Presidential Oral Histories

David Wilhelm Oral History

About this Interview

Job Title(s)
Campaign manager for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign
Chairman of the Democratic National Committee

David Wilhelm begins this interview by discussing his background and how he came to work with Bill Clinton. He discusses his work with Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, including fundraising and staffing issues and why Clinton decided to run for president. Wilhelm explains how decisions were made in the campaign, as well as the use of polling data. Wilhelm discusses how the campaign viewed other potential candidates and how it approached the various primaries. Wilhelm describes how he viewed Clinton as a candidate, assessing Clinton's strengths and weaknesses. Wilhelm also talks about the challenges of the Gennifer Flowers scandal. In addition, Wilhelm discusses the Democratic National Convention, the general election campaign against George H. W. Bush, and the presidential transition He describes his work serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, including his work supporting health care, welfare, and immigration reform, as well as NAFTA. He also discusses the 1994 midterm elections, the 2000 presidential election, and offers his thoughts on Clinton's lasting impact on the Democratic Party.

Presidential Oral Histories |

David Wilhelm Oral History

Transcript

Russell Riley

The David Wilhelm interview is a part of the Clinton Presidential History Project. I welcome you to the Miller Center and thank you for coming. For those who haven't heard our previous discussions, evidently David had a very long night last night and got in about three o'clock this morning after having dinner at a 7-11. We've gotten some of the details of that. We won't go into that any further other than to speak to, perhaps, your state of mind rendering the answers.

David Wilhelm

That's right, I'm glad that's on the historical record here.

Riley

We can waive it if we need to, but the other thing that would be important, just to alert future readers, is, what were you doing yesterday?

Wilhelm

Yesterday I flew to Des Moines, Iowa. I was one of the speakers, along with the Governor of Iowa, at an event with DNC [Democratic National Committee] trustees. It was one of the last fundraisers of this year and people were asked to bring money to Des Moines. So there we were. They heard from me and they heard from the Governor.

Iowa is a tough state. There's a sense in the [John] Kerry campaign that Wisconsin has broken their way. Ohio looks increasingly good. But Iowa is tough.

Riley

And you've been working with the Kerry campaign?

Wilhelm

Yes, I am currently the chair of the Kerry campaign in Illinois, and I am the Midwest finance chair for John Kerry as well.

Riley

Very good. That helps to put in context what's going to happen the rest of the day. We'll funnel that through your more recent experience.

There are a couple of things that we do at the outset of these interviews. The first is that I formally state again the ground rule about the confidentiality. We're all pledged to maintain the confidence of the proceedings. The transcript that's provided to you later for your review and approval will be the authoritative record of the interview. We're not free to repeat anything that is said here until this transcript comes out. So I want you to feel comfortable that you're talking in a confidential environment. It's important for us that we hear the—

Wilhelm

That machine really makes you think [laughs]. I'm teasing.

Riley

It does, but most of the folks we get in here have seen banks of cameras and microphones before.

Wilhelm

That's right.

Riley

Then, the second thing, as an aid to the transcriber, we do a voice identification, so we usually go around the table and ask everybody to say a word or two. I'll start. I'm Russell Riley, an Associate Professor here at the Miller Center. I'm heading up the Clinton project.

Wilhelm

David Wilhelm, 1992 campaign manager.

Charles Jones

Chuck Jones, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and here at the Miller Center.

Kathryn Dunn-Tenpas: Katie Dunn-Tenpas, on leave from the University of Pennsylvania, Visiting Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Darby Morrisroe

Darby Morrisroe. I'm the chief researcher here and a graduate student in the Department of Politics, and I'll be taking notes today.

Riley

Usually, the questions begin about your own political past before you encountered Bill Clinton. We don't have a lot of time, but I thought I would begin by asking you to describe your experiences before you met Clinton. Clinton conceived of himself as a New Democrat. Did you come out of what you would call a "New Democratic" tradition?

Wilhelm

Probably not, and one of my attractions to then Governor Clinton and his team was that I knew well, and got along well with, the liberal wing of the party. If you went to Chicago, people would say I'm kind of a New Democrat. I'm in venture capital. I'm in the business world. I'm now identified with Bill Clinton so closely. But at the time I was hired, I would say not. I would say people who knew me well would say, he's got great ties to the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations]. He's a former AFL-CIO staffer, is close to the public sector unions, knows Jesse Jackson, was the director of a public interest group called Citizens for Tax Justice, and knows a lot of the Democratic-leaning, or liberal-leaning, constituency groups around the country.

But when the search process was ongoing for a campaign manager and Bill Clinton actually announced without a national campaign manager, and Eli Segal, who was subsequently the Director of National Service and Welfare to Work during the Clinton administration—He was very conscious that Bill Clinton was positioned as this New Democrat, but if we're going to get through the primary season, we need somebody who knows the base of the Democratic Party. That had something to do with my getting hired.

I would also point out that in my interview with Eli Segal—this had never come up before, ever in my life—he looks at my resume, sees Athens, Ohio, as my hometown, and asks me, "Do you know the Dairy Barn?" Every kid that grew up in Athens, Ohio, knew the Dairy Barn. And he said, "I've sponsored the National Jigsaw Puzzle Contest for ten years at the Dairy Barn in Athens, Ohio." The interview just took off from there. So it's better to be lucky than good sometimes.

Riley

These are the kinds of stories that give political scientists fits who are attempting to figure out from the outside why somebody—

Wilhelm

Yes, who doesn't fit the model. It didn't fit my model either.

Riley

Can you tell us a little bit about the process, beyond this, of them approaching you, feeling you out for the position? Conversely, how much feeling out of the campaign, and of Clinton, did you do?

Wilhelm

That I did?

Riley

Yes.

Wilhelm

I was 35 years old. This was a heck of an opportunity. I mean, I did some, to be fair. I was brought to the attention of Bill Clinton by a couple of people. One was the communications director for the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council], Kiki McLean is her name now; it was Moore back then. She set up a meeting with then-Governor Clinton and me in a hotel room in Chicago, the Tremont Hotel, and we just talked. We didn't talk about politics; we talked about policy, which I found very striking because I'd been around presidential candidates before, and usually, if you're sizing up a future campaign manager, you're more likely to talk politics. Well, he didn't. We had a wide-ranging talk about a number of public policy issues and I found that very attractive.

I also found very attractive—I am, while I now live in Chicago, my heart is in Appalachian Ohio, in southern Ohio, and it is not that different from the Ozarks. The issues that the people of the region I grew up in contend with every day are not that different from the kinds of issues that the Governor of Arkansas dealt with every day. So when I read his background and saw what he had to say, I could definitely hear the words of somebody who was very relevant to my own experience with the people that I care about the most, and to this day work with every day. So that mattered a lot to me.

The other way I came to the attention, very specifically, a man in Chicago, very close to Hillary [Clinton], actually dated Hillary in high school, Kevin O'Keefe, who later went on to work in the White House as well, just was a—I didn't really know Kevin O'Keefe, but he knew my work as campaign manager for Mayor [Richard] Daley. I was campaign manager for Mayor Daley in '89 and '91, and he promoted me among the Friends of Bill, the FOBs. He said, "Here's the guy you need to hire. Illinois is critical. He knows the liberal wing of the party. He's a good manager." So I got into the mix—and because I knew the Dairy Barn.

Jones

Anybody else in this particular talk, that initial talk with Clinton?

Wilhelm

No, it was just the two of us in a hotel room. I don't remember anybody else. If there was anybody else, they were standing at the door. But he was not staffed up. It was very informal at that point in terms of his travel.

Riley

Do you know who else was in the mix at the time for this position? Did you have any sense of—?

Wilhelm

I have no idea. Besides knowing the Dairy Barn, the fact that he intended to be in Little Rock and have the office in Little Rock took a lot of the more obvious choices out of the mix because they were not about to move their family to Little Rock to work on this long-shot presidential campaign.

My wife and I were recently married, we didn't have kids yet, we were ready to go. This was a great opportunity. Little Rock seemed fine to me, so that put me right up there in a hurry. But I don't really know. At the time you probably heard some names bandied about, but I couldn't really tell you. I don't know the answer to that.

Riley

Can you tell us a bit about what you found then, once you—

Wilhelm

When I landed there?

Riley

Yes, when you made the move to Little Rock. Tell us about the move.

Wilhelm

Oh man. First of all, they were in a paint store. There was only one non-Arkansan on staff at the beginning, George Stephanopoulos. He had been hired first to be the communications director for the campaign.

Jones

Had you known him before on the Hill?

Wilhelm

No. My base is not the Hill, as we'll find out later.

Jones

But you did work there?

Wilhelm

I'd done some work in Washington, but I didn't really know George. But he was there and he was in the paint store. A number of women from Arkansas were in the paint store. Now we're going to suffer from my lack of sleep here—the guy who was originally the finance director—

Riley

It wasn't Mickey [Kantor]?

Wilhelm

No.

Jones

Rahm Emanuel?

Wilhelm

No. He became the field director. He managed Senator [Joseph] Lieberman's presidential campaign and his name is—

Riley

He's an Arkansan?

Wilhelm

He's an Arkansan. He was there.

Riley

The easy thing to do is to skip this and you can insert it in the transcript.

Wilhelm

He was there. So the first thing I found on my desk was a letter from the attorneys for Fleetwood Mac, and they said, "You must cease and desist with the use of the song 'Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow' or we will sue you." So the first decision I made was to ignore that letter, and that has been good for those attorneys, and good for Fleetwood Mac. That was the first thing on my desk.

The other thing that I found that was more serious, aside from a campaign that was absolutely not staffed up, was that—and I'm coming in about the middle of October 1991—there were no fundraisers scheduled for the month of November, not a one. So then-Governor Clinton, who is now known as such a prodigious fundraiser, at that time, had literally nothing on the schedule for the month of November. It didn't take a rocket scientist to know that that was not a prescription for long-term success.

Riley

You'd done a lot of fundraising in Illinois and Chicago?

Wilhelm

Well, I'd done a lot of campaign management. Fundraising comes along with that, although I generally wasn't the fundraiser. I'd worked a lot with Rahm Emanuel where I was the campaign manager, he was the finance director. But you can't run a campaign on nothing. You need to have some resources.

So one of the first things that I did—Craig Smith is the name, a very good guy, but in the wrong position as finance director. So I immediately launched a campaign to convince Rahm Emanuel to leave what he was doing in Chicago and come down to Little Rock, and within a couple of weeks, a lot of calls—11 p.m., 12 midnight—I broke him down, as did Stan Greenberg. That was one of the first major strategic moves, to put Craig in a role that was more consistent with his own interests and his own experience and to bring Rahm Emanuel, who is maybe not one of the most effective fundraising directors, but perhaps the most effective. We immediately ripped up the schedule for November and got about the business of raising money, which was very important to do.

Bill Clinton will keep 25-30 things in his head going all at once. I guess I'm more linear. I've got three or four things that we've got to do and we've got to do these things well by January 1st if we're going to emerge as the leading presidential contender. One of those was that none of these candidates was raising any money at that time—none of them was—and they were all late to the game. We thought that if we could raise—and imagine this in today's dollars—three million dollars, or have three million dollars in the bank by the end of the year, that would catapult us into the front tier of candidates—and it did! But we had to rip up the schedule in November.

In December, we made a much more difficult—that was an easy call, although you still have to execute—we made the decision to get out of New Hampshire for much of the month of December and, believe me, the New Hampshire folks who were supporting Bill Clinton were aghast, and outraged, and thought this was a huge strategic error. But we decided we had to have the resources. The national media would respond to the fact that we were raising money, and really, we focused on raising money for the first two weeks of December, risked not being in New Hampshire. But it paid off in the end.

The other things that we focused on right away, in terms of once I landed there, we had the Florida straw poll. That, I think we all figured, would be the first real sign of the strength of each of the candidates. Believe me, there was no reason going into the Florida straw poll process that Bill Clinton was going to dominate that straw poll. But we worked it, he worked it.

I remember going—One of my first trips as campaign manager was a trip into Florida, into the Miami Beach area, and I went and met with a senior citizen group. There were a lot of Jewish senior citizens in the room, and they heard Bill Clinton was from Arkansas and the first thing a woman said was, "It's so nice to have somebody in the race from the Midwest." I thought, Okay, this is a big country.

Anyway, we worked it hard. Bill and Hillary Clinton were awesome in terms of their energy and performance. I brought in a guy named Michael Hooley to direct our efforts on the ground in Florida and we wound up winning a solid victory. I think at the time, [Tom] Harkin had some hopes of emerging out of Florida because of his labor connections and because of his essential message to seniors and others who are part of the Democratic Party in Florida. But we won it handily and that was one of the first big moments of the campaign.

Jones

Where was Hooley when you brought him in?

Wilhelm

Hooley was in Boston. I don't know what he was doing exactly. He was a friend of Regan Burke from Chicago, the woman I initially brought in to be the national scheduler. She knew him, told me he was the best ever, and she was right. So I just picked up the phone and called him. I don't know remember what—he may have been doing consulting—

Jones

But you didn't—

Wilhelm

I didn't know him personally. I knew of him through Regan Burke. I called around and quickly found out that he was very well liked and very well respected. He's the kind of guy who leaves nothing to chance and pays attention to every detail. One of the things I remember is that he brought in fortune cookies. I open up the fortune cookie and it said something like, "Bill Clinton is in your future." That's pretty good. And there was a big window, probably one of those one-way windows where people don't realize you're there. But I remember him sitting up there over all that was going on on the floor of the convention hall, directing our efforts. He was very good, very strong. That was a big day early in the election.

Another big day. There was a meeting—the press had kind of identified these days as benchmark days that they were going to use to start evaluating the candidacies—there was a meeting of the Association of State Party Chairs in Chicago.

Riley

This would have been late '91?

Wilhelm

This would have been November '91, I would say, right after, if memory serves me well, the Florida straw poll. So we win the Florida straw poll and now we're meeting in Chicago, I think at the Palmer House, state party chairs, and the buzz was Bob Kerrey. He was going to give this great talk. He was going to wow the state party chairs. But we knew a little something about Chicago, both I and Kevin O'Keefe. We were able to bring some of our friends into the room.

But Bob Kerrey laid an egg. He gave a talk that was completely, exclusively focused on health care. Not that there's anything wrong with having a strong health care position, but it was so exclusively focused on health care that it left a lot of people scratching their heads because he had never really sketched out much of a record on health care. So here he comes thinking he's the health care man, and really all he's got to talk about is health care.

Governor Clinton comes in and gives a wide-ranging speech on a number of public policy issues, both thematic but also very specific in terms of what he wanted to do and the direction he wanted to take the country, and blew people away. Plus we had a few people in the room who added a little energy. It was just one of these moments in the campaign. The press left the room, and the state party chairs of the country left the room, saying, "That is the one guy who has a message and capability to win this race." So that was a big moment. Now we have the Florida straw poll and the state party chairs meeting in Chicago.

The next early primary of the pre-primary season was the money chase. We did have three million dollars in the bank at the end of December and we hadn't gone to New Hampshire very much, but my calculation was always that New Hampshire—and this is really based on my experience in Iowa (I'm not an expert on New Hampshire so much, but I am on Iowa and the Midwest, I guess)—Iowans read national newspapers, and New Hampshire folks read Time magazine and Newsweek and watch the evening news. Back then, the evening news was still pretty important.

So if we were able to emerge, if we were going to be the anointed ones, if we were going to be the cover boys of Newsweek and Time, that would have much more of an effect in New Hampshire coming out of the Christmas season than it would trudging around every day to every small town. That was our calculation, and when we won Florida, Bill Clinton, for the first time, showed his capability as a communicator at the Chicago event and we won. We had a significant edge, amazingly, at that time in terms of resources. We were anointed as the front-running candidate, at least as long as Governor [Mario] Cuomo wasn't in the race, and off we went.

Riley

Can I ask you about the staffing during this period? You mentioned a couple of people that you brought in. Were you heavily involved at this point in trying to build up the rest of the staffing apparatus in Little Rock?

Wilhelm

Oh sure. Absolutely.

Riley

I can't remember the sequence.

Wilhelm

John Hart is a guy who—I forget who knew him originally—but I got on the phone with him. He was an attorney in Washington. He was ready, willing, and able to come to Little Rock to be the delegate recruitment director. That's a very important role early on in a campaign and he did a fantastic job. Rahm headed up the financial end of things.

I was the first guy to call James Carville. There was all this speculation about, on the heels of their win in Pennsylvania, what James was going to do. I'd read about it in the papers and I thought maybe I should just pick up the phone and call him and ask him. And he said, "Well, I was wondering when you guys might call." For all this speculation about where he might go, as is typically the case, there's this group of people who are speculating and there are only a few people actually doing. Anyway, he came down and I set him up with then-Governor Clinton and, obviously, they hit it off.

Jones

He being from a neighboring Midwest state.

Wilhelm

Yes, fellow Midwesterner, right, exactly. Well said. So he was on board very early in a consulting role, but he almost immediately spent significant time down in Little Rock and on the plane. He and George both were on the plane a lot, which is, at least in terms of communication, where you need to be. So they were on very early.

Scheduling, Regan was great in the beginning. She did a really masterful job in the early days before there were tons of advance people, before there were planes. She did a great job, but at a certain point, she ran out of gas and we needed to make a change there. We had Craig Smith running the national field operation. That was the right place for him and he performed very well. Stephanie Solien, who was the wife of Frank Greer (who was the media consultant), was our political director. She was a very good person who knew a lot of the western politics. I'm from the Midwest. We had plenty of people from the East. We had people from the South. But she brought some experience from the western part of the country that was badly needed, and also a lot of credibility in the environmental community. She was the political director.

I brought in a guy named Mike Lux to be the constituency outreach person. I brought in a guy named Chuck Richards, with whom I'd worked at the AFL-CIO and who had been the organizing director during the growth of the American Federation of Teachers—well known around the country—to be our liaison to the labor community. So yes, we were building out the staff very quickly. Hooley kind of stayed around. He wasn't down in Little Rock immediately, but we would use him for special projects and ultimately he came down. Eli Segal, with whom I hope you speak if you haven't already—

Riley

We're trying to. He's been a tough egg to crack.

Wilhelm

Is that right? A lot of the histories of the campaign do not say much about Eli, which is an error in the history of the campaign. He was always Bill Clinton's eyes and ears in terms of what was going on in the campaign. He is just an outstanding and ethical person. Also an outstanding manager and teacher, and in the rough and tumble world of politics, just one of the most able—He brought business principles to the operation of the campaign, which was very helpful, something that I certainly welcomed. He was always around. He was always helping.

Jones

His official position was?

Wilhelm

I don't know. Mickey was the chair of the Friends of Bill, but Eli didn't have an official position.

Jones

Facilitator, sort of?

Wilhelm

He was Bill Clinton's eyes and ears in terms of the actual operation of the campaign, which always kind of set him and Mickey up, by the way. They were both kind of chairs. Mickey became the formal chair, but Eli, I think by March, was full-time.

He did have a title. Maybe it was campaign director. I forget what it was, but he really ran the business end of the campaign, which I had been doing until that point. But good grief, he was a godsend when he started spending full-time there. Throughout the campaign, he was sort of the little gray hair, with significant business experience, and somebody in whom I and many people in the campaign had a lot of confidence. Yet you don't read about him. You read the histories of the campaign and there are very few mentions of him.

Riley

We very much hope to talk to him.

Wilhelm

Good, that would be good.

Jones

Before we get too far along in the campaign, I want to go back to your first meeting with Clinton and have you talk a little bit more about your reaction to his talking policy immediately and ask whether, in a kind of a tease, it occurred to you that this was a politician who saw policy as politics, or politics as policy?

Wilhelm

Oh sure, yes. The reason we were talking policy so much is that he was on this tour as chair of the DLC. He was shaking up the Democratic Party very consciously, challenging them on matters of policy, picking fights, both because he believed in the issues, but also as a matter of politics. No question about it. He viewed these policy debates in the party as a vehicle for himself. I don't think there's any question about that. He viewed the DLC and the challenge that it represented within the party as a vehicle for himself, and the introduction of ideas, and branding himself as a new face with new energy and vigor and new ideas in the party. No question about it. I'm sure that's why I probably said something like, "Well, you're shaking things up, Governor," and then we got into things.

I mean, I remember we had a big discussion about contracting out in the public sector. He had a grasp of the issue as a public finance expert might, kind of the philosophical issues related to contracting. I just recall that, and it seemed so different from what I might have expected.

Jones

It has always occurred to me with Clinton that, as a candidate, it was never as necessary, or perhaps not necessary at all, that he prepare himself on policy. It seemed that it was there. He may not have come to conclusions as to what to do, but the policy—as integral to the campaigns, and later governing—was it for him. It wasn't something he had to go off in the corner and develop.

Wilhelm

No, he didn't. He wasn't one of these guys who needed to go study up in order to be ready to run for President. He was ready to run for President in terms of his thinking about the issues, in terms of the fundamental message that he wanted to carry and the fundamental challenge that he wanted his campaign to represent within the party. They needed a few more fundraisers on the schedule in November and it wouldn't have hurt to have staff.

I mean, it's interesting. You have some guys who—they're going to run for President, they're going to be all staffed up, they're going to have all their consultants there, and they're going to have money in the bank. Bill Clinton didn't think about that. If he'd thought about that, he would have had money in the bank, he would have been fully staffed.

No, he had thought about the rationale for his candidacy, and that is fundamentally different from the way other people would approach a candidacy like that. I mean, the reason that "Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow" was chosen as the song at the announcement was because Bruce Lindsey, an hour before the event was going through his car and had a Fleetwood Mac CD, and there you go. It was very, in some ways, on the run in the campaign mechanics. But in terms of his thinking, that's very true.

I remember back when I was at Citizens for Tax Justice, there was a group that we did a lot of work with that focused on public policy initiatives at the state and local level. There was all this stuff coming out of Arkansas all the time, constantly. New initiative this, new initiative that. All based on things that were happening in Arkansas while he was Governor. So you're absolutely right. Ideas matter to him. He cared about the ideas. He cared about the philosophy that undergirded those ideas, but also, as a great politician, viewed those ideas and the expression of those ideas as something that would benefit him as well. He's a master communicator. He knows political messaging is about a message contrast—not this, that—and his challenge to the Democratic Party represented that.

Jones

I always thought it was an interesting comparison between him and our former Governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, also very knowledgeable, interested, and driven by policy, but not a communicator. He was a very different kind of—

Wilhelm

Yes.

Jones

Could you take us through how decisions were made; that is, with whom did you consult the most? Then give us some kind of a picture of how the decision-making apparatus developed in the campaign.

Wilhelm

That's a good question because campaigns get bigger, and they change, and people's responsibilities morph. In the beginning, when there were very few people around, obviously, there was much more interaction with both Bill and Hillary Clinton on a day-to-day basis. We had regular morning calls—I don't know if they were daily, maybe they were daily—where we would have the consultants who didn't make the trip down to Little Rock—Stan Greenberg and Frank Greer—on those calls. Hillary would get on those calls. Bill Clinton would get on those calls. I'd be on the call. George would be on the call. So in the early days, there was a lot of management by conference call.

We would talk about the day ahead. We'd talk about the schedule. Governor Clinton would talk to me very directly about his schedule, what was right about it, what was wrong with it. So that's kind of the way it was in the beginning. He's very much the strategist, very much driven by ideas.

There wasn't a lot of focus on the more business-oriented, the budget. It's a good thing I'm pretty good at that, because there wasn't a lot of focus on that aspect of the campaign; that is, money coming in, money going out, the pacing of the spending. Again, somebody else might be very focused in a micromanagement way on issues like that. That's not where Bill and Hillary come from. They're far more focused on larger strategic and tactical issues, and that would be the nature of the conversation.

Over time, the responsibilities in the campaign morphed into, let's say, three or four very specific areas where different people had very clear authority. My job, particularly in the middle of the campaign, as is almost inevitable in a presidential campaign in the May-June area, I became a little weaker in terms of my control or management of the campaign. But I always had authority and was clearly viewed as the go-to person on politics, electoral college strategy, field, what we were doing in the states, schedule, and Hillary's campaign to a certain extent. That was always clearly my area of authority. Nobody ever really challenged that. Towards the end of the campaign I became genuine campaign manager again, but during the course of the campaign my job was clearly that.

Carville and Stephanopoulos clearly were the people in charge of communication, and no one would challenge their authority in terms of their management of the communications of the campaign. Eli took over the business management of the campaign. Eli and I worked very closely together. We're all working together, but that's the way the management of the campaign worked.

I was always, for what it's worth, glad that in the general election campaign we were always ahead, because it worked as long as we were ahead. Everybody had their area of responsibility. Everybody knew what they were supposed to do. Everybody had a job to do and could do it. Everybody was playing off the same playbook.

Jones

You mean ahead in the polls?

Wilhelm

Ahead in the polls. Pretty much, post-convention, we were always ahead in the polls, and we were ahead by a lot. So there wasn't the enormous pressure on us organizationally that would have occurred had we fallen behind, if that makes sense. Had we fallen behind, then these separate—not fully separate, everybody got along, everybody worked together well—but it would have required a more cohesive, single-minded management structure than we had for a lot of the campaign. That's why your question is a good one.

Rahm emerged as a stronger and stronger voice within the campaign. He was responsible for putting the money together. It worked, and in a big campaign I have found that it's virtually impossible to invest in one person all the decision-making authority. But we did have people with their separate lines of authority and lines of responsibility. It worked. I often wondered if it would have worked as well had we ever relinquished the lead and the pressure that comes with that organization, but we didn't have to worry about that.

Dunn-Tenpas: I was going to take you back to a question we talked a little bit about, which is about staffing the campaign, and I was wondering if you could discuss what your priorities were. You mentioned that fundraising was, obviously, very important as soon as you walked in the door, but did you have a plan mapped out as to which slots you needed to fill soonest, whether it was national scheduler or the field director? Was there any rationale to whom you hired, and when, and how quickly you did it? What was the time frame over which you felt like you needed to get some sort of apparatus in place?

Wilhelm

We needed to staff up in a hurry. It's not breakthrough thinking on my part, but they didn't have it. They didn't have it on the ground. You've got to have a delegate selection coordinator or else you're going to start to sink. I mean, those deadlines start coming up in December. In the state of Illinois, you need to file your delegate slates in early December, and if you miss it, you are out of luck. So that was certainly a role that I thought was very important. We had to have the fundraising team put together. Obviously, we had to put together our New Hampshire operation. But I had a lot of confidence in Craig Smith's ability to manage the national field campaign.

But I would say, right off the bat, we had George on communications, so that was in good shape. The top media consultant and pollster were already chosen, so that was in good shape. The fundraising we've talked about, that needed to be pulled together and pulled together in a hurry. The field and political operation, it's a big national campaign, we need constituency outreach, we need a political director.

So I felt a great urgency to staff up in some of these key positions, to get out of the paint store, to have a much broader, professional, experienced team than existed when I got there. I'm sure I thought about it, finance director. I was very focused on having a good team on the delegate side of things. I thought the rest was starting to come together.

That was a late-starting campaign when you think about it, by contrast to this year or to just about any other recent presidential campaign. This was November and we're hiring our labor liaison. Actually, we didn't have our labor liaison until January. Think about that. So I felt an urgency to fill in the boxes of a pretty traditional organizational chart, and we went about that business.

Also, we have discrete goals. We have a timetable. We may not be able to do everything on a campaign, but there are going to be a few things that we do quite well—the Florida straw poll, the state party chair meeting, raising the money, having a great group on the ground in New Hampshire. You don't have to make this harder than it is. Sometimes you get so much dominated by big thinking that you lose the attitude of "Let's just do these things and do them well. We'll have momentum. The momentum will carry us."

Now, of course, we had a few momentum stoppers during the New Hampshire campaign, but it did work until about the middle of January, and we did emerge as the anointed candidate, and that mattered greatly.

Jones

In these early stages—November, December, that period—had you identified among the other candidates someone that could become the front-runner or someone that you would be running against?

Wilhelm

Sure, Cuomo. He was the 800-pound elephant in the room. I don't think there's any question that the Clinton campaign viewed the possible Cuomo candidacy as our—That was going to be the big showdown, and Illinois was going to be the place where that got fought out. I mean, why did I get hired? Again, you didn't need to be a rocket scientist to figure, well, Cuomo is going to do well in New England, we're going to have our day in the South, and then comes Illinois. It's a state that has the southern cultural affinity downstate. It's a state that would have tremendous affinity for a Cuomo-style candidacy in Chicago. That would have been a fascinating and rough and tumble campaign.

Jones

Was the primary date in March?

Wilhelm

March 17th, I think. But that's who we all viewed—now, that sounds cocky, but there was a logic to that. I also think that there certainly are some who thought that Bob Kerrey, early on, was a key rival in terms of the attention of the media—the possibility that it would be Kerrey, not Clinton, to appear on the covers of Newsweek and Time. That it was Kerrey, not Clinton, who had some of the early buzz going around the country. It was Kerrey, not Clinton, who a lot of the wise guys and political professionals and donor class supported, or at least leaned toward.

I don't know that we feared Harkin as a potential nominee, but Harkin was going to fight us for the allegiance of certain constituencies. There was a day when the press reported, and then-Governor Clinton misunderstood, that Harkin was meeting with Jesse Jackson in South Carolina. Just the fact that Jesse Jackson was meeting with Harkin was viewed as a signal that he might be endorsing Harkin. This quickly morphed into "Jesse Jackson is endorsing Harkin." Thinking his microphone was off—do you recall this?—Clinton gets all mad about it. He's very angry that he has just heard that Reverend Jesse Jackson is going to endorse Harkin, which, if true, was a huge negative for us because Bill Clinton always thought that he would do well among African Americans in the South.

So he's very angry and, in fact, one of the things he says is, "Get Wilhelm on the phone. Have him call Reverend Jackson immediately. Find out what—this can't be. This is an outrage," or whatever he said at the time. So I did call Reverend Jackson, and it turned out not to be quite the outrage that we thought. But Harkin, when we went in to pitch AFSCME [American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees], Harkin is competing with us for early labor endorsements, as a possible competitor in the African American community, although I think he would have needed a Reverend Jackson to make that real.

A huge thing that, again, is not widely mentioned or reported in histories is the fact that [L. Douglas] Wilder did not run was enormous. Had he run—a legitimate African American candidate for the President, which he would have been—had he emerged, that would have cut into our base in the South. It might have emboldened Cuomo. That was a huge deal from a Clinton point of view.

Think, if Wilder gets in the race—take Illinois, for example—does Bobby Rush decide immediately that he's going to come down to Little Rock? He's a guy that I brought down to Little Rock to help us with African American organizing. But would he think, Hey, I'm going to come down to Little Rock and Doug Wilder is in the race? I don't know. Maybe not. But it certainly would have frozen African American leaders around the country. They might not have immediately endorsed Wilder, but it would have frozen them. In the absence of Wilder and with Cuomo—and just Bill Clinton's natural affinity and ability in campaigning in the African American community—that was always a source of strength and continued to be a source of strength through his Presidency.

Jones

Harkin really made it easy for you in Iowa though, didn't he?

Wilhelm

He took Iowa off the map and shifted the campaign to New Hampshire. Bill Clinton would be a good candidate in Iowa, so I'm not sure how that played out. We would have benefited from a caucus environment in terms of coming back from the draft and Gennifer Flowers. I think we would have benefited from a caucus. But he did take Iowa off the map.

Riley

But it wasn't perceived in the same way that [Paul] Tsongas was taking New Hampshire out of play.

Wilhelm

No.

Riley

You felt like you could win New Hampshire.

Wilhelm

Oh yes, we were going to win New Hampshire. We were rolling. I just think Bill Clinton, taking nothing away from Paul Tsongas, who was a good man, but in terms of capabilities of a candidate—that sense that John Kerry benefited so much from, that "This is a man who can be President, has the stature to be President"—We were ready to be fully competitive in New Hampshire and then some. We had a very strong group of endorsers very early in New Hampshire. So no, it didn't take it off of the map.

Riley

We'll want to dig in and ask, obviously, a lot of questions about New Hampshire. I've got a couple of preliminaries before we get there. One is, did you have—this goes all the way back to your decision to join the campaign in the first place—did you get skeptical reactions from your natural constituencies, the people that you worked with, by deciding to join a southern Governor?

Wilhelm

Not really. He wasn't that well known. He was still emerging. I don't really recall that. I don't recall getting a bunch of outraged calls from people. At that point in my career I'm now a Chicagoan as Mayor Daley's campaign manager. My own political base had shifted somewhat. But no, it was not hard to take Bill Clinton in to see AFSCME or any other labor union. It was not hard to take Bill Clinton in to see the progressive constituency groups. Either he had relationships, or his wife had relationships, or his extensive network of friends had relationships. He was not a fearful character, so no.

Riley

The next question is about the process of educating yourself about the man that you're working for. Can you tell us a little bit about what you're finding out about Bill Clinton as a candidate and as a person as you move in? You said that you hadn't had a lot of experience with him before. What kinds of things—?

Wilhelm

Well, I watched C-SPAN.

Riley

What are you finding out? You mentioned, for example, that he spoke with you very directly, that they weren't people who focused on the money—the inflow and the outflow. What are the other kinds of things that you're finding out about this candidate as you're figuring out how best to manage the campaign successfully?

Wilhelm

Okay, that's different from the decision to join the campaign.

Riley

Right.

Wilhelm

Well, a good campaign manager keeps his eyes open and sizes up the strengths and weaknesses of a given candidate, and lets that candidate play to his strengths. Bill Clinton is not somebody who is ever going to be managed, just not. He's the best campaign manager in the world. He's the best communications director in the world. You're not going to manage Bill Clinton.

This may not be an exact answer to your question, but I certainly think about—when I've gone into campaigns, whether it was Mayor Daley's campaign, or Bill Clinton's campaign, or Paul Simon's campaign—how I can construct a role for myself where I add the most value. It seemed to me, clearly, I added the most value, in that context, to just run the thing, to be in Little Rock, to be a steady hand managing down more than managing up. Sometimes you have to do a lot of managing up. But he'd already figured out the managing up part. He had Greer. He had Stephanopoulos, and we brought in Carville and Greenberg. That was where he was, and he already had that team put together.

I was welcome, and I did participate in that group, but that was not going to be where I added the most value. That's not what they needed. They needed somebody who was going to watch the budget, staff the place up, hold down the fort in Little Rock, figure out how we're going to win the Florida straw poll, put together the state operations. That's what they needed.

Now, in a different campaign, do I think I'm a capable person on communications? Yes, I'm pretty good at that. I can do the big strategic piece, but that was not what they needed. They need a daily schedule. We need a scheduler to do that. We need advance people. That was what the campaign needed, at least out of me. So that was the role I carved out because his approach to the presidential campaign was focused on ideas and policy and communications. If they could bring in a guy like me and they didn't have to worry about this other part, that was pretty important value added to their operation.

Riley

Let me come at the question somewhat differently. What kinds of traits as a campaigner were you picking up from Clinton that you had to be attentive to as you're doing your job? What are you finding out about him as a candidate that we ought to know about?

Wilhelm

Well, by now, everybody knows about it. He's extraordinarily charismatic with regular folks. One of the first things, big lesson I learned very early, and this was new for me. I'd never seen anything like it. George Stephanopoulos and I went to Memphis for a meeting. Somebody said, "Go to the meeting of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis," which is a black denomination. Okay, we're going to go to this meeting. We went with Governor Clinton and he was going to speak.

I get to this meeting. It's a convention hall. There are 20,000 African American members—20,000—at this national convention. He went in there and he blew them away. Not only did he blow them away, they knew him, and were comfortable with him, and had a history with him. That I did not know. I did not know his ability as a candidate in that community. I did not, until that moment, quite realize his tremendous ability to connect as a speaker in front of that group of 20,000 people. But it was really extraordinary and it was way beyond what you would, perhaps, expect of a candidate in the first days of his campaign for the Presidency. That was a crystallizing moment for me.

The other thing, very early on, that struck me was the superhuman energy. I mean, that Florida straw poll, both he and Hillary just lifted the thing up. There was no way they were going to be outworked, just wasn't going to happen. They were going to go to every last meeting. They were going to knock on every last door, make every last call. Whatever it took, they were going to do it. It was prodigious. It was awesome to see the energy that they brought to the task. No whining or "I've got to get up." It was prodigious the energy that they brought.

The other thing was his extraordinary readiness on issues. No speechwriter—and how many speeches has Bill Clinton had written for him that he just goes like that?—but when he emerged as the favorite of the state party chairs coming out of the speech at Chicago, he wrote that on the way to the event. I forget, we were in a car, just in that handwriting of his. Really amazing. Somebody else might have had a speech written for him, practiced it, gone over it. Just extraordinary readiness on the issues, facility with public policy, and ability to communicate that in a compelling way.

Riley

Why don't we take a quick break here?

[BREAK]

Jones

Just to wrap up on this early period, would it be a fair summary to say that, as far as the campaign theme, purpose, and so forth, you were running for Bill Clinton, not against somebody else?

Wilhelm

During that period?

Jones

Apart from the possibility that Cuomo would get in.

Wilhelm

Yes, I would say, up until the first of the year, yes. We weren't picking fights. There was no reason to pick a fight. It probably would have elevated the other candidate. It did appear that we were just dominating each of the key threshold moments of the campaign. So around the first of the year the only question—we didn't know about the questions to come—but the only big strategic question we thought we faced was whether Cuomo—We felt great about our position on January 1st.

Jones

Very different really from, say, 2000 or 2004, perhaps associated with the nature of the field or the fact that this was a rather obscure Governor from a southern, Midwestern state. [Al] Gore, who really had to run against [Bill] Bradley, and this year, of course, Kerry really had to run against other candidates—in particular, Howard Dean—so that's the source of my question. Were you really running for, and confidence in, Clinton rather than against—?

Wilhelm

We were. He was running to redefine the party, which is different from running against a person. But he would probably shy away from that description a little bit because he's always message contrast. It's not enough to say, "Hey, I'm a nice guy." I think you have to push off something. For him, it was the challenge to the conventional thinking of the party. That was the essential message contrast, as opposed to running against an individual at that point.

Now, at some point, somebody is going to emerge. Somebody is going to be your rival. At the beginning of the year, we all fully anticipated that Cuomo would get in the race. That was our thinking. That's what drove our strategic thinking, our budgetary thinking. Cuomo is going to get into this thing. We're going to Illinois. We're going to have this huge showdown at the OK Corral. Really, the race was set up for that to happen. You'd have to have Mario Cuomo here and ask him why he didn't get in the race.

But the dynamic of the race would have led to a natural Cuomo candidacy because you had the southerner, not very well known, but certainly talented and starting to have buzz, but somebody who would have represented—you had nobody who was a natural northern, industrial, labor, working people candidacy. Harkin sort of filled that space, but not as well as he might have hoped. There was a vacuum there in the Democratic Party. So there was a natural rationale for a Cuomo candidacy, but they left the plane on the tarmac, to our utter amazement.

Jones

So the context, and it's the context in which I meant this, was really dropping back to your earlier response to policy as politics, that here was the possibility, and you thought probability, of a clash about what the Democratic Party ought to be. So the campaign, virtually from the start for Clinton, when you say you were running a campaign for Bill Clinton, it's running a campaign for a different policy direction for the Democratic Party, or policy positioning of the Democratic Party, and that had the potential of a clash and it was time to make this decision.

Wilhelm

No question about it. That would have been the clash. It would have been a clash for the direction and ideas and heart and soul of the party. That was coming.

So the great race never materialized. I mean, what a race that would have been. That would have been something. That would have been particularly something in the absence of a—And who knows, Cuomo gets in the race, now all the attention of the national media goes to Cuomo and maybe we don't have the draft issue come up then, and maybe Gennifer Flowers never becomes quite the celebrity then, but, rather, the focus of the media would have turned to Cuomo. It would have turned to the battle between the two, but principally on Cuomo. That's what would have happened.

Now, clearly, in a strange way—maybe not that strange—Clinton benefited from the stuff coming out sooner rather than later and having to contend with it in the context of a weaker field rather than a stronger field. That was also a benefit. Would we have wanted to run in New Hampshire against Cuomo with the Gennifer Flowers thing? It would have been hard to have been the comeback kid in that context.

Riley

Let's proceed with New Hampshire and tell us about the run up to New Hampshire. What were you intending to do there? Then tell us your story about the events that you've already touched on.

Wilhelm

Well, we always had a great on-the-ground lay leadership. We had strong staff. We looked good coming out with the national momentum. We had the money to be fully competitive. Harkin and Kerrey had done what we didn't do, which is they forgot to raise money while they were plowing around New Hampshire. So they really only had campaigns that would take them through New Hampshire and then that was it. We had a campaign that projected beyond New Hampshire. We went to Illinois and that was it. We didn't have a whole lot of vision after Illinois, but we really were the only national campaign at that point.

So we've got momentum going. We look good. Strong team on the ground, strong leadership, and then the whole thing falls apart with Gennifer Flowers and draft stories, and we were in an absolute meltdown. Our numbers were falling. We were going down the tubes. It was near disaster. I remember we took the two punches. Really, I'll never know why—maybe the absolute lack of truth to the charge—but we had taken the Gennifer Flowers hit, then we take the draft hit, or maybe it was the other way around. Then a former Miss America comes forward to say she had some sort of relationship. I thought, Miss America? I don't know if we could take Miss America.

Jones

"There he goes"—[humming the Miss America tune]

Wilhelm

That's three strikes, man. I thought maybe we could do two. But for whatever reason, that Miss America thing didn't knock us out. The two were bad enough.

Riley

David, can I interrupt you and ask if you were picking up inklings that there were problems on these two areas before they blew up in New Hampshire?

Wilhelm

Yes, the rumors were always there. I mean, we asked that. We, a couple of us meeting in Kevin O'Keefe's law office in Chicago early on, asked him questions related to this and everybody knows the answer that he was giving at that time.

But I've got to tell you, Chicago is not for the faint of heart, but Chicago has nothing on Little Rock when it comes to tough campaigns and nastiness. I put in a phone, kind of the "bat phone," the phone that only my wife, and Bill Clinton, and I don't know who else—they're probably it—they're the only ones who would have those numbers. They can call and get me directly any time. That phone was not in there for five minutes; it rings. I'm thinking, Who is calling on this phone? I pick it up, some guy says, "Wilhelm, you are in trouble. You don't know how big of trouble. This campaign is going down the tubes. You don't know about this, you don't know about that, you don't know—" Somebody had very good connections with the phone company. See, in the North, where I'm from, states do not allow wire tapping without the approval of the other party. In Arkansas, you do not need the approval of the other party. You just tape it. I've never had so many people say, "David, I'd like to play you the tape of a conversation—" Ouch. I mean, tough stuff.

But yes, that was around there. You had tabloids offering people money. They were out there. You knew it. You knew they were offering money around town. So it was unlike anything I was accustomed to, and I was accustomed to some pretty tough politics. So yes, there was stuff out there.

Riley

So you're in full-blown meltdown now.

Wilhelm

Yes, I remember calling a good friend of mine during this early period and since, and asking, "Who is Gennifer Flowers? Fill me in because this just keeps coming up." Anyway, yes, that was out there. So we're in meltdown.

I remember Ted Koppel calls me up to tell me he has this letter and that he wants to go with this letter. I said, "Well, I have to reach these guys. I've got to reach the road crew and let them know you have this letter." This is before, really, cell phones could get everywhere, and they're off in northern New Hampshire and it was really hard to get them for a couple of hours. He stayed on hold for two hours—I'm sure he had a staff person stay on hold—he's on hold for two hours. Then they're, of course, scrambling, trying to figure out, so he's on hold for another two hours. So I've got Ted Koppel on hold in my office for four or five hours, which, for a guy from Athens, Ohio, was kind of an interesting moment—a lot different from riding past the Dairy Barn.

Anyway, we're in meltdown and what do you do? Again, here is where, one thing about the Clintons, there is—I had been on the Biden campaign and I love Joe Biden. He is a great guy. But when the plagiarism charge—which was BS [bullshit], frankly—came in Iowa, the campaign fell apart. I was his Iowa campaign manager and I was highly annoyed that the campaign fell apart. I'm like, we can't fight this? You went all across Iowa quoting Neil Kinnock every time you made an appearance. Let's get out there and tell this. Let's fight! That campaign was filled with Washington insiders. They just pitched camp and went home.

No way were the Clintons giving up on themselves, this race, their ideas. And for them, the ideas—and I don't want to sound naive—I think the ideas matter. They really matter, and the reason they're able to take the shots that they take is that they're—look, they've got huge egos, of course. Everybody who would ever consider running for President has a huge ego, but it is ego intermixed with their genuine commitment to ideas, to challenging the orthodoxy of the party back then, that really mattered. So to that extent, the campaign is bigger than them, and it helps when the going gets tough. But anyway, it was very clear. They sent a message that was unmistakable to anybody who wondered. They weren't giving up. They were going to fight. They were going to knock on every door 'til the last dog died. No question about it.

Here comes this superhuman energy again. I mean, Bill Clinton was not going to give up on New Hampshire and, as a result, New Hampshire wound up not giving up on him. He went to every, and you know we did—Mickey went up and headed up a task force campaign in New Hampshire, which was great. So we had Mickey and his team on the ground there. We had Carville and Stephanopoulos riding around with Clinton. Clinton went to every bowling alley, every bar, every restaurant, every event, every interview. Again, it was awesome. There's no other word for it. It was superhuman. He was just not going to be beaten.

By all rights, if you looked at the polling data as we looked at it when we were in a meltdown, you don't survive that. You don't survive it. But he survived it thanks to [Paul] Begala. He became the comeback kid that night, and then there was that extraordinary moment when, after giving his victory speech, he came back and said that he's taken hits, but the hits are nothing like the hits that the people of New Hampshire have taken.

The other thing that was absolutely critical, and Frank Greer deserves a lot of credit on this, is that he ran on an economic plan in New Hampshire. We sent I don't know how many of these plans, probably each New Hampshire voter got three plans, but we ran on a substantive plan for economic growth in the United States. Democrats, to that point, didn't typically incorporate growth into their message. Shame on us, but we didn't. We were about fairness, the Republicans were about growth. The American people, generally, will choose growth. If they have the choice, and there's no greater nuance to it, they'll choose growth and optimism. Clinton brought growth and optimism into the Democratic Party and he did it in New Hampshire.

Again, the history books don't talk about this very much, but we had half of Arkansas up in New Hampshire handing out this pamphlet on economic growth, videos on economic growth, on the Plan for Growth. Most of the ads had "Call 1-800-The-Plan." This was pre-Internet or it would have been easier to get the plan. But we ran on that plan and we ran on a message of economic growth, which morphs thematically into a message of optimism about where this country can go.

That, to me, was much stronger than the health care-only message of Kerrey and the dour demeanor of Tsongas. So anyway, the important point, we really did run on the Plan for Growth, and aside from the superhuman energy, which I guess is easy to talk about and was very much in evidence, there was also a message and policy component. There were ideas that, even in the darkest days, were central to the campaign.

Jones

A couple of questions. One, in going to the bowling alleys, grocery stores, and so forth, did voters question him on Gennifer Flowers or the draft, or don't you know?

Wilhelm

Well, I wasn't up there so I'm not the best person to—I'm down there. Now, immodestly, if I can have an immodest moment—it's hard for us Midwesterners—that may have been the best job I've ever done as a manager because I'm down there, I've got this whole campaign, besides the New Hampshire craziness, to keep together. I mean, they thought, This is a disaster; this ain't gonna last; we're dead. I communicated constantly with folks. I told them what the truth was. I brought them into the decision making of the campaign, and the campaign staffers never wavered, never. The ones down in Little Rock were strong during a very difficult period. So anyway, that's what I know about.

Riley

It's good to have that on the record because you're right, everybody's attention is focused on New Hampshire.

Dunn-Tenpas: And you've still got filing deadlines and delegate slates.

Wilhelm

We've got filing deadlines, schedules to put out, a budget, checks to write to vendors, and so on. We had a campaign to run. And we've got to keep our eye on the ball post-New Hampshire. So I'm saving money. We've got to come back in New Hampshire, but we're not going to be like Kerrey and Harkin and think that the day New Hampshire is done, we're done. We're going to have money to go on—if, God willing, we're able to survive this. So we did a lot of things right out of the view of the camera down in Little Rock at that time.

I don't think that he got too much of it is my sense of it. There are others who can answer that question better, but what always struck us was that if we stayed on the economy, if we made the campaign be about issues that mattered in their lives rather than issues that mattered in our lives, we were better off. I don't think he got a whole lot of it. Now, that may have been partly out of politeness, but they had bigger issues going on.

The other dynamic, and I was very much involved in the decision to go on 60 Minutes.

Riley

That was my next question.

Wilhelm

I'll always remember, he calls me, the day before we go on, and says, "David, do you think we really should go on this show?" "Yes, Governor, absolutely," I said with as much firmness as I could muster. At the end of the day, it was a pretty easy call, but that's easy for me to say. I'm not going on 60 Minutes right after the Super Bowl. But it was our belief that we were either going to get killed by a million cuts or let's just take this thing head on.

It did have the effect—all these problems related to the draft and Gennifer Flowers—of causing the camera to be exclusively on Clinton and not on any other potential rival. I mean, if you're Bob Kerrey trying to get press coverage on health care during this period, forget about it. Forget about it; he's not even in the mix. Harkin is not even in the mix. They can't get a camera to cover them for the life of them, no matter how hard they try because Bill Clinton is on 60 Minutes right after the Super Bowl. High risk, but it just sucks the air out of the other candidacies. So then there's only Tsongas, who's kind of the old shoe next door. He's the comfortable alternative to this guy that there's all this mess around. So it becomes a Tsongas-Clinton race as a result of the extraordinary press coverage that he received at that time.

Riley

60 Minutes approached you about this, or the campaign approached 60 Minutes about making the candidate available?

Wilhelm

That's a good question. I don't remember how it started. Get George in here. I don't remember that. I'll bet you they called. I don't know.

Riley

The decision for Mrs. Clinton to go on with him was an internal call or was that something that the Governor himself—

Wilhelm

I don't remember talking to Hillary about it. I remember talking to Bill Clinton about it several times at some length. But obviously at this point in the campaign, she's on these daily strategy calls. She's a very key player, as you might imagine, on these daily strategy calls and very much part of that decision. Strategically, as difficult as it is to go out and have your deepest, darkest secrets out there for the American people to judge, from a campaign strategy point of view, there wasn't a whole lot of choice.

Jones

I have a second question. It's really related also to what you faced in keeping the campaign going and making sure that the apparatus didn't fold in on itself, and that is, is it possible that it was an advantage, if you're going to have something like this happen, there's an advantage to have it happen in a state the size of New Hampshire where it was manageable to go door to door, and to bowling alleys, and so forth rather than, say, Illinois or Florida?

Wilhelm

No question about it. That's why, when we talked about Iowa, I immediately thought caucus state. That probably would have helped us because you have a very finite group of people. You don't have to talk to everybody. You have active people who follow stuff all the time. Yes, if we'd been in Illinois or California, it was over. I don't know that we would have had the opportunity. I mean, you have to go to a lot of bowling alleys in Illinois, but in New Hampshire you've got a shot. I don't think you can send the Arkansas travelers into California and make a dent, but the Arkansas travelers definitely made a dent in New Hampshire, so that's very important.

In retrospect, it's good it happened early. It's good it didn't happen too early or we never would have had our legs under us, if it had happened in December. But when it happened, it gave us time to respond and respond in a state where personal appeal mattered, where retail politics still is possible.

Dunn-Tenpas: Do you remember at that time, though, if Frank Greer did a media blitz at the same time to accompany the retail politics?

Wilhelm

Oh yes, we were constantly on television.

Dunn-Tenpas: Did it increase after the Gennifer Flowers and after the draft? I mean, were you trying to rebound from those?

Wilhelm

Oh, I'm sure we did, yes. The answer is, we weren't saving more money for later. We definitely front-loaded resources—not all of it, but we front-loaded it. Yes, we boosted that. And he was also constantly on morning shows, radio, drive time, you name it. So there was a free media component to it, as well as paid media, as well as personal appearances. But the personal appearances were certainly remarkable—just the number, the quantity, the early morning until late at night.

Then, of course, that night we did lose by almost 10 percentage points—we lost by 9. But if you tell people throughout the country, if you remind people about it, they say, "How could that be? I thought you won New Hampshire." Around 7 or 8 o'clock, when we were only behind by 2 or 3, we all went down and announced, essentially, that we had won, that he was the comeback kid, and here we go. It wasn't a lie. We didn't know we'd wind up losing by 9. But, at that moment, the race was razor close.

Dunn-Tenpas: And couldn't you also attribute the second-place finish to Tsongas being from Massachusetts?

Wilhelm

Sure. That diminished the meaning of his victory somewhat. But it was a soap opera. It looked like it was going to be a Greek tragedy. Everything about that election was about him. Was he going to get killed? Was he going to survive? Was this guy who'd just been on 60 Minutes, who had been the focus of the national attention, would he—? That was the line going into the night. So Tsongas' victory is an afterthought. The story, the headline, is, "He's the comeback kid. He survived." This guy, who took more shots than anybody could possibly take and survive, did in fact survive. So that was the natural press line that night, and we were smart enough to play into it.

Riley

So you leave there. What's next on the agenda? You're looking to Super Tuesday pretty soon after that.

Wilhelm

Yes, we're looking to Super Tuesday. There were a couple of small states where we made half-hearted efforts. Maryland was early and we did better than people—we just had enough money to do—Do you have the—?

Riley

Yes, New Hampshire, South Dakota. Then, I guess, Super Tuesday would have been March the 10th, but there was Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Idaho, and Utah on the third of March, then South Carolina.

Wilhelm

We tried to do a little bit everywhere because I certainly wanted us to be a national campaign. I'm big on that. I don't know that that was totally agreed upon within the councils of the campaign, but we had a little effort in South Dakota. I don't think we did that well, but at least we were out there. Georgia became huge, and the Governor of Georgia—It was Zell Miller then, right?

Jones

I think that's right.

Wilhelm

I think, in order to help Bill Clinton, he moved the primary up from Super Tuesday to a week in advance so that Clinton would have a win and momentum going into Super Tuesday. Maryland, we made somewhat of an effort. We had a little money and we wound up doing better in Maryland. I don't remember the, I think we had a close—

Riley

Twenty-nine to thirty-eight. Well, 38 for all others, so you may very well have won there. The figures I have don't break it down by candidate.

Wilhelm

We finished a close second.

Riley

Oh, here we go. Yes, Maryland, 33 percent to Tsongas's 41 percent.

Wilhelm

That was perceived that day as Wow! Again, not just a southern candidacy but a national candidacy. Maryland helped prove that, and just even putting a little flag down in South Dakota was worth trying.

Riley

I'll let you look at that, David. We don't have to go through these place-by-place, but if there's something—

Wilhelm

But Georgia was huge. We had Carville and Begala, who were advisors to Miller. Miller was the Governor. We had a good operation in Georgia. I think Senator [Sam] Nunn, not with great enthusiasm, but he wound up endorsing. Jimmy Carter met with him, but didn't endorse. There was just a knowledge and capability to work the landscape of Georgia that nobody else could touch, and so we won a huge victory in Georgia. We stayed surprisingly close in Maryland, and then it was on to Florida where we had, essentially, a showdown with Tsongas. We hammered him on his support for a gas tax increase, just hammered him.

He tried to bring out this panda bear, remember that? It was the "Pander Bear." Okay. [laughs] But I thought we had the much tougher campaign. You can believe whatever you believe on the gas tax, but we were against it and he was for it. The issue mattered to people. We ran on it, and we put his own words and his own—He had his own plan, text, and we just hammered him on that. We had a very strong state director there—Well, anyway, Florida was the marquee event of that evening and we won a very large victory, 52 to 34, in a state that I think Tsongas viewed as his possibility for a breakthrough.

Dunn-Tenpas: Can I break in for a second and ask a question? In the midst of these various primary battles, did anyone start to think ahead about the general election or think about George Bush?

Wilhelm

No.

Dunn-Tenpas: That was just off the radar?

Wilhelm

We weren't even thinking past Illinois, I've got to tell you. Which, shame on me, shame on us, but no. Let me answer it this way: Bill Clinton was always thinking about the general election. His entire positioning, challenging the orthodoxy of the Democratic Party, was a strategy designed to win a general election. So he was always thinking about the general election.

We, as a campaign, were not thinking about the general election. We were going to be out of money after Illinois. We were doing everything we could just to drive to the next primary. That is a natural consequence of the campaign season. You have one primary after another. I think we won 25 straight primaries and we kind of grounded them out and it wasn't always pretty. At the conclusion of those 25 primaries and we're the presumptive nominee of the party—I think we were third?—you had people in Washington, D.C. still wondering if Lloyd Bentsen might get in the race, even though that was absurd and bizarre. It was reflective of this great concern that existed that Bill Clinton, this flawed candidate who just won 25 straight primaries, is actually going to be our nominee.

So at that point, Stan Greenberg and James, principally, convened something they called the "Manhattan Project." Governor Clinton and Hillary, everybody knew we had a problem at the conclusion of this primary period. They backed up, did both quantitative and qualitative research, found out where we were, and then suggested a strategy for dealing with it.

I mentioned that at a certain point I became a little weaker within the campaign. That corresponds to that time. I think that, within the campaign, people thought, Yeah, Wilhelm's pretty good at—We won these primaries; he managed the budget—I did all the things that they wanted me to do, but—We are where we are and we need something different. That difference is going to be more of a media and communications strategy.

Jones

Less on organization?

Wilhelm

Less of an organizational issue.

Riley

David, let me, we don't have time to go through all of these. Do you remember at what point you developed a high level of confidence that you had this sealed up? Was it after—?

Wilhelm

After the convention.

Riley

I'm talking about the nomination. At what point did you feel like you had the nomination sealed up?

Wilhelm

Well, Illinois, really. Who's going to beat us after that? Jerry Brown was going to be a nuisance. I give that guy credit. That guy didn't have two dimes to rub together and he had us on the run in New York like you wouldn't believe. I mean, I really do. He was a very wily and resourceful candidate, but when we won there, it was inevitable. We were not going to lose to Jerry Brown. So after Illinois—and I think the campaign took a week off—we lost Connecticut to Jerry Brown. We're celebrating, giving each other high fives, and then you get a shot in the mouth. Whoa, better regroup, refocus, and we did in New York. Harold Ickes, very strong, knows New York like the back of his hand. He led our effort there.

So anyway, from there on, we ground it out. We were going to be the nominee. I remember talking to Senators, though. Literally, they wanted Lloyd Bentsen. There was, in some of the party hierarchy, particularly congressional hierarchy, still a great desire that it be somebody other than Clinton, even when it was obvious to anybody who could count delegates that he was the nominee.

Jones

[Ross] Perot was also beginning to happen. How did you react to that?

Wilhelm

Again, that's when the Manhattan Project was taking place—what was called the Manhattan Project internally. That was an effort to try to take a look at that. I wasn't that worried about Perot because I was focused on winning primaries. He's not in the primary. I am not thinking about Perot that much, except that I did bring in a guy to look at Constitutional issues related to his candidacy—for instance, if the election does get thrown into the Congress and so on. So I did bring on—I was thinking about it to that extent, but the other team doing the Manhattan Project really started to gauge the meaning of his candidacy. But the combination of his withdrawal from the campaign at the beginning of the convention, along with an extraordinarily strong convention and convention message, really catapulted Bill Clinton to the lead that he never relinquished.

Now, for what it's worth, then-President [George H.W.] Bush said yesterday that he believes that Perot cost him the election. I think that misreads the general election results. I guess we're not at the general election results, but it's worth saying. Perot voters, although they were predominantly Republican, were changed voters, and our polling on Election Day showed that the second choice of Perot voters was split 50/50 between Bush and Clinton. So let the record show here, it is widely believed to be true that Perot somehow cost Bush the election. Not so. The only state that we won that we would have lost was Ohio had Perot been in the race.

Riley

Were you involved in the planning for the convention?

Wilhelm

A little. I think Harold was our convention manager. I was at that point thinking about the post-convention period, trying to keep my eye on the ball. We're going to have this convention. We have a team of people who are working on this convention. You have Ron Brown doing his thing and you've got Harold doing his thing. That seemed to me to be going very well. What do we do after the convention? We cannot do what Mike Dukakis did. We are not going to take three or four weeks off. We are going to drive this message and momentum from the convention from the second it ends 'til Labor Day.

It was my idea. There were lots of discussion about whose idea it was, but I pushed for, very strongly internally, a bus trip from New York City throughout the heartland to St. Louis. I felt very strongly that it should go through rural areas. If you want to win Pennsylvania as a Democrat, you've got to hold the margin down in central Pennsylvania. If you're going to win in Ohio, you've got to do well south of I-70. If you're going to win in Illinois, you've got to do well in downstate Illinois. So we did the bus trip. It was a great success. I'd like to tell you I knew exactly that it would be that kind of success, but that's where I was thinking about next steps. Which states? At that point, I was the electoral college strategist within the campaign.

Riley

When did you begin that?

Wilhelm

I would say around late June, early July. We were pretty sophisticated about our targeting techniques. We came up with an algorithm that relied on past Democratic performance, and polling, and all the things that you would typically see. But I had a class at the Kennedy School in econometrics where the professor proved, to my satisfaction anyway, that a lag variable of disposable income per capita in states could predict much when it came to presidential outcomes. So we added that to our formula.

It was interesting that when we did that, certain states just popped up, like Colorado. Going into the general election, it would have ranked 45th out of the 50 states, but their economy was much worse off, or the disposable income that families had in that state was far below what we had a sense of in Little Rock or D.C. So it popped up, and we decided to compete, and we won. We won 30 of the 31 states that we targeted. So for political scientists out there, if you're wondering if there's some kid in the class who's listening or not listening....

The other thing is my father is a cultural geographer whose expertise is Ohio geography and geography of the Midwest. So that bus trip, let me tell you, relied a lot on what I learned from my father about historical, and geographic, and ethnic settlement of the Ohio River Valley. I mean, we went right along the river, and that was very deliberate on my part. We went across Pennsylvania, went to Wheeling. Then we went into central and southern Ohio down to Kentucky. Then we followed the river into Vandalia, Illinois. It was really an extraordinary moment.

Riley

How much resistance did you get when you first raised this issue within the campaign?

Wilhelm

The bus trip?

Riley

It's a pretty unorthodox thing to do.

Wilhelm

It was then. Now everybody's on buses. Well, a little. I mean, we had to do something after the convention. So it wasn't so much, oh, I don't think we should go on a bus trip. We had to do something. The battle was about where we should go. Carville and Stan said, "We need to go to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago." I'm like, that's—

Jones

You're certainly going to run into Democrats.

Wilhelm

Yes, we're going to see Democrats. That's safe. That is not where we should go. That would not capture the magic. There's going to be something about going into these rural areas that candidates don't typically go to that will just generate some magic. The pictures will be amazing. That much I knew. I mean, I didn't know 20,000 people would be standing for hours, but there would be a certain magic associated with these two southerners going into parts of these states that are culturally southern. Where I grew up in Ohio is southern. The people who settled there are southern.

I'll tell you when I knew we were going to win the general election, or I had a pretty damn good idea we were going to win. We went to Clinton County, Ohio—Wilmington, Ohio. Voter registration there is 3-to-1 Republican. We go for a noontime rally at the courthouse. There were 10,000 people there. You could see the courthouse crowd, which was full, just totally Republican, stunned. Now, who settled Clinton County? It is the Virginia Military District, the old Virginia Military District in Ohio. They're southerners. There was just this natural appeal that these guys had that really matters in Democratic chances in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky. You look at our '92 map, it's a different map than what we're battling over right now. Anyway, it's interesting. So again, for a cultural geographer, there may be some future campaign manager out there.

Riley

How did you litigate out the specifics?

Wilhelm

I won the argument. I mean, we had a debate, and I know Ohio. I know Ohio better than they know it. I know Illinois. I think they were willing to defer. And once we talked it out, we thought, Here's who we're going to get; here's what we're going to go after. They laugh about it today, but it did turn out to be the right move. It gave us tremendous momentum.

Jones

The convention, which, just thinking historically about conventions, I judged to be one of the most successful in terms of purpose, clarity of message, unity—which is something for Democrats—

Wilhelm

Right.

Jones

So it was kind of a capstone for the campaign rather than being an impediment—

Wilhelm

Right, and we never lost the lead.

Jones

And it required a fair amount of arm-twisting to make certain it came out that way. Were you involved in that at all? I recall with Jesse Jackson—

Wilhelm

I was involved in anything—

Jones

Jerry Brown not speaking.

Wilhelm

—with Jesse Jackson, anything involving Jesse Jackson I was involved in. That was one of my roles from day one, and we are very good friends at this point. But within campaigns there's—at least at that point—there was always somebody who emerged as somebody who worked with Reverend Jackson. But Reverend Jackson had a good speaking role, didn't he, at the—?

Jones

Yes, he did, but my understanding was that it had to be fully endorsing Clinton, and supportive, and positive—otherwise, maybe not.

Wilhelm

He was there, though, at that point. Reverend Jackson, at the end of the day, is one of the great Democrats of the past fifty years. He really has done more to register voters. I mean, I've become—and I know how controversial a figure he is to many—but I have become a fan of his. And I was the guy who was designated to handle him—not that anybody is going to handle him—but I was going to be the person that makes sure we've got that worked out.

Boy, after Sister Souljah, man, I went over to his office. I went over the day after and sat there and listened for an hour and a half, just listened. I went there the next day and listened, and then I went there the next day. Now I'm starting to talk a little. That was certainly an interesting moment in the campaign. Now, when did that happen exactly? Was that pre or post the convention?

Jones

That was pre.

Wilhelm: That was pre, but it was close enough to the convention that it would have raised issues related to the convention.

Riley

June. Were you involved in the decision—?

Wilhelm

By the way, on that, related to the convention itself, Harold Ickes also has a close and long-standing relationship with Reverend Jackson and I'm sure, with regard to that speech itself, if there was any specific "negotiation" related to that, he would have just gone ahead and done that himself.

Riley

Was the decision to be critical of Sister Souljah something that was vetted past you before?

Wilhelm

Yes, I didn't think we needed it. That thing was never fully vetted, at least as far as I'm concerned. It happened much more on the fly than perhaps it should have. I was brought into a conversation about it, I think prior to it.

Look, I know in the annals of the campaign, that's viewed as a key moment and the New Democrats rise up and applaud that moment. I thought it was unnecessary. I thought we could make the points in ways that were not viewed as insulting by Reverend Jackson. It was inevitable that it would be viewed that way. He represented a big piece of the pie, the puzzle that we needed to get. I just thought we could make that point without doing it in such a deliberately insulting way.

Jones

Did he make that argument when you met with him? Was that an argument he made?

Wilhelm

Oh yes. That was the argument. "You guys know what you were doing. That was tactical. You're shoving off me. Why are you shoving off me? What am I? Why would I be the choice for somebody? You're going to demonstrate that you're somehow tougher, better, stronger, different?" Absolutely the point that he made, at great length and with great emotion.

I agree with that. Again, I don't think that my view is a popular view among many of the journalists and observers of the campaign, but I don't know. I think we were going to win without it and I think that there are other ways to demonstrate that we're different, and that we're New Democrats, and that we're willing to challenge orthodoxy without doing it in that way.

Jones

Did he offer a way back in these discussions, what ought to be done at that time?

Wilhelm

You know what? I think I did right doing a lot of listening, actually. He had a lot to say and it was worth hearing. I think Bill Clinton was very troubled in the immediate aftermath of that event. I don't think he exactly understood the context in which Sister Souljah had been asked. I think he was very worried about Reverend Jackson's reaction. I don't think that Bill Clinton was quite as strategic as some of the counselors were at that moment, because he was on the phone with me in a hurry. "We've got a problem here."

Jones

And you communicated back to him the nature of your meetings?

Wilhelm

I said, "I'm going to call Reverend Jackson. I'm going to go see him." Reverend Jackson, he and I, we developed a good relationship during this. He told me, after things had cooled down, "You want me to go to a Klan rally and gin them up, you just tell me. Or you want me to stay out of a state, you just tell me. Just have the guts, and treat me with the respect to bring me into the strategic call." So I would call. I would say, "Don't go to Ohio this week." "Okay." I do think that we, as a campaign, with that very obvious exception of Sister Souljah, did treat him with respect, and did work with him, and the DNC provided resources, and he was an effective advocate during the general election campaign. We need that. We need him now in the Kerry campaign.

Riley

Was it in any way difficult or awkward for you as a white man to be in the position as a kind of liaison to the African American community, or were there senior campaign officials who were black who might have played this kind of role? Nobody's name, face, comes to mind right now.

Wilhelm

No, it was not uncomfortable for me. I actually think, What's Reverend Jackson going to react to, you send the house black to see him? He's going to say, "You just sent the house black to see me." Unless that black person had a legitimate—I think it's important to just go at it directly. So I don't know, I've never had any sense of awkwardness about that whatsoever. He's a huge player in Democratic Party politics and was bigger then than he is today. So anyway, I thought that was a moment of risk. I understand it strategically, but I wasn't for it, and I'm not sure Bill Clinton exactly understood the dynamic that he was walking into that day.

Riley

There was one other important thing that happened before the convention that we've skipped over and that's the vice presidential selection.

Wilhelm

Those of us who were doing the campaign did it day-to-day. We were completely separate. George, myself, we didn't have a clue, not a clue. That was a completely isolated and secret process.

Riley

Were you surprised at the result of the process and what did you, if you're strategizing about the electoral college map at that stage, what were your reactions?

Wilhelm

Well, I was not as genius as the people conducting the search and Bill Clinton. Personally, I thought at the time that Cuomo would be great. Really, that's what I thought. Clinton-Cuomo, strength-strength, South-Industrial Heartland—seemed like a pretty good team to me. What I didn't see was that that was much too conventional. That thinking was much too conventional. I didn't see the power of having your reflection be your Vice President and reminding everybody, from a message standpoint, what it is they like about you. That was the genius of the Gore selection and that is—No, my thinking was much too pedestrian, much too conventional when it came to that.

Jones

What did it mean following the convention for you organizationally, in terms of staff and so forth, now that it's a ticket—it's not just Clinton and getting the nomination?

Wilhelm

Didn't [Mark] Gearan go over and run the campaign from a Clinton standpoint? I'm trying to remember.

Dunn-Tenpas: He did.

Wilhelm

It was Gearan, right? Yes, that was relatively seamless. He brought in some of his own people. Gearan went over, who was a confidante, very close to the whole Clinton operation. Those were the good old days. They bounced around in those buses like the best of friends. I don't really remember any huge issues. I mean, there was a couple of moments when Hillary's friend, who was our scheduler—

Riley

Susan Thomases.

Wilhelm

Susan Thomases. She was going to make it quite clear who was in charge of scheduling and, for that matter, other things. I'm not sure it was all that unclear, but she was going to make damn sure it was clear, and that created a little awkwardness at the very beginning, but that didn't last very long. I think it was pretty seamless. From a scheduling standpoint, we had it all mapped out. We pursued a very clear and commonly understood electoral college strategy. We knew that those visits mattered, and it went well. Gearan is a pro and very professional. I thought it was pretty seamless.

Dunn-Tenpas: In terms of personnel issues though, with the campaign, obviously we talked about at the beginning how you staffed up the campaign, but are there evolving personnel issues throughout the whole cycle of the campaign?

Wilhelm

Sure.

Dunn-Tenpas: For instance, once it was pretty clear he was the nominee, isn't there a lot of DNC staff that then moved to the campaign? Aren't there party staff that move over? Don't you have to incorporate more people into the—?

Wilhelm

Well, we incorporated Paul Tully, which was huge. He was a giant of a man and, in his own way, a giant figure within the party. Ron Brown was calling me all the time saying, "You've got to get Tully on board. You've got to get Tully on board." I said, "I want Paul Tully on board. Let's get him on board." Tully, for whatever reason, was reluctant. In his own way, for all his bluster and all that, he's a shy person. It was almost like he was saying, "It's your campaign and I'm not going to fit in. Where would I be?"

But I finally convinced Tully to come on in, and he was a great help strategically. He had all this data on persuadable voters by media market. Again, we were very sophisticated about the deployment of resources, money ads, by media market, into our targeted states. Tully, until his death, was one of the reasons we were able to be that sophisticated. But he was somebody that Ron Brown really—I actually think it goes more the other way, that the campaign sort of takes over the DNC, which causes some struggles.

Dunn-Tenpas: How did you do that from Washington to Little Rock? Did people move?

Wilhelm

Yes, Rahm became our point person at the DNC and did a great job.

Jones

Rahm, not Ron.

Wilhelm

Yes, Rahm. I remember, early in the campaign, Ron Brown comes in and asks, "Who is this 'Ram' guy? Who is this 'Ram' Emanuel? I keep hearing about this 'Ram.'" I said, "Well, you're going to get to know him."

I think it works more the other way. At the top level of the campaign, I think integrating Tully the way we did was very important. He was very helpful. But, at that point, it's Clinton's campaign, and it's Clinton's DNC, and Ron Brown is very gracious. There weren't huge issues beyond what you might expect whenever you have a transition like this. But that's thanks to Ron Brown. A different chair might have been difficult. His attitude was, we are going to win this.

He had spent his entire four years, during the most desultory time possible, organizing with the objective of electing a Democratic President, when others gave up. So that's very much to his credit that the DNC was organized to support the efforts of a Democratic presidential candidate.

Jones

Was any thought given to the congressional side in your planning and organization and campaign strategy? That is, not only do we need this state for the electoral college, but it would be very helpful to have these people elected here, these people elected there.

Wilhelm

A little. But I'd be lying to you if I said that was our—I mean, we're thinking about the White House, first and foremost. Sure, on the margin, we made a trip into Massachusetts. We would never have made a trip into Massachusetts if it were just to do something for the campaign. We probably did more than the Kerry campaign is doing right now in terms of trying to help out congressional candidates and senatorial candidates. But we had a double-digit lead. We had a little bit more flexibility. But at the end of the day, you don't want to take much—Our job was to elect the next President of the United States, and that was the driving force.

Yes, on the margin, yes, and if it was something that fit in with our strategy anyway, yes. But our driving considerations, when we came up with the 31 states where we were going to devote resources—and obviously that shrinks over time as they go into different categories—those were driven by presidential considerations, presidential data, not so much the—

Riley

As you're in the process of developing your electoral college strategy—you said you were doing this before the convention—at this point, you're considering seriously Perot's involvement in the campaign or—?

Wilhelm

Initially, we're assuming Perot's involvement, right.

Riley

Can you tell us anything about how you're managing your calculations with this practically unprecedented outlier case?

Wilhelm

Well, early on, we don't have polling data in each of the states, so it's hard to know exactly what to do about this Perot phenomenon. Our principal job in the ramp-up to the convention—we've secured the nomination. We've sludged our way to the nomination. We've won these 25 or whatever primaries we won in a row, and now we're in third place for all our good work. So the job then in the ramp-up to the convention really is not driven by electoral college considerations. That's now planning, that's what we do after the convention, where we go on the bus trip, where we're thinking about devoting resources and staffing. The big decision is, when do we start ads where?

But the job in June is to reintroduce Bill Clinton to the American people. So we scheduled this intense strategy of talk shows, and Arsenio Hall, and the whole nine yards. That was the job then. Perot's emerging, but at that point we're not really so much thinking about Perot as we are thinking about reintroducing Bill Clinton. That is the strategic imperative.

Again, I was thinking, We've got to do one, two, three things. That's what we've got to do then. Then we've got to get to the convention, and then we've got to execute the convention. We had a great convention team. This is Ron Brown's great moment, this is Harold Ickes. But then what do we do coming out of there? Now what do we start thinking about? I guess we didn't quite know what to make of Perot at that point.

Perot is not bad for us right then necessarily. It's confusing. He's taking away changed voters, we think, but we know they're Republicans, and he's kicking the crap out of Bush. So this is not the worst dynamic. It's really bad to be behind Perot, but if we can reintroduce Clinton, Perot goes more to a natural third place position and keeps kicking the crap out of Bush, how bad is that? Then he gets out, right on the first day of the convention, saying that he believes, I forget the line, but he believes that Clinton is kind of worthy. I forget the exact line. You're saying we're taking up room that he otherwise would have taken up.

Jones

Fits his purposes.

Wilhelm

Fits his purposes. So huge momentum builder. Now he's out of the race, so we're not thinking about him during this key period. Remember, when he got back, it was only in the last week that he went up from 8-9 percent of the race, we're up in double digits and then, at the very end, he had this rapid ascent back to 19 percent.

Riley

You mentioned the re-presentation and a couple of the parts of the re-presentation were putting the candidate on some unconventional media situations—the Arsenio Hall show with the saxophone, the sunglasses, and then talking about his underwear on MTV.

Wilhelm

I don't know how deliberate that was. That was in his Presidency.

Jones

That was more tactical than strategic.

Wilhelm

That was an error.

Riley

Can you tell us about the thought process that people were going through in terms of taking advantage of these unconventional venues?

Wilhelm

Remember, the significant amount of qualitative and quantitative research was done, and what we found out was that people had no idea who Bill Clinton was, not a clue. More people knew he was a graduate of Yale than he was from Arkansas. There was some statistic like that. So at the conclusion of all this grinding out of these victories, they had no clue. They thought he was rich, went to Yale, kind of this intellectual—not a clue about what we now take for granted: Hope, man of the people, abusive father, mother a character. None of this, not a sense. So at that time, given the composition of the media at the time, it was time to get to know Bill Clinton. It was time to do the Man from Hope video. It was time to go on those shows that were not just Meet the Press, but part of popular culture.

I think Mandy Grunwald played a big role in mapping that out. But based on that research, there was a huge strategic imperative for people to get to know who this person was and what makes him tick and what he's all about, and why he's in this. For a guy with such a big heart, people didn't have a sense of his heart. Now they do. It sustained him during the most difficult times imaginable, but they didn't then. They did not.

Jones

Was there a similar feeling about Hillary?

Wilhelm

Reintroducing Hillary?

Jones

Or introducing Hillary?

Wilhelm

Yes, I guess somewhat. She had the awful moment in Illinois where she said, "I'm not going to sit around and bake cookies." That was not a great moment. So yes, that was part of it. Introducing them as a couple. You had that Man from Hope video and they're dancing. That's all part of it, sure. But obviously, she's not the candidate. He is, and people have no sense of this guy. That's a problem, but it was a problem we had time to try to fix. Now, in today's world and today's money, would we have had time? I don't know. Now there's so much money. Ads are running non-stop from March on.

This Bush went after Kerry. I mean, his strategic assumption was, I can cut Kerry off at the knees. If I have to run all negative ads, that's what I'm going to do, and that's what he did. I think he's paying a price for it right now. But Clinton was weak enough at that moment that maybe a really harsh line of attack from the Bush campaign would have been very difficult to recover from. But we did have time in that campaign to reintroduce Bill Clinton, and to introduce Hillary, and go into the convention with some sense of optimism. At least things were much better at that point. The leading Senators of the country were no longer calling for other candidates to get in the race.

Riley

That's always a good sign.

Wilhelm

I don't think we were running third any more. Things had improved.

Jones

There was obviously a confidence with the convention and after the convention, as you've expressed it, that you never really were behind, which helped a lot with maintaining steady organization throughout.

Wilhelm

Right.

Jones

At what point did you begin to think about what would happen the day after you were elected?

Wilhelm

Me? I started thinking about that the day after we were elected. They were quietly, secretly—Warren Christopher was doing work, thinking about that. But I've got to tell you, I did not think about it once, and I don't think anybody else was thinking about it.

The only thinking about it that I saw going on was Carville and Stephanopoulos having the videographer go around. They were smarter than I was about stuff like that. I think they knew what they were doing in terms of positioning themselves in the context of a future win. I found it annoying. From the Chicago school, there's a videographer in the room. They're talking to Clinton and he doesn't know he's—I don't know.

Dunn-Tenpas: Is that for the War Room movie?

Wilhelm

Yes, the War Room, which turned out to be this great—that's why I say, "What do I know?" It turned into this great success, and it certainly positioned them to do a lot of great things. But, for the most part, the campaign was almost completely devoid of that. We were focused on winning Ohio and getting the job done.

Riley

Would you evaluate the Bush campaign for us? You're setting up a shop in opposition; you're setting up a campaign in opposition. What—?

Wilhelm

The Bush campaign seemed to me to be a tired campaign. It just seemed like it was the third term of the [Ronald] Reagan administration and the people who were running it, they're ready to go home. I mean, it just seemed—Mary Matalin wasn't ready to go home—but it just didn't seem that they were fighting and thinking, Well, this President is not just going to fold the tent and go home. They just seemed tired. If I were them, I would have—I mean, you want to do two things: you want to push your competitive advantage, and you want to mitigate your competitive disadvantage.

Their competitive disadvantage was on the economy. This isn't physics. So they never really tried. Why couldn't he have said—if you're George Bush, wouldn't you try to say something like, "I put together a coalition that led us to victory in Iraq. I am now going to change my focus and I am going to do for this economy—"? Something like that. Don't just give it to us. Instead, they kept trying to change the subject. So we'd talk about the economy; they'd talk about what Bill Clinton was doing as a graduate student in Moscow. So what do we do? Go talk about that. We're going to go talk about the economy some more.

I think he would have done himself enormous good to just take us on. Don't just give that away. Say, "I hear you. I've done great things in other areas. I'm now going to devote the full resources of my team to this." I think, had that happened, he narrows the gap quite a bit on the number one issue in the campaign. Obviously, he's always going to be able to make the case on experience, and foreign policy accomplishments, and so on. But when two people are both pushing their competitive edge, I think our competitive edge was stronger and they did nothing. Really amazing in my view.

Jones

And you didn't see any difference when Jim Baker took over?

Wilhelm

I didn't see a huge one.

Jones

What about the debates, were you involved?

Wilhelm

I didn't do a whole lot in the debates.

Dunn-Tenpas: Did they have any impact on broader strategy?

Wilhelm

The debates?

Dunn-Tenpas: Yes.

Wilhelm

Oh yes. The debates were, for us, very similar to what they were for Kerry this time. This was Bill Clinton's chance to go head-to-head with the President of the United States. We already had the lead, but he needed to seal the deal. That's what those debates were about for us. I mean, keep the focus on the economy. Demonstrate that you can go toe-to-toe with the President. I certainly thought we were going to win coming out of the debates. I mean, I already thought we were going to win because he's such a capable speaker and debater. It's not President Bush's long suit. It was hard to see the race falling apart on us at that point. But yes.

Going into debates, you have polling data about what the targets are, who you're trying to reach. I'm trying to remember what we thought of as our targets at that point. We had a really strong lead in the polls.

Riley

Perot is invited to participate.

Wilhelm

Right. Have you talked to Mickey?

Riley

Yes.

Wilhelm

Because he really was the Perot negotiator. I'm trying to remember how all that played out. Again, I'm not sure. It wasn't an obvious call at all to want Perot out. I'm trying to think back to how we thought about that at the time. Do you want to have the head-to-head with Bush? Perot may just muck it up. It wasn't obvious how to make that call in terms of Perot's involvement. I don't recall that we were absolutely against his participation.

Dunn-Tenpas: So your electoral college strategy that initially had 31 target states, over time, as you gained leads in certain states, those would drop off so you'd have fewer target states?

Wilhelm

Right.

Dunn-Tenpas: Then were there some states that you added because, for instance, they were sure Republican states, but it actually looked like Bush was losing his edge? Did you try to challenge, send some of your resources to make the Bush campaign spend time in states—?

Wilhelm

Absolutely, great question. We constantly tried to make them think we were competing in Florida and Texas, constantly. Now, we weren't, although Governor Clinton was not happy about that. He and I went round and round on Ohio versus Florida. He thought we would win Florida. I thought, No way we're going to win Florida. You've got to go back to '92. Today it's obvious that we would compete for Florida. In '92 it was not so obvious. It was definitely not obvious to me, and I viewed Ohio as a much more winnable state.

But we wanted them to think we were competing in Florida, so we would spend a little money. We did a bus trip through Florida. We did a bus trip through Texas. We did feint here, feint there. We wanted them to think we were going in, and we did force them to defend Texas and Florida. We constantly tried to broaden the number of electoral college states and force them to defend states that they didn't want to defend, and it was great. It's great having the lead that way. We would go places. We'd go to Mississippi.

Now, a lot of that is Bill Clinton. If he can meet just one more person, he'll get that person, and he'll go to one more state, and we'll get that state. But no, we had them on the run. We absolutely had them on the run. They were going to states and defending states that they never dreamed they would have to going into the race.

But at the end of the day, we really made Ohio—the more things change, the more things stay the same—but we made Ohio the state that we poured everything we could into. The last week of the campaign we were down 10, but we knew that if Bill Clinton or Hillary showed up it was worth 2-3 points, so I said, "You guys, we're going in four times in the last week," and they did, and we won by 1?.

Dunn-Tenpas: What was the Florida margin? That was close too.

Wilhelm

It was close. Now, see, I didn't see that coming. It was 2. Texas was 2. Now, there's a state where Perot hurt Bush, but we still lost it. But Texas was more competitive. We did the right thing. We won Ohio. If we'd gone into Florida, then Bush goes into Florida and we fight it out.

Riley

Florida is 39 percent-41 percent, with Perot getting almost 20 percent.

Wilhelm

So those two. I remember it was two because I thought, Clinton's going to kill me. That was closer than I thought it was going to be. So he saw the transition in Florida and knew it, and now history proves him to be right about how competitive Florida is. But I will defend the choice to go to Ohio. We did win there, and he and Gore were natural candidates in that state.

Riley

The one that you missed was North Carolina?

Wilhelm

That was it.

Riley

What happened there?

Wilhelm

I don't know. We shouldn't have chosen it. They disappoint us every time. They break our heart every time.

Riley

Even with a North Carolinian on the ticket?

Wilhelm

Sure looks that way. We had, we did not put a lot of—A little of it is your gut, but we cranked it out. We had guys, computers, here's what we're going to weight this factor and this factor and this factor. Then we weighed it and out comes North Carolina based on Democratic performance, based on disposable income, based on polling data that we had. But they break our heart every time.

Riley

When we have talked with the Bush people about their reelection effort, it is not at all uncommon to hear a complaint about Lawrence Walsh's indictments. Or I guess it was a report—the intervention about a week out. A lot of the Bush people say the polling numbers were trending favorably in our direction, and then Walsh comes in and the bottom fell out. Do you have any recollection of experiencing that from your end?

Wilhelm

No. That was as big a surprise to us as—No, what was happening was Perot.

Jones

Yes.

Wilhelm

There wasn't this movement to Bush, there was movement to Perot. So I don't think so. That's not helpful, obviously, and if I were them I'd be mad about it, and we're going to see something like that happen, by the way, in the next couple of weeks.

Jones

Something like what happen?

Wilhelm

There will be some event where you have to respond. George W., maybe his finest moment four years ago was in the last weekend. He's confronted with this drunk driving thing. He was good, I thought. He just walked out there, dealt with it about as straight on as any candidate could possibly do it. So these moments, you can bitch about them and whine about them, but you've got to be either up to the test when the test comes or you're going to lose. I think they were going to lose. The only thing that I saw at the end was this movement, people kind of thinking the race is over. Pretty dramatic late movement to Perot.

Riley

Were there any moments during the campaign that produced any more significant worry? Obviously, you're probably worried every day you go into the office about dealing with something, but were there some episodes or some moments during the course of the campaign that really created some problems for you?

Wilhelm

I mentioned the Miss America thing. I thought, This is too much; we can't possibly survive this. And then it's like nothing. So go figure.

Riley

During the general election?

Wilhelm

During the general election, no. The general election, that was one of the great—to have been on the Clinton campaign for that general election campaign was one of the great campaign experiences of anyone's life. It was tremendous. We're pushing. It's change. There's going to be a new start. We're challenging trickle-down economics. We're going to have people-based economic strategies that are going to improve people's lives. We're in these states. We have the bus trip, we have energy, we have crowds. It was really an extraordinary period. I can't imagine being part of a campaign that has that feel to it again. I think people—and I hope our campaign helped establish this—I think Democrats, Clinton supporters around the country, felt empowered to be advocates for their guys. There was a sense of unity among Democrats that is atypical, perhaps, for Democrats.

No, there was not a point—the point I feared was if we were to fall behind. Because this era of good feelings, this everybody getting along, this everybody knowing their role—I'm thinking like a manager right now—everything is hunky-dory, but it will not be hunky-dory if we fall apart. Then there's going to be blaming and finger pointing, and this person isn't doing that, and this person isn't doing what they should do. But it never happened. We didn't face that. That is what I feared.

The answer to your question, I feared the reactions of both the Clintons, as well as of our team internally, if we had really fallen behind. Maybe we would have been great. Maybe we would all pull together. Maybe not. But we didn't have to face up to it.

Jones

There'll be an interesting comparison, won't there, between that experience and that campaign and the Kerry campaign?

Wilhelm

Which did face that moment.

Jones

With the expansion—just to compare their reaction under those circumstances.

Wilhelm

Right. Well, their reaction was shake-up, bring new people on. I think it would have inevitably been the reaction. There's too much at stake. But still, within a campaign, Dukakis had a shake-up that he never recovered from. It's hard to put together a new team that works well together in the last two months of a campaign.

Kerry has done it twice. Kerry is, by contrast, very analytic. He gets new facts. He makes a decision and moves on. I don't know, maybe we would have been great, but I feared that.

Riley

Why don't we break here?

[BREAK]

Dunn-Tenpas: One quick question, I just wanted to know if you could characterize the degree to which data and research played a role in strategic decision making in the campaign. How often did you rely on data and research too?

Wilhelm

Well, if you mean survey, public opinion polling?

Dunn-Tenpas: Yes.

Wilhelm

A lot.

Dunn-Tenpas: Or any of the targeting, and the modeling, and the things that you did?

Wilhelm

Well, we certainly relied on it there. We relied on both focus groups and polling on a consistent basis. We relied on data analysis and doing the targeting. So I would say maybe more than one might think. Maybe people assume that at this point about presidential campaigns and competitive senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns. We used it, and probably could use more of it but for the budget. I think campaigns would always err on the side of more research, not less. But typically money is the reason they can't afford to do as much as they would.

It would be fun to see more kind of game theory approaches to political campaigns, but we never did any of that, although it would seem to me to be a useful discipline that could be applied to campaigns, but I haven't seen that used too much.

Dunn-Tenpas: During the campaign, was there only one pollster, Stanley Greenberg, or did you hire other pollsters to do polling in various states?

Wilhelm

We hired. I'm trying to remember. We had to have hired other pollsters, but Stan was the number one guy in charge of what we were doing.

Riley

There is an account in this volume on elections that relates to this. I don't know whether this will prompt any memories, but the article indicates the campaign uses a sophisticated data mapping operation to systematize its scheduling, media buying, and geo-TV operations.

Wilhelm

Well, that was Tully. Yes, I'm glad you mentioned that because we did do that, and largely based on Tully's data that he brought with him. He just had tons and tons and tons of data by media market on persuadable voters, non-persuadable voters, likely turnout, Democratic performance. It was very sophisticated, and we did use it for both scheduling and deployment of resources, and probably most important of all, advertising dollars. We didn't talk about that much, but those were very important strategic decisions, as you might suspect—when you go up, where, and do you stay on.

We were cocky—not cocky—we were over-confident about Clinton's likely performance in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and so we held off running ads there. We got on the air two weeks earlier than Bush in most of the targeted states in the country because we had the lead, we could be targeted. He had to change the dynamic of the race so he had to do things nationally. When you're ahead, you have the luxury of being specific. So in most states, we had a two-week jump in terms of our state-specific ad campaign. We waited two weeks in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and we paid a price on that. Those states did not break for us until the very end. It's just a fascinating dynamic.

But we were very conscious of the—now everybody knows the electoral college is the way we elect Presidents, but we had state-specific ads. Rahm Emanuel, when he was done raising money, was helping to produce ads for Ohio and Michigan—very specific, state-specific strategy, state-specific messages. We did that in a number of targeted states. So we put the data to work, probably more effectively than most Senate or gubernatorial campaigns. It's probably more par for the course at the presidential level. But we used it.

Riley

You said earlier that you didn't start thinking about what was going to happen after the election until after the election was over, the morning after. How early are you approached about taking a position in Washington after the election, and did you have a sense about where you might like to go?

Wilhelm

Bill Clinton, to his credit, called me, George, a few others in very quickly, literally within three or four days of the election, and said, "What would you like to do?" Me, like an idiot, said, "The Democratic National Committee." No. I had two ideas: one was the Democratic National Committee, and the other was Director of National Service. Those were my immediate thoughts. But the President-elect called a few of us in and asked us what we were interested in.

Jones

But appointments weren't made at that point.

Wilhelm

No, but he was going to do his level best to accommodate our hopes. That was nice of him, and not everybody does that.

Riley

Do you know what went on in terms of the playing out of the decision making with respect to the two positions that you mentioned here? How soon was it before you got confirmation that you were going to get one of these two jobs?

Wilhelm

It was pretty quick. Within two or three weeks of the election I had a pretty good idea that I was going to be named to that post. So for a few of us, there wasn't a prolonged period. I didn't have to do a lot of positioning or sharp elbows. I really am grateful to him that he called us in, one after another. "What is it that you want to do? What are your hopes?"

My thinking on it was, I'm not sure I want to be in the White House at the staff level. For me, a chance to grow, to lead, and to have my own opportunity consistent with my experience and my passions and so on seemed to be the Democratic National Committee. So that's what I asked for and that's what I got.

Riley

Did you have, internally, a preference for the other?

Wilhelm

No, I wouldn't say that. I thought that would be a good outcome. But I had a vision of the DNC, and maybe it's naive. Maybe I was a little ahead of the technology, but I very much thought that we could build a grassroots-based party around issues that mattered to Democrats, and that there ought to be that connection. It ought to be about ideas, and it ought to be about policy, and Democrats ought to be able to weigh in in an effective and meaningful way. There ought to be a two-way communication between Washington, D.C. and Democrats at the grassroots level.

So I had all kinds of ideas, which frankly would be easier to execute in today's Internet age. I had ideas ranging from energizing groups of various Democratic constituencies at the grassroots level, whether they be county chairs, college students, women, local elected officials, and so on. Many of those things I did, and those groups are stronger to this day.

But I also thought, in more populist terms, that there ought to be Democratic credit cards and there ought to be Democratic shopping discounts, and there ought to be Democratic memberships, and there ought to be ways for Democrats to act together to benefit themselves and to participate in the life of our political system. That was my vision of what we could do. Now, twelve, fourteen years later, a lot of that stuff is being done, but I was never around long enough to do a lot of that.

Jones

What was the White House—?

Wilhelm

That's why I thought that maybe me, somebody like me, a younger face, kind of a new face in the party, might make sense.

Riley

Did you present this vision to the President when you conferred with him about the positions that you'd like to have?

Wilhelm

A little bit, although I certainly talked in the press about it a lot. I don't know how many—I talked about that pretty consistently. Maybe not about shopping discounts, but the basic notion that we ought to have a party that helps defend and promote the interests of the President, that there is a two-way street of communication between the grassroots level and Washington, D.C., and that we need to generate enthusiasm at the grassroots level around ideas and policies and agendas of this President that are consistent with the best ideas of the party. That was my thought going into the job.

Jones

What was the White House conception of the job? By that, I mean to include Clinton's conception of the job and other primary actors with whom you would have to deal.

Wilhelm

I don't know how often they thought about what the conception of the DNC should be. At the beginning, I think there was a view, and I certainly subscribed to this view, that we would be a political arm for the President. I mean, the DNC, properly conceived, is there to promote the interests of the President or to elect a Democrat to the Presidency of the United States. So part of that job is going to be to promote the issues and initiatives of that President. Certainly, my thought—I think the President's thought, as well as his counselors—would be that the DNC would be a vehicle to help promote those initiatives—not the only one, but certainly a prime one.

So whether it was the budget or the health care reform initiative, my notion was that we ought to be in there, roll up our sleeves, and do everything we can to promote that at the grassroots level, and for the grassroots of the party to be a source of strength for this President when it came to his initiatives. So there was certainly that thought.

There were those who warned me about the job. I remember a conversation I had with the first guy in politics I ever worked for out of graduate school, Howard Metzenbaum. He said, "All it is is money. Why would you want that job? All it is is money. It's just about raising money. It's a vehicle for raising money and then distributing it. You're kidding yourself if you think it's any different." That's certainly a big piece of the job too. I think I did it reasonably well. But there are certainly those who view the role of the DNC being more specifically that, as opposed to a broader vision of what I thought it could become.

Does the President need to buy into my larger vision immediately? That's kind of my job, to go in there and articulate what I hope it can become and convince others. But I think the basic notion of a more populist DNC would be consistent with his own thinking.

Dunn-Tenpas: Because of your new vision, when you arrived, did you restructure? Did you clear out some of the Ron Brown staffers and put in your own people? What kinds of organizational efforts did you make to advance this vision?

Wilhelm

I don't really think that a lot of the Ron Brown people intended on staying. That never seemed to be much of an issue. I mean, there were all kinds of Clinton people from the campaign that we brought on board. Craig Smith came over and was the political director of the DNC. There was a general desire and belief among the staffers that we had a role to play in promoting the President's agenda.

The other focus, and I paid a price for this, but I thought, How can I be helpful? How can I create a niche where I'm adding genuine value to this White House and this Presidency? I am not going to add huge amounts of value doing more legislative liaison work. There is an office of the legislative liaison in the White House, so Congress really isn't my thing. There's a DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] there, there's a DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee]. Where I can add the most value is out in the countryside, working with the party faithful, working with the Clinton political operation. So my focus was always external, out to the rest of the country. I was always thinking, What about Ohio? What about Illinois? What about Nevada? Are we linked there? Are we staying in touch there? Are we hearing back from them?

That was my focus. My focus was, Why is the Labor Council within the Democratic Party moribund? Why is our small business outreach council not stronger than it is? Why haven't we done anything, really, with local elected officials? Why shouldn't we have a more energized women's group? That was where I thought I could add value. So I didn't pay as much attention as I probably ought to have to the connection to Congress.

Now, I must say that while I was chair, and because I was chair, we did more fundraising that benefited the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—by a factor of four, I think—than any DNC had ever done before. I developed really good relationships with some of the older, more established people in Congress, the Dan Rostenkowskis of the world. They actually were helpful. I built good relationships with some of those guys. But in general, and it's no secret, I did have a rocky time with some other members of Congress.

Jones

The motivation for the grassroots effort was not just generally developing interest but the policy initiatives, right?

Wilhelm

Sure, right. That's the way you develop interest. The way you develop loyalty is about the issues that matter in your life. So we're not just going to have people sitting around and saying they're Democrats because they've been Democrats and their dads have been Democrats and we're all Democrats. No, we're going to be Democrats because we believe in universal health care. We're going to be Democrats because we believe that this party and this President is going to fight for the economic interests of middle-class people. That's why we're going to be Democrats. We're going to have that connection, and these policies are going to matter to us. We're going to be part of helping to create energy around those issues. We're going to communicate those issues to the grassroots level. We're going to do all that.

We tried to do all that and we had some success. Sometimes it was harder than other times, but I look today and see what the Internet is doing to revitalize—I mean, the party was never going to be a strong party, and is never going to be a strong party, as long as all it is is a vehicle for raising money that is then spent on ads that are watched by passive audiences. That is not going to create a strong Democratic Party. It's going to create a class of politicians that are all independent contractors and who figure out on their own how to win office, but it is not going to create a strong party in the political science sense of a mediating institution in our society where people come together because of their common interests, shared values.

So I wanted to do something about that and around that. And yes, my initial notion was absolutely around ideas and around policies, and that that will energize people, and I think it does, and I think it will, and I see it happening today.

Jones

So it's really consistent with your first meeting with the President, in a sense, where policy is politics, and as far as your piece of the world is concerned, once you became DNC Chair, this was an acting out of that.

Wilhelm

Acting out of that conversation, and acting out of the things I had done throughout my career, acting out my reason for political participation. It was all that. That's why I looked at the DNC and thought, What a great opportunity to try to build some of this stuff out. So look, I had some more far-ranging ideas. I certainly had the notion that we are going to fight like hell for the initiatives of this President, particularly those initiatives that are absolutely consistent with the underlying values of the party.

Now, some of the issues that he wound up pushing were not the easiest for the Chair of the DNC to promote, NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] being foremost among them. Deficit reduction was probably not the easiest either. But that's okay, he's our President. Let's get out there and fight the good fight. But that was my basic notion, and I believed that if we could develop any number of vehicles, let a million flowers bloom, that could engage Democrats as activists, we'd have a better, stronger party for the long run.

Now, that runs into the immediate demands of elections and so on. But that was my basic concept going in.

Jones

What you're describing is, in a way, the development of a governing function for the DNC.

Wilhelm

Yes, when you have the President.

Jones

Right, when you have the Presidency. This is a question that gets at everything that happened, but let me ask it and let us get into it. What does that do, and how did your relationships develop with the rest of the more commonly thought of as institutional part of the governing function?

Wilhelm

Like?

Jones

Well, people in the departments, people on the Hill. If you think of yourself as a satellite out here and what you're doing clearly is affecting the White House and the Congress and the departments, and people who are regularly in that same business of promoting, developing, implementing policy.

Wilhelm

Well, the White House generally ought to like it. The Congress—See, what I did, because I articulated this point of view pretty clearly to anybody who was interested in looking at it. There are a number of articles. There was a big Rolling Stone article that captured the sense of what I wanted to do very clearly.

Riley

I don't think that got in the book. I'm going to have to—

Wilhelm

It is William Greider, who knew me from Citizens for Tax Justice, who kind of got it and wrote a pretty good story about it. There were a number of stories around it. So I wasn't shy about saying this, and I had been the campaign manager, and people knew I was Clinton's guy. By saying that we would become advocates for his agenda, and with a Democratic Congress that was jealous of the new President coming into town, I effectively set myself up as the fall guy for the President. No question about it.

I read some of the stuff today and it's absurd to see some of the things that were said. "The DNC is not selling the President's agenda well enough." Could you see Ed Gillespie get blamed for—? It just wouldn't happen. "The war is being screwed up, that must be Ed." You see where I'm going with this. I set myself up to be the convenient—it's a lot easier to hit me than it is the President. If I'm out there, so obviously the disciple and advocate, the evangelist for what he wants to see done, then when things go wrong, the DNC becomes the target for criticism. So, in terms of relationship with Congress, I think I brought that a little bit upon myself.

At the same time, I'm so focused on what's going on out there, that I'm—to be self-critical, I didn't spend enough time developing some of the relationships that I should have. Although, with the leadership, with guys like [George] Mitchell and [John] Dingell, I had pretty good ones. I tended to get more trouble from the freshmen and the people who probably felt most insecure about their position.

Dunn-Tenpas: When I reviewed the articles, it looked like the first thought of criticism came after the first six months, around June of 1993. I was wondering, at that point, did it cause you to think, Maybe this shouldn't be my vision? Maybe we shouldn't be involved in policy promotion because it's just going to set us up for failure. Maybe we should devote our resources to mobilization or other—Did you ever rethink—?

Wilhelm

No, because I viewed that as what was consistent with the interests of re-electing the President and consistent with the interests of building the strongest party at the grassroots level. No, not really. I was all about mobilization. That's what I wanted to happen. I wasn't thinking, Let's do this instead of mobilization. I viewed the promotion of the President's agenda as the way to mobilize people because the Democrats at the grassroots level, or Democrats at the state and local level, would have a stake in what he was trying to do. So no, not after six weeks—

Dunn-Tenpas: Months.

Wilhelm

Well, I don't think I had six months. It started right in as soon as he introduced that first budget. I took hits right away, not because of anything of my doing, but because Congress felt they had been abandoned on the issue of the gas tax, and that started a pretty negative relationship with the Democrats in Congress.

I remember one meeting where I showed up and I just got mercilessly attacked, principally by freshmen. For what? I was there, that's all. So no, I would certainly not have changed course after six months because a Democratic Congress that should have been more supportive of the President's initiatives from the get-go was taking some shots at me. Taking shots is part of my job. If they view me as an easier target than the President, then that's part of my job. If I'm the easier target, then hit me. Don't hit the President, as long as the President is supportive, right?

But I do look at some of those articles—then it actually was hurtful. Now I look at it and think, That's absurd to hold the DNC to that standard. Did I set myself up for some of it? Probably. But having said that, we worked like hell on the President's first budget, the one that made all the difference. The DNC put pressure on Democratic Congresspeople to support the President. Did everybody like that? No. Did it pass? Yes. Did it make all the difference in his Presidency? Yes. Was it a natural base-builder for the party? No, because it was a deficit reduction package.

Part of what I got handed as Chair of the DNC was an agenda that was not—As Carville always says, "Campaigning is poetry and governing is prose." I got NAFTA and deficit reduction—not the easiest.

Jones

Got anything else?

Wilhelm

Give me something to work with here! The deficit reduction package would have been fine, frankly, but for the gas tax. I begged. I mean, I actually went to President Clinton and said, "Let's make it 470, not 500 billion. They're going to kill us on this. It is the only piece of this thing that hits middle-class people." And they killed us on it. We paid a big price for that 4.3 cent-a-gallon gas tax that was only 30 billion of a 500 billion-dollar package. Huge price.

But no, I am proud of the role we played to help get that done. Because of the strategy of the Republicans, it's a good thing that the DNC was out there putting pressure on Democrats, because we're going to have to do it with Democrats to pass this thing. I like to think I'm willing to be self-critical and I'm not somebody who would say I would never change course. But on that, I think that was the right way to go.

Riley

When you indicated that you might like to be Chair of the DNC, was it generally assumed that Ron Brown was going to go someplace else?

Wilhelm

Oh yes, he had said that.

Riley

So it wasn't as though you were intruding on his turf at that point.

Wilhelm

No, he and I always had a good relationship going back to the campaign, and he was ready to move on and take that next role.

Riley

The second question is about the transition period. You've described a role for the DNC that is an innovative role and is very much oriented around the President. We expect the committees that have the White House to be oriented around the President. This, though, seems even more closely in tune with that because of this policy brief. Were you involved during the transition in core meetings on what the governing agenda was going to be along with the people who were going to be making that agenda?

Wilhelm

Sometimes.

Riley

Getting people accustomed to the idea that I'm a player here and that if I'm going to be one of the important people out there drumming up foot soldiers, I've got to be in on the takeoff as well as the landing?

Wilhelm

Yes, sometimes. That diminished over time. I started out as the political director of the transition. Then I get my own job. Now I'm worried about my own transition, and staffing up, and so on.

Initially, I would sometimes be brought into meetings. I really was not brought into the meetings that led to the creation of the first budget. It probably would have been weird to have the Chair of the DNC there, and that was probably the perception. So sometimes yes, diminished over time. I think there no doubt would have been some weirdness associated with the Chair of the DNC participating too actively in policy development. That's the answer to your question. In the beginning, some; over time, less so.

Riley

After the inauguration, how often did you see the President in those early months, or how frequently did you go to the White House?

Wilhelm

I was over there quite a bit. I didn't have meetings with him every day, but, initially, coming off the campaign, coming out of the transition, I would have been a rather frequent visitor. I don't know what that means. I'll try to remember.

Riley

More than once a week?

Wilhelm

Oh, definitely weekly, but probably more than weekly.

Dunn-Tenpas: Was there an office with which you had most contact or a point of contact?

Wilhelm

That was a problem for me. There really wasn't a political director at the White House. There was kind of a hole there and I didn't really have anybody. It wasn't until Harold Ickes kind of filled that hole almost a year into the Presidency that there was really somebody there who would be thinking about what I'm doing.

Dunn-Tenpas: I thought Rahm—

Wilhelm

Rahm did a little, but he was so much more focused on communications. That's where he was. There wasn't much of a there there, somebody to translate what we were doing at the DNC for the White House. Rahm, at that point, wasn't as powerful as he became. He had issues of his own that he had to contend with. I wondered many times—or didn't wonder, I know the answer—had I had somebody who was a more clear report and frankly, ally, I would have benefited from that.

Riley

Some of what you do matches up with what we've come to expect out of the public liaison office of the White House also. I can't even remember who the head of public liaison was.

Dunn-Tenpas: Or political affairs.

Wilhelm

Political affairs, Joan Baggett worked with us a lot.

Dunn-Tenpas: Wasn't Craig Smith in political affairs?

Wilhelm

No, see, he was with me in the beginning and then later went over. My reflection upon it was that whether it was—I mean, Joan's a great person and Rahm is one of my very good friends, but, at that time, it wasn't until Harold came in that there was really a very senior person whose responsibility was politics, broadly defined. Mack [McLarty], the Chief of Staff, who frankly, as an ally was not by nature, experience, or training a political type. So there was kind of a hole for me there.

Dunn-Tenpas: Nobody in legislative affairs helped you out with any of your promotional efforts?

Wilhelm

Oh sure, I don't want to act like—I'm over there. These are my friends. I'm working with them.

Dunn-Tenpas: I know. I'm just trying to figure out what points of contact—

Wilhelm

Well, points of contact: Rahm, George, Joan Baggett—on rare occasions, Mack. Who else was over there at the time? I worked all the time with the public liaison people. I'm not sure who was the director at that point, but we worked with those folks all the time.

Dunn-Tenpas: Inter-governmental affairs?

Wilhelm

Inter-governmental affairs, absolutely.

Riley

Was Alexis [Herman]?—

Wilhelm

Alexis was over there then. Mike Lux was over there then. Fred Duval was over there then. We were in very consistent and constant contact, and our staff was as well. So in some ways we enjoyed a close working relationship. But I think you're asking me, was somebody translating for you the vision of what you wanted to do?

Jones

Or somebody who said, "Yes, this is right. This is going great," or, "Stop doing that."

Wilhelm

No.

Jones

No such person.

Dunn-Tenpas: So you were pretty autonomous in terms of being able to decide where you were going to spend the resources of the DNC and allocate your time?

Wilhelm

I certainly talked to Harold when Harold was in there about those kinds of issues. I would not say completely autonomous, but they're not thinking every day about what the DNC is doing today. I guess the way I want to put it, we were in constant communication with the White House during that period, both at my level and the staff level. But do I have a real advocate in there? No. Do I have somebody who is really a senior player at the very highest levels of White House conversations and proceedings? Not really. At that moment. I think those people emerged, but I was gone by then.

Jones

Let me draw this picture and see whether it gets at it. You're there a lot. You know these people well. Most of them you'd gone through the campaign with. So in defining the job you're going to do, on which there was general agreement with the President and others there, the constant contact continues to refine this definition of what you're doing, and the continuity of that contact helps to reinforce that definition. So that determines what your limits are and what your sanctions are, in a sense, but there's no one person where you're told, "Go see this person."

Wilhelm

That's fair, that's very fair. On an operational—is my staff talking to the White House staff? Are we on the same page in terms of sharing information? So great, fine, good stuff. No, I think the way you stated it is accurate.

I'm also out on the road a lot. I'm spreading the gospel. I'm out there with the people and with the party. I defined my job that way. There was certainly nobody who said, "David, get off the road. You need to work more with Congress." And I'm not sure anybody would have said that, but there really wasn't somebody to whom I would turn to have that kind of conversation.

In any event, for the most part, the White House certainly would have applauded our efforts on the budget. On health care, we did the best we could with what we had to play with. We could talk for a long time about health care.

Jones

I think we do want to do that.

Wilhelm

That's an area where we played a positive role. We helped to the extent that we could. My advice to the President was right on target. It was our failure to compromise at points where we could compromise that avoided a big win that would have helped us immensely going into the midterms. I have lots of ideas about that.

Jones

We should tell two or three stories, at least. But before that I wanted to ask about—in many ways, what you were doing could be interpreted by Democrats in Congress as competitive with what they do; that is to say, they think of themselves as grassroots-oriented. "These are our constituents and so here's—"

Wilhelm

Well, I think they think about the party rarely, if at all, at the grassroots level. I don't say that as a criticism, but the number of Congresspeople that are truly tuned in to what's going on in the Democratic Party at the grassroots level, there are probably five to ten, at least when I was there. It's just not—I mean, because of the nature of our system, the party is weaker. If I were running for Congress, if that's what I did, as a Congressman, you raise your own money, you buy your own ads. The party is largely irrelevant to what you do and your survival. So they're not thinking about that, by and large. There are a few who do—Martin Frost, Vic Fazio. If I think for a little bit, I would name five to ten people who really cared about the state of the party. But, for the most part, I don't think so.

Jones

But if you are building support for the President out there by using the DNC for that purpose, to put pressure on a member of Congress—

Wilhelm

Yes, when we did that—

Jones

To play along—

Wilhelm

When we did that—

Jones

That comes to be competitive.

Wilhelm

Oh absolutely, and on the rare occasions where that would happen, I fully understand why a Democratic member of Congress would resent that. But at the same time, our job was to be helpful to the President and to push that agenda, and I would want to avoid in virtually every circumstance such a direct conflict, or point of competition, as you put it. But yes, that happened. It happened probably more than it should have, not because of me, and not because of the President, but because of a Congress that did not fully understand the benefit of having a President and of following the lead of the President. There is no question in my mind.

Look, we got our butts kicked in '94 because '94 was a referendum on our first two years of governance, and I think people said we didn't govern very well. Why did they say that? Because some of the major initiatives that we set out to accomplish and get done—health care reform, campaign finance reform—didn't get done, just didn't get done. Now, is that the fault of the DNC? I don't think so. We're in there fighting and trying to help this President. At the same time, I'm delivering more money than has ever been delivered before to the DCCC. Vic Fazio, if he were here, would probably sing my praises as the kind of chair I was in terms of the kinds of contributions.

Jones

He was then Chair of the DCCC?

Wilhelm

Right. George Mitchell would. In many ways, we had very good relationships. But yes, did my definition of the job, given, in some ways, a recalcitrant Democratic majority with relationship to the President put me in conflict with that Congress? Yes. That's what I meant. I probably set myself up for that. But who knew that it would be so hard to convince a Democratic majority to pass the President's budget?

I've got the same situation in Illinois right now where the Governor, whose campaign I chaired and whose transition I directed—same thing. Democratic majority in the legislature, resentful of the presence of this new base of power—refuses to support the Governor's budget, and goes two months into overtime. Again, the more things change, the—It's as if I'm living this again.

Riley

Some of this suggests something that we've heard from others about, which is that there was a fairly steep learning curve among congressional Democrats about how to live with a Democrat in the White House at the time, and that's consistent with what you're saying here.

Wilhelm

That's why some of the old warhorses like John Dingell—he became my best friend in Congress. Now, is that an obvious relationship? No. Why? Because the old warhorse understood that it's important, at some level, to the extent you can, consistent with your own beliefs, support the President. Dan Rostenkowski believed that, whether he worked with Bill Clinton or President Bush or President Reagan. At some level, some of these guys who were the most accomplished legislatively understood the point you just made. But man, some of these freshmen. The White House brought some of that on itself.

I remember, do you remember the Congressman from Chicago who later got indicted?

Dunn-Tenpas: Rostenkowski?

Wilhelm

No not that one, south side, Mel Reynolds.

Riley

Another Kennedy School.

Wilhelm

Is that right?

Riley

I was at the Kennedy School four years after you were.

Wilhelm

Is that right? I didn't know that about Mel Reynolds. I didn't know that about the Kennedy School.

Riley

I like to think I'm closer to your model than the Mel Reynolds model.

Wilhelm

Good. I think so. Mel Reynolds, it's NAFTA. I know Mel Reynolds, okay? I'm from Chicago. He calls me up. He says, "I'll vote for NAFTA if Bill Clinton shows up at my house and holds my baby in his hands for the cameras." I said, "Congressman Reynolds, have you lost your mind? We would never go to your house." Well, a month later they go to his house. So there was some—I don't know that we had to do that, but we did it, and maybe we had to do it because there was a lack of discipline, or lack of understanding of the importance of supporting a Democratic President.

Now, does that put me crosswise from time to time with some of them? Yes. None of that matters, though, if there's an understanding that our guy, Wilhelm, is out there. He's taking those hits and he's doing what we need to do—or somebody's translating what I'm trying to do. At the same time, I'm not defining my job, principally, as a congressional relations job. I'm more out there. If you reviewed my schedule throughout my time as chair, I spent tons of time on the road. I went to every state but North Dakota, and I'm going to go next year, I promise you. North Dakota has two Democratic Senators, right?

Jones

That's correct.

Wilhelm

So why didn't I go to North Dakota?

Jones

And a Democratic Congressman.

Wilhelm

Right. I should have been in North Dakota, let me tell you. But I was out there. I was working the hustings, if you will, and there's a big White House bureaucracy there to work the congressional angle.

Dunn-Tenpas: Can I talk a little bit about President Clinton's relationship with you? In the past, sometimes Presidents have met with their DNC chair or RNC [Republican National Committee] chair. Did you write memos to him occasionally about how things were going in the states, or strategic memos, or did you go over to meet with him to have lunch, to talk about things? What was the frequency of face to face—?

Wilhelm

I didn't write memos, although I probably should have. He works off that kind of thing, so I probably should have done that more consistently. We met on a regular basis. I would get called in. In the first year, I would get called in on a regular basis to meet with a broader political group from time to time. I would say, in the first year, I didn't really worry too much about that. I thought, I'm building my team. I'm building my staff. I'm out there raising money. I'm doing what I need to do. I'd see him at events all the time, and he would do events with us.

The second year was different. The new Chief of Staff, Tony Coelho, was not helpful to me, shall we say. Congress was rightfully nervous about their election prospects in 1994. Now, we're giving all the money we can, busting all records in terms of our working relationship with the DCCC in particular, but the DSCC as well. I'm shoving out more money than ever before to state parties for coordinated campaigns. I would not lie. I would not tell people I would give them money I didn't have. I told the California Democratic Party, "You're getting a million dollars from the DNC for the 1994 campaigns." They'd never gotten close to a million dollars from the DNC in a midterm election, but we gave a million dollars.

But everybody is nervous. People complain it's not enough. We didn't have more to give. But it's easy to go around and say, "That Wilhelm, he doesn't know what he's doing. He ought to be giving you more. If he knew what he was doing, he'd be giving you more." Well, that's bull, and that's what gets people in trouble because then they're spending more than they have and they feel they've got to raise money that they can't raise. That's why things happen that probably shouldn't happen.

But we promote. From a fundraising point of view and a distribution of resources point of view, we did more than any DNC before. We put a higher proportion of our budget back into the field. We gave more money to the DCCC. We were very aggressive on the ways that a DNC would traditionally be measured. But it was a tough year and people were nervous. There were certainly some who helped to feed that nervousness.

Dunn-Tenpas: You said year two was different than year one in terms of meeting with the President?

Wilhelm

Yes, because now it's harder for me to get in and the new Chief of Staff—

Riley

Leon [Panetta].

Wilhelm

Panetta. He doesn't know me, there's no history with me. Coelho is telling him, "This is all screwed up. He has a lot of independent—obviously, as he should—relationships with Congress. The DNC isn't doing what it should." I'm not sure if I could have—frankly, go through what I say. Every statement that I made about what was a sensible Democratic strategy that year was accurate and is accurate to this day.

Jones

This is the second year?

Wilhelm

Yes, I'm talking the election year. We need to govern well. This is a referendum on governance. We need to pass our agenda. If we go into the election year able to tell the American people that we have made solid advances on the issues that matter to them, we will do well. If we want to run a defensive campaign where people act like they don't know the President of the United States, and they didn't pass the budget bill last year, then we're going to lose.

I stand by everything I said as a matter of strategy. But at that point, now the President's schedule, or his access, is controlled by a new Chief of Staff, one that I had no relationship with. In fact, it was kind of sour from the get-go, because now I'm the target that's easier to hit than Clinton. In the beginning, that's okay because he's just taking a shot for the team. Now it sounds like, well, it's really Wilhelm. There's no intermediary.

Dunn-Tenpas: When you sort of—

Wilhelm

Not to say I'm perfect. I'm not. But how you would judge the DNC? By the amount of money we put out, the amount of support we provided to coordinated campaigns, the new initiatives in the area of organized labor and women and young people, and state and local elected officials, and small business, and all these things that are strong to this day. They were all started under me and while I was there, and I'm proud of that.

Now, events intervene and so on. Again, I set myself up by being such an aggressive advocate for the President's agenda. That put me in competition or crosswise with the recalcitrant Congress that did not fully appreciate the importance of supporting the President. That led to year two where—in politics you lose when you run defensive campaigns. And that was one of the most defensive congressional campaigns ever.

Riley

It was a tough year for a Democratic agenda in '93. You mentioned what you were handed: the budget situation that required a set of initiatives from the White House that didn't look like even the administration thought it was going to look like at the outset. There was a lot more economic pain in the '93 budget package than people anticipated when they were running. Then you got NAFTA. I mean, those were the two biggest accomplishments from that year and so—

Wilhelm

Right, those were not—Well, as I said earlier, deficit reduction was our principal message, and NAFTA.

Riley

Those are the successes.

Wilhelm

Those are the successes.

Riley

Then you've got all kinds of other things—gays in the military and so forth—that are creating a lot of adverse background noise. I'm struck in this regard by thinking about what you were saying about the campaign. As long as you were ahead, any organization you had looked fine, but you worried about what happened when you got behind. In effect, you're seeing the flip side of that once you get into the White House, right?

Wilhelm

Yes.

Riley

Basically, everybody is taking on water, and it's not just the DNC that's under fire, it's the White House organization.

Wilhelm

Everybody is under fire, right.

Riley

So you were just one particular manifestation of this, right?

Wilhelm

That's right, although I do look at some of this stuff and think, How in the world did the DNC become responsible for so much? My lofty pronouncements at the beginning no doubt encouraged it. But I was also willing to play the role of taking some hits for the broader cause. But I do think, sure it's part of a broader critique the first two years.

Dunn-Tenpas: I just wanted to move to a more mundane subject, which is just a general range of tasks. It seems like you're involved in fundraising and strategy and probably personnel, and management. Is there any way you could describe how your time was spent during the first year, and maybe the second year? If they're different, what percentage of time did you spend on the road working with state party chairs or county party chairs? If someone wanted a job description and they wanted you to put a pie chart together of your range of responsibilities, what took most of your time?

Wilhelm

Let me think about it. I was on the road a lot. We had to raise money.

Dunn-Tenpas: Was Metzenbaum right that one of your biggest tasks at the DNC was raising money?

Wilhelm

Oh, yes. He was definitely right. I mean, all of the above. It's a lot of events, a lot of media appearances. In my role as being a promoter of the President's agenda, I was a pretty visible figure on television. I got better in terms of my own performance on television, but I was out there quite a bit. So I would say, principal components were fundraising, media, travel the states, relationship with the White House, meetings there, and also managing a large staff.

Dunn-Tenpas: What about strategy? Did you have access to polling data or any Greenberg strategy?

Wilhelm

Yes.

Dunn-Tenpas: So did you think ahead to what might be a good idea to do for the midterms, or was that mostly at the White House, those kinds of strategy sessions about forthcoming elections?

Wilhelm

Mostly at the White House. We're not the tail wagging the dog, they're the dog. We're there to be a partner and strategic asset, but I'd be kidding you if I said that it was the DNC, not the White House, that drove the political calculations, political strategy.

Dunn-Tenpas: I was just curious, you'd have the capacity to pay for polling—

Wilhelm

We paid for it.

Dunn-Tenpas: When you travel the states you have a sense of what's happening in the state by talking—

Wilhelm

Not state-by-state. We generally did not have state-by-state data. But nationally, yes, the position of the President.

Dunn-Tenpas: What percentage of your staff was dedicated to fundraising would you say, versus some of the other issues?

Wilhelm

I don't know, a fifth—a big chunk of it. I'm a believer in hiring fundraisers, about to the point where marginal revenue equals marginal cost. There's not much reason to not keep adding as long as they're paying for themselves.

We had a pretty big press operation. We had a political operation, a constituency outreach operation. Now, one of the things I'm doing during this period is holding this Democratic Party thing together. Did you hear—? I mean, there was a little bit of labor saying for a month they cut off money to the DNC, but again, I don't want to be immodest, but they're lucky that I had the relationships that I had with labor during that period. That was helpful to the administration.

NAFTA was a bitter pill for labor to swallow, but there was never any real sense that they were about to leave the reservation, and I played a very helpful role in that. So it was not always a day on the beach in terms of the agenda we were pushing. But again, it made it difficult, given how I had defined my role. Now health care reform fits more naturally into that.

Dunn-Tenpas: Did you have to restructure the DNC to incorporate your policy promotion ideas?

Wilhelm

Sometimes. We had a national health care campaign where we staffed separately up and Governor [Richard] Celeste, the former Governor of Ohio, helped us out. So yes, sometimes we did that.

Dunn-Tenpas: It was kind of ad hoc. It wasn't as if there was an office of policy promotion that was dedicated—

Wilhelm

No, everybody defined their role that way. Craig Smith, for example, was great at outreach and political support for the President's agenda. Heather Booth came on board during the national health care campaign effort, and she's a tremendous political organizer. So no, we inculcated in people that that really was all our jobs. I don't think there was ever a huge sense that my definition of the mission—At least I would say it was well understood at the staff level and widely supported. I never had a sense, at the staff level, that there was a feeling that this was the wrong way to go. There was a feeling it was the right way to go.

Riley

You've touched on health care a couple of times. Why don't we go ahead and deal with that systematically? Tell us how you first got involved in that in an organized way, and then march us through putting together the initiative that you put together, and then how you went about executing the responsibilities that you had in that.

Wilhelm

It seemed to me that the health care reform proposal would be a great opportunity to generate enthusiasm at the grassroots level. We were ready to go before the administration was ready to go, which was a problem for us because we waited and waited, as we were staffing up, for the ultimate bill to emerge or the ultimate initiative to be announced, and we lost a little momentum as a result.

Dick Celeste came on board and chaired the effort. Heather Booth, whom I just mentioned, came on board to help direct it, and we had a strong surrogate speakers' network around the country. We devoted money to advertising on its behalf. We had people out in the states. Celia Fischer, I remember, was one of the people who was out there. We did what we could with the resources that we had. Now, at the same time we're saving to fulfill our commitments to each of the coordinated campaigns, so we were limited in terms of what we ultimately could do. But we had a field effort. We had a media effort. We had both earned and paid media, and a very strong surrogate speaking operation.

Now, a few comments: there was a key strategic error in being so precise about the form of health care reform. There was a strategic error. First of all, the length in the gestation of the legislation caused those who would be our natural allies, instead of being allies, to work to defend themselves against their worst fears. If we had been a little quicker out of the gate with, "Here's what we're going to do, here are our principles, here's what we're going to fight for," because of the length in the development of the plan, that turned people, instead of being advocates, into fighting rear-guard actions against what they feared would be the outcome of the plan.

Riley

Were you invited into the process at all in the formulation stage?

Wilhelm

I was invited to a meeting in the beginning, but then, for the most part, not. And it's kind of hard for me. I'm out on the road. I can't be a consistent person at meetings. So it's hard to play that internal strategic role even though I, in many ways, would have liked to. So the gestation period turns people like Citizen Action, other people batting from the progressive side of the plate, to really not be advocates, but instead be defenders of their piece of the action—nurses and so on. So anyway, that was a problem.

The other problem was probably with Congress. By being so detailed, we basically did the job of Congress for them. Reagan probably had it right during tax reform, which I was very involved in in the mid '80s when I was the director of Citizens for Tax Justice. He didn't come out, when he talked about broad federal tax reform, with a detailed legislative agenda. He said, "I want a broad-based income tax system, and the top marginal rate should be 35 percent. Now, Dan Rostenkowski, go get me a bill." Right? We come out with the bill, and all the tradeoffs, and maneuvering, and the things that are the natural result of a legislative process have been already thought through.

In retrospect, we would have been far better served to have quickly come out of the chute with a statement of principles that we're all going to fight for, and then the energy would have been—instead of defending a certain piece of the overall legislative package, or fighting a certain piece of the legislative package—the energy would have gone to promoting, or getting to, the principles that were inherent in this initiative. That was huge. Had we had a Reagan-esque approach to health care reform, we would have been way better off. So we wouldn't have been fighting for the Clinton health care package. We would have been fighting for universal health care coverage. We would have been fighting for health care security. Certainly, from where I stood, that would have been a far better way to build the campaign.

Jones

For your selling job, then, the details were overwhelming the principles?

Wilhelm

Yes, the details overwhelmed the principles, and not only that, the details caused many natural allies to just simply—They had their own job to do now, which was to work on whatever piece they felt offended by or less than thrilled about. So the energy, instead of going outward—you always want the campaigns, you always want the energy going out. Get that energy flowing. Get people focused out there, not inside. Both the length of time and the level of detail caused people to focus energy internally.

We needed to pass something. We really did. We needed, going into the election year, the election campaign, to have had a success. We needed to show people that we could govern. We needed to show people—and who could we blame? We have the White House. We have the House. We have the Senate. There's no one to turn to. Who stopped you from passing health care reform? Who stopped you from passing the campaign finance reform? I mean, it's a pretty damning critique when you think about it. So we needed a win.

It got huge applause when he waved the pen and said, "I will veto this bill if it falls short of universal coverage." I was thinking, Ehhh. I would rather pass something that fell a little short, and I made this point of view very well known internally. I would rather pass something that falls a little bit short of perfection than not have anything going into the midterm elections.

I once had a breakfast meeting with Haley Barbour as I was leaving and he said, "The thing that worried me most, if there was one moment that scared me, it would have been that you guys would have signed onto some [John] Chafee-led bill." Here I'm the DNC Chair. Call it the "Chafee bill." We're going to pass the Chafee bill, and we're going to get 85 percent of what we wanted to get done in health care reform. We would have been so far better off in terms of our positioning for the midterms, it wouldn't even have been funny. So I think we did allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good to a certain extent.

[Thomas Patrick] Moynihan, who was always very friendly to me, once said, "Major reform should never be passed 51 to 49. It probably won't get passed 51 to 49. If you're going to have substantive reform on a major issue of public policy like health care reform, it probably needs to pass two to one, 66-34, 65-35," and we weren't thinking like that. Maybe it was because we passed the budget by a vote. We weren't thinking like that. We needed to pass the Chafee bill. We needed to have that win. We needed to have that victory. We could have built on it in future years, but we weren't really thinking like that.

Dunn-Tenpas: Based on your description of the health care campaign, it sounds like the same skills that you used to elect Bill Clinton were skills that you utilized to promote the health care initiative. For instance, you had field directors. Can you talk about the parallel between campaign tactics that were used?

Wilhelm

Totally, very similar. The lack of similarity was we didn't have the same amount of money. We're doing the work of the DNC. We're raising money. We're giving money out to candidates. We're giving money out to the DCCC. We're giving money to the coordinated campaigns. There's a limit to our ability to go head-to-head with the insurance lobby. So really, at the end of the day, we didn't have the resources to mount a full and effective response.

Dunn-Tenpas: But, clearly, your experience as a campaign manager helps in terms of trying to bring this—?

Wilhelm

I hope so; I think so. Like I said, just from a campaign standpoint, we would have been far better with the promotion of broad principles. I think the President would have been better off promoting broad principles and saying to Congress, "Send me the bill. Send me the bill." Probably wouldn't have had to work so hard.

I remember Reagan—it was the Red Sox-Mets series, and at the end of it the Red Sox lose, of course, and Reagan calls in to congratulate the winning coach and he says, "I watched every game." I'm thinking to myself, How in the world could you watch every game? I mean, who can do that? The reason he could do it is because he said, "Send me the bill. Here's the goal; send me the bill." Something to be learned from that.

Those of us on the Democratic side of things, progressive side of things, we love public policy, so we love the details. We get excited about it. We want to figure out the right answer. But that's not the way democratic politics—little d—works. Tradeoffs get made. There's pushing and pulling, and compromise here and compromise there. Then, at the end of the day, even Bob Packwood says, "It's not going to be 35 percent; it's going to be 31 percent," and these guys who used to be the biggest promoters of loopholes suddenly are proud of the fact that they have achieved this goal. Very interesting to me. Had we done it differently, we would have kind of got that energy rolling out there.

I still say that's an appropriate thing for the Democratic Party to have done. If we don't believe in legislation that a President supports that would bring about broader health care coverage for lower income working families, then what are we? What do we believe in? What are we fighting for? That's my attitude about it. Again, does it put it sometimes crosswise with people who feel less strongly about that kind of thing? Yes, but.

Jones

In some ways, the announcement fairly early on, I don't know exactly when it was, the announcement was made that the DNC was going to develop an aggressive campaign for health care reform. When did it occur, March, April? It was fairly soon in the new administration, which some people might say was either a definite affirmation of constant campaigning, going from election campaigning to policy campaigning, but, in any event, the development of the permanent campaign.

There was also an announcement associated with how much was going to be spent and so forth. Was there any discussion at the time in refining, developing that announcement? That's an invitation for others to play that game in a big way, with a hell of a lot more money than two million dollars, or whatever it was that was announced at the time. Was that discussed that you may, in fact, be triggering a large-scale campaign on the other side?

Wilhelm

I would imagine that that was a defensive announcement. I can't imagine that we did that for any—I mean, I don't remember that exactly—but I can't imagine that we did that for any other reason than to send a message to our allies that help is on the way. We're going to do something. We're not going to get clobbered by the other side. That sounds to me like a defensive release. That we were getting a lot of people saying to us, "You better do something. What are you going to do? The other side is coming." So we would announce—

Jones

In other words, the other side is inevitable and this is what—

Wilhelm

Right, so we would have been sending that message to allies. We would have not done that out of a braggadocio or arrogance. That's either done out of arrogance or just bragging, but I don't think we would have done that.

Dunn-Tenpas: Can you talk about the recruitment of Governor Celeste and the formation of the task force on HCCA [Health Care Compliance Association], the separate nonprofit that was created to promote the health care? Because it was in the DNC for a while and then it became separate, right?

Wilhelm

We did whatever was totally legal and ethical. I remember we had to change it because we got some initial criticism, but we changed it to be consistent with the highest standard of ethics. I don't remember all the details, but I did respond to the initial criticism by, I hope, doing the right thing.

I had extremely high regard for Governor Celeste. He was my Governor growing up in Ohio, at least while I was in college, and I thought he was an extraordinarily talented and capable and articulate spokesperson, and so I thought he was an ideal choice. He had not yet been named to a position within the administration so I didn't think we could do much better than that. I think that today. We were lucky to have him in that role. But I knew him from Ohio, and he knew me from Ohio, so we started talking. I said, "Would you do this?" I think the President asked him to do it and he did it.

Jones

Did you ever—

Wilhelm

He also—We were all waiting for the—

Dunn-Tenpas: Announcement.

Wilhelm

We waited a long time.

Riley

His public announcement didn't come until the end of September, early October, I think.

Wilhelm

Really? So maybe he wasn't waiting. I remember waiting. Maybe we also withheld the announcement for a while.

Riley

That's what I was thinking. I was thinking about Celeste's presentation.

Jones

Did you have a sit-down with him after the event?

Wilhelm

Which event?

Jones

Once health care was defeated and talk about it?

Wilhelm

I never have. He was off to India pretty quickly. It's probably not a bad idea. We have a very good relationship. He's now President of Colorado College—a very good guy. Certainly presidential timber himself, I think, at one point in his career, but had issues that he had to contend with. He was absolutely a good choice and an effective public spokesperson.

Riley

Why don't we break now and come back in about five minutes and go into the last session?

[BREAK]

 

Riley

Were there any more questions about health care? Did you say all you wanted to say about the mechanics of the operation and what you were doing? Were you having town hall meetings?

Wilhelm

We had some town hall meetings. We had, I remember, a good strong surrogate operation. I felt like we were sending qualified, competent spokespeople on behalf of the health care reform package out into local media markets and onto public affair shows, and so on, and we did a good job at that. It was hard. Another problem with such a detailed proposal is that it is intimidating to your speakers. Those who would speak on behalf of it are nervous because they don't really understand it. Again, a problem that would be resolved by having a less detailed, more goal-oriented approach to the challenge.

I thought Dick Celeste was great, Heather Booth was great. At the end of the day, we were overwhelmed, in terms of what we could do, by the financial resources that our opponents had at their disposal. I don't think that was nearly as important as perhaps a failure to seek opportunities to pass a bipartisan, or at least partly bipartisan, bill that might have fallen short of perfection, at least in our eyes, but would have been far better than a loss.

Jones

Which later happened with [Edward] Kennedy-[Nancy] Kassebaum.

Wilhelm

At least there was something there, which mattered greatly in '96. Bill Clinton, no doubt, learned from that. Any number of things were passed with the cooperation of the [Newt] Gingrich-led House—that's the great irony of this—including Kennedy-Kassebaum, that left Bob Dole without a point of entry in the '96 race.

Jones

Exactly so.

Wilhelm

Without a point of entry because of bills that were passed with the complicity, cooperation, of Gingrich of all people.

Riley

Isn't it also the case that the mindset was different when it came to welfare reform too? I mean, part of what you're suggesting is that you sign a less-than-perfect health care bill with the idea that you can come back and improve it later.

Wilhelm

Yes, right, you come back. You want to make improvements. We've got this extraordinary thing. We've brought along ten Republicans. We named it the "Chafee bill." The DNC Chair would have loved to have had a Republican name on that legislation. We would have been better off. But we were going into '96. Now we pass welfare reform. We pass a version of health care reform. At least we get something out of it.

Jones

Immigration reform.

Wilhelm

We pass immigration reform. We pass the crime bill. The irony is that now we don't have a Democratic Congress. That is the frustrating thing to me. It's frustrating when I see it in Illinois. It seems so obvious to me, when you have essentially one-party government, you'd better damn well produce. How hard is that to figure out? People are going to judge you together. You're not going to be able to run away and say, "Oh, that's the President's fault, not mine." You're going to get judged together in terms of your competence and your ability to govern and produce.

Dunn-Tenpas: But don't you think in the House of Representatives, with the high rates of incumbency, a lot of them can be free agents and not have to worry so much about supporting Clinton because they've represented the district of Belleville, Illinois, for instance, for eight terms?

Wilhelm

Well, that's what they thought and it turned out to be a little less easy, at least in that election. No, clearly, that's what they thought. What happened to Bill Clinton in those first two years is not dissimilar from what happens to other newly elected Chief Executives who come into a situation that has been long dominated by the legislative wing of a party. It takes a while, and that certainly was the case here. But passing the budget, and the resulting economic performance in 1993, was one of the principal accomplishments of his Presidency.

Jones

Would you tell us one of those stories, either NAFTA or the deficit reduction package in '93, as a success story? That is, it did pass. Your role in it and so forth.

Wilhelm

My role on NAFTA was to hold things together. NAFTA was not an issue where the DNC was going to lead the charge, just couldn't do it. It's one thing to get crosswise with a small minority of the party. It's another thing to be working against two-thirds of the Democrats, and that was the position that we were in.

One thing I always wondered on that was whether we could have somehow attached NAFTA to something that our friends from labor would have wanted. Maybe it was impossible to do it and maybe the feelings were too great, too raw. But I'm saying, okay, we're going to pass NAFTA, but we attach an amendment on strikebreaker replacement. Why not? In other words, on the one hand, there's going to be a feeling of greater insecurity. Well, let's have something that provides greater security in an area of labor law that people within organized labor feel very strongly about. Let's somehow link the two. But we never really went there. I was a very lonely voice within the Clinton camp on these kinds of issues.

I like to think of myself as an optimist when it comes to America's ability to compete in the world, but I do think that the Clinton administration went too far. We could have done some things that would have reduced the level of anxiety and rightfully demanded that there be fair labor standards. But we wanted, what's it called, the fast—?

Jones

Fast track.

Wilhelm

Fast track, and I think only later in his administration did he seem to be a little more sensitive to the concerns that organized labor had raised with regard to, at least, the speed of some of these trade agreements. But I was a very lonely voice. Talk about some meetings that I attended during the course of my term as DNC Chair. I remember one where NAFTA was the issue and I was one out of twenty-five to say anything like, "Take it easy. How about linking something?" The not only predominant, but the nearly universal, view was to move forward on this.

One of his legacies was that he was a Democratic President who really did challenge his party when it came to free trade. He maybe challenged it a little more than he needed to on issues like fast track, but I am glad that he was willing to face the world and organize our country and economy to compete. But believe me, it did represent a challenge to the party. I saw that up front and personal. But we did not, and he did not, have any really lasting political fallout as a result of it.

Jones

What kinds of reassurances did you provide in meeting with labor leaders?

Wilhelm

The White House would arrange for meetings where he could meet and mingle and talk, and build a personal relationship with the international union presidents, and that's important. So in other words, we can disagree on this but we're going to agree on so many other things. I think that, both medium run and long run, was sufficient to rebuild things. I hope, and I think it's true within Democratic Party activities and fundraising and so on that they really did perceive me as a friend, and an ally, and somebody that they could work with—and somebody who thought that, regardless of whatever differences we're having now, we need to be together come election time.

Riley

Who did he deal best with in the labor organizations and who gave him the most trouble?

Wilhelm

[Gerald] McEntee was a close relationship. AFSCME's early endorsement was huge in the early days of the campaign and, of course, as a result, McEntee had a particular stake in the success of a Clinton Presidency. So that would certainly be one close relationship. I think he always got along well with John Sweeney, who, back then, was president of the Service Employees Union. Oh jeez, there was a guy with the bricklayers who was really mad, president of the bricklayers, Irish name, from Chicago. John T. Joyce. He was mad and he quit our Labor Council within the DNC. I don't think he ever forgave Clinton for his support. The teamsters were mad. I mean, everybody within labor—It was not hard to find a mad labor leader during the NAFTA fight, but the public sector unions had a little bit less of a stake. Healthcare Workers Union had less of a stake in NAFTA than some of the others. So they might have been a little bit more willing to forgive and forget.

Riley

I have heard President Clinton say, and I don't know that he says this in the book, but that if he had it to do over again, he thought he had erred in putting health care before welfare reform. I'm wondering if you've thought about that issue, if you think it was a mistake for him to do that.

Wilhelm

Health care before welfare reform?

Riley

Well, it was a mistake to have dealt with the health care issue before he dealt with welfare reform; that, as a political matter, it would have been smarter for him to have pursued welfare reform first.

Wilhelm

Welfare reform first? What's his rationale for that?

Riley

I guess the way that health care ultimately blew up he ended getting a success out of welfare reform and that there may have been a building of political capital. You may have seen that there was a class on the Clinton Presidency down at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, on C-SPAN and—

Wilhelm

I was in it.

Riley

This was a comment that he made. The teacher of that class was one of Chuck's former students.

Wilhelm

Is that right? I participated in that. They gave me 20 minutes to talk about the '92 campaign. I can see it, although I could also make the argument to cut the deal on health care reform and other things would come from that. I don't know, from a Democratic Party standpoint, that would have been NAFTA, deficit reduction, and now welfare reform. Okay.

Riley

The facial expression will not translate very well.

Wilhelm

That would not have been the easiest. I was glad for health care. I would have just been quicker on health care reform. Let's go. Let's get it done. Let's go get those seven Republicans, pass it, and move on to campaign finance reform. Of course, that annoyed Congress, but we should have done it.

There were compromises that we could have done on campaign finance reform that were sensible and, frankly, I was very much engaged in ongoing discussions with Congress on that. It would have been a better bill than [John] McCain-[Russell] Feingold in terms of the goal of campaign finance reform combined with the goal of the continuation of political parties as important mediating institutions in American life, which McCain-Feingold ignores as an appropriate goal of campaign finance reform.

So now we have this proliferation of non-party 527s. I don't know that that's been such a great, probably an unintended, consequence of not having done things back when we might have.

Jones

One of the arguments, whether it would have been borne out or not, but one of the arguments for welfare reform before health care reform is that if one pays attention to the Perot vote, not just that Clinton won, but pay attention as well to the Perot vote, plus Clinton's own campaign rhetoric in 1992, more as a moderate than as a liberal Democrat, that welfare reform made more sense, rather than coming in with a health care proposal, especially given what he could do early by executive action typically would also be interpreted as more liberal than moderate.

Wilhelm

Yes, I get it.

Jones

Family Leave Act and all that that provided for the Republicans in immediate unification against Clinton. That's the argument.

Wilhelm

I do get it. In some ways he was perceived as having pursued a very liberal agenda. He had the gays in the military thing even though there was no grassroots pressure to bring that up. It worked to have him perceived as liberal. The budget bill, which had deficit reduction as its ultimate goal, also was viewed in a very partisan lens because of the Republican unanimity in opposition. So even though that doesn't warm the cockles of the Democratic-base constituency's heart, it's still something that gets fought out in a very partisan way. Then you have NAFTA, which, one might argue, builds that bipartisan base, and then welfare reform would have added to it.

I get it. I understand why he would have said that and you certainly need that 60-65 percent margin to pass fundamental reform. So maybe he's looking at it that way. We really were trying to pass this path-breaking, historic, health care package that would have brought about universal coverage by 51-49. That was our model then. We'd done it before; we could do it again. It wasn't going to work on that bill. So I can see that.

I guess my attitude is that I almost don't care at this point, when I look back on it, what we would have passed. Pass something. If it's welfare reform, great. If it's health care reform, great. All I want is success. I want governing success. I want to go to the American people and say, "We Democrats know how to govern and look what we did." Really, the most object example of showing how we could govern—the passage of the deficit reduction bill—was run away from by many congressional Democrats who viewed it as a negative. I don't care, we should have passed something. "We did X. We did Y. We did Z. Vote for me."

Riley

Was there a conscious strategy for co-opting the Perot support after you became Chair of the DNC? Did you have meetings, or were studies produced, about whether you would attempt to do this? If so, how? Or did you just figure you'd deal with that in four years when you came to it?

Wilhelm

Some. We had a more conscious strategy related to the Catholic community, which is different from the Perot vote, but a swing group of voters that had been not as loyal to the Democratic Party as they had been in the past. So we thought hard about that. We launched some initiatives. We thought about it. We worried about it. We put together committees on that. That was something we were very conscious of.

Riley

Who was the driving force in moving that?

Wilhelm

Oh, I'd say probably me with John Sweeney and some other labor folks who really care about that issue. I'm not Catholic, but I was very conscious in my time as chair of trying to engage people of faith and not allow issues or our party to be defined as somehow anti-faith, which the Christian Coalition had been doing a pretty good job of. I actually appeared before the Christian Coalition and gave a pretty thoughtful speech that was greeted with great outrage. Actually, the people in the crowd didn't know quite what to make of it. It was very confusing to them. But I thought it was important to challenge that growing perception that the Democratic Party was a party that somehow ran counter to the interests of people of faith. We had an effect of turning that back somewhat.

The Perot vote, well, we were pretty busy. I would say that the broader political strategy—The White House addressed the Perot vote. Putting deficit reduction front and center in the economic package was about the biggest response that one could imagine to the Perot vote. That was the principal reason that Perot was so much less of a factor four years later. As is typical in American politics, when a third party emerges, one of the parties co-opts the agenda, or both in this instance. And that was a beautiful example of that happening in American politics. We adopted deficit reduction as our principal economic strategy. Now we achieved deficit reduction by taxing wealthy individuals and protecting, as best we could, important domestic programs. But still, he didn't have much of a cause.

So I guess I would say, to the extent the DNC was in there pitching away for deficit reduction strategy, we were addressing, in a more meaningful way than any other thing we could do, the Perot factor.

Jones

Even there, however, again, if you concentrate on those early months, put them together, it looked pretty liberal because the first economic package was a stimulus package, if you recall, that got defeated in the Senate.

Wilhelm

The first one was.

Jones

Then deficit reduction comes later. But the first—

Wilhelm

The first thing out of the box was.

Jones

The first thing out of the box was an economic stimulus package.

Dunn-Tenpas: Gays in the military.

Wilhelm

Gays in the military—where that came from, we don't know. There was not a groundswell of support for that. But yes, in terms of perception, you're right about the stimulus package. Frankly, for all the deficit reduction as a focus, so much of the discussion of the first budget package revolved around that gas tax.

Jones

Absolutely.

Wilhelm

It had several different forms and wound up being a 4.3 cent-per-gallon—not that I remember it or anything. So much of the discussion revolved around that and a pretty effective Republican attack, contrary to the broader truth of the package. But we gave them a chance to portray it as a tax vehicle. So it would have been perceived that way too.

No, I see what he's saying. Yes, build the political capital that is required to pass such a landmark achievement. Probably that's the way to think about it. You're elected with less than 50 percent of the vote. You had the Perot—you probably had to give things time to percolate a little bit. You've used up all the political capital you possibly could to pass the budget. You've used up a bunch of political capital to get NAFTA done. Build that political capital back up to the point where passage of health care reform is possible. But it still was possible. We weren't going to get universal, really universal, coverage out of it, but we could have done something darn good. But I can see it.

Dunn-Tenpas: David, if someone looks at your record in your two years, it looks like year one was dominated largely by these policy promotion efforts. But year two it wasn't. What was happening in year two?

Wilhelm

The election.

Dunn-Tenpas: So it was all focused on midterms. Can you tell me what you did in regard—?

Wilhelm

Well, what we also did year two was health care.

Dunn-Tenpas: Right.

Wilhelm

I tried to remain true to—

Jones

Crime bill also, wasn't it?

Wilhelm

Was crime bill year two?

Riley

Yes.

Wilhelm

That was a big achievement.

Riley

But also a problem for him.

Wilhelm

But overwhelmed—I mean, having put health care reform out there the way we did, that was going to overwhelm whatever—

Jones

Yes.

Dunn-Tenpas: Right.

Wilhelm

That was going to be how we were going to be judged.

Riley

Tell us about your preparations for the midterms. What were you doing and how early did you begin to detect that there was a serious problem with Democrats in '94?

Wilhelm

I'm not sure we detected the magnitude of the problem until later. But our preparation was pretty standard preparation for the Democratic National Committee. We identified what we thought were the key races. We worked with state parties in developing coordinated campaigns to assist in the election of those candidates. With regard to the House, we worked very closely with the DCCC to provide them additional resources to what they had themselves. The President appeared at fundraisers, not just for us, but for the other congressional committees as well.

The question might be whether we did too much and therefore nationalized the midterm elections, whereas we might have been better off just allowing individual candidates to localize the elections. History would probably show we would have been better off with maybe fewer trips by the President and allowing the local dynamics to assert themselves to the maximum.

Jones

Did you do the scheduling for the President for trips?

Wilhelm

No, we would weigh in, though. We definitely weighed in. Say which ones we thought were more important than others. We worked closely with Joan Baggett, who was the White House political director. Everybody was pretty much on the same page in terms of those. But we put a lot of money out into the field, even the pre-midterm elections. We put a lot of money into New Jersey, a lot of money into Virginia. It would be hard to say the DNC didn't do what it could to try to win those things.

Riley

That was '93?

Wilhelm

Right, that was '93.

Jones

Mayoral races?

Wilhelm

I'm thinking more, there were two gubernatorial races—

Dunn-Tenpas: New Jersey?

Wilhelm

Yes, New Jersey was big. We put a lot of money into that. There was a Virginia race. We put a lot of money into that race. But there were broader forces at work.

Riley

Were you reading broader forces at work at the time? The public talking points were always that these were local elections. But in the confines of your office, when you're chatting about these things, are you seeing portents of things to come?

Wilhelm

Not of the magnitude. I mean, traditional midterm losses, yes, but not of the magnitude. When we lost, when health care reform fell apart, I was thinking, Here it comes; we are in hurt now. But operationally, we continued to raise the money to do what we needed to do. We fulfilled every commitment that we made to any state party or any campaign committee, to the dollar. We didn't promise what we couldn't provide, but to the dollar every commitment was fulfilled, even as we were doing all these other initiatives. But it was a difficult time and people were nervous, as they obviously should have been.

Jones

Would you talk about Coelho's role and your relationship with Coelho?

Wilhelm

I didn't have a relationship with Coelho. He was hurtful to me. He promised people that money would be forthcoming that we had no capability of giving. That was hurtful. Rumors of my demise came from somewhere. There was something going on behind the scenes.

You never know for sure, but I think what happened was Coelho was very close with the new Chief of Staff, and now what I'm doing is not being perceived from the point of view of a good Clinton loyalist, but from the point of view of Congresspeople who are very scared about the outcome of the midterm elections. I don't think it's a fair assessment of me or what we were doing at the DNC at all. We were doing great stuff. A lot of the things that we started matter to this day, but I don't think I had much of a friend there.

I went in at one point and essentially said to the President, "What's the deal here?" The anonymous quotes that Washington is famous for were piling up. You never want to see the "embattled" anything. If you see the word "embattled," run for cover. So I'm starting to become "embattled." Frankly, there's one guy who can stop the embattlement right away and that's the President saying, "He's my guy." One week he said that, and then the next week he appoints my senior advisor and that was the end of that.

Dunn-Tenpas: He appointed your senior advisor?

Wilhelm

Yes, Coelho.

Dunn-Tenpas: As the Chair?

Wilhelm

No, senior advisor to me, or some such title. I'm a pretty nice guy, but that's insulting, demeaning, and my wife was pregnant with our first child, and I think we're normal enough people. It was like, we can get this; it's time to go home. That's what it was.

Riley

This was the early fall of '94?

Wilhelm

Yes, August, I think. That was the right thing to do. Otherwise, if I had not done that—

Riley

If you'd not done what, David?

Wilhelm

Announced that I intended to resign. I would have been the fall guy of all time for the midterm elections. They would have hung me. I say "they." There are a lot of theys, but it would have been pretty convenient. There was no reason to let that happen. It was hard enough as it was. So that was the end of that.

The second year was pretty miserable, but the first year I felt we were doing a lot of good stuff. I felt good about our role in the passage of the budget. I felt good about my role in helping pull things together during NAFTA. I felt very good about our outreach to the Democratic Party around the country. I felt the essential vision of building a stronger party at the grassroots level linked to ideas and issues is a good one. I may have been a little ahead in terms of our capacity technologically. Today is a better day to do it. Democrats now know that we have to be aggressive and united, and as aggressive as Republicans are in terms of our utilization of a wide variety of media in making our case. At that point in our history we weren't quite there.

Jones

It's interesting your description of the shift to Panetta because so many people describe or analyze that as such a positive thing having him in the White House.

Wilhelm

It was probably positive for the most part. I just didn't have a relationship with him. It's important to understand that I don't know him. He comes in. Now I don't really have somebody there who knows me or particularly respects me.

Jones

You didn't have anything to do with him as OMB [Office of Management and Budget] Director?

Wilhelm

No.

Dunn-Tenpas: Isn't Mack McLarty still in the White House, but a different position?

Wilhelm

At that time, but he's doing Latin American issues. I just think he's responding to his environment. I'm not saying he's a nasty, mean guy. I don't think that's true. He's responding. He comes out of a congressional milieu. Congress is very nervous. I don't have a supporter in that role now, and he's being told by Coelho, presumably, that things have got to change, this is not right, they're not—whatever he's telling him. I don't have any ironclad evidence of that but—

Jones

Do you have any sense of how he viewed the DNC? Perhaps as you described other members viewed it, as the DNC being not particularly important to their political life?

Wilhelm

I don't know, I really don't know. I don't know him well enough to know that one way or the other. I'm not saying it was not positive. I'm sure in many ways it was positive. That's not what I'm trying to—I'm just saying, if you're looking at what happened to me during that period, the appointment of Tony Coelho as my senior advisor came from somewhere. Why did I need a senior advisor one week after being given a vote of confidence by the President? That's all I'm saying. That came from somewhere. I'm sure, who knows, maybe that appointment may have been, let's not have the waters riled up any more than they are.

Jones

It really does illustrate though, doesn't it, the importance for the DNC of having somebody, or some team, or some atmosphere in the White House that is congenial to the role of the DNC and DNC Chair?

Wilhelm

Yes.

Jones

It's awfully hard, especially with the President, for the DNC to go off and have some kind of independent existence.

Wilhelm

Well, you're not going to. In many ways, we had that, but now, at that point, midterm looks like it's going to be very difficult so people are nervous. They're scrambling. They're trying to figure out if something is wrong here. It must be the DNC. Okay.

Riley

There's a ready-made test for Chuck's theory, though, and that is, what happens to your successors? Do they have any better relationship with the organization of the White House after you leave?

Wilhelm

I don't know.

Riley

You don't have any basis to make any speculation?

Wilhelm

I don't really know. You'd have to ask—.

Dunn-Tenpas: So there's not a club for former DNC Chairs where you guys talk?

Wilhelm

We did get together at the—I do think the role of the DNC Chair, when you are the party of the President, is fraught with peril in that when things go badly, it's not going to be the White House's fault, if they can help it.

Riley

So you become the fall guy?

Wilhelm

I was somewhat of a fall guy, but I was willing to do that. But you can only be the fall guy as long as you have the essential support. If the criticism that is really aimed at the White House—even though it's easier to lay it on right there—suddenly becomes believable, for whatever reasons, then you're in big trouble, and I was in big trouble.

Riley

That helps us, though, because we're wearing two hats here. We're partly historians trying to get the particulars of your experience on the record, but we're also political scientists. We're looking for patterns in institutions, and you've suggested something very important for us to pay attention to, which is, what happens if you're the party Chair of the party in power, the party with the White House? There is a very specific kind of problem set that you have to pay attention to under those circumstances.

I want to ask two questions about that then: First, you said that this is true of Democrats. Do you have any ideas about whether it's also true for Republicans? If not, why not? Why is there a difference? Then I want to ask you some questions about Haley Barbour during your period as Democratic Chair.

Wilhelm

Well, let's think about that with Republicans. They've had some—

Dunn-Tenpas: Lee Atwater was there during the Bush administration.

Wilhelm

Atwater was there, but this President has gone through a couple, kind of landed in a good place now, it seems.

See, I suffered somewhat because I had a learning curve to go up in terms of being a public spokesperson. I really hadn't done that in my career. So my initial forays into that area were of mixed success, shall we say, and I would get hammered on it. I actually think I got—It's not for me to say, but by the time I was gone, I think I was a pretty good television personality. But my initial—The ones that give that first impression were, He's not that good at this. When you have the White House, the importance of having somebody who is a very good television personality and can help support the agenda as a public spokesperson is very important. Well, it's important whether you're in or out. But I paid a price because my initial, just-out-of-the-box, appearances on television were not stellar, and that was the first impression thing.

Riley

Were you going on Nightline or—?

Wilhelm

I was on everything. I was on Meet the Press. I was out there, not just as the loyal soldier, but kind of pushing this agenda and this President that I believed in.

Riley

Did you like it? Did you get nervous before going on TV?

Wilhelm

In the beginning, I was more nervous than I am today or generally. But yes, it was a new role. So a little more of a learning curve for me there. But as time went on, I was more comfortable with that. Today I'm much more comfortable with it, but today I'm twelve years older.

Riley

Do you think, in retrospect, you were too young to take that job?

Wilhelm

Oh, I don't know. I did many things right. I really do. And I was able to leave with my integrity and reputation intact. It's always hard to judge what people say about you, but I don't know. I tried to run an idealistic DNC, certainly a DNC of integrity. We always fulfilled our commitments to candidates and to campaign committees. The people who worked for me would say that was a period of idealism and fun in terms of their own work. And there are many people who worked during that period who have gone on to do great things in their career.

Was I too young? It probably wouldn't have hurt to have been a little older, to hit the ground running in terms of my capabilities as a public spokesperson. But I didn't get a lot of time because we were immediately thrust into the maelstrom. Many things that were put on our plate, or put at our doorstep, were not of the DNC's making. But we fought the good fight and we fought it out of principle, and like I said, many of the initiatives that were begun under my chairmanship are still very big components of the work of the Democratic National Committee. So I don't know, I'd probably be better today than I was then, but I hope that's true of all of us.

Riley

I'm sure it is. Give us your assessment of Haley Barbour's service as your counterpart on the Republican side and tell us a little bit about the relationship, to the extent that it existed, between the two of you.

Wilhelm

We always had a good relationship. We got along as well as two people in those positions could get along. He's this down home, sort of Carville-like personality in terms of the way he talks, his uniqueness. At the beginning of my chairmanship, there was a noticeable gap in experience and age, if nothing else. But I do think that over the course of the year I was absolutely holding my own when I was debating him on television. When I started out I felt I had a ways to go, that I was going to have to learn this, that I had to get better and sharper at this. But he's not a cheap-shot artist. I thought he was an effective advocate for his point of view. I often thought we gave him a little too much material to work with. I viewed him as a capable and, at least in the way that I knew him, pretty decent guy.

Dunn-Tenpas: What are the most profound differences between being the party chair while the President is in power versus not? What were the biggest differences between your two jobs? Even though you were both party leaders, obviously, he had the out-party.

Wilhelm

When you're the out-party, there is an even greater demand that you emerge as a party spokesperson. When you have the White House, you've got the President, you've got the various White House—I mean, there's just a bigger necessity, strategic imperative, that you lead the charge as a public spokesperson.

It's still important to do that as Chair of the DNC when you have the White House, but you're not going to be the principal creator of the in-party's message, you're just not. That's going to be developed by the President. That's going to be developed by people other than you. You need to be an active and aggressive proponent of that overall message—add to it and refine it to the extent that you can. But both the opportunity and necessity to be one of the principal voices of opposition is there.

Dunn-Tenpas: Could you determine whether every time you had a campaign promoting something, did he come out with a campaign opposing whatever it was you were promoting? Could you tell any symmetry between what his job was—do you see what I mean?—in terms of being the opposition party?

Wilhelm

I don't know. I'd have to think about that for a little bit. I don't remember anything where I thought, Oh, he's just doing something that's absolutely—He probably defined his job as being this spokesperson and this constant antagonist to the President. I'm trying to remember if they launched anything issue oriented or they tried to define their role—

Dunn-Tenpas: Did they work with some of those interest groups that were against the health care plan, do you know?

Wilhelm

Oh, I'm sure they did. I don't think they brought it inside, but why should they? They have no need to.

Riley

It does become an interesting question by mid '94, though, when Gingrich is churning things up, looking forward to the fall campaign, and you've got the Contract developed. I can't recall, and this might not be the forum to discuss that, but I can't recall what Barbour's role in that was, if anything.

Wilhelm

I don't know. I think he participated in leadership meetings with regard to it.

You lose when you run defensively. You look at stuff that I said during that period, it's consistent with what I believe today. We needed to run a unified campaign around successes that were joint successes of the President and Congress in terms of legislation passed, and particularly health care. We needed to do that. Anything else would have been a set-up for failure. Instead, we didn't pass health care reform, and Congress ran essentially a defensive campaign, by contrast.

Then we ran into a very effective, proactive, aggressive campaign with the Contract with America. Give credit where credit is due. I'm no huge fan of Newt Gingrich's, but that was a good campaign that unified their party under a consistent theme that played to the perceived liberalness of the first two years of the Clinton administration, and did so in the context of a very defensive congressional campaign strategy. We were going to be evaluated on our ability to govern, and we gave our opponents enough to run against.

Jones

Do you recall thinking that positively about the Contract with America as a strategy at the time?

Wilhelm

I thought it was awful how Congresspeople were running away from the President and from the principal accomplishment of that time, which was the passage of the budget. I thought that was fraught with problems. I thought we could localize this race, but jeez, you so rarely—I'm trying to think of one football—well, the Baltimore Ravens when they won the Super Bowl—but usually you don't win playing defense all day long. We were playing defense and people didn't want—really, they were running away from the President, from the party, from their own accomplishments, from an issue agenda that was a more traditionally Democratic one. You're not going to win.

Jones

Didn't Stan agree?

Wilhelm

Stan had plenty of polls that showed exactly what I'm saying to be the case.

Jones

Didn't he also issue a memo that that was a thing to do?

Wilhelm

What's that?

Jones

Not run with the President in '94?

Wilhelm

No, I don't remember that he issued, my political director essentially said that.

Jones

Yes, he did.

Dunn-Tenpas: [Donald] Sweitzer?

Wilhelm

Sweitzer, right. Did Stan write that memo?

Jones

Yes, Stan Greenberg had a memo that was based on polling data and so forth.

Wilhelm

Well, there's running and localizing the race, and then there's just not standing up for what you believe in, what you've done, who you are essentially, and we didn't run an aggressive campaign. We would have been better off with people running with the President, having passed health care reform. Once we failed on health care reform, everybody was on their own. That's a problem.

Dunn-Tenpas: How much of an interest did you take in the polling? I know that Stan Greenberg and James Carville and Paul Begala were the principal political advisors, but did they share the polling data with you when they conducted polls for the President?

Wilhelm

Yes.

Dunn-Tenpas: So you were privy to a lot of these trends?

Wilhelm

But we paid for it all.

Dunn-Tenpas: But I didn't know, even if you paid for it, I didn't know if that gave you access, because I know that sometimes they really try to limit it for secrecy purposes not to let out—

Wilhelm

I saw the polls. I don't recall this one memo, but I was probably more focused on Sweitzer.

Riley

He's on your payroll.

Wilhelm

Right.

Dunn-Tenpas: I just wondered how preoccupied you were with the midterm elections. Like, if Greenberg's data showed you in January of '94 that—because you remember there was this census in '90, so a lot of the people who got elected in '92 might have been weak seats because there was redistricting. So you can expect some change between '92 and '94.

I'm wondering, in anticipation of these fundamental changes that happen in congressional races, well before Clinton seemed to be losing support and not getting his initiatives passed, if there was somebody in your office, or if you were attuned to what was happening with the midterm elections, safety of certain seats and things like that?

Wilhelm

Yes, of course we were. I'll tell you what I wasn't attuned to when I took the job, which was the risks associated with midterm elections. I should have been more cognizant of the historical trends along those lines. The first midterms of newly elected Presidents typically are pretty tough—not that tough—but typically are pretty tough. I wanted to pass the President's agenda because if we pass the President's agenda, we will be perceived as having governed well. We will build on the momentum of the '92 election and that will benefit us in the midterms.

Now, on taking the job, I was not as focused as I should have been on just how difficult these midterm elections can be. Maybe that would have caused me to pause about the job itself, although that wouldn't have been a very gutsy thing to do. But it is what it is. But it was absolutely the right thing to do to push and promote the President's agenda and had we been more successful in the passage of it, we would have had a much better outcome in the midterm elections. There's no doubt in my mind.

Now, whose fault is that? Is that the fault of the DNC that did everything it could do to provide resources to the various campaigns, or is it the fault of a Congress that was reluctant to embrace this new President? Was it the fault of the White House? I don't know. There's probably enough to go around.

Jones

Your earlier analysis on health care was that broad principles ought to have been set. This is what we want to have done. Here, Congress, do it. If that is correct, and one can make a real strong case for that, then as far as what they did in the White House by preparing a health plan made it too late in the summer of '94 for the Congress to support the President's preferences on health care.

Wilhelm

I'm telling you, the delay in getting that thing out really mattered. It took too long.

Dunn-Tenpas: And they set deadlines too, and they kept breaking the deadlines.

Wilhelm

Yes. It took too long. We'd have meetings at the DNC, and I'd have all these people and they were all charged up at the beginning. We're going to get out there and get this thing done, and there was great enthusiasm. Then weeks would go by, and weeks would turn into months, and people who absolutely ought to have been our allies, instead of operating on their hopes, now start operating on their fears.

Riley

They're fatigued. You can't keep a state of heightened readiness forever. It's not the military.

Wilhelm

You can't, but it was more than fatigue, although fatigue is real. It was more than fatigue. It was, now we're afraid of what's going to happen. So not only are we no longer going to be there for you, we've got to fight to protect our turf. Tough. So that really mattered and it was late in the game. And you're right.

Riley

I want to throw out one other factor, and I think it's striking that we've been talking for seven or eight hours here and this hasn't come up yet—scandals. I guess the general question to you is, to what extent did you, as Chair of the party, have to deal with the diversions of Whitewater and its fallout?

Wilhelm

Only when I appeared on TV with Haley Barbour. So often those sorts of issues would put us in a defensive posture rather than be able to go out there. But on a day-to-day basis, it would come up. We'd have to deal with it in terms of our public commentary but—

Riley

But it seems to me relevant at this point in the discussion because that's something else that developed an independent momentum only at a certain stage in the Clinton Presidency. It was not a big factor during most of the first year. Most of that momentum develops during the second year. If health care continues to get delayed, then it's sitting in the queue at the time that all of the scandals kick in and become a diversion within the White House. It's a contributing factor to the gumming up of the works and not getting this done before the '94 campaign, right?

Wilhelm

That's right. I'm trying to think back. I'm sure that's right. Your timetable shows it's right. It's not helpful, let's put it that way. We know it's not helpful.

Dunn-Tenpas: When you're out visiting the states—

Wilhelm

One thing on scandal: later on, the DNC was the focus of a lot of investigations, some of it greatly overwrought and never amounted to very much, but I never got called before any committee. The FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] never came to investigate me, never. I do think we ran—I'm sure people subsequently did too—but we ran a very good and honest shop and did our level best to abide by the highest possible level of ethics. It's a tough business, but I'm proud of that.

Riley

You touched on this earlier. You said something to the effect that the demand for funds later led some people to do some things that they probably shouldn't have done. Can you elaborate on that?

Wilhelm

No, I probably ought to just leave that where it is. That's not a comment about future activities of the DNC. Within the hothouse of a campaign or political environment, where trouble occurs when you promise more than you can deliver, or when pressure becomes too much on the people who are trying to raise the money, you're far better off saying, "Here's what I'm going to do," and do it, and not try to produce that which creates too much—You're just better off in the long run.

I became embattled when I started reading about how embattled I was. I was absolutely embattled because I would not tell people a lie about what they were going to receive. They were going to get what they got, and I'm not going to tell them something and not deliver. And I am not going to put unbelievable pressure on the people who are raising the money. That's all there is to it. So if I'm going to give California a million dollars and somebody else says they ought to get two, well, I'm sorry, that's what I've got to give you. If you want to look at our budget, we were transparent and open and honest with people about what we were able to do.

Look, it was a difficult time and a miserable midterm election, but during this period the DNC put out more money, gave tremendous assistance to the campaign committees. The President did what he could to be helpful to individual candidates. We started all these new organizations within the party that have strengthened it at a grassroots and constituency level. We did our level best to fight for the initiatives of the President and to have an issue-oriented, grassroots focus within the DNC. Tough couple of years, but that's what we tried to do.

Dunn-Tenpas: Did you ever receive criticism from members of Congress or people who ran the DSCC or DCCC, where they said, "Listen, if you hadn't spent so much money promoting Clinton, you could have been pouring it into our race in our district and we would have won"? Was there ever a resource argument that President Clinton was, in a sense, hogging DNC resources?

Wilhelm

No.

Dunn-Tenpas: Or that you were raising money like crazy, but it wasn't going to the midterms?

Wilhelm

Well, they had their own vehicles, and during this period the President is appearing at their fundraisers and helping them. I'm turning over major checks. Dan Rostenkowski said, "Why are you giving that money to the DCCC? You ought to be going to every Congressperson and doing it yourself."

Dunn-Tenpas: Oh, so they could see that you were—

Wilhelm

So they could see, maybe. But then, in terms of institution building, I don't know. That's not the way I saw it at the time, but I can tell you he was very adamant in that position. So I don't know. We were doing enough things, at least at the campaign committee level. People knew we were pitching in and being helpful.

Dunn-Tenpas: This is a backtracking question, way back. Before you took the job, did you talk to any former DNC Chairs to get a sense of what you might expect, like Jimmy Carter's Chair, John White, or anybody?

Wilhelm

No, I should have. Ron Brown, very briefly. No, I did a lot of things right in terms of outreach to the field. My greatest self-criticism would be that I didn't do some things with the institutional history representative people like John White and others, who would have been very predisposed to be helpful.

But I was more out there with the rank and file of the party and with the state party leaders. My focus was always out there. I should have immediately convened a committee made up of some of the experienced people who had been through the drill before. Their inclination would have been to be helpful. I would have been well served to have paid more attention to that. Nothing wrong with paying attention to the lessons learned by people who went before.

Jones

You've talked about television appearances and so forth. What about press relations more generally and the extent to which what you did had to be coordinated with what the White House was doing?

Wilhelm

As a matter of course, we coordinated with them. Kiki Moore, now McLean, was my press secretary the first year. She had very close working relationships with the White House press corps. I think, certainly, our message and what we were doing was closely coordinated with the White House. I was, and we were, pretty aggressive in terms of the number of appearances, media, conferences, appearances both in the press and on television. But that was pretty closely coordinated.

Jones

Fair treatment for the most part?

Wilhelm

Of me?

Jones

Yes.

Wilhelm

I think so. You know, if somebody calls up a reporter and says, "He's embattled," I'd probably go with that. The press, by and large, even during my most difficult hours, had a pretty good take on me and who I am and what I stand for. There were a couple of hatchet jobs, but that comes with the territory. Those usually get fed, so I'm not particularly worried about that.

But the major writers, the Dan Balzes and the John Kings—I got very fair coverage from those folks. They probably had a better sense than most about what I was trying to do, and what my motivation was, and where I come from as a person. So I felt that way for the most part. Don't blame the referee. I'm not big on that. You take the hits, but you get back up and fight another day. For the most part, coverage was fair.

Jones

After you left, did you have much to do with the Clinton White House?

Wilhelm

Not really. I mean, to this day, I have a very good relationship with the President, and when we see each other it's more than cordial. On the now more rare occasions that we talk, it's very positive. We tend to see things the same way, and know that about each other. That's a good thing.

I was not thrilled about that last year and the way I had to leave, and it took me a little while to kind of come back. I had to realize that—once we went home to Chicago—I felt terrible about the outcome. I'm used to succeeding. Every campaign that I've ever been associated with, where I was personally involved, I've won it, never a defeat. As a manager, I had never lost a campaign that I've chaired. I'd not lost. So it took me a while to come to terms with what transpired. I think of myself as a pretty well motivated guy who's in politics for the right reason and not about personal aggrandizement, really issue oriented. Why couldn't people see that? So it took me a little while to come to terms with it.

Then I realized, back in Chicago, everybody fed off me. Now if I was hanging my head, then people would feel, well, what's wrong with him? But if I carried myself with pride in what I've done and continued the core mission of what I believe in and the principles that I stand for and have always worked on, then they would feed off that. So in a pretty short while, I came to some equilibrium there. But it took at least a few months.

What I'm doing now, I am carrying the banner high of Bill Clinton in terms of his initiative in America's new markets. If you remember, at the end of his Presidency, he went to Kentucky and Arizona and Native Americans, and talked about bringing capital to areas of the country that are underserved, and that is exactly what I'm doing. Now, as we sit here today, we have a little under 140 million dollars under management that is being invested in businesses in Appalachia and in the Midwest, with an emphasis on rural Midwest, and that's great stuff. So life goes on. But the main thing is to stay true to your core principles and I hope I've done that.

Jones

Final question from me. Did you develop any sense of the perspective of the Chicago pols—Mayor Daley and others—of Clinton?

Wilhelm

Well, Mayor Daley doesn't like Clinton that much. They were never very close. I'll probably scratch that from this.

Also, when I went back—you asked me, did I have continued interaction—I really was a constant. I mean, the press always comes to me, and came to me in Chicago as a spokesperson on behalf of the administration and the President. So there in the third largest media market in the country, I've been a constant voice of support for the President and the administration. So I've done that. But you asked?

Jones

Mayor Daley and others in Chicago. I'm just interested because with Mayor Daley there's such, at least, for an outside observer, a contrast in styles—or is there not a contrast in styles?—between him and Clinton.

Wilhelm

Oh sure. I probably would allow this statement to stand. They have never been particularly close, and that is a matter of style as much as anything else. They do come from different worlds and different places, and even during the '92 campaign Mayor Daley would be ready with a critique. Far different than his relationship with Al Gore, which is close, tight. Mayor Daley was one of the first prominent political figures in the country to endorse his candidacy. I mean, before he ever announced that he was going to run for President, Mayor Daley stood up and endorsed him. So, much more positive relationship with Gore than with President Clinton.

But President Clinton probably is the transformational figure in recent Illinois political history. Illinois is, today, one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country, and I think it is largely because of Bill Clinton's redefinition of the Democratic Party. He was always extraordinarily strong. We were up by 22 points in the fall of '92, and I think that it was his repositioning. It was his pro-growth agenda. It was his agenda that transformed a lot of rock red Republicans into more independent thinking, and probably took independents in the suburbs and turned them into Democrats. So somebody who looks at Illinois history would view Clinton as a very transformational figure in that state.

Jones

Did you have any role in the Bill Daley appointments?

Wilhelm

I fought for Bill Daley as hard as I could at all times. He brought me into the Chicago mayoral campaign in the first place, and just is a great guy and a tremendously capable individual. So yes, I was always in there slugging away for that.

Riley

You mentioned the Vice President. We haven't talked much about the Vice President up until his name was mentioned in relation to Daley. Did you have much interaction with the Vice President during your service as Chair?

Wilhelm

During my service as Chair? A little, not very frequent. But he also was a very good supporter of what we did. He was a constant. I probably have more than I'm letting on. He did a lot of events for us. He traveled at times. He did fundraisers. He would do media for us from time to time. He actually was a very strong and effective supporter of our efforts, and I did see him on a very regular, consistent basis and have a good relationship with him. Just saw him in Chicago not too long ago. He was great. He helped us a lot.

Riley

And his political sensibilities? You had mentioned much earlier on that Bill Clinton was his own best strategist and best communication director. But Gore you don't think so?

Wilhelm

Let me put it this way: you look at the Gore campaign in 2000 and one of the fundamental strategic errors of that campaign, which I do believe largely comes from Gore himself, is that he was so concerned about mitigating what he thought as the disadvantage associated with Clinton, that he failed—and this is something Bill Clinton would never fail to do—he failed to push his competitive edge.

His competitive edge is, "Look what we've done. Look what we've done. You elect me President, we're going to extend and build on this, and we're going to extend prosperity to every household in this country." He didn't do that. Why? Because he was so concerned about mitigating what he perceived as the disadvantages associated with Clinton. Bill Clinton would never make that error. He would always drive that message contrast, that competitive advantage that works for him.

So on that score, there are few who would be the equal of Bill Clinton when it comes to political sensibilities, and I think Al Gore would be President today if he had just seen that need to drive a competitive advantage, and that's always at the core of Bill Clinton's strength as a political communicator.

Riley

What about, and this is a much more general question about your service as Chair, and that is about minority outreach. That's something we haven't talked about in relation to the Chair's role. We did talk about it in relation to the campaign and your serving as a liaison with Reverend Jackson.

Wilhelm

We did tons of it. It was just built into what we did. I brought on Minyon Moore as our constituency director at the DNC. She was a tremendous asset in terms of her relationships, not with just the African American community, but others. We really boosted our fundraising efforts within the African American community, and it just was part and parcel of what we defined as our every day job. So that continued to be an important contribution that we made to the Clinton Presidency.

Riley

Were there other significant efforts at outreach to Latino communities and Asian Americans and others?

Wilhelm

Absolutely.

Riley

Can you tell us a little bit about those?

Wilhelm

We had two staffers who were dedicated to outreach to those communities. We worked very hard at it. We viewed it as part of our mission of an inclusive party that is strong at the grassroots level and cares about public policy. So it was just the most natural thing in the world to build that within the party, to grow that. We didn't reinstate what were the traditional caucuses that Ron Brown had eliminated, but in terms of our constant outreach—this is who we are, this is what we're about, this is the big tent that is the Democratic Party—Our commitment was pretty clear.

Riley

I know you were gone before this happened, but I wondered if you had any observations about the second term One America initiative. Were you a close observer of what was going on?

Wilhelm

What was that?

Riley

The One America initiative, the National Conversation on Race.

Wilhelm

Oh yes, the Conversation on Race. I don't know, I was observing it from afar. It seemed like a natural outgrowth of the commitments of the President. That's certainly one of his lasting legacies, I think. When it came to race, he's a healer. He's a bridge builder. He sees America as it is, which is the quilt, the quilt of many colors. That's Bill Clinton. That's who he is and that's what he's all about. So that was a natural outgrowth of that. I followed it as an observer.

Riley

Just a couple of concluding very general questions. Have you thought about what you feel like your most important contribution was, or most important legacy was?

Wilhelm

At the DNC?

Riley

At the DNC, yes.

Wilhelm

If you didn't ask it about the DNC, I would probably say the funds we're developing in underserved areas of the country—They are, in their own way, the most lasting continuation of the reason I went to work for Bill Clinton in the first place. I'm proud of those things. Those were hard. I put my own money on the line to build those funds. I put second mortgages on our house. I'll send you stories. Not that it's relevant to what you're doing, but businesses are growing and building in places like West Virginia and Southeastern Ohio, where there was so little hope before. That's Bill Clinton. I hope that's me. That may very well be the most lasting thing of all.

At the DNC, probably the lasting contribution was reenergizing many of the constituency operations of the DNC—the Women's Leadership Forum, the Business Forum, the Labor Council, the College Democrats, the state and local government groups that we really instituted for the first time. There is a broader, more inclusive party, operationally and institutionally, because of the work that we did. Maybe in a small way my original vision, now with the advent of the Internet, is more easily implemented and you see—I don't know if it's a lasting legacy of mine—but the notion that you can organize people at the grassroots level around an issue agenda and around ideas is being realized, and I feel great about that.

The fact that the donor base of the Democratic Party, thanks largely to the Internet, is more consistent with the idea of the Democratic Party, which is the little guy. The fact that our funding base is not so divorced from the essential mission of our party is a great thing too, and that's something else that I tried to do when I was at the DNC, which is to do everything we could do to build that small donor base. But today it's happening and it's real. It took the technological innovation of the Internet to make that possible, but it's happening. So I would say, institutionally, operationally, the many constituency-based and grassroots-oriented groups that were started, they have great energy today. They have larger followings today than they did when we started them. I feel great about that.

I feel even better—and whether it's due to anything I've done or not, who's to say?—but the fact is that that initial vision that made me think that taking the DNC job just might be the thing to do when I could have asked for anything, now I see it and I feel really good about that. Issues matter more. The grassroots matter more. The small donor base is greater. That is a good thing for the party and it's a good thing for our country. So there you have it.

Riley

I want to ask you one final question and that is about Bill Clinton's legacy for the Democratic Party. How do you evaluate the party that Clinton left behind?

Wilhelm

Maybe the single most important, I don't know if he'd put it this way—

Riley

We'll ask him.

Wilhelm

Democrats now have an agenda for growth. You couldn't conceive of John Kerry going out in this campaign and not thinking he couldn't be fully competitive with a Republican on management and stewardship of the economy—creation of jobs, creation of wealth. But prior to Bill Clinton, we got clobbered. We were the party only of fairness. Now we're the party of growth and fairness, growth and justice when we're at our best. That may be one of his lasting legacies in terms of what it means to be a New Democrat that everybody can hold on to. We're no longer on the defense the way we were on issues like taxes and welfare reform and so on. For example, George W. Bush's critique today of John Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal rings hollow in large part because of Bill Clinton's lasting redefinition, recasting of the Democratic Party.

We no longer are so easily portrayed as—nobody could say we don't have a position against crime, that we don't have an intelligent response to issues related to personal security like that. That's thanks to Bill Clinton. So huge contributions in terms of the lasting positioning of the Democratic Party, some of which allow us to get off the defense. Some of which mitigate what were our very clear competitive disadvantages heading into the '90s, but allowing Democrats, or opening Democratic ideas to the economic plan. That thing that saved him and sustained him, in addition to his own will, in New Hampshire really is a lasting contribution and has resulted in many Democratic victories over the course of the past decade and will continue to.

Riley

David, you've been a trooper. Thank you. It's been a fascinating day for us.