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Bill Clinton, Simplified : How a Complex Candidate Learned the Dick and Jane Language of Presidential Politics and Became a Contender

August 30, 1992|Jonathan Raban | Jonathan Raban is the author of "Old Glory: An Americn Voyage,""Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America," and other books. Born in England, he now lives in Seattle

"Facts don't matter--stories matter"--Ross Perot, on the election process

IN MID-APRIL, ON A SUNNY SATURDAY IN PITTSBURGH, THE PIRATES BEAT THE Phillies and the afternoon crowd came spilling from the stadium in high good humor. The conspicuous, unsmiling men were from the Secret Service. In Wal-Mart office suits and dark glasses, with flesh-colored radio cables taped to their bristle-cut necks, they escorted the candidate--in his official weekend uniform of sneakers, jeans, denim shirt and red Pirates cap--to a campaign limo.

The moment he was seated, an aide passed him a tombstone-slab of newspapers, each one folded back on a report of his own progress across the nation. Riffling quickly from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the candidate wearily glossed his mixed reviews.

I was given the once-over by the Secret Service men and shoveled into the back seat beside him. The peak of the baseball cap wagged. He was on to the Philadelphia Inquirer. For the past two or three weeks, the critics had been reporting excitedly on the cracker-barrel mottoes of Ross Perot, as if he were a latter-day La Rochefoucauld, while the long, pained speeches of Gov. Bill Clinton were being relegated to the lower half of an inside page, where he kept company with rabid bats, brush fires and important news from Canada.

FOR THE RECORD - Los Angeles Times Sunday October 11, 1992 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Editor's note: Since some readers criticized the length of Raban's article, we shudder to note that five paragraphs dealing with Clinton's family background were inadvertently omitted from the story.

Kingsley Amis once said that you should let a bad review spoil your breakfast but never your lunch. I wondered if Bill Clinton would be entertained by this useful thought, but feared expulsion from the limo for impertinence. Yet it seemed odd, and not irrelevant, that one's first instinct on finding oneself in close quarters with the presidential candidate should be to want to offer him some kind of consolation.

For three days I had been enviously marveling at his toughness. I was numb with exhaustion from just tagging along and watching him. I'd joined the campaign on Wednesday evening in San Francisco--two fund-raisers, one big speech. At 11 p.m., the candidate, his aides, the Secret Service men and the wolf-pack of attendant journalists had taken off in the chartered 727 for Philadelphia by way of Kansas City.

We lost three hours to the revolving globe, and it was breakfast time in Philadelphia when we touched down. Clinton delivered a lecture on economic policy at the Wharton School of Business, loped down a street on a "meet and greet," and took to the sky again, bound for Cleveland, where he held a press conference on the Tarmac at the airport, made the keynote speech at a union rally, attended two fund-raisers and gave half a dozen radio, TV and newspaper interviews. We were back on the plane shortly after midnight. At 17,000 feet, aides, journalists, a stewardess and a Secret Service man played softball down the aisle while the candidate pulled a blanket up to his chin and dozed through the ruckus.

Feeling robbed of sleep and privacy, aching for stillness, I was discouraged to hear that this had been a pretty typical day in the Clinton primary season. I doubted my own capacity to survive another. "He's a brutal campaigner--the most brutal campaigner that I've ever seen. But he's a good one," said a parchment-faced reporter who was himself on the edge of keeling over.

I've always disliked contact sports, and Clinton's appetite for the scrummage induced in me a feeling of vicarious nausea. The man appeared to need no body space at all. On the street or in the housing project, he snugged into the crowd like a newborn piglet in a litter. Helloing his way through the crush, grinning like a maniac, he seemed to take positive comfort from the warmth of strangers' bodies as they jostled against him.

I wanted to catch him out in some small signal of distaste for what he was doing, but he looked as if he were genuinely enjoying himself, and for no good reason. He'd won the New York primary, but on a dismal turnout, and he was going down in the polls for the second time around. First there'd been Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam draft; now Ross Perot was stealing everybody's thunder. Unlike Perot and Jerry Brown, Clinton had no claque to cheer him on. When he hit the streets, the crowds came because they were following the TV vans as though they were fire engines, hoping for a spectacle. When they found out that it was only the governor of Arkansas, they tended to melt away. More often than not, Clinton had to run a gantlet of jeering moralists with two-day beards.

At the fruit and vegetable market on 9th Street in Philadelphia, a woman asked me if I knew what the fuss was about. "Bill Clinton--" I said, pointing to the floating smile on the far side of the street. "I've seen enough assholes in my life--I don't have to watch him," she said.

"Bill! Hey, Bill! Just one question, Bill?" It was a bum with a bottle, but he had succeeded in hooking the candidate's attention. From 30 feet off, Clinton graciously bestowed his smile on the bum.

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