Early in January 1992, with Bill Clinton poised to win the crucial New Hampshire primary, a woman named Gennifer Flowers came forward with a sordid tale of a 12-year affair with the young Arkansas governor.
Pundits proclaimed that the allegation by Flowers, a former TV reporter who later posed nude for Penthouse, would sink the Clinton campaign. Instead, Bill and Hillary appeared on 60 Minutes right after the Jan. 26 Super Bowl and, in a stunning performance, the candidate diffused the damage and went on to win the primary and the White House.
Years later, a political operative I know offered a bizarre story: Clinton's senior advisors not only knew that Flowers would go public; they were happy she did it.
See, back then, my source said, polling showed that Bill Clinton was popular among women and educated liberals. His only problem was with the so-called working class white-ethnic men, the blue-collar guys who were Democrats but voted for Ronald Reagan. Those voters thought Clinton was weak, and that his wife was pushing him around.
The Flowers affair was bound to come out eventually, the operative told me. So the strategists figured that sooner was better. Of course, the morality voters and the sanctity-of-marriage crew would be aghast, but they weren't going to vote for Clinton anyway. The blue-collar guys wouldn't be offended at all; in fact, some would think a guy who had a Penthouse centerfold on the side wasn't such a chump after all. And the women had nowhere else to go.
So why not control the release, let Bill and Hillary deal with it, put it behind them, and defuse its potential as an October surprise?
If that account is true, the strategy worked brilliantly.
I thought about Flowers when I saw the video of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright speaking to the National Press Club.
The news media and a lot of Obama supporters say Wright, after talking about the oppression of African Americans, derailed the campaign of the only African American ever to get close to the presidency.
But let me offer a strange but plausible thesis here: what if the Obama campaign not only knew what Wright was going to do, but quietly approved of it?
Think about it: Obama is about two whiskers from being the most powerful person on Earth. If he really wanted Wright to shut up, he could have made a few calls, and I suspect the guy would be cloistered behind closed doors for months. But no: the fiery minister went and attacked America and insulted Obama in a way sure to make huge headlines.
The result: Obama gets to denounce and distance himself from a guy who was going to be a problem in the fall. The damage was done early enough that it will be old news by October. Obama will still win North Carolina, be close in Indiana and Clinton simply won't have the numbers to win the nomination.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the story I was told all those years ago was a total fabrication. Maybe Gennifer Flowers and Rev. Wright acted alone. But I've watched enough presidential campaigns to know it's entirely possible they didn't.