Griffey In '96: The Campaign That Forever Changed The American Political Landscape

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In 1996, Nike and Ken Griffey, Jr. launched the 'Griffey in '96' advertising campaign. 16 years later, we look back on one of the most dynamic political movements America has ever seen.

By 1995, Ken Griffey, Jr. was the face of baseball. He was only 25, and yet he was also a seven-year veteran, a superb fielder, a base-stealer, a regular .300 hitter, and one of the game's premier power hitters. His swing was the envy of Little Leaguers everywhere, and for that matter, most Major Leaguers.

It was puzzling, then, to see Griffey throw away his prime years to pursue a Presidential bid -- especially, of course, since someone of his age was Constitutionally forbidden from assuming the office. But he tried anyway, and Nike -- the company with which he had signed a long-term endorsement contract -- backed him.

Perhaps you remember these bumper stickers:

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There were also buttons, posters, shirts, and multiple TV commercials. It certainly seemed like a harmless advertising stunt, but it certainly wasn't, and it blossomed into the most unlikely story in the history of American politics.

Sixteen years later, here's an oral history of the campaign that changed this nation forever.

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Griffey first considered a foray into politics after sustaining a wrist injury early in the 1995 season.

DARREN BRAGG, Mariners left fielder:

Junior just sort of jumped into the wall, caught the ball, and bounced off. People asked me if I heard a pop or something, but I didn't. Junior caught the ball, you know? You're not gonna catch the ball if you break your wrist. I thought he was fine at first.

LOU PINIELLA, Mariners manager:

From the dugout, it sounded like Kenny's wrist just blew its nose. Real visceral, messy kind of sound, you know? Turned out that was just because Edgar [Martinez] was blowin' snot rockets out his nose right next to me. Had a box full of Puffs and was really goin' to town on it, too. Puttin' all the booger factories out of business, that fella. You just heard it, and you got this image of the booger factory closin' down, all the disheveled workers sadly trudging out carryin' bindles over their shoulders and whatnot.

I mean, I tell my friends, it was like Miles Davis, just blastin' away on the bacteria trumpet. And not, like, the sparse In a Silent Way Miles, neither. Like some funky wild-ass Electric Miles shit. I'll never forget that. Anyway, though, poor Kenny.

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RANDY JOHNSON, Mariners pitcher:

The doctors said Ken would be out at least three months. It was real hard on Lou. Only a year prior to that, he'd appeared with Ken in the critically-acclaimed motion picture Little Big League. I mean, you think you're on top of the world, and life just drags you down.

Ken was worried, too. They had to put screws in his wrist and everything. I mean, here's a 25-year-old with the sweetest swing in baseball, and you're gonna take one of those wrists and drill a bunch of metal into it? He knew it was bad news.

BRAGG:

I think Junior thought, "well, I'll just spend a few months playing Road Rash II and get back to it." Road Rash II was his greatest passion aside from baseball. But he couldn't even do that, his wrist wouldn't let him hold a controller. That's what got him down more than anything.

One day he calls me up and says, "dude, can you come with me to the bookstore? Gonna get some reading done, but I can't carry all those books." So we're there in the bookstore, and I figure he's just gonna buy some comic books or something, right? But then he just starts pulling all these big heavy books off the shelves. Sartre, Chomsky, Vidal, a couple Bill Buckley books, too. All these works on political theory.

And then he reached up and grabbed The Fountainhead. I was like, "oh Hell no, dude," and he laughed and put it back. I think he just wanted to see what I would say. It was good to see him joking around again.

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In August of the 1995 season, doctors cleared Griffey to play again, but the Mariners were in for a surprise -- and so was Nike, Griffey's endorsement partner -- when he announced he would be taking an indefinite hiatus from baseball.

PHIL KNIGHT, CEO of Nike:

You have to remember that we just got done losing Michael Jordan to retirement, and what, are we gonna sell MJ's baseball cleats? Are we gonna try to make it cool to walk through the mall in spikes? Griffey was our biggest endorsement tent pole, and we simply couldn't afford to lose him.

So I call him and I say, "Ken, listen. You don't want to play baseball, and we're supportive of that. We're in your corner. Just tell us the direction you want to go." And he laughed and said, "how about a Presidential campaign?"

And I was like, well, Hell! Primary season was heating up, and the general Presidential election was a little over a year away. The timing was perfect. Maybe draw up some posters and bumper stickers, really have fun with it.

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GEORGE WILL, political columnist/author:

Everyone loved Junior Griffey anyway, because there was nothing not to love about him, but this was another spectacle altogether. Everyone loved the "Griffey in '96" business, and I think this was, at least in part, because the 1996 Presidential election was thoroughly uninspiring. Clinton's shine had worn off, and the major players in the Republican primaries were either stodgy, like Bob Dole, or too aligned with the Christian Right, like [Patrick] Buchanan, or perceived as excessively gimmicky, like [Steve] Forbes. They did not inspire the sort of confidence that compels a person to stand in line at the fire station and cast a vote.

Junior Griffey, on the other hand, was beloved by all. Young, exciting, endearing, talented. After a bit, the folks at Gallup finally caved in and included Mr. Griffey in their polling. That first week, he led all candidates by five points. The next week, his lead had grown to nine points.

KNIGHT:

I thought Ken was joking. I swear to God, I thought he was joking. And by the time the curtain came up, there was no way for us to back off. It was just too late.

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By March of 1996, Griffey had built a 13-point lead in the polls, and the Griffey political machine -- fueled largely by Nike's coffers -- was beginning to flex its muscles. George Stephanopoulos, who was credited as the driving force behind Bill Clinton's win in 1992, shocked the political landscape when he "retired" from politics to lead Griffey's campaign.

For reasons thought obvious, however, no one took Griffey seriously as a candidate ... except for Griffey.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Griffey campaign chief:

I just needed a break, and in the worst way. I wanted to get into television, into writing some books. I'd thought about leaving politics in an official capacity for quite a time, and the Griffey stunt seemed like a great excuse to bust out from the zoo and have a little fun.

I mean, it was clearly telegraphed that the whole thing was a joke. He was 26 at this point, and you have to be 35 to be President. It's Constitutionally mandated. You can't work around it, you can't bend it.

One of the first things I did was to pick up the phone and call up [Steve] Forbes' people. His numbers were flagging, and everyone in the business knew he needed something, anything, to keep him in peoples' living rooms. So we pitched them a fun little commercial.

STEVE FORBES, Republican Presidential candidate:

The Griffey ad gave me a platform to talk about the flat tax some more. The producers told me, "Steve, you have to stop mentioning the flat tax every time we put the camera on you. It's just a fun little ad, not a political soapbox." But I refused. I would only participate if I got to mention the flat tax at least four times in my 10 seconds of airtime in a shoe commercial.

Anyway, thank you for interviewing me. I would like to tell you about the flat tax. Perhaps you are familiar with the round tax. Well, the flat tax is [This interview lasted three more hours; the remainder has been edited out of this account -- Ed.]

STEPHANOPOULOS:

What really struck me about Ken was how damned serious he could be. In front of the cameras, he was always laying on the charm. But when it was just him and I at the diner, he only wanted to talk about political theory.

"The success of my candidacy," he said, "is a byproduct of the malfunctioning American experiment. The Machine grinds up idealists and spits them out into folks desperate to keep their jobs. If indeed a worker at the auto plant had to campaign to the masses for his job every four years, I very much doubt he would be the same man. I bet that he would lie. Make empty promises to double or triple the number of mirrors fitted, expound upon how much he believes in aluminum ferrite, until he wore us into a state of tedium."

And then he said, "I am the smartest and the fittest and greatest among you all, because I have not contracted your sickness. You're sick, Steve. I'm indebted to you for everything you've done for this campaign, but you need to get out of this business."

And of course, I'm thinking to myself, "uh, Ken, I am out." I left to have fun with Nike and Junior, you know? And then I looked at his face again and saw the look he was wearing, and hand to God, at that moment I wasn't sure of quite where I was.

Star-divide

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August, 1996. Bob Dole stood as the Republican nominee to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton. Griffey, who was "running" without a party, continued to lead both candidates by double digits.

In recent months, however, Griffey had began to alienate himself somewhat with his campaign personnel, and his abrupt decision to relocate his headquarters to Washington, D.C. did not help matters.

DAVID SAUNDERS, political strategist and Griffey campaign advisor:

We were all like, God, Kenny, what are you doing? We loved working from Oregon, and then one morning he walks in and says he's uprooting half the campaign staff and shipping them to D.C. His serious disposition was fun at first, but we'd started to worry for him.

The funny thing was ... not once did any of us point out to Ken that he wasn't old enough to be elected President in accordance with the Constitution. Honestly, I don't think he knew about the age stipulation. He was well-read on political theory, sure, but he didn't have a clue about how the law worked, or how Washington worked. It just wasn't the town for him.

BILL CLINTON, 42nd President of the United States:

I still can't believe what happened, and how it happened. It's like it was a dream. But not a nightmare, though ... strangely, it's not at all a nightmare to me.

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GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

Nike thought it would be cute to give our campaign the whole professional outfit -- including lawyers. We had a team of three of them, and most of their time was spent in the appearance of doing work.

And then that Wednesday morning -- that was August 7th -- one of the lawyers bolts into my office. Michelle was her name. "George, give me 10 minutes." I'm about to call in to Howard Stern, so I tell her no. "Just 10 f***ing minutes, George."

She spells it all out. It turns out that the national candidate registry lists Griffey as being 46 years old, and then she checks the individual state registries. "Same story," she says. "Except for Pennsylvania."

"So why not Pennsylvania?" I ask, and she smiles. "Because Ken was born there. They know exactly how old he is, and they make a differentiation between him and ... another ballplayer from Pennsylvania."

I'm connecting the dots as she's talking, and I spit it out. "You mean Ken Griffey, Sr. The rest of the states' databases think he's Senior. Oh God."

GREG BRILEY, special consultant to the Griffey campaign:

It was actually pretty quiet in the office that morning. Most of the staff had left for some sort of charity brunch thing. It was just me, Kenny, George, a few others. And then all of a sudden, man, George is just cackling in his office. Just cursing like mad.

Kenny pokes his head out of his office and asks me what's going on, and I just shrug. He walks in there. Two minutes later, Kenny bursts out. "Potomac. How the f*** do I get to Potomac?" I don't know, because I've only been D.C. for two days, same as him. "Nevermind." And then Kenny runs out the door. Sprints, actually.

GEORGE WILL:

If you think up enough tall tales, one of them's bound to come true, and this one certainly did.

At about 11 a.m., it's explained to Junior Griffey that, thanks to a series of database errors, he is 46 years old and is thereby legally eligible to assume the office of the Presidency, should he be elected. Five minutes later, Mr. Stephanopoulos admits that the campaign never submitted a registration form for his candidacy.

Junior Griffey is hysterical, inconsolable. He feels betrayed.

STEPHANOPOULOS:

Kenny was screaming at me like I hadn't been screamed at since [Clinton campaign strategist James] Carville reamed my ass in '92. After about 10 minutes of this he catches his breath and I have a chance to think, and it occurs to me that this day -- Wednesday, August 7th -- this is the deadline by which registrations must be filed. So I call the registration office, figuring they close at five.

"No," they say, "we close at noon."

BRILEY:

I think George just made that call to get Kenny off his ass, maybe make him feel better. Hey, and as an aside, I get the feeling this is the last time I'll be in this story. Could I just state for the record that I stole 23 bases one year? [He was caught stealing 11 times, however -- Ed.]

WILL:

And this is the tall tale that actually came to pass: Junior Griffey scribbles down the address and bursts out into a city unfamiliar. Washington, D.C. isn't a grid, you see. It's a series of roads that radiate out from a network of turnabouts, and anyone unused to it is liable to get turned around a time or two.

And Junior, certainly, is unused to it. Please remember that he has only been in town for two days. Even if he doesn't make a single wrong turn, he now has about 30 minutes -- maximum -- to cover five miles. His staff had taken the campaign cars to the brunch, hailing a cab in D.C. is damn near impossible, and Junior decided he didn't have the luxury of ambling through the Metro and potentially getting lost.

So he breaks into a sprint.

ROGER KIMBREL, chief registrations officer:

And he just made it, too. The timestamp on the receipt we have on file reads 11:56 a.m.

JOSH ZALINSKY, freelance photographer:

I was in Dupont Circle that day, getting some shots of the Gandhi statue, you know? And all of a sudden I see a dude in a backwards hat and a suit just flying down the sidewalk. I mean, he was totally hauling ass. I have no idea it's freakin' Ken Griffey, Jr. or anything, but my gut instinct says, "take a shot." So I fumble for the remote switch and manage to catch him before he runs out of the frame.

That was pretty cool. I got a Pulitzer nomination for that. Years later, Griffey even signed it for me. Real cool.

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CHRIS BOSIO, special consultant to the Griffey campaign:

I'm still at the Marriott when I get a call on the mobile phone. It's Ken, asking me to pick him up on Potomac. I get there and he's completely exhausted, out of breath. His hat is even off. He never takes his hat off. And, I mean, I've been out of touch all morning, so I don't know what the Hell is going on.

Ken's not helping, either. He's got this big grin, and between deep breaths he's saying something about how he didn't run there, and that he simply rolled through the Satanic runes of the city grid like a marble bouncing through the Devil's tin heart. I don't know. He said a lot more than that, just can't remember what exactly.

Star-divide

And suddenly, Griffey's candidacy was real. The Clinton and Dole campaigns scrambled to have his name stricken from the ballot -- in fact, lawyers from the two camps made a collaborative effort to oust him -- but the enormous level of public support for Griffey prevented the courts from operating in an objective manner, and their efforts failed. One district judge even stated in the public record, "c'mon, y'all, this is gonna be awesome."

On October 6th, Griffey participated in a nationally televised debate with Clinton and Dole, and his opening statement left no room for doubt: this was a different sort of Presidential candidate.

Griffeydole_medium

Ladies, gentleman, thank you, good evening.

I think that anyone who wants to be President of today's United States is a vain, monstrous lunatic. While perhaps it's possible that one person really does know better than anyone else and really is pure of heart, the odds of such a person being a successful politician are essentially zero.

I want to be President, of course, so I suppose I am also a vain, monstrous lunatic. My objective will be to remain as benign and inflict as few horrors upon the world as possible. Many of you are probably looking for a baseball analogy. Well, this is for you: my Presidency will not be a "home run." It will be a ceaseless barrage of foul balls hit into the upper deck of this nation. No more base-runners, and no more outs, ever again.

Breathe easy, America. Breathe easy, world. I love you, and I'll hurt you as little as I can before they throw my ass out.

As expected, both of Griffey's rivals -- especially Dole -- tried to hit him on his age. Griffey seemed to put that issue down for good.

DOLE. Mr. Griffey, you're only on this podium thanks to a clerical error that has rendered you legally old enough to be President, and I would contest you in court had I the spare time. What qualifies you to be President?

GRIFFEY. I'm an enormous asshole who doesn't give a shit. That's what.

JAY BUHNER, friend:

Some folks thought Ken was an anarchist or something. He wasn't, he was just a defeatist, that's all. Six-plus years of Mariners baseball will do that to a man.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

After Ken's opening statement, the rest of the debate was largely an afterthought. Clinton and Dole struggled to keep pace with Ken's staggering degree of frankness. Clinton began some self-congratulatory statement about how he'd passed V-chip legislation that would keep eight-year-olds from watching NYPD Blue or some shit, but he just sort of trailed off halfway through.

I've still never seen anything like it. Clinton and Dole, they just withered. After the debate, I went up to Ken and told him he "really hit a home run." God, was he annoyed.

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Griffey's already-sizable lead mushroomed after the debate, to the extent that Election Day was largely a formality. In the greatest landslide in the history of modern American Presidential elections, Griffey claimed 491 of the 538 possible electoral votes, and captured 71 percent of the popular vote.

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GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

It was probably bad form to get as cocky as we all did that night. We'd seen the exit polls, though, and we knew what was happening. We had our first black President, our first superstar-athlete President, and perhaps even more unbelievably, the first frank, no-bullshit President of our times. I still can't really believe it happened.

We were all popping champagne and everything. Everyone was there except for Ken, so I look through the offices. Eventually I found him in the back, playing Road Rash II like he loved to do. I was like, "Kenny, man, you won!"

He turned to look at me and he said, "well, yeah." And then he just kept on playing.

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During the Griffey Administration, which lasted from January of 1997 to January of 2001, not much happened. Indeed, as compared to the years preceding and succeeding his term, those years were almost forgettable -- just as Griffey had promised.

To the public's dismay, Griffey declined to seek a second term. On his last day of office, his approval rating stood at 87 percent.

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LOU PINIELLA:

I was there at the White House, when Kenny was giving [President-elect] Rice the tour. And man, he was smiling bigger than he had in years. It was like having the old Kenny back.

He left the podium, and he put an arm on my shoulder and said, "hey, boss, let's take a walk." And so we did, and he talked about how much he hated it. All of it. "All that power, it made me sick. And I think it's healthy, that it made me sick. Does that make sense?" I laughed and said, "yeah, Ken, it kinda does."

And then he told me he wanted to play baseball again. "I'm only 30, after all." Then I said, "oh no, old man. Ain't you about 50 by now?" We had a good laugh about that. I was happy.

I kind of always knew he'd come back to baseball. And you know, I couldn't help but think: what if we had Kenny during those years? I mean, we could have had him, A-Rod, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, maybe even Ichiro atthe same time. My heart breaks whenever I think of what I could have done with that lineup. I think we could have won at least one World Series. I truly believe that.

GEORGE WILL:

When Junior finally retired in 2010 -- this time for good -- he did so with 630 career home runs. That, of course, is phenomenal; it places him at sixth on the all-time list. He's as open-and-shut a Hall of Fame case as there ever was.

Some part of us will surely always wonder whether Griffey could have passed the all-time record, had he not lost all those years to Presidency. I think he probably would have. Baseball, however, is as unpredictable as politics are predictable. And I suppose we will never know.

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