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Interview with President Bill Clinton Part III

January 26, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, you’re doing this, of course, in a presidential election year. In whose interest is it to help you do this in terms of simple politics of getting it done, to help you improve your legacy, or get things done before you leave office?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, first of all, it is in none of their interest to help me improve my legacy. That’s not why they should do it. It is in their interest to do the job they were hired to do, which is to help the people they represent. And I think the people that they represent, whether Republicans or Democrats, would find it amazing that someone could suggest they ought to take a year off.

Anybody who wants to take a year off ought to give up their paycheck and say, I’m sorry, I’m not going to work this year, but I’m not going to take your money. Secondly, in a more mundane way, it is clearly in the interest of all the people in Congress to do things that are good for America, because the American people will appreciate it.

Now, I think it helps the Democrats, but I don’t think it hurts the Republicans. I mean, they – a bunch of them have to run next time too. And people are going to know – want to know what you did last year. If you look, it’s quite interesting.

We had a very good year in ’96 – I had to veto the welfare reform bill twice because the Republicans wouldn’t agree with me to guarantee child care and health care and more nutrition and medical care and transportation for the welfare families, and then they did it at the end, and we got this big welfare reform, and now we’ve got 7 million fewer people on welfare. In ’98 we passed a lot of very important legislation at the end, because it was election year.

So what you might see, in terms of Congress now, is not an enormous amount of activity at the beginning – although I do believe that there’s a good chance we can fairly early pass my proposal to help Colombia, fight off narco-trafficking, preserve its democracy and work with its neighbors along the border, and I think there’s a good chance they’ll pass the China trade – normal trade relations bill; I hope that’s true. But I think at the end of the year, when people will be held accountable by the voters, I think there’s a chance we’ll get quite a lot done. We did in ’96. We did in ’98. I think we will this year again.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, what do you make of Governor Bush’s comment the other night after he had won the caucuses in Iowa? He said, “This is the beginning of the end of the Clinton era,” and everybody in the room cheered.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, they would. (laughing) I think if he were – I think if he said that he would reverse what we were doing, I think he would, and I think that’s the choice before the American people. I mean, he’s offered a $1.4 billion tax cut, and the only thing I’d ask the American people is to remember, you know, we’ve now had 20 years of experience; we tried it their way for 12 years and they quadrupled the national debt. And when I took office, we had high unemployment, a massive deficit, a huge debt, and totally neglected our domestic affairs.

We had rising crime, rising welfare rolls, all the social indicators going the wrong way. Now we tried it our way for seven years, and we’ve got the biggest surpluses in history, the first back-to-back surpluses in 42 years. We can get this country out of debt now in 13 years, out of debt for the first time since Andy Jackson was President in 1835, and all the social indicators going in the right direction.

So what – it seems to me that he was being honest with the people, that he said that he will reverse this course. And I do think the American people ought to vote for change in this election because things are changing so fast around us in this globalized world we have to keep changing. The issue is: Are we going to build on what works or revert to what didn’t? And that’s what I think the issue is.

JIM LEHRER: You’ve given kind of your definition of the Clinton era, and he has his. now, what he is – the interpretation of what he’s talking about is that it’s a continuation of what all the presidential candidates have mentioned to some degree. The Republicans like Governor Bush more than the Democrats, but even Vice President Gore and Senator Bradley have said about returning the presidency back to a nobler office – to — words like promising to restore dignity, respectability, decency, and trust to the President, to the presidency. They’re talking about you, aren’t they, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, first of all, I made one mistake; I apologized for it; I paid a high price for it; and I’ve done my best to atone for it by being a good President.

But I believe we also endured what history will clearly record was a bogus investigation where there was nothing to Whitewater, nothing to these other charges, and they were propagated and tens of millions of dollars were spent, and we got a clean bill of health on that. And in terms of trust, let me just tell you a story.

I went back to New Hampshire for the seventh anniversary of the New Hampshire primary — 1991 – or the eighth anniversary – excuse me – last year – 1992 — so it was the seventh anniversary – I went back there last year. And it was raining and there were children standing in the rain and people standing in the rain, and the thing that meant the most to me – not the Democratic Party events – just going around – because they heard the campaign in the most detail – was people saying, you know, we’re so much better off now, but the thing that really matters is, you did exactly what you said you would do.

And it seems to me that all of us in life, we can spend all of our time pointing our finger to other people and saying we’re better than they are, or we can work as hard as we can on our own character, on our own lives, and if we’re in public life, we need to tell people what we’re going to do and then we need to do it. And if we don’t do it, it ought to be because we tried and couldn’t. I think that’s what people know about me and this administration.

We laid out the most detailed set of commitments anybody ever had in ’92; we’ve accomplished virtually everything we set out to do. What we haven’t accomplished we tried and failed to accomplish. And even there in the health care area we’ve made a lot of progress. And people know that.

So I’m satisfied that – that the American people will make a judgment in this election based on what’s best for them and their families, on whatever factors they choose. They’re in control again. We’re back into the biggest job interview in the whole world. And whatever they decide and however they decide it I think they’ll get it right; they nearly always do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you get angry, though, when somebody like Alan Keyes says – recently – “We are coming to the end of the most disgraceful, the most immoral presidency in the history of this country?”

PRESIDENT CLINTON: No. Because he’s a far right winger who probably thought Iran-Contra was a good thing for America. And, you know, there’s just no evidence to support it. I mean, you know – no, that doesn’t make me mad at all. How can you take that seriously?

One of the things that I had to learn when I moved to Washington is before I ever got angry at anybody – at anything anybody said – was to ask myself whether it was about the subject they were discussing or whether it was really about power, and I remember once I had a conversation with a Republican Senator in the middle of the D’Amato hearings, when he was trying to convince people or – these Republican Senators were – that my wife had done something wrong in this Whitewater thing, which is totally absurd.

And so I asked the Senator – I said, do you think either one of us did anything wrong – not illegal – just wrong – even wrong – and he started laughing. He said, you’ve got to be kidding.

He said, of course, you didn’t do anything wrong; that’s not the purpose of this. The purpose is to convince the American people you did it. It’s all about power. Now, I made a mistake. I acknowledged it. I’ve done my best to atone for it. But all this broad-brush stuff, you know, people see that for what it is.

And when I’m criticized now, I try to remember Benjamin Franklin’s admonition that our critics are our friends, that they show us our faults. So, you know, I’m just trying to be a better person and a better President every day. I don’t know what else to do. And I’m trying not to let this stuff get in the way.

Again, let me say, the job of a President is to have a vision and a strategy and pursue it, to show up every day and insofar as possible to think about the American people and their welfare and did not think about himself. The environment in which a President operates is designed to prevent him from doing that – as much as possible – to make him torn up and upset, full of recriminations and anger, and have his attention divided.

So what I tried to do is to create a frame of mind and a climate around here with our people so we could do our job. I hope I’ve succeeded. I think the results speak for themselves.