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Former President Clinton Releases Memoir

June 21, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Former President Bill Clinton’s presidential memoir, titled “My Life,” goes on sale tomorrow in bookstores across the country. In the first of what will be a series of interviews about the book, the former president appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” last night. Among the book’s targets: Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whose Whitewater investigation ultimately led to Mr. Clinton’s impeachment.

BILL CLINTON: Starr issued his report and there were hundreds and hundreds of references to sex, and two to Whitewater, and that there was really nothing to Whitewater. It was nothing. It was a deal I lost money on. I made a business investment and lost money.

It cost over $70 million. And we were exonerated in Whitewater, exonerated in the Vince Foster suicide, exonerated in the campaign finance reform, exonerated in the White House travel office deal, exonerated in the FBI File case. They indicted innocent people because they wouldn’t lie. And they exonerated people who committed crimes because they would lie.

And they did it because it was nothing but a big political operation designed to bring down the presidency. I will always be proud that when they moved on impeachment I didn’t quit, I never thought of resigning, and I stood up to it and beat it back. To me, the whole battle was a badge of honor. I don’t see it as a great stain, because it was illegitimate.

GWEN IFILL: So was it a badge of honor, as the former president old Dan Rather, or was it history rewritten? Bill Clinton joins a long line of former commanders-in-chief who have used the presidential memoir to tell the story from their points of view. But how does this effort compare? For that we turn to historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, director of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Michael, badge of honor? Is he rewriting history? Which is it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s what we’re going to know 30 years from now. The biggest thing Bill Clinton will do in this book or try to do is to argue that impeachment was unwarranted, he was treated differently from other presidents. And if that takes hold, his reputation in history is going to rise. If, however, people don’t listen and 30 years from now people think the impeachment maybe was warranted and this was something that was justified, that’s going to have a very big effect on his reputation going down.

GWEN IFILL: Richard, do these things ever take hold?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: That’s a good question. James Buchanan wrote a memoir after the Civil War in which he tried to justify his action or inaction before the Civil War. And he went to his grave believing that historians would agree with him that he had been a president than most of his contemporaries. He turned out to be even less successful as a prophet than a president.

Herbert Hoover wrote three volumes chock a block with statistics in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to persuade history that he had really broken the back of the Depression by 1932. And Richard Nixon wrote a memoir even longer than Bill Clinton’s, some believe actually the most readable of recent presidential memoirs and yet it has had no significant impact on the judgment of history. By and large presidents try as they will to influence that judgment, the presidential memoir is a very faulty vehicle for doing it.

GWEN IFILL: It should be mentioned as Richard alluded to this is a 957-page memoir that neither of the three of us have read. We’ve read the excerpts. We’ve seen the interview so far. So, that said, this one apparently is incredibly personal. He talks about his marriage and about his personal foibles, his childhood and talks about how he lived this parallel life. Is this far more personal than you usually find in one of these books?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yeah, it sure is and Bill Clinton I think is very shrewd because he knows that a lot of the people who have been critics of him not only in Washington but around the United States just don’t like him personally for various reasons. And if he could say to people you may not like the way I ran my life but there are reasons for this. I had a tough childhood. You should admire the fact that I rose above adversity. I think he’s gambling in a way that’s not in any way scholarly that people will see this, they’ll begin to sympathize with him and maybe understand him.

GWEN IFILL: Could a memoir like this, Richard, have been written by any previous president or is it a creature of its time, especially with these intensely personal features in it?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think it’s very contemporary. Bill Clinton is a very contemporary figure. You almost feel as if the co-author of this book is Oprah. This is kind of history.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It may be.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: This is history therapy.

GWEN IFILL: I think he’ll be on Oprah tomorrow so we’ll find out.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: There’s a lot of pop psychology here. There’s a lot of trace to go the origin what he refers to as his demons, what an earlier generation might have called character flaws. You know, it’s interesting, Michael knows this better than anyone because he’s heard more of Lyndon Johnson’s real words than anyone else. One of the frustrating things — you wish other memoirs had been more personal.

When Lyndon Johnson wrote his post White House memoirs called the Vantage Point he would talk them and no one talked better than Lyndon Johnson. And he would see these wonderful pungent stories in print and he would take them all out. He said I can’t say that. I have to be presidential. I at least I tip my hat to President Clinton for apparently giving us a memoir that is less embalmed in official language than most presidential memoirs.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I do. Ronald Reagan got a huge amount of money for his memoirs; had a ghostwriter hired by himself and the publisher. They hoped to get him to be a little bit introspective. Whatever Reagan’s strengths were, self-knowledge and introspection were not among the… at the top of the list. It was so much so that the book was written and there was a press conference in New York when the book was published — everyone saying how wonderful the book was. Reagan apparently held up a copy of the book and said I hear it’s terrific. Maybe even some day I’ll read it.

GWEN IFILL: No one minded being a ghostwriter. At least he didn’t mind being a ghostwriter. Richard, let’s talk a little bit about one of the substance issues in this book, which is a foreign policy piece. He says the difference between him and Republicans is that Democrats try to cooperate first and act if they must. Republicans act first and then cooperate if they must. Knowing what you know about what presidents’ choices have been and what this president’s choices were at the time that he was in office, what do you make of that?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I’m not sure what to make of that. That sounds like a fairly conventional, you know, that is not Oprah speaking. I mean that is a very conventional presidential argument, which is also an exercise in settling scores. It will be very interesting when we actually open this book and see if the tone of this book particularly the account foreign policy domestic policy and politics, the second half of this book which apparently is the part that deals with the Clinton presidency, whether it is more like the clip that we saw last night from 60 Minutes which was really an exercise in score settling.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: My guess, he wouldn’t have written that if we had not gotten involved during the last year in what is now in many ways a very unpopular war against Iraq in which the current President Bush is criticized for collaborating. That’s something that runs through these memoirs. They’re oftentimes written with the lens of what happened after the president left office.

One of the things I think we saw in the interview last night, probably we’ll see in the book, is that Bill Clinton pays a surprising amount of attention to Osama bin Laden. Said last night one of the things I’m sorriest about was that I didn’t get bin Laden when I was president. If 9/11 had not happened I don’t think we would have heard him say that or write it.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know that’s another interesting point because as Michael said earlier it will be 30 years until we have access to all the documentation to know if the amount of attention that President Clinton devotes to Osama bin Laden in this book reflects accurately the amount of attention in real-time that he and his administration devoted to Osama bin Laden.

GWEN IFILL: One thing that Bill Clinton has anything in common with Richard Nixon is when they both left office there was still a cloud there. President Clinton says when people look back they will realize he did more good than bad or there was more good than bad. What’s your take on that, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think people may well feel that way. I mean, when they read this book, they can’t help but be drawn back whether they disagree or agree with what Bill Clinton did with a sense of Clinton nostalgia a period in which there were balanced budgets and peace in the world and a huge economic boom for whatever he’d like people to remember that not only for his own reputation but I think he feels that that will also help Democrats running in his aura.

GWEN IFILL: Did Richard Nixon do that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Nixon had something else that he was motivated by that was to show things from his own point of view. A third of his memoirs, which were even longer than Clinton’s believe it or not, they were over a thousand pages. A third of that book was on Watergate. He was forced to write on Watergate by his publisher which paid him $2.5 million which was a lot of money especially in 1974, write much more than he wanted to.

But the argument he was trying to make was a little bit like Clinton with impeachment, that maybe I did some things wrong but it was not justified for me to be removed from office for doing things that earlier presidents had done. And Nixon also argued people forget I was a president in wartime dealing with wire tapping or dealing with leaks to the press and so forth. People had to understand what he did in Watergate in that context. It didn’t hold much water.

GWEN IFILL: Richard, what do you think of that Nixon parallel if there is one?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, there is in a sense. Richard Nixon used to say it would take 50 years for anyone to write about him objectively. The fact is that both men, in very different ways, engendered intense feelings. They polarized the electorate. They really defined their eras in that sense. For a lot of people who go out and buy this book tomorrow it’s almost a political act. They may or may not read the book but particularly in the highly charged of feelings of an election year they’ll be make a political statement.

They’ll be suggesting their solidarity with Bill Clinton and maybe Hillary Clinton and maybe the Democratic Party. It takes time for passions to cool, for perspectives to form and papers to become available. And, you know what, there are three presidents, bipartisan — Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan — all of whom have reputations significantly higher today than when they left office. In all three cases that’s in spite of the memoirs they wrote not because of them.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And in Clinton’s case I think Richard is right. It’s going to take longer for him to pass to into history because not only are the feelings still so intense, not only is he still 57, you know, in his late 50s, a young man, but also something we’ve never seen in history before. He has a wife who is a senator from New York who very possibly will run for president in four or eight years so everything he does is in that context.

GWEN IFILL: Well then why not wait 15 years or so and invest more perspective into his time in the presidency than rush a book out right now?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s because what presidents normally do once they get out and also given Clinton I think he felt that it’s very important for him to get his side of the story into the mix as quickly as possible to affect not only Americans but also later historians.

GWEN IFILL: Richard, what do you think?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Presidents are human. They miss the center of the stage. They miss the spotlight. This president probably more than most.

GWEN IFILL: Could it be money as well? Not only Bill Clinton is not the only president who left without a whole lot of cash on hand when he left office.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah, I mean Harry Truman went home to Independence broke. There was no presidential pension in those days. He wasn’t going to take money for speeches; he wasn’t going to serve on boards so basically when he signed a contract for $600,000 for two volumes of memoirs it was the first money he ever made in his life. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton needed money as well for a very different reason. Each of them had run up very significant legal bills while in white house.

GWEN IFILL: Richard Norton Smith and Michael Beschloss, happy reading.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Gwen.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Thank you.