“It’s not what happens to you but how you react that matters.” – Epictetus
In 1988, 41 year old Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton, was asked to give a fifteen minute speech nominating Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis for president. But Clinton just wouldn’t shut up. The speech went on and on and finally elicited boo’s from the Convention floor.
Pundits said that the young Mr. Clinton’s political career was over. They were wrong. That boring speech, at the Omni in Atlanta, Georgia, probably triggered the Clinton dynasty. Last week it resulted in the nomination of Hillary Clinton for president.
Today’s failure is often the petri dish of tomorrow’s success.
Jimmy Carter’s tough luck at the end of his presidential term in 1980 led to his legacy as the greatest former president in American history. His term in office was over but he had things to do.
At that same 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, when Clinton gave his boring speech, Texas State Treasurer, Ann Richards, openly taunted Vice President George H.W. Bush, the Republican nominee. She said he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
The stinging ridicule angered and humiliated the Bush family. I was working for George H.W. Bush at the time and my immediate boss was the son, George W. Bush. I remember sitting in the family box at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. Bush, Junior, as he was called in those days, was not a happy camper. Ann Richards was number one, just ahead of columnist George Will, on the secret, unacknowledged, family hit list. George W. had her in his sites.
All that year George W. worked tirelessly to help elect his father. I traveled with him in car caravans, commercial and private jets, campers and campaign buses. But right after the election his attention turned to Texas. He had no curiosity about the White House. Will you live there? What rooms will be yours when you visit? Will you do Christmas at Camp David? Are you sure you don’t want to work there? Like Jack Ford or Chip Carter? You just go on the RNC payroll to get around the Federal Law about hiring relatives.
George W. was focused on buying the Texas Rangers and that was the first step before going after Ann Richards.
He wanted to run for governor against her in 1990. I was on the White House staff then, a special assistant to the president, and one morning I walked into the Oval Office to find First Lady Barbara Bush there with the President. She knew that George and I often talked together, so she whirled around and without even a hello she said, “You tell George not to run, his father and I don’t want him running for governor.”
There was no hiding the fact that they thought Jeb Bush had the career trajectory that would take him to the top. George, Jr. might mess things up. “Let’s face it,” Barbara joked to reporters, “Jeb is like his father. George is too much like me.” If I had done my research on presidential parents I would have immediately known that George would be the next Bush to win on the public stage. Most presidents are “mama’s boys.”
In 1990 Ann Richards was elected governor. And in 1992, George W. Bush defeated her to exact family revenge. He would be re-elected governor and win the White House, avenging his father and winning re-election. In 1988 Ann Richards and the DNC had a good laugh at the expense of George H.W. Bush, but she launched a dynasty in the process.
Bill Clinton’s speech at the 2016 DNC was anything but boring. Clinton told a story, about his courtship, about Hillary’s early career. It was as if he had written the words, “Keep it interesting,” at the top of his speech.
There is no doubt that Bill and Hillary Clinton need this election win. In 1998 Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice. If Hillary wins the White House in 2016 it will substantially scrub their legacy for history.
In 100 years, when a ten year old memorizes the names of the presidents he will get to that easy part, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Clinton and he will think, the impeachment of Bill Clinton had to be political or the American people would never have elected his wife as president only a few years later.
Each failure, each rejection, provokes a greater need to achieve and win acceptance. In hindsight, Elizabeth Warren could have been the 2016 Democratic nominee and probably would have had clear sailing to the White House but she didn’t have the driving need.
It’s not what happens in life, but how you react.