Interview with President Bill Clinton Part IV
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JIM LEHRER: A difficult question, a matter of history, that I feel compelled to ask you, Mr. President. We sat – you and I – two years ago – almost to the day – and I – it was the day that the Monica Lewinsky story broke in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – and you denied that you had had an improper sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.
In retrospect, if you had answered that differently right at the beginning – not only just my question – but all those questions at the beginning – do you think there would have been a different result and that, in fact, you might not even have been impeached?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I wish I knew the answer to that, but I don’t. But the thing I regret most – except for doing the wrong thing – is misleading the American people about it. I do not regret the fact that I fought the Independent Counsel.
And what they did was in that case and generally was completely overboard and now rational retrospectives are beginning to come out — with people who have no connection to me – talking about what an abuse of power it was and what a threat to the American system it was.
And I’m glad that our people stuck with me and that the American people stuck with me, and I was able to resist what it was they attempted to do. But I do regret the fact that I wasn’t straight with the American people about it. It was something I was ashamed of and pained about, and I regret that.
JIM LEHRER: There was another interview that we did before that in which I asked you if you agreed with Susan McDougal that Kenneth Starr was out to get you, and your answer was interpreted by Mr. Starr and others that, well, the facts speak for themselves, is what you said. There have been many facts since then; that interview was even before two years ago. Do you think the facts have spoken on that
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that’s not even close anymore; everybody knows what the deal was. And more and more there will be people who didn’t have a vested interest in trying to promote some view they had previously taken who will evaluate this and come to the same conclusion.
And, as I said, even though I’m sorry about what I did and sorry about the developments there, I really felt once the last chapter of this played out that I was defending the Constitution and the presidency. And I feel a lot more strongly today. I think, you know, they knew for a long time there was nothing to Whitewater. They knew it was a bunch of bull; they had no evidence.
In fact, if either the law we had or the one we had before the Independent Counsel Law had been in place, then there would have been a special counsel, because it didn’t meet the standards. The only reason I agreed to ask Janet Reno to appoint one in the first place was I really believed that the people that were talking about it wanted to know the truth. And I knew that they’d just look at Whitewater and find out it was a big bunch of bull and, you know, go on.
And what I found out was that a lot of the people who wanted it didn’t want to know the truth, and they wanted somebody that could hang on until they could find something that they could – you know – find about me or Hillary; that they knew for a long time. You know, they knew before 1996 that there was nothing to it, which is why they had to get rid of Mr. Fiske and get Mr. Starr in there, so it went right past the ’96 election. And I think the evidence of history will show that too, so I’m relaxed about that, and I don’t spend much time thinking about it.
Again, to me, I had to make amends to the American people and to my family and to my friends and to my administration. I’ve done my best to do that. Now, the only way I can do that is just keep looking toward the future to stay excited, to stay upbeat, and to stay focused, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have moments, private moments, of pleasure and satisfaction, knowing that if, in fact, there was a conspiracy to run you out of office, it didn’t work, you’re still sitting in the Oval Office?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don’t spend much time thinking about it like that. You know, maybe when I’m gone, I will. I’m grateful that — for whatever reason – you know – my friends and my family stayed with me, the American people stayed with me. I believe I defended the Constitution against a serious threat.
I’m sorry I did something wrong, which gave them an excuse to really go overboard; I’m very sorry about that. But mostly what I try to do is to focus on trying to be a better President, trying to be a better person, trying to be a better husband and father, just trying to do the things that I can do.
You can’t – none of us ever gets ahead in life, I don’t think, by taking big satisfaction in victories or looking down on other people, or keeping our anger pent up. You know, one of the things I learned in this whole deal is, you know, you’ve got to let all that go.
Life will always humble you if you give into your anger or take some satisfaction that you defeated somebody or some satisfaction that, well, no matter how bad I am at least I didn’t do this, that, or the other thing. Life will always humble you. And I have just tried to be grateful and to keep serving, and to just worry about myself and not think about other people.
I mean, in terms of what are you doing right or wrong – and that’s all I can do. What – I’m actually – the way I feel every day is I’m just happy. You know, my family was all here for Christmas. We had this fabulous Christmas. My administration – I’ve been fortunate by having all these people stay with me. The ones that leave are going off to do exciting things, and we’ve got – I feel that when I took office, the country had so many problems it’s like we turned it around now. We’re going in the right direction.
And now we’ve got a chance to really dream big dreams for our children. And that’s a great thing to be doing your last year in office; it’s great – and not only to dream those things but to actually take some big steps toward achieving them. So I’m just happy. I can’t be mad or – it’s hard for me to think about all that stuff. It just happened. I’ve come to terms with it, and I’m just trying to go on.
JIM LEHRER: When this next year is over, you’ll leave office and you’ll be the youngest former President since Teddy Roosevelt. You’ll be in your 50′s; you’ll have a lot of time and energy. Are you worried about that at all – staying connected?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: No. No. I’m so excited about it. You know, I have – I mean, I’m worried I’ll have to go back to – you know – learning basic things – you know – but I’m excited about that too – driving a car, shopping for food, paying the bills when the house – you know – the pipes freeze – you know – all that kind of stuff – you’ve got to go back to living your life like an ordinary person. I think that’s good.
But Theodore Roosevelt had an interesting life when he left office. And I – of course, I’ve said this many times – I think President Carter has basically set the standard for what presidents should do in terms of his public service at home and around the world. And that shows you that there’s just worlds of possibilities out there. I’m very excited about it.
There are all kinds of things that I will have to do because I’ll have to make a living. I hope I’ll have to make a living to support a wife who’s continuing our family’s tradition of public service but -
JIM LEHRER: Do you think she’s going to win?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I do, yeah. I do.
JIM LEHRER: Why? Why do you think so?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I think they’re both very strong, formidable people and strong, formidable candidates. You know, you get all these elections where you’ve got to bad mouth one candidate to like another and you know, you think I’d certainly be there in the race involving my wife, but the truth is, the mayor and Hillary are both strong, formidable people; they have impressive achievements in their lives that relate to public service.
But I think that she’s much better suited for the work of a Senator, and this whole legislative process, and I think that the passions of her life, 30 years of work and achievement in education and health care and the challenges that children and families face and the whole philosophy she has about community are more consistent with where New York is today and what they need in the future.
And so that’s why I think she’ll win, not because I think he’s a bad guy or something, because I think they’re both very strong people.
But I think New York will believe that in the end that what she represents and where she wants to go and what her skills are and what she knows and cares most about is a little closer to where they are than his whole approach. And I think she’ll win. So I’ll have to worry about that.
But once I figure out how to support my wife’s public service – she supported mine for many years – and – and fulfill my other family obligations, I want to find a way through the center I’m going to build in Arkansas with my library – and in other ways – to be a public servant. You don’t have to be an elected official to be a public servant. You can be a servant in other ways. And I can help others and do things and that’s what I want to do.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, thank you very much.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you.