Recruiting Bill Clinton

Ever since Clinton had told Chuck Robb in 1987 that he was open to taking the DLC chairmanship, he was my first choice to succeed Sam Nunn. After hearing the response to his speech the year before in Williamsburg and watching him captivate the audience the previous month at the DLC meeting in Philadelphia, I was convinced that he was the best political talent I had ever seen.

But political skill was just one of several reasons I was so determined to make Clinton the next DLC chairman. He was a reform governor and understood the importance of innovative ideas to political success. As he would say in his inaugural speech as DLC chairman, “In the end, any political resurgence for the Democrats depends on the intellectual resurgence of our party. There’s far too much talk about personality in politics and far too little about what we’re going to say and do to make sense to the American people.” Clinton loved to talk about ideas, and he had a striking ability to explain the most complicated concepts clearly.

He was not afraid to challenge old orthodoxies. In the early 1980s, long before I knew him, he and Hillary Clinton pushed cutting-edge education reforms, like pay for performance and public-school choice, against the opposition of the powerful Arkansas Education Association. Speaking about education in his Philadelphia speech, Clinton said the Democratic Party was “good at doing more. We are not so good at doing things differently, and doing them better, particularly when we have to attack the established ideas and forces which have been good to us and close to us. We are prone, I think, to programmatic solutions as against those which change structure, reassert basic values or make individual connections with children.”

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.”

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

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