OUTSIDE THE HENDERSON County courthouse in Athens, sixty-year-old Edie Nuckolls sat on a bench and let the tears pour down. “I got to hug him!” she called out to her neighbors. Neither she nor they had ever seen, much less hugged, a presidential candidate before.
Political analysts and the media have variously termed the Clinton-Gore road show a shrewd populist exercise, a media circus, and a classic case of politics as choreography. But to those Texans like Edie Nuckolls who witnessed the spectacle of the ten-bus caravan wending its way from San Antonio to Tyler this past August, the Democratic ticket’s foray into rural America was a moment when the vast distance between presidential candidates and the average voter vanished altogether.
The itinerary had Clinton, Gore, their wives, staff members, VIP guests, and the traveling press corps leaving San Antonio on the morning of Thursday, August 27, making an afternoon stop in Austin, spending the night in Waco, and then on the following day, making appearances in the East Texas towns of Corsicana, Athens, and Tyler. But when the buses pulled over at New Braunfels’ Canyon High School en route to Austin, it became clear that the schedule would be scrapped. The Clinton-Gore caravan’s policy became: If you’ve got the crowd, we’ve got the time.
Anticipating this, local leaders in small towns along the bus route—Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Waco, and Texas Highway 31 between Waco and Tyler—had made anxious calls to Clinton-Gore officials. “We can’t promise anything,” the advance team had said, “but if you’ve got a good-sized crowd …” The challenge was accepted: Community leaders spread the word, sites along the route were selected, high school students painted posters, cheerleaders planned partisan chants, public address systems were borrowed from local civic clubs, and everyone crossed their fingers.
So it happened that residents of New Braunfels and Georgetown, as well as folks from six rural hamlets with populations of less than two thousand—namely Salado, Hubbard, Dawson, Kerens, Trinidad, and Chandler—stood for hours in the August sun, hoping that for the first time ever a presidential candidate would pay their modest town a visit. At last, the procession of Secret Service cars, Department of Public Safety motorcycles, and Clinton-Gore buses came into view. The vehicles slowed and pulled over; the bus doors opened. Out stepped Governor Bill Clinton and Senator Al Gore in their ties and shirtsleeves, followed by their casually attired wives. Into the crowds they surged, smiling, shaking hands, signing autographs, hoisting babies.
Those who had waited now made the most of the event. In Georgetown, a large middle-aged woman in a faded cotton dress embraced Hillary Clinton, finding some unlikely connection between her world and that of the candidate’s embattled wife, while other women nearby chorused, “Hang in there, Hillary!” A handmade sign held by a young man in Corsicana carried a different sentiment: “Hillary Is a Babe,” it read. In Chandler, a boy thrust a turtle into the surprised presidential candidate’s face. Clinton then stroked the turtle’s shell and told the boy, “Promise me you’ll make sure nothing bad ever happens to this turtle.” In Athens, an earnest young man in the crowd shook Clinton’s hand but wanted the candidate to know that he was pro-life, resulting in a three-minute discussion between the two while Secret Service agents fidgeted nervously. In Salado, a cheerleading troupe, the Strutters, gathered around Clinton for a photo opportunity while their mothers posed with Tipper Gore and Hillary. And in Dawson, about one hundred residents surrounded the Clintons and the Gores, then looked up to see nearly 150 members of the traveling press charge the gathering at full gallop. A teenager wearing a gimme cap viewed the media’s approach with horror, then turned to his girlfriend and said, “Remind me never to get into politics.”
The reporters who rode the five press buses were not held in the highest esteem by the host citizenry. In Tyler, the camera crews were hissed for blocking the view of dozens of residents who had waited hours for a chance to see the candidates. In Waco, a handful of Baylor students greeted the media with chants of “Left-wing press!” and “Liberal media sucks!” The derision was somewhat deserved, if for different reasons: The reporters assigned to cover the candidates full-time were, by and large, a cranky lot, quick to complain about the food provided at nominal cost by the campaign staff and annoyed by Clinton’s willingness to stop at seemingly every gaggle that had congregated along the highway. To no one’s great surprise, there was plenty to reinforce the press’s cynicism along the campaign trail. At times, especially while signing autographs, Clinton’s face registered scarcely a flicker of emotion, and in these moments, he seemed nothing more than a political automaton unleashed by Democratic mad scientists. Gore, at best an erratic stump orator, often lapsed into the empty sloganeering reminiscent of his failed 1988 presidential bid. Clinton seemed to have a social program for every individual in his audiences, yet he offered few insights as to how he intended to pay for it all. Though several blacks could be seen in the Waco and East Texas crowds, Clinton and Gore had little to say about healing racial wounds, instead bending all their energies to the coveted middle-class vote. After leaving the cities for the small towns, the word “abortion” was never mentioned in the candidates’ speeches. Their voices became more countrified, with Clinton referring to the president as “ol’ Bush” and Gore sliding into a thick drawl: “Ahm gonna tell yuh . . .” Their intelligent and politically involved wives never spent more than thirty seconds in front of the microphones, assigned instead to the tasks of leading chants and taking pictures. As actresses in the political theater, they would have done Nancy Reagan proud.
The media knew full well, and took pains to note in their reports, that much of the bus tour had been elaborately staged, with advance men holed up in Corsicana for an entire week. But while some of the townsfolk may have caught on to the backstage orchestration, in the end this wasn’t what interested them. The fact remained that these candidates were here, available for scrutiny as no other presidential aspirants had been before. If this was manipulation, then the world could stand more of it. “Very nice people,” proclaimed a woman in Hubbard to her husband after shaking hands with the foursome. In Kerens, residents took note of how Clinton made a special effort to reach out into the crowd and clasp the hand of a small boy who was all but lost in the crush. In Salado, people commented on how warm the Gores seemed, noting how Tipper reassuringly massaged Al’s back. And in one town after the next, everyone seemed impressed that Hillary, billed by the Republicans as a potential First Lady From Hell, hugged children and made a point of asking people their names as she shook their hands.
How all of this will play politically for the Clinton-Gore ticket remains to be seen. While several of the East Texas towns persist as Democratic strongholds, cities like Waco and Tyler threw their weight behind Reagan and Bush. Not everyone who shared a moment with the Democratic candidates walked away convinced that they would be moved to vote against the incumbent president.
However the electoral chips fall, by all accounts the roadside confrontation between lifelong politicians and small-town Texas was an education, a precedent worth repeating, and, yes, a thrill. The dust kicked up from the buses had long since settled when a Salado woman confided to a friend, “You know, after meeting those people, I just couldn’t get to sleep all night!”