The Comeback Kid

As governor of a small state, Bill Clinton was not well known nationally.  Elected in 1978 at age 32, he had served for eleven years in the position with the exception of two years following his defeat in 1980.   He came back to win in 1982, 1984, 1986, and 1990, chaired the National Governors Association from 1986-87, and was named chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in March 1990.[1]  On July 20, 1988 Clinton was in the national spotlight, delivering  "disastrous" nominating speech for Gov. Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.  Before thousands of increasingly restless delegates and attendees, Clinton went on and on, finally wrapping up his speech after 32 minutes (>).  Clinton had "laid an egg," but he was able to turn it to his advantage days later with an appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" during which he bantered with Carson and showed his talent on tenor sax (>)[2]. 

Clinton, elected to a fifth term in 1990, was in the first part of 1991 very actively involved in the ongoing discussion about the future and direction of the Democratic Party, particularly in his role as chairman of DLC.  He was not yet a candidate for president, but was seen as a likely to run.  His speech at the DLC convention in Cleveland on May 7, 1991 wowed influential political reporters.  , Clinton took the formal step of announcing an exploratory committee on August 15 at a news conference in Little Rock (>).  On October 3 he formally announced his candidacy before a crowd outside the Old State House in Little Rock, declaring "this election is about change: in our party, in our national leadership, and in our country" and offering "proven leadership, capable of reinventing government to help solve those real problems real people face."

Over the next couple of months, Clinton delivered several substantive and well received speeches, cementing his position as a leading candidate in the race for the nomination.  In particular, in October, November and December, he delivered a set of three policy speeches outlining elements of his signature "New Covenant" at Georgetown University.  Clinton's speeches at several "cattle show" events during this time were also well received.  Clinton was featured on the cover of the January 27, 1992 issue of Time magazine ("Is Bill Clinton For Real?") and looked to be in a good position heading into the February 18 New Hampshire primary..

Through The Fires of New Hampshire
However, by the end of January many pundits were prepared to write off Bill Clinton.  On January 25, 1992  the Star tabloid appeared with a bold headline reading, "My 12-Year Affair With Bill Clinton...Plus The Secret Love Tapes That Prove It!"  The Gennifer Flowers story set off a media firestorm.  In February another controversy arose, this time about Clinton's draft status.  In 1988 "Monkey Business" alone had been enough to sink Gary Hart's candidacy; Clinton faced two big frenzies with the primary fast approaching.

In both cases, the Clinton campaign was able to control the damage by effectively using free and paid media.  To put allegations of marital infidelity behind him, Clinton appeared with his wife on a special edition of CBS's "60 Minutes," which aired on January 26 following the Super Bowl (>).  Media adviser Frank Greer explained in a contemporary press account, "We're going to go for the biggest audience and the biggest opportunity to address the American people."[3]  "60 Minutes" had a normal audience of 30 million people and was expected to attract even more viewers with carry-over from the Super Bowl.  The interview was taped in a Boston hotel room.  Gov. and Mrs. Clinton sat together on a couch, and interviewer Steve Kroft sat opposite them.  A fireplace could be seen in the background.  Clinton denied Flowers' allegations but "acknowledged causing pain" in his marriage.  Hillary Clinton, thrust into the spotlight, declared, "I'm not sitting here -- some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.  I'm sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together."

The draft matter arose from a February 6 Wall Street Journal article which raised questions about whether Clinton had avoided the draft by agreeing to enroll in the ROTC.  The issue had been discussed when Clinton first ran for governor, and now it was a major story.  On February 12 there was a new wrinkle—a letter that Clinton had written in 1969 to Colonel Holmes of the ROTC was leaked to ABC News.  Clinton held a press conference to refute any wrongdoing, and the campaign promulgated copies of the eloquently written letter, running it as a full-page ad in the Union-Leader and getting it read in its entirety on "Nightline."[4]

Clinton not only survived the New Hampshire primary, but he achieved a measure of victory by declaring himself "the Comeback Kid" in his election night celebration.[5]  Although Clinton faced some bumps in later primaries, nothing matched the trials he had endured in New Hampshire.  Over the next month the field thinned as Bob Kerrey (March 5), Tom Harkin (March 9), and Paul Tsongas (March 19) ended their efforts, leaving only the insurgent Jerry Brown as a major competitor.  Brown won the March 24 Connecticut primary and pressed Clinton in other states, including New York (April 7 primary) and Pennsylvania (April 28 primary).  Clinton secured decisive wins in those states and won all remaining contests, ultimately tallying more than all the other Democrats who ran, almost 10.5 million votes.

The Critical Month of June
By late May, the Clinton campaign was gearing up for the general election.  The decision had been made to stay in Little Rock, and the campaign had begun moving to new offices in the Gazette Building.  It also purchased a large amount of computing equipment in May and June.  On May 13 the campaign started its vice presidential selection process, led by Los Angeles attorney Warren Christopher, along with former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin and Vernon Jordan, former director of the National Urban League. Christopher began with an initial list of 38 names.[6]  The campaign was also coordinating with those planning and preparing for the Democratic National Convention.

For a while, however, Bill Clinton seemed ready to disappear from the map.  His campaign reported debts of $3.9 million at the end of May, with cash on hand of only about $162,000.  On June 3, the day after the California primary, Ed Rollins and Hamilton Jordan signed on with Perot, greatly increasing the credibility of the Texan's probable campaign.  A June 23 analysis by The Field Institute, based on polls and estimates from every state, gave Perot 233 electoral votes, Bush 149 and Clinton 9. 

Such were the Democrats' concerns that the Democratic National Committee paid for a half-hour "America Speaks" town meeting that was broadcast nationally on June 12.  An 800-number was flashed on the screen for viewers wishing to make contributions.

Clinton also reintroduced himself to the American people in a number of nontraditional formats.  Two free media appearances drew particular notice.  On June 3 Clinton donned shades and played sax and engaged in discussion on "The Arsenio Hall Show" (1, 2) and on June 16 he went on MTV for a "Choose or Lose" special.
"What I've tried to do in this last month is essentially to try to recreate New Hampshire by doing all these nationally televised town meetings and interview programs and question and answer programs on MTV and Arsenio Hall as well as the morning programs -- trying to recreate a sense of commonality to try to cut through the superficial bull that tends to dominate politics."
--Bill Clinton during July 7 interview with Bill Moyers on "Listening to America"
Vice Presidential Selection
Meanwhile, the vice presidential selection process had been continuing.  The inital list of 38 was narrowed to 15 and then to a short list of six: Sens. Al Gore, Jr. (TN), Bob Graham (FL), Bob Kerrey (NE), Jay Rockefeller (WV), and Harris Wofford (PA), and Rep. Lee Hamilton (IN). On July 9 outside the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock, Clinton announced his selection of Gore.

1. The Democratic Leadership Council was formed in 1985 "to revitalize the Democratic Party and lead it back into the political mainstream."  See: Jon F. Hale.  "The Making of the New Democrats."  Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 110, No. 2 (Summer 1995), pp. 207-232.  The DLC was not without critics; Christopher Matthews, in his nationally syndicated column of December 20, 1991, wrote, "I attended the DLC's 'convention' earlier this year in Cleveland.  While greatly impressed by Gov. Clinton's speech, I could not ignore the fact that the entire hall was packed with corporate lobbyists."

2. See: Harry Thomason (inteview clip) from "Clinton." American Experience, a PBS documentary that aired July 28, 2020.  and  Tara Golshan.  "Bill Clinton's first major appearance at a convention almost destroyed his career."  Vox, July 26, 2016.

3. See: Howard Kurtz. "Clintons Agree to Do '60 Minutes.'" Washington Post, January 26, 1992. 
Steve Kroft did the interview for the piece titled "Governor & Mrs. Clinton," produced by L. Franklin Devine. In 2019 CBS News provided a behind-the-scenes look at the interview on "
60 Minutes Overtime," including some unexpected drama ("When a falling light almost hit the Clintons").
Unfortunately as became clear years after the election, Gennifer Flowers' allegations were not an isolated incident, evidenced by Juanite Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. 
A strong argument can be made that by doing the joint appearance on "60 Minutes" Hillary Clinton saved Bill Clinton's candidacy.  Twenty four years later in 2016 when Hillary Clinton was running for president in her own right, the issue of whether she had enabled Bill Clinton arose.  See: Rich Lowry.  "Yes, Hillary Was an Enabler."  Politico Magazine, May 26, 2016.  and  Michael Kruse.  "The TV Interview That Haunts Hillary Clinton."  Politico Magazine, September 23, 2016.  and  Shawn Boburg.  "Enabler or family defender?  How Hillary Clinton respondedto husband's accusers."  The Washington Post, September 28, 2016.  The "Me Too" movement of 2017 crystallized concerns about abusive behavior, and one wonders if Bill Clinton's candidacy would have survived if he had been running running in more recent times.

4. Chapter 10 "Bill Clinton as a Presidential Candidate:What Did the Public Learn?" in Stanley A. Renshon.  The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates.  New York University Press, 1996.

5. See:
Adam Sexton. "NH Primary Vault: Clinton  promises to be there 'til the last dog dies.'"  WMUR-TV, Jan. 7, 2016. and  Patrick Healy.  "Resurrection: How New Hampshire Saved the 1992 Clinton Campaign."  New York Times, February 8, 2016.
6. See: "Warren Christopher and Strobe Talbott Oral History" transcript in the "The Bill Clinton Presidential Oral History." Miller Center at the University of Virginia, April 15 and 16, 2002.  and  Ronald Brownstein and David Lauter.  "How Clinton Narrowed His List to Just One."  Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1992.  A typical speculation piece is: Paul Tash and David Dahl.  "Graham moves to 'short list' for joining Clinton on ticket."  Tampa Bay Times, July 8, 1992.

More Resources
C-SPAN: Bill Clinton May 1991-June 1992.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
Museum Permanent Exhibit: "Campaign for the Future Future"