PORTLAND — In August 1991, Bill Clinton, then a little-known Arkansas governor, dropped by here for a quick campaign swing with one aide and one state trooper.
Nearly two years later, he returned for the first time since winning the presidency, and brought with him all the pomp and circumstance of his office.
Though the day was muggy and threatened rain, some 4,000 people packed Deering Oaks Park — a few wishing him ill, more holding signs that criticized his policies, but most apparently just wanting to catch a glimpse of the most powerful man in the free world.
Rock music blared and humorist Tim Sample warmed up the crowd as the appointed hour approached. The anticipation level increased. Cameras were double-checked. People squirmed a step closer to the platform. Kids were lifted onto shoulders. There was a practice run for those with “Bill is Our Maine Man” signs.
And then came the wailing of the sirens, the police cars, the ambulances — and the three black limousines rolling presidentially into the park, those little flags flapping on the hood.
With 40,000 tippy-toes working overtime, Clinton emerged, wearing a presidential suit and a proletariat tie. It was true that moments later he would be praising a congressional move to tighten reporting restrictions on lobbyists, but there, just in front of the limo, was the extended hand of Severin Beliveau, perhaps the state’s most influential lobbyist and best friend of top Democrats everywhere.
And then, the president turned to the people.
Grabbing hands as though he was pulling himself along, Clinton dived into the crowd as much as the light barrier would allow him. To the amazement of some, Clinton was ahead of time, and allowed himself a good 10 minutes of wading through the people before reaching the platform.
As with any presidential visit, there were the protesters who held signs aloft thumping Clinton for his policies on everything from the North American Free Trade Act to the Haitian refugees, to AIDS to tax increases. One man sported a cardboard box over his body, booing when able and generally muttering pro-Republican chants. A woman carried a sign that read, “GET A SPINE.”
Sold as “An Afternoon in the Park,” most seemed to care little that the president — coatless with his sleeves rolled to the forearms — spoke of campaign finance reform exactly as the Sonesta Hotel prepared for his fund-raiser with Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, the host of the four-hour trip to Maine.
It was just another afternoon away from the office, a chance for the masses to get up close and personal with their leader, to show that he understood that Maine had suffered through the recession.
“It’s the kind of thing I ought to be doing as president,” Clinton said during an impromptu press conference.
But there also was an element of ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-president, as Clinton, red-faced from the humidity and his voice raspy, sought support for his economic package and worked to sell the accomplishments of his young administration. There will be some payoffs and some pain, he said, but in the long run it will benefit the greater good more than provincial concerns.
“My job as president is to try to make sure the national interest overrides the particular interests of anybody in any group in any state, including yours and mine,” Clinton said in his speech. “We have got to pull this country together again, and be a family again, so we can move forward again.”
Later, when a local reporter mentioned the two fund-raisers for Mitchell, which cost $500 to attend a reception and $1,000 for dinner for two, Clinton had little problem acknowledging the dual purpose of the trip.
“Of course it is (a trip to raise money for Mitchell),” Clinton said. “But it’s also a way to see people direct, face to face. This is a wonderful day.”
While Maine’s top Republicans were noticeably absent, Clinton offered the GOP a mixed message.
On one hand, during the speech, the president verbally spanked the opposition for whining about more spending cuts and fewer taxes, but failing to offer their own reasonable alternative.
“So I say to people, `where is your idea?’ ” he said. “Folks, we are telling you the truth for a change.”
But during the press conference, he extended an olive branch of sorts, noting how Republican U.S. Sen. William S. Cohen lent his support for campaign finance reform.
“You know, when we work together we get a lot done,” the president said. “That’s the kind of thing we ought to be doing in this country, we ought to be working together. And we’re going to have to make some of these tough decisions together.”
Once again faced with the refrain about the “rocky start” of his presidency, Clinton said that all has not been bad. For example, he said, long-term interest rates have been decreasing, which means more people refinance their home and business loans, which means 130,000 new construction jobs.
“So, we’re beginning to turn the corner, but we have to pass the economic bill. We have to bring the deficit down, but it’s not enough to do that,” Clinton told reporters. “We also have to have some incentives to get investment going through education and new technologies, and helping these communities — Maine understands it — that have been hurt by the loss of defense-related jobs. We’ve got to do that. That’s the kind of strategy we need. That strategy will work if the American people will get behind me and tell the Congress to help Sen. Mitchell pass (the economic bill).”
And with that, the president signed a few autographs and joined his point man in the Senate in the limousine, passing scores of outstretched hands and signs. One of them read, “Thank you for trying, Mr. President.”