As he set out on one of his last flights in New Hampshire in 1992, Bill Clinton seemed tired and troubled. His campaign had been staggered by reports the candidate had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War and engaged in tawdry extramarital affairs. The pummeling was worse than the stories that destroyed the dreams of Gary Hart and Joe Biden four years earlier — and they never made it to the primary.
Boarding a small plane, Clinton greeted my seatmate, Thomas Edsall, a reporter for The Washington Post who had written a book about race in American politics, and me. I mentioned that, in a piece for the Globe, I had connected Edsall’s thoughts with Clinton’s record on race in Arkansas. I first met Clinton shortly after he was elected governor in 1978. A fellow Southerner, I felt his experiences there prepared him to deal with racial problems.
“I was,” Clinton said, stressing the past tense. It sounded as though he felt the work of his life was over. “What’d you mean, ‘I was?’ ” I asked.
“Oh, hell, I am,” Clinton replied. “It’s just that I’m so busy fighting wars that are 23 years old.”
We flew to a rally in Claremont, where a Clinton friend from Arkansas entertained the audience with a bizarre preliminary speech denouncing the many rumors swirling around the candidate. “You probably haven’t heard the one about him being buck naked in a tree at the University of Arkansas, protesting the war,” shouted state Representative David Matthews.
Clinton made it through his own speech, and we flew to Dover, where a reporter from Atlanta nodded toward the candidate and whispered to me, “He’s toast.”
Inside a tiny Elks lodge, smoke clung to the low ceiling. People were packed closely together, inducing heat and sweat. But Clinton seemed to draw a second wind from the atmosphere. Speaking extemporaneously, he began by saying he was proud of his political vision. His prospective opponent in the fall, President George H.W. Bush, had once flippantly referred to a “vision thing.”
“I hope you never raise a child without the vision thing,” Clinton told the crowd, voice rising. “Life would be bleak and empty without the vision thing.”
He reminded them Bush had won a second chance in New Hampshire in 1988 after losing the Iowa caucuses. Since that time, Clinton claimed, Bush had spent only “three hours here, mostly on his way to and from Kennebunkport, while you tripled your unemployment, welfare, and food stamp rates.”
Clinton was visibly gaining momentum; his delivery took the pitch of a radio evangelist.
“They say I’m on the ropes because other people have questioned my life, after years of public service,” he bellowed. “I’ll tell you something: I’m going to give you this election back, and if you’ll give it to me, I won’t be like George Bush. I’ll never forget who gave me a second chance, and I’ll be there for you till the last dog dies.”
Curtis Wilkie covered politics for the Globe from 1975 through 2000.