REX NELSON: Clinton wins

Posted: November 4, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

It's hard to believe that it has been a quarter of a century. My memories of that week remain vivid. On this date 25 years ago, one of the most famous newspaper front pages in Arkansas history landed on doorsteps across the state.

"Clinton wins" read the huge headline atop the front page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Under a photo of Gov. Bill Clinton declaring victory in his race for president as he stood in front of the Old State House, the headline on Washington bureau chief Randy Lilleston's story read "From Hope to glory: Thousands hail the victor in LR." The headline on my story (I was the newspaper's political editor at the time) read: "Governor takes 44%: Dominates in electoral landslide."

For those of us working in the Little Rock media market, it had been quite a 13-month ride since Clinton's Oct. 3, 1991, declaration at the Old State House that he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination. I was the editor of Arkansas Business at the time of the October 1991 announcement and made the short walk from our offices to the Old State House with my bosses--Alan Leveritt and Wythe Walker Jr.--to hear Clinton declare his candidacy. None of us gave the charismatic governor much of a chance, but we figured it would be interesting while it lasted. It turned out to be beyond interesting.

A second major event in Arkansas history occurred that month. The Arkansas Gazette was only able to cover the first 15 days of the Clinton campaign. It published its final edition on Oct. 18, 1991, as the Little Rock newspaper war came to a close. The first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette hit the stands the following day. During the next several months, Walter Hussman Jr., the Democrat-Gazette publisher, hired Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor Paul Greenberg away from the Pine Bluff Commercial and also hired Little Rock attorney Griffin Smith Jr. as the newspaper's first executive editor.

Early in the summer of 1992, I received a call. I was asked to return to daily journalism (I had been the Arkansas Democrat's Washington correspondent in the 1980s) and take over the newspaper's political coverage in the newly created position of political editor. It was becoming clear by then that Clinton might win, and coordination was needed.

Money was no object in those days as one of the biggest stories in state history unfolded. Lilleston, who had been the first reporter traveling with the Clinton campaign, was at the Old State House on election night. The husband-and-wife team of Jane Fullerton and Terry Lemons headed to Texas. Fullerton covered President George H.W. Bush in Houston, and Lemons was at the headquarters of Ross Perot in Dallas. I was tied to my desk in the newsroom at the corner of Capitol and Scott streets in downtown Little Rock, trying to make sense of it all.

It was well after midnight when we finished work on the city edition, and I looked forward to escaping the newsroom and getting outside, where thousands of happy people on the downtown streets gave Little Rock a Mardi Gras in New Orleans type of atmosphere. I walked to what was then the Excelsior Hotel (now the Marriott), where Clinton was attending a wee-hours-of-the-morning reception with his largest donors. The reception was closed to the media with the exception of one person--the irrepressible Phyllis Brandon, the editor of this newspaper's High Profile section. Phyllis had been allowed into the room to take photos that would be published the following Sunday.

As I worked my way through the crowd in the hotel lobby, I saw Brandon coming out of the reception room with credentials hanging from her neck. "Where did you get those?" I asked. "I can't tell you," she replied. I smiled and took them away from her. As I placed them around my neck, I heard a member of the Clinton campaign staff yell out, "Rex, no media is allowed in there." I ignored him and passed quickly by the Secret Service agents stationed at the door. So it was that I was able to get some 3 a.m. quotes from a hoarse Bill Clinton that would be used in the Thursday edition.

The next few months were a whirlwind that had me working 60 or more hours each week. The Clinton transition was based in downtown Little Rock, and there were daily stories about various high-level appointments, including Arkansan Thomas "Mack" McLarty as the White House chief of staff.

There was a new office to open in the National Press Building in Washington as Lemons and Fullerton joined Lilleston there to give us a three-person bureau. There was inauguration week when we put out a special section each day of the week leading up to Clinton's swearing-in.

Upon my return from Washington, there was a legislative session and a new governor, Jim Guy Tucker, to cover. I supervised both the state Capitol and Washington bureaus. There was also the first full-length biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton to write since I had promised a New York publisher that I would turn in a 100,000-word manuscript by July 1. The book was written late at night after the next day's newspaper had been put to bed. In the middle of it all, my wife gave birth to our first son. I was young then and wouldn't trade any of it.

I was amazed last week went I went online and found that Amazon was asking $65 for that Nov. 4, 1992, edition of the Democrat-Gazette. I have several at home, but they're not for sale. There are too many memories there.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 11/04/2017