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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William J. (Bill) Clinton, June 15, 1974. Interview A-0027. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Decision to run for office

Clinton describes his reasons for running for office in the House of Representatives so soon after arriving to teach law at the University of Arkansas. The sense that "somebody ought to run" grew and grew until that somebody became Bill Clinton. Clinton—an Ivy League-educated, Democratic professor—didn't seem to have a chance, but Orval Faubus convinced him that the race was winnable.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William J. (Bill) Clinton, June 15, 1974. Interview A-0027. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER DE VRIES:
What prompted you to run? You've only been here, what, four or five months? At the school.
WILLIAM J. (BILL) CLINTON:
Uhhuh. In the first place, I was very much disillusioned [with the] record of the incumbent, Hammerschmidt. I didn't, you know, I think he's got a bad record and it's bad for the people in this area. And I thought somebody ought to run. And a lot of people thought somebody ought to run. All of my friends in the state legislature and active in Democratic politics thought somebody ought to be running. But nobody was interested in it because they said either it couldn't be done or they were not in a personal position to be able to do it. Financial reasons or whatever reasons. And it just ate on me and ate on me right into this. . . . I started thinking about it pretty strongly in December. And I began to realize that a lot of them, you know, just would not go. And in January I received a call from John Dorr, who asked me at that time to take a leave of absence and come be special assistant on the committee and help him put his staff together. The Judiciary Committee. He's a friend and a fine man and it was . . . I mean I had to seriously consider, you know. This provoked me to. . . . I just sat down and I called everybody that I would like to help get elected to Congress. I just asked them outright, would they run. Would they go. And they all said no. And I really didn't want to go back to Washington to do another stint and I did think that John could find other lawyers that could do anything that I could do. And that I might be able to make some sort of a contribution by staying here and making this race. If I could raise any money to do it. So I went home to Arkansas, to Hot Springs, to see if I could get some people to co-sign a note with me so I could borrow some money and start. I had no idea whether I could raise any money or anything. My uncle and my father's best friend said that they would do that. And so I called John and declined the job; tried to help him find a couple more people. And started running for Congress. End of January. Went around trying to raise the money and get commitments and see people.
WALTER DE VRIES:
What was the conventional wisdom about that. Hammerschmidt was unbeatable but in terms of the Democratic nomination what was the conventional wisdom?
WILLIAM J. (BILL) CLINTON:
Well, the opinion was divided. There were those who thought that it depended on who ran. But there were those who thought that no one strong would run and so I could win it. There were those who thought that even if I did win I'd be hacked up so bad. I was too young, too liberal. College professor. Never had a job. And that therefore it wouldn't be worth having if I did get it.
WALTER DE VRIES:
But you have to admit, though, that if you look at this district and how conservative it is and that it's the only one sending a Republican to Congress. And you take a person of your characteristics. In terms of conventional wisdom it wouldn't make sense. That you didn't have a damn chance.
WILLIAM J. (BILL) CLINTON:
That's right.
WALTER DE VRIES:
So, what happened?
JACK BASS:
When did you go see Faubus?
WILLIAM J. (BILL) CLINTON:
Oh, well, so then. . . . We've been up through that. I don't have the dates here, chronology worked out in my mind. We haven't kept the record that we should have in this campaign. But anyway, I began to travel around and see people. And I suppose it must have been into February when I saw Faubus. Late January or February.
WALTER DE VRIES:
What prompted you to do that?
WILLIAM J. (BILL) CLINTON:
Well, he's my neighbor. And he—
WALTER DE VRIES:
But wouldn't he be the last guy to go see, represented the old time machine?
WILLIAM J. (BILL) CLINTON:
No, no. See, that's why I got elected. Because I don't do things, I don't think in terms of that.
WALTER DE VRIES:
But wouldn't the liberal mind, whatever it is in this district, think that way?
WILLIAM J. (BILL) CLINTON:
Well, the liberal mind might, but I don't have a liberal mind I guess if that's the way they think. It's a matter of politics and how you get votes. This is a highly . . . it's a curious district. You have to look at it. Ft Smith you could almost characterize [as ultraconservative, I didn't] believe I could carry Ft Smith under any circumstances at any time unknown. But I did in the run off against Rainwater. Because I treated them like people instead of conservatives or some other label. And because I avoided, I suppose, taking stands which would have been a total anathema to them, which I wouldn't take anyway in a race like this. Because I recognize what I'm running against, you know, and what the main issues are. But Faubus has a fine mind and a lot of influence in these hills, these people and knows things that are worth knowing. The reason that they will vote for me, if they do, the people, even if they think that I'm liberal, whatever that is, is that I'll sit down with all these people and talk to them. And it's not but 20 miles over there and I could get more knowledge there than most places I know. And I sat down with him and we talked for 8 1/2 hours. Three hours at one stretch. I went up there to spend an hour and we went over all this ground and he really probed my stance. He's very issue oriented himself, in a way. And he wanted to find out exactly where we were crossways on the pornography and busing and integration generally and constitutional theories and we went at it for 8 hours talking. Very interesting thing. I held my ground and needless to say he held his. But it was a good thing. Then we started talking about this race and he thought it could be won. Which was a great source of encouragement to me that as an abstract proposition he thought that the thing could be done. Unless national events altered in such a way as to totally undermine anything we might try to do.
JACK BASS:
How did he think you could do it?
WILLIAM J. (BILL) CLINTON:
By directly or indirectly. First of all by establishing myself as a candidate that should be in Congress, could be in Congress. And then by, directly or indirectly, demonstrating to the people that Hammerschmidt was far from an independent Congressman and was one of the people that had major responsibility for the weakness and the effectiveness of the Congress. To put him in with the national tide. But it was interesting to me, you see, that he thought it could be done where all my liberal state legislature friends did not think it could be done. And he did, I suppose in part, because when he ran for governor in '54 nobody thought he could be elected either. Ran against a reasonably popular one term incumbent. Everybody told him it's the wrong time. Well, lot of people told me this is the wrong time to run and don't run until '76 when we'll be putting a Democratic president in. I'm not sure we will be putting a Democratic president in in '76. Depends on who they put up and whether he can, you know. . . . So, that was some encouragement. Tucker, [Jim Guy] Tucker encouraged me to run.
WALTER DE VRIES:
The attorney general.
WILLIAM J. (BILL) CLINTON:
Yeah. In part I guess `cause he's like me. He'd do it if he wanted to. If he thought it was the right thing to do. That's another thing that I think that . . . really there were the practical problems. Just presented themselves to me as problems to be solved. Because I thought it was the right thing to do. I didn't see how we could sit around here in our drawing rooms and lambast the Congress and moan about the weakness of it and complain about this particular Congressman and then not one of us, not one, move against him. Not that. I just didn't see how that could be ever justified. And sit around unknown just like all the other politicians and wait 'till '76 because it might be a better year. And in all fairness, I was in the best personal position to run because I had few debts—few assets, but few debts—and no family to tie me down or no deny myself to. And my job responsibility sort of phased out at the time when I got into the general election. [Unclear.] It was a powerful strain on me during this primary because I had to teach until May 6th. I still haven't graded all my exams. That was a terrific psychological strain because it just was impossible to do all the work I needed to do for my classes and run this race.