September 2, 1998
Can the president successfully conduct foreign policy in the middle of a domestic crisis? Jim Lehrer speaks with four presidential historians for some analysis.
JIM LEHRER: Conducting foreign policy in the middle of domestic problems. Kwame Holman begins.
KWAME HOLMAN: For the last seven and a half months President Clinton's foreign agenda has been overshadowed by a domestic scandal: Inquiries into his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. On the day news of the allegations broke, the President went ahead with two previously scheduled interviews, one with this program, another with National Public Radio. In the months that followed, however, he became virtually inaccessible to the press. Instead, reporters used the occasions of presidential meetings with foreign dignitaries to query the President on the Lewinsky matter. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's meeting with Mr. Clinton in January produced one of the earliest opportunities for the press corps to question the President. Mr. Clinton was forced to defend his reputation, rather than address progress toward peace in the Middle East.
REPORTER: Could you clarify for us, sir, exactly what your relationship was with Ms. Lewinsky and whether the two of you talked about by phone, including any messages you may have had?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let's get to the big issue here. About the nature of the relationship and whether I suggested anybody not tell the truth. That is false.
KWAME HOLMAN: A month later the scandal dominated questioning during a White House press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The two leaders struggled to focus on Northern Ireland, not Monica Lewinsky.
HELEN THOMAS, UPI: Despite the ongoing investigation, you felt no constraint in saying what your relationship with Monica Lewinsky is not-was not. So it seems by logic that you ought to be able to say here and now what was your relationship. Her lawyer says-called it "colleagues." Is that an apt description?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, let me first of all say once again I never ask anybody to do anything but tell the truth. It's better to let the investigation go on and have me do my job and focus on my public responsibilities and let this thing play out its course. That's what I think I should do, and that's what I intend to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: Reporters from foreign news organizations asked Prime Minister Blair about the scandal facing his friend, Bill Clinton.
REPORTER: Is it not time, though, to drop the pretense that this is simply business as usual? Should you not both be saying that the public have the right to expect the very highest standard in the private lives of public politicians?
TONY BLAIR: Well, Michael, I hope we do that, but what I would say to you is that what is essential is that we focus on the issues that we were elected to focus upon.
KWAME HOLMAN: And it was the first of several times reporters would ask the President if he would resign.
REPORTER: Mr. President, all these questions about your personal life have to be painful to you and your family. At what point do you consider that it's just not worth it and you consider resigning from office?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Never.
KWAME HOLMAN: Finally in April, the President held a formal news conference. Since then, however, reporters had almost no opportunity to question the President until this morning in Moscow. At a joint press conference with Boris Yeltsin two of three questions posed by American reporters were about the Lewinsky matter.
REPORTER: Sir, you were just speaking of the challenges that we face as a nation. And one is the reaction since your admission of a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky -- given you any cause for concern that you may not be as effective as you should be in leading the country?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: You know, I have acknowledged that I made a mistake, said that I regretted it, asked to be forgiven, spent a lot of very valuable time with my family in the last couple of weeks and said I was going back to work. I believe that's what the American people want me to do, and based on my conversations with leaders around the world, I think that's what they want me to do, and that is what I intend to do.
REPORTER: Mr. President, another Lewinsky question. You know, there have been some who have expressed disappointment that you didn't offer a formal apology the other night when you spoke to the American people. Are you -- do you feel you need to offer an apology? And, in retrospect now, with some distance, do you have any feeling that perhaps the tone of your speech was something that didn't quite convey the feelings that you have -- particularly your comments in regard to Mr. Starr?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think I could almost reiterate what I said in response to the first question. I think the question of the tone of the speech and people's reaction to it is really a function of - you know, I can't comment on that. I read it the other day again, and I thought it was clear that I was expressing my profound regret to all who were hurt and to all who were involved, and my desire not to see anymore people hurt by this process and caught up in it. And I was commenting that it seemed to be something that most reasonable people would think had consumed a disproportionate amount of America's time, money, and resources, and attention, and was now -- continued to involve more and more people. And that's what I tried to say.
JIM LEHRER: Now the perspectives of four presidential historians: NewsHour regulars Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss; and Robert Dallek of Boston University and Ronald Steel of the University of Southern California. Michael, are there precedents for this, for what President Clinton is trying to do now, conduct foreign policy in the middle of such a domestic storm?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Probably the gold standard, Jim, would be Richard Nixon in 1973 and 1974, during Watergate. You know, we remember Nixon as this commanding foreign policy president, one of the most of the century. But that really ended in the summer of 1973, when Watergate really kicked into high gear and went on for another year. Nixon, during that period of time, was trying to get Americans and Congress to support his approach to better relations with the Soviet Union. That was very hard for him to do, because he didn't have the kind of voice that he had before. Americans began to turn against that policy, and I think it's probably fair to say that if Nixon had been stronger politically, he would have been able to persuade Americans that they should stay with détente. One of the toughest things for a president with this kind of trouble to do is to ask Americans to make sacrifices. Think if George Bush had been obsessed with a domestic crisis like this at the time that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. Bush would have found it very difficult to get the American people and Congress to support ˝ million men going around the world to retrieve Kuwait from the clutch of the Iraqis. The other thing that's very important for a president to do is to explain a crisis or explain a failure. And that is the problem that Richard Nixon had, because in the heat of Watergate in the fall of 1973, as we all remember, most of us, there was a serious war in the Middle East. There was an American nuclear alert in response to a Soviet threat to intervene. When that happened, Americans said, ah, ha, Nixon is just trumping up a crisis to save his own skin; he had to defend himself against that. That shows how weak he really was.
JIM LEHRER: But in this case, Ron Steel, the crisis that President Clinton is addressing or has been addressing in Moscow, is real, the financial crisis, et cetera. How would you make the connection?>
RON STEEL, University of Southern California: Well, it's a real crisis, but I think presidents have to operate under the cloud of whatever their domestic situation is, as Michael has said. But foreign policy can also be a way of emerging from under that cloud, if we consider Ronald Reagan's presidency, for example, Iran Contra, and the tremendous controversy that that entailed, and I think the loss of credibility, because Reagan's defense was he really didn't know what was going on. But Reagan had this enormous resource of public affection to draw on, despite the fact that people even believe that he didn't know what he was going on; they liked him. That's the problem that Nixon had was-aside from all the other problems of Watergate-that he didn't have affection. And that's Bill Clinton's problem as well, that he doesn't have this reservoir to draw on.
JIM LEHRER: But when he sits there, as he did today, in the great setting in Moscow, where these two presidents have come together to talk about global problems and trying to solve a particular problem in Russia that Elizabeth Farnsworth was just talking about with her guests, and boom, he suddenly has to discuss Monica Lewinsky.
RON STEEL: You know, I think it's so striking, the disparity of the events involved. Here we have the virtual collapse of the economy in Russia and perhaps the collapse of democracy. We see the most important country in terms of its potential power, its nuclear power, dissolving from under us as a stable factor in international relations. And, on the other hand, we have Bill Clinton's personal problems with one of the interns who worked in his office. And I think this is extremely difficult for foreigners to understand. They look upon the Lewinsky thing as simply a personal foible, they say all leaders do this, that, of course, you tell your girlfriend not to pass on the affair that you've had; that's normal. But what is the relationship of this to foreign policy? Now, even Watergate was hard for foreigners, particularly for Russians to understand, when Nixon was under such assault for Watergate, if you will recall, that the Soviets looked upon this not as a real crisis-how could the Americans take something this seriously?
JIM LEHRER: A few wiretaps or something like that.
RON STEEL: But as an attempt to undermine détente. You see, this was a plot --
JIM LEHRER: I see.
RON STEEL: -- by Nixon's opponents to scuttle his policy of rapprochement with the Soviet Union. So, again, I think that this particular analysis wouldn't work in this case. But they see the American president, who has had a very successful run in foreign policy and in economic policy, who does have the support of the vast majority of the American public for his role as president, not for his personal behavior, and, in effect, his hands seem to be tied. He's very reluctant to take any initiative. We heard him say, well, we can't really provide any more money for you until you undertake the reforms. But they can't undertake the reforms very easily unless they're promised more aid. And so he has been-I think-handicapped enormously in his foreign policy by this.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Doris, he's been handicapped by this?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Oh, I think there's no question, you have to understand that. I mean, ideally a president in facing a foreign policy crisis would want to have a united Congress behind him, popular support, the will of the country, and his own moral authority. And that doesn't happen very often. It certainly happened with FDR in the middle of World War II, but in this case had he not had the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he would have had popular support behind him. He might have been able to mobilize the country in the last year toward more action, knowing this was happening in Russia. And you have to believe that somehow it's lessened the risk on the part of the Republicans to oppose him. One of the things Truman had going for him during the Cold War period was that even though he didn't have great public support, he wasn't that popular for a president at the time, even though historians later have loved him, he had Bandenburg in the Congress, the Republican leader, who was willing to go along and say politics should stop at the water's edge. Now you have Republicans and Democrats alike who are still talking sexual politics, as well as politics, and you have that embarrassing specter of people asking about Monica Lewinsky in front of the Russian leader, which means that there's nothing stopping at the water's edge. And some of that moral authority is obviously lost as a result of it. So obviously it's not quite as bad. The only thing that should give Clinton some solace is when I think about Abraham Lincoln having to conduct diplomacy with England and France during the Civil War, when our country was totally split apart, they were on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy; he wasn't the best known figure in America, and yet, somehow he and Seward managed to conduct brilliant diplomacy. So there's hope.
JIM LEHRER: There's hope. There's hope, Robert Dallek?
ROBERT DALLEK, Presidential Historian: Well, there's always hope. But, you know, Jim, there's an old saying in American history that war kills reform, and we-World War I killed off progressivism and World War II killed off the New Deal. Korea stopped the Fair Deal in its tracks, and Vietnam killed off Johnson's Great Society. I think it's also true of a domestic crisis. It makes it almost impossible for a president to conduct an effective foreign policy. Lyndon Johnson - terrible domestic crisis over the Vietnam War. He went and met with the Soviet leadership, Kosegin at Glassboro, and couldn't get anywhere. I mean, a lot of rhetoric, much the same as we heard today, about advancing arms control and advancing agreements to make peace in the Middle East, but nothing really could come of it, because you had only a weakened president at home but a president's credibility with foreign leaders was, more or less, destroyed.
JIM LEHRER: What about the argument that foreign policy issues give a president an opportunity to rise above his domestic problems, to show that, hey, I'm really in charge, after all, forget all that other stuff, I'm running this country and I'm going to do the right thing, et cetera?
ROBERT DALLEK: Well, it's a matter of the gray, Jim. You see, here I think crisis at home has now become so pronounced - the president's credibility is so much in question - that it makes it almost impossible for him to achieve some kind of significant success abroad, so yes, there's hope, but I really see the next two years as a time of great difficulty for this country in conducting its foreign affairs and for this president in leading the country.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Jim, if I could get back--
JIM LEHRER: Yes, Doris. Go ahead.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: -- for a moment to what Ronald Steel was saying earlier, you know, Ronald Reagan was at one of the worst moments of his presidency in '87, when there were the revelations about Iran-Contra. He did then somehow manage to go on television twice, first to give a limited apology, that people didn't think was good enough, just like Clinton's wasn't good enough, and then he went on and gave a second, deeper apology, and, more importantly, he said he would change the structure of decision-making in the White House. He brought in Baker; he brought in Carlucci; he brought in Colin Powell, the hard-liners went out; and he made that extraordinary advance toward the Soviet Union, Gorbachev and his meeting, the treaty missiles, treaties that were signed, and all of that left his presidency far better off than anyone thought it could have been in '87, so that's one historical parallel that shows what your suggesting, that foreign policy sometimes can help a leader out of a domestic crisis.
JIM LEHRER: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But the other thing that benefited Reagan was that dealing with the Soviet Union in a very serious way was "the" big theme of that presidency from the very beginning. Every American knew that, so that when Iran-Contra receded and Reagan went back to diplomacy with the Soviets to end the Cold War, people said here is an area in which Reagan is wonderful, he's indispensable, let's give him our support. And that's the big problem with Bill Clinton, because since the beginning of '93, he's made the choice to be more quiet about foreign policy than any president since Hoover. There has not been that voice talking to us about how to understand the world, and the result is that if there is a collapse in Russia and a venomous debate in this country about who lost Russia, he is going to be very weak in a way that goes way beyond even the Lewinsky scandal, because he'll be subject to charges by some people who will say, why did you not give this issue the attention it deserved.
JIM LEHRER: Sounds awfully grim, Ron Steel.
RON STEEL: I think - I would not write off Clinton's chances for a recuperation from all of this, because I think again the disparity between the particular offense we're talking about and the crisis in international and economic policy is very great, and foreign policy, as Doris Goodwin pointed out, a foreign policy crisis can save a presidency. It saved the Reagan presidency, and I think it saved the Roosevelt presidency as well. The New Deal was mired down by the time - by 1940. World War II made Franklin Roosevelt the great world historical figure that he is today. It saved his presidency.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And ended the Depression.
RON STEEL: And ended the Depression. And he was a great wartime leader. By the same token we have a problem with Russia. But we do have what appears to be a growing world economic crisis, and I think in times of great confusion and concern there is a natural tendency, an understandable one, to turn to leadership. I think we need its leadership that a president can offer and I think that's Bill Clinton's hope, to rise to it.
ROBERT DALLEK: But, I think, get back to Ron's point that Clinton is not well liked. The press has been after him, has been on his case from Day one of his presidency, and I think if you see an international crisis, one could imagine a call for his resignation, rather than sustaining him in office. He's so disliked at this point. I think also Woodrow Wilson - there's an interesting parallel there. Wilson was in some ways a crippled president when he went to Versailles in December of 1918, because he had called on the country to vote in a Democratic Congress. They had repudiated his political appeal, and he was terribly weakened, and the last two years of his presidency were a terrible trial by fire. Large issues were at stake. Wilson had been very popular, and he could not work his will in foreign affairs.
JIM LEHRER: Well, as they say in journalism, time will tell. Doris, gentlemen, thank you very much.