It was June of 1992, the Saturday night before the California primary. There was no more campaigning to be done for the night.
But the mood that evening was glum. Bill Clinton, one of the party guests, was running third in the national polls. It was only a month since Los Angeles exploded in violence.
“Good news,” our hostess informed me as we entered. The seat on Gov. Clinton’s right would be revolving, with different guests seated there through the evening. But he had chosen me to sit on his left for the whole night. I laughed. I knew exactly why. It was not my good looks.
Clinton was upset about the polls and he knew he could trust me. We had been through the unending frustrations of the 1988 campaign together (he as campaign chairman, me as campaign manager) and we had a strong background. In the years since, he was the one person who would consistently tell people that spending the whole month of August in Massachusetts was not my idea. I owed him.
I was right about my prediction. Clinton was not a happy camper. Running third? How could he possibly be running third?
Where was George? George came running over? And how about that column by so-and-so? Had I read that? Completely unfair! And how about that one-sided piece in The New York Times? And so it went.
This is something I have learned in decades of dealing with CEOs and heads of state. Everybody claims they are thick-skinned. Never read the stuff, they’ll tell you.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. I have yet to meet a thick-skinned man (or woman) at the top. Given them five favorable articles and one hatchet job and they’ll be talking about the hatchet job for years.
So there I sat, as it turned out, next to the next president of the United States, talking about the brilliant New York Times writer Maureen Dowd and how wrong she was about something about him. I was also drinking wine, in appropriate quantities of course.
A future president is not used to people saying enough to him.
I meant enough about him and the polls and the columnists.
At that time I had one child, and was very much hoping for a second. They are the center of my life. There was a time I lived for politics. That was before I heard my daughter’s first cry.
I may have known the president-to-be well enough to get the stationery seat (today, I am sure, it would be populated by someone far grander), but at my core my issues weren’t so far from the average voter of my age and gender.
I’m a woman and a mother. I live in a very scary city. Race relations stink. The public schools are overflowing. I’ll go on if you like. Los Angeles in 1992 had plenty of problems. That’s not the point.
Please tell me three ways my life and my family’s life will be better if you get elected president. Not 10 ways. No some long list of programs. Not about your boyhood and all the things you’ve overcome. Not about you.
In the middle of the dinner, as the frustrated waiter hovered, the guest on my right was actually forced to write. I’m not sure of everything Bill Clinton wrote, but he listened to everything he told me and figured out how he would use it. I could’ve sworn that in his speeches in the days to come, he kept referring to it as “our election” and explaining why.
Somehow, for the life of me, I just can’t imagine Donald Trump ever doing that.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.