The Clinton campaign was wrestling with its message, struggling to reach voters who saw politicians as obsessed with career and power, and fascinated by Donald Trump. The year was 1992.
A draft internal campaign memo sent by Bill Clinton’s political team and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon reveals that his advisers were concerned that the Clintons’ "debilitating image" was "dragging us down."
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Though the New York Times reported on the document at the time, a copy of the memo has never been published.
Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Frank Greer sent the "General Election Project" memo on April 27, 1992. The memo reveals a campaign struggling with Bill Clinton’s image as the "ultimate politician," and urged the candidate to deliver speeches in the style of Trump, now Hillary Clinton’s opponent more than two decades later.
"This report of the ‘general election project’ recommends a fundamental remaking of your campaign to reflect the new political realities and new phase of the campaign and, most important, to address the debilitating image that is dragging us down," they wrote.
The memo outlines several strategic changes to boost Bill and Hillary’s public image, including staging an event where Bill and Chelsea would surprise Hillary on Mother’s Day. These changes were intended to portray Bill as a change agent, not just a politician after power.
In a section entitled "Brave Enough to Challenge America," the campaign team suggested Bill deliver a series of speeches that could garner press attention and engage the audience like Trump and financier Michael Milken did at the Wharton School of Economics.
"People believe change can only be brought about by a leader who lacks strings and who is strong enough to challenge powerful interests," Clinton’s campaign wrote. "That is the opposite of our current style which too often suggests compromises to organize political support."
"Aggressive counter-scheduling and speeches are critical if we are to introduce this candidacy in a new light," they said.
Clinton needed to take a page from Trump, who helped change the brand at Wharton, by appearing "unafraid and willing to brave the fire," and being "unexpected."
"All of the speeches ought to challenge the audience and draw in the press (as Wharton did, with raising Milken and Trump)," they said. "Clinton should look unafraid and willing to brave the fire. However, our goal is not so much to antagonize as to challenge, hoping that the audience will applaud at the unexpected (as at Wharton)."
In the 1980s Trump delivered speeches to hundreds of Wharton students, who put his name in electric lights on the football field.
"Finance is fine," said Russell E. Palmer, then dean of the school. "But we're also damn good at turning out entrepreneurs—the Donald Trumps, the Michael Milkens, the Saul Steinbergs—people who went on to make a very personal mark in business. That side of Wharton was never really talked about before. Well, we're talking about it now."
‘Preoccupation with career and power reinforces the political problem evident from the beginning’
Throughout Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for the White House she has struggled to answer questions about her character. She has also struggled to re-introduce herself to the public, deliver a consistent campaign message, and show "humor and heart" on the trail. The memo highlights how her challenges strongly echo those of her husband’s 1992 run.
As the Clinton campaign was finishing the Democratic primary and bracing for a general election fight against President George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot, senior aides including Carville, Mark Gearan, Mandy Grunwald, Tony Lake, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod worried about their candidate’s image.
The team sent the memo to Bill Clinton calling for a "fundamental remaking" of the campaign.
"The most fundamental problem ahead is a lack of central message; why Bill Clinton wants to be president and what he will do to change America," they said. "Voters in the focus groups rarely mention anything that Bill Clinton would do as president."
The "character question" loomed large for staffers, who said Clinton’s image problem was rooted in his "essential ‘political’ nature." Focus groups at the time found that a majority of Democratic voters thought that Clinton would "say anything to get elected" and was "packaged" and "not real."
"The impression of being the ultimate politician is reinforced by Clinton’s presentation (evasive, no clear yes or no, handy lists, fast talking, and all that political analysis)," the campaign said. "They think of him as ‘wishy-washy,’ not as ‘someone who will look you straight in the eye’ and tell you the truth."
Primary voters viewed Bill the same way many Bernie Sanders supporters now view Hillary. Key problems for Bill were that he "can’t stand up to the special interests," is "controlled by the political establishment," "cannot be the candidate of change," and is "for himself, not people."
"Clinton needs to go from self-absorption to caring about people," they said.
The team suggested "immediately and aggressively" scheduling Bill Clinton on popular shows such as Johnny Carson—and even conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Hillary was also facing an image problem that has continued through the decades. The couple’s "preoccupation with career and power reinforces the political problem evident from the beginning," the political team warned.
"The impressions of Hillary reinforce the political image," they said. "In the focus groups, people think of her as being in the race ‘for herself’ and as ‘going for the power.’ She is not seen as particularly ‘family-oriented.’ More than Nancy Reagan, she is seen as ‘running the show.’"
The advisers urged the family to show more affection and vacation together at Disneyland. They recommended that Hillary stay out of the spotlight "as we try to reintroduce Bill Clinton."
"The current presentation of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton marriage and family to the world is remarkably distorted," they said. "The absence of affection, children and family and the pre-occupation with career and power only reinforces the political problem evident from the beginning."
The campaign wanted to slowly put Hillary back in the spotlight with events where she could "laugh" and "do her mimicry."
"After a short pull-back period, Hillary needs to come forward in a way that is much more reflective of herself—both her humor and her advocacy work for children," they said. "Linda Bloodworth-Thomason has suggested some joint appearances with her friends where Hillary can laugh, do her mimicry. We need to be thinking about events where Bill and Hillary can ‘go on dates with the American people.’ There is a suggestion that Bill and Chelsea surprise Hillary on Mother’s Day."