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Seeing the Light

In September of 1995, I attended the Northern California kickoff of the Clinton/Gore campaign. Ten months earlier I had witnessed the panic Gingrich's victory had provoked in the White House. In subsequent months President Clinton had exhorted amoral operatives, like chief strategist Dick Morris, to do whatever it took to regain political control. After all, since the victorious Gingrich hadn't played it straight, didn't the nation's commander in chief have the right to rise above the rules? I was now curious to see how this logic was playing out.

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The luncheon fundraiser took place in the bowels of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, which sits atop Nob Hill. Most of the $1,000-a-seat ticket holders (mine was a gift from someone who'd purchased a table) who crowded into the downstairs ballroom appeared to be genuine Clinton supporters. A senior administration official once told me that nothing under $250,000 really registers on the White House policy radar. Still, in order to qualify for federal matching funds, the Clinton/Gore campaign needed to raise $29 million in contributions of $1,000 or less. Thus, these relatively low-dollar donors were encouraged (by extensive security checks and expensive souvenirs) to feel as if they were entering a subterranean sanctum open only to people of substance.

Musical grace notes were provided by San Francisco's beloved Glide Memorial United Methodist Church choir, a diverse group crossing both race and class lines. In his preliminary remarks President Clinton alluded to them as the essence of Democratic Party values. During the luncheon, the president's optimism contrasted sharply with the gloomy mood I'd seen pervade the White House 10 months earlier. To the cheers of some 700 supporters, Clinton attacked the forces of social decay, notably Calvin Klein. "Maybe I'm just getting old-fashioned, but I just came out of my shoes when I saw those teenagers depicted the way they were in those Calvin Klein ads. I thought it was wrong." (At a subsequent fundraiser in Hollywood, Clinton would initially find himself seated next to, and chatting happily with, Calvin Klein. That event was completely closed to the press and no word or pictures of the two men together ever leaked out.)

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