Recruiting Bill Clinton

Most important, Clinton believed in the DLC philosophy—in the basic bargain of opportunity and responsibility. In his speech on Democratic capitalism in Williamsburg, he demonstrated that he understood the importance of both the private economy and the growth of small business, which he called the backbone of the economy. He recognized the role of government in making sure every American has the opportunity and the tools to get ahead. Clinton was a leader among governors in calling for welfare reform and personal-responsibility measures, including requiring kids to stay in school to get a driver’s license and fining parents who missed their kids’ parent-teacher conferences.

Though Clinton came from a conservative state and knew how to communicate with the moderate and conservative voters Democrats needed to win back, he was also well-regarded among liberals—and so would help the DLC broaden its appeal in all but the most extreme-left parts of the party. Appealing to a broader spectrum of the Democratic Party was important for the DLC, and for me personally. Though the political shorthand had always referred to the DLC as moderate or conservative Democrats, our ideas were really about modernizing liberalism and defining a new progressive center for our party, not simply pushing it further to the right. Coming from the center-left of the party, I was tired of having the DLC labeled as conservative. I decided to call our think tank the Progressive Policy Institute because I thought it would be harder for reporters to label it as the “conservative Progressive Policy Institute.”

Finally, Clinton would strengthen our support outside of the nation’s capital, and as a presidential possibility, he would attract national press.

At the Democratic National Convention in July, presidential nominee Michael Dukakis asked Clinton to give his nominating speech. Convention speeches are always difficult because the crowd is usually not paying attention, but this speech was a disaster for Clinton. It was long and was made even longer because the crowd screamed every time he mentioned Dukakis’s name. The result: It was widely panned. To bounce back, the ever-resilient Clinton went on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show the next week, told a few self-deprecating jokes and then played the saxophone with the band. I knew Clinton was down after the speech, and I sent him a handwritten note: “It doesn’t matter how long you speak or how well you play the sax, just so you’re still part of our team. Just in case you need a reminder, you’ve got an awful lot of admirers—and none greater than your friends at the DLC.”

In offering him the chairmanship, I had gotten a little ahead of myself. When I made my April 1989 trip to Little Rock, I knew Chuck Robb was favorably inclined toward a Clinton chairmanship, but Sam Nunn, who was planning to step down as chairman of the DLC by the fall, was not as convinced. He was concerned that Clinton would be too liberal. That was a complaint Nunn heard from a number of his Senate colleagues when he talked to them about Clinton assuming the chair.

Nunn raised those objections when the DLC board, including Nunn, Robb, Jim Jones, and me, met on July 21 to pick the next chairman—three months after I had offered the job to Clinton. I told the board that a number of members had expressed an interest in the chairmanship, including Clinton, Virginia Governor Gerry Baliles, Florida Senator Bob Graham, and Tennessee Senator Jim Sasser. But, assuming we could work out the logistics—and I was sure we could—I preferred Clinton.

Robb argued strongly for Clinton. Nunn, who argued Clinton might run for president and not give the DLC enough attention, finally agreed. As we walked together back to the Russell Senate Office Building after the meeting, Robb said to me: “If Clinton spends the next four years running for president on our stuff, we’ll be all the better for it.”

Once the board agreed, I thought it would be a simple matter to schedule an official transfer of the position. Clinton had told me he would take the chairmanship in Little Rock, but we still had to set a date for him to assume the gavel. One possibility was to have Nunn pass the gavel to Clinton at a Washington issues conference we had planned for November, a few days after the election. But as I soon learned, with my friend Bill Clinton nothing is ever simple or easy.

He did come to the November 13 conference and once again was a big hit, but he said he wasn’t quite ready for the transfer to occur. And so it would be for the next four months. He would repeatedly tell me that he was going to take the job, but he was trying to decide whether to seek another term as governor in 1990 and that decision could impact when he could take over the DLC. So 1989 turned into 1990, and Clinton had yet to take up the reins.

Nunn was getting antsy and kept pressing me to get a date from Clinton. He had met with Clinton in December of 1989 and Clinton had assured him, too, that he would take the chairmanship. The obvious time to make the change was at our national conference scheduled for New Orleans on March 22, 1990. But I had no guarantee from Clinton. Finally, in frustration on February 23, a month out from New Orleans, I wrote a “personal and confidential” memo to Clinton and personally handed it to him at the Hyatt Hotel on Capitol Hill where he was attending the annual meeting of the National Governors Association. My message was blunt:

We are getting past crunch time on the DLC chairmanship. There are a number of strategic and procedural decisions we simply have to make before the end of the day today so that we can put them into place by the New Orleans Conference.

I realize your personal situation is complex, but at the DLC, we’ve run out of time. If you can’t make a 100 percent commitment to take the DLC chairmanship this week, I have to recruit someone else.

I wrote that he was my choice and that Chuck Robb and I “put our necks on the line to get board approval,” but that was the previous July and we were still hanging.

Sam Nunn has taken his meeting with you in December and your statements to me in early January as a commitment that you would take the chairmanship, and is expecting to pass the gavel to you in New Orleans. But every signal I’ve gotten from you in the last month indicates you’re still up in the air. That ambivalence is a killer for us as we prepare for New Orleans.

I believe you are the right person for the DLC job—and the DLC job is the right job for you. We have the opportunity to redefine the Democratic Party during the next two years. If our efforts lead to a presidential candidacy—whether for you or someone else—we can take over the party, as well.

We are poised to expand the DLC effort exponentially. But our New Orleans Conference is a critical juncture—and if we are to turn the DLC effort into a full-blown political movement, New Orleans is the best launching pad we are likely to have this year. We’re a month out, and we simply need to put some things in place now or we will lose that opportunity.

Clinton looked at the memo and then said, “If I don’t run for reelection, then I’m going to have to make at least $100,000 a year.” A hundred thousand a year probably seemed like a lot of money for Clinton in 1990; his gubernatorial salary was just $35,000 a year—among the lowest of all governors. And if he left the governor’s mansion—he used to quip that he spent most of his life in public housing—he would have had to pay for a place to live for the first time since he was out of office in 1981 and 1982. I told Clinton that I’d be delighted to pay him $100,000 a year to be a full-time chairman of the DLC.

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Al From is the founder and former CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.

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