Clinton-Kennedy film is campaign gold


Boston -- Four seconds of film that was discovered in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston by Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign a few weeks ago have become an ace in the hole for the Democratic presidential candidate in his showdown with President Bush.

Acting on a hunch that some record was preserved of Kennedy's meeting in the Rose Garden with a group of high school seniors in 1963, Clinton's media advisers spent two days of detective work before finding footage of the 16-year-old Clinton's brief encounter with the late president.

The existence of the film was treated like a state secret by the Clinton campaign before it was shown publicly for the first time during the Democratic convention in a biographical movie of the candidate.

Asked if it would be used again in the fall campaign, Gov. Clinton's chief media consultant, Frank Greer, said last week, "Oh god, yes."

The scene accentuates the Democrats' call for the support of a new generation of voters with its ticket of Gov. Clinton and Sen. Al Gore, two men in their mid-40s, close to the age of Kennedy when he was elected. According to Democratic strategists, it represents a symbolic laying-on of hands by a Democratic icon, an ethereal blessing for a youthful candidate who has often been styled as Kennedyesque.

When the film was shown in Madison Square Garden, the sight of the young Clinton meeting Kennedy provoked gasps of delight in the audience. But, Mr. Greer said, none of the three commercial networks showed the entire movie in its telecast of the last night of the convention.

Mr. Greer said the only viewers outside the hall were an estimated 4 million watching on C-Span and CNN. That leaves millions of voters still to be exposed to the footage this fall. The campaign, Mr. Greer said, has been inundated with requests for copies of the footage. "Bill looks like such a wholesome kid," Mr. Greer said.

Just before his 17th birthday, Gov. Clinton was one of Arkansas' representatives to Boys Nation, an annual pilgrimage to Washington by outstanding students sponsored by the American Legion. The group had a brief meeting with Kennedy.

At the outset of his presidential campaign, Gov. Clinton gave Greer an old photograph of his handshake with Kennedy, a keepsake the Arkansas governor had treasured for nearly three decades. The still photo was used frequently in Gov. Clinton's advertising this year.

Mr. Greer is a contemporary of Gov. Clinton and was a participant in the same American Legion program in Alabama.

As Mr. Greer and his partner, Mandy Grunwald, helped in the preparation of the convention movie, they speculated that the White House might have filmed the Rose Garden ceremony 29 years ago. They assigned a producer, Chris Kepferle, and a young production assistant, Frank Wear, to investigate.

"We assumed that since it was a presidential event it would be on film," said Mr. Kepferle. But when Mr. Wear telephoned the Kennedy Library, he was told he needed a precise date. From the American Legion headquarters in Washington, he learned that the delegation to Boys Nation met with Kennedy on July 23, 1963.

To save money, the Clinton campaign asked a supporter from Boston, Michael Casey, to go to the library to look at the film when it was located in the Kennedy archives on June 25, less than a month before the convention was to begin.

"He called back and said, 'Great footage!' " Mr. Kepferle recalled.

The library transferred the film to tape, and it was shipped to Washington.

Mr. Greer said when he walked into his office the day it arrived, his staff members were "yelling and screaming."

A similar film was later uncovered in the archives of NBC-TV, giving the campaign two versions of the event.

Although the meeting between Kennedy and Gov. Clinton took up only four seconds on the film, the campaign reproduced the scene in slow motion so that it lasted longer in the convention movie.

The film gives Gov. Clinton material to match President George Bush's own vintage movie, a grainy black-and-white documentary of President Bush's rescue from sea after his plane was shot down by the Japanese during World War II. Bush's campaign managers used the footage, filmed by chance by a seaman, in the 1988 election to depict the Republican candidate as a war hero.


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