On October 3, 1991, Governor Bill Clinton strode out the front doors of the Old State House Museum and announced his intentions to seek the 1992 Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States.
(While Clinton was a major fan of JFK, it is doubtful he realized that his announcement took place on the 28th anniversary of JFK speaking in Little Rock.)
Clinton was the fifth major Democrat to announce for the office. That there were that many by early October was somewhat surprising considering that the first half of 1991 saw many national Democrats announce they were NOT seeking the office.
Jerry Brown, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas, and Tom Harkin were also in the race. Clinton was seen as a centrist, along with Senator Kerrey while the others were viewed as being from the far-left wing of the Democratic Party.
In its coverage of the announcement, The New York Times noted the significance of Gov. Clinton’s remarks on race. In the speech he referenced his desire to strengthen relations and remove barriers between the races. As the Times pointed out, it was at the Old State House that Arkansas held two conventions on the issue of secession prior to the state’s entry into the Civil War.
At the time of the announcement, Gov. Clinton was far from a front-runner. His national profile was probably the lowest of any of the announced candidates. Most of the knowledge of him outside of Little Rock came from his lengthy speech about Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention and the subsequent appearance on “The Tonight Show” where both he and Johnny Carson poked fun as his loquaciousness.
Regardless of their views on his chances, the Governor’s family, friends, and fans packed the front lawn of the Old State House to cheer him. The national media treated him as a serious, albeit largely unknown, candidate. After having had Wilbur Mills, Dale Bumpers and others flirt with running and then backing out, the local media were probably thrilled to finally have someone from Arkansas actually running for the presidency.
One local media outlet would not see much of the campaign. Just fifteen days later, the Arkansas Gazette would close. As a paper which had covered nearly two decades of his career, the Gazette was often Clinton’s champion, though the paper was not afraid to point out times the two differed. However, there would be no Gazette headline about Clinton in New Hampshire, at the Democratic Convention, or a general election victory.
On Election Day in 1992 and again in 1996, Bill Clinton would repeat the stride out the front doors of the Old State House accompanied by his wife and daughter. Those two times the crowds would spill down the streets in all directions. Instead of a handful of media outlets there would be scores of them.
But it all started on a sunny autumn day in Little Rock in early October 1991.