Bill Clinton’s Great Sax Appeal

Bill Clinton’s Great Sax Appeal

By Sean Braswell


Because, as the Clintons have discovered, a bit of sax on late-night TV can do a lot more than just revive a presidential campaign. 

By Sean Braswell

The day after Bill Clinton won the California primary, clinching the Democratic nomination for president in June 1992, he did what was at the time a most unusual thing. Donning sunglasses and hoisting his tenor saxophone like Bubba the Blues Brother, Clinton went Elvis on The Arsenio Hall Show, playing “Heartbreak Hotel” and finding a new place for a presidential candidate to dwell: late-night television.

For many in the political class and press, Clinton’s public sax act was indecent. “I thought it was embarrassing,” observed Torie Clarke, President George H.W. Bush’s press secretary. “He looked like a sad John Belushi wannabe.” Barbara Walters called it “undignified,” while columnist George Will claimed it “coarsened” democratic discourse. But Clinton’s willingness to break the mold of the conventional presidential candidate and reach out through a new medium struck a chord with many voters — and his late-night mojo could provide inspiration for another candidate named Clinton looking to win over the American public this summer.

Clinton’s appearance on Arsenio represented uncharted territory for a major-party presidential nominee.

Even with the Democratic nomination safely in hand before that summer, Bill Clinton’s campaign, as Gil Troy chronicles in The Age of Clinton, faced major challenges. Polls suggested that about 40 percent of voters perceived Clinton as a smooth, “fast-talking” pol and he trailed Bush on the critical issue of trustworthiness by 24 points. The Clinton camp desperately needed to reintroduce the 45-year-old Arkansas governor to a national audience, and showcase his softer, personal side, but the national convention was more than a month away and they had very little money to play with. So Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald devised a bold new pop-culture media strategy, and the first PR assault in that risky charm offensive was to go live with popular late-night comedian and host Arsenio Hall on June 3, 1992.

Richard Nixon had made a brief cameo on Laugh-In in 1968, but Clinton’s appearance on Arsenio represented uncharted territory for a major-party presidential nominee. The remaking of Clinton’s image started even before he took the stage that night, when Hall suggested the governor ditch his bland necktie for a more colorful one, and senior strategist Paul Begala donated his Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses to the cause.

From the show’s opening song, which segued into “Heartbreak Hotel,” Clinton was center stage, jamming away in his borrowed shades and tie. The crowd went wild. “It’s good to see a Democrat blowing something other than the election,” Hall deadpanned (if only he knew what, and whom, would be blown in the years ahead). What many people have forgotten in the intervening decades, though, is that it wasn’t until Clinton put down the sax and sat on Arsenio’s couch that he made his real sales pitch. 

In a wide-ranging interview, Hall probed the candidate on the issues, including a deep discussion of race, democracy and the recent LA riots. “Those folks are invisible until they raise hell,” said Clinton of the rioters. When asked by the incredulous host about how he had famously smoked marijuana without inhaling, Clinton deftly turned the controversy into a self-deprecatory triumph, admitting he had naively tried to smoke it like a cigarette, leading to yet “another one of those things [he] tried to do and failed at in life.” 

Clinton’s sax-fueled performance on Arsenio, along with appearances on Larry King Live and an MTV town hall, marked a turning point in the polls, helping revitalize his campaign and tap a new cross-section of young voters and African-Americans. “I think the appearance demonstrated his empathy and ability to connect with the American people, including segments not traditionally targeted by the political class,” says Northeastern University professor Daniel Urman.

Many Democrats put off by the Gennifer Flowers scandal and other controversies that had scarred their nominee were invigorated by the more relatable Clinton. And the political class who had dismissed the “Elvis moment” found themselves on the wrong side of media history yet again. “The Arsenio controversy,” as Larry King himself observed, “was a classic example of dismissive Beltway dwellers laughing — even though the joke was really on them.”

Hillary Clinton has tried her hand at reaching out to younger voters, including appearances with Lena Dunham and on the sitcom Broad City, but to far less effect — partly because she is not as Ray-Ban ready as her husband, but mostly because it’s much more challenging to move the needle in today’s saturated media culture. 

Being relatable, however, can be a double-edged sword. In his book Double Trouble, Greil Marcus recounts how a Clinton speechwriter confessed to him that the Arsenio appearance “might have won [Clinton] the election, but it also ruined his presidency.” Whether or not you consider playing the saxophone on late-night television to be “undignified,” once you pierce the veil between presidential candidate and the public and suggest there might be a real person in the monkey suit, it becomes much easier to see him fail.