Clinton's record as Arkansas governor helps and haunts him

February 09, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Correspondent

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- To Bill Clinton, it must sound like old home week out on the campaign trail of America.

Everywhere his presidential campaign roams, he hears a refrain of the bad-times blues boiling up from the voters in a singsong lament of a nation with schools that can't teach, businesses that can't compete and government that can't help.

For much of the country, this litany is new and jarring. But back in Mr. Clinton's home state of Arkansas, it is old and familiar, a statewide anthem of the subconscious that for decades has accompanied every weary joke about shoeless hicks and Ozark hillbillies, and every numbing report of low rankings in wealth and progress.

Therein lies both a great strength and a glaring weakness of Mr. Clinton's campaign.

On the one hand, his past seems to have made him uncannily attuned to the wavelength of voter despair.On the other hand, as governor of Arkansas for 11 of the last 13 years, Mr. Clinton must answer for why his state continues to founder by so many measurements.

He began hearing his state's sad tune early on, and it grated on him.

"Our people weren't dumber than other people, even though a lot of people outside the South thought they were," he said. "And they certainly worked as hard or harder than anybody else. I always thought it was largely a matter of education and a kind of backward attitude among leaders. And I don't think there's any question that our long resistance to building an integrated society helped to keep us poor."

Nowadays, Mr. Clinton makes a similar defense of Americans everywhere, usually after rattling off a string of rankings that show the United States slipping into a status as, one might say, the Arkansas of the industrialized world.

As his former chief of staff, Betsey Wright, puts it, "There are so many ways that Bill Clinton is right for these times, and that [his background from a downtrodden state] is one of them. He is the only person I know of in this country who can bring people together with their government again."

But the flip side of this advantage -- the lingering weakness of Arkansas -- leaves many obvious targets for any opponent inclined to attack.

A sampling: Among the 50 states and Washington, various non-partisan organizations rank Arkansas dead last in median family income, environmental policy and worker safety; 50th in youth unemployment; 49th in teacher salaries and overall school spending; and 46th in health insurance coverage.

Organizations that have published such rankings report a brisk trade in reprints to rival campaigns and lengthy conversations with interested White House officials.

So far, only one of his four major Democratic opponents, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, has prodded this point of attack, but Republicans have vowed to strike it with a fury if Mr. Clinton wins his party's nomination.

Not that Mr. Clinton hasn't engineered some improvements in his home state, including some that are fairly dramatic, particularly in education.

As bad as the numbers sound, some represent improvement during his tenure, and Mr. Clinton's allies maintain that statistical snapshots don't do justice to the energy and innovation he has brought to governing Arkansas. His fellow governors seemed to agree last year when they voted him the nation's most effective governor.

Nor, Mr. Clinton says, do such numbers show how Arkansas, like all other states, had to make up for vanishing federal dollars during the Reagan-Bush years. When the 1980s began, federal aid contributed 36 percent of the state's revenue, and by 1990 the share was down to 24 percent.

"Slick Willie"

But his critics -- among them some of his former supporters -- will tell you that this former Rhodes Scholar and political wonder boy has often failed to live up to his bright potential by frittering away clout with too much compromise.

"The governor generally takes the path of least resistance," said J. Bill Becker, the state AFL-CIO chief who has been at odds with Mr. Clinton almost since he took office. And, you can walk out of his office thinking that the governor is on your side, Mr. Becker said, only to find out later that he's with the enemy. "He's pretty slick."

Ah, yes, "Slick Willie," the nickname used by those who see his easy charm as a veneer of political artifice. Friends who have looked deeper say the warmth is genuine. And as for seeming to talk out of both sides of his mouth, Sid Johnson, president of the Arkansas Education Association teachers union, says that's a common misinterpretation of Mr. Clinton's willingness to understand both sides of an issue.

Mr. Johnson, who once bitterly opposed the governor for his proposal to test the competency of state teachers but now is an ally, said, "To some people, 'Oh, I see your point,' means, 'Yes, I agree with you.' "

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