Presidential Oral Histories

Bruce Reed Oral History (February 2004), Domestic Policy Advisor

About this Interview

Bruce Reed recalls earlier political life and working for Al Gore while in the Senate, speechwriting for the Clinton Administration, the 1992 presidential campaign, and welfare reform.

Presidential Oral Histories |

Bruce Reed Oral History (February 2004), Domestic Policy Advisor

Transcript

Riley

I thought we’d begin by asking you a bit about your background before you got hooked in with then-Senator [Albert, Jr.] Gore. You’re from Idaho.

Reed

I’m originally from Northern Idaho—the back woods. It’s what we now call a red state, the most Republican state in the country at the moment. But I grew up in a Democratic family. My mother was a political hack of sorts, and she pinned my diapers with [John F.] Kennedy buttons and had me knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes at an early age. So I got an awful lot of experience on how to lose campaigns. In those days we did have some Democrats, including Senator Frank Church, who was in the Senate for four terms. I spent some time working on his campaigns for him in Washington. My mother eventually became a state senator herself, after my sister and I left for college. She was eventually the minority leader in the Idaho State Senate, at a time when they had 31 Republicans and four Democrats.

I grew up in politics, but never really thought that I’d end up working on a winning campaign. It didn’t seem like a sensible profession to go into.

Riley

You came to work for Church when you were in school? 

Reed

I was an undergrad at Princeton majoring in English literature and took a semester off my sophomore year to intern in Church’s Washington office. That was in 1980, the year he was defeated. I pledged to myself that I would never come back to Washington. I finished my degree at Princeton, went off to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and got a masters in English. I was torn as to whether to become a writer or to pursue a foolish interest in politics. I tried to balance those: I wrote my thesis at Princeton on the political writings of George Orwell and Charles Dickens, and studied political literature as part of my time at Oxford.

Riley

Were you at Oxford for two or three years?

Reed

Two years at Oxford.

Jones

Which years?

Reed

1982-84.

Riley

Chuck was a don there for how long?

Jones

Just one year. I had a chair at Nuffield College in ’98-’99.

Reed

That’s wonderful. I was at Lincoln. I came back with a masters in English Literature. My wife was starting law school at New York University, and I was singularly unemployable. I tried to go to work for a news magazine, but it was in the midst of a journalistic recession. Finally, I succumbed to the temptation to look for a job in Washington and wrote to a handful of Democrats who looked like they were going somewhere, including Bill Bradley, Tim Wirth, and Al Gore. Al Gore was the only one to write back, so I came down to interview with him. I ended up becoming a speechwriter for him, starting in May of 1985. 

I thought I’d do it for a short time. It seemed like a nice balance of writing and politics. At that point—it was his first year in the Senate, but he was already a rising star—I guess he must have been 37. He was being talked about as a possible Vice Presidential candidate. I didn’t expect to stay in Washington very long. My wife was living in New York and commuting. But I got the bug and in 1987 decided that I wanted to try working on a Presidential campaign. 

A good friend of mine, Ron Klain, to whom you may talk at some point, was working for Senator Joe Biden, who had declared his candidacy, and they were looking for a speechwriter. I interviewed with them and they offered me that job. I went to tell Senator Gore about it. I asked him if he was thinking about running. He said, Well, as a matter of fact, I am, which put me in a surprisingly awkward position. So I had to put the Biden offer on hold and wait for a couple of weeks for Gore to make up his mind. 

He ended up deciding to run, so I became the speechwriter on his campaign, and learned an enormous amount. He was the last candidate in the race. We got last dibs on all the talent. We didn’t have a very good idea why we were doing it, so we had to learn a lot on the fly, but it was a tremendous learning experience. We were making all kinds of mistakes. He ended up doing better than expected. But along the way I became a total addict and couldn’t wait until the next hit on the Presidential campaign narcotic.

Jones

Would you say a bit about what that means? What were the rewards for the addiction?

Reed

Working on a Presidential campaign is a miserable experience. It’s hell for your family. The pay is terrible. The candidate is almost never happy. Campaigns are like poorly run small business start-ups with a whole bunch of people who don’t know how to run a business. 

Jones

Sounds swell so far. [laughter]

Reed

But it’s the closest peacetime parallel to combat, to the intensity of war. There is nothing quite like being in the center of things. I can remember when I was writing speeches in the Senate on issues that didn’t seem to matter. The most consequential thing we accomplished in the time I was in the Senate was to get the Senate on C-Span, which was a good thing. Helpful to history, but not an earth-shattering event. I’d go to work every day wondering, Is this what I should be doing? In a Presidential campaign, you never have to wonder whether it’s worth it. It’s such an intense experience that if you survive it, you’re hooked for life. 

So I came back from the war, told my wife I’d never do that to her again, and then looked around for the next opportunity to sign on to a campaign. I stayed with Gore for another year in the Senate—again, agonizing whether to get out of politics altogether and to try to start a new life as a journalist. I stumbled onto the Democratic Leadership Council. I’d gotten to know Al From and Will Marshall a bit in the ’88 campaign because they’d sponsored some debates. Gore had been one of the great hopes in that campaign—

Riley

Bruce, can I stop and ask you a question before you move into that? There may be a question or two about Gore in the Senate. The writing you were doing for him was primarily for speeches? Or were you also doing—

Reed

I was the first speechwriter he’d ever had. I helped him develop his trademark wooden style. [laughter] I was, I guess, what you’d call his idea guy as well. My role was to try to find new things for him to speak about. He had a deep interest in being at the cutting edge. He’d made a name for himself as someone who could see around the bend. So I’d bring in thinkers to talk with him about issues. He was relatively unknown, so he wasn’t going to [Thomas] Jefferson-[Andrew] Jackson Day dinners every weekend. But a lot of people were interested in him. He was a genuinely curious intellectual figure.

I came to the conclusion in the ’88 campaign that the speeches would be a lot better if we came up with some ideas to put in them. We got into the campaign so late we hadn’t had a chance to think through what he wanted to do as President. In the ’80s there was a great fascination with message. [Ronald] Reagan’s success as a communicator—the Reagan White House bragged about how it could make a bigger impact if you turned down the sound and just watched the picture. Politics had become hollowed out in that period. People had forgotten that the heart of what we were trying to accomplish was actually to get some things done. So that the ’88 campaign was, maybe, the nadir of issueless campaigning on both sides. 

[George H. W.] Bush invented wedge issues like Willie Horton, and [Michael] Dukakis was so worried about falling into the traps that previous Democrats had fallen into that he didn’t say anything about anything. One of the reasons I was attracted to the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] was that the job was about policy, it wasn’t just about speeches. I thought it would be a chance to do better the next time.

Riley

I want to ask you one more question about Gore before we move on to that. Do you know why he was so late getting into the campaign that year?

Reed

He was only 38 years old when he decided. One of the reasons he was able to get into that campaign is because a lot of the bigger names decided not to, including Sam Nunn, who ended up not running. So there was an opening for a southerner. Washington was looking for a fresh face. A lot of people talked him into it. He was on the cover of the Washington Monthly with the headline, Is Al Gore Too Good to Be True? There was a whole group of fundraisers—Impact, they were called—Nate Landow and 40 big fundraisers who were looking to crown a candidate. They fell in love with him. 

He had always wanted to be President. He was raised to think that he was a failure if he didn’t become President. He saw an opening. I think, in some ways, it seemed like a low-risk proposition. There was one Clinton note about that period. The first time I can remember thinking about Bill Clinton was standing in the press room in Al Gore’s Senate office, heaving a sigh of relief that this young Governor that I really hadn’t heard of had decided not to run in the spring of 1987. I’d never encountered him, but as soon as I read the profiles of him, as he chose not to run, I realized he would have been a formidable candidate, and would have made life much harder for Gore.

Jones

Can you talk a little about the speechwriting process with Gore, how that went? Was it a back and forth sort of thing? Was he a speech reader, or did he go off on his own? How did he treat a speech? 

Reed

I ended up being the first speechwriter for Al Gore and for Bill Clinton, so I have a lot of memories on the subject. Gore was a writer himself. He has often said that if he hadn’t gone into politics, he would have liked to have been a journalist. He has a deep interest in words and metaphor. He’s not a natural politician. His father had been a gifted stump speaker, a famously populist orator who would jump to the podium at a moment’s notice. Gore was a much more thoughtful and studious person. He used a relatively high percentage of the speeches I wrote. 

There was a lot of back and forth involved. He was a meticulous editor. I can remember going through numerous drafts of important speeches with him. He was also a just in time kind of person. He loved to work until the last possible moment. So I spent several nights at his house staying up all night, both of us consuming mass quantities of Diet Coke, working on articles the night before they were due and speeches the night before he had to give them. He developed an interesting style of writing. He’d gather scraps of paper for days and cut little strips of notes and arrange them. We were always worried that someone would open the door too quickly. He was a perfectionist, and hard on himself. Speaking didn’t come naturally, so he wanted to spend a lot of time on the words. 

If we want to talk about speechwriting with Clinton, we can come back to that, maybe. If you like, I can go on.

Riley

Whatever you’re most comfortable with. If you’re on this and you want to go with it—

Reed

The job of a speechwriter is to get inside a person’s head. Sometimes that’s easy to do, sometimes not. Some people are comfortable with that, and others aren’t. I think that with Gore, the challenge was that he had a very complex mind, and thought in pictures, not in straight lines. He would draw speeches, sometimes with complicated doodling. He was more a scientist than a politician. So it took a while to figure out how to think the way he thought.

With Clinton, the challenge was different. He was a very accessible person and open with his thoughts. It was easier to know what he was thinking. But he had much less use for a wordsmith. I think some staff members had occasionally tried to help write things for him. He never found it the least bit useful because he could always give a better speech than anyone could write for him. His most famous experience with a speech, up until that point, was in 1988, when the Dukakis people forced him to give a written speech that had a lot in it that he didn’t like. It was a disaster, and nearly ended his career.

Jones

This is the nomination.

Reed

At the convention. Writing speeches for Clinton, and to some degree, making policy for Clinton, was a challenge because I knew that most of the time he’d do better if I just got out of the way. But that wasn’t always possible. I think also, he needed an editor more than a writer. He was capable of giving three great speeches back to back. The necessary discipline of a written text sometimes forced him to think through what he was going to say in a more disciplined manner than he would have otherwise. Because he had always been the most gifted speaker in the class. He could speak off the cuff and bring people to tears. So lots of times because he could wing it, he usually did. 

At first it was very hard, like trying to capture a wild horse. He was capable of speaking so well that he was impatient that we couldn’t keep up. I can remember one speech, early on, a Georgetown speech—one of the first speeches we had to do.

Riley

This is during the campaign?

Reed

During the campaign, where we didn’t have a tape recorder to record what he was telling us to write. I was scribbling as fast as I could to try to keep up. He dictated something for the New Covenant speech, the first Georgetown speech in October. He said something that made all our jaws drop, it was so good. I wrote it down as best I could, but I missed a few phrases. And he was disdainful of what amateurs we were. To this day, I still can’t quite reconstruct what it was that he actually said. 

But once he got used to the idea of speechwriters, he was very easy to work with because he was relaxed about every speech he ever gave. I almost never saw him nervous. He didn’t have to agonize over it. Lots of times we would work for days and days and days on speeches, and most of the time we didn’t get it done until the last minute. But he was never worried about that because he knew that we were just doing the best we could and that he would take it to another level. We knew that too, that if we wrote a mediocre speech it wouldn’t matter, that he would still give a great one. That made for a much more relaxed relationship on our part.

I don’t know how it looked from his standpoint, but he wasn’t needy. He was happy to take whatever thoughts or lines that we had—more thoughts than lines, actually. He was almost allergic to sound bites. He had a natural eloquence of his own, but he didn’t like saying cute things. It just didn’t sit well with him. So whenever we tried to write clever sound bites for him, he usually mangled them. 

I have mixed thoughts about the speechwriting profession. By the time I had done it for five years for Gore, I was pretty hollowed out myself, and concluded that speechwriting was a great thing to have done, once you were done with it. 

The best aspect of being a speechwriter is that—particularly in a campaign because it’s such a draining job—the speechwriter is the one person who always has deadlines, always has to deliver the goods. A young person can have responsibilities far beyond his or her experience or abilities. Campaigns, like war, are an exciting opportunity in that respect anyway. A young person can have a greater impact at an early age, and experience at higher levels, than they would in any other field. That’s particularly true in speechwriting, where a 25-year-old can go to all the same strategy meetings and be present at the creation, when important things happen. It’s possible that if I’d started off in some other aspect of politics, I might not have become quite so addicted. Part of it was just being so close to the flame.

Jones

I recall the session when the Miller Center did the [Jimmy] Carter Oral History Project. We had a group of speechwriters, and I was a regular. I was at the University of Virginia, so I was in on most of these. I almost decided not to go to that one. When I went, my conclusion was: this was a group of people seeking to determine who this man Carter is, and how we could know enough about him so as to make him talk the way he wants to talk. It was an absolutely fascinating session because of that. They spent more time working on who this man was than anybody else.

Reed

That’s true. At key points in the Clinton Presidency, the speechwriting department was where the rubber hit the road, where the conflicts within the administration had to be resolved. Clinton could always give a good speech no matter what the rest of us did, but he ended up using his State of the Union Addresses as his blueprint for governing. Every key strategic move that the White House would make tended to involve a speech or some kind of written words. So that’s where the dysfunctions of the administration have to be ironed out. 

Jones

I had put down two descriptors of your experience with Gore: interactive and developmental, as a process. But I couldn’t come up with something with Clinton. [laughter] Do you have a couple? I put stimulative, but that didn’t work, integrative, but that didn’t work, organizational—but none of those seem to me to be it.

Reed

Speechwriting with Clinton was more like brainstorming. It wasn’t trying to bang out the words. It was deciding which of the many great speeches he was capable of giving he would decide to give. The interesting thing about it is that I can remember one time briefing him in the Oval Office about a speech he was going to give to some group—I can’t remember which one it was. He was very tired. I said to him, Just say what you said to the Conference of Mayors yesterday. That was a great speech. Just give that again. And he said, What did I say to the Mayors? [laughter

He had an unusual gift. He could go spin this magic and have little or no memory of what he had done. He could go and do it again, but it would never be the same. In the campaigns, he had a stump speech, but it wasn’t mind-numbingly disciplined the way many good candidates’ are. What’s the famous story about Robert Kennedy? He had some line at the end of his stump speech. One time, just as a joke, instead of saying, Thucydides, or whatever it was, he ended by saying, And now, back on the bus, to the traveling press corps. Clinton wasn’t like that. No two speeches were the same.

Riley

Well, you said that with Gore, you were always cutting and pasting mechanically. The way you describe Clinton it’s almost like his own mental computer has all that stuff already in there. You’re pushing to see which of the little segments will be—

Reed

I don’t know if it’s more like painting—I don’t know what exactly is the metaphor. Gore had a computer-like approach. Clinton was much more impressionistic.

Riley

We hear jazz references all the time.

Reed

That’s exactly right. He loved to riff.

Riley

Improvisation. Chuck, did you have something else on that? Obviously, this speechwriting component will be important throughout. Why don’t we go back to the DLC? I think that’s an important enterprise for us to understand as it relates to the development of the ideas that go into the administration. Historically, that’s a kind of important enterprise. Tell us your transition, what you were doing there. 

Reed

As I said, I wanted to work on another Presidential campaign. I didn’t think Gore was going to run again any time soon. I needed a different job. I couldn’t write speeches anymore full-time. So the prospect of doing policy and working with Clinton, who was about to take over as chairman of the DLC, was very exciting. I started there in January of 1990. George Bush was at 70 percent in the polls, and shortly thereafter went to 90. So there were plenty of times when I thought, What the hell am I doing? 

The DLC was still in its early years, and had a mixed reception within the party because it was seen as primarily a white, Southern, conservative operation. In fact, the kinds of ideas that the DLC had begun to work with were more radical than that. But it was really Bill Clinton who transformed the DLC into a successful enterprise. Because he was the one who made it possible to get out of the traditional left/right box that seemed like a zero-sum game within the party. The Democrats had run campaigns that were perceived as somewhat too far to the left. But understandably, people didn’t want to just change labels or shift their principles. Then Clinton came along, and he was neither fish nor fowl. He had some liberal passions, but conservative governing values. He’d also thought through the difficult issues in a way that others hadn’t. We quickly realized that he was perfectly suited to bridge the divide in the Democratic Party because he was new and young and exciting, but had to govern in a tough, relatively conservative Southern state. 

I spent the first couple months in the DLC working for Sam Nunn, who was the archetypal conservative Southern Democrat. I was trying to remember on my way down here the first time I set eyes on Bill Clinton. I remember the first time I talked to him, because he called. We were working on what we ended up calling the New Orleans Declaration, which was the first manifesto of the DLC. We mockingly called it the Mississippi Manifesto, but we decided that really wasn’t a particularly compelling name—from any standpoint. The DLC convention, when Clinton was going to take over as chairman, was going to be in New Orleans in March 1990.

We decided we’d write up a defining set of principles and a short platform—what we thought the party ought to stand for. We started work on this. Will Marshall and I went through draft after draft. We sent one down to Clinton. I knew this guy was going to be different when he called one morning and spent an hour dictating to me on the phone what the education plank of the platform ought to be. His ideas were far and away more compelling than what we had written. He proved to be the perfect leader for a political think tank. That’s what he was. His head was a political think tank. 

The first time I heard him speak was when he took over as chairman in March of 1990. That was in a ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans. I knew right then that he would be President someday. It was a spellbinding experience. You could hear a pin drop in the room. People had never seen anything like it. He was the first Democrat I had ever come across who talked about values instead of programs. He absolutely captivated the audience and looked at the issues in a completely different way. We didn’t know whether he was actually going to run for President. He didn’t know. Our job was to come up with the ideas and the themes for a Democrat to use in a Presidential campaign. We didn’t know for sure who that Democrat was going to be.  The DLC had always attracted lots of potential Presidential candidates. Sam Nunn was thinking seriously about it at that time. I think actually at one point in 1991—I was terrified because five people I knew pretty well were all thinking about running for President and wanting me to work for them. I didn’t really know how I was going to juggle that.

Jones

Who was it?

Reed

It was Clinton, Gore, Nunn, Jay Rockefeller— for whom I’d written jokes—and Dave McCurdy—an unlikely candidate, but interested nonetheless. 

Jones

I’m so glad that somebody wrote jokes for Jay Rockefeller. [laughter]

Reed

It was fun! One of them was in Newsweek. It was about how, when he was a kid, All kids play with blocks. I played with blocks when I was kid. Mine were Madison, Park, Lexington. It was great writing speeches for Jay Rockefeller because he had a wonderful sense of humor and loved making fun of his background. But that’s another story.

After he took over as Chairman, Al From and Deb Smulyan—who was the Deputy Director of the DLC—and I went down to visit him in May at the mansion in Little Rock. I will never forget that morning. We came from a breakfast meeting. We sat with him at the table in the mansion. They brought out a tray of biscuits and breakfast for all four of us and Clinton ate everything. [laughter] Never saw anything like it.

Riley

He ate all four servings?

Reed

It was for four people and then some. It was a phenomenal display. But he also had all kinds of ideas about what he wanted the DLC to do. He had used his legislative sessions in Arkansas to develop his own kind of platform. He put out a booklet I still have. I’m sure the library has a copy of it. It was an Arkansas agenda, more detailed than most Presidential campaign agendas. It was extraordinarily good work, and it was really almost all his own doing.   He didn’t have a big team of policy advisors. He had good people, but he’d spent so much time going to NGA [National Governors Association] meetings, Renaissance weekends, and going to reunions, stealing ideas from people wherever he went. Much of the time we were taking ideas from him, not the other way around. But his real gift was that almost immediately he knew the themes that he was going to take to the country. 

We set up state chapters in about 30 states and sent him around to go and find and meet with New Democrats around the country. He started honing what became his stump speech. It was all about opportunity, responsibility, community, and reinventing government. I can remember him giving that speech in New Hampshire, in ’91 in front of the Texas legislature. He was practicing. He didn’t know if he was going to run or not. He had a heck of a time in 1990 in the Governor’s race in Arkansas; he came close to getting beat. So he really wasn’t able to focus full-time on higher aspirations until the end of 1990. We didn’t talk about it as preparation for a campaign because he was mostly interested in the ideas and themes. It was clear that the kind of things that he was doing would be useful if he decided to run.

Riley

I’m curious about how Clinton differed from his predecessors in that particular role. The impression I get is that he was much more proactive, and interested in leveraging this into something, making this a kind of personal platform. The impression that I’m now getting from you is that you were willing cooperators in this enterprise.

Reed

That’s right. As I said, the DLC had always attracted people who were thinking about running for President. In 1988, [Richard] Gephardt, [Bruce] Babbitt, and Gore were all closely associated with the organization. So there was no shortage of future Presidential candidates at DLC meetings. And both Nunn and [Charles] Robb had used the chairmanship as a kind of national platform. But Clinton saw it as an opportunity to travel the country in a way he couldn’t otherwise, and introduce himself to the Washington scene and the chattering classes through ideas, not just through campaigning. We had to twist his arm a little bit to get him to go and do all this travel. He had a day job. We were probably pushing him to go out and go on the stump more than he was. 

But he absolutely loved the ideas and the chance to meet people who had new ideas. He first got interested in national service at a DLC meeting in ’87, when he ran into Charlie Moskos. He would come up to our offices and give us a bunch of ideas to write about for our magazine—pump people for information about different issues. He had almost no experience in foreign policy. He was learning about that, too. 

He liked hanging around with Les Aspin and Sam Nunn and seeing how they thought. I don’t think he had any master plan. I think he was feeling his way along. I think that he was too much of a procrastinator about the decision to run to have done all of it for the expedience of it. There were lots of ways he could have used that time that would have been useful to him in putting together a Presidential campaign that he didn’t do. He didn’t put together a fundraising network, he didn’t have a campaign staff. He put off a lot of the important work a methodical Presidential aspirant would have done. 

But he loved the intellectual challenge of trying to figure out how we were going to change the Democratic party and be competitive against Bush. He’d written an article in the New York Times, an Op-Ed in ’80 or ’84, that he was very proud of later. It was about how the party had to change. 

I heard him say many times later that one of the values of the DLC for him was that it made him realize that he wasn’t alone. There were other Democratic politicians around the country who thought like he did and other wonks who saw the world the way he did. So it was a kind of sounding board for him and a confidence-builder, that he was onto something. We called it a grassroots movement. It wasn’t really a grassroots movement, but it was a movement of sorts. It had a philosophy; it had a set of ideas. I think that’s what excited him most about running for President. The rest of it was work, but that was play.

Riley

Let me follow up with one question. I know my colleagues have some follow-ups too. This one is derived from your comment that there were others he was interacting with. As you already said, there were a lot of prospective Democratic aspirants that you’re working with at that point. This must be a frightening experience for them, to see this meteoric rise of this figure that’s taking the enterprise and doing all sorts of creative and interesting things with it. Were you getting some resistance from some of these other folks, who were concerned that his star was—

Reed

Well, first, Clinton was easy to like. Some of the people who most naturally might have felt threatened by him, like Sam Nunn, liked him a lot. They had completely different interests. So I think Nunn probably felt less threatened by Clinton because Clinton was a domestic whiz but knew nothing about the things that Sam Nunn cared about. I think the clearest tension that I can remember was when we were going into the May 1991 conference in Cleveland. We had to put together a program, and by May of ’91 the campaign hadn’t started yet. There was no announced candidate. But it was show time, so everybody who was thinking about running for President wanted to be at that meeting.

Putting together the program for that was an enormous challenge. We ended up making Clinton the keynote opening speaker and Gore the closing speaker the next day. They were both nervously eyeing one another. Clinton was angry at us for giving Gore such a prominent position. I’m sure Gore was nervous about how Clinton would do. As it turned out, Clinton came in, gave the speech of his life. Gore gave not one of his better speeches, and it worked out fine. There was enough uncertainty about who was really going to run that we were able to table that question most of the time. The other thing that helped was that Bush was at 90 percent in the polls. The nomination didn’t seem all that worth having that time around. That’s why everybody was hesitating about whether to do it and why they felt a little less threatened by one another.

Jones

Also probably explained why we have ten this time. [laughter]

Knott

I should have jumped in sooner, but I’m interested in finding out—what was it that drew you to the DLC? Did you perceive the Democratic party as being too far to the left?

Reed

My parents were liberal Democrats; I worked for a liberal Democratic Senator. My first impressions of politics came from trying to hand out Democratic bumper stickers at county fairs in Northern Idaho.

Knott

And you survived? [laughter]

Reed

To guys with pickup trucks and gun racks. I learned to experience rejection at an early age. I remember feeling late in the Carter administration that I had a lot of progressive ideals, but I was tired of defending government for its own sake. Certainly tired of defending what the generation before me had done. I guess I considered myself a neo-liberal in those days. I was a passionate follower of the Washington Monthly, which I tried to work for, and the New Republic, which I tried to work for. And Gore considered himself a neo-liberal. I remember one time his yelling at Roy Neel, How am I supposed to be a neo-liberal if you surround me with all of these paleo-liberals? The practice speech that I wrote for Gore to get the job as speechwriter was a hypothetical Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner for the Mississippi Democratic Party on what the party needed to do to change in order to be competitive again.

It was a time of deep despair in Democratic circles. I think my attraction was twofold. First, I was tired of writing speeches without ideas in them. And, secondly, I really did want to figure out how to reform the party because it was clear to me that the country wasn’t buying what we were selling. A lot of Democrats in Washington blamed the country. Like the old dog food joke about something being wrong with the dogs because the dogs won’t eat it. I just thought that we could do better. 

I was attracted to Gore and to Biden and eventually to Clinton because I saw them as the closest thing to a Bobby Kennedy of my time, somebody who could bring together working stiffs and the more liberal parts of the party. I wouldn’t have liked the label conservative. But one of the great things that happened while we were—I can remember one of the first meetings I went to at the DLC while we were trying to figure out where to go. We came to the conclusion that we couldn’t win this battle for the soul of the party if we tried to define it as a conservative vs. liberal or moderate vs. liberal fight. We had to make it a fight between new and old. 

One of my jobs, in addition to being policy director, was to edit this magazine called the Mainstream Democrat. I spent my first year at the DLC in a concerted effort to change the name of it because mainstream was about being moderate to conservative, not about being new and interesting. Eventually, with Clinton’s help, we decided to rename the magazine the New Democrat, which became the phrase that captured the movement. That was just a symbol of what Clinton was able to do. He was able to excite Democrats of all stripes because he made it about the ideas and about breathing new life into the party, and not a strictly ideological fight, although it had considerable ideological consequences and a deep ideological underpinning.

I think what he realized was that ideas and policies were what made Democrats feel good about themselves and what drew them to the enterprise in the first place. Then, if you could get beyond the battle over labels that had gotten us nowhere—for a decade, by that point—you could get people excited again. They would suspend their bickering in favor of finding a new synthesis that had a broader political appeal but also was more likely to get something done.

Jones

Would you say something about the everyday operation of the DLC? Who was in charge, that kind of thing? That is, DLC minus Clinton.

Reed

It was a very small outfit. We were on the third floor of a bank building on the corner of Third and Pennsylvania Southeast, on Capitol Hill. We had about ten employees. Al From was the founder. Will Marshall had been his sidekick and was head of the newly formed Progressive Policy Institute, which was part of the DLC. Deb Smulyan was the executive director, I was the policy director, and Linda Moore was the political director. We had about half a dozen young kids, who worked with us putting out a magazine, putting on conferences, building a network of public officials around the country. 

We had a few outside affiliated thinkers, like Bill Galston, who was at the University of Maryland, and Elaine Kamarck. We had one kind of full-time thinker in addition to the rest of us on staff—Rob Shapiro, the Vice President for economic policy. That was about it. There were, at that point—I don’t remember exactly—50 or 75 members of Congress who considered themselves DLC-ers, a couple hundred around the country. We put out occasional policy papers. In part, it was trying to do for the Democrats what Heritage had done for the Republicans. We probably had a million dollar budget.

Riley

The funding sources were?

Reed

It was some individuals, some trade associations. Clinton had promised to raise us money—never did. He raised the organization a lot of money after he became President, so he made up for it.

Riley

Indirectly.

Reed

Indirectly, right. We had some ties to Congress, but we weren’t all that welcome there. The DLC essentially represented the Governors’ wing of the Democratic Party. There was a much deeper split then than there is now. At that point the Governors were the thriving part of the Democratic Party. There were 30-some Democratic Governors, and they had to solve problems all the time. They had to govern in a bipartisan way. They didn’t have the luxury of having partisan gridlock. They actually had to balance a budget every year, make progress on schools and health care. So we were philosophically and emotionally closer to them, or temperamentally closer to them. 

We spent a lot of time looking at what states, and to some extent, what cities—because there was a kind of urban renaissance going on—what they were doing that worked. We compiled ideas that worked at the state and local level, where government was actually functioning, and tried to bring those to scale at the national level where it wasn’t. The Democrats in Congress were at their nadir. That was the time of the House banking scandal. Both parties were at each others’ throats. It’s when the term gridlock first came to be applied to politics. In our view, they didn’t have to answer to voters the way Governors did. So a lot of members of Congress didn’t like us very much. Some thought that we were a conservative force. Some saw us as just too radical for them.

Jones

Did you have any connection with the Democratic Study Group? 

Reed

No. There was no formal connection. We were too small. Brookings was full of serious scholars. We could hardly call ourselves a think tank. We were just a tiny little applied science, research and development group that would find ideas that would work in a campaign—and hopefully in governing—and put those out there. We didn’t try to, we couldn’t compete in the Washington think tank world. We just didn’t have the horses. But we did have a ready audience in Governors and Presidential candidates. And as it turned out, the Governors after whom we modeled ourselves had figured out pretty much what the country wanted: a less ideological, more pragmatic, approach to policy and politics that appealed because it worked.

Jones

Yet you had Senators, House members, who were active.

Reed

Yes, we had some. At one point we tried to start something called the Mainstream Forum in the House of Representatives. It’s how I got to know Dave McCurdy. About two dozen Democrats would meet in his office once a week. But mostly it was just a gripe session about the Congressional leadership. They were members from conservative or moderate districts that felt House leadership didn’t understand their concerns—made them vote on things that were just going to make it hard for them to stay in office. On the Senate side, the moderates were more influential because of the way the Senate works. But Congress wasn’t doing anything. 

There were a number of wonks in both Houses who liked to come to our conferences because they found it intellectually interesting. But almost nothing was getting done. We were talking the other day about how, in ’89, I think, S. 2 and S. 3 were DLC bills, one on national service, and the other on—I can’t remember, some aspect of budgeting. So we were occasionally useful. But that wasn’t our game. 

Riley

Let’s go ahead, then, and transition to the campaign. You get drafted fairly early to go with Governor Clinton?

Reed

Yes. As ’91 wore on, it became more apparent that Clinton wanted to run. As I said, he gave the speech of his life at the Cleveland meeting, which was still one of the best political speeches I’ve ever seen anyone give. We’d written a few things for him, but Craig Smith, his chief of staff, had said, Don’t worry, he knows what he wants to say. I watched him that morning backstage at Cleveland prepare for the speech he was about to give. He wrote 20 words on the page. They were just reminders, Opportunity, responsibility— I can’t remember what they all were. 

Then he went out and gave a 20-minute speech that was perfect pitch. Not a word out of place. It looked like something he had rehearsed time and again. And in a way, he had, because it was a variation of the speech he’d given on the stump, at little DLC meetings all over the country and elsewhere. The national press corps was blown away. They, for the most part, had never seen this guy, except at the ’88 convention. They had no idea of his talents. In that speech he laid out the basic themes of his campaign: that for too long, Democrats had failed to represent the economic interests, defend the values, and stand up for the security of the forgotten middle class. 

The response to that speech was so overwhelming I think we all knew that if Clinton decided to run and was able to put together a halfway decent organization, he would be a force to be reckoned with. At that point we didn’t know what he was going to be up against. We still thought Mario Cuomo was going to run. No one knew where the party’s heart was in a battle between those two guys. 

Clinton spent the summer mulling it over. Almost no practical work on the organizational front was done, because I think the people closest to him in Arkansas were genuinely unsure what he would decide to do. They’d been through this once before, in ’87. I wasn’t around in ’87, but I’ve talked to others who were there when he had walked all the way up to the edge and had all of his closest advisors come down and spend the night at the mansion. A lot of people thought he was going to announce that day that he was going to run, and then he announced that he wasn’t. So they were not in a position to start putting a campaign together.

Riley

Bruce, can I ask you one question about that? David Maraniss and others have said the meeting Clinton had with Betsey Wright the night before, in ’87, had been instrumental. Is that consistent with what you—

Reed

Yes. My impression was that that was the general reason why he decided not to run that time. I think there were a few things that still held him back in ’91, in addition to the inevitable scrutiny that it was going to bring. Chelsea was only 11, I believe, at that point, maybe 12. He loved being Governor. He always referred to it as, A job, and a life, that I love. And Bush was still at 70 or so in the polls. Cuomo was still the toast of the party. 

There were lots of reasons to hesitate. I don’t know if he knew how good he was. No one from Arkansas had successfully run for President—or really come close. He had real doubts, as did some others. There were some people at the DLC who thought that he was such a fluid manager that he could never put a decent campaign together. He’d had half a dozen—or close to it—four or five chiefs of staff in Arkansas. No one really knew who was chief of staff most of the time. He just didn’t put a premium on that sort of thing. 

He was so much better than anybody else at politics that he felt like he could run the whole state himself. We’d asked him to raise money for us; he hadn’t done anything. So there was serious doubt if he had the discipline to raise the kind of money necessary to be an effective candidate. Al From and I were so smitten with his talents that we didn’t worry about that. We thought that the rest of the country would swoon for him the way we had. Our biggest worry was just that he would decide for some reason not to run. But in August he decided.

Riley

I’m going to interrupt you right here because we can pick back up easily and I’m sort of overdue to give you a break. 

Reed

So he decided to run. Craig Smith called us and told us that he had decided to run. Bruce Lindsey called and asked if I could come down and spend the week before his announcement, the last week in September in ’91, working on the announcement speech. So I did. Wrote a draft that he said he liked. Frank Greer also came down for that week. He wrote a draft, which I’m sure Clinton liked. We spent the better part of that week, Frank and I, arguing over our respective drafts and trying to meld them into one. Clinton had given a brilliant speech at the DLC. He’d also given a brilliant speech to the DNC [Democratic National Committee] in Los Angeles that was in most respects the same speech, but it highlighted different aspects of his repertoire. So Frank and I had this kind of shadow debate that went on for several days.

Riley

Was Clinton engaged at this point? 

Reed

No. I guess he was keeping an eye on us, but he wasn’t focusing on the speech. The debate was really over how reformist the speech should be, how much it should push the envelope. Frank was more of a party regular, and I was the insurgent troublemaker. Eventually, Stan Greenberg came down to help, but Clinton was busy with other things. There wasn’t really a campaign yet. Skip [James] Rutherford had found a place to house the campaign. We spent some time working out of that old paint store, but there was no campaign organization. No one had much idea what they were going to do. Bruce and I kept meaning to talk about what specific role I would play, and eventually, before I left town, we decided I would be the policy director. 

We didn’t have a campaign manager. They had just decided to hire George Stephanopoulos. No one was that worried about it because we knew we’d be able to put a team together. I think the biggest worry was finding a campaign manager—because you can’t have a campaign without a campaign manager—and putting together a fundraising organization. 

Riley

But it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to run and you were going to go with him.

Reed

At that point, the seas had parted. All the other people I thought might run had decided not to.

Jones

Cuomo was still thinking?

Reed

Cuomo was still thinking about it. I guess Clinton had asked Al From and Eli Segal to put together a search committee to interview people and make recommendations on who should have what job. They had decided early on that whatever my title would end up being, I’d be the policy guy, continuing the role I had played at the DLC.

But first, we had to get him to actually say the words—that he was declaring for the Presidency. He finally decided to focus on the speech, the night before. We were working out of the Governor’s mansion. I think he read our draft and it wasn’t right. It wasn’t his yet. He decided to start from scratch in his own way. I vividly remember Hillary [Clinton], who I hardly knew at that point—I might have met her in passing, but I hardly knew her—bringing us plates of food and shaking her head about how disorganized he was being. Chelsea was practicing ballet in the foyer of the mansion. 

We started working, and eventually I set up shop downstairs in the computer room, typing a finished draft. Frank and Stan were upstairs with him as he went through it. They’d all come downstairs and give me new material. Clinton was interrupted repeatedly to make phone calls. There were fires he had to put out. I think he was still soliciting advice from people as to whether he should run. This went on for hours. 

I was well prepared. I had spent most of my time with Gore staying up all night working on speeches. We hadn’t finished Gore’s announcement speech until 3:30 in the morning the night before he was to give it in Carthage, Tennessee, in 1987. Clinton had the good sense of scheduling his speech mid-day so we could stay up all night and still get a little bit of sleep—in theory, at least. He went to bed—he was happy by about 2:30 or 3:00. But we still had a bunch of work to do to enter his changes. So Frank and Stan and I huddled around the computer until about 4:00. 

Then Frank took me back to the place I was staying. He came and picked me up around two hours later, at 6:00. We went back to work on the computer. Clinton was up, and we talked about the speech and added some lines that we thought about in our spare time. We had a finished draft that we were all happy with by 6:30. He went off for a run. He asked me at 6:00 in the morning on October 3rd if it was true to our DLC principles. I said, Yes, and gave him a few lines to add to make sure of that. He said, You’re here to keep me politically correct. [laughter

He practiced the speech later that morning; he ran through it once. Our biggest concern was the last big speech he was known for was the convention speech in ’88, which was, I believe, 33 minutes long, but seemed like an eternity to him and to the listeners. We were terrified that if his speech went on too long that that would be the only story of the day. Here comes Clinton with another long speech. So we kept trying to keep it from going too long. It ended up being 38 minutes long, I believe, but it was well received. It didn’t drag and people didn’t cheer just because it was over, the way they had in the last convention—

Then he went off and gave it. He ad-libbed something at the podium, which was a lovely addition. I can’t remember exactly, but he was talking about civil rights, Here, in the shadow of this state house, because it was at the old state house where Arkansas had voted to secede from the Union in 1861. 

The speech was a great success. Then we had to figure out how to put together a campaign. Al From has a story that I don’t remember of Clinton saying something to that effect, Now we have to put together a campaign. I have an identical story from the Gore campaign. When Gore announced his intention to run, in spite of everything, he just scribbled out five things on a legal pad, went off and gave that speech in the Mansfield room. One of those ideas was a mission to Mars, believe it or not, which was about as popular then as it is now. [laughter] We came back to the Senate office with his family and little Albert, who must have been four or five years old at the time, said, Now, what do we do? [laughter] Which was a perfect summary of the plight of the Gore campaign.

But that’s the situation we found ourselves in ’91 as well. I came back to Washington. We had decided, actually, I think, before he announced—he was up in Washington. The first time I showed him the draft of the announcement speech, we were meeting in Greenberg’s office on the Hill. I proposed to him at that meeting that we give a series of policy speeches as a way to follow up the announcement speech because we felt that was his comparative advantage to the other candidates. He had a better idea of what he wanted to do as President. We made a point of saying in the announcement speech, It’s about time we had a President who knows what he wants to do for America. It was a good contrast with Bush, who didn’t have much of an agenda, and with the other Democrats, who hadn’t thought it through.

In the Gore campaign, we had given a series of speeches—three policy speeches, starting at Georgetown—as a way to distinguish him. That had been very successful, to a point. He had given a foreign policy speech urging the party to abandon the politics of retreat, complacency, and doubt. Got a lot of positive press off that speech. Then he had to give the economic and social policy speeches, and we realized we didn’t have anything to say. We decided to repeat that exercise with Clinton, and set up the Georgetown speeches. As soon as the announcement was over, I came back to Washington and started work on that. 

We decided to give a social policy speech, an economic policy speech, and a foreign policy speech, in the reverse order of what Gore had done, because Clinton knew the most about the first and the least about the last. I was still working out of the DLC because there was no campaign to join yet. 

I wrote the first draft of the New Covenant speech, the first Georgetown speech, in a hotel room in the suburbs of Pittsburgh because the Pirates and the Braves were in the playoffs that year. The Pirates managed to squander a three-games-to-two lead and lose the playoffs to the Braves. We’d gone over to see the sixth game, hoping to see the Pirates clinch the pennant. They lost, got shut out by the Braves. I spent a day in the Holiday Inn, writing the New Covenant speech. Then the Pirates lost again. Drove back in the middle of the night and finished the speech when I got back to Washington.

Riley

So should we read that speech carefully to see if there’s disappointment dripping through it?

Reed

Yes, there’s a good deal of repressed hostility. No, it had a hopeful beginning. I couldn’t believe we would actually get shut out again, in the seventh game. But we sent Clinton a draft that Friday. He was, at this point, traveling all over the country. We just kept working. We had a conference call on the speech that Saturday night—when I would have been at game one of the World Series if the Pirates had made it, but they weren’t there, so I had time to work on the speech. 

It was on that conference call that we decided that this speech was great but it needed some news—a policy proposal that would make news. I suggested, What if we called for an end to permanent welfare? We decided to call for an end to welfare as we know it. There was no doubt that Clinton was going to make welfare reform a big issue. He’d done that as Governor and one of the striking things about his speech in Cleveland was that he was saying people on welfare who can work should go to work. That was the centerpiece of the first Georgetown speech. But of course he still hadn’t engaged on that speech either. 

We gathered the night before the speech was to be given in Frank Greer’s office. We wrestled our way through that speech with him. That was the speech where he lost his temper with us, with me, for not being able to keep up as he dictated a better speech. But eventually we got a speech he was happy with. 

We did the same thing a couple weeks later on the economy. The first New Covenant speech was my favorite because it distilled his philosophy in the most refreshing way. To go back to his announcement speech—in the key paragraph of that speech, he announced his intention. He said that, Government has a responsibility to provide more opportunity, and people have a responsibility to make the most of it. It was the first time he’d ever said it quite that way. Those were his words. I’ve always thought that his biggest intellectual, philosophical contribution to the Democratic Party was to restore the link between those two concepts. Almost everything that he did that mattered combined more opportunity and more responsibility. 

The DLC had been plumbing in that direction, had put forward ideas that illustrated that concept even before Clinton had come around. National service was a good example of that. But Clinton was the one who put it into words. He wasn’t the first Democrat ever to have done that—the Kennedys had given speeches about challenges, not promises. But that, more than anything else, got the Democratic party back in sync with the country—the notion that we should help people get ahead, but that everybody had to pull their own weight. In the ’70s and ’80s the country had lost faith that that’s how Democrats thought. It really was the essence of the American dream that most Democrats lived and most Americans talked about. Republicans had successfully suggested that Democrats had lost touch with those values. A lot of Democrats had forgotten about them, too.

Anyway, the first Clinton speech—the New Covenant speech—was explicitly about that. The phrase New Covenant was also in the announcement speech. We had a long discussion about whether to use that phrase or not. Clinton liked it because it had religious overtones, but we didn’t think it would—well, it was a little high-falutin’ and not likely to catch on. Over the course of the campaign, we spent more time agonizing over that phrase than just about any other. The concept, as I said, of a bargain between people and their government was the most important thing Clinton was saying. But the phrase New Covenant was hard for a lot of people to get their arms around. The consultants hated it because it was at too high a reading level—

Jones

New Bargain didn’t— [laughter]

Reed

Right. Every Democratic speechwriter has tried to come up with a better phrase than New Deal, and everyone has failed. New Frontier was good in its day, but it didn’t really mean anything, or didn’t have as concrete a meaning. But the second Georgetown speech was one of the most quintessential writing experiences with Clinton. The first Georgetown speech was October 23rd, the next one was sometime in mid-November, November 12th maybe, I’m not sure. So we had a couple of weeks to write it.

This was the economic speech. We had a lot of the material for it. We’d been gathering it for years. So I wrote a draft of that speech with help from Rob Shapiro and others. I sent Clinton a number of drafts, but kept working. He focused on it the night before, once again, in Frank Greer’s office. This time, he just wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t think we had gotten all of his ideas into it. We went round and round for hours. It just didn’t look like we were going to get anywhere. 

Finally, about 11:30, he went off by himself and wrote an outline of the speech—wrote the 15 or 20 ideas that he thought needed to be in the speech in the order in which he thought they made sense. After he had done that, he was completely at peace with the whole exercise. He gave that to me. Then Rob Shapiro and I spent from midnight on trying to rearrange the speech into this outline he had suggested. I guess George Stephanopoulos was around for part of it, too. They went home around 3:00. I finished at 6:00. 

I took the draft over to Clinton’s hotel room, met George, and he and I took the speech in to Clinton at 6:00 in the morning, which was not Bill Clinton’s favorite hour. But he was in high spirits, read though the speech, liked it, then walked over to his briefcase on his hotel bed, and pulled out a stack of about 50 memos from various people around the country he had met, that he’d known for years, and whose ideas he’d asked for. He pulled out several of them, and started thumbing through, pointing out to us ideas that we hadn’t put in the speech yet, that he wanted to have in there. [laughter

At that point, I knew that I was lucky if I would just be able to keep up with the guy. So we added a few more things to the speech. Then we had about a month to write the next one, which was on foreign policy. The only thing that I remember about that speech is that, at one point, I think Will Marshall and Sandy Berger were talking to him about defense policy and going on and on and on. Clinton said, I never thought I would come across a policy that I didn’t want to know everything about, but I think I just have. [laughter

We finally found a campaign manager in David Wilhelm. We eventually found a fundraiser, Rahm Emanuel. I did everything I could to avoid getting relocated to Little Rock. I found a little bit of office space in D.C. that was unoccupied. I worked on policy out of there for a while. They put a little cartoon on the wall in Little Rock of a bird with a caption saying, I’m on my way to Little Rock, It had my name on it because I kept promising I’d be down there. 

By the time we turned out the three Georgetown speeches, Clinton was the toast of the chattering classes. He’d won the ideas primary, won the thinking man’s nod. He had an enormous head start in that regard because he’d gotten to know the press corps. There were a number of extraordinarily smart reporters on the case who agreed with his analysis of the Democratic Party’s problems and the country’s problems. So we had fellow travelers in the movement who were press corps. They weren’t Democrats, they were honest reporters. They thought we were onto something. Joe Klein, Ron Brownstein, Michael Elliot, who was with the Economist at the time. 

Clinton became the Democratic frontrunner almost entirely on the force of his ideas. There was still no evidence he was going to be able to put together a formidable campaign organization. No one knew at that time what a tremendous fundraiser Rahm Emanuel would turn out to be, or how disciplined Clinton would be at it. We never had a really good campaign organization. We ended up having, I think, four campaign managers—four people who played that role but didn’t necessarily have that title. But Clinton was his own best strategist. Organization didn’t matter a whole heck of a lot to him.

Riley

When did [James] Carville and [Paul] Begala come on?

Reed

Carville and Begala won the Pennsylvania Senate race and Clinton met them. In December they decided to sign on with him. We had daily conference calls with about 20 people on them. We were a campaign with an excess of advice. There was still a continuing tussle over the soul of the campaign. Clinton knew where he wanted to go. But he had drawn people from so many different circles that every conference call, every event, was a debate over what kind of person, what kind of candidate he was going to be. 

Because it was working, by the time we got to New Hampshire in January, the contours of his candidacy had mostly been set. He discovered, as we had hoped, that ordinary people were desperate to hear a politician who was talking about real answers. That was particularly true of New Hampshire, which was devastated by the recession. People were hungrier for specifics than anyone had ever seen them. Paul Tsongas, at whom we’d laughed when he came to see us at the DLC in the spring of ’91 to tell us he was running, seemed like such a nice guy, but such an implausible candidate. He’d produced a detailed, 100-page booklet on what he was going to do.

We decided to write a campaign booklet as well. I sat in the Washington office and wrote a version of that, which we then boiled down into a shorter version that Clinton put in his advertisements. He gazed straight into the camera, saying, I’m the man with the plan. If you want a copy, call me, call my office, or call my campaign. We mailed it to every New Hampshire voter. Voters loved it. It was how he formed a bond with them that enabled him to survive the things that then came down.

Knott

You mentioned a few minutes ago that there were factions. You talked about the conference calls—20 people involved, various factions. I was wondering if you could just tell us who these factions were?

Reed

The good thing about it was that there were divisions, but there weren’t quite factions. People didn’t line up predictably. There were people who were more traditional Democrats, who were in the political department. Frank Greer’s wife, Stephanie Solien, her job was to talk to Democratic constituents. So she, naturally, didn’t want to offend them. Susan Thomases, who was the scheduler, had her own views about where the party ought to go. We had a bunch of consultants: Greenberg, Greer, Mandy Grunwald, Paul Begala, who at that point were still sorting out their pecking order and didn’t always agree. 

It was just chaotic. There wasn’t anybody in charge. So almost every decision was kind of a jump ball. As I said, it wasn’t organized factions, the way we’d later have in the White House, where people would scheme with one another. I think he kind of liked it that way. He knew he was his own best strategist; he liked being able to make the decisions. So he didn’t worry too much about the fact that his advisors couldn’t agree.

In spite of the fact that people had disagreements, we had a lot of talent. Almost everybody was good at their position, and Clinton was the best candidate any of us had ever seen. 

There was a myth that emerged in the ’80s, and to some extent in the ’90s, that handlers were the most important thing, that they make campaigns. My view is somewhat different. I think there are good strategists and bad strategists, good handlers and bad handlers. But the job of a campaign is to execute the strategy of the candidate. Our campaign was—not in the primaries, not in the general—not anywhere near as good as the mythology around it. We had capable people, but the reason it was a successful campaign is that it didn’t make mistakes and we didn’t screw up. And we had a candidate who knew what he wanted to do as President, knew what he wanted to say, had his finger on the pulse and had a bond with the electorate that allowed him to hit perfect pitch.

 In any campaign, eventually a gulf develops between headquarters and the plane. Tensions occur. The candidate and the people traveling with him on the plane always have a much better sense of what works and what the moment calls for than the people down in headquarters. So the people in headquarters get most of the credit; they’re the ones who talk to reporters. They think that it’s the ads that make the difference, and this strategic difference or that. I think that Clinton, had he chosen to become a political consultant, would have put them all out of business. 

Later on when we talk about the general election campaign, when I spent more time traveling with him, I can talk about how much he ran his own campaign. The job of the campaign—especially in the general election, but this is to some degree true in the primaries— was defense—to defend against the inevitable attacks that come from the other side, or from the press.

In the primaries, the best thing his handlers did for him was help him have the confidence to get through the scandals. He was tough as nails. He had a very thick skin, was kind of a robo-candidate. No matter what came at him, he’d keep going. And he had a team around him that was that way, too. They weren’t quitters. There’s no question that the way that the campaign responded to Gennifer Flowers and the way they succeeded in showing how much of a comeback he made in New Hampshire was enormously helpful to him.

Jones

Let me ask a couple of staff questions. Were you involved at all in staff building?

Reed

I guess I was consulted on some decisions, but not really.

Jones

My other question concerns something I’ve always been curious about. In that particular election, you had a number of what people in advance thought would be obvious candidates— Gephardt, Gore, Cuomo—who decided not to run. I wondered if you could say something from the point of view of the professional kinds of people staffing up a campaign. Was this group sitting around waiting for a candidate, and some ended up being left out? Was that taken at all into account by your folks in the Clinton operation?

Reed

First, we had to find a campaign manager. We wanted one that understood Clinton, and ended up going outside Washington to find one. David Wilhelm was recommended by Mayor [Richard] Daley. That was a good fit because as I said earlier, we were more simpatico with Governors and mayors than the Washington style of campaigning. George almost went to work for Bob Kerrey. He wanted to work for Kerrey; he said he had a crush on Kerrey. But Clinton made him an earlier offer and he decided to take it. 

Most of the rest of the people would only have gone to work for Clinton. Greenberg and Greer had known him for quite a while and had worked on his gubernatorial campaign, and Grunwald came with them. Carville and Begala surveyed the field and could have gone to work for anybody. They didn’t make their decision until after all those other perspective candidates were out of the race. People like Harold Ickes were personal friends of Clinton, going back a while. 

In the primaries, I don’t think Cuomo’s decision would have affected the staff much. We would have ended up with pretty much the same team. If Gephardt had run, Stephanopoulos, Begala, and Carville would have been more likely to go work for him because both Paul and George had worked for him in Congress. If Gore had run, I would have been in the miserable position of probably not being able to work for either one of them. 

We had a talented campaign. It was a small operation. Because it started late, and because we didn’t think Clinton was going to be able to raise that much money, we didn’t hire a lot of people. It was in Little Rock, so that dramatically narrowed the number of people who were willing to sign on. You remember that in 2000, Gore moved his campaign to Nashville—in part to get rid of a lot of the hangers-on. Little Rock, though I resisted going there, saved the Clinton campaign for a couple of reasons. 

First, it was truly an outside-Washington campaign. There was no way we could think like Washington insiders, when we were eatin’ at Doe’s, and walkin’ the streets of Little Rock. It was so far away from the beltway that we had a perspective closer to what the voters had. That was immensely helpful. Second, we spent, as a result, a whole lot less time talking to people inside the beltway and being influenced by the ups and downs—

Jones

Most of whom were sure they knew better than you did.

Reed

Yes, and it wasn’t just that their advice would have been bad, although it might well have been. It was that the mood swings of Washington are devastating. I don’t think the Clinton campaign could have psychologically survived the Gennifer Flowers and draft stories if it had been based in Washington. My wife stopped going out over those two months because everybody in Washington had given up on Bill Clinton and she was tired of hearing about it from them. 

In Little Rock we knew that we had problems, but the people we ran into on the street hadn’t lost faith in Bill Clinton. We didn’t have to spend all our time spinning our friends, and talking to reporters, fighting the daily conventional wisdom. That was enormously helpful. It was far more efficient. We spent our time doing our jobs, instead of trying to win the invisible primary. Once we got used to the isolation of the place, we all came to be grateful for it. 

Just one other thing about an unrelated point. I believe that one of Bill Clinton’s greatest political assets is that he spent his entire adult political career in Little Rock and not in Washington. So he spoke a different language from every other candidate. He was much more likely to know what was really going on in people’s heads. Even though he’s a competitive, partisan person, he didn’t see the world in partisan terms. He had to work with Republicans. He had friends who were Republicans, or even more likely, independents that didn’t belong to either party. He saw the world a different way, and spoke about it a different way. It allowed him to run circles around the guys from Washington he was running against.

Jones

Was it viewed as an advantage or a disadvantage that essentially the Iowa caucuses were not something you had to deal with because Tom Harkin was a favorite son?

Reed

That was a real blessing. Clinton was a bridge candidate, but he was a moderate. His positions were moderate, not liberal. And organization was not our strong suit. If we had had to compete in Iowa, he might very well have won, just because he was better at retail politics than anybody else. He was just a better candidate than the other candidates running at the time. But if he had to go head-to-head against Mario Cuomo in the Iowa caucuses, that would have been a tall order. Whereas in a place like New Hampshire, or in other primary states, his strengths would have come out. 

No one really knows what to think about Iowa anymore because in this last go-around it behaved more like a primary. It seems like organization was not really the most important thing, but political talent was. But at the time, we were convinced that the Iowa caucuses were the epitome of everything we were trying to steer the party away from. I wrote the speech that Gore gave pulling out of Iowa in ’87. He went there and we thought we were going to wow the political press by going into the belly of the beast, speaking to the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner and saying, The politics of retreat, complacency, and doubt may do for others, but they will not do for me. I want to win Iowa in November, not in January. Something like that. 

Anyway, there were seven candidates. He spoke at midnight, on a Saturday on the weekend that Douglas Ginsberg had admitted that he had smoked marijuana and all the other candidates had gotten asked if they had smoked marijuana and Gore had to admit that he had, too, so the speech got no attention whatsoever. In any event, it was clear that Iowa would be the least receptive place to go and try to change the party. We were grateful we got to fight it out in New Hampshire. And New Hampshire was well suited to Clinton’s strengths as a retail politician, and as it turned out was desperate for answers, as I mentioned earlier.

Riley

You went to Little Rock when?

Reed

I joined the campaign formally and went on the campaign payroll in December. Went down to Little Rock several times. The campaign essentially moved to New Hampshire in January, so I never really set up shop in—

Riley

You went to New Hampshire? 

Reed

I went to New Hampshire and spent a good part of late January and early February in New Hampshire. I went up there to write the health plan. I was there for the scandals. As a policy guy, my phone stopped ringing from the time of the Gennifer Flowers scandal to the end of the primaries. I’m not sure what I have to add about that period. There is one story that has always struck me as indicative of why Clinton survived. I was in Little Rock, at the mansion at the end of January, early February, after both scandals—the draft and Jennifer Flowers. Greenberg reported to Clinton that his numbers had really started to drop. He had been ahead in New Hampshire. He had been on the cover of Time. He was the national front-runner, but he was also in the 30s, I think, in New Hampshire before the scandals. Greenberg reported that his numbers had dropped into the teens.

Riley

Those are not approval numbers.

Reed

No, those are head-to-head. He was losing badly to Tsongas and headed in the wrong direction. The campaign was in complete panic. He was scheduled that next day to do an event on putting forth a proposal we called Lifeline, to enable people whose houses were being foreclosed on because of the recession to hang onto their houses until they got their jobs back and things turned around. We’d worked on it with a friend of Clinton’s who was a banker up there. It was something the people of New Hampshire were really interested in. 

All the consultants were in despair and trying to figure out what to do. Clinton had just been told that his political future was probably over. His reaction was to pull me aside and ask me a whole bunch of questions and make some suggestions on what we should do to refine our proposal that he was going to announce the next morning on this Lifeline. 

The consultants had a totally different view on what he’s got to do. After the meeting was over, Begala, Stephanopoulos, and I went back to headquarters and wrote a new speech—that I think Carville had asked for – that was all this political language about, No matter what happens, I’m gonna fight like hell. It was just a classic politician speech. We all thought it was the thing to do. 

He went to New Hampshire. He was confronted at the airport by Peter Jennings with the [Col. Eugene] Holmes letter. Then he went and did this event and stood in the snow, all alone on the front yard of this home and gave this tinny, I’m gonna fight like Hell speech. The press thought he was toast. They smelled fear. Our campaign people in New Hampshire were devastated and said, What are you doing? Everybody up here wanted to hear about what you’re going to do to help them keep their homes. They can’t believe that you talked about all this other stuff. 

And sure enough, Clinton, after weathering those couple of days, went back to talking about what it was that New Hampshire wanted to talk about, not what the national press wanted to talk about. The people in New Hampshire, at the end of the day, didn’t really care about Vietnam or Gennifer Flowers. They were willing to take his word for it, that those weren’t big deals. That’s when he said, The hits I’ve taken are nothing compared to the hits that you’ve taken. He made it about them, not about him. They loved that about him.

In the last week of the administration, we went back to New Hampshire, back to Dover where he’d given the I’ll stay with you till the last dog dies speech. I showed him a copy of the policy book that we put out in New Hampshire. He held it up for people, and you could just tell the gratitude and the special bond that he felt towards the people of New Hampshire for actually caring about real issues and not just about politics. 

The political press, and the Republicans—the White House—didn’t understand that. They thought that they could have another campaign like 1988, which was about nothing, where all the politicking would work. But the country was hurting, and there were real problems. People really did want somebody who was going to talk about them. 

Riley

You mentioned earlier that the interval from there to the convention, you were pretty much toiling to yourself. Are you constructing the policies that later get—

Reed

We emerged from the primaries. It became apparent, almost right away after New Hampshire, that he was going to win. It was just a question of holding on. By the time we clinched the nomination, we were damaged goods. We were running well behind Bush. We were running third in the polls when [Ross] Perot was included. So we thought we would try to rehabilitate our image by giving a series of policy speeches between the end of the nominating process and the convention. There wasn’t anything else to do. Once a candidate clinches the nomination, the press stops paying attention. We couldn’t afford to go off the radar screen completely because we had so much baggage. 

We started giving the policy speeches we hadn’t had time to give during the primaries. He gave an economic speech at the Wharton School of Business, where he attacked the ethic of the ’80s. He gave an environmental speech in Philadelphia, a family speech in Cleveland, an education speech in South Central L.A. It was a terrific opportunity for us to fill in the blanks and write the remaining chapters of what would become Putting People First. He enjoyed it because he was a wonk and loved to talk about policy. It got us nowhere because the press wanted to know what we were going to do about our image problems. They didn’t care about our ideas.

It did produce one quintessential Clinton speechwriting moment. The education speech that he gave in South Central L.A. was one of the most difficult because as I mentioned earlier, education was a topic where he knew more than anybody. He certainly knew more than I did. He had me gather a circle of all the people that he respected on education and pump them for ideas and put together a speech. Paul Begala and I wrote a speech and gave it to him—before the speech in Los Angeles—and he gave it back to us. He had carefully crossed out every line for the first three pages and written his own speech. Paul Begala and I both treasured that as the best example of what it was like to write for a guy who didn’t need you.

We had the Manhattan Project that the consultants worked on, which I wasn’t a part of, how to rehabilitate his image. We made some strategic decisions about whether to stay in Little Rock or go back to Washington. I was there at the meeting in Little Rock when they presented the four options for how to rehabilitate himself. One was Putting People First. Another was Reinventing Government. I can’t remember what the other two were.

Riley

But there was substance.

Reed

For the most part, yes. I mean, part of it was telling the Hope story. I don’t think anyone had a convincing theory of the case at that point. We set about writing Putting People First. A group of us, John Kroger, who was my deputy, and I, and some others wanted it to be an edgier document. We wrote a draft called something like, Ten Ideas to Revolutionize America. The consultants wanted a safer—they wanted a slogan with some substance behind it—but didn’t want to have to spend all our time talking about the substance. Then Bob Reich and Ira Magaziner, who were informal advisors to the campaign, had a completely different vision what it would be. They had their own book that they wanted. Eventually we had to gather in Little Rock and reconcile our various drafts of the book. We put out Putting People First in June of that year, and that gave a little bit of a boost. 

But what really turned the campaign around was the decision to pick Gore as the Vice President. Since I’d worked for both of them, I’d started telling friends and reporters that spring that I thought they would be a very interesting match because they had complementary interests and strengths. That, in fact, Gore was strong in almost all the areas where Clinton needed help—and vice versa. The big question was whether they could actually get along. They’d been natural rivals. They were Presidential wannabes who had almost run against each other four years earlier. They had eyed each other, as I told you earlier, about running in ’92. Both young, competitive, from the same part of the country, which defied the convention of ticket-balancing. 

Gore made the short list because he did have a lot of strengths that Clinton needed. I pleaded with the vetting committee that actually they’d be a good fit, that Gore was a Southern gentleman and a good soldier, and that they’d get along. When they met, they got along famously—much better than they’d expected. Roy Neel, who was Gore’s chief of staff at the time, famously referred to them as two guys who had gone to college together but hadn’t known each other in college, and met at their 25th reunion and decided to drive across the country with their wives, which is what happened. They went on the bus tours and became friends. 

But the decision to put Gore on the ticket strengthened Clinton in ways even beyond what people had anticipated. I think the consultants were divided. They leaned more towards Gephardt or some of the others on the short list. [Harris] Wofford was on the short list, as I recall. They razzed me when George told me, the night before, that Clinton had picked Gore. I told them that they were going to love him, that it would work out fine. But then I got to stay up all night writing both of their speeches. [laughter] Which I guess is a test case of your earlier question about what it’s like to write for the two of them.

Clinton used everything that I wrote about Gore, and Gore ignored most of what I wrote about Clinton. 

Riley

I don’t know what that says, do you, Chas?

Jones

I’m working on it.

Reed

I stayed up all night that night writing both of those speeches. The reason it turned out to be such a boffo success was first, it reinforced Clinton as a New Democrat, that this wasn’t a ticket-balancing exercise, that this campaign was really about something—that he was confident enough to pick somebody who believed in the same things he did. And second, in a way that no one really anticipated, the sight of these two young men of the same generation, with young families, turned the election into a generational contest that we hadn’t really expected. It wouldn’t have happened if Lee Hamilton had been the choice, or Harris Wofford—or anyone else. 

The remarkable thing was the degree to which Clinton wasn’t threatened by Gore. I always thought that it was because after he chose him, he realized what a good choice it had been. Every time he might have been threatened he was reminded of what a good choice he had made.  

I’m sure that winning a Presidential nomination does a fair amount for your confidence. But he really had, in the course of the couple of years that I’d known him, gained a sense of security and confidence that was enormously helpful to him, and even more helpful to him as President, and it continued. By the end of his Presidency, I often thought back to the early days, when I first knew him, when he seemed not so much insecure, but in need of affirmation, and threatened by things that he later would have the self-confidence to dismiss.

Riley

I think you already addressed this, but I just want the record to be clear. You don’t think that you had any particular role in helping pave the way for Gore?

Reed

No. I wished later that I had sent Clinton a memo expressing my feelings on the subject, because he ended up coming to the same conclusions that I would have suggested. But I felt that I had a conflict. I didn’t feel right pushing him to pick him when he’d been my boss. The only small role that I played was in reassuring Warren Christopher’s team—Jim McPherson, and others—that contrary to what most people thought, I figured that they’d get along quite well, that Gore would be honored. 

Most people thought that Gore was too proud to be Vice President. I thought that he would be very proud to be Vice President, and wouldn’t resent being picked at all. The only time that I can remember shuttling back and forth between the two of them before he got picked was when Clinton gave that environmental speech. He wanted to know Gore’s opinion because Gore had just written a book on the subject. So I called Gore and asked him to read it. At that point there was still some of that tension that I’d felt when we scheduled them as bookends of the Cleveland conference.

Riley

It strikes me, listening to you talk about this, that this may be one of those instances where the President was not particularly beholden to his pollsters? Is that an accurate assessment?

Reed

Well, I don’t want to downplay their role. I think, on this decision, on many, many decisions, as a candidate and as President, his political advisors were often divided. That was fine with him. He wanted their advice. He didn’t want them to make the decision for him. If you haven’t talked to Greenberg, I’m sure you will. I’m sure that Gore did fine in whatever polling they did on the subject. But I think that decision was so personal. He really wanted to find somebody he could get along with and would be comfortable with stepping into his shoes and would say something about his politics. So he was taking into account a lot of factors that a political advisor wouldn’t, just by definition.

Riley

What you identified was something that comports with my own memory, which was that the dynamic of that decision, after it was made, took a lot of people by surprise. It’s not the kind of thing that I think would show up very accurately in a poll. Chuck, do you have a question? Or Steve?

Jones

Yes, I do. We had some latitude, since Bush had chosen [Dan] Quayle. Before we get too far ahead of the convention, what about Perot, the effect of Perot on your policy?

Reed

A very interesting point. Perot was a very helpful influence on the ’92 debate. Despite the fact that he was an odd bird, he was onto something. He was concerned about the deficit. He had tapped into Americans’ concerns about how Washington was broken. Clinton’s natural instincts were in that direction. He had some of the same feelings. He had a fair amount of gubernatorial contempt for Washington.

Riley

Jimmy Carter helped that along. 

Reed

Perot reinforced his own instincts. He saw a competitive need to—he didn’t want to get beat to the reform punch by Perot. So he kept pushing us to read Perot’s work, come up with our own ideas in the same vein. So I think it had a significant kind of gravitational impact on the race, and also underscored how open the country was to dramatic change. It led to a lot of head scratching within the campaign, because we were running third. 

There was considerable debate taking place in June, before the Vice President was picked, about whether we should we be aiming for a majority or a plurality. There were advocates of what we called the 34 percent solution. I don’t think Greenberg was alone in this, but I think that was his first instinct, that if it was going to be a three-way race, he felt that our best shot was to make sure that our 34 percent showed up. I think that influenced his views on who would be the right Vice Presidential pick. The New Democrats had set about from the outset to expand the party’s appeal. We thought a 34 percent solution was a disaster, that if we aimed for 34, we’d get 25. That was limiting Clinton’s appeal in a self-defeating way. 

It was a parlor game. There was no way of knowing whether Perot was going to go the distance and whether we could win the reform votes back from him. Thankfully, Clinton dismissed the 34 percent solution out of hand. He felt that that was a false choice. There was nothing about what he was saying to the swing voters that was going to alienate the 34 percent.

I think one of the reasons he picked Gore and not someone who was more of a party regular was because he thought that would expand his chances in expanding the party appeal. The combined slingshot effect of first picking Gore, and then, to our surprise, having Perot drop out of the race, propelled the two of them to a huge lead coming out of the convention. It was nothing we had ever expected. If we’d gone a different route and aimed for a more modest piece of the pie, it wouldn’t have worked out as well. But everything broke our way.

The convention was something of a struggle. I was assigned to work with Gore on his speech.

Riley

It’s time for them to go?

Reed

It’s time for them to go, that’s right. Gore didn’t have a name as a compelling speaker. We had the benefit of low expectations. But meanwhile, they were trying to sort out having the same old debate: how much a reformer vs. how much of a party regular to be, as well as how much to make the speech about what Clinton was going to do, and how much to make it about who he was and where he came from. I wrote a draft over the Fourth of July that was very much about what he was going to do, rather than who he was. He liked it, but he said he thought the consultants were right, that he had to tell more of his own story. 

The speechwriting process for that convention speech was something of a nightmare. They ended up at one point with like six or seven thousand words, and they knew that they were going to hit an hour and a half if they didn’t figure out a way to get it down. I think they were all disappointed in what they gave him. They just didn’t have enough time to get it to the level they wanted. As it turned out, the essence of what Clinton had to say was so good—and he was so good at delivering it. And the film beforehand, and the story of The Man from Hope was so powerful. He hadn’t had a chance to show that as much on the campaign trail. This time, you watch the 2004 race, and biography seems so central to it for most of the candidates. It was important then, but they didn’t talk about it nearly as much. But both Gore and Clinton, in their convention speeches, bared their souls a bit. So the combination of people meeting this guy and hearing his story—I think one of the most interesting things that the Manhattan Project found was that most voters thought that Clinton was the son of privilege. They thought that that since he’d gone to Yale and was a Rhodes Scholar and a lawyer that he must be rich. They had no idea what he’d gone through. That’s what The Man from Hope story was trying to correct. We went straight from there to the bus tour.

Jones

Could I back this up to Perot again? Did his campaign, in a sense, complement your overall strategy as far as policy concerns? 

Reed

Absolutely.

Jones

To break out of an issue-less of American national politics—

Reed

That’s exactly right. I wouldn’t call him a wonk, but he had a detailed platform. He had a book. He was talking about a couple of real problems, mostly the deficit, but he was a big advocate of campaign and lobby reform, changing the culture of Washington. He had charts. So he was—like Tsongas, like Clinton—preaching specifics. As it turned out, of the three of them, Clinton was the only gifted communicator. The other guys just weren’t regular guys. But Perot definitely both reinforced the importance of dealing with real issues and reinforced the desire to change Washington, which ultimately worked entirely to our favor. 

Later, there was a lot of speculation that Perot’s being in the race took votes away from Bush that we couldn’t have won. I was always convinced that, even though Perot voters said they were sort of 50/50 Democrat/Republican, we would have gotten more than our share of his votes because they were votes for change. In some way, it’s a shame for Clinton that Perot got back in the race—though on policy he probably was a helpful influence.  If Perot hadn’t gotten back into the race, it might have been better for us. Clinton would have come in with a considerable majority and one that he would have been forced to work hard to maintain.

We rejected the 34 percent solution and went for a majority. That enabled us to do well in the campaign. But we won with a plurality. We came into office with a 43 percent solution that was halfway between what the old Democrats and the New Democrats wanted. It left Clinton without the strength of his own convictions to govern from a majority standpoint and forced him, in the first two years, to govern as a Democrat, rather than as a Democrat with considerable appeal to Independents and Clinton Republicans.

Jones

Do you think Perot ever thought that he might be selected by Clinton as a Vice President?

Reed

No. At that point, he would have been thinking the other way around, probably, because he was leading us in the national polls. We were third at the time he got out. I don’t know how they got on personally. They must have known each other a fair amount beforehand, because Perot’s first interest, as a policy wonk, was education. And they were from neighboring states, and so on. 

[two pages have been redacted]
Riley

We made it past the convention. You were on the bus trip?

Reed

I did go on the bus trip.

Riley

Tell us about that.

Reed

It was an amazing experience. I deeply regretted that I didn’t buy a video camera in New York City to film the whole thing. We went into it not expecting much. It seemed like just an extremely slow way to campaign. The idea of spending five days on the bus to St. Louis was not something that most of us would have done with our free time. But it became clear almost immediately what a fabulous idea the bus trip was going to be. From the very first stop, we were astonished by the crowds. It was just a different way to see people and see what they wanted. It’s like the old ads about, See America best by car. It was so different from tarmac-to-tarmac campaigning. 

We had a rough patch in the first half hour because we got through the tunnel into New Jersey and realized one of the people on our bus—there were five or six buses—was actually a stowaway. I think they were homeless and just climbed on the bus. We’d been talking to the person. We just thought it was a new campaign staffer. [laughter] So we had to pull over and the police had to come and take this person away. Delayed the bus tour for a little bit. Our first thought was, This is going to be a very long trip.

We started in New Jersey. I can’t remember if we made it to Pennsylvania that first night. We must have. The crowds were larger than expected. At the kickoff in New York, before we left, I realized as Gore was giving his speech that what he really should do is to repeat his line from the night before, that it was time for them to go. So I sent a note up to him, but he didn’t get it in time. But he tried it at the next stop. The crowd loved it. By the end of the trip, everyone else was wishing that I had never brought it up because they’d heard Gore say it 100 times at that point. 

We were talking earlier about Clinton speeches. The Clinton stump speech was always different. The Gore stump speech was always exactly the same. The press kind of lost interest in what these two guys were saying, but they were amazed by how the country seemed to feel about them. I most remember going through Illinois and seeing young kids lining the streets, holding sparklers and flags, and coming into Vandalia, Illinois, close to midnight on probably the second or third day of the trip. Clinton gave a remarkable speech about how [Abraham] Lincoln had been there. I can’t remember if that was the state capital at that point.

Knott

It had been the state capital at one time.

Reed

We could just tell, it wasn’t so much about us anymore. It was about how desperate the country was for change and how excited they were about the prospect of change. There were a couple of occasions where we literally had to pull over and stop because the crowds mobbed the road and we could not go any further. Some of it was a well-designed trip. They picked the locations, it was well advanced. But to a large degree it was a spontaneous eruption like we hadn’t seen in that campaign. It happens every now and then in Presidential politics where the people get excited, more excited than the politicians had any right to expect, and this was one of those occasions. Clinton and Gore turned out to be a pretty good road show.

Riley

And you proved to be prophetic in your sense about the relationship between the two of them.

Reed

It was a great chance for them to get to know each other, because no matter how you slice it, there was still a lot of time between stops. We’d go for 14 and 16 hours. A good half of that was road time, so they got to know each other and their wives got to know each other. Clinton really hit it off with Tipper, and Gore hit it off with Hillary. At every stop, all four of them would speak. They were having the time of their lives. It was a remarkable way for them to become friends. Everybody was having fun. 

Then we got to St. Louis. They liked it so much they told headquarters, When can we do the next one? Over the course of the fall we did—I don’t know—seven bus tours? The one I remember best was the Lake Erie bus tour because my wife flew out to Cleveland to join us to tell me that she was pregnant. Then of course she had to come along on a three-day bus tour with morning sickness.

We had entire bus trips in Georgia and North Carolina, in every target state. I still have a whole dresser-drawer full of t-shirts, because for every bus tour, there was a t-shirt trying to surpass the last one. And the voters everywhere loved it. It was something they hadn’t seen before. It was a way to do retail campaigning that could reach enough voters to matter. The crowds were huge and it was just such an American thing to do at a time when a lot of other Americans were taking road trips. That’s what you do in late summer. It was an inspired way to make the most of Clinton’s talents.

Jones

And your role consistently was that of preparing—

Reed

On the bus trips, the staff’s role was survival. In the primaries, George Stephanopoulos, along with Bruce Lindsey, had been Clinton’s travel mate, his policy and press guy on the plane. He came back to Little Rock to be communications director and asked me if I wanted to take his spot on the plane. So I did. By that time we had a dozen people traveling. We had Dee Dee Myers as press secretary, Paul Begala, a political guy, Bruce Lindsey—a few other political people and some technical people. Paul and I would occasionally write bits for speeches. When we announced new policies, as we would over the course of the fall, I’d explain them to the press corps. I’d try to manage the policy operation back in Little Rock by phone. 

But as is often the case in this kind of campaigning, some days there’s policy and some days there isn’t. On a bus trip, it wasn’t about the new ideas we were rolling out, it was just about rolling along. Just staying awake, not getting sick. Somewhere in Iowa, we took Bruce Lindsey to an event at the county fair and took him on some rides. He was devastated; he was sick for days. [laughter]

Knott

That’s a revelation.

Reed

Every day there was a certain amount of talking with the press corps just to make sure that they got it. Some of them were still writing, filling in the dots on Clinton so they could write policy stories—so there was work to do. Mostly we were all just familiar faces for Clinton to stare at on the bus.

Jones

Did you learn something, then or later, that affected policy development?

Reed

I’d say that the whole ordeal of campaigning throughout ’92—I felt like, from Clinton’s standpoint, we were negotiating a contract with the American people. In his view, these ideas weren’t just promises to get votes. He felt that the pledges he was making were the reason he was getting anywhere, the reason people had kept him in the race when they might not have otherwise.

I learned from watching him campaign on the stump, in addition to just seeing how good he was at it, hearing the promises over and over again and seeing how much the country wanted a different kind of politics. How much they wanted to change—not just Washington, but change both parties and how they did things. It confirmed what we’d thought, but deepened and broadened our understanding of the phenomenon in a way that would be very useful once we took office. As I said earlier, in the first couple of years we got off on a different road. But when we came back to that road that we campaigned on, all those miles on the bus were very useful.

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Riley

Were you involved in the debate preparation?

Reed

Yes. We had a big team of people that prepped him for the various debates. Debating was not his strong suit. In the primaries, he was good on his feet and knew his arguments cold. But in the primaries, he had lost his temper a few times. He came close to punching Jerry Brown in the New York debate when Brown attacked Hillary for being on the Wal-Mart board, something like that. Anyway, he did not blow away the field in the primary debates, so he wanted to practice quite a bit.

Riley

Did he invest himself in the practice? Was this a disciplined exercise on his part?

Reed

It was a pretty disciplined exercise. He watched some tapes of himself, which was not something he ordinarily did. He had an unusually good sense of how others perceived him. Then we had, let’s see. I presume that Bob Barnett played Bush. I don’t remember who played Perot off the top of my head.

Riley

It wasn’t McCurdy, was it? 

Jones

McCurdy played a role at some point.

Reed

It was just methodical. There were no great surprises, no epiphanies, just grinding it out. That’s the way that he was in all the debate preparation I ever saw him in. He was always terrible the first time and he knew it. The experience of getting beaten by these other amateurs inspired him to a higher level. I think maybe Mike Synar played a part. 

It was just disciplined practice for him, and he got better each time. I’m trying to remember which order they went. The last one, I think, was in Williamsburg, but I can’t remember the first. There was one in Kansas City, maybe, and a third one—

Riley

The one everyone remembers is the one with the format change.

Reed

Right, with him on the stool and Bush looking at his watch.

Jones

Was that at Wake Forest?

Reed

That one was at either Williamsburg or Richmond. It was relatively uneventful. My strongest memory of the Williamsburg preparation was that, for the second year in a row, the Pirates had lost to the Braves in game 7, blowing a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth, thanks to Francisco Cabrera. I wore black the next day. Then Clinton went off and campaigned in Pittsburgh and commiserated with the people of Pittsburgh, but made clear that he had no idea what actually happened in the game. He said it was too bad that the catcher dropped the ball, when the catcher hadn’t even gotten the throw. The winning run had slid in before the ball arrived. He was never much of a baseball fan.

In any event, I’m sure that blood pressure was a little higher during the debates. We were confident that if we didn’t screw it up, we were going to win. If I ever saw him nervous, it might have been before the first debate. But he never got very nervous. I think in the first couple, Perot’s performance was better than expected. There was no clear winner, no clear loser. It was only in the third one, where Bush was perceived to be out of touch and Clinton bit his lip and felt the pain of the woman whose question Bush hadn’t really answered.

Jones

You had to prep the guy to whisper to the President, What time is it? [laughter]

Reed

Yeah, Gore’s question was on his mind, I guess. Because that’s how it’d always go, What time is it? It’s time for them to go. I don’t really remember any other tense moments. 

In the final days, we had a 36-hour fly-around, where we went to nine cities in seven states and literally campaigned all night, ending up in Little Rock the morning of Election Day. We knew by that point that we were going to win. We had a crowd of several thousand at four in the morning in New Mexico in 20-degree weather. I feared for a moment at one point on the Kentucky stop that I’d cost the President a swing state because we borrowed a football the Governor had given him along the way. We were playing touch football while he was giving a stump speech. One of the advance men threw the ball into the crowd and broke a woman’s nose. Kentucky was very close, so we were worried that the news would break just in time.

Jones

Lost by a nose. [laughter

Reed

Exactly. As it turned out, it was more painful that I had to break the news to him that we had lost his football. But to back up just one second, there is one bus trip story, I think from the Lake Erie trip, that it was telling. As I said, these bus trips were unbelievably exhausting. But Clinton was the opposite of everyone else. He was energized by the experience. He fed off the crowds. The more people he saw, the stronger he got and the more energized he got. 

At one point on that trip, we pulled into Erie, Pennsylvania at 3:30 in the morning. There was a crowd of a few thousand waiting for us. Everybody on the trip was just dying to go to sleep. But there was a rope line, and Clinton decided to work the rope line, which had all of us groaning. The reason I remember it is that instead of just shaking hands, he was actually talking to the people he met. A young man asked him what was his plan to pay for college. Clinton gave a seven-minute answer at 3:30 in the morning to one voter in Pennsylvania, and would have gone on longer if the kid hadn’t looked like he wanted to go to sleep. [laughter

He just had an enthusiasm for campaigning that somehow didn’t wear him out. He did almost no preparation. Other candidates I’ve been around have a briefing book. They want to know who’s going to be there at the next stop. They’re nervous, understandably, about going to a new place and getting the name of the town right and speaking to the right local concerns. Clinton was so at ease with his abilities that on the plane or on the bus between stops, if he wasn’t talking to somebody, he’d either sleep or read mystery novels. 

He was the most relaxed candidate I’ve ever seen, and that was in good times or bad. It wasn’t just a function of being five points ahead in the polls. It was something he thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, one of the striking things about him was that he’s the only politician I’ve ever seen who loved everything about politics, all the jobs that a politician has to do. He liked fund-raising, he got a kick out of talking to people about how they made the money they were giving him. He loved meeting voters. He loved giving speeches. He didn’t resent any of it. You know, he would get into quarrels with the headquarters over why they had him campaigning in this market rather than that market because he knew, almost down to a precinct level, where his best chances were. He loved the game, and was sorry every night when he had to go to bed.

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