August 14, 1998
How does a crisis like the Monica Lewinsky scandal impact a president's ability to govern? Two former White House chiefs of staff discuss crisis managment with Phil Ponce.
PHIL PONCE: The Monica Lewinsky story first broke into the national consciousness eight months ago. Since then, it's been eight months of testimony, legal challenges, leaks, political spin, and intense media coverage. The dramatic high point comes Monday, when President Clinton testifies before a federal grand jury in a special video transmission from the White House. At his regular briefing today, White House Spokesman Mike McCurry was asked if the Lewinsky investigation was distracting the President.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
MICHAEL McCURRY, White House Spokesman: The President today had a 40-minute phone call with President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation. President Clinton called President Yeltsin to review preparations for the upcoming summit that President Clinton will have with President Yeltsin in Moscow. Obviously, the two also discussed Russia's financial situation and steps the Russian government is taking to meet its obligations under the current program, jointly developed with the International Monetary Fund. Both Presidents agreed to continue to work together to find ways to improve Russia's economic situation and restore market confidence. I know they also talked about the situation in Kosovo and international efforts to broker an end to the conflict there.
REPORTER: Is it clear, Mike, that he's standing by the Paula Jones deposition, or is that unclear?
MICHAEL McCURRY: It's very clear that I'm not going to entertain questions about what the President is going to testify to, because I don't know.
REPORTER: Is there any—
MICHAEL McCURRY: Let's move on to arrangements. Thank you, Helen. First of all, as you know, the White House Communications Agency is going to handle the communications-related aspects of the President's testimony, including videotaping and providing a one-way live feed to a courtroom at the U.S. Courthouse. The deposition will be conducted in the Map Room in the Residence. In addition to the President and officials from the Office of Independent Counsel, the President's personal and official attorneys will also be present during the President's testimony. That includes Mr. Kendall, Ms. Seligman, and Mr. Ruff on behalf of the White House Legal Counsel's Office.
REPORTER: What can you tell us about the preparations that the President will undertake this weekend for this --
MICHAEL McCURRY: I know that Mr. Kendall has been somewhat concerned that he has not had the time that he had expected to have on the schedule because of events in East Africa, because of some of the things we've been talking about earlier with respect to Russia. I think he's hoping to have more time and some considerable block of time over the weekend with the President. But he's a little bit concerned he hasn't had quite the time to prepare that he had wanted.
REPORTER: Is there a block of time set aside for this?
MICHAEL McCURRY: Presumably yes, but I don't think it's been set at a certain time. I think they were going to check in with the President. The President, by the way, is meeting with his foreign policy team, as I had mentioned to you earlier, right now with respect to matters in Africa. And he will be doing some other business work.
REPORTER: Will Kendall ask for a continuance because of what happened in East Africa because the President has been busy?
MICHAEL McCURRY: He has no plans to that I'm aware of.
REPORTER: Mike, what is the President's mood going into this? Is he tired, is he apprehensive, angry?
MICHAEL McCURRY: No, he's very buoyant. And I know that he's very engaged in all of the subjects we've been discussing earlier that he had been working on today and has been less engaged with the subject of his coming testimony.
PHIL PONCE: Now, two perspectives on governing under pressure from two former White House chiefs of staff with expensive Washington experience: Howard Baker, the former Tennessee Senator and Majority Leader, was in the Reagan White House, and Leon Panetta, a California Congressman for 18 years, served in the first Clinton term. Gentlemen, welcome.
Senator Baker, when you took over as chief of staff under President Reagan, President Reagan was in the midst of Iran-Contra. What is it like to try to govern under that kind of pressure?
HOWARD BAKER, Former Reagan White House Chief of Staff: Well, it's a difficult situation at best, and in my own particular case when I came to the White House, I found that things had sort of ground to a halt. And our principle responsibility early on was to give the White House focus and to assure the president that he had a program to go forward with. And we did that. I've got to say, by the way, that I have nothing but the highest admiration for President Clinton's staff and for him in conducting himself apparently very effectively and efficiently in the course of what must be absolutely extraordinary pressures. And none of us know how seriously this has engaged his attention to the exclusion of other things, but the appearance is that he's done it very well. And I have nothing but the highest regard for that.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Panetta, can one go by those appearances? How much of a distraction is this?
LEON PANETTA, Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff: Well, there's no question that it has an impact on the operations at the White House and certainly the morale of the staff, and it impacts on the president in the sense that it's playing out there and affecting his own guts, if nothing else, by seeing the day-to-day tension on this other issue. This president is very good at compartmentalizing, however, and so he has focused on the business of the nation. He focuses on the agenda that he wants to accomplish as president, and the staff is forced to pay attention to that agenda, so that it isn't diverted by the day-to-day press attention on the scandal. But make no mistake about it, the scandal does impact on the way the White House operates. It can't help but affect day-to-day operations.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Panetta, some of those day-to-day operations, as Mike McCurry was talking today, involve dealing with a bunch of other issues, Russia, the Africa bombings, so you're saying that those kinds of issues do not necessarily get consumed by a story—by the pressures inherent in the Monica Lewinsky investigation?
LEON PANETTA: Well, I think first and foremost that the president, himself, in order to deal with this issue wants to deal with the issues that are there as president. So whether it's Russia or whether it's Iraq, or whether it's Kosovo, or whether it's the Asian economy, whether it's domestic issues, he would rather focus on those issues, because he feels that's his responsibility as president, and it's also good therapy, frankly, for the President of the United States to be dealing with those issues, while all of this other stuff is going on, that he's got to deal with at some point during the day. So it is good for the country, but more importantly, it's good therapy fmr the president.
PHIL PONCE: Sen. Baker, whether it's therapy or just good administration to attempt to focus on these things, did you find that it was hard for President Reagan to focus on some of the other issues that he had to deal with as Iran-Contra was unfolding?
HOWARD BAKER: Actually not. I think President Reagan was very, very focused on the issues at hand, and it's an interesting thing about Ronald Reagan. He worked very well with a schedule, and once he had an agenda, once he had a schedule, he stuck to it and brought very few distractions. Back on the question, though, of what effect these things have on the president, the thing I looked for with President Reagan, and did not find by the way, was some dilution of the quality of judgments that the president might make, and that worries me in this case. I think pretty clearly President Clinton has managed to compartmentalize these matters and to focus on other aspects of the presidency. But I can't help but wonder if part of his mind isn't always focused on this dreadful set of affairs that he's confronted with, and does that have some effect on the quality of the judgments he makes? None of us know that. Perhaps historians can count on that in the future. But he's facing something that's almost unprecedented in the White House, and that I guess it is unprecedented, that is, the president appearing before a grand jury with the potential for all sorts of dire consequences. There's bound to be a part of his personality and part of his brain that is focusing on that even though he can go on and deal with other matters, as he's doing so very well.
PHIL PONCE: How about that, Mr. Panetta, is that always in the back of the president's mind, and might it affect his judgment?
LEON PANETTA: Well, there's no question that it's there and it continues to be something that he's going to give some thought to. You just—you know, he is a human being. He has his strengths and his weaknesses, and clearly he's going to be thinking about this whole issue and its impact on his legacy and his presidency. But you also have to put this in context. The president is somebody as far back as his governorship in Arkansas that was besieged by these kinds of issues and investigations and scandals and yet he has been able throughout all of that to continue to move forward, to not let these things bother him, and the result is that he's still as president, has done the job of the presidency and the public obviously feels that he's doing a good job as president. So almost to the extent that it has been something he has continued to have to deal with throughout his political career, I think that has also helped him to continue to have his focus on the job.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Panetta, how do you respond to Sen. Baker's observation that this particular case, though, might be unprecedented in terms of the pressure, in terms of the scope, in terms of the intensity?
LEON PANETTA: Oh, I think Howard is right in that sense, that it is—it is clearly an issue that I'm sure the president is concerned about in the sense that it could very well impact on his legacy as president, and that because he feels he has a good record as president in terms of what he's done for the economy and the budget and for families in this country, I think he's—he clearly is going to worry that this kind of issue has to be put aside so that he can continue to be president and continue to govern the country. So there's no question that a President of the United States testifying before a grand jury on this kind of issue is something that he's going to worry about.
PHIL PONCE: Sen. Baker, when something like this is going on, what is it like for the staff, as far as morale, as far the staff being able to focus on the country's business?
HOWARD BAKER: Well, that's a very good question. And, you know, actually, in my experience, there was more trouble. I had more difficulty convincing the presidential staff, the west wing staff, that the president was well focused and was making fundamental decisions that his administration required than I did convincing the president that he ought to do that. Ronald Reagan was tightly focused. He did understand the issues, and he was able to make command decisions very easily. His staff was another thing. They were sometimes running off in all directions. But sooner or later that settled down, and the example that President Reagan exhibited of calm and determination fed over to the staff, and I think it wasn't very long before the staff and the president were of one mind and going forward with a clear cut agenda.
PHIL PONCE: Sen. Baker, what is your feeling on when a president should take his case to the public?
HOWARD BAKER: Well, I honestly don't think President Clinton has any choice, any realistic choice. It may not be good politics, it may be dangerous legally, but I think he owes an obligation to the American people to disclose what the facts are, and, frankly, I think he should have done it a long time ago. I think he's been damaged by not doing it up to this point to the place where he now must appear for the first time of any sitting president before a grand jury. But it seems clear to me that after he testifies, that he must disclose the substance of his testimony and the facts surrounding that testimony to the American people. Otherwise, it will simply heighten their concern and their curiosity about what's happening. Now, that may be a very bitter pill for the president to swallow. But I think if he doesn't appear before the country and explain what happened, I think he's gone.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Panetta, would he be gone if he didn't?
LEON PANETTA: Well, I don't know that he would be gone, but I certainly think that it would be in his interest as President of the United States to share with the American public what he testified to in this case. There's been—we have been through seven months. I wish the president had dealt with this earlier, but the reality is we're here now, and the president is going to be testifying before the grand jury. There's going to be huge speculation about what that testimony is going to be all about. It's already started. And the president cannot, after he's testified, simply say good-bye and go on vacation and not tell the American people what was involved in this testimony, because the result will be that you'll have leaks, you'll have spins, you'll have a special prosecutor putting out their version, the White House putting out their version. I think the president has to say to the American people this is what I testified to, so that he can repair the relationship between the president and the people on this difficult issue.
PHIL PONCE: And Mr. Panetta, how much detail do you think the president should give?
LEON PANETTA: I don't think he has to go into a lot of detail. I think he can say generally what he testified to. I think the public understands. The public is already tired of this issue, because many think that it's just a private matter, but I also think that the president can do this very effectively. He is a pro when it comes to recognizing what needs to be done at the moment in terms of what needs to be said to the American people. And I really think this is an opportunity for the president not only to tell the public what he testifies to but to help put this whole issue behind us, so that he can operate as president and we can get back to the issues that are facing American families in this country.
PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Mr. Panetta, Senator Baker, thank you both.