In the past year, the production team of "Clinton" interviewed over 60 politicians, journalists, and influential players of the Clinton years. In a Facebook poll asking whose interview they wanted to see on the website, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE fans voted for James Carville, a campaign strategist who helped to elect Bill Clinton to the presidency. Today, Carville is a Democratic consultant and political contributor to many media outlets.
Producer: Let's start with Clinton. How unlikely it is that as he goes into his campaign in '91 -- guy from the South, small state -- is gonna make it to the presidency?
James Carville: You know, the biggest thing was Mario Cuomo and whether he would run and it was -- everybody was obsessed with the question, frankly, including us. And when he decided not to, I think that was in December of '91, you could kind of clearly see the path here. It was really going to be in a large part, and we really had to do a lot of work in the southern primaries, and we did, early on, and that ended up being the difference. Now we didn't know some of the more colorful events of the winter of 1992 were gonna transpire at the time -- made it a little more problematic I guess.
Producer: Wasn't the assumption he just had to get to the South because the South was in the bag? I mean he was a darling of the region.
Carville: Well look, also you had to get the African American vote in the South and it was kind of also, people tend to forget, it was very helpful for us when Doug Wilder, who could have potentially, don't know if he would have, was sort of potential there.
Producer: So the African American vote was a big deal.
Carville: Yes, huge. And I say yes, in particular in the southern primaries after New Hampshire.... We had done as much early work as possible there, and I think as I recall we swept them all.
Producer: When did you first realize that you had -- that he was something special on the trail?
Carville: Boy, it didn't take very long. ...It was just so clear that he was an exceptionally talented politician from the kind of get go -- not being any disrespect to the other people that were running. It just-- he was on another level. I mean, it wasn't like him or somebody else. It was him, and it seems so clear now; it actually seemed pretty clear at the time.
Producer: Can you give me an example?
Carville: He was doing this sort of series of Georgetown speeches -- his ability to adapt, his ability to walk into a room, his speaking ability, his ability to size up an issue, to understand. I've never seen a candidate -- I've never seen a human being -- who, with the most limited briefing, can understand the dimensions, the parameters, the nuances of everything of any kind of a policy or political problem. I think it sort of, in some ways kind of ruined me for a while as a political consultant because I just kind of assumed, you know-- it must be like you're some math teacher and you have a whiz in your class, and you just assume that everybody else can calculate at that speed, and they can't. I mean, you know, he could see six sides to the Pentagon -- just cause he had a, still does -- I mean, people come back and they're always just marveled at his range. I mean they may be someone that knows more about a specific topic than he does, but there's nobody that knows more about more topics than he does.
Producer: You go into New Hampshire with high hopes then?
Carville: [Paul] Tsongas was their next-door neighbor, but you know we didn't think Tsongas was gonna be able to beat us. Were it not for, like I say, the events of the winter of 1992, he probably wouldn't.
Producer: When did you first hear about it? I mean, Gennifer Flowers is the first one, how did you first hear about that?
Carville: We got a call, I'm not sure -- it wasn't John King that called -- somebody called New Hampshire, the Holiday Inn, and we had to sort of track people down and, you know, to have that press conference which was utterly hilarious. You know, stuttering John, it seemed so odd at the time, and a lot of this stuff I'd have to look in my book -- I mean the book at the right time line.
Producer: You hear about it, did you think it was a threat? Did you think it would be a big deal?
Carville: Well, soon as I saw the reaction to it I thought it was gonna be like a pretty big deal, and then we started doing focus groups that night and people just didn't care that much. ...You know cable television back then -- that's CNN, you know, but that was about it.... It was a big kind of a reaction and everything, and I was kind of gratified and surprised. It didn't bite very hard with the public.
Producer: I want to talk about 60 Minutes. Were you in favor of him doing that?
Producer: What was your thinking?
Carville: Gotta get out in front of it.... [I] was in favor of actually saying, "If we're gonna do it, we're gonna do it on 60 Minutes." It was the kind of place to go, and you just knew we were going to have these questions about the marriage and the whole thing and, you know, let's get it out there now.
Producer: When you look at it now, it becomes more about her than about him really.
Carville: The public wanted-- once they heard from her it was a little-- I mean the truth of the matter is that I think we recognized at the time it was a, you know-- it was a lot about, "I'm not some Tammy Wynette 'Stand by Your Man'" thing or something....
Producer: Help us understand their relationship, it seems that he gets into trouble and she's like the rock.
Carville: You know, you'd have to get somebody else to discuss other people's marriage. I don't do that other than to say that they have a very close relationship politically, personally, at every kind of level. And, I mean, when she ran for President, I've never seen anybody support anybody with more fervor than he did and, when he ran she was obviously kind of right there. I mean they, they have a real kind of partnership in every sense of the way.
Producer: So then you're holding up through Gennifer?
Carville: Pretty good, yeah. And then the Friday story in the Wall Street Journal appears about the ROTC and Colonel Holmes and it kind of changed the story, and became a normal story, and the polling numbers just started collapsing. And I don't, you know, my sense is that people just, it looked like a one thing after another, you know. It's a Henry Ford's definition of history. It's just one thing after another, actually one blanking thing after another.
As I recall the story had landed on a Friday, and we had to go back to Arkansas, and we were out for like three days. I really think it was somebody wasn't feeling good, maybe Chelsea had something, I forgot why we went back but I was never for-- by that time I had come to believe, and probably correctly, that if you are out of a story for a day or two it was kind of-- the situation was that fluid in New Hampshire.
Producer: What did you think when you first saw the letter? I think you're the first, aren't you, in the hangar?
Carville: What I did was, [I] said, "We're going to publish it." When the actual letter came out I said, "Well look, let's just buy an ad in the Manchester Paper and let people read it." It was a very eloquent letter. I mean, someone said, "Gee, guy's like 21 years old and can write with this kind of clarity." And, again, I'm a big believer, if you look like you're hiding something people think you have something to hide. If you put it out front and then people say, "Well, duh, you can read it in the paper." And that kind of took some of the steam out of it, and people didn't exactly know how to deal with this because they were saying it was this big devastating thing; at the same token we're taking an ad out at the same time. And I think that it worked pretty well in that sense.
Producer: But people around, some of the journalists for all they know are saying it's a death watch, I mean around you--
Carville: A gut-shot Confederate soldier leaning up against a tree waiting to die and... look, for but four days in there I wasn't too sure myself. The press was just a lot more aggressive then, and were just a lot more of them. You know, I look at the people that covered us, gee, I mean they were just like -- we were in Boston during the Gennifer Flowers brouhaha and I'll never forget. I felt like somebody must feel like in a soccer game. I was pinned... and I was just shoved along the crowd and people screaming, radio people and TV people and it's-- I guess because of the nature of the way the press works now, and the fact that the financial side of the business now... you don't have that kind of just crazed stuff that we had in '92. I mean -- it was wild.
Producer: And then "the last dog dies," were you there?
Carville: Oh man, when he came back to New Hampshire and we had suffered significant losses in our polling and -- I've never seen anybody perform like he did the last six, seven days at campaign. I mean he just campaigned like I've never seen, and with skill, with passion. That event in Keene, New Hampshire-- and this is another thing we did that I think was really good, is that we put him in that Town Hall Forum. And he would say, "They want this election to be about me. I want it to be about you." I mean you could see people....
I'd actually thought we were going to do a little worse in New Hampshire, and then we said, you know, "the Comeback Kid," and we kind of declared victory. It worked pretty good.
Producer: There's this story, I don't know if it's you, saying "You're just one step ahead of the sheriff." Was that you?
Carville: It might have been. I mean it's something I could have said but it's something that other people could have said too.
Producer: How do you get through New Hampshire?
Carville: I don't know.
Producer: What is it about--
Carville: The thing that strikes me about the whole thing, New Hampshire and the aftermath -- cause it kept going on for a while -- it's intense, and the fatigue, and it was, man, it was cold. The people that came up to New Hampshire from Arkansas decided they were gonna have a pig roast -- I'll never get this. And of course I do the one thing that you'd never do in that climate in January, is, I wore sneakers, and my feet were just numb it was so cold and it was actually so cold that they couldn't roast a pig. The fire couldn't thaw the pig, that was how cold it was.
And, you know, we would go from 5:30 in the morning, and we'd come back to the hotel and we're all staying in, like, a Day's Inn. It was definitely not a luxury place and everybody had towels on their door, you just wouldn't close the door because you were meeting all night. You were dealing with this. You were, you know, going over radio scripts, even you came in off the road.
And we would fly back and forth, and Harry Thomason had a small, like a Lear Jet, it wasn't a Lear Jet, I can't remember what kind of plane it was. But it would be like eight, nine people cramped in there. I mean this is not the kind of luxurious flying that you think of Air Force One or something like that. And after that we were, I was in Baton, New Orleans, and Mrs. Boggs had a fundraiser and that was the morning when I had the red sweater or something, the famous interview on the Today Show where I went, and I was so tired I literally could barely get out of bed to go to it.... I just can remember God-awful gut wrenching fatigue all the time.
Producer: You come out the primaries and it's kind of a big sense of relief, but then you emerge on a national stage and you're -- well back.
Carville: Well, there was some talk, there was speculation -- Johnny Apple [R.W. Apple, Jr.] had a story, somebody did, that we could actually do so poorly that we wouldn't qualify for the federal funds the next election, and then Perot was starting to take off. And we went to New York still kind of uncertain. We sort of, after the convention -- I've never seen anybody get helped as much by a convention as we got helped.
What happened was in May, then Governor Clinton and Mrs. Clinton, and said "Look, we can't lose the nomination, but I don't know how we can win the general." And Stan Greenberg and I said, "Why don't I take a leave, if you will, from the primary campaign, the nominating campaign, and go with" (we called it) "the Manhattan Project." And we did extensive set of research, and what we found out is that the bio was part of the message. That they saw this guy, he looked like he was really smart, it was a lot of… stuff, you know? Friction, I guess the generals would call it, or something. Once they found out, you know, the Man from Hope, you know, how he came up and was raised by his mother, and I think the Gore thing had something to do with that. But once people got more comfortable knowing about him personally, they wanted to know about him personally, and, you know, I've always been a believer that issues win elections and where you stand. This was one instance where they didn't have a problem with him on the issues, they just wanted to know who was this guy, by the way.
Producer: Tell me about the War Room, what was that? Whose idea was it?
Carville: The campaign was kind of dysfunctional in terms of how decisions are made. One of the things you have to do with anybody is, you can't present a problem, you have to present a solution. "This is how we think we can do this. This is how we can function."
And my diagnosis of the problem was that it was the beginning of what I call compressed news cycles. It seems absurd to say because it's so-- now it's, you know, you watch it and something happens. It used to be in presidential campaigns, you'd have something, it might be on the evening news if you had it early enough in the day and somebody would write a column on it the next morning. It kind of governed the take. Then, you know, I said, we have to react to things, and this was sort of as a result of observing what happened in New Hampshire, what happened in the New York primary, what happened in a lot of other different places.
It became apparent that we were clumsy, you know, so what the War Room really was, was a way to have a command structure that was able to act and react very, very quickly. We used to have a pouch with all the newspapers, okay? This was before the internet, you know, and the cell phones, I mean you look at some of these, if you look at the War Room, some of those cell phones that George [Stephanopoulos] was talking on were bigger than George. But that's what it is, and campaigns didn't really do it that much prior to '92.
Now it's all instant. I mean, I wouldn't even recognize how instant everything is. I remember in Bush's acceptance speech we got an advanced copy. We had answered the speech before he started speaking. You know, had it all broken down and we were very sort of proud of that. Now it's kind of done all the time.
Producer: Back to the convention, how important was the Gore pick?
Carville: I think it was really important. I think that the day they picked -- and it was a nice day, and they walked out on the lawn in Arkansas, and it was, you know, the Clintons and the Gores and it kind of sent a signal of, kind of, youth and change. People were looking for something different, and you just kind of knew when the visual came it represented something different. He was from Tennessee and Arkansas -- it didn't look political. It actually kind of looked good that it didn't make sense politically, you know. I think it was really important. Because, again, we were at a point where the country kind of wanted to make a change. We knew that. And Governor Clinton had kind of successfully convinced people that he wasn't like a '70s kind of liberal, but that the sort of doubts were, "Who is this guy?" And we're able to do that, and I think the Gore pick kind of solidified that too. I think it was very important.
Producer: Do you remember election night, where were you?
Carville: I was in Little Rock, oh yeah.
Producer: So tell me about what you remember.
Carville: Well, actually a lot.
Producer: Were you on the fly around?
Carville: No, no, no. One time I left the campaign in maybe it was September. The guys in Boston, people kept wanting me to go to fundraise and stuff. I finally just said, "I'll go but I want to go to Fenway Park." Soon-to-be 48 years old and a big baseball fan, never been to Fenway Park, and they said, "Oh please, believe me, we'll take care of that." So then they actually took me out on the field -- and then debates I would leave.
But we worked very hard. That was kind of silly stuff not of interest to many people. But generally in a campaign there becomes a sort of natural friction between the road and the headquarters. Now, you know, just sort of not enough that we got to fight the opposition, we've got to fight each other. We worked real hard to keep the good, you know, back and forth with those guys. So, no, I stayed at the headquarters. I was a man of ultimate routine. Got up at the same time every morning, did the same thing. I didn't want to jinx anything.
Producer: Relief? Exhilaration? Just, "I cannot believe this"?
Carville: You know, yeah.
Producer: What did you say to him, when you spoke to him?
Carville: Wow. It was so gracious, it was… it's just like, it's hard to think that you're a political consultant -- not many people are going to get a crack at a thing like this. And to be there, and it was kind of a nice night, it was kind of cool, you know, it was a good Arkansas night, if you will, and it was something. It's a hard thing to explain.
I was older when I started, and I lost the first couple campaigns. I was always kind of embarrassed to go home and, you know, my life was kind of touch and go when I was in my early 40s in terms of what I do. And it was 10 years later that I was like on top of the political world, and the relief that I think that I felt was just more than anything else. I'd done that. It's just that's what I really felt, was a kind of sense of sort of relief. You know, everybody you worked with, people on that campaign, you know, there are five, six people I still talk to every day. I mean the relationships that were forged there were just unbelievable.
And then I think it was the day after, they called and said that Clinton wanted to have lunch with me at the Governor's Mansion. Wow. He thanked me, couldn't have been nicer, you know. That's when I walked out and said, "You know, they didn't give me Secretary of State, so I'm back." Kind of old Groucho Marx on him. I wouldn't live in a country whose government would hire me.
Producer: How big was the Town Hall Debate, the one where--
Carville: Oh, in Richmond? You know, I think by that time the die was cast. There's a point in a general election -- the same thing happened in 2008 -- there's just a point that the country's gonna make a change. If I look back on it, the race had tightened. It got a little scary there for a second, but the country just was gonna make a change. And that's when President Bush kind of looked at his watch, you know. I'll put it this way: it was unhelpful for him, but they needed to do something, and if anything, they lost a little ground in that Richmond debate. But by that time, I think that things were moving. I was the most surprised in the election at how well Perot did. But I think to be fair to President Bush, that didn't cost him the election.
Producer: Let's move forward to Starr. Tell me how you're feeling when you see this investigation gather pace.
Carville: Well I sent a letter (it's in one of my books) in September of '94, saying that I thought this whole thing is a horrific injustice. I'd sent it, and I'd given it to Ann Deverill, and I called back and there's something I forgot, and somebody threatened to resign and it was with, you know, the White House, the counsel's office, it was [unintelligable] with Starr, and I thought, you know-- so I had to pull it back. I said, "This guy's bad news." But, man, who was it… Lloyd Cutler, I think it was. All these guys, they know each other and he was an Appellate Court Judge, and I knew this thing wasn't gonna have a good result from the get go.
So I just knew this going to have a tumultuous ending. I didn't know how it was going to end, but I knew it was going to be tumultuous. And then this thing is going through -- they can't find anything, they terrorize people, and, like, there's all-- this whole thing with Susan McDougal was just criminal or something. And then when the Lewinsky thing broke I just said, "Oh my God, they're not really gonna try this are they?" And they did, and I went berserk.
Producer: What did you do?
Carville: I went on television. I was in San Francisco, and I was on Meet the Press. It was early in the morning. I said a state of war exists between the friends of the President and the office of Independent Counsel. You know, now it's more pretentious, we don't have to act like these guys are legit and on the up and up. They were out to get the President, and I knew that from the beginning. It was a horrific misuse of federal prosecutorial power, a horrific failure of judgment [more] than anything else. And it was politically motivated people who didn't like the result of the election and were trying to change it. And it was, frankly, a press corps that couldn't see what was going on in its own midst. And, I mean, they tried to run that man from office, and, I mean, if you look back on it, the whole thing is sort of comical in some ways, but at the time it didn't feel that way.
Producer: What was it about Bill Clinton that drove his rivals, his opponents, to distraction? It seemed like this anger, this bitterness, this partisanship....
Carville: It's kind of funny. Now he's thought of, "Oh it's Bill Clinton." I mean, it's like "You gotta be kidding me," and they kind of retell the story, and everybody wants it just to go away. And the proof -- I'll never forget it -- I, still to this day, I have no intention of ever forgetting what happened. And I've never forgot any prosecutor, journalist, anything. And the conduct of some of these people was just beyond belief. This woman, they caught this woman in a bald-faced lie in front of the Senate Committee from -- Jean, I don't know, Lewis -- something like that, from Kansas City. And she just feigned that something was wrong, and they let her go and the press wouldn't do-- they, some of these people were just unbelievable. But that's what you had to deal with. That's what you had to deal with.
Producer: What was it about the press? I mean he was a darling early on, I mean before he gets to the White House.
Carville: You know, I think that they thought that there was something, they thought that -- remember Bob Woodward -- usually it's something that drives people crazy. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein break this mega-story… become, injustifiably [sic], like really-- you know particularly-- Bob, stayed and wrote, still to this day, I mean he has the longest lasting career. But must have drove them all crazy. And so they all thought that they were in on an act of consensual sex, that was the extent of what they were in on. Okay, they wasn't in on some giant scandal, they were in on something that happens in life, you know, every day. But they are all gonna be and they were gonna win Pulitzer Prizes and they were going to be famous and they were going to have TV shows and they were gonna make speaking fees, and that's what it was all about. That's what it was about.
And everything like that, the Whitewater, was, you're talking about something about nothing. And I remember I said, too, "What are you all gonna do when all this amounts to nothing?" And they said, "We'll just move on to something else." They're like Rumsfeld. They don't sit back and said, "God, can you believe that we got taken in and got snookered and diverted the country for all this time?" No.
But what happened was, it was Bob Woodward caused the whole thing because every one of them thought that this was going to be the story that was going to propel them to something. You can look this up: if there was a reporter in the White House Press Corps that didn't hew the press line, they ran them out, they were in the tank, they had to move them out, they couldn't stay there. I think it was Eleanor Cliff -- they'd have to double-check the facts on this -- but if you were a dissenting reporter, if you said, "Look, I don't think there's much here," you weren't a member of the team anymore. They, I mean it was a very, very, very orthodox same-thinking. And it was just unbelievable. It's unbelievable. And you know and it's everybody's interest to act like this didn't happen. You know, that's hilarious.
Producer: It was years and years.
Carville: Oh, was it, was it. And you know, those things could have been investigated, cleaned up, done, in three months. But then no one wanted to go away, everybody wanted to make money. Everybody wanted to be famous. They didn't care what happened to the country.
Producer: Did you think it would go all the way to impeachment?
Carville: You know, I knew they were going to push it as far as they possibly could. I mean, once it became apparent that there was no crime involved here, they could do anything. And just to think back to those days and those guys. I mean, just the rank hypocrisy of the whole thing. And again, a lot of people would prefer that we not think about this. If we just sort of move on -- a lot of people in the press, a lot of people in the Congress. But it happened. It really did. It really happened that way.
Producer: Did you think he'd resign?
Carville: Uh-uh, no. You don't resign from nothing. One of the mistakes that people make is-- the way he kind of looks and the kind of friendly guy and I guess that tone of voice, he might be one of the toughest people that I've ever been around. And he knows how to fight smart. But never underestimate people. "Maybe you ought to resign, aren't so talented and maybe you ought to get out of the race in '92," or something like that, and hey no, that's not who he is. Again, maybe it's just personality or, you know, he doesn't come across as this kind of steely hard guy, but underneath it, you know, he's tough.
Producer: Did he enjoy being President?
Carville: You'd have to ask him, but from everything I see, that yeah, I think he did. I think he liked his job. Yeah, he fought hard enough to keep it. But yeah, he seemed to be.
Producer: How's he going to be remembered?
Carville: Well I think one thing you could say is, there was hardly a facet of American life that wasn't better the day he left office than it was the day he took office. I think he's remembered mostly if you go anywhere in the world, he's probably the most popular human being on Earth. And I've traveled with him in other countries, and I like to ask people sometimes, you know, cab drivers, "Why do you like Clinton?" And the answer is always some variation of, you know, "That guy looked like he cared about people." To the masses of people in the country in the world, it seemed like he cared about their lives.
You know, there's this famous picture of him with this woman in the floods, when he was President, the terrible floods in the upper Mississippi River, and I think that is his, not just his ability to emote but to project, and I think it's genuine. I think he does have a way to see a policy and how it affects people and that kind of thing. But people do, did believe that he cared what happened to them. He would not use power to harm them. A lot people in the world, and here too, feel like guys get in power, they use it to hurt people or to help themselves at the expense of others. They didn't think that. I think of all the people in politics, Bill they probably thought less, that Bill Clinton was less likely than anybody else.
Producer: How do you square this brilliance and this empathy and this insight with this apparent recklessness?
Carville: He had a, you know, inappropriate relationship that, you know -- if some brilliant neurosurgeon does that, how do you reconcile the fact that you are some physicist or some actor or whatever it is? I don't know if it's sort of connected to IQ or the ability to emote or judge, you know. It happens to people. It's unfortunate, you know, but it does. There have been, you know, seven gazillion books and God knows how much written and thought and philosophized by, and no one's got an answer yet, and we've been taking a crack at it for some thousands of years, so I doubt if I'm gonna get it.
Producer: That's great, thank you very much.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?