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“What Sells Me”: Bill Clinton, 1974

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 42-48 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0032

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In June of 1974, just four days after winning a runoff election in the Democratic primary, the newly minted candidate for Congress in Arkansas’s 3rd District, Bill Clinton, sat down with Jack Bass and Walter De Vries to discuss the campaign. Four years later Clinton would be Arkansas’s governor-elect and shaking hands with Jimmy Carter in the White House. Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

In June of 1974, just four days after winning a runoff election in the Democratic primary, the newly minted candidate for Congress in Arkansas’s 3rd District, Bill Clinton, sat down with Jack Bass and Walter De Vries to discuss the campaign. In this interview, Clinton shows off the zeal for detail that he would eventually carry with him to the White House, dissecting the 3rd District and its voters, analyzing his opponents’ strategies, and planning for a careful campaign against Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt (a battle Clinton would lose 52 percent to 48 percent). Clinton also speaks about balancing charisma and substance. “My campaign . . . is issue-oriented,” he says, which “is what sells me as a human being.”

Bill Clinton on Voter Perception of Him as University Professor, Yale Graduate, Rhodes Scholar, and Campaign Worker for George Mcgovern

One of my opponents started running against me early in the primary, and he had these ads which appeared once as a quarter-page ad and a couple weeks later as a third-of-a-page ad. It said Candidate Profile, and it had on it “Bill Clinton on Gene Rainwater” [“a crew-cut conservative Democrat” Clinton defeated in the 1974 Democratic primary for Arkansas’s 3rd District]. And it had his age and mine. His political experiences, his legislative offices. None by my name. Present legislative duties and his committees. None by mine. It had his military record. None by mine. And it had his political and civic affairs and job experience, and he had deleted what he wanted to [from mine]. He’d taken it from my biographical sheet. Said that I’d served eight months as a law professor and had worked for five months at a time in two different periods at another college. And implied that those were the only jobs I’ve ever had. Then, at the end, it had political and civic and religious affiliations, and he’d left off all these Arkansas campaigns I’d worked on and people I’d been involved with. It said “Texas, the chairman of McGovern campaign,” or “coordinator.” He ran it in the newspaper, and people read it.

I got a call from a seventy-year-old man the next day, who’s the secretary of the county committee down at Van Buren, which is in the fifth biggest county in my district, Crawford County, just above Fort Smith. He said, “Hell, son, I think we might take him out of there without a runoff since he started running that ad. If I were you, I’d call a press conference and tell them you’re sorry he couldn’t be the youngest law professor in the history of the university.” I mean, it’s funny, you know.

People tell me it’s a peculiar district in a funny year. And I had any number of people tell me that they thought that was a political ad for me, because they’re sick of experience. It’s a peculiar thing, and it’s a mystery to me. Now the McGovern thing has hurt me some. Don’t misunderstand me. I was down in Clark County on the way back to Little Rock, and it’s an enormous county geographically. Roscoe’s the main city, but north there’s just no telling how many square miles of just rural area. I went up to one of these communities to church at the end of the primary. I carried the city of Roscoe and got my brains beat out in the county. Just got obliterated in the county—and I went to this country store to see a guy who was in large part responsible for it. Just standing...



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