Recollections of the `Comeback Kid'

January 15, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, as part of his farewell tour, returned the other day to New Hampshire, where in 1992 he had proclaimed himself "The Comeback Kid" after finishing second in the state's kickoff primary. At the time, he deftly peddled his showing as a victory since the real primary winner, Paul Tsongas, came from neighboring Massachusetts.

On this final visit to the state as president, Mr. Clinton waxed nostalgic about how the locals had rescued him from political oblivion -- without mentioning what had put him in such peril then. In case you may have forgotten, it was the disclosure by a supermarket tabloid of Gennifer Flowers' allegations of infidelity when Mr. Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

That story threw the Clinton campaign into a damage-control mode. He flatly denied the story, going on "60 Minutes" right after the Super Bowl. On top of that came the report that in 1969, during the Vietnam War, he had signed up for an Army reserve unit in Arkansas to avoid the draft. He managed to squirm out of that tale, too.

Now, eight years later, Mr. Clinton returned to New Hampshire as a sort of Comeback Kid Redux, having survived even more serious allegations of personal misconduct and an impeachment. Recalling the prevalent view during the 1992 primary that "I was as dead as a doornail," he thanked the locals "for lifting me up in 1992," when so many of them apparently bought his denials of the Flowers story.

Mr. Clinton was also declared DOA when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke six years later. What resurrected him then was more a thriving economy than belief in his personal rectitude, with voters recognizing him as a heel but a smart and effective politician.

This nostalgic return to New Hampshire obviously was intended to demonstrate that Mr. Clinton had not forgotten that the voters there saved him when the going got rough. But it also recalled danger signs about Mr. Clinton that were not heeded by the voters at the time, or later by him.

I recall one night in Manchester, accompanying him in a small van to and from a local television station at which he avowed his innocence of the allegations against him. I asked him whether he was confident there were no further grounds for such charges that could compromise his candidacy. He replied without hesitation that he was certain there wasn't anything else in his past to cause a problem. All he could do now, he said, was to reach out to as many voters as he could and respond to all questions.

That assurance proved to be entirely too optimistic from his point of view. Even before the 1992 campaign was over, other allegations surfaced against him, both serious and trivial. Sometimes they produced nearly comical results, such as when he admitted to once having smoked marijuana but "didn't inhale."

But as president, his penchant for shaving the truth -- culminating in his semantic tap dance about Ms. Lewinsky in which he said "I never had sexual relations with that woman" -- made saps of the New Hampshire voters and much of the news media that had swallowed his denials.

Mr. Clinton closed the New Hampshire part of his sustained victory lap last week by thanking the voters for their support of "me and Al Gore in 1992 and 1996." He assured them that "even though I won't be president, I'll always be with you until the last dog dies."

You have to wonder, though, whether Mr. Gore shares the sentiment. He too was a Comeback Kid of sorts in the 2000 Democratic primary, falling behind Bill Bradley in New Hampshire near the end of their campaign but finally turning back that challenge and going on to win their party's nomination.

On Nov. 7, however, the state gave its four electoral votes to George W. Bush by a margin of only 6,211 votes over the vice president. Had Mr. Gore carried New Hampshire, he would have won the presidency even with the loss of Florida. The Granite State might well have tipped to Mr. Gore had he not had to bear the burden of Mr. Clinton's scandals, dismissed so easily in the New Hampshire primary of 1992 but later proved to be true.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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