'Arsenio' and Sister Souljah fit into Clinton's strategies

July 18, 1993

Sun political columnists Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover have written their fourth book on a presidential campaign. This is the second of three excerpts from "Mad As Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992," which was released last week. The first, printed in yesterday's Sun, was on the crucial second presidential debate. Today: Bill Clinton's decision on what to do about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Tomorrow: The people speak up.

On the advice of Hollywood television situation comedy producers Harry Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, and others on the staff, Bill Clinton found that one way to get beyond the news media's focus on process questions was to work the television talk show circuit.

Since it had been established that voters still did not have a clear idea of who Bill Clinton was, the best and most cost-effective way to deal with the problem was television exposure, and then more television exposure, offbeat or otherwise, and hope voters would start paying attention. What's more, he couldn't seem to get enough of talking to them. During a break in one appearance on the Larry King show, King asked him whether he wasn't worn down by the pace. Clinton seemed surprised at the question. "I love this," he said.

The whole focus on the talk shows, especially on the pop culture variety, in the period after the California primary, Mandy Grunwald said, was known inside the campaign as "the Arsenio strategy," after Clinton's appearance on the Arsenio Hall late-night show, when he played "Heartbreak Hotel" on his saxophone, wearing dark shades and looking and sounding cool to that special audience not likely to be reached with a heavy speech on his economic agenda.

The personal approach

Grunwald said she had become particularly interested in the approach when a chambermaid at a hotel in Wisconsin during that state's primary told Clinton, "I saw you on 'Donahue.' You were great!" The woman, Grunwald said, did not seem to be the type who read the newspaper every day or followed the campaign, but her reaction "was very much a personal one -- 'I know you. I have a sense of who you are.' " There was a whole audience of prospective voters out there that was not being reached on a personal level by traditional means, but who could be reached. And, an important consideration to a campaign running low on money at the end of the primary trail, the talk show circuit was free.

Shortly after the 'Arsenio' show, Clinton did a national town meeting on television and then another with young voters on the MTV cable outlet. To the surprise of many, the questions from the young audience revealed mostly the same concerns among the music video set that were on the minds of their square elders -- jobs, the economy and fears about the future.

The Clinton campaign, in addition to being on the lookout for ways to reach untapped audiences, also continued to seek means to show the candidate "going against the grain," to demonstrate that he was indeed a different kind of candidate. An opportunity was about to present itself in this regard, handed unwittingly to Clinton by an irreverent member of the MTV generation -- a young rap entertainer who called herself Sister Souljah.

With Clinton now on an apparently unimpeded course to the Democratic nomination, one question lingered within the party: what to do about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Ever since he had decided to get into elective politics as a candidate for the 1984 nomination, the civil rights leader had been a mixed blessing for the Democratic Party and its candidates.

Jackson's significance

Jackson's unprecedented candidacy had an enormous significance to black voters, who took great pride in his ability to compete effectively at the highest level of American politics. A few leaders viewed him with a jaundiced eye because of their experience with his showboating style during the civil rights movement. But most blacks of all levels of educational and economic achievement admired his audacity and determination.

Clinton had followed a policy of maintaining a distance from Jackson throughout the primary period, and his advisers were telling reporters privately that this was the way it was going to be. Jackson had no delegates, they argued, so he had no special claim on a place at the convention in New York or in the general election campaign. More to the point, by this stage of the campaign Clinton had enlisted valuable support from other black officeholders. If the goal was to increase black turnout, these officeholders could deliver just as well as Jesse Jackson. Or, at least, so the theory went.

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