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.
After going back and forth about whether to run for a fifth term as governor, he was scheduled to make an announcement on March 3. Craig Smith, Clinton’s aide who often traveled with him on DLC trips, called me in the middle of Clinton’s announcement speech to tell me Clinton was not running for reelection. He called me back a few minutes later and said he was indeed running. “He talked himself into running in the middle of his speech,” Craig told me.
After months of pondering, Clinton decided to run for reelection as governor and become chairman of the DLC. Nearly a year after our Little Rock meeting, at the DLC’s Annual Conference in New Orleans on March 24, 1990, Bill Clinton became the DLC’s fourth chairman. Calling Clinton a “rising star in three decades,” Sam Nunn passed him the gavel. Nunn quipped that when the DLC was created “we were viewed as a rump group. Now we’re viewed as the brains of the party. In just five years, we’ve moved from one end of the donkey to the other.”
Under Bill Clinton’s leadership, the DLC would cement that image and redefine the Democratic Party along the way.
This post is adapted from The New Democrats and the Return to Power.