Arkansas' Bill Clinton declares for presidency

October 04, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Vowing to "reinvent government" and redefine the Democratic Party, Gov. Bill Clinton jumped into the 1992 presidential race yesterday.

The Arkansas Democrat called for "a new covenant" between government and the people, an appeal to the resentments of middle-class voters who have turned to the Republican Party in recent elections.

Mr. Clinton is also adopting the theme of generational change.

His anthem is the rock song "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," performed by Fleetwood Mac. The candidate lip-synched those lyrics as he and his family waved to supporters at his announcement ceremony in downtown Little Rock.

"We'll put government back on the side of the working-class families of America who so often think that most of the help goes to those at the top of the ladder and some goes to the bottom and nobody stands up for them," Mr. Clinton said.

His "campaign of ideas" has taken shape over the past year while he served as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of elected officials who want to move the party away from the liberal ideology of the past.

Among the tenets of his message are greater individual responsibility for those who receive government assistance, in exchange for a revival of federal activism. It is a pitch for the votes of the middle class.

Mr. Clinton seems to have tilted away, however, from the DLC's pro-business slant, which liberal Democrats had widely criticized watered-down Republicanism. His speech yesterday had strong populist overtones, with greedy Wall Street investment bankers, big insurance companies and health care bureaucracies among the targets.

Looking out from the white-columned portico of the old Arkansas Statehouse, Mr. Clinton vowed to counter the Bush administration's "race-baiting" tactics on issues such as racial quotas.

"They've used that old tool on us for decades now . . . and I won't let them get away with it in 1992," the governor, a racial moderate, said to applause from the racially mixed crowd of several thousand.

Mr. Clinton said he would be "a real 'education president,' " challenging Mr. Bush's claim to that title. In doing so, he is playing to one of his strengths: a record as an education innovator, including passage of the nation's first statewide system of teacher performance testing.

The fifth Democrat to formally declare his candidacy, Mr. Clinton enters the contest with the most fully developed set of ideas of any contender. His campaign team, however, remains incomplete.

He is the second Southerner and second governor in the race, joining Virginia's L. Douglas Wilder. By running, Mr. Clinton has broken a 1990 campaign pledge to devote himself full-time to his job as governor, a touchy subject among Arkansas voters.

Four years ago, Mr. Clinton abandoned an expected presidential campaign, citing family considerations.

This time around, he brings a compelling blend of seemingly contradictory qualities to the race.

He is, at 45, the youngest contender in the field.

Yet he is also the nation's senior governor in length of service, having first been elected in 1978 at age 32. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., once joked that Mr. Clinton was the only politician to be a rising star in three decades.

His candidacy has been shadowed by rumors of marital infidelity, which he has combated by having his wife, Hillary, stand by him at recent political events. He admits that his marriage "has not been perfect or free from problems, but we are committed to each other, and that ought to be enough."

The man who wants to erase his party's liberal image got his start in presidential politics in 1972, when he was the Texas coordinator of George S. McGovern's campaign.

He is perhaps best remembered for his long-winded speech nominating Michael S. Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention. (The crowd cheered when he said, "In closing . . ." near the end of the 43-minute address.)

BACKGROUND CHECK

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WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON

BORN: August 19, 1946, in Hope, Ark., to Virginia Cassidy Blythe.

GREW UP: In Hot Springs, Ark. Mother, widowed two months before he was born, was a nurse. Formally changed name to Clinton when he was 15. Attended public schools in Hot Springs, Ark., Georgetown University (B.S., 1968); Oxford University, England (Rhodes Scholar); Yale University (J.D., 1973).

PERSONAL: Married Hillary Rodham, 1975. One child, Chelsea, 11. Wife is attorney. He plays jazz saxophone for relaxation. No military service.

WHERE HE'S BEEN: Attorney, private practice, and professor, University of Arksansas law school, 1973-76. Elected Arkansas attorney general (1977-79). Elected governor of Arkansas (1979-81, 1983-present). Chairman, Democratic Leadership Council (1990-91).

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