With the “Big Dog” back in town this week, it seems appropriate to reminisce about Bill Clinton’s first political visit to the Centennial State 29 years ago. I was serving as Chair of the Denver County Democratic Party, and we were seeking a speaker for our annual dinner. Dale Tooley had recently been diagnosed with cancer and we were moving the event up in order to launch an annual Tooley Award recognizing long service to the Denver Party, which Dale had chaired twice. Tooley would pass just two weeks after the dinner. Someone had the right contacts in Little Rock where Bill Clinton had returned to the Governor’s mansion in 1982 after being unceremoniously booted by Arkansas voters in 1980 following a single two-year term.
The Governor was willing to make the trip and generously waived all his travel expenses, but requested two favors of us. One was to move our dinner from its traditional Saturday night to Friday and the loan of a first class condo in Vail for the remainder of the weekend. Both political parties schedule their Jefferson and Lincoln Day dinners on Saturday in order to accommodate travel from across Colorado. Friday didn’t present a problem for the Denver party; and a Denver Democrat offered us the use of their lovely pad in the mountains. Arkansas’ boy Governor was on his way to the Mile High City.
Arriving early he worked every table, chatted amiably with those in line at the bars and took time to thank the volunteers working the registration tables. It was obvious he immensely enjoyed the face-to-face campaigning that too many politicians dread. There were already occasional mentions of the Governor as a future Democratic candidate for president, although few would have guessed it would be less than a decade before he accepted his party’s nomination. And, without the independent candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 (who received his largest slice of the vote in Colorado), it’s doubtful Clinton would have been elected. He certainly wouldn’t have carried Colorado otherwise. The Democratic big dogs of the early ‘90s ducked a campaign against George H.W. Bush. Whether Clinton was shrewd or just lucky will be debated for decades.
Today he is the most admired and well liked of our former presidents. When he rose to deliver the keynote address that evening in Denver he signaled the “New Democrat” agenda he would later ride into the White House. But first he provided a post mortem on his defeat for re-election as Governor in 1980. Clinton acknowledged that he had allowed himself to lose touch with grassroots opinion in his haste to solve every problem in Arkansas at the same time. He supported a legislative goose to the state gasoline tax during his first term in order to address deteriorating highways (sound familiar?), and it turned out that Arkansas’ taxpayers were willing to live with a few extra potholes. So they provided a time-out sabbatical for their boy wonder. Clinton faulted himself for failing to recognize where opinion stood and warned Denver Democrats to be careful not to make the same mistake.
This popular rejection early in his career was the origin of his transformation into the “Explainer-in-Chief” both in Little Rock and later in Washington. Bill Clinton, more than any other recent president, was careful to look over his shoulder and make sure voters were still following behind him. Consequently, he was the first Democrat to realize his Party wasn’t explaining itself well to voters. He helped form the Democratic Leadership Council, which he chaired, to redefine the party and its agenda: more talk about business and jobs, less breast beating about the environment and inequality — more discussion of opportunities and less discourse about assistance. His vision earned him a standing ovation from the Democrats assembled in Denver. He graciously thanked Dale Tooley for his years of service to the party and departed for Vail in the company of his sole Arkansas State Trooper.
His weekend wasn’t wasted. Neighbors of our donor informed us that a constant stream of visitors climbed the condo stairs for two days. Bill Clinton was assembling a network of supporters for that future race he would run somewhere over the horizon. As the neighbors observed, “He wasn’t lonely.”
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant. He served in the state legislature for two terms from northwest Denver. He can be reached at email@example.com.