fb-pixel
Primary memories

A tireless Clinton ran until the end

Hillary Clinton listened as her husband, Bill Clinton, responded to a question during a “60 Minutes” interview in 1992.
Hillary Clinton listened as her husband, Bill Clinton, responded to a question during a “60 Minutes” interview in 1992. CBS/AP

The candidate was speaking in a hoarse, raspy voice. Late at night, behind schedule again.

I was leaning on a table in the back of the room, straining to hear and scribbling notes.

“The man is a HOSS. A HOSS. Just a . . . HOSS!! You got to understand what we are seeing here.”

“Horse,” is what James Carville was shouting at me in his Cajun cadence, somehow giddy despite the late hour and, more importantly, the character cloud that had pushed his candidate from front-runner into free fall as New Hampshire primary day approached.

Gennifer Flowers and allegations of marital infidelity. A newly released 1969 letter in which Bill Clinton called the Vietnam draft “illegitimate.”

Advertisement



“It seals his fate,” then-US Senator and Clinton rival Tom Harkin told me when I asked him about the draft letter.

Clinton’s poll numbers were tanking, and Democratic circles buzzed with talk that the Arkansas governor was toast and perhaps Governor Mario Cuomo of New York or Senator Lloyd Bentsen would enter the race to save the party.

My bosses suggested returning to Washington as the best option to track all the rumors and rumblings. I begged to stay: I wanted to see whether one man’s remarkable personal tenacity was enough to defy political gravity.

Then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton (center) was crowded into an elevator with strategist James Carville (right) in Manchester, N.H.
Then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton (center) was crowded into an elevator with strategist James Carville (right) in Manchester, N.H. Susan Walsh/Associated Press

The language and lessons of that tumultuous 1992 primary stand out most among seven cycles of cherished New Hampshire memories that I covered for the Associated Press and later for CNN.

The campaign began with the Clintons confident. His “Putting People First” economic plan promising jobs and a middle-class tax cut was welcomed in a state that was struggling. The Democratic field was not considered all that strong.

Clinton’s Southern roots and lexicon brought a bit of head scratching. Like when the candidate compared critics to “pigs squealing under a gate” or questioned the timing of political attacks by noting, “if you see a turtle on a fence post, chances are it didn’t get there by accident.”

Advertisement



But those same Southern roots fit the Clinton narrative: This was not a Northern liberal like Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale; the pro-death penalty governor gave Democrats a chance to win the White House.

In the heady days, Hillary would introduce Bill, who would then brag New Hampshire and the nation were about to get “two for the price of one.” But as 1991 gave way to 1992, and the first-in-the-nation primary was drawing near, confidence gave way to crisis. Crises, to be more accurate.

On Super Bowl Sunday, the Clintons traveled from New Hampshire to Boston to sit side by side on a hotel suite couch for an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” to brush the Flowers allegations aside.

Gennifer Flowers was seen in a 1992 file photo.
Gennifer Flowers was seen in a 1992 file photo. Richard Drew/Associated Press/File

“I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage,” said Bill Clinton, declining to offer details.

“I’m not sitting here like some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” Hillary Clinton said. “I’m sitting here because I love him.”

Again, I was next to Carville, the Clinton campaign strategist. This time he was silent, hanging on every word of the interview, gasping at one point when a light stand began falling toward the Clintons.

I was there because the Clintons had agreed to an Associated Press interview after the CBS taping. We began in the elevator down to the lobby, the Clintons holding hands, and continued in the car en route to Logan Airport.

Advertisement



“They bought and paid her,” Hillary Clinton said of Flowers and the Star tabloid.

Bill Clinton was more sympathetic.

“There have been a lot of victims in this process and maybe she [Flowers] is one of them,” he said.

“Not any more,” his wife quickly retorted.

On the tarmac at Logan, they split — Bill Clinton headed back for events in New Hampshire; Hillary Clinton flew home to Little Rock to be with then 11-year-old Chelsea as her parents’ marriage became the flashpoint of American politics.

It was just one of many vivid memories of trailing Clinton in that New Hampshire campaign’s tumultuous final weeks. There were late nights with impromptu stops, including one Friday, as midnight approached, opening the door of his second VFW post in an hour.

“This place must be OK — they’ve got Roy Orbison playing,” Clinton said with a smile. Once inside, he shook every hand and fed a quarter into the jukebox, pausing at Mariah Carey and ultimately selecting Patsy Cline.

Another day it was what reporters dubbed a “death march” through a shopping mall. Even some of the governor’s aides surrendered to exhaustion and sat on the floor while Clinton looked for more hands to shake, more skeptics to convert.

Repeatedly, in speeches and one-on-one appeals, Clinton suggested the attacks on him were designed to steer the campaign away from voters and their economic anxiety.

One such appeal is now the stuff of New Hampshire primary legend, his promise — delivered in Dover — that if the voters gave him a second chance, “I’ll be there for you till the last dog dies.”

Advertisement



He didn’t win, but he declared his second-place finish evidence he was 1992’s “comeback kid.”

Covering Clinton in those days was to experience “Survivor” long before the age of reality television, and he always remained grateful to New Hampshire.

On Inauguration Day 2001, after handing the White House over to George W. Bush, Clinton flew home to Little Rock, and invited a few reporters who had been there in the early days of the 1992 campaign along for the ride.

The conversation was full of memories of Dunkin’ Donuts, the loyal band of Clinton New Hampshire supporters, and the roller coaster final weeks.

“That was wild,” the now former president said on that nostalgic flight. “I love that place.”


John C. King is CNN’s chief national correspondent and anchor for “Inside Politics.” He was previously the chief political correspondent for the Associated Press.