Monday, July 16, 2012

Clinton's Covenant

Twenty years ago tonight, Bill Clinton accepted the presidential nomination for the first time.

That was a memorable time in my life. Just four years earlier, I had moved from Arkansas, where I grew up, went to school and began my adult life, to Texas, where I intended to enroll in graduate school.

I had already voted for Clinton for governor several times by 1988. In fact, because Arkansas elected its governors to two–year terms until the voters approved in 1984 an amendment to the state constitution that changed the length of state officials' terms to four years, starting with the 1986 elections, Clinton was on the ballot in every election after I turned 18.

That would have changed if I had been in Arkansas when the 1988 election was held — because 1988 was only two years into the four–year term Clinton won in 1986.

Anyway, by July 1992, I had finished work on my master's degree. In fact, I had just been offered a teaching job in Oklahoma, and I was packing to move. But, on this night 20 years ago, I took a break from my packing to watch Clinton give his acceptance speech.

And I felt a sense of pride, of historical inevitability, when Clinton spoke to the convention of a New Covenant with the American voters.

The New Covenant was the theme of speeches Clinton gave in the leadup to the announcement of his presidential candidacy. On this night 20 years ago, it was mentioned prominently and frequently in what was probably the first Clinton speech many Americans had ever heard.

I knew, from years of watching Clinton run for governor of Arkansas, that he was a gifted speaker. And I also knew he could be longwinded at times. But that wasn't anything special. In Arkansas, we were accustomed to politicians who were like the Energizer Bunnies of politics.

At times I thought Arkansas elections were dueling filibusters, endurance contests in which the prize was the office that was being sought. It went to the last man standing, sort of like one of those dance marathons.

Of course, that wasn't how it worked. Never was how it worked, actually — although it might as well have, what with all the other ways that people won elections in Arkansas when I was growing up.

There were political machines all over the state, and there was one that controlled the politics in my home county and a neighboring county. This machine continued to run things as long as the county voted by paper ballot — because, no matter what popular sentiment might be, it was always possible to stuff enough ballot boxes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat — and the machine's grip on the people of those counties only came to an end when the county's residents voted to purchase voting machines.

(A state judge who presided over cases in the '60s and '70s that were intended to break the grip of these political machines wrote his autobiography a few years ago, and the title was a wry reference to those days — "Waiting for the Cemetery Vote.")

I always thought it was ironic that many people who were just becoming acquainted with Bill Clinton in 1992 believed he came from a powerful and wealthy family. They must have confused him with a Kennedy. In fact, he came from very humble beginnings.

When I was growing up in Arkansas, rich generally seemed to refer to people who had come there from other places — Winthrop Rockefeller, for example. Later on, that list grew to include the likes of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart and Sam's Club, who made his fortune in Arkansas but was born in central Oklahoma and grew up in Missouri.

If someone grew up in Arkansas and somehow found fame and fortune, so the thinking went, that person would surely move to another state. And some have. But some have not, and I tend to think Clinton's victory on the national stage contributed to that.

The unspoken belief when I was a child was that someone from Arkansas might become influential, but he would never be president. Some had tried; others had been called rising stars by the pundits. But none had succeeded. It was the always–a–bridesmaid–never–a–bride school of thought.

Bill Clinton grew up in rural Arkansas, as I did, and we heard the same speeches from the same politicians.

Clinton was much older — still is — but the same governors who shaped his daily life shaped mine. And I rather doubt that the state itself changed much from the time when Clinton enrolled in elementary school to the time when I did — although my hometown had changed quite a bit by the time I was in first grade.

My class was the first in my hometown's history to be integrated from first grade all the way through high school graduation. Clinton started elementary school in the early 1950s. I don't know if his graduating class was ever integrated, but I am 100% certain it wasn't integrated from start to finish.

So perhaps you could say that we didn't really grow up in the same place — although enough of the old Arkansas that molded Clinton was still in place when I came along.

But Arkansans discovered that Clinton was not an old–style Arkansas politician. Well, not entirely. He was always good at the back–slapping brand of politicking that served generations of Arkansas politicians so well.

But he was thoughtful and articulate, too, and his policies were departures from the past. He really was a new Democrat — especially when compared to the other nominees the Democrats had offered to the nation in recent elections.

What is often forgotten about the '92 campaign is that, just as Clinton was about to give his acceptance speech, Ross Perot withdrew from the race, and polls indicated that most of his support gravitated to Clinton.

Clinton took a big lead in the polls that July, a lead he never relinquished even after Perot jumped back in the race in October.

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