The Truth, Mainly - 09/14/1992

The intern did it: The unmaking of a president — 1992
by Leon Satterfield

Although it would come to be known as the most treacherous piece of political sabotage of the century, the press didn't find out about the president's sodium pentothal patch until the '92 election was over.

But all the pundits agreed that while his sudden burst of candor during the last week of the campaign made him oddly attractive, it lost him the election. The only state he carried was Nebraska. It was football season.

The truth serum had been osmosing through the president's pores since Oct. 26 when the patch had been surreptitiously stuck to the base of his spine by a female intern at Bethesda Naval Hospital. (He would later refer to her as "that nice lady doctor.") Wearing only his slippers and open-backed hospital gown for his monthly checkup, the president was taking the day off from campaigning, confident of the polls showing he had come back from a 23-point deficit to draw even with Gov. Clinton by mid-October. A week later, he had a five-point lead and the momentum was clearly his.

"Big mo," the president liked to say, pointing to himself. "C'est moi!"

The third time he said it on television, the intern was heard to say "We'll just see about that."

"Way to go, Mr. President," she told him when he said it again in the examination room. Then she slapped him on the bare backside with the sodium pentothal patch hidden in her hand. "Give 'em hell, Harry."

The first sign there might be something amiss came the next afternoon when the president told a conference of historians that when he got right down to it, he wasn't absolutely certain that he should take all the credit for the collapse of international communism.

"After all," he said, "containment had been a policy of both Republicans and Democrats for decades. The commies just happened to go broke on my watch."

We know now that James Baker wrote him a sharply worded memo questioning the strategy of that admission. But the president seemed unable to help himself. For the next week he ignored his prepared text when it deviated from what he knew to be the truth.

On the morning of Oct. 28, he told a group of Republican women that Hillary Clinton hadn't really written that marriage was a form of slavery, and the next day he told a national television audience that Gov. Clinton wasn't really proposing to raise taxes for everybody, only for people making more than $200,000 a year.

"My mistake," he said. "I don't know anyone who makes less than $200,000, so I thought he was talking about everybody. I could bite my tongue."

Marlin Fitzwater shook his head and rolled his eyes when reporters asked about it later.

On Oct. 30, the president told the National Association of Manufacturers that his earlier charge that Gov. Clinton had raised Arkansas taxes 128 times in 11 years was a "bogus campaign ploy because of the goofy way we were counting. If we counted our own tax increases the same way, we'd have to say there were133 of them in just four years."

William Safire noted that the president seemed to be speaking in complete sentences more often, George Will said his words were "no longer just audible confetti," and Donald Kaul said the president was "suddenly sensible, even likable." "When George Bush vowed to do whatever was necessary to get re-elected," Mike Royko wrote, "nobody guessed he'd sink to telling the truth."

On the Sunday before the election, the president told the AMA he really had no health care plan beyond doing whatever the insurance companies wanted, and the next day he told the VFW that deep down he felt that even his foreign policy "sucked canal water." Nobody had heard him use that phrase before.

"Everybody says the Gulf War was such a success," he said, "but look at what it did: restored a corrupt Kuwaiti emir to his corrupt throne, killed several hundred thousand Iraqi people we had no quarrel with, and left the guy we went after still in power. If that's success, we ought to try failure. You know?"

Gov. Clinton was so confused by the president's candor that he cancelled all his speaking engagements the last four days before the election, thus increasing his popularity by 12 points. He remained speechless even after the president's remarkable seven-word concession.

"The hell with it," the chief magistrate told the nation. "I'm going fishing."

The patch lost its potency a few days later and by the time President Clinton was inaugurated, Citizen Bush was talking to Barbara about making another run in '96.

"I'd make a crackerjack president," he told her. "Don't you think?"

"It'll be all right," she said, patting his hand. "And isn't it about time to make another appointment with that nice lady doctor?"


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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