April campaign memorandum set strategy for recasting 'new' Clinton

November 14, 1992|By Michael Kelly | Michael Kelly,New York Times News Service

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- In late April, the political professionals working to make Bill Clinton president realized they had a potentially fatal problem: at least 40 percent of the voters did not much like him. They saw him as a "wishy-washy," fast-talking career politician who did not "talk straight."

They liked Hillary Clinton even less, regarding her as "being in the race for herself," as "going for the power," and as a wife intent on "running the show."

Arguing that these images were wrong and unfair, the Clinton organization's polling expert, Stan Greenberg; its chief strategist, James Carville; and its media consultant, Frank Greer, set out in a confidential memorandum to Mr. Clinton one of the most ambitious campaigns of political rehabilitation ever attempted.

They proposed the construction of a new image for Mr. and Mrs. Clinton: an honest, plain-folks idealist and his warm and loving wife.

Retooling the image of a couple who had been already in the public eye for five battering months required a campaign of behavior modification and media use so elaborate its outline ran to 14 single-spaced pages.

The "General Election Project," as the plan was called, covered everything. It set out basic tenets: "The candidate needs to communicate in a way that sounds less political."

It offered highly specific suggestions: that Mr. Clinton appear on a television talk show to play the saxophone, and that he make fun of himself for having said that he had tried marijuana but not inhaled it.

On a grand scale, it outlines the themes and strategies on which Mr. Clinton would ride to triumph in his autumn campaign. The memorandum set forth the thematic message Mr. Clinton would deliver: that he was an aggressive, middle-class-oriented agent of change ready to stand up to special-interest groups. And it presented the tactics by which he would drive that point home: pitching his message in town-hall-style forums, through live-talk television and in speeches directly challenging specific interest groups.

On a more intimate level, it contained ideas for making the Clintons seem more warm and cuddly: "events where Bill and Hillary can go on dates with the American people."

These suggestions, and a great many more, were detailed in a confidential memorandum entitled "The General Election Project -- Interim Report," sent on April 27 by the three consultants to Mr. Clinton; his campaign chairman, Mickey Kantor; and his campaign manager, David Wilhelm.

A copy of the memo was obtained by the New York Times and its authenticity was verified by a campaign strategist. Although the memo is identified as a draft version, the strategist said no subsequent drafts had significantly altered its contents.

"This memo informed the rest of the campaign, everything that happened in the later primaries, in June, in the convention," he said. "It was taken very seriously by Bill and by Hillary, and it was acted on."

What the memorandum told the Clintons to do, and what they did, does not show chicanery. From the point of view of the Clintons and their advisers, the goal was not to present a false image of the couple but to replace an existing untrue image with one painstakingly built to showcase the true Clintons.

Nevertheless, a reading of the document provides a vivid glimpse into the secret ways of a campaign that succeeded because of a mastery of image-packaging on a par with (and similar to) the wizardry that created the public Ronald Reagan.

Armed with information that showed a plurality of voters did not trust Mr. Clinton and did not regard with favor his marriage and family life, the strategists for President Bush had reason to feel confident in the attack on Mr. Clinton in their August convention over "family values," Mr. Clinton's integrity and his wife's personality.

Mr. Clinton's strategists anticipated this, as they made clear in a passage about Mrs. Clinton in the April memo. They wrote that the perception of her as unaffectionate and preoccupied with power and career "allows George Bush [and probably Ross Perot] to build up extraordinary advantages on family values -- 32 points in the DNC survey."

But when the Republicans made their move, the program of image-modification drafted by Mr. Clinton's consultants had so changed the Clintons' public persona that the feared attack failed to wound him at all.

To replace the impression that Mr. Clinton was "not real" and was "packaged, created by image makers," with a view that he was "a human being who struggled, pulled his weight, showed strength of character, and fought for change," the candidate's image makers offered a package of Mr. Clinton as a child whose "father died before born, mother worked and struggled," who later "interceded to stop an alcoholic stepfather who abused his brother and mother," and who went on to oppose institutionalized racism, teachers unions and the perpetuation of a failed welfare system.

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