Bill Clinton Versus Jerry Brown, Still

Maybe Bill Clinton is just dazzled by Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco mayor who’s planning to run for governor of California next year and whom Clinton—in a surprise move—endorsed today.

But chances are, Clinton’s move has a lot more to do with the identity of Newsom’s opponent—Jerry Brown, the state’s current attorney general and former governor, and a man who irked Clinton to no end when they both sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.

Brown entered that race as a big-name has-been—a one-time rising national star who’d nearly derailed Jimmy Carter at the wire in the 1976 primaries, when he was just 38 years old. But Brown gained a reputation as a flighty downer as the 1980s arrived, and when he was term-limited out as governor in 1983, he disappeared from the public stage for the rest of the decade.

Then, in the early fall of 1991, Brown abruptly abandoned a comeback bid for the U.S. Senate in California and jumped into a Democratic presidential field that was, thanks to the first President Bush’s post-Gulf War glow, underwhelming. Around the same time, Clinton, who’d pledged in his 1990 gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas not to seek the presidency in 1992, wiggled his way free of that promise and entered the race himself.

Initially, Clinton, Brown, and then-Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey were considered the front-runners.

But Brown was coasting on decade-old name recognition. He announced that he’d refuse P.A.C. money and donations over $100, set up a then-revolutionary toll-free number (1-800-426-1112—it remains the number for his political operation to this day), and pitched his candidacy as a grassroots revolution. He quickly fell from the first tier.

Clinton, meanwhile, became the clear front-runner (especially as the once-promising Kerrey stumbled badly and failed to develop a clear message), survived a wave of scandals and a loss to Paul Tsongas in the New Hampshire primary, and then—after sweeping the South on Super Tuesday and following it up with dominating wins in Illinois and Michigan the next week—flushed Tsongas from the race and appeared to wrap up the nomination.

That’s when things between him and Brown got ugly. It started in Connecticut, the first contest after Tsongas’ withdrawal. A Clinton win was supposed to be a formality. Instead, Brown, the last Clinton opponent standing, scored a stunning upset, keyed largely by doubts among Democrats about Clinton’s general election viability.

Brown’s victory returned him to a level of national prominence he hadn’t enjoyed since ’76—and set up a do-or-die campaign for Clinton in New York, the next state to vote. A second Brown win in the Empire State would send a clear message that Democrats wanted someone, anyone but Clinton to carry their banner. Tsongas was prepared to re-enter the race. National leaders talked about recruiting a white knight—maybe Dick Gephardt, Bill Bradley, or Mario Cuomo.

Fro two weeks, Brown did his best to drive Clinton from the race, attacking him as weak on civil rights and branding him “slippery” and “the prince of sleaze” and “the Humpty Dumpty candidate.”

“There are so many scandals and so many problems, questions for Clinton, that we’re not going to put him back together again,” Brown said. “And all the media and the insiders and $1,000 donors that created the Clinton campaign can’t really sustain it in a way that will overcome George Bush and all his powers.”

Brown also aired an ad that featured a voter saying of Clinton: “I’m not concerned about his extramarital affairs or the fact that he tried smoking pot.”

But Brown hurt himself badly when he announced that, if nominated, he’d choose Jesse Jackson as his running-mate—a tone deaf promise to make in New York, which Jackson had infamously referred to as “Hymietown” in his 1984 campaign. In the closing days, Brown’s support began to wane, and non-candidate Tsongas—his name still on the ballot—crept into contention. “If you’re not going to vote for me, vote for Tsongas,” Brown announced.

On primary day, Clinton survived, winning with 44 percent. Tsongas finished second with 30, and Brown third with 26. It was validating victory Clinton had needed, and Brown’s brief momentum was snuffed out. And Tsongas’ performance, while impressive, wasn’t enough to justify re-entering the race.

Brown stayed in the race all the way through the July Democratic convention, but he never seriously threatened to win any more primaries (except in California in early June, where he only lost by eight points). Still, he continued his harsh attacks on Clinton all the way through the spring (even bringing Hillary Clinton’s financial dealings into it in a memorable debate exchange).

And when he refused to endorse Clinton before the convention—a pre-condition Clinton had established for anyone wishing to speak—Brown simply had himself nominated from the floor, which entitled him to speak for 20 minutes. His speech didn’t even mention Clinton.

17 years later, Clinton hasn’t forgotten it.

Bill Clinton Versus Jerry Brown, Still