World

Spoiling the fun

A sex scandal casts a shadow over Clinton's campaign kickoff

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 9 1996
World

Spoiling the fun

A sex scandal casts a shadow over Clinton's campaign kickoff

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 9 1996

Spoiling the fun

World

A sex scandal casts a shadow over Clinton's campaign kickoff

ANDREW PHILLIPS

With friends like this, Bill Clinton may well have wondered, who needs Republicans? The President was deep into a week that emphasized moderation, responsibility and what has become the holy of holies of American political life: so-called family values. He was fine-tuning a speech in which he would offer himself for reelection on Nov. 5 as “a bridge to the 21st century”—pointedly positioning himself as the man of the future and painting his Republican opponent, 73-year-old Bob Dole, as a man whose time has long passed.

All seemed set, but life has a funny way of upsetting the plans of even The Most Powerful Man in the World. And so it was last week as Clinton’s Democrats met in Chicago. Suddenly, his chief political adviser, Dick Morris, who had taken public credit for the President’s new emphasis on family issues, was on a plane out of town after resigning amid reports that he had been deeply involved in a yearlong relationship with a $200-an-hour call girl. Worse, went the report, Morris had whispered campaign secrets to the woman and privately referred to his old friend Clinton as “the Monster.”

Clinton has survived much worse than that. The same publication that broke the Morris story, the supermarket tabloid Star, reported in 1992 that he had had a lengthy affair with a singer named Gennifer Flowers, but he recovered and won the presidency. Still, Morris’s resignation again raised the character issue that has long haunted Clinton, and it embarrassed him at a time when he is powerfully positioned for the final nine-week sprint to voting day. Last week’s convention was part of a two-week stage play aimed at showcasing his metamorphosis into an older, and hopefully wiser, centrist leader. It began with a choreographed 50th birthday party on Aug. 19, broadcast nationally to highlight Clinton’s passage to full maturity, and ended with a convention so conservative in tone that critics dubbed it “Republican Lite.” In between, there was the so-called 21st Century Express, the President’s four-day train trip through five key states, which featured daily policy announcements along with the bizarre spectacle of Clinton leaning from the back of his carriage shouting “I love your dog!” and “Nice garden!” to people living along the tracks.

Amazingly, American voters seem to be buying it. Barely 16 months ago, Clinton was so unpopular and so overshadowed by the right-wing Republican Congress that he was left feebly protesting at one point that “the constitution gives me relevance.” Now, polls show not only that he has a lead of anywhere between 10 and 20 points over Dole, but that the man once stuck with the “Slick Willie” label is actually liked and trusted by the electorate. Frank Luntz, an influential Republican pollster, says one key to Clinton’s political renaissance is that he is the best political communicator since Franklin Delano Roosevelt—better even than Ronald Reagan. “This is a man who knows how to relate. He knows how to get into your soul,” says Luntz. “People think they’ve really got to know him, and they’re finding they like it. He’s the older brother who keeps getting in trouble, but he’s always bringing home the beer.” In contrast, Dole, despite massive efforts to humanize him, still often comes across as a grumpy grandpa.

The Democrats launched their campaign in the city that, 28 years ago, witnessed their most disastrous convention. Meeting in San Diego two weeks earlier, the Republicans successfully exorcised the ghosts of their 1992 convention, where right-wing rhetoric alienated voters. The Democrats’ ghosts were older and scarier, but they, too, died with barely a whisper. They were the blackand-white images of Chicago police beating antiwar demonstrators in 1968 during America’s hottest summer of discontent, while badly divided Democrats gathered in the city to nominate Hubert Humphrey. Last week, the first president of the antiwar generation returned to Chicago to be greeted by supporters waving signs reading “Clinton/Gore: 100,000 new police”—a reference to the President’s promise to bolster the once-despised forces of law and order.

The convention also cemented Clinton’s political repositioning as what Americans call a “New Democrat”—

1| a party moderate able to straddle the old left-right divide. His party adopted a platform whose proudest boast is that Democrats are actually doing the things that Republicans only promised to do: cut the federal deficit (by 60 per cent since 1992, to $160 billion U.S.), and reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy (by 240,000 positions). There are distinct parallels with Jean Chretien’s Liberal government, which has done more to tame the deficit and downsize Ottawa than the Conservatives ever managed, despite their rhetoric. At the same time, Clinton has moved to the centre on a host of social issues, taking a tougher stance against crime, raising standards and increasing choice in education, revamping the welfare system, and, as ever, placing more and more emphasis on the ubiquitous “family values.”

The demons of Chicago ’68 may have been chased into the shadows, but they have not entirely vanished. The bloody street clashes that helped to seal the fate of the Democrats that summer are now almost as long ago as was the Spanish Civil War to the Sixties generation. So it was no surprise that last week’s reunions of protest leaders took on a nostalgic, Big Chill quality. Tom Hayden, once one of the defendants in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial and now a California state senator, mused at the irony of being beaten and gassed last time around, but this time checking into the posh Westin Hotel. Lee Weiner, another onetime protest leader, summarized his experience this way: ‘The politics was important.

The music was good. The dope was good. The sex was good.”

Much was forgotten, but not all was forgiven. For the vast majority of Chicago’s notorious police force, the riots of ’68 are just legends, though powerful ones. But for some old-timers, being pilloried around the world as a violent, out-of-control police mob still rankles. The cops printed T-shirts with the slogan, “We kicked your father’s ass in ’68. Wait till you see what we do to you.” One of the few in Chicago to whom that message applied quite literally seemed delighted. Andrew Hoffman, 35-year-old son of the late protest leader Abbie Hoffman, even wore the T-shirt, under an American flag-motif shirt that echoed his father’s famous protest outfit. “I always looked on that as humor,” he said. “At least, no one’s come around to kick my ass so far.” After two days of trying, Hoffman finally got himself arrested and cited—politely—for disorderly conduct after he and Chicago Seven veteran David Dellinger, 81, blocked access to a local justice department office.

For some, the legends of 1968 are still very much alive. John Schultz, a professor of creative writing at Chicago’s Columbia College, reported on the riots for the literary journal Evergreen Review and later wrote a firsthand account of the events called No One Was Killed. One morning last week, he revisited some of the key sites: the corner of Balbo and Michigan avenues, where police inflicted some of the bloodiest damage on both demonstrators and bystanders; magnificent Buckingham Fountain, where protesters tried to wash tear gas from their eyes; and the equestrian statue of the Civil War general John Logan, which demonstrators climbed to create an enduring image of youthful protest. No one tried to remount Logan last week, but Chicago authorities had not left even that to chance. They actually smeared lower parts of the statue with grease to discourage any repeat efforts— though veterans of 1968 would be far too creaky to attempt the climb.

The divisions of 1968 still resonate in Chicago, said Schultz, despite the city’s efforts to brush them off. At the recent première of a

film on the events, he recalled, people on both sides of the conflict started arguing as if it had happened just a few weeks earlier, not a generation and a half ago. “The Democrats shaped their convention in reaction to the ’68 convention,” he said. “From the beginning it was ‘Heal the wounds of ’68.’ ” Now, of course, Chicago is led by the son of the man who incarnated the bad old days, Mayor Richard J. Daley. The current mayor, Richard M. Daley, known universally as “Rich,” has never condemned his father’s behavior in unleashing police on protesters, but he has charted a much more liberal course. He has even brought prominent veterans of the 1968 antiwar movement into his administration.

Clinton is attempting something similar on the national stage: creating a coalition that spans the divide between traditional liberals and moderate centrists. Indeed, both Mayor Daley and his brother William are politically close to the President; Bill Daley served as his chief congressional lobbyist for the North American Free Trade Agreement. And both are comfortable with the course that Clinton has charted for November. That process began long before last week’s train ride and convention, in the

wake of the Republicans' victory in the congressional elections of November, 1994. At that time, Republican Newt Gingrich was rid ing high as the newly installed Speaker of the House of Represen tatives, pushing his radically right-wing Contract with America. Clinton, having muddled through a largely unsuccessful leftleaning agenda in 1993-1994, had hit a low of 35-per-cent approval in the polls and was, by all accounts, personally depressed.

That was when Clinton turned to the now-disgraced Dick Morris, with whom he had worked since his days as governor of Arkansas in the late 1970s. Morris advised the President to move

Clinton has straddled the left-right divide

decisively to the centre. Clinton took the advice: he proposed a balanced budget plan that included cutting spending on Medicare; managed to stick the Republican Congress with the blame for shutting down the federal government last Christmas; proclaimed in his state of the union address in January that “the era of big government is over”; and stole a key issue from the Republicans by signing a bill that requires work for welfare.

Finally, like all politicians, he relied on his opponents to make their share of mistakes. The Gingrich Republicans may have overreached themselves by assuming that their victory in 1994 was a public endorsement of their radical agenda, rather than what most analysts now say it was: a protest against the failures of Clinton’s first two years. Patrick Griffin, who was in charge of the President’s relations with Congress from late 1993 until January, 1996, said he was amazed that the Republicans veered so far to the right. “They helped us by being so extreme,” he said in an interview. “It gave the President the opportunity to operate right down the centre. They believed their own press releases; they never made it hard for us.”

All that leaves Clinton in an enviable position, well placed to become the first Democratic president since Roosevelt to win a second term. He is playing the generational card against Dole to great effect, last week even bringing his 16-year-old daughter Chelsea into the public spotlight more than ever before to send the not-so-subtle message that he still has a young family. His bigger advantages include the third-party candidacy of billionaire Ross Perot, who is expected to take most of his votes from Dole, and— most important—the strength of the American economy. None of that guarantees victory, but even amid the temporary distraction of Morris’s departure, it makes it Clinton’s election to lose. □