Roman conquerors who paraded in triumph through the streets of the capital were accompanied, according to legend, by a slave in their chariot assigned to whisper in the victor’s ear: All glory is fleeting.” President-elect Bill Clinton had no such murmuring flunky at his side as he left the governor’s mansion Tuesday night to begin celebrating his epochal victory over George Bush. But even if he had, it’s doubtful he would have listened.
There have been presidents in American history who have been groomed for the office: John F. Kennedy comes to mind. There have also been younger presidents to take office: JFK and Teddy Roosevelt were both younger than Clinton will be Jan. 20, when he’s inaugurated. But no president ever perceived his destiny more clearly, or set about achieving it with more dogged determination, than William Jefferson Clinton. He has been running for president since at least high school, when he was captured shaking JFK’s hand in that photo that now seems so eerily prescient.
And, without a doubt, no newly elected president has ever raised the spirits and fired the hopes of a state as Bill Clinton has of his native Arkansas. Before the pundits began dissecting the electoral map, before the job seekers began flocking to Washington, before even Clinton could make his first victory speech, Arkansans took to the streets of downtown Little Rock to rejoice in an occurrence that few thought they’d see in their lifetimes: an Arkansan, one of us, had been elected president. What follows is an account of the 24 hours that transformed a backwater State with a chronic self-image problem into the cheering cradle of the free world’s leader. We will never see it like again.
By Monday afternoon the excitement was well underway. Downtown Little Rock, with T-shirt hawkers, mobile pay phones, blaring music, roving packs of foreign journalists, and general good-natured bustle, seemed like a combination of the last day before Christmas, Mardi Gras and the State Fair. Downtown watering holes took on a New York City air, with the requisite celebrities and local wannabes.
Tom Cruise was spotted in the Capital Hotel bar. A courthouse clerk was beside herself with excitement: She’d had her picture taken with movie star Richard Gere. His main Squeeze, supermodel Cindy Crawford, snapped the photo, for the star-struck young woman.
Doe’s Eat Place, by now the nationally known power center for the Clinton inner circle, lived up to its billing. Proprietor George Eldridge, normally the coolest of hosts, was flustered by the backroom scene where a gang of Clinton’s Georgetown buddies partied with campaign honchos. When the Clinton officer corps—pollster Stan Greenberg, strategist James Carville and campaign manager David Wilhelm—entered Does main room, a hush fell on the boisterous room.
Comedian Buck Henry, in town to host Comedy Central’s live coverage of election day activities, sipped a beer at a side table. Rolling Stone “political correspondent” Hunter S. Thompson slugged margaritas from a beer mug. Texas columnist and author Molly Ivins dropped in alone and joined a politically sympathetic legislator, state Sen. Vic Snyder, for dinner. It was Studio 54 on Markham. Clinton staffers delivered small homilies. They smiled, they chatted, and the long-maintained mask of modesty and under-confidence began to fall away. The deed was done: victory was finally at hand.
As election day dawned, Little Rock had become something of an international media capitol. The carnival atmosphere increased as early exit polls boded a possible landslide: Vermont swing precincts going for Clinton-Gore. Bush staffers despondent. James Baker, the former miracle-worker, nowhere to be found.
Early in the evening, the doors of the Capital Hotel were opened wide. Inside, the lobby had become a cafe. The undercurrents of celebrity rumor animated the crowd during the early hours of waiting. One onlooker Swore that two days ago Stephen Stills was offering a full month’s rent for three days in a condo in Little Rock; he Said Stills ended up at the Riverfront Hilton. Richard Dreyfus had checked in at the Capital. Jackie O was supposedly spotted in the Capital lobby.
The most prevalent rumor that Irish activist band U2 would put in a surprise appearance—was fairly well squashed by the time Clinton grabbed his first few states, though at least one “Bono sighting” was reported.
It was not a night for those who can’t stand crowds. Rabid Arkies Stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the Excelsior Hotel, pushing to get into what had been billed as a public party, held back by police, who were letting people with VIP passes into a pricey private party. The non-VIPs remained astonishingly amiable, though they ignored repeated police commands to move back.
People wrapped in flags, people in Uncle Sam suits, people with Bozo heads, but no chicken suits. Street vendors did a good business, especially in hot coffee the night was cold and rainy, and nobody seemed to mind much. Maybe the weather brought the crowd even closer together, just as the long wait to vote earlier in the day about two hours at most precincts seemed to promote a sense of we’re all in this together, and it’s kind of exciting, isn’t it” That’s how Clinton voters felt anyway, some of whom were busy getting their picture made with a life-size cardboard cutout of Clinton.
A party for Dale Bumpers in the Pinnacle Lounge on top of the Excelsior was sedate early in the evening, but this was before many votes were in in Bumpers’ Senate race. The lobby bar of the Excelsior never had it so good. Surely, this was the biggest crowd ever in the lobby of the Excelsior, which featured an ice carving of the White House.
A reporter ran into state Rep. Jodie Mahony of El Dorado, a Clinton supporter, on the street. Mahony was happy, but perplexed. “He’s winning 43-41 everywhere,” Mahony said. But he’d take it.
Judging which state taken by the Clinton juggernaut delivered the victory became, by early in the evening, 7 p.m. or so, like gauging which thrust of the matador’s sword actually felled the bull. Was it Kentucky, with only 8 electoral votes, yet considered by Clinton staffers a key early swing state? Or New Hampshire, which last voted Democratic around the time of the Ice Age? Or was it the electoral vote bonanza of Michigan, or Illinois, or Ohio?
By 8 p.m. the electoral vote stood at 238 for Clinton and a paltry 33 for the beaten incumbent, and the famed Clinton War Room, the third floor of the old Gazette Building, had reached a state of delirious, relieved ecstasy. Carville, the Louisiana assassin, a gold Sheriffs badge glued to his forehead, behind his horseshoe desk and chanted “More! More! More!” Two Staffers imitated the Candidate by tossing a football across the crowded room. And Hunter S. Thompson, who look to become a sort of drugged-out Boswell to Clinton’s Johnson, was scanning the celebration with a handheld video camera.
“Early in this race, I saw chaos coming,” Thompson confided in his ravaged, Fifth-Horse-man-of-the-Apocalypse voice. “When I organized the Rolling Stone forum, I wasn’t enthusiastic about Clinton, but the more I saw of him, I saw he was a warrior and a winner.” And was it the Rolling Stone endorsement that did it for Saxophone Bill? “Oh yeah. We got a lot of people out to vote that don’t normally vote. And we got a lot shit about Tipper, but I didn’t care: It was time to win.”
Out in the pressroom they had three televisions tuned to various stations. One clip sure to be oft-replayed in the history of the campaign was of Carville, for once waxing confident, interviewed earlier in the afternoon at his desk.”Lets just put it this way: I’m breaking out some Scotch from 1964,” Carville said, breaking a grin as wide as the Mississippi bayou.
(Earlier in the night, a People magazine reporter had spotted Carville’s mom, Miss Nippy, watching returns and weeping. Just weeping.)
The atmosphere was determinedly cheery at Republican headquarters in the Holiday Inn Weston Shackleford Road. Through the meeting rooms drifted a sea of mechanical smiles and forced ebullience with an undertow of desperation. “Come on, we want some good news,” one Little Rock woman begged the big screen television.
Later, the crowd erupted in cheers when Bush carried Nebraska. “It’s a much closer race than we’ve been led to believe,” announced Jim Burnett, of Clinton (the town, not the candidate, former National Transportation Safety Board member. “Why hasn’t the media hounded Clinton on the tax and spend” a gaunt man in his 40s demanded. The governor’s spending record is not the only thing the press has overlooked, he divulged. Clinton, the man insisted, is the Antichrist. The medieval seer Nostradamus predicted the Antichrist would have a blue cap. “Clinton has gray hair. That could be translated as blue,” the man said breathlessly. “Clinton is for things the Bible is strictly against like homosexuals and abortion….In Deuteronomy it says specifically that in the end times women will kill their insides and Clinton supports that. I believe Clinton is the Antichrist.”
In the Reunion nightclub was state Bush-Quayle headquarters, where beer and bubbly flowed like water and the Huckabee Baptists refused to tread. The crowd in Reunion was younger, sleeker and drunker than the earnest salt-of-the-earth types across the way at Huckabee’s party.
At 8:30, with a stomach-churning Clinton landslide in the works and ABC projecting a victory for Dale Bumpers in the Senate race, Bumpers opponent Mike Huckabee rallied in an interview with Pamela Smith of KATV: “I don’t believe anyone in New York City can sit there and guess [this race], anymore than they can make picante sauce.”
Outside the hotel, Republicans came and went in Lincoln Town Cars. The searchlights of the Clinton party played against distant clouds.
By 9 p.m., guards at the Excelsior Hotel were laying down the law—no credentials, no admittance; period. Inside, the ice sculpture depicting the White House very slowly melted as throngs moved through the lobby. A few squeezed on to private parties throughout the hotel. Inside the Grand Ballroom, a big band played and a singer sang songs like Sentimental Journey, while Democrats, some wearing fur coats and others jeans and T-shirts, picnicked on the floor, sometimes asking each other what was going on, since the televisions in the room were showing without sound. The ballroom was less than half full when word passed through that the Associated Press had called the election for Clinton.
On the street, it was Mardi Gras and Carnival and a hundred Arkansas festivals rolled into one. The night gave new meaning to the term “street theater.” In front of the Camelot Hotel, a group called the Good Energy Troupe inflated a swaying, bulgingblobdubbed “Bag-O-Debt” while dancers identified as “The Face of Change” assaulted the billowing monster. Nearby, a man wearing a sad-sack face that looked remarkably like that of the defeated president strolled by wearing a sign that read: “Will work for food.” He asked if anyone had any gutters that needed cleaning. In front of the Excelsior, a nine-foot-tall Uncle Sam (on stilts) walked down the street, authoritatively clearing traffic so a wayward limousine could pass. “This guy is the British Hunter S. Thompson,” said a crewman from London’s Channel 4, pointing at Andy Kershaw. Kershaw was one of three correspondents across the US. reporting live for a program called “As It Happens.”
“We just go out there and we shoot it,” said Kershaw, a leather jacketed bloke with a face that looks like it was caught in one too many soccer riots. “We’re looking for the hard information and were doing things like this, the color, talking to people here in Little Rock.” “I woke up this morning and I thought I was running for president, I was so excited,” said Vera White of Little Rock. White and her family were among hundreds crowded around a giant video screen called ‘Big Mo” mounted on a truck outside the Statehouse Convention Center.
The crowd’s attention flagged during an involved analysis by Cokie Roberts of anti-incumbent fervor vis-a-vis minority voters or something. A clutch of balloons rose into the sky to a small cheer. Then all hell broke loose.
ABC gave Ohio to Clinton and projected him the winner with 286 electoral votes. A high pitched roar rolled up and down Markham Street, echoing from the buildings and gaining volume. Then came the chant: “No more Bush! No more Bush! No more Bush” “It’s incredible, I mean it’s weird,” said Garland Watlington of Wynne. “In Arkansas, man, one of the Smallest states in the world….Even though I’m a Republican at heart, I’m impressed that he dodged the bullets and made it. I wanted the hometown boy to make it.”
In the middle of the crush sat a couple in low chairs, one child in a stroller between them, an infant in her mother’s arms, an American flag flying from their backpack. They drove over from Memphis, Will and Beth Dunaway said, claiming their spot at 5 pm. and eventually becoming surrounded. They came, Beth said, because her infant, Emily, had Downs Syndrome and a weak heart, and they feared what the future might hold for people in need of critical health care. “We’re so interested in Clinton’s plans for insurance,” she said. Her son, Liam, just wanted to see the president.”
Three feet, and about 100 people, away, two teenagers waved the Dixie flag at the many cameras trained on them from the press laden risers on Spring Street and shouted, “The South Shall Rise Again” “Oh, no” an observer, aware that the whole world was watching, muttered “I’ve used trot line bait that’s smarter than those guys.” It was the only discouraging word uttered.
The overriding feeling was one of pride. “They’re going to know us after tonight,” a woman said. “They’re going to be moving to Arkansas.” In the warm, uncrowded Grand Ballroom of the Excelsior Hotel, Little Rock realtor Rett Tucker, balancing a barbecue sandwich and a drink, predicted a terrific future for Little Rock. “Already,” he said, AP&L’s parent company Entergy has plans to move six executives here from New Orleans. It’s a great day. I really can’t believe it he said. Skip Rutherford, former state Democratic chairman and a Clinton campaign worker, was pressed for exit-poll results. “Off the record? It’s big. It’s really big.”
While the regulars partied upstairs, the VIPs gathered downstairs at Josephine’s restaurant, where the 70 or so six-figure Democratic donors and 1,100 biggest fundraisers were feted. Another floor down, the press had a close encounter with Clinton supporter Richard Dreyfus. “There’s a larger event going on here,” Dreyfus said. “It’s a mass movement. Its bigger than Clinton.” The landslide victory, Dreyfus declared, signaled a new era for America. “The energy is just beginning.” Dreyfus’ comment was echoed all over downtown: “There will never be anything like it ever again.” “Arkansas will never be the same again. It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to Arkansas.” “The whole world is going to look at us in a different light.”
By 10 p.m., Markham Street was nearly impassable. Elevators in the Excelsior Hotel were overloaded. Ubiquitous metal detectors slowed admission to public parties, creating huge bottlenecks. But the rooms filled. And wary fire marshals began blocking entrances.
We saw Dreyfus and Mary Steenburgen. We heard Woody Harrelson and Bianca Jagger were in town. An “ultra-metropolitan experience” one reveler called it. Mac Geschwind, former head of Southwestern Bell Telephone Company in Arkansas, returned to Little Rock from his new home in St. Louis to celebrate Clinton’s victory. He wore a button reading “Bye George.”
Geschwind said, “The whole world is going to look at Arkansas in a different light. They’ll see it’s not the nuclear wasteland that George Bush tried to say it was.” There was campaign director Bruce Lindsey in the lobby of the Excelsior, along with wife, Bev, the special projects director, a player in the great debate debate.
“Slick Willie’s in the White House,” a self-satisfied voice shouted in the Democratic Party’s shindig in the Excelsior’s ballroom.
And then, finally, the crowd surged toward the Old State House lawn, where a butt-shaking display of gospel fervor and partisan patriotism was in full swing. The Philander Smith choir belted out spirituals and “America the Beautiful” with equal gusto. Clinton staffers from all over the country collapsed into one another’s arms.
UALR political science professor Art English took a moment to reflect on what it all meant. “I’ve done a million of these foreign visitor tours, and you know what they all want to see? Central High. Now they’ll want to see where Bill Clinton comes from.”
The songs droned on, the Secret Service men scurried about, the crowd grew restless they were living on Elvis time as they had throughout the year-long campaign. U2 and Bianca were long gone, if they ever arrived. Then David Pryor’s voice came over the P.A., the great white doors of the Old State House swung open, and the next president— our Bill—strode to the stage with Hillary and followed by the Gores.
“My fellow Americans,” he spoke hoarsely, and the roar went up. “Tonight, the people of America have come together with high hopes and with brave hearts to vote for a new beginning….”
It’s a good point to leave him: youthful, redeemed, supremely confident and infinitely full of hope. Arkansas bred him and elected him, rejected him and embraced him again, adored and derided him. Now he belongs to the nation.
This story originally appeared in print with the title, “Glory Days, Arkansans share in Clinton triumph” on November 5th, 1992.