Saturday, July 20, 2013

The National Debut of the Comeback Kid

"I felt as if the speech was a 200–pound rock I was pushing up a hill. I later joked that I knew I was in trouble when, at the 10–minute mark, the American Samoan delegation started roasting a pig."

Bill Clinton
My Life (2004)

When this day dawned 25 years ago, it is probably safe to say that most Americans did not know who Bill Clinton was.

I did because I lived in Arkansas. I grew up there, and, on this day in 1988, Clinton had been governor of the state for a total of more than seven years (not continuously). He had been the state's attorney general for a couple of years prior to becoming governor.

But outside of Arkansas, most people, as I say, probably had not heard of him. That would change before this day was over, though — and not necessarily in a good way, either.

In his presidential memoirs, Clinton wrote that "[a] couple of months before [the Democratic] convention opened in Atlanta, [presidential nominee–to–be] Mike [Dukakis] asked me to nominate him."

(It is traditional for presidential candidates' names to be placed in nomination prior to the roll call of the states, even if the candidate has no chance of winning. It is a practice that goes back to a time in America when conventions really did meet to choose nominees, and no one knew who that might be.

(At most conventions since the end of World War II, there has been no suspense about who the presidential nominee would be. Therefore, being chosen to place the presumptive nominee's name in nomination has become quite a feather in the speaker's cap but hardly strategically important to the nomination process.)

Clinton went on to write that Dukakis felt that, although he was leading then–Vice President George H.W. Bush in the polls, it was necessary for Clinton to "introduce him" to the nation "as a leader whose personal qualities, record in office and new ideas made him the right person for the presidency."

A candidate whose name was to be placed in nomination was allotted 25 minutes for the nominating and seconding speeches, which typically were divided between two, three, sometimes four speakers.

"Because I was his colleague, his friend and a Southerner," Clinton wrote, "they wanted me to do it and to take the entire allotted time."

Clinton agreed but (perhaps with the benefit of considerable hindsight) wrote that he was "flattered ... but wary."

"Conventions are loud meet–and–greet affairs where the words coming from the platform are usually just background music," Clinton wrote, "except for the keynote address and the presidential and vice–presidential acceptance speeches."

In his memoirs, Clinton claimed that he explained to the people in Dukakis' campaign that a long speech was not likely to succeed "unless the delegates and the media were prepared for it." He suggested dimming the lights and having the campaign's floor operatives "keep the delegates quiet. Also [the delegates] couldn't clap too much or it would substantially increase the length of the speech."

Twenty–five years ago today, Clinton said he brought a copy of the speech to Dukakis' hotel suite and showed it to the candidate and his advisers. It would take about 22 minutes to deliver, 25 if applause was minimal, and Clinton promised to cut as much as the campaign staff thought was necessary. Clinton was told to "give it all. Mike wanted America to know him as I did."

Considering the results of that year's election, it is tempting to say "mission accomplished." But that isn't the whole story.

It could well have been the mother of all convention fiasco speeches.

Clinton's speech dragged on for more than half an hour with the delegates erupting into wild applause with every mention of Dukakis' name. Otherwise, though, they appeared to pay little attention.

Network observers made jokes at Clinton's expense that were punctuated by a technician making a cutting motion across his throat, apparently in an attempt to encourage Clinton to wrap it up.

"I had some good lines," Clinton recalled, "but, alas, the biggest applause line I got was near the painful end when I said, 'In closing ...' It was 32 minutes of total disaster."

I was packing to move to Texas when the Democrats convened in 1988, but I remember that, when Clinton returned to Arkansas after the convention, the people of Arkansas were quite warm and supportive. Even those who had disagreed with his politics over the years empathized with what he had been through in Atlanta. Some were even indignant about Clinton's treatment (although, privately, they weren't quite that upset).

Clinton, however, still held his White House ambitions, and he needed some way to overcome the image problem created by his nomination speech.

An appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was thought to be the answer.

Carson had been making jokes about Clinton's speech in his monologues. In his memoir, Clinton wrote that one of Carson's "more memorable lines was 'The speech went over about as well as a Velcro condom.' "

After negotiations between Clinton's staff and Carson's, it was decided that Clinton would be a guest, and he would bring his saxophone. The reasoning was simple: Carson had a policy of not having politicians on the show, and, by agreeing to play the sax, Clinton made it possible for Carson to continue to ban politicians (well, those who couldn't play a musical instrument).

Clinton had been playing the sax for years, but most Arkansans didn't know it. Turned out that he wasn't bad, either.

But first there were all sorts of gags that related to Clinton's speech.

Carson gave Clinton an introduction that seemed like it wouldn't end, then, when Clinton came out, Carson pulled out an hourglass and put it on the desk.

Clinton seemed to be a punching bag that was too big to resist.

Clinton did pretty well for himself, though. He explained to Carson that he wanted to make Dukakis look good, and "I succeeded beyond my wildest imagination!" Clinton also told Carson that Dukakis liked the speech so much he wanted to send Clinton to the Republican convention to nominate Bush.

My favorite line from Clinton, though, was when he told Carson he had blown the nominating speech deliberately.

"I always wanted to be on this show in the worst way," he said, "and now I am."

It was a public relations triumph. Clinton charmed Carson and earned his redemption with the voters. When he sought the presidency four years later, Clinton was seldom asked about his speech in Atlanta.

It was the night of the New Hampshire primary in 1992 when Clinton declared himself the "comeback kid" after finishing second when he had declined precipitously in the polls following Gennifer Flowers' assertions that she had an extramarital affair with Clinton.

Clinton's resilience was well known in Arkansas. Several years earlier, after he lost a gubernatorial re–election bid, he sought the office again and defeated the man who had beaten him in the previous election. From that day forward in Arkansas, he was the comeback kid.

(Actually, he was called Kid Comeback before he won that political rematch — as you can see in the above cartoon that was drawn by a college classmate of mine.)

But it was in Atlanta — and then Los Angeles — nearly 3½ years before the New Hampshire primary when Clinton first established himself nationally as the comeback kid.

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