.
Clinton has been campaigning without letup, no matter how far ahead the polls show him. He has very much bought into the campaign strategy articulated, if that is the word for it, by his campaign manager, Peter Knight: "We wanted to be rolling over [the Dole campaign] every time they stuck their heads up. We didn't want to let them off the mat. We feared the race would tighten up. So we felt we had to keep their necks pinned to the ground." That all the metaphors used by Knight were ones of physical violence was no accident. The strategy was not just to stay in Dole's face, but to suck up his air supply. Bill Clinton was 15 points ahead in California? Send him back there. Why shouldn't he be 25 points ahead? Why not 55? Why not 155? Roll over them. Don't let them off the mat. Stand on their necks.
The Dole people approached the election with a totally different outlook, one that would handcuff their thinking throughout the campaign: Bill Clinton was a man of bad character and a bad president. He was a liar and a cheat and a scoundrel. He was motivated by naked ambition, personal greed, and sexual lust. The Dole people saw this clearly and felt it keenly, just as anyone, they believed, should be able to see it and feel it. So all the Dole campaign really had to do was wait for the public to wake up and smell the rot. So what if Bob Dole was not the silver-tongued campaigner that Bill Clinton was? When the people finally saw through Bill Clinton's pathetic act, they would turn to Bob Dole in droves. The Clinton people had no such blinders on their thinking. To them the campaign was not about morals or values or character. It was about reelecting Bill Clinton. The Clinton campaign staff knew that fundamentally Bob Dole was a competent and decent man. And that is why he had to be destroyed.
The motorcade enters the back lot of universal studios, where movies and TV shows are made. Slowing down only slightly, we whip past life-size streets: New York in the Gay Nineties, Leave It to Beaver suburbia, the cobblestones of a European town square, an ancient Roman plaza where Spartacus fought, the Victorian horror house from Psycho, and the Bates Motel next to it. As we begin to slow down, we come upon a beached boat. "The Minnow," a photographer in the press van whispers in awe. "Gilligan's Island." The ride is spooky and disconcerting. Where are we really? When are we really? The cars squeal to a halt and we pile out. The still photographers, cameras bouncing off their chests and hips, lead the way. We lope up a darkened side street, turn a corner ... and burst into blinding light.
We are in a town square, a real town square with green grass and a gigantic spreading oak tree. The square is packed with thousands of people lit from above and behind by harsh klieg lights. There are buildings around the square: a movie house, a variety store, a gas station. I go up to one building and touch it to see if it is merely painted wood but it is solid brick and real. Everything seems hauntingly familiar, but we cannot put a name to this place. And then we see the large stage that has been built for Clinton. It thrusts out from the steps of a grand courthouse, a massive building of red brick, fronted by four enormous fluted stone columns holding up a pediment that contains an ornate clock, with what look like stone mountain lions on each side. On top of the clock is a lightning rod. The hands of the clock are stopped at five minutes to six.
"Jesus H. Christ," a reporter says. "It's Back to the Future!"
Joe Lockhart, Clinton's campaign press secretary, turns around and beams at us. "Hill Valley," he says, a huge smile on his face. Hill Valley is the mythical town where Michael J. Fox kept going back and forth in his Delorean time machine. More important to the Hollywood glitterati standing now in the town square, Back to the Future did $210 million domestic gross and spawned two popular sequels. Bob Dole recently gave a speech praising Independence Day for its emphasis on American values. (Dole, who had never seen the movie, was unaware that the Capitol, the White House, and Los Angeles are blown to smithereens during the film. His critique was delivered in typical Dole-speak: "We won. The end. Leadership. America. Good over evil.") But this is a very nifty piece of stagecraft.
Bill Clinton is building a bridge to the twenty-first century, a bridge to the future (get it?), and his campaign has come back to the future (do you get it now?) to talk about it. The Dole campaign, whose typical speech site is a gymnasium, has never come up with a gimmick like this one. "We only do these events after Dole's bedtime," Lockhart says and laughs. "This is a campaign of ideas."
The crowd is enormous, maybe 5,000 people packing the square and making numerous trips to the bars set up on the periphery of the lawn. They carry beer bottles and plastic cups of amber liquid. A jazz band plays off to the right on a small stage.
The air is crisp. Hanging in the sky is a sliver of moon so perfect you expect to see a man climbing down from a ladder after painting it on a backdrop. At this and two similar events, Bill Clinton will raise $10 million for the Democratic Party. Money is the fuel that makes the campaign engine run, and the Clinton engine has a voracious appetite. Huge banks of lights illuminate the stage, where legendary movie executive Lew Wasserman stands next to Michael Douglas. Off to one side is House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Senator Chris Dodd, the cochairman of the Democratic Party, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and Jesse Jackson.
Clinton walks out onto the stage and the crowd bursts into wild applause. He is late (he is always late). But as usual, the crowd is uncomplaining. Clinton's routine is to scan the crowd and then look piercingly at certain individuals, making eye contact, holding them in his gaze. It is his lifelong trademark. His boyhood friend David Leopoulos recounts that day when a 9-year-old Clinton walked into the playground of his elementary school, stuck out his hand, and fixed him with that penetrating blue-eyed stare. "Hi, I'm Billy Clinton," Clinton said. Years later, Leopoulos said, "There's just this presence. He'd look you in the eye and get to know you." Tonight, however, Clinton looks about him, directing a quizzical gaze around the square. Then he turns around and looks up at the clock. He does an enormous double take that can be seen all the way to the back row of the crowd (he is a born performer) and the crowd roars again.
Clinton walks over to Michael Douglas and points up at the clock. "Back to the Future!" the president says to him, a delighted, boyish look on his face.
Douglas looks a little puzzled. Yeah, right, they made the movie here. That's why they call it a back lot. So what's the point? Clinton then walks over to Jesse Jackson and whirls him around and points up at the clock, tossing his head back and laughing. Back to the Future! Get it? Get it?
Finally, his mirth subsiding, Clinton takes his place in line with the other dignitaries and begins the ritual: While he waits to speak, half listening to his introductions, he scans the crowd, making eye contact. He nods, shoots out a finger to point to a person, or mouths a little "hello." With the possible exception of Richard Simmons, he is also the only public figure in America who can get away with blowing the occasional kiss. Naturally, in large crowds nobody can be sure who the president is actually pointing to, but that only increases the effect: one nod can give a golden glow to 50 people.
"Hi," Clinton mouths silently as the dignitaries continue speaking about him. "Hah, there. H'ar you? Hah."
Michael Douglas steps up behind the lectern from which the presidential seal will be hung as soon as it is Clinton's turn to speak. The lectern is known as the Blue Goose; it travels in the same military cargo plane that transports the limousines and other presidential paraphernalia and is armored. It is also tall, and Douglas is dwarfed behind it.
"Stand on the box!" somebody shouts, and Douglas learns there is a little step that slides out from the back of the Blue Goose for people not as tall as the president. Douglas pulls it out and climbs upon it. Height notwithstanding, it is perfect casting. Douglas played Democratic President Andrew Shepherd in the movie The American President. He was a lonely widower who got to sleep with Annette Bening on their third date. (Clinton liked the movie a lot.) Considered a pro-Clinton movie--the president's archenemy was an older senator from Kansas played by Richard Dreyfuss--it contained the memorable lines uttered by a White House aide: "People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They're thirsty for it. They'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand." The movie did a domestic gross of $60 million.
Clinton loves Hollywood in a star-struck, small-town way and he is unabashed about it. On September 16, 1992, Clinton had appeared before a crowd of Hollywood stars and said, "I've always wanted to be in the cultural elite!" This year, contributions from Hollywood to the presidential campaigns have been running seven to one in Clinton's favor. And Clinton has already had Barbra Streisand, Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tom Hanks "over to the house" in Washington. Bob Dole? Campaign records show that Bob Dole received $1,000 each from Chuck Norris and Bob Hope.
Earlier on this day, Clinton had helicoptered over to the ten-acre Mediterranean-style Beverly Hills estate of Ron Burkle, chairman of the Ralph's supermarket holding company, where about 200 guests, including boxing promoter Don King, had coughed up big dough for the Democratic Party. Clinton was wowed by the home, especially when he learned that some scenes from The Godfather had been shot there. Though Clinton does not ask for money himself at such public gatherings--his fund-raising speeches are usually indiscernible from his daily campaign speeches--he is relentless in raising the dough. It is one of the many things that politics and moviemaking have in common: they are both obscenely expensive. In 1996, Clinton would attend at least 90 fund-raisers, including 23 in the month of September alone. And he personally recommended increasing the number of dinners for $10,000 donors. You get just 100 of those people in a room, or in a Beverly Hills mansion, and you've got yourself $1 million. Easy money. Besides, it was $1 million of Hollywood money that wouldn't disappear up people's noses. So you could look at what Clinton was doing as a public service. He did.
"I do know the difference between make-believe and reality," Douglas was saying to the crowd. "And while I was working on An American President I would think about the real president. I would think about his stamina and his incredible knowledge about so many subjects. And I just want to say ..." And here Douglas turns and looks back to Clinton, 5,000 pairs of eyes following him. "And I just want to say: Mr. President, I'm a fan. I enjoy your work."
The crowd squeals with delight. "I'm a fan; I enjoy your work" is what every autograph seeker says when going up to a star. And here Michael Douglas, the playacting president, was saying it to Bill Clinton, the real president, and, well, it just worked. It bordered on too cute, but it worked. And though he did not say it, Douglas also was very familiar with another similarity between movies and politics: a slavish devotion to public opinion. In the original ending of Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close's character committed suicide. Focus groups hated it, however, and the ending was changed to let Michael Douglas's wife kill her.
Douglas walks back from the lectern and Clinton shakes his hand. Then Douglas turns and leaves the stage. He walks over to a waiting limousine and roars off. In Washington this would have been a terrible gaffe, bordering on deadly insult. Nobody leaves a podium before the president of the United States is finished speaking. But in Hollywood nobody gives it a second thought. Hey, Michael Douglas is a busy man. He is box office. What did Clinton's last film gross'
At 8:10 P.M., with a cold breeze now beginning to blow, Clinton begins his speech. As always, he begins with his thank-yous, which come out sounding like "thang-kyew" in his soft Arkansas drawl, a drawl that thickens when he travels to the South, but never disappears no matter where he is. This night there are thang-kyews for Lew Wasserman, Michael Douglas, the UCLA Marching Band, "Conrad Janus and the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band," and on and on. The press sometimes makes fun of this, but Clinton knows the effectiveness of it. It changes the dynamic of the event. The crowd is no longer faceless, but made up of individuals, some of whom have worked hard for their president and deserve to be thanked. And, by implication, those who work hard for their president in the future--or give him large sums of money--will be publicly thanked in the future. Bob Dole ends every speech (when he remembers) by saying, "God bless America." Bill Clinton ends every speech by saying, "God bless you." The difference is both simple and profound. Dole sees the country as an institution: America. Clinton sees the country as a collection of individuals: You. You out there. All of you. Thang-kyew!
Clinton speaks slowly and easily for the next twenty-five minutes. Like most of his speeches, there is nothing particularly memorable about it. Except on extraordinary occasions, his speeches do not soar. They are more like easy listening. But they are always, like the man himself, engaging. "And I suppose even here on the set of Back to the Future," Clinton says with a dip of his head and a chuckle, "I can say we should be thinking about tomorrow."
When he is done, the people roar, some waving their beer bottles at him, and the band starts up with Michael Bolton now singing "Georgia on My Mind," which apparently is as close as they can come to Arkansas. Clinton waves from the lectern and then slowly walks to the side of the stage and down the stairs. A Secret Service detail flanks him as he moves up to the rope line, which is stretched along the front row of the crowd. After every speech, no matter how late, no matter if it is blazing sun or pouring rain, Bill Clinton works the rope line. The rope line is what he lives for.
Sometimes it is a real rope stretched between stanchions. More often it is interlocked pieces of fencing with vertical bars, called bicycle stands by the advance staff, which are low enough for people to easily see over but too high to hurdle easily. Sometimes, at outdoor barbecues or picnic events, the rope line is made up of hay bales. The Secret Service would like at least fifteen feet between the crowd and the president during his speeches (though they are often argued down to ten), but the distance becomes immaterial when Clinton works the rope line. Here is where he reaches out into the crowd, touching and being touched. Here is where he forges his link to the people.
Speeches are fine, but people can see the speeches on C-SPAN. What you cannot get on C-SPAN (or on the Internet or in the newspapers or on radio) is the rope line. You can get that only by showing up at the event. Ironically, TV helped create the rope line. For most of American history, voters saw their presidents from afar, if at all. Unless you were in the front rows of a political rally, the president was but a speck on the stage. (In the only existing photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln is a tiny blob, recognizable only because of his tall stovepipe hat.) But TV changed this. TV gave us not just the picture but the close-up picture. And the close-up brought the president to us in an extremely intimate way. We could examine every pore on his face, see every twitch of his mouth, every tick of his eyelid, every welling of a tear. The close-up was so powerful it created a hoed. We felt we knew the president "up close and personal." And now when Americans went out to see him in the flesh, they wanted to see him as closely as they saw him on TV. They wanted to touch him and be touched back. And Bill Clinton loved to oblige.
His campaign days lasted as long as they did (often more than twelve hours) in no small measure because of the time he spent slowly and methodically working the rope line. It was not uncommon for Clinton's rope line time to last longer than his speech. "It's the only campaign I've ever been on where the candidate goes home after the crowd," Doug Sosnik, the White House political director, said. It was literally true. Working the rope line constantly made Clinton late, but he did not care. Late for what? The rope line was the campaign to him.
Clinton's favorite rope line technique scared the hell out of the Secret Service. He loved to reach both arms forward, spread out his fingers, rise up on his toes, and thrust his hands into the second, third, or fourth row of the crowd so people back there could touch him, too. It was an extremely vulnerable thing to do. When he spread his arms, it opened up his body. The Secret Service could only watch in horror. "The Secret Service does not decide what he can do," Jim Loftus, one of Clinton's advance men, told me. "He decides what he can do." People would clutch at his hands, his arms, his shoulder. They would immobilize him. They did not want to let go. In Chicago he had to slip off his wedding band and put it in his pocket because all the grasping hands made it tear into his flesh. And after working the rope line, Clinton would climb back in the limousine, take out a can of an antibacterial foam, and lather the stuff on his hands to kill the germs he might very well have picked up after touching hundreds of hands.
In September, late at night in Monterey, California, Clinton climbed a steep hill to a fence topped with barbed wire and thrust his arms between the strands, jagged metal inches from his flesh, in order to shake more hands. In late October a bizarre story circulated that there was a "groupie" flesh cult following Clinton that operated out of Hollywood and liked to collect the skin of famous people under their fingernails. Clinton aides never believed the story, and Clinton was never intentionally scratched that he knew of. The only real problem came from people trying to grab his presidential cuff links. (The cuff links were traditionally distributed by presidents as gifts, but Clinton liked them well enough to wear a pair himself.) In Seattle, when Secret Service agents found a live bullet outside the rope line area, they held up a portable Kevlar barrier in front of Clinton as he moved along the line. It was covered in dark blue nylon to make it look more elegant, but there was no disguising what it was. The agents would have been far happier if Clinton had skipped the rope line, but he was not about to. A bullet? Big deal. No bullet was going to keep him from touching and being touched.
And sometimes he would rescue people. At a rally in Philadelphia when Marion Hill, 65, gray-haired and arthritic, had sagged to the ground when the crowd surged forward to touch Clinton, he reached over the barricade, grabbed her by both arms, and tried to lift her to her feet. "I'm holding you," he said to her as the crowd clutched wildly at him. A Secret Service agent threw his arms around Clinton's waist to keep him from toppling over the fencing. It was a stalemate, but Clinton would not let go of Marion Hill. Finally, security guards moved the crowd back. (At a Fourth of July parade outside Chicago, a man thrust his small child into Dole's one good arm. Dole's knees buckled and he nearly dropped the child before a Secret Service agent rushed over to help. "I'm not supposed to lift anything real heavy with my left arm," Dole said. "I don't even do suitcases or things like that." Dole, too, worked rope lines, though not nearly as often nor as long nor with the same enthusiasm. "I kind of like to visit with them afterward, but you always have two rows of kids and can never get back to the taxpayers," Dole once grumped about the rope line. What he didn't understand was that by being nice to kids, by spending time with them, it not only got on television, but they went home and told their taxpaying parents about it, as Bill Clinton would later prove with spectacular results.)
The other thing people noticed about Clinton on the rope line was the utter concentration he brought to the job. His upper lip often curled over his lower one as he made eye contact with person after person, reaching out to them, lasering them with his baby blues. He once kept the leaders of Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Canada, and Great Britain waiting while he stood for five minutes on the tarmac in Nova Scotia, talking about Bosnia with a skeptical 16-year-old Canadian girl. In late October, in Miami, a young girl in a wheelchair had got near the rope line, but as the crowd pushed forward to touch Clinton she became frightened and began to cry. "Back up! Back up, please!" Clinton shouted. And as the crowd backed up, he reached down and wiped the tears from the frightened girl's cheeks with his hand. You can't teach that kind of stagecraft to a candidate. Candidates can be coached and rehearsed and choreographed and prepped for special events like speeches and debates. But certain parts of a campaign defy rehearsal. Which is where Clinton did his best work. "He is like an improvisational actor," Michael Sheehan, his speech and debate coach and a graduate of the Yale Drama School, said. An improvisational actor immerses himself in his role, becomes his role. "You feel the part, and you see what comes out," Sheehan said.
So Bill Clinton never had to worry about appearing caring or sincere. It was a role he had immersed himself in for a very long time. And he had it down pat.
And after each rope line, when he had gotten back in the limousine or climbed back aboard Air Force One, it was always the same. Clinton would tell rope line stories to his aides: how much the crowd liked him, how much they praised him. The stories were often so self-serving that the staff was reluctant to pass them along to reporters. But they realized he repeated them not to boost his own ego (which was considerable), but because he needed the constant reinforcement. He had his staff, which contained the usual number of toadies and sycophants. But they were the hired help. These people, the voters, as he constantly reminded everyone, employed him. "Did you hear that guy?" Clinton said after working a rope line at Ohio State University and meeting David Mitchell, 49, a Coast Guard veteran. "He said, 'When I came here I was voting for Dole, but I changed my mind.' Did you hear him say it? Did you hear him?" Later, stopping the motorcade to meet some elementary school children, Clinton was delighted to learn that his name had been on their morning spelling test. "I was on their spelling test!" he told his aides aboard Air Force One, the glee bubbling over in his voice. "Can you believe it? " They believed it.
Though some of them did not believe it was very important. Some thought it was a waste of time. Okay, give the rope line 10 or 15 minutes like Dole did, so the cameras could show you working the rope line, but then get the hell out of there and on to the next speech (or home). Even his advance staff often missed the point. Jim Loftus told him in 1992 that spending a lot of time on the rope line was a waste. "You can't shake enough hands to win the presidency," Loftus said. Clinton gave him a sad, sour look. Loftus just didn't get it. Unless you had been a candidate, you could not get it.
The roar of the crowd was great. It got you up. And you could learn from crowds--what lines they liked, what they didn't. After the campaign disgraced presidential adviser Dick Morris said Clinton was a "little weird" in that he was able to measure public opinion by watching the crowd as he spoke. He has "a skin which can sort of absorb" what people were thinking, Morris said. But the speeches were not enough. Watching the crowd and listening to the crowd were not enough for Clinton. He needed their flesh. He needed to touch them and feel them and have them touch and feel him. He needed not just their protestations of love, but a physical manifestation of it. It sustained and strengthened him. In Greek mythology, Antaeus, a giant, almost defeated Hercules in a wrestling match. Every time Hercules threw Antaeus to the ground, Antaeus would draw strength from the earth and come back stronger. Only when Hercules lifted Antaeus above his head was he able to slay him. The crowds were Bill Clinton's ground. They were the source of his strength. But they could not be just a sea of faces. They had to be individual people.
On October 24, 1996, the ultimate rope line event occurred. It was after a speech at Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Clinton had been working the rope line for several minutes. Because the space between the rope line and the stage was narrow, the TV pool had a hard time getting a boom microphone over to him. But cameras captured the scene beautifully: Mary Ellen Savoie, a teenager from Sulphur, Louisiana, waited patiently for Clinton and then told him she was "very pro-life." She asked him he could take the life of innocent babies with the terrible procedure she called partial birth abortion. It was one of Bob Dole's key issues: While polls showed most of the country approved of choice when it came to abortion, something like 70 percent of the population opposed third-trimester abortions, in which the skull of the fetus had to be crushed to remove it from the birth canal. Congress had banned it, but Clinton had vetoed the ban. This was exactly the kind of issue, Dole and his campaign believed, that would expose Clinton as the left-liberal he was and open up a gulf between him and the voters.
Clinton was not unused to hecklers. And he knew it was sometimes best to simply keep walking when confronted by one. But he also knew he had the magic. He turned away from the rest of the crowd and settled his gaze upon Mary Ellen Savoie. He put his large hands on her slender shoulders. And for the next five minutes, she and Bill Clinton were the only two people in the world.
He wanted to sign that bill banning those abortions, Clinton told Savoie. He had signed a similar bill in Arkansas, when he was governor. But then he found out that a few hundred women every year were faced with the agonizing situation of giving birth to a horribly deformed child, who would soon die. Before vetoing the ban, he had met with six such women and learned that they could not have further babies "unless the enormous size of the baby's head" was reduced before it was extracted from their bodies, Clinton told her. And how could he tell these women that they could never have another baby? "I know there are just a few hundred of them, and I know that all the votes were on the other side," Clinton would say later. "And I'm just telling you-Hillary and I, we only had one child. And I just cannot look at a woman who's in a situation where the baby she is bearing against all her wishes and prayers is going to die anyway, and tell her that I am signing a law which will prevent her from ever having another child. I'm not going to do it."
Mary Ellen Savoie looked up at the president of the United States. Tears streamed down her young face. She threw her arms around him. She hugged him to her. And Bill Clinton, tears welling up in his eyes, hugged her back. She still strongly opposed abortion, Savoie said, but now she could go home and tell her mom it was okay to vote for Bill Clinton.
"He's a nice man," Mary Ellen Savoie said later.
The news clip ran on the nightly news all across America. Because the TV crews could not get their boom mikes over to Clinton, it ran without words. Which made it even more powerful. In America today, one social scientist has noted, "eloquence is visual, not verbal." Visual images are more quickly comprehended by the human mind than verbal ones. Audiences (especially the ones sitting at home, far away from the event) are far more likely to remember what they saw than what they heard. And Clinton was a master of the visual image. So America saw him standing at the rope line, his hands on Mary Ellen Savoie's shoulders, speaking to her quietly, patiently, and then her hugging him and him putting his cheek on top of her head and hugging her back. It brought tears to the eyes of many who saw it, even though they had no idea what the two were talking about.