Clinton allies look forward to reunion in Little Rock

Influence extended beyond ’92 run


A quarter-century after unseating an incumbent Republican president, the masterminds behind Democrat Bill Clinton's successful 1992 White House bid are returning to Little Rock this week to celebrate their achievement.

The former Arkansas governor, who had dreamed of the presidency for decades, will be making the journey, along with his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Many of the campaign strategists, pollsters and media consultants who catapulted to fame after that year have also made their travel reservations.

Hundreds of others are returning to central Arkansas: an assortment of White House alumni, but also an army of grass-roots volunteers -- people who knocked on doors, answered phones and registered voters throughout the campaign.

Skip Rutherford, a longtime friend of Bill Clinton's and dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, predicts gridlock at certain Little Rock eateries and watering holes.

"I mean, Doe's [Eat Place] will be packed. The Capital Hotel bar, which was campaign central for the media, will be, again, alive and hopping," he said.

On Friday, Clinton's 1992 campaign manager, David Wilhelm, is set to address the Political Animals Club in Little Rock. Later in the afternoon, a brigade of volunteers known as the Arkansas Travelers will gather.

On Saturday, many of the campaign veterans will hear the Clintons and political strategist James Carville speak at the Statehouse Convention Center. Afterward, they'll assemble for a Friends and Family Reunion Picnic.

Rutherford said he's looking forward to reconnecting with members of the winning team.

"Not very many people make it to the top and not very many people get to be part of a successful presidential campaign, so there's a bonding there," he said.

Rutherford recalls an incredible migration of talent that began in 1991 and continued until Election Day.

During the campaign, Democrats from across the country "poured in as volunteers, you know, slept on people's couches and floors. Arkansans opened up their homes to people. There was this real sense of something special [happening.] That's why it makes it unique," he said.

Some of the Arkansas visitors subsequently found fame and glory.

"Many people came to Little Rock as young politicos, as young campaign workers: the George Stephanopouloses, the Rahm Emanuels, the David Wilhelms, the Dee Dee Myers of the world," Rutherford said. A large number "have gone on to do great things both in the public service world and in the professional world."

Stephanopoulos was a White House senior adviser; Myers became White House press secretary; Emanuel, Chicago's current mayor, eventually served as chief of staff under then-President Barack Obama; and Wilhelm went on to lead the Democratic National Committee.

Their path to power was by no means certain.

"Very few people, including myself, when it started, thought that a governor from a small Southern state could win. And he did," Rutherford said.

The party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reeling after a series of humiliating defeats; twice, in 1972 and 1984, the Republicans had swept 49 states.

Clinton would go on to break that cycle and redraw the political map.

"Going into '92, Democrats had lost five of the last six elections," former deputy campaign manager for policy Bruce Reed recalled last week. "Since then, we've won the popular vote six out of seven times."

One of the hardest of the Democratic losses had come in 1988, as Ronald Reagan was completing his final term.

The party's nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, had led by 17 percentage points in July, according to Gallup; he would go on to lose to Republican George H.W. Bush in November by nearly 8 percentage points.

Clinton sidestepped the race that year, opting to run four years later against an incumbent some viewed as invincible.

"Many decided not to even chance, or risk, a run," said Rodney Slater, a deputy campaign manager and senior travel adviser who went on to serve as secretary of transportation.

In retrospect, Clinton's decision to wait four years was prudent, he said.

"Clearly he was much more prepared in '92. No doubt about it," Slater added.

The center of the Clinton political universe was the old Arkansas Gazette building on West Third Street.

John Podesta, a supporter and lobbyist who would go on to serve as White House staff secretary and chief of staff, recalled visiting the Little Rock campaign headquarters and seeing it pulse with activity.

"As is true in most campaigns, you work from the moment you get up till the moment you drop into bed at night," he said. "It was a campaign that ran on adrenaline, a lot of fun, a lot of great people that believed in the cause that he was putting forward before the American people."

One of the earliest volunteers, Russellville native Stephanie Streett, said the Clinton team formed friendships in Little Rock and Washington that remain strong.

"We just share such a camaraderie and a spirit," said Streett, the Clinton Foundation executive director and former presidential scheduler.

The Clinton election team has been immortalized thanks to The War Room, an award-winning documentary that captured the campaign's ebb and flow.

The film's stars, Stephanopoulos and Carville, became household names.

Though less visible, hundreds of others also contributed.

Nearly 400 joined the Arkansas Travelers, a contingent of Clinton's friends, who campaigned in key states across the country.

"We paid for our own rooms and we paid for our own food, airfare, everything," organizer Sheila Bronfman said.

They would regroup for Clinton's 1996 re-election bid and gathered again in 2008 and 2016 to work on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaigns.

The motivation, Bronfman said, was simple. "Bill and then Hillary are our friends. We believed in them. We thought they were going to do an incredible job," she said.

A quarter-century later, most of the campaign workers are still alive. On Friday, many of them will assemble again.

"We've got a little band. We've got lots of food," Bronfman said.

More than 200 people are expected to attend.

"We've got a lot of good folks, folks from all over the state, and they're all coming in," she said. "Everybody's excited to see each other."

When they're not reliving the battles of 1992, Clinton loyalists will also remember the eight years that followed.

Clinton friend and former White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty said it's "special and meaningful" to reflect on that era and to remember what was accomplished.

"I think history generally judges a presidency by peace and prosperity, at the end of the day," he said.

Using either yardstick, Clinton fares well, he said.

"You had over 6 million people [moving] from welfare to work, 22 million jobs created, rising incomes at all levels of the spectrum," he said.

Although there were hot spots, "I think there was generally peace and stability around the world," he said. "I think history will judge the Clinton presidency in a favorable light."

SundayMonday on 11/13/2017

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