Shortly after being elected President, Clinton scheduled a “Town Hall Meeting” with a TV station in San Diego (KGTV-10), allowing the station to gather a small, selected audience. Unlike the heavily scripted propaganda town halls politicians stage today, this one was a bit more open to challenging questions.
A friend of mine, Lorne Fleming, was somehow picked in advance to ask the first question. Recognizing the opportunity, he came to me for guidance before the show — a chance like this comes along once in a lifetime (less often for most).
It didn’t take us long to come up with the appropriate question. At the time this question was fresh and original (though Winston Churchill handled the matter nicely in the past). Since then it’s become a common question conservatives rhetorically ask liberals, and it still causes them discomfort.
As a small self-employed businessman, at the meeting Lorne prefaced his question with the travails faced by business people in America, the product of ever-heavier regulation and taxation by government. Then he asked his question: “Can you name one country that has ever taxed and spent itself back into prosperity?”
Clinton and Fleming having a “frank discussion” after the TV cameras went off the air (but not all the OTHER cameras!). While Fleming clearing got the best of Clinton in the encounter, I must concede that heartthrob Bill IS taller!
The President actually took two steps back — it was as though he’d been hit in the mouth. A glib fellow, he proceeded to babble some nonsensical answer, without being able to name such a country. His specific lame response was “I can’t, but you can’t fairly characterize my program like that.”
The media reaction was dramatic. Rather than focusing on the President’s inability to answer the question (and thus rebut the obvious implication), they went after Lorne Fleming. How DARE Fleming insult the new President with a challenging question? This was the President’s “honeymoon period,” when we were supposed to be filled with adulation rather than skeptical of his agenda.
The press wanted questions like “Mr. President, what’s your favorite room in the White House?” Apparently Lorne didn’t get the memo (no email back then).
My local paper the UNION-TRIBUNE led the attack on Fleming. I think they felt his provocative question was somehow deemed an insult to San Diego, marring the President’s visit to “America’s Finest City.”
The newspaper investigated him ad nauseam — going back many years into his past. They breathlessly reported in their expose’ that he’d been married five times (gasp!!!) and had previous trouble making his tax payments (Fleming was NOT financially successful compared to the “businessman” stereotype), though by the time he asked his question, those tax troubles were over. Worst of all, Fleming was a CANADIAN who chose to work and live in America. The ingrate! Of course, NONE of this had anything to do with his question.
Partly as a result of the media attacks, right wing pundits made Lorne their hero. He was a welcome guest on the Rush Limbaugh and Roger Hedgecock shows, and became quite a notable for a short period of time.
Me? I was loving every minute of it! Lorne handled himself quite well, both in the televised face-off with Clinton, and in his media interviews afterwards. My skeletons (real and contrived) remained comfortably slumbering in my closet, undisturbed by the media frenzy. Life is good!
NOTE: A week or two later the President was again asked this question, but this time (he thought) he was ready. His staff had briefed him with the answer — Japan! Clinton was EAGER to give this delayed answer to Fleming’s tough question.
Yes, Japan did well for quite a number of years. But looking back, it turns out that the high taxes and debt Japan incurred starting in the 1980’s led to moribund growth by the time Clinton was elected. Indeed, Japan’s annual GDP growth dropped from over 6% in 1988 to 0% in 1992. After that, GDP grew from -2% to +2% annually — gosh, like President Obama’s reign!
Chart of Japan’s GDP history