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Interview with President Bill Clinton Part II

January 26, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: All right. Let’s talk about the one more hard year. Is there one particular thing that you really want to do before you leave this office?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, there are many things that I really want to do before I really leave this office. Obviously, I’m still heavily engaged in the search for peace in the Middle East. But whether we can do that or not depends -

JIM LEHRER: What’s the problem there, Mr. President, between Syria and Israel, what’s the problem?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think the main problem is they haven’t talked in a long time, and there’s still a fair measure of distrust, and the decisions which have to be made will require of both parties actions which will cause difficulty for them with some constituencies in their country. But let me say I’m convinced that both the leaders of Syria and Israel want peace, and I’m convinced that substantively they’re not that far apart.

So we have a chance to do that. You asked me what I wanted to do. That’s something I would like to be involved in if they want to do it – I’m prepared to do whatever I can. I want to continue to do everything I can to protect the natural treasures of this country. I want to lay the foundation for America dealing with climate change, and I want to lay the foundation for America dealing with what I think will be the biggest security challenges in the 21st century.

I believe – you know, all the attention today is on whether we can develop the missile defense and, if so, whether we can deploy it without falling out with the Russians and our friends and other countries who question this.

But the likeliest threat in my view is brought on by the intersection of technology and the likelihood that you will have terrorists and narco-traffickers and organized criminals cooperating with each other with smaller and smaller and more difficult to detect weapons of mass destruction and powerful traditional weapons. So we tried to lay in a framework for dealing with cyber terrorism, bio terrorism, chemical terrorism. This is very important.

Now, this is not in the headlines, but I think it’s very, very important the next ten or twenty years. I think the enemies of the nation-state in this interconnected world are likely to be the biggest security threat. And then of course you know the things that are really close to my heart. I’m going to try to get a lot done in education and health care and bringing opportunity to poor people and reducing poverty in this country.

JIM LEHRER: What about health care, what is it that you would like your legacy to be on health care?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I wish I could have given health insurance to all Americans, because I still think it’s inexcusable that we are the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t do that.

But I feel good about many of the things we have done in medical research, in letting people keep their health insurance when they change jobs, in providing much more preventive screening for older people with illnesses or potential illnesses, and, of course, in the children’s health insurance program. So I’m going to focus now on what I think I can get done this year.

I want to try to increase the number of people with health insurance dramatically by letting the parents of children in the children’s health insurance program buy into it, by letting people between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-five buy into Medicare, and I want to have another big investment in biomedical research.

JIM LEHRER: And what about education, what mark can you leave in this next year on education?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, first of all, if you look at what we have done, we have already helped almost all the states to develop higher standards, and we’ve got — test scores in reading, math, and college entrance exams are up.

JIM LEHRER: You’ve done that? You feel your administration has done that?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think our administration has contributed to it. Now, the people that did it were the kids, the parents, and the teachers. But I think – consistent with our philosophy – which is to be a catalyst for new ideas and to be a partner to help people achieve it, there’s no question, we’ve had an impact. And one thing we’ve had a really direct impact on is we’ve done more than any administration ever has to open the doors of college to everyone.

We – with big increases in Pell grants, the direct student loan program, which lets people borrow money at less cost and pay it off at a percentage of their income, we’ve got a million work/study grants; we’ve got AmeriCorps, 150,000 young people there, and the Hope Scholarship tax credit and the lifetime tax credit really means people have no excuse for not going to school.

Now, I’ve also proposed this time for the first time in history that we make college tuition tax deductible up to $10,000 a year, which will mean that we have guaranteed access to four years of college for all Americans. I mean, that is a huge achievement.

Since I became President, the number of – the percentage of high school graduates going to college has gone up to 67 percent; that’s an increase of 10 percent. But we need for everybody to be able to go. And so I think that this will be a major achievement.

Now, let’s go back to the beginning. The next big challenge, besides making – this is the last piece of making college universally available. The next big challenge is to make sure that everybody’s diploma means something.

And we’ve been working on this all along, starting in the early childhood, the increases we’ve made in Head Start. We now have a thousand colleges sending mentors into grade schools to make sure kids learn to read by the third grade. And there’s – and I think we’ve increased the emphasis on that.

I know you probably noticed that Jim Barksdale gave $100 million to the University of Mississippi to do nothing but focus on how we can teach grade school kids to read.

This is a huge deal; it’s great. But what else do we need to do? I think we need a national strategy to turn around failing schools or shut them down. I think we need to institutionalize reform with more charter schools, and I think we ought to make preschool available to everybody, and everybody that needs it ought to have access to after school.

I think if you get those things done and we continue to train the teachers, especially in how to use the computers as you hook up all the schools to the Internet, I think you’re going to see really big continuing improvements in education.

JIM LEHRER: But you can’t do all that this next year, can you?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Sure, we can. We can — no, but we can take steps toward it. If you look at the whole history of our country, I read something President Johnson said the other day, and he got through – you know – Medicare and the – Medicaid and the first steps of major federal aid to education. He talked about how most of our big progress comes in deliberate, discreet steps, and if you tall enough steps in the right direction, you turn back around, you see you’ve come quite a long way.

So what I’m going to try to do in my speech tomorrow night is to outline what I think the long-term goals for the nation in the 21st century should be, and then what steps I think we can realistically hope to achieve in this year and urge the Congress to join me in it.