Woodruff: Clinton Talks Jobs, Election Year Politics

BY Judy Woodruff  December 2, 2011 at 5:59 PM EST

Former President Bill Clinton is incapable of giving a dull interview. So when his latest book came out, a 196-page “short” look, in his words, at why government needs to be involved to get the economy moving again, I didn’t have to think twice about whether it was worth talking to him about it.

He showed up professing to be exhausted from a jam-packed day of travel: two stops in Florida on his way to several more stops in Washington, the kind of schedule that would wipe the rest of us out. But at 65 years old, he exhibited every bit of the same energy and curiosity we remember from his presidency. Clinton said he’d written the book not because President Obama hasn’t been able to explain the need for a smart role for government in the economy, but because “the partisan political climate in Washington was such that the only people listening to either side were people that already agreed with them.”

Still, the implication is that the former president is frustrated that Democrats haven’t been able to counter the overwhelming Republican and Tea Party message that government is bad and there needs to be less of it. He ticked off examples of the many ways he says the public and private sectors can work together to help create jobs, and thus prosperity. It helped his cause that the argument came on a day when it was announced that the U.S. unemployment picture is improving, and Clinton predicted President Obama will be re-elected because the rate “will continue to drop some.”

What was even more fascinating was Clinton’s assessment of the current state of the GOP presidential race. He said he had predicted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would rise again to be a factor, and said he wouldn’t be surprised if he and Romney are the frontrunners in January. Recently he’s praised Gingrich for having ideas; on Friday he said how the GOP nomination turns out will depend on how Gingrich “conducts himself from now until – through the process, and how Romney responds to the challenge.”

He then proceeded to use his long association with Gingrich to forecast the type president he might be. “It depends upon the turn his life has taken since he left public life. That is, I always liked working with him. And he had a real good feel for foreign policy when I was president … he genuinely wanted to do what was best for America … even though I thought a lot of his domestic ideas were wrong and bad for the country.”

After hearing Clinton say his wife, Hillary Clinton, enjoyed working with Gingrich, I asked him about the fact that it was Gingrich who led House Republicans in their successful 1998 effort to impeach President Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, even as it was later discovered that at the same time, Gingrich was carrying on an extramarital affair with a Congressional staffer.

The former president declined to answer my question about whether this amounted to hypocrisy on Gingrich’s part, saying only that it’s “up to the Republicans to decide.” But in a classic Clinton gesture, he then told the story of a conversation Gingrich had with Clinton’s then-White House Chief of staff, after Democrats won the majority in the 1998 mid-term elections, in which Gingrich acknowledged being hypocritical about the way Republicans had played politics with the impeachment issue. The message, he said, was that “you can play politics as speaker of the House if you want” — but not as president.

By the end of our interview, President Clinton had both praised Gingrich anew, and raised questions about his character. Not every politician is so deft. And this one has been out of office 11 years.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.