The Day Bill Clinton's Press Office Dragged Me To Milwaukee

Sep 16, 2017

Ed. note: Tales from the Trail is a column that will take you behind the scenes of politics to see some of the funny, and sometimes outright bizarre things that happen on the campaign trail, based on Howard Wilkinson's recollections of 43 years of covering politics. 

Every presidential administration has its own way of getting its message out to the American people.

That's something we expect. Something we didn't expect was presidential communication via Twitter.

But that's another story for another day.

Credit wikipedia.org

Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, had his flaws, but communicating with the people was not one of them.

He did it superbly on a personal level; he was the rare politician you could talk to and he would lock eyes with you and give you a look designed at delivering one message to you: You are telling me the most interesting thing I have ever heard and I am hanging on your every word.

He could really do that. It was hard to resist. But, as a reporter, resist you must.

And he had a White House staff that was expert at going over the heads of the national news media and maximizing the impact of its message through use of the local media.

And this was in the days before social media, the ultimate way for a politician to dodge the "mainstream media."

Let me tell you a little story about how it worked in the Clinton administration.

It was the spring of 1993, Clinton had been president for only about a few months but he had already cranked up a massive and well-run message machine in the White House communications office.

I was working at the Enquirer at the time. The phone rang on my desk and it was the White House calling.

Well, it was the deputy press secretary assigned to the Midwest states at the White House.

Howard, she said, we want to offer you an interview with the President. Are you interested?

What kind of question is that to ask a politics reporter? Am I interested? What did she expect me to say? Quit wasting my time; call me when you've got something bigger than a president to offer, for cryin' out loud!

Naturally, I said yes. So, I asked, is the president coming to Cincinnati or am I coming to the White House?

Actually neither, she said. The interview will be in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee? As in Wisconsin? As in cheeseheads and brats and beer?

Yes, Milwaukee.

She explained that President Clinton was going to Milwaukee to speak to a veterans' group at the convention center downtown.

I explained it to the editors and they agreed – go to Milwaukee.

So, on the Sunday before the interview was to take place, I loaded an overnight bag, a laptop, and hopped on a flight from CVG to MKE. Once on the ground, I hopped a cab to a downtown Holiday Inn that was right across the street from the convention center. I remember spending the evening watching baseball on ESPN. I even remember the game – Chicago White Sox versus the Texas Rangers.

Now, I was not the only Cincinnati reporter invited for this meeting with President Clinton. Three Cincinnati TV stations sent reporters (as I recall one had a videographer and they shared video) and one from WLW radio.

I rose before the crack of dawn because I had been told by the White House press office to be at a side entrance to the convention center by 7 a.m.

Not knowing when I would get a chance to eat again, I loaded up in at the Holiday Inn's continental breakfast and made my way over the appointed entrance to the convention center.

The other Cincinnati reporters gathered there too (honestly, I can't remember with any certainty who they were).

We went through the usual Secret Service security sweep and were escorted down long flights of stairs to a very sparsely-decorated room in the bowels of the convention center.

There was nothing in the room except a few chairs arranged in a semi-circle and a seat in the middle. We presumed that was for the president.

You will have 20 minutes with the president when he is finished with his speech upstairs, we were told by a press aide. You are going to be waiting here for quite some time.

Twenty minutes? I came all the way up here for 20 minutes that I have to share with other reporters? I was not a happy boy.

The White House press office people left; the door was locked; and a couple of Secret Service agents were stuck standing around, with their usual perfect posture, keeping an eye on us.

As if we could do any damage, locked in a dank room in the basement of building.

We were there at least three hours, possibly four, before the president was brought downstairs to what was supposed to be a 20-minute Q & A, like a Tournament of Champions Speed Round on Jeopardy!

The sheer boredom, though, gave me a lot of time to think.

What I thought about most was this:

Why has the Clinton White House dragged me all the way from Cincinnati to Milwaukee to interview the president?

And, soon, it dawned on me – the sheer brilliance of the White House communications office.

It was all a ploy to create overlapping circles of news coverage by local news outlets, whom they (often wrongly) assumed would be friendlier than those nasty TV networks and smart-alecky east coast newspapers.

Here's how it worked:

You put President Clinton in Milwaukee for a few hours for a speech.

You assume that if the president is in Milwaukee, the Chicago media, only about 90 miles away, would cover it too.

And, often, whatever Chicago media covers gets picked up in Indianapolis media.

Then, to complete the circle, you invited a bunch of Cincinnati reporters to Milwaukee because you know they are not going to refuse the offer of time with the president; and that everything they air or write bleeds into Kentucky.

And voilá! You have turned one measly trip to Milwaukee into tons of local news coverage in five states – Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.

Sheer genius!

I'm here to tell you – you can love or loathe Bill Clinton's presidency, but his message machine was first rate!

It wasn't long after I pieced together the motive for this trip to Milwaukee, that the door to the room burst open, more Secret Service agents and White House staff poured in, followed by Bill Clinton, himself, with that big infectious smile on his face.

Hey, great to see you….how you'll doin'….sorry to keep you waiting! He went around the room, shook hands with everyone. We all introduced ourselves and he took his place in the center of the semi-circle.

We've got 20 minutes, said the sourpuss White House press aide.

20 minutes, five reporters.

This did not bode well. This meant about four minutes each.

We started around from left to right, firing off questions; and Clinton firing back questions. There was nothing he would not answer; "no comment" was not in Bill Clinton's vocabulary.

I think I was third. I have no recollection of what I asked about, but I'm sure whatever it was it was very important. At least I had the impression it was. That was part of interviewing Clinton – dealing with his ability to make you think that he actually cared about what you were saying.

It was very easy to get sucked in by someone with that kind of charm. But I had to resist.

We went around the room a few times, with rapid-fire questions not-so-rapid responses (Bill Clinton could go on a bit).

The press aide is looking at her watch (yes, people told time by wearing wrist watches in 1993).

Mr. President, we need to wrap up. We have to go. Last question.

Clinton gave her a disapproving look.

Hush now, we've got time….I'm enjoying this….what else you got? You have a question?

So we kept going. And going. And going.

The Secret Service people began whispering into the microphones in their jacket sleeves. Beads of sweat were breaking out on the foreheads of the White House staffers, who had the task of getting him out of Milwaukee, back on Air Force One and on to Andrews Air Force Base and then the White House, where he had a country to run.

The 20-minute interview turned into more like 50 minutes. It was great.

OK, folks, they're makin' me leave now. They keep me on a short leash. But before we go, I want to take a photo with each and every one of you.

The president always has an official photographer close by, either a White House staff photographer or a photographer from the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

We each went up one-by-one to have our pictures taken, as an aide took down our addresses so the White House could mail us a print.

Clinton draped his left arm around my shoulder. With his right arm, he started pulling on my necktie.

Man, I like that tie! Where'd you get it?

Dillard's, I think, Mr. President.

That's a great one. I need to get me one of them.

And then he was gone and we were left alone again in the dank room, itching to get out and get out stories filed.

I never did get the photo of me and Bill in the mail. That's OK.

But the president got what he wanted.

Wall-to-wall Bill Clinton on the news from America's Dairyland to the Bluegrass.

A good day for Bill.