• U.S.

The Final 48 Hours

9 minute read
Walter Shapiro/Little Rock

Never again would Bill Clinton’s horizons be this constricted. For the final two days of the campaign, Clinton’s life was reduced to the bare essentials — takeoffs, landings, speeches and the near absolute certainty (though he would never publicly admit it) that he would be the next President of the United States.

Presidential candidates had pushed themselves to the brink before, but almost always in quest of a narrow victory or fleeing from the ghosts of humiliation. Clinton was different; he did it, regardless of the buoyant polls, largely because he wanted to. Few political odysseys could rival Clinton’s 48-hour, sleep-defying, time zone-girdling, voice-croaking campaign climax. From Cincinnati last Sunday morning to Little Rock at 10:30 a.m. on Election Day, the Clinton Exhaustion Tour covered 5,000 miles and 14 cities. An hour-by-hour chronicle:

11:50 a.m. Sunday, Cincinnati, Ohio: The final gauntlet began in the drizzle outside Riverfront Stadium a few hours before a Bengals game. The previous night, the Clinton camp had lost an almost irreplaceable resource: the candidate’s voice. By early Sunday morning Clinton was, as issues director Bruce Reed put it, “the real candidate of the Silent Majority.” Taking the stage, he sounded like Marlon Brando in The Godfather and spoke for 21 seconds, a personal record for brevity. “Bad. It’s bad,” he gasped. “I’m going to let Hillary say something.” She delivered a brief speech filled with the pronoun “we.” Afterward a reporter cracked to a Clinton aide, “I thought Mrs. Wilson’s speech was fine,” a snide reference to the last year of Woodrow Wilson’s second term when the invalid President ceded much official power to his wife.

2:50 p.m., en route to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania: Campaign director Bruce Lindsey explained what the near mute Clinton did when he was alone with aides. “He talks,” Lindsey said with bemused resignation. “He can’t, but that’s what he does. He talks anyway.”

9:15 p.m., East Rutherford, New Jersey: Before Clinton spoke at a star- studded rally at the Meadowlands, aides told the press Hillary would go by herself to the final rally of the evening at the Garden State Racetrack in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Strategist Paul Begala had tried to lay down the law: “Governor,” he told Clinton, “your voice is gone. Hillary can do it.” But no one could dissuade Clinton. Pumped up after giving an eight-minute speech, with his voice hoarse but not cracking, Clinton told Begala, “I want to go to the racetrack thing. I won’t talk. I’ll only shake hands.”

12:15 a.m. Monday, Cherry Hill, New Jersey: Clinton’s bus brigade crossed the finish line at the Garden State Racetrack as they drove into an exuberant fireworks-and-fanfare rally. As promised, the candidate shook hands — hundreds of them — and played a four-bar break on the saxophone with the Dovells, a local 1960s group. But Clinton could not resist speaking for five minutes. Before leaving the raceway, Clinton posed in the cold rain with a two-year-old trotter named Bubba Clinton, who had won a race earlier that week at the long-shot odds of 37 to 1. Asked what the horse had told him, Clinton said, “Just run hard.”

2 a.m., Philadelphia: Bliss, rapture. Four (count them) hours in the Warwick Hotel to indulge in exotic luxuries like taking a shower or sleeping on a bed.

7:50 a.m., northeastern Philadelphia: As Clinton shook hands outside the Mayfair Diner, Begala marveled, “He’s clearly the hardest-working man in show business. That’s my rule: politics is show business for ugly people.”

2:30 p.m., en route to Cleveland, Ohio: Seated in her front-row seat on the campaign plane, Hillary Clinton allowed herself to talk about victory. “I’ve always been certain Bill was going to win.” Harking back to her first campaign as a teenager (she was a 1964 supporter of Barry Goldwater), Hillary explained, “I know enough about failed campaigns to recognize the averted eyes and the missed handshakes.” For both Clintons, there is a symbolic importance in the relentless campaigning. “The image of his resilience,” she said, “his fighting for change, working until the last minute, is the image he wants to leave the country with.”

The Clintons had turned their reclining front seats (Bill took the window) into a lilliputian hideaway, with a blue sliding curtain for privacy and the kind of mementos a college student might use to personalize a dorm room. Clinton had decorated the crimson fabric that covers the plane’s front wall with dozens of campaign buttons, almost as a way of reminding himself in private moments that the campaign was real. The small floor area was filled . with stuffed animals, the kind of cuddly objects that provide comfort at moments of stress. On the candidate’s seat was his current paperback mystery, Private Eyes, in which the detective is a child psychologist and children’s advocate.

When Clinton returned to the plane from his latest round of handshaking, he talked with aides about his chances of equaling George Bush’s 1988 rout of Michael Dukakis. “Bush took 40 states with 54%,” Clinton rattled off like a small boy recalling baseball averages. “I don’t think we’ll do quite that well.” Asked how he was feeling, he replied, “I feel fine. Tomorrow I’ll probably feel terrible.”

11:30 p.m., McAllen, Texas: Bush stopped campaigning two hours ago, but Clinton still had five speeches to go. Toward the end of this one, Clinton’s voice started growing so enthusiastic that he said, “I’m having a good time — I might give another speech.”

Instead Clinton wandered past the airplane’s kitchen (the dividing line between the Clinton area and the press) to chat with reporters, periodically letting loose a yawn. He took the Texas results personally (he lost) as a measure of his judgment as a de facto campaign manager. His passion for Texas dates back to 1972, when he managed George McGovern’s campaign in the state. “I always thought we had a chance here,” Clinton said, “but the weight of opinion in my campaign was that we had a better chance in densely packed states like New Jersey.”

1:15 a.m. Tuesday, Fort Worth, Texas: Clinton delighted in telling the crowd, “It will be nice for you not to have a President who has an accent. When you hear me talk and Mr. Bush talk, who’s more like you?” Watching Clinton handshake his way down a rope line, an irreverent thought gathered momentum: Why does Clinton believe any voter who has come to the airport to hear a speech at 1 a.m. on Election Day requires further wooing with a handshake? If these are not sure Clinton voters, then who was? Perhaps this whole sleep-deprivation experiment said more about Clinton’s need for adulation than it did for any electoral-vote strategy.

2 a.m., en route to Albuquerque, New Mexico: Clinton again wandered back to chat with a knot of reporters. This time the topic was primarily mango-chutney ice cream, a San Antonio specialty Clinton loves. Somehow this candidate on the cusp of victory conjured up the macabre memory that his first taste of mango-chutney had come the night before he drove former House majority leader Hale Boggs, campaigning in Texas for McGovern, to the airport for what was to be a fatal airline trip to Alaska.

2:10 a.m.: The flight attendant announced, “The flying time to Little Rock is . . .” Cheers filled the plane. Then she corrected, “I’m sorry, it’s Albuquerque.” In the front of the plane, Clinton, the late-night policy wonk, was actually talking to aides about converting cars to natural gas.

3 a.m.: The plane landed in 40 degreesF weather to the sight of about 5,000 Clinton true believers at an airport rally. Many had been waiting since midnight, but they would have to endure another 28 minutes. Clinton had gone into the bathroom to change his shirt, said an aide, “and I think he fell asleep in there.”

“Thank you, New Mexico,” Clinton began, as he sailed into a greatest-hits reprise of his stump speech. But he also sounded a new note that aides said was designed to lower voter expectations of a Clinton Camelot after the election: “I’m here to tell you we didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight.” By the time Clinton left Albuquerque around 4 a.m., the first polls were open on the East Coast.

6:30 a.m., Denver: This was unexpectedly an anticlimax; the predicted five inches of snow turned out to be only a light dusting, and the crowd, though intense, was small. In a poetic sense, the 13-month Clinton odyssey should have ended in Albuquerque before finally heading home.

7:45 a.m.: The flight attendant announced, “I want to welcome you aboard the final flight of the day aboard Air Elvis.” Begala exuded confidence that even if Clinton were to lose all six toss-up states, he would still prevail in the Electoral College. Then Begala mentioned Return to Earth, the autobiography in which astronaut Buzz Aldrin discussed his emotional problems after he left NASA. Referring to Aldrin, Begala said, “What do you do when you achieve your life’s ambition at age 35?” Begala, 31, had just helped elect the President of the U.S.

10:30 a.m., Little Rock, Arkansas: Someone with a voice uncannily similar to that of a certain large Governor of a small state commandeered the internal p.a. system just seconds after the Clinton plane landed. “We will be taking off again for three more stops,” the voice announced with an assumption of authority. “It’ll be a little awkward, since we are going to the A’s we missed. We are going to Alabama, then we’re going to go to Arizona, and then we’re going to make one quick stop in Nome before coming home to finally give you a rest.”

10:43 a.m.: Clinton, flanked by his daughter Chelsea (who had just boarded the plane) and Hillary, came down the ramp onto the tarmac in Little Rock. A practiced observer would recognize that there was something altered in Clinton’s stride, perhaps more than just an effect of fatigue. He put his full weight into every step, as if to underline the gravity of the moment and the heavy burdens he expected soon to bear.

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