'Arsenio' and Sister Souljah fit into Clinton's strategies

Sun political columnists Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover have written their fourth book on a presidential campaign. This is the second of three excerpts from "Mad As Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992," which was released last week. The first, printed in yesterday's Sun, was on the crucial second presidential debate. Today: Bill Clinton's decision on what to do about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Tomorrow: The people speak up.

On the advice of Hollywood television situation comedy producers Harry Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, and others on the staff, Bill Clinton found that one way to get beyond the news media's focus on process questions was to work the television talk show circuit.


Since it had been established that voters still did not have a clear idea of who Bill Clinton was, the best and most cost-effective way to deal with the problem was television exposure, and then more television exposure, offbeat or otherwise, and hope voters would start paying attention. What's more, he couldn't seem to get enough of talking to them. During a break in one appearance on the Larry King show, King asked him whether he wasn't worn down by the pace. Clinton seemed surprised at the question. "I love this," he said.

The whole focus on the talk shows, especially on the pop culture variety, in the period after the California primary, Mandy Grunwald said, was known inside the campaign as "the Arsenio strategy," after Clinton's appearance on the Arsenio Hall late-night show, when he played "Heartbreak Hotel" on his saxophone, wearing dark shades and looking and sounding cool to that special audience not likely to be reached with a heavy speech on his economic agenda.


The personal approach

Grunwald said she had become particularly interested in the approach when a chambermaid at a hotel in Wisconsin during that state's primary told Clinton, "I saw you on 'Donahue.' You were great!" The woman, Grunwald said, did not seem to be the type who read the newspaper every day or followed the campaign, but her reaction "was very much a personal one -- 'I know you. I have a sense of who you are.' " There was a whole audience of prospective voters out there that was not being reached on a personal level by traditional means, but who could be reached. And, an important consideration to a campaign running low on money at the end of the primary trail, the talk show circuit was free.

Shortly after the 'Arsenio' show, Clinton did a national town meeting on television and then another with young voters on the MTV cable outlet. To the surprise of many, the questions from the young audience revealed mostly the same concerns among the music video set that were on the minds of their square elders -- jobs, the economy and fears about the future.

The Clinton campaign, in addition to being on the lookout for ways to reach untapped audiences, also continued to seek means to show the candidate "going against the grain," to demonstrate that he was indeed a different kind of candidate. An opportunity was about to present itself in this regard, handed unwittingly to Clinton by an irreverent member of the MTV generation -- a young rap entertainer who called herself Sister Souljah.

With Clinton now on an apparently unimpeded course to the Democratic nomination, one question lingered within the party: what to do about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Ever since he had decided to get into elective politics as a candidate for the 1984 nomination, the civil rights leader had been a mixed blessing for the Democratic Party and its candidates.

Jackson's significance

Jackson's unprecedented candidacy had an enormous significance to black voters, who took great pride in his ability to compete effectively at the highest level of American politics. A few leaders viewed him with a jaundiced eye because of their experience with his showboating style during the civil rights movement. But most blacks of all levels of educational and economic achievement admired his audacity and determination.

Clinton had followed a policy of maintaining a distance from Jackson throughout the primary period, and his advisers were telling reporters privately that this was the way it was going to be. Jackson had no delegates, they argued, so he had no special claim on a place at the convention in New York or in the general election campaign. More to the point, by this stage of the campaign Clinton had enlisted valuable support from other black officeholders. If the goal was to increase black turnout, these officeholders could deliver just as well as Jesse Jackson. Or, at least, so the theory went.


En route to a June 13 appearance before a meeting of Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in Washington, Clinton learned that the previous night the group had heard from Lisa Williamson, the rap singer known as Sister Souljah who had caused a stir with some angry rhetoric in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots. On May 13, the Washington Post had published a story about an interview in which Sister Souljah was asked if she thought the violence had been "wise."

She replied: "Yeah, it was wise. I mean if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? . . . In other words, white people, this government and the mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you normally would be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?"

An appropriate audience

Clinton had decided he should address the Sister Souljah

rhetoric before a black audience, just as he had been telling home truths to other audiences such as those in Detroit and Macomb County during the Michigan primary campaign and his blast at business greed at the Wharton School during the primary in Pennsylvania.

So, with Jackson sitting at his left in a conference room of the Sheraton Washington Hotel, Clinton chastised the Rainbow Coalition for giving the rap singer their conference as a forum. Her remarks to the Post, he said, had been "filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight." He added: "If you took the words 'white' and 'black' and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech."


Jackson, who had listened in silence while staring stonily ahead, was clearly nonplused. After the conference session ended, Jackson and Clinton returned to the hotel suite. By this time, Jackson was seething. "I said, 'You violated us. Why did you do this?' " he said he told Clinton. The governor replied, Jackson said, that he was "offended" at the allegation, pointing out that he had praised the Rainbow Coalition highly and that his remarks on Sister Souljah had been just a fraction of what he had said. But Clinton, Jackson noted later, produced from his pocket a piece of paper containing the text of Sister Souljah's controversial observations -- proof that Clinton had come primed to make an issue of them.

Ten days after the original incident, Jackson was still beating the same horse. Press attention was meat and drink for Jesse Jackson. When he was campaigning for the party ticket in the general election campaign of 1988, he used to telephone the national editor of the Washington Post and others to brief them on his schedule for the day. But as a player on the fringe, that kind of attention wasn't being paid until the controversy over Sister Souljah. Now, as one longtime Jackson friend put it, "You'll notice he was back on the front page of the New York Times last week. It's been a long time since that happened."

No rapprochement

But Clinton and his managers were just as determined that there would be no attempt at rapprochement. Jackson didn't have any delegates this time, they repeated, and he was not going to be given special treatment. "Why in hell do we have to deal with him at all?" a Clinton confidant asked in tones that answered the question.

In political terms, however, the issue was less whether Clinton could enlist heavy black support without Jesse Jackson than whether he could win more support from Southern whites and Reagan Democrats in the North by taking on Jackson so directly and visibly. As the campaign wore on, it became apparent that, premeditated or not, the Clinton posture toward Jackson resonated throughout the electorate. As George Stephanopoulos put it later, "It stood for something larger than what it was" -- dramatic evidence this was a "different kind of Democrat."

We heard about it repeatedly from Democrats in the South all through the general election campaign. As Al LaPierre, executive director of the party in Alabama, recalled: "People would come up to me and say, 'Dammit, we've finally done something right.' . . . It was really amazing that one instance worked so well." And we heard it from blue-collar workers in the industrial states outside the South. As an electrician in North Philadelphia told one of us, "The day he told off that f Jackson is the day he got my vote."


Just how much of a price Clinton might pay in terms of black support for affronting Jackson was impossible to determine. Clinton was winning heavily among blacks during the primaries. But, unsurprisingly, black turnout in the primaries was far lower than it had been when Jesse Jackson was a candidate.

Reprinted from "MAD AS HELL: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992." Copyright (c) 1993 by Politics Today Inc. Published by Warner Books Inc., New York. All rights reserved.