How Clinton chalked up a tough Bawlamer crowd

THE POLITICAL GAME

October 07, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

On a Sunday evening at American Joe's Bar in East Baltimore, corner of South Luzerne and Foster, the 1992 campaign for president came down to a game of 8-ball.

Bill Clinton arrived with his entourage of Secret Service men, reporters and the bar's proprietor, state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski. For a moment, John Beam, Larry Sullivan and a handful of others stood in for The American Electorate.

No television camera or newspaper reporter intervened between them and this candidate's effort to connect, to seem fit for high office, to appear to be a person of warmth and ability.

If Mr. Clinton were lucky and well-managed, that evening in March before the Maryland primary would have meaning far beyond East Baltimore.

Images of his confident appearance would land in a national magazine or newspaper. But even failing that, the hungry candidate knows that victory is built on countless meetings like the one at American Joe's, though few of the settings are so

aptly named.

The candidate took a seat at the bar under the embossed tin ceiling next to Mr. Sullivan's wife, Sue Esty, a union official. There she was with the chance to ask any of the questions a citizen might have saved up in the unlikely event of a personal chat.

And what did she ask?

"How's your daughter holding up during the campaign?"

Nothing about the North America Free Trade Agreement? Nothing about public employee unions and the right to strike? Nothing about worker retraining? No. With the man in front of her, the thoughts were more human, less abstract.

When his own turn came, 50-year-old Larry Sullivan didn't reach for an issue either.

A designer of small, specialty airplanes, he has plenty of questions about the Federal Aviation Administration, for example.

But wait a minute.

"He was tired. He was losing his voice. He'd been in two debates that day. I thought 'Give the guy a break.' " So, no questions.

Mr. Beam, who like the candidate is 46, was not so reticent.

"John Beam, Vietnam veteran," he said, offering his hand. He's ++ not sure why he brought up Vietnam. "Maybe it was to show him there were some Vietnam vets who'd be willing to shake hands with him," said Mr. Beam, an artist and teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"He didn't blink. He didn't pander to me. He didn't say 'It must have been tough.' He just let it go."

The candidate had a beer and a Coddie, a patty of cod fish and potato on a cracker, 65 cents if you're not a Democratic candidate for president.

After a round of pictures with Mr. Miedusiewski and his parents, Frank and Frances, who live above the bar, the candidate headed for the door.

Mr. Beam and Mr. Sullivan stopped him.

"Want to play a little pool?'"

The candidate seemed pleased. After a few practice shots, he took off his suit jacket.

"Whoa . . . !" crooned the spectators. A sign above the table said, "No Hustling Allowed."

Here, of course, was a wonderful photo op, the kind of thing a campaign dreams of: Candidate Meets Real People in Bar.

Mr. Miedusiewski says the whole thing was spontaneous. After a debate in Atlanta, a debate in College Park and dinner in Little Italy, the candidate said, "Don't you have a bar near here? Can we visit?" Squeeze the day, find another hand to shake.

Mr. Miedusiewski's wife called ahead to warn his parents.

Mr. Clinton turned out to be a player.

"He was sinking balls. Holding it right, very focused," Mr. Beam recalled.

"He was definitely not a slick player," Mr. Beam said with a smile. The candidate won when Mr. Sullivan scratched on the 8. To scratch is to miss the 8-ball or to sink it inadvertently or to commit some other faux pas, all of which means the other player wins.

Since that night in March, just before Maryland's primary, the candidate's name has become a part of the lexicon at American Joe's: to "pull a Clinton" is to be in a position to win and to scratch. This is not exactly fair, Mr. Beam points out, since it was Larry Sullivan, not the candidate, who scratched. These two men, then considering other Democrats, left American Joe's that night in Clinton's camp.

Mr. Sullivan is not sure the political game can be won at a pool table, but he is certain about one thing. He didn't throw the game. "That ain't my way," he said.

The cue used by the candidate that night was retired, perhaps to be mounted on a plaque.

A picture of Mr. Clinton leaning over the green felt appeared in Time a week later.

The Bush for President campaign in Maryland sent the Clinton campaign a present last week, a Pinnochio doll.

Every Friday when the Bush folks met, says Bo Denysyk, the Bush campaign director, the doll came out with a longer nose. Its name is Clin-ochio, a harsher version no doubt on the national campaign's suggestion that Mr. Clinton has Clinton-esia, or memory lapses.

Jon Spalter of the Clinton campaign thanked Mr. Denysyk by return mail:

"I'm sure it will look nice in the Lincoln Bedroom when Mr. and Mrs. Clinton move into the White House," he wrote.

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