Documents reveal inner workings of Clinton’s White House

BY Hari Sreenivasan  March 2, 2014 at 6:52 PM EST

The online world has been buzzing about thousands of pages of documents from the Clinton administration that were released by the Clinton Presidential Library on Friday.

Much of the conversation has focused on insight the documents provide about then-first lady Hillary Clinton, who many think will seek a bid for president in 2016.

I spoke with Josh Gerstein who has been covering the story for Politico about some of the most interesting details to come from the trove of documents, from universal healthcare to an amateur White House cartoonist.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Welcome to a Lunchtime Hangout at the PBS Newshour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan and I’m joined by Josh from Politico. Josh Gerstein or Gerstein?

JOSH GERSTEIN: Gerstein

HARI SREENIVASAN: And he’s been covering the story. It’s been hashtagged #ClintonDocs all over Twitter and the internet. This is of course the story about a huge trove of documents released by the Clinton Presidential Library. And Josh, how many documents are we talking about?

JOSH GERSTEIN: Well the batch that were talking about is about 33,000 pages in all. They’re documents that have been withheld over the last dozen years when the library was processing records in response to various requests and even some nominations of Supreme Court nominees and so forth. They set aside these records that have confidential advice to the president or among his advisers or something related to appointments. And now in batches the library is going to release at least some of them. We don’t have a firm commitment that all 33,000 pages will come out, but we got the first batch of 4,000 and we’re expecting sort of similar batches over the next few weeks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So of those 4,000 pages, the headlines have primarily been focused on Hillary Clinton who many people think might run for president and it really seems that all of the conversations that she had as first lady are now in the public sphere.

JOSH GERSTEIN: A lot of them certainly are, the ones that were reduced to paper. You’ve gotta remember we were living here sort of at the cusp of the internet age. So in the early years of the Clinton Administration there’s still a lot of paper a lot of actual typewritten memos being circulated back and forth. As you come up into the late ‘90s and the early 2000 periods you start to get more email back and forth. But you’re right a lot of the traffic here that we’re seeing is about the first lady. Both about her healthcare efforts in the early couple years of the Clinton Administration, I should say Clinton White House, and then the last couple years as she was gearing up to run for the senate from New York — her getting sort of advice on how to polish her public persona as what is really her being a first time political candidate on her own.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And she seemed to be somewhat prescient on some of the pitfalls of universal health care, back when it was called that, and really almost even what the Obama Administration has had to go through in terms of positioning it in mid-term elections.

JOSH GERSTEIN: Yeah I mean between the first lady and the Clinton White House staff they pinpointed a couple really big problems that the Obama healthcare law has encountered. Now we shouldn’t say that they cured these problems because in many cases they pointed them out and said they were necessary. One being the individual mandate. Very early on, Hillary Clinton in a closed door meeting with people on Capitol Hill said it would be very politically tough to push through a mandate that every person in the country buy, or require in someway, health insurance. That became the Republican alternative to the Clinton healthcare plan back in the ‘90s and in a strange turn of fate became the Obama healthcare plan in 2009. People may also remember that during the 2008 campaign Hillary Clinton pushed the individual mandate as the sort of next obvious solution here on healthcare and then-Senator Barack Obama opposed the individual mandate, picking up the idea eventually when it was time to push legislation through the hill. So they really pointed out that particular mistake. And then another top adviser in the White House, there’s an internal email sent back and forth from a fella named Todd Stern saying ‘Can we really say everyone can keep their doctor and their health care plan? That might be a promise we can’t follow through on.’ And that’s precisely one of the pitfalls that President Obama ran into just these last few months as people got these cancellation notices.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So is there concern, perhaps maybe it’s in the Hillary camp maybe its among Democrats, that these troves of document now 12, 15 years later could possibly jeopardize or could possibly re-litigate the entire Clinton presidency as Hillary Clinton maybe makes a run for it?

JOSH GERSTEIN: I mean I think that’s a concern. I don’t know too many people who are worried that there’s some huge smoking gun here that would destroy her public political life or persona or that she would have to scramble to respond too. But there’s enough grist for the mill on all these issues, be they healthcare, we’re expecting some future waves of documents to see things about White Water and the Independent Counsel investigations. Maybe even things about Mrs. Clinton’s response to the Monica Lewinsky affair and then the way the investigation surrounded that and impeachment. And every time there’s we information that comes out these issues get injected back into the public discussion and even if the specifics aren’t damaging to Mrs. Clinton they’re probably not the subjects that she would want to discuss at length in advance of a 2016 presidential bid. she’s trying to focus on the issues on her service as Secretary of State on the things she’s most concerned about right now and I don’t know if this walk down memory lane is really something she’d like to see.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, so when you poured through as many documents as you poured through, anything that you were surprised by?

JOSH GERSTEIN: Well you know, it’s always interesting to look back, as I mentioned earlier, at what a different time this was. You know there’s a lot of awkward discussion from one aid about how we might use internet to advance the first lady’s senate bid or some other things she wanted to do. People were really feeling their way through on this. It was clear that many people in the White House found the whole thing kind of foreign. You see Bill Clinton making jokes about the only chips he knew about growing up were potato chips or something along those lines. You know it’s interesting, it makes you think about just how long ago the ‘90s were. Maybe chronologically not that long ago, but in terms of technology they seem like forever. I don’t know if that has any political importance, if it makes the Clintons seem older, a generation or two older, than they might actually be, but it certainly what struck me as I went through the documents.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Okay and finally I saw NPR had a little collection of them, but there was at least one aid that had a gift for doodles, a former cartoonist.

JOSH GERSTEIN: Yeah that’s right, Jeff Shesol who was one of the president’s top speechwriters, President Clinton’s top speechwriters, before he started out as a speechwriter was actually a cartoonist, a pretty good cartoonist. I believe he was in one of the Ivy League newspapers had a cartoon called “The adventures of PC, Politically Correct Man” and in addition to having the talent to put together the cartoons as the wording and the political aspect of them, he’s pretty good with a pen and apparently got bored in a number of White House meetings and put together some pretty, pretty good doodles. If they look professional it’s because they basically are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright so doodles happen at the White House just like they do everywhere else. Alright Josh Gerstein from Politico. Thanks so much for your time.

JOSH GERSTEIN: Anytime Hari, take care.

Related: Clinton Library to release 5,000 pages of confidential records