The production team of "Clinton" interviewed over 60 politicians, journalists, and influential players of the Clinton years. For the past few weeks, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Facebook fans have voted for the interviews they wanted to see on the website. This week's winner was Dee Dee Myers, the first woman to be named White House Press Secretary. Myers served in the first Clinton administration from 1993-1994. In this interview for the film, Myers talks about her first impression of Clinton, his tireless campaigning, and even some fun they had irritating incumbent H.W. Bush on the campaign trail.
Producer: Would you tell us the story of the first time you met Bill Clinton?
Myers: You'd think I'd be ready for that one. I guess the first time I met him was a random meeting. He was in Los Angeles before he declared for president, but he was clearly being talked about, and one of my political mentors, Mickey Kantor, was at this event. I don't even remember what the event was -- but it was some Democratic gathering in Los Angeles where I was living, and at the end of it I think Tom Harkin was there the same day, and it was a little bit of a cattle-call for some of these potential presidential contenders, and Mickey Kantor introduced me to him.
I'd read about him. He was one of the people thinking about running, and he was impressive. He had a big personality. It was obvious. He was a charismatic guy. I spent about 10 seconds with him. But he was one of the people I was following, deciding who I was going to support.
Actually, I take it back. The first time I met him was in 1988, I was working for Dukakis, Michael Dukakis, and there was a fund-raiser in Los Angeles and then-governor Dukakis was supposed to headline, first campaign, and his wife Kitty got sick. She hurt her neck I think, and he had to fly home to be with her and we were desperately searching for somebody to fill in. And we found Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas. He was at a governor's conference in Michigan. He said, "If you get me a plane so I can get there I'll come." And he said, "I need a clean shirt." And so we got him a clean shirt and he flew in, and he had almost no sleep, I think, whatever had been going on. And he changed his shirt and he went out and he gave this speech that just knocked the socks off of everybody. And people in the room were clearly thinking, "Why isn't this guy the nominee?" But I met him briefly and then saw him speak, and it was the first time I'd really seen him up close and in person. And that was before the convention.
Producer: Let's talk about that. Tell me about that speech. You must have been there seeing it?
Myers: Yeah, and I was excited, because I'd met him and I'd seen him do this great speech in June. And I can remember sitting in the convention hall in Atlanta, and he went on and on and on and on. It was like 25 minutes, but it was supposed to be five. But it was obviously a disaster for him, and he had to figure out quickly how to rebound from that, and as we all know he went on The Tonight Show and he played saxophone, and next thing you know he was right back in the top tier of potential future Democratic candidates.
Producer: Even in the '92 time period when you're sort of hunting around for a candidate, was there buzz about Clinton? Or was, was he just one of a number of--
Myers: No, there was definitely buzz about him. He had been pretty aggressive as a chair of the Democratic Governors Association, and a player among governors nationally and a bit of an innovator on policy, education, things like that. He was clearly ambitious and had thought about running in 1988, so by 1991 he was definitely in the top tier of potential Democratic candidates -- which wasn't worth a lick because President Bush was quite popular in the wake of the Gulf War. People didn't think he was vulnerable. It wasn't like the top Democrats were lining up to try to take him on, and, you know, Mario Cuomo ending up being the 900-pound gorilla in the pre-primary season. But the other candidates were all people who many Democrats thought would make excellent sacrificial lambs.
Producer: Interesting. Interesting. So there was a sense of, even entering that campaign season, a sense of, "Well, we'll go through the motions here but there isn't any chance we're going to win."
Myers: Yeah. I mean, there's always hope. And you think, "Ok, maybe something will happen, lightning will strike." But I think if people had to bet the house, in the months -- in 1991, there wouldn't be a lot of Democrats who'd bet against President Bush.
Producer: Let's fast forward a bit, and you've joined the campaign. Was there a moment that you remember that it sort of felt like, "Ha, this guy's really good. There's something to this guy."
Myers: I had that moment all the time. This feeling that he had remarkable gifts, that he was incredibly, well, resilient -- that became clear pretty quickly. That he was flexible, you know? That he was -- flexible is not quite the word I'm looking for. That he could adapt. He could find the hole in the defensive line. Whatever it was, he could see -- I used to say he was like, people would say Wayne Gretzky, the great hockey player, he saw the whole ice. And Clinton was like that -- he saw the whole playing field. He didn't just see the event that he was at or the circumstances of that week or that month. He saw the whole playing field all the time.
The entire time that I worked for him I was continually surprised over and over and over again by his gifts. And sometimes by his flaws. I'd been around, you know, a few -- I was young. I was only 30 years old when I went to work for him, but I'd been around enough politicians to know that -- I hadn't seen anyone do what he could do. If he'd been a baseball player, he would be a guy who could pitch a no-hitter and hit a home run in the same game. He could do policy, he could go deep on policy, but he was great at the politics and he loved it. And you just don't find people who are good at and love both those components of what it takes to [be] successful in certainly running for president.
Producer: Out on the campaign trail -- I mean this is the rope lines, the meet and the great, this is a chore for most politicians. But with Clinton, I mean, we've talked about this endlessly, but we'll go over this again, what -- that, that sense of connection--
Myers: Right. I mean he's a classic extrovert, and he draws all his energy from his interactions with other people. And so, what for most politicians is a grind at the end of a long day where they have to go out and thank the volunteers and the highway patrolmen who escorted them and the people who helped put together the event, Clinton looked forward to that. And it got to the point where we'd get on the plane -- we, the staff -- and just kinda sit down and, we were all exhausted and we'd say, "Ok, look at the size of the line. We're here for 45 minutes. May as well figure out something productive to do." Because he's out there, and he is not coming up those steps 'till he has said hello to every single person.
The story that I heard from people who had been on the rope lines over and over was that, for that one moment, he looked me in the eye, he touched me on the arms, he listened to my story, and I felt like I was the only person in the world. And he did it over and over and over. And the only way you can have that moment over and over and over if you really are interested. Not only did he draw great strength and energy from that, he got stories and he connected to, not only to the person standing in front of him but that person's story, and that person's circumstances. And he would constantly retell the stories of people. Sometimes publicly but sometimes in a meeting he'd say, "I met this woman on the rope line, and she lost her health insurance because blah blah blah," and every single piece of that went into his view of what was wrong and what needed to be fixed and how he might go about fixing it.
Producer: And I guess that, in the depths -- and we'll get to some of this, but in some of the crisis moments, he would return to that, wouldn't he? He would return to those individual connections, and people appreciated that.
Myers: Right. They did appreciate it because it was something that his political opponents and his enemies didn't understand about him was that -- they always thought he was a phony. And he wasn't. He was serially sincere. And, [it] was his greatest strength because people over time saw that. You know, the camera doesn't lie. Over a couple of years people have a pretty good sense of their president's personality, and what he cares about and what's true and what's not true. They might have disagreed with some of his policies, they might have been taken aback by some of the mistakes that he made, but they believed that he cared about people like them. That when push came to shove, he was gonna make a decision in the best interest of ordinary Americans, which most people consider themselves. And so through everything, that's what sustained him. That sense, "He cares about people like me. And he understands the circumstances of my life."
Producer: Do you think he understood them in part because he was of them?
Myers: Oh, absolutely. The fact that his family struggled to get into the middle class. In the primary people were getting to know him. They didn't know that about him. They saw his resume -- he went to Georgetown and then to Yale and then a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, and then he came back and was one of the youngest people ever elected governor in the country and he was the youngest person ever un-elected, you know. He was the youngest ex-governor I think in the history of the country, which people didn't really know.
In those early months, they thought he had come from privilege and they didn't believe that this kid from privilege, this young guy from privilege really cared about the agenda that he was talking about. Because he was talking about the middle class all the time, and they were like, "What does he know about the middle class?"
And so, of that was born the Manhattan Project, which I'm sure you'll talk to a lot of people about. But the Manhattan Project was basically an effort to define him as who he was -- a kid who'd grown up under sometimes difficult circumstances and whose family struggled to get into the middle class, and who fought for the middle class because he knew how hard it was for people. And once we were able to do that in the early summer of '92, culminating with the Man From Hope video at the convention, his relationship with people changed a great deal.
And, maybe I'm naive, but during the general election, once he had connected with people, and once they understood where he came from, I was always pretty sure he was going to win.
Producer: Even earlier than that, when he's just starting out in New Hampshire and so on, do you think he thought he was going to win?
Myers: Well, on the last night of the campaign, we were doing like this 30-hour fly-around, and it was you know, pretty miserable. It was like 3:00 in the morning and we were flying from Texas to Mexico. And Clinton was very energized, because he was pretty sure he was going to win at this point. And we were sitting around a little table on the plane, playing cards and watching re-runs of Saturday Night Live and he was eating, doing eight things as he always did, he was chewing on a cigar, and I said to him -- I don't remember what prompted it -- I said, "Did you ever think you'd be here?" And he looked at me like, "Yeah, I always knew it was possible to win, that's why I ran." So for me, I was like, "Wow, you know, how did we land here?" And for him he was like, "I wouldn't have gotten in the race if I couldn't see a path to get where I am right now." I'll never forget that moment.
Producer: I gotta apologize to you because I know you've been asked these a million times. We'll get to more interesting things, but let's go back to New Hampshire, and the first moment that the Gennifer Flowers story appeared. Do you remember where you were or what your reaction was? The campaign's reaction?
Myers: Well, my first memory of it, I was in Little Rock and I remember the first story was there were five women?
Myers: So that was my first introduction to Gennifer with a 'G,' I guess was one of them. I think there was some expectation that this would come up. There had been rumors about then-Governor Clinton, so I mean I don't think anybody knew or would have made a bet on what form it would take, and certainly not this sort of tabloid food-chain that emerged as an interesting part of that election cycle. But there was some sense of, "OK, we're goanna have to deal with this, and how we deal with it may determine whether this campaign can survive, over the long term." So people took it seriously. And the first thing was to try to figure out who are these people and what do we know about them, and I never had the uncomfortable job of talking to Clinton about his particular relationships with any of them.
Producer: But the campaign strategy in dealing with this--
Myers: -was to find -- I mean, they came from tabloids, which people are inclined to distrust to a certain degree, especially the sort of -- they weren't even the top-tier of tabloids if there is such a thing. And so part of the strategy was, "Let's just find some, there's definitely facts in here that are incorrect." And if you can prove that like things that are easily checkable are wrong then you can undercut the credibility of the story more broadly. So that was the strategy.
Because it was. They were full of wrong facts. Clinton was always very energetic about putting out things that were demonstratively wrong. He was put at a hotel at a time that the hotel hadn't been built. And he was in a room in Arkansas when he could prove he had actually been in Dallas on that date. And so there was just an effort to, "Let's discredit the stories and the source."
In January of 1992 he had done this extraordinary interview in 60 Minutes where he said he had caused pain in his marriage. And everyone knew exactly what that meant. He said he and his wife had difficult times, he'd caused pain, they'd sort of gotten it together, back together, they worked together, and that was enough. And, because none of it was contemporaneous, it all kind of fell under that umbrella of that broader statement. That didn't help, that he was introduced to so many Americans in that context. But people are pretty forgiving, and are willing to say, "If this is in the past and his wife's forgiven him, then..."
Producer: Just as a kind of loyalist to Clinton, did you feel upset by the fact that there actually were tapes, and the tapes seemed to show a side of him, or confirm in some way -- do you remember your reaction to those tapes?
Myers: She played those for the first time at the press conference, right? In the red suit.
We were traveling that day, it must have been -- was it February? I don't remember the date. And we happened to be visiting Southern capitals, and first we went to, Jackson, Mississippi, and then we went to I think it was Baton Rouge. And Governor Edwin Edwards was there. And he said to Clinton, "How much did they pay that girl for those tapes? For that story?"
And Clinton said, "I think $150,000."
"They paid all my girls $150,000, they'd be broke." And Clinton laughed for the first time I'd seen him laugh all day. He just laughed his head off.
But that day, I think it was coming off the plane, maybe in Baton Rouge or wherever we were, we hadn't seen it because we were traveling and it was either a clip or it was going on. But I remember coming off and seeing her in the red suit and getting calls trying to figure out, what did it mean? I don't have a super clear memory of that because I didn't ever sit down and see it all in one -- I was getting little bits of information.
Very early on, one of the things I learned about President Clinton was that he would tell you things that were true, but he wouldn't necessarily tell you everything. And so having to deal with the media on things, often I had a feeling I don't know the whole story. And this was one of those times I confirmed that sense. Made it difficult to deal with the personal issues. I certainly didn't feel that way on the political side, but on the personal side, that made life difficult.
Producer: Well, a perfect example of that is the second blow in New Hampshire, which was the drafts. Which was probably more serious, wasn't it? A more serious crisis for Clinton?
Myers: Yeah, because it played into a commander-in-chief question. And because it came on the heels of -- it's like people are willing to forgive you, and maybe even let you be a little evasive about things that were personal and in the past and don't really bear on your responsibilities. They bear on your character but not on your responsibilities as president. This was both piling on to the questions raised by the Gennifer Flowers story and about an issue that people did think was germane to being president and the commander-in-chief. Yeah, so that was tough.
Producer: There was that letter. And I don't remember--
Myers: That was the second tier of the second blow of the second blow.
Producer: Exactly. A letter comes out, and I think as a campaign you decided, "Hey, maybe this letter isn't such a bad thing, right? Maybe this letter is our friend?"
Myers: Yeah. Right, because the first reaction was "Holy cow."
And so we put the letter out, and James Carville famously went out in some airport hangar, was the first round of defending it, saying, "Read the letter." I mean think about what this young guy is -- however old he was -- 21 years old, writing this really thoughtful letter, trying to find a way to both be true to his own values -- he opposed the war -- and to do the right thing that would allow him to have the kind of career and life that he wanted. Pretty extraordinary for a man that young. Some people saw it as a precursor to the calculating politician that he became, but it was always more complicated than that.
Producer: Can you capture for us a sense of how down the campaign was after those two body blows. I mean, it wasn't a forgone conclusion that he was going to be able to keep going, was it?
Myers: Oh, God no. Although in hindsight it was like, what was gonna drive Bill Clinton out of the race? But I do remember standing on the tarmac -- I think we were in Atlanta, and I was standing there with Joe Klein, the now-Time magazine columnist, and he said, "This feels like the Bataan death march." And I was like, "Oh, God, I don't know. Is it really that bad?" But then we won Florida and we won Georgia and we realized that the only person left in the race was Paul Tsongas and he wasn't exactly, you know, Superman.
Clinton's resilience became sort of the secret weapon of the campaign. He was never going to just give up and get out. He would really have to be -- I don't know what it would have taken. It would have taken a lot more than Joe Klein thinking we had run out of options. Bill Clinton had to decide we had run out of options, and he never saw it that way.
Producer: Talk about what happens to this man when his back is against the wall. And take us into New Hampshire. Before we go South and do Super Tuesday and so on, we're still in New Hampshire and he's gotta do OK there, I think. And those last weeks in New Hampshire, what did you see in him? What emerged from Bill Clinton under these circumstances?
Myers: Well, I think all of us that were there have a very clear memory of the week and 10 days before the primary. And Stan Greenberg, our pollster, came in and said, "The bottom's fallen out. You know, we dropped 18 points in a weekend, and we didn't have that many points to start with."
It was a crowded field and Bill Clinton was still getting to know the Democratic voters in New Hampshire. And I think a lot of us felt, "This is over." But Clinton, he never flinched. It was like OK, he saw it as, "These are the circumstances we have to deal with." I'm not sure he had a plan, but he just wasn't going out, and he wasn't going out like that. And he went out, and the next 10 days were just an act. I'll never forget the feeling because it was an extraordinary period of just pure will. He willed himself back into that race. And he was just gonna out-work everybody. And so he was going to the high school gyms and campaigning and shaking hands, and doing interviews, and of course we had a strategy to deal with some of the other elements of it, and Mandy famously doing Nightline. I didn't know the reservoir was that deep of just determination and unwillingness to give up.
And for me, and I think for other people too, the tide turned the night we were in Portsmouth, and he gave this speech to this suspicious group of union guys mostly. And it was the Last Dog Die speech. He said, "If you stand with me on Tuesday, I'll stand with you until the last dog dies." And you could hear a pin drop in that room. And again Joe Klein walked out of there and he said, "That was the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen." And it was like, "Where does it come from? Where does he find the reservoir of determination, or will of faith of his world view? That he's really gonna go out there and fight for this and try to make these people's lives better."
Producer: And again it's that something -- there's an exchange that happens there too, right? Because he's showing them -- he's doing that, and they're seeing something in that act. I mean, this keeps coming up during his presidency, and people -- Republicans always couldn't figure out why he could slip through their noose but it's that exchange that happens at that moment.
Myers: Right. It's a great question. It's the essence of who he is, again. It's the ability to connect with people and to[not] only draw them in, but to draw in their energy. And to energize them in the process as well. Because the other part of it was, "I've taken hits but they're nothing like the hits you've taken." You know what I mean, it was, "They want to make it about my past, I want to make it about your future."
And part of it was political sophistication, and part of it was genuinely connecting with people and understanding the hard times that they'd been through. And partly that's what allowed him to survive, was that New Hampshire had been such a difficult period, and voters there were really hurting and working class Democratic voters in particular. And he understood that instinctively. He really did want to do something about it. And people believed that A) he wanted to do something, and B) had a plan.
He made substance accessible to people. And so not only did he care, he had an idea about what to do about it. And he could talk about his ideas in ways that people could understand and that made sense to them. So it was this extraordinary combination of gifts, but to see him, really, with his back against the wall, right? To be able to dig down.... And also people saw how hard he was, how he wasn't quitting. And it's like, "I'm not going to quit on you. "That's a really powerful unspoken message and it was oozing out of him. And people were like, "God, it's gonna take a lot to knock this guy down." He's the guy you want to have on your team. He's the guy you want with the ball. With a minute and a half on the clock and you're down a few points, he's the guy you want to give the ball to.
Producer: Absolutely. Hillary was also put to a test during this period wasn't she? How did she do?
Myers: God I haven't thought about that in a long time.
Producer: I mean, and again, people sometimes discount her role in these moments of crisis. It's not a given that she's going to go with the program. You know this is Gennifer Flowers, this is stuff coming up. She shows herself willing to put aside personal feeling as this went on, or contain them in some way, keep going.
Myers: Right, right. She doesn't get driven off, totally distracted by whatever she must have been feeling, right? And whatever feelings it must have brought up for her.
Producer: I think this is a quote from you: "I think that there's been a pattern throughout their relationship -- probably before I knew them but certainly in his presidency -- he tends to do worst when he's furthest, and then he screws up and she helps save him." That must be a mis-quote. "And then he's much more, I don't know, indebted, obliged, mindful, all those things, and I suspect probably it was the way they were before I was around."
So you're talking about the dynamic between them. That in a way she bails him out, and then it reinforces something between them in a sense of partnership or something like that. Is that something?
Myers: It's a complicated dynamic. I think that's true. There is that dynamic right? There is that pattern of -- he sort of wanders -- and I don't mean this from the marriage -- but he sort of gets sort of out there, doing whatever he's doing, and then he does screw up, and then she is there to help bail him out. And then she has more power in the relationship, which is something that obviously was appealing to her. I don't want to psychoanalyze it too much, because I don't know.
Certainly if you look over the arc of his career at his lowest moments, she was always there. And at his lowest moments, the relationship was always sort of front and center, and I think it really did help him to get himself back on track. He's a much more, I don't want to say more creative -- but she's more linear, she's more disciplined. And she's a PC person and he's a Mac guy, I don't know. He's intuitive. He's intuitive and he doesn't mind the chaos. Creative chaos works for him. He likes ideas coming in from all over. And I mean he got better, he got better and more disciplined as president, which he needed to do and was helpful to him ultimately. But he didn't mind that, and I think she sometimes imposed a certain discipline on him, particularly in the tough times when you need to really buckle down, bear down, focus. You have to figure out what the strategic objectives were and hit the mark. And he did. And because he knew that too. But he sometimes needed to be channeled a little bit.
Producer: I'll talk more about the relationship later in a different context. But I want to ask you, you said, previously, you said, "Coming out of New Hampshire there was like a dual track for reporters. It was like a dual track that they were on." Because there was a combination of feeling that this guy slipped and talked and got his way out, but also impressed by this remarkable talent. Is that right? I mean, from the reporter's point of view, from the press corps point of view, [they] had to reconcile these two very different people.
Myers: Yeah. It's not just the press. A lot of people over time have had this kind of pattern in their relationship with Bill Clinton. You first meet him and you're overwhelmed by his talent. He's so energetic and articulate and full of ideas and he calls himself a congenital optimist and that optimism is contagious. I mean, when he says, "Our tomorrow's gonna be better than our today." He means it, that's not a line. He believes that with every fiber of his being.
And so the first impression is, "Wow, this guy is remarkable." And then something happens in the relationship, where people are inevitably disappointed, because no one's as good as Bill Clinton's first impression. Or, he's done things. He's disappointed people in a variety of ways. And so then, the fall is hard.
A lot of people say, "I thought he was great and he signed the welfare bill or he did something, you know, personal," and people -- I'm done with him. I can't believe that I was so wrong about him. And then there's a gradual re-establishment. And the public has been through this where they say, "You know, maybe we had too high of an expectation. Maybe we were too hard when he disappointed us, and maybe there's a middle ground where we can have the best of Bill Clinton, can have the talents without loading him up too much with our expectations."
Producer: So had they not fallen so hard for him to begin with--
Myers: -the fall wouldn't have been so far. And so hard. And what's remarkable about him in his post-presidential career, is how many cycles we go through with this. The end of his presidency was a disaster. But it wasn't long before people had kind of re-established their affection for him. And then, of course, the 2008 campaign was not his finest moment. But here he is in the years after that as the most popular politician in the country.
How many cycles? Everyone thinks his capacity to redeem himself is extraordinary. And part of the reason is because he believes in redemption. He believes that people stumble and then can redeem themselves through effort and good deeds and hope and optimism and giving back. And his post-presidential career is a testament to that. He's done remarkable, good things.
Producer: I just want to pick up something that you just said, because I think you're so on to something -- Clinton himself again believes in this, in the notion of redemption, going back to his church days, I imagine. But there were so many people who were his enemies who saw that quality I think as moral fuzziness, or as moral relativism. That his own belief in reinvention was in a way what pissed people off so much.
Myers: Yeah, no I think that there -- how many second chances, right? How many second chances does any one person deserve? And Clinton's view is, as many second chances as a person is willing to try to take. I mean, as many times as you fail, don't you deserve the chance to redeem yourself? Isn't history loaded with people who have fallen and gotten up, and fallen and gotten up, and fallen and gotten up, and done great things? Who's to say?
And I think that he did. People also underestimated the role of faith in his life. I'm sure he's had moments of doubt, but doubt doesn't define his relationship with his faith. He's a believer. And not only does he carry the bible around, he can quote from it. At length. And with passion. Because those verses have meant something to him over the course of his life. And some of that belief in redemption comes from that faith. That God loves you. And he's not gonna give up on me, so I'm not gonna give up on myself, or however he would define it in the dark night of his soul, and it's what I came to admire most about him in a way.
I saw it first in New Hampshire, the unwillingness to quit on himself, on the things he believed in, in the people he cared about. And he disappoints them every time on some level, but he always gets up and tries to make it better. What else can you ask from a sinner? And that's how he would define himself. "I'm a sinner. And I try to be better every time. And I learn from my mistakes and I go forward." And the American public is pretty forgiving of a guy who sees himself as a sinner. He doesn't hold himself above. That's why it's successful. I don't think anyone would ever say, "Bill Clinton thinks he's better than me." Even though he has an Ivy League education, and he's a Rhodes Scholar, and he was one of the youngest people ever elected president, he's had a remarkable life. I'd challenge you to find an American who would say, "I think Bill Clinton thinks he's better than me." And that quality sustained him.
Producer: And, and it's not redemption in the sense that, "I'm gonna give myself a break." It's redemption through acts. It's redemption through helping you.
Myers: He never expected to be forgiven just because. He was always willing to go out and work for it. He was always willing to say, "I screwed up" -- even if he didn't make the announcement publicly -- "and I'm gonna fix it." And some people saw that trying to fix it as trying to get out of it, being slick, being willing to be anything and all things to all people, whatever it took. But really it was a way -- I've always seen it -- not that he's a perfect man by any stretch -- but as an attempt to do better. To figure out what went wrong, and to make it better. And that endless willingness to sort of acknowledge where you've made mistakes, and to try to make it better and to try to do good things.
And one of the things I found most compelling when I went to work for him in the first place was the optimism and his unshakable faith that government in the hands of the right people could make people's lives better. And now it's his foundation in the hands of the right people can make people's lives better. His unshakeable faith that through collective action and hard work -- and hard work has always been the kind of the spine of this view -- you can make things better. And he's done well by doing good, but mostly he cares about doing good.
That's the other thing his enemies never understood about him, is that he actually cares about getting stuff done. And he takes great satisfaction from the Earned Income Tax Credit, or whatever these things are, because he thinks actual families are gonna have a little more money in their pockets to put food on the table and educate their kids and make their lives better for their families. It also helps create a good base for the next election, but only because it's a good thing to do.
So there's no end to... some people they burn out, right? They see the obstacles and they get worn down by the process, because the process is hard, and in some ways it's gotten harder, right? The critics are so loud. Clinton gets up every day, and if he's worn down by it, he'll have a bad day, and then he gets back up on his horse and he rides back to the barricades. It's just in his nature.
Producer: We will go back into that but if you can take us into the hall that night when The Man From Hope is played. What impact did that film have? And then he comes out and he does his speech. Do you remember the feeling in the convention hall that night?
Myers: I remember it started the night before. And Harry Thomason, the creator of Designing Women and some other brilliant television, was an old friend from Arkansas and had a great sense of the dramatic, and he created this walk into the convention hall on Wednesday night after the roll call votes. So the delegates had voted, Clinton was the nominee, and all of a sudden on the screen inside the hall they saw him, somewhere outside Madison Square Garden -- I couldn't recreate that to save my life -- but they could see him coming closer and closer and closer and closer and it built and built and built. And then he came into the hall, and people went crazy. And it was a wonderful -- to me that in some ways that was the high point of the convention.
And then the next night, Harry Thomason again and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason had produced this video, which was the apex of the Manhattan Project, right? It was the whole process was leading to this moment with this film. And it was an incredibly compelling film. It told the story exactly the way the campaign wanted it told, and the convention loved it. And from that moment forward, his story connected with people. I mean you gotta keep reminding people, but we knew that the image of Bill -- that we had successfully transformed him from a kid who'd been born with a silver spoon in his mouth to a guy who'd had to work for everything he'd ever had.
And then he gave a speech. And it was a hugely successful convention. The feeling in the hall among the staff as we were watching it was kind of disbelief. Like, "Wow, here we are." But also we're thinking, "OK, in 12 hours we're on this bus trip and we gotta get into the next phase."
And so the next morning we piled into the buses and drove from there to Illinois through the heartland of America. And the response was incredible. People were out on their tractors with American flags and things that hadn't happened to Democrats in a long time. And it was fantastic. Actually, though, it goes back to the announcement of Gore.
Producer: Oh, yeah. Talk about the importance of that. Because that was kind of a somewhat unconventional choice for him to make.
Myers: It kind of turned the conventional wisdom on its head. Normally you pick somebody from a different generation, a different region, maybe a different ideological point on the spectrum. And he picked somebody that was young, Southern and moderate just like him.
I was -- it happened to be the day before -- flown down to Hope and I think it was just Bruce Lindsey and Clinton and myself, just going down to do a photo shoot for Time magazine. And it was so hot, and we were sitting on the plane, and I didn't know. We were doing the VP announcement the next day, but I didn't know who it was. And so I sat with him. I was kind of joking with him. I was so hot. I was trying to get my mind off how sweaty I was and I said, "So who's it gonna be?" And he said, 'Well, I don't know, but a double-barrel change would be pretty powerful, don't you think?'
And I knew at that moment, I'm like, "He's gonna choose Gore." And sure enough, the next day: double-barrel change. He believed you don't dilute your message. You put a big underline and exclamation point and change -- this isn't your father's Democratic party. This isn't George Bush's presidency. This is a new generation, new ideas, anew Democratic party. And it was incredibly powerful. And that obviously totally energized the convention. Totally energized the general election campaign.
Producer: But coming out of the convention, I mean it was hardly -- you were still back in third place, or certainly, it didn't look like-
Myers: Well, coming out of the convention was better, when we secured the nomination in June we were in third place. You know, it was like 'brokered convention,' right? Journalists loved that story.
Producer: So you got some momentum going. But it was, it was still an uphill battle. I'm just wondering if--
Myers: Well because Ross Perot had gotten out on the Tuesday of the convention, right?
Myers: Yeah, and Clinton -- that was unsettling to him, because he'd sort of figured out the architecture of the campaign with Perot in the race. And now all of a sudden Perot's out of the race. But you know I don't remember that -- and maybe I just don't remember, but I don't remember that hanging over the post-convention even though it had happened just a couple of days earlier.
I mean there was just this tremendous energy, and now he was the Democratic nominee, the convention was behind us, the country was starting to focus on its choices. And we had a lot of momentum. And we could certainly see the weaknesses in the Bush campaign. They didn't have a message, they were sort of on this, "The economy's a lot better." We all know that's a really tough thing to run on. People weren't feeling it. He didn't take Bill Clinton and Al Gore very seriously -- he being George H. W. Bush. That was not a bad position to be in. It wasn't over, but it wasn't a terrible position to be in.
Producer: How important was the war room, the famous war room to the ultimate success of the campaign?
Myers: I think obviously it was real important. I spent very little time there obviously because I was on the road. But the ability to anticipate to respond quickly, to put out fires, to know what they were doing -- the DNA of that campaign in 1992 was to win every news cycle. And to win it through research and rapid response, and that's what the war room provided.
So something would happen. The Bush people would put out an attack, and an hour later we'd have a 10-page document why that was not so. And so we were able to compete in every news cycle. And we did win a lot of news cycles that we shouldn't have won.
And then little things that they did -- chicken George just was a guy dressed up in a chicken suit at a lot of Bush rallies because he didn't want to debate. And it drove President Bush crazy. Then there was another one -- Butt Man. Butt Man was a guy who dressed up like a cigarette butt and went out to these rallies because George Bush was too close to tobacco interests or whatever they were. And when you started to see President Bush debate Butt Man or Chicken Man, you knew that we were getting under his skin. And sometimes the psychological aspects of battle, whether it's campaign or elsewhere, end up being very important. So of course not only was it disruptive in a bizarre way to the Bush campaign, but it was incredibly energizing to our campaign. It's funny what works with morale. If the couple times that Chicken George or whatever ended up on like the nightly news, it was like a jolt of adrenaline through the campaign.
Producer: It feels like you guys were willing to throw out some of the old rules in this campaign. Starting with Gore but going on, you were kind of making it up on the fly, but you were flouting kind of perceived wisdom about campaigning.
Myers: Yeah, which had happened early on. I mean, remember the criticism that Clinton got -- after he had secured enough delegates to win the nomination but hadn't been nominated -- when he went on the Arsenio Hall show and played his saxophone, people said, "That's outrageous. It's so un-presidential." And all the chattering class in Washington was going crazy, and we were kind of out in America going, "Really? You don't see how this is sort of redefining him in an important way?" And ultimately going on MTV and things like that that hadn't -- now, it's all very common and everybody does it, the president goes on the Tonight Show or whatever, but then we didn't use those non-traditional news formats for campaigning, you know? So yeah, we were able to, with Clinton's sort of getting it, kind of rewrite the rules a little bit.
Producer: Was there a moment in the campaign when you thought, "OK I think we got it. That that was it. That was the moment?" I mean people talk about the Richmond debate. I don't know if you felt that at that moment?
Myers: When President Bush looked at his watch?
Producer: Yeah, was that a meaningful moment to you?
Myers: Very much so.
Producer: Tell me about that.
Myers: I just remember being in debate camp. We had gone to Williamsburg, and we were in debate camp, and in the middle of that, Gore had his debate, which Clinton wasn't that pleased about, and debate camp didn't go that well. Clinton was kinda agitated and he was unhappy with Gore's performance.
But then he got into the town hall, which was his format. He knew how to do that. When to stand up and when to approach the audience, and when to touch somebody, and that wasn't President Bush's format. I mean he wasn't terrible at it, but it wasn't his format.
There's always some moment that gets a lot -- too much attention, but that happened to be it. And Clinton knew he'd done well. And he came out of there, and he was like, "yeah." I don't remember thinking that being the moment when I realized that we were gonna win, but we all remember thinking, "OK, two down, you know, we're sort of 2-0 here, this is going well."
Producer: Did you understand that that was a kind of a moment that defined a character difference between them? Or was that only later that it stood out? You know, one guy really understands people and the other guy's looking at his watch?
Myers: You know, I think I thought that, but I didn't think it would become such a symbolic [thing] for the rest of the country. But it got replayed and replayed and replayed. And by I guess 48 hours later, I think we realized that that was the takeaway from the debate. That one guy was totally engaged, and listening to people, and engaged with their problems, and one guy was like, "How much time till I can get out of here?" And at a time when the country was struggling, that's a difficult narrative if you're the guy looking at your watch.
Producer: Let's talk about -- you've won the election, and you're coming to Washington. Give us a sense of how Clinton felt, saw the presidency. What was his sort of model for what he was going to be doing during his presidency? What were his hopes that he was investing in? He wanted it to be big, it wasn't like it was going to be a caretaker presidency or anything.... He sort of aligned himself with a tradition, right?
Myers: Yeah, he was going certainly be a more activist president than President Bush. And he was certainly going to focus more on the economy than President Bush. He also wanted to reform healthcare. And I think that he thought that he could use government in a constructive way to make people's lives better.
And so he had big ambitions, had a lot of momentum. It's that thing that happens, even though he had been elected with on 43 percent, which was tricky. And he sort of got that it was tricky. There was a tremendous amount of momentum. The country always kind of unites behind its new president. And so, he certainly felt that he had an opportunity. But then we had problems. Gays in the military happened before he was inaugurated, so there was already a sense of -- some yellow lights were flashing, and I think people sort of saw it. And I mean, I certainly didn't see how that was going to turn. It was gonna be tough. I didn't see it was going to be as tough as it ended up being. And also kind of dovetailed in with other early missteps.
But in terms of Clinton's state of mind going in, he was incredibly excited obviously. He wanted to be president. He wanted to do the hard stuff. He didn't want to be a symbolic president, although he understood the importance of that. He wanted to roll up his sleeves and get in there and do some stuff. And so he was very excited about that. But he did understand the symbolic aspect of it.
I remember we were at Blair House and George Stephanopoulos asked him, "OK what should we call you?" Because we all called him governor. And because I know a lot of President Reagan's team campaign people who'd known him for years called him governor, and he looked at George and said, "Well, I think Mr. President would do just fine." It was like, OK, OK. It's obvious, but it's a big transition to get used to. You go from being the candidate to being the nominee to being the president-elect to being the president. Those are each pretty significant steps where you have to change your perspective. The thing gets bigger. And just when you think it can't get any bigger, it gets bigger. And so that was a moment where it's like, "Oh, yeah, OK, this is like not Governor Clinton anymore, it's not governor, it's not 'hey,' it's Mr. President." And so he was obviously thinking about that.
Producer: Were there hidden shoals in Washington? Were there things he didn't understand in the culture of the place that were--
Myers: Oh yeah. That happens to every president who hasn't spent a lot of time here, and even some who have. I think he underestimated the power of the chattering class in Washington to shape perceptions. And he clearly underestimated his power to charm and persuade and co-opt them.
Producer: Overestimated it?
Myers: No, he underestimated it. He could have done -- he just didn't do it. He didn't think they were as powerful as they -- whatever it is that goes on in Washington ends up having tremendous -- there is this kind of conversation that only happens here. But it affects how the press and others perceive you, and it spills out into the rest of the country. It's not the only thing that matters, but it matters and it matters more than most people coming into Washington -- whether it's Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, or Jimmy Carter -- you underestimate that at your own peril.
But he didn't think he needed to do that. The campaign had been in Arkansas for a reason, we thought that had been very helpful for us not to be in the echo-chamber here. But coming in when you have to live here, and there is a culture here, there is a history here, it's part of your reality whether you want it to be or not. So I think he underestimated that. And it's too bad because knowing what he knows now, he could have found a way to charm the city. The way, you know, John Kennedy did. Being a little bit more of a creature of Washington when he became president. And that would have served him well.
Producer: How did they see him? Those people, the chattering class?
Myers: An outsider. And somebody who wasn't elected with a huge mandate, 43 percent, and even the Democratic establishment -- it's hard to remember because the Democrats now generally have such fond memories of Bill Clinton, the Democratic establishment in many ways was suspicious of him. Because he wasn't from Washington and he was a moderate. And so a lot of the traditional interest groups, whether it's the women's groups, labor, some of the other, the more progressive groups were like, "We're not totally sure what he's going to do." And so it wasn't like he rode into town -- even though he had a lot of popular support, but he didn't have the kind of Washington establishment, even Democratic progressive establishment, wasn't completely sure what this all meant. And I think he just sort of thought he could just move forward and didn't necessarily attend to that. And I think he paid a price for it.
Producer: Let's go to the press--
Myers: And I kinda include the press in this, you know. They were, they're part of the establishment here.
Producer: Well, specifically I mean. Ordinarily, or up until that point you might say there'd been this honeymoon, usually, a grace period. Some kind of slack. That didn't really happen for Clinton.
Myers: No, it kinda happened in the general election. There was a grace period in the general election where he got pretty favorable -- we had very tough press through much of the first year. But the last couple of months, I think. And then the transition. The transition was not the high-water mark of the Clinton presidency for sure. And so there was a lot of things that happened in that period that began to sow the seeds of, you know, "Can these guys play? Do they know what they're doing?" And by the time he got to Washington a few days before the inauguration there was -- yeah the honeymoon had never happened and it wasn't going to.
Producer: Someone told us that it's important to remember that there was different press corps now. That is was a different set of reporters and some of them may have felt like OK, he may have gotten by them, but this is different. Do you have that sense?
Myers: Yeah. And we had the reporters that covered the campaign, and then when we went to Little Rock for the transition, there was some of the campaign reporters stayed with us, but we were joined by some of the White House reporters, people who would be covering the administration from different news organizations. Then we got to Washington, a lot more of the campaign regulars fell off and were replaced with people who would be covering the White House. And there were people who had covered previous White Houses, they'd been around Washington a long time, they knew more about how things worked than many of us, people like me, coming in, and they were having none of it. They were having none of this kind of amateur hour. That's how a lot of them saw it. And so it was a rocky start, for sure.
Producer: I think you said at one point -- Time magazine or someone had declared the failure of the Clinton presidency at some absurdly early point. And it was -- did you feel, "Wait a minute, we're just getting started?"
Myers: I think it was Johnny Apple. It's always Johnny. Johnny was the one who declared it was going to be a brokered convention in June. That Clinton whatever was third, and anyway--
Producer: What did Johnny Apple say, do you remember?
Myers: He raised the question in an analysis piece, and I don't remember when it was now, but: has the Clinton presidency failed? It was like three months or four months, I don't remember, but it was like some ridiculously early point. "Has the Clinton presidency failed?" And so you do have that instant analysis which is incredibly frustrating to every administration, regardless of party. That you have these people declaring these grand pronouncements at absurd points. And so we had to contend with that. But we had a pretty steep learning curve. The first couple of years were pretty rocky.
Producer: Was he well-served by the White House staff that he picked? By the age and experience level, all that kind of stuff?
Myers: I think there were some weak spots. The structure was as important as the people, and there was some mistakes in the structure. Things that could have served the president better. When Leon Panetta came in, for example, one of the things he did was create more time in the president's calendar for him to reflect and things like that. And so, President Clinton intentionally created a structure that was a little loose. And one that kept him a little in the center. He didn't want one person filtering all the information that went to him. He had always operated with a lot of information coming in and a lot of stuff going out. And over the course of the first year of his presidency he realized that wasn't working for him. There's too many decisions that he had to make, there was too much information, and he needed a more structured process for managing it all. And so that was probably one of the bigger revelations.
Producer: What was the atmosphere like in the White House in those first months of the year, in terms of decision-making in terms of, as you say, the flow of information? It seems like it was almost a free-for-all of debate and discussion. I mean, what was it like?
Myers: Yeah. Certainly Bob Woodward's book contributed to that. Bob Woodward's book about the development of the economic plan contributed to that sense, but that was obviously later.
And it was informal. That was Clinton's personality. That's how the campaign had operated. There were a lot of people, including me, who felt you could kind of walk into the Oval Office whenever you needed to see the president. And over time it became clear that was not a productive kind of culture. And that needed to change. And it did eventually. And I think a lot of presidents learn to be president by being president. And they all have the areas that that they need to learn.
One of the things -- it's a kind of a corollary to this idea that it was a very informal structure -- was, in spite of his profound understanding of history and of American culture and all of the places where those two things intersect, I think he underestimated, and we certainly underestimated the symbolic aspects of the presidency. And the informality was one of the areas that not only didn't serve him on a day to day 'get the work done' basis, but it created an impression of a sort of chaos, or maybe just informality, was enough that undermine the symbolic power of his office, and was bad.
For example, people would wear jeans to the office on weekends. Not on weekdays, but people would say, "Oh, they wear jeans in the Oval Office." Or people have in-and-out privileges into the Oval Office and it was just -- you gotta be a little grand. Because the American people want it. It's the biggest job in the world. You want to feel like the person that's in it understands the power, both symbolic and real, and I think we underestimated that. And it was a bad idea. People felt like, "What is it, a fraternity house over there?" Even though it really wasn't, but there were aspects of it that were unusual.
Producer: They want the president to be grand.
Myers: They do. They don't want him to carry a suitcase, and they don't want his staff wearing jeans. Those are small things, but they say a lot about how the president sees himself and how he's seen.
Producer: You had to learn that. Then he comes to Washington, and they're just not going to work with him. Do you think that that surprised Clinton? That took him aback? I mean, the relationship with Republicans. Talk about that for a second.
Myers: Yeah, I think he came here thinking that he could work with Republicans. The Arkansas State Legislature was dominated by Democrats, but there were a lot of conservative Democrats. And he felt like he knew how to talk to them, he knew how to work with them, he knew how to work with the Republicans that were then there. But, but he also came into a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, with Democratic leaders who thought they knew best. And he wanted not only to work with Republicans but he wanted to be a team player with the Democratic leaders. At the end of the first two years he said to me at one point, and he said publicly, "You know, I think one of my big mistakes was that I was lashed to the Democratic Congressional leaders like Ahab to Moby Dick. And I became legislator in chief, and became the leader of the Democrats in Congress, and I got caught in that."
And there were a couple of things that he had promised to do during the campaign -- campaign finance being one of them -- that the Democratic leaders in Congress didn't want. And so he let them go, and it made him look weak. And then they wanted to fight him on certain aspects of healthcare and certain, Senator Moynihan, should welfare go first and these conversations. And who was leading? Was it the president or was it the Democratic leadership in congress? And people want the president to lead. And at time, it wasn't clear who was leading. And there was things he couldn't get through Congress. We started out with a stimulus bill in the spring and it ended up being like $16billion. Sixteen billion dollar stimulus bill. I mean, like wow.
Producer: You couldn't get it through.
Myers: Yeah, because it's like, why would you pass a $16 billion stimulus plan? Unless -- it would do nothing. You couldn't, you know--
Producer: I want to ask you about the budget battle because it's fascinating, but just a little bit before -- there is a sense of Clinton not leading, right? And one of the early manifestations of that, an early illustration of that is of course gays in the military. He seemed to not be able to impose something even on his own military.
Myers: Or his own party.
Producer: How did that happen? How did that become the top of the agenda item for you guys?
Myers: Well, because Clinton mentioned it in an interview and the Republicans in Congress saw an incredible opening to drive a cultural issue into the middle of Clinton's first weeks in Washington, and they did it very successfully. And they also knew that he wouldn't have the support of Democrats in Congress. There was a meeting at the White House with the generals and with Senator Sam Nunn, and they basically said, "We're not gonna do it."
The truth is that Clinton sort of made these pledges during the campaign. I don't think he'd done a whip count to see if he'd have the votes in Congress, or had really thought through what the implications of that -- he just thought it was the right thing to do. And thought it would help with a certain constituency during the campaign. So it just got ahead of us. We had no strategy for dealing with it. It just all of a sudden became an issue. And so, you have the military leadership bucking him, the Democratic Congressional leaders, led by the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee saying no, and the president is powerless to do anything about it. And so he's now put into a position where he has to try to negotiate some kind of a resolution to this that will save face. And that was a tough period.
And nobody was particularly happy with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But it was the best you could do to get it off the table so you could move on.
Producer: And you move on to this really tough internal fight, right? Over the budget. Did this come to be, almost for you guys, a sense of kind of a definitional battle over who we were going to be? What and who he was? Because it mostly happened within the administration, right? I mean the real fight--
Myers: Well, it also happened with the Congress.
Producer: Right, but to start, of course, but to start with-
Myers: Right, right how much--
Producer: What was it going to be -- deficit reduction or was it going to be investment?
Myers: That was definitely a huge fight. And it was a definitional fight. Part of it was a reality fight -- what can we get through, and what can we get done? Part of it was a definitional fight. Yeah, I mean are we "New Democrats"? Are we fiscally responsible? Or are we gonna do what we've always done, which is, "A little bit of deficit spending never hurt anybody, and let's protect our constituencies?" Let's protect the people -- how can we cut spending for people who are hurting? And Clinton had always had to balance a budget in Arkansas, as most governors do. He was a different kind of democrat. He was the DLC guy.
There was a political argument and an economic argument. The divisions cut a couple of different ways. But at the end of the day, Clinton was pretty true to his roots and he listened to -- he tried to come down on the side of the economists, I mean, the people who are making the economic arguments -- what's gonna work. And so he came up with a budget that cut, you know, $250 billion in spending.
Producer: There were some bruised feelings from Begalla, and Stephanopoulos and Carville and people who had been with him. What was their feeling about this? I don't know whether you were with that camp or not but--
Myers: I didn't really have a camp. I didn't feel like that was my job. I was going to have to go out and defend whatever came out. I guess I probably come down a little more on the other side. It's been my sort of place in the party spectrum a little bit more of a middle of the road. I don't know if I'm a blue dog, because, it's not quite there. But I tried. Some of those debates you gotta try to stay out of. Because you're going to have to defend whatever the outcome is without feeling like you lost.
Producer: Did those people, I don't know how to characterize it, campaign people -- the sort of lefties in the administration, would they say?
Myers: They would say the populists.
Producer: The populists. That's better. They'd lost their man in a way. He'd become captive of other people who had conned him, didn't know him. Was there that sense?
Myers: Yeah, there definitely [were] big corporate interests. Wall Street. The fight is always the same within the Democratic Party, isn't it? The more things change, the more they stay the same. And there was a lot of skepticism about whether it would work politically. And whether you could get it through Congress. And what the effects of it would be. And what did people think? Who did they think they had elected?
But ultimately the economic argument that it would reassure the markets -- to put us on a path towards sort of fiscal discipline and lower deficits, and that would generate economic growth -- won the day. And it was a very tough sell obviously in Congress. Because it came down to like a vote in both Houses. And, you know, Clinton really, really had to beg. And of course that was maybe, in some ways that was the nadir. We were being held up by Bob Kerrey who had no love lost for Bill Clinton and made no secret of the fact he couldn't stand him, went all around town saying he couldn't stand this guy, can't believe he's president. And Clinton is in the position of having to beg for his vote. Which he ultimately got.
I got in big trouble for saying something like, Chairman Greenspan has basically endorsed -- I guess he thought I said -- the Clinton economic package. I said a version of [something] similar, which addressed longer-term debt, deficits.
But anyway economically the package was well received. But politically, it was very poorly received. And the Republicans went crazy. It was too much spending for them. It was a budget busting, deficit-exploding, job-killing. I mean those were John Kasich's actual words about[what] this package would do. And so the populists felt like not only had they argued for their side and lost, but now they [were] being beaten to death by the people. This was supposed to help us with Wall Street and with Republicans? They're never going to be happy with it. And a lot of members lost their seats over it.
Producer: The nadir was Bob Kerrey. Can you recapture for us that crazy time? First of all, how hard did Clinton work to get the votes, beginning in the House, and then in the Senate? This is like inner LBJ coming out.
Myers: The thing about Clinton was that he really was willing to work, and to twist arms and to beg and plead and cajole. There was one moment where Rahm Emmanuel and Susan Brophy -- Susan worked in leg. affairs -- they came into a staff meeting with a binder full of like pictures of aircraft carriers and buildings and they're like, "Here's what we had to give for sale today to get the votes of the various members." Which was a joke obviously, but it was like, everyone was working so hard and doing everything they could -- Clinton being chief among them -- to persuade members to support this package, which was controversial.
And it finally passed the House, and all came down to one vote which was senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who'd run against Bill Clinton in the Democratic primary, had lost to him, and did not like him. Went all around town making clear that he didn't like the president, couldn't stand the president, thought he was a liar. And now it came down to Bill Clinton having to grovel to Senator Kerrey for the last vote to pass the package. And Senator Kerrey, I guess he eventually committed his vote, but kept the entire city and nation waiting until he walked into the chamber like 8:00on the night of the vote to cast his vote.
Producer: It's infuriating.
Myers: It was infuriating. It was unnecessary. It was, you know, so that even in his moments of ultimate triumph, Clinton was made to look weak. And so the optics of it were bad, and then the Republicans immediately criticized, continually criticized everything about it. It was a budget-busting, deficit-exploding job-killing bill, and so a lot of people inside who'd been against it from the beginning sort of looked at it and said, "So what did we get for all this?" The Republicans were we supposed to convince them this was a good idea? They're against it. The press is -- we look weak in having begged to get it past.
But the markets responded. And ultimately I think it helped usher in a period of economic expansion, 23 million jobs created, seven continuous years of growth. And I think the president looks back on that and thinks that was a seminal moment.
But the thing about looking back over Clinton's presidency, and probably anybody's presidency, is that when you look back, the events all line up in a way that makes sense. At the time, you don't know where it's going. You don't know if this is the worst idea ever. You think it's not, and you hope it's not, but you don't know until subsequent events play out whether it's the right move or the wrong move. And so it's an interesting exercise when you try to put yourself back in the moment and realize what great peril it was.
Producer: You felt the presidency was on the line in a way.
Myers: We'd had a very difficult first six months: Zoe Baird, gays in the military, failure of the ridiculous stimulus package, there's 10 other things that I'm not thinking of right now, but it had been a very tumultuous period. And so, the president really needed to have his budget passed. And he needed a couple of victories. But the budget did pass.
That actually did in a weird way, in spite of all the controversy, created some momentum because once the dust settled, he did get credit for the victory. And because the markets responded and because Wall Street responded, somebody was applauding. And then after that was the introduction of healthcare and NAFTA, which both went very well. So the rest of the fall went pretty good up until December.
Producer: Moving back a little bit to one of the things you might not have remembered, which I did want to get your insight on, was the death of Vince Foster and how that affected Clinton and Mrs. Clinton. And what happened after his death, which was in a way, even more, maybe painful than…
Myers: Vince Foster's death came totally out of left field for everybody. I don't think anybody saw that coming. Under those circumstances you often never do.
The night that it happened the president was on Larry King Live. And we got a call. Mark Gearan and I were down in the basement of the residence, and Larry had just asked him to extend for another half-hour, and of course he said yes. He was having a great time. And so we had to contact the producer and say, "You've got to figure out a way to get him off of there, he needs to get out of there." So we did, and then he went off to the Foster's home, without a motorcade. And so the first thing was, "Why did he ditch the press?" It's like, "What do you mean, 'why did he ditch the press?'" It was sort of extraordinary circumstances.
The second thing was there was immediately a suspicion that there was some political story there to be told, something that was being covered up. And I said, you know, "Suicide is a mystery. Do we ever know why a person takes their life?" And to me, that seemed like common sense, and I was trying to be sensitive to the family and it was interpreted as I had something to hide. It was a secret there that we would try to keep from being revealed. So it became a big political situation, which, who could have seen…?
I mean now I guess I would see that coming if something like that happened in a subsequent administration, I would do my best to warn the press secretary if I could, but I just didn't see it coming.
Producer: Why was the mainstream press so willing to see scandal in this? We're not talking about some right-wing extremist, we're talking about the traditional, mainstream media.
Myers: Yeah, but partly it was because there were people like Dan Burton, who, on the Hill were saying things that could easily be reported, and trying to connect dots that really weren't connectable. But it's that gray he-said, she-said question of reporting. Just because somebody says it doesn't mean you have to cover it, but because they say it makes a nice controversy which is fun to cover. And so that's a lot of what happened. The right-wingers outside the press were beating the tom-toms and then the right-wing press started to pick up on it and it spread from there.
Producer: Was it painful personally for the Clintons, do you know?
Myers: Oh, extremely. To think that somebody that had been a close friend, a law partner of Hillary's for many years, that had come to Washington, and as the evidence revealed itself in his note became public, and his musings in his last days, that had something to do with his job. The difficulties of working in the White House had contributed in some way to his death.
So not only did they lose a friend, they lost a friend under circumstances that they had been part of creating. And that was extremely difficult for them. And it's not something they could go around talking about their feelings about any of it. And it was very isolating too. They only had each other and a few close friends but it was -- and then the absurd reaction, just, it was very difficult.
Producer: Sorry I'm skipping around so much. Did anyone in the Clinton administration see the mid-term election coming?
Myers: No. It's what was so different about 2008. 1994 was so different than 2010, because everybody saw 2010 coming. We did not see the debacle coming in 1994.
I remember the one person who did was Erskine Bowles. Being from North Carolina he had just been home. And we were in a meeting one day and he goes, "Oh, I have a bad feeling we're going to lose the House." I was like, "No way Erskine! What are you talking about? We're not going to lose the House." He's like, "Oh, oh, yeah. I've just come from North Carolina, you can't believe what's going on out there." And I said, "No we've been around campaigning for people. We're gonna lose some seats. It's gonna be fine." But of course he was right and I was wrong. And Stan Greenberg, our pollster, he didn't see it coming.
Producer: What happened? What was going on, do you think?
Myers: Well, the election became much more nationalized than we realized. And the press didn't -- before the Internet it wasn't as easy to track races in you know, 435 districts. And so you didn't have the aggregate information and the ways of communicating it so everybody could see what was happening. But the election was nationalized, and the Republicans -- first of all the president had gotten off to a rocky start. His first budget raised taxes -- we call them 'revenue enhancements,' raised taxes. Republicans were campaigning on that. We'd banned assault weapons, and we had passed NAFTA, which was not necessarily popular in the Democratic base. Plus the Republicans are also running against the outline of the healthcare bill -- we're going to socialize medicine, you're not going to able to go see your own doctor -- and so the whole thing became nationalized as, "The Democrats, they've overstepped. This president doesn't know what he's doing. They're moving in the wrong direction."
Producer: Did Clinton view the results as personally, as a--
Myers: Oh, he took it very personally. He took it very personally. He tried to explain it away, you know, people are still feeling insecure economically or whatever his arguments were, but he was mad. And he was hurt, and he was mad. And the anger was in some ways a kind of stand-in for his kinda hurt feelings. But he was also mad. Why didn't we see this coming? How did you guys let his happen to me? He was mad and it took him a couple of months to really process it all. And even then, he was still navigating between the left and the center. In January he came out with the State of the Union -- "The era of big government is over." And that's not what the left wanted to hear. And again, the left had been suspicious of him. That was still a work in progress, his relationship with some of the constituencies in the Democratic Party who weren't totally on board with him. And I think instinctively, he knew, he got the message. The country was worried that the government was getting too big, too powerful. But I don't think he had articulated a plan even in mind of where all this was going to go.
Producer: He was searching.
Myers: He was searching. And he understood that he both needed to protect some Democratic priorities, but he also needed to show the country that he got the message and he was willing to move in a slightly different direction. That they were concerned about deficits.
I mean that's one thing that we haven't talked about is the Perot effect. I mean, Ross Perot was nuts, but he did have a significant role in making the debt and the deficit an issue that ordinary Americans cared about. And so the Republicans were building on that. Perot in 1992, that was the one nuts of his campaign -- "We gotta get under the hood and we gotta fix this thing." And so that became an issue that we underestimated the power of the public's sort of -- "We're fed up with deficits, we want the government to behave more responsibly."
So Clinton knew that he had to respond to that, but he also knew that he had to protect Democratic priorities. And so there was the MME period. We're going to protect Medicare, Medicaid, energy, education and the environment. But the era of big government is over. And so, he was navigating between these sort of two constituencies and trying to square the circle with the press and trying to figure out how to deal with the new Republican congress.
Producer: Do you remember the moment of, I don't remember if you were still there, but moment of the relevant press conference?
Myers: I was not, I was no longer there.
Producer: Just from your observations -- a cringe-worthy moment?
Myers: Oh God. It was awful. You know, the president it still relevant. Just the fact that he felt compelled to say those words says everything right? I mean, he was making the classic mistake of repeating the questioner's question. And repeating the word in responding to the question. But nonetheless it made him a subject of great ridicule, and people were like, "OK, this guy so doesn't get it." But he did. He did get it.
I was gone but, when he came out and said, "OK we're going to balance the budget," people to the left went crazy. It's like, "What are you talk -- We don't balance the -- you know, that's not -- we don't mind a little deficit spending. Why is he?" They believed that the Republicans had trapped him. And it turned out in hindsight he was right. I think I saw him around that time, and he said, "The whole debate is, 'are we going to balance the budget or not?' And the country clearly thinks we should balance the budget. That's not asking so much. OK, once you accept that we're going to balance the budget and now let's have a fight about what we're going to cut and what we're going to protect. That's a fight we can win. Whether or not to balance the budget, we can't win that fight. We're going to lose. Move it over here, we can win." And ultimately that's what happened. Are you going to protect Medicare? Are you going to protect Social Security? You want to shut down the government over that? Let's go.
Producer: Before you left, did you sense that there was another force in the White House? That's Charlie.
Myers: I did not. Clinton was still kinda hiding under the covers when I left. I think Charlie was in there whispering in his ear but, he had not fully emerged.
Producer: I'm going to ask you a couple of wrap-ups. I wonder how you feel now, 10 years after about the Clinton Presidency. When you were interviewed I think by Nightline shortly after, you expressed some reservations about what it could have been, had the personal scandals -- in the second term especially -- not cropped up. Do you still feel that way? A sense of lost opportunity? In addition to pride, of what took place.
Myers: The fact that the president was impeached and events leading up to that will always be part of his story, part of his legacy. It consumed a tremendous amount of energy, undercut his standing, and limited his ability to accomplish anything outside of surviving for almost two years. And that's tragic. Because he was reelected easily. The public was behind him. He'd figured out how to be president. He'd grown in stature, not just domestically, but internationally. To the first international summit, to the beginning of the second term, enormous growth. So he could have accomplished a tremendous amount, both at home and enhancing our reputation in the world in important ways. But he was hamstrung by the political realities and the time that it took to fight that, and the loss of faith in him among a lot of people because of it. So that's too bad.
A couple of things have happened in the subsequent years. One is that, increasingly, historians, public opinion has come down on the fact that Clinton wasn't innocent, but it was a tremendous overreach on behalf of the Republicans and the conservatives who were out to get him. And they were out to get him. It doesn't restore what could have been accomplished for the country, but it puts in perspective what happened. It was in some ways beyond his control and out of proportion to what was actually happening.
The second thing that's happened is that Clinton has gone on to do a lot of terrific work. And through his foundation and through his presence in the world he's shown -- it's no longer a question of "Is he trying to advance his career politically?" He likes being a player on the world stage. He will be one as long as he's physically capable, and I hope that's a long time. And he's still committed to the same kind of body of work, which I think makes clear what his priorities were all along. You can't argue that he only did these things to get votes. Or, he didn't really care about the initiatives that he was out there trying to sell. The proof is in the pudding.
What cracks me up now, as I travel around, is how many of my conservative friends tell me, "Oh I miss President Clinton." Well then why'd you try to impeach him? Or you did impeach him.
So his reputation has not only survived, it's grown. That happens to a lot of presidents in the aftermath of their presidency but not all. Actually, I don't know if it happens to a lot now that I think about it. But his reputation has grown. People appreciate his ability to work across the aisle. He was forced to deal with a Republican Congress so that created a set of realities that he just had to respond to. But he did it. And the country was better off for it.
Producer: You know, a lot of times when people look back on the Clinton presidency there is all this sort of evaluation of impeachment and we forget sometimes -- you said it earlier -- the ordinary people benefitted from this man being president. In concrete, actual, day-to-day ways. I mean can you talk about that? Because ultimately for me it all comes back to that relationship you described so well in New Hampshire, and they never left him, did they?
Myers: No. One of the really curious things, amazing things was that, all throughout impeachment his job approval rating never went below 60. There might have been one poll. But you know, the aggregate, he was always above 60 percent. Which is remarkable: he was being impeached. And the public stayed with him. And they stayed with him because they believed he was on their side. And that he would decide in their interests and that he really understood their lives and he cared about them. And he would continue to fight for them. They'd seen him fight through all kinds of terrible circumstances, of his own creation sometimes, but he sort of always managed to communicate, "I'm trying to get through this so I can get back to doing your work." And they believed it.
And I think that his enemies, like I said -- and I do mean enemies, not just his political ones, but his enemies -- always underestimated that connection. They always underestimated the public's faith in his willingness to work for them. And ultimately it's what sustained him. It's why he continues to be popular.
I remember being in Hope, Arkansas with him when he went to visit his uncle Buddy Grisham. And he was sitting on the porch of Buddy's house, very modest house somewhere in Hope, Arkansas, and he was having the time of his life. And I can remember sitting there watching him thinking, "He's completely happy right now. He's here with this guy that he loves, sitting in a folding chair on the porch -- he's running for president, but there's nowhere in the world he'd rather be than right here. In this space, with this man." And that's what it ultimately came down to.
Producer: That's who he really was.
Myers: Yeah, and people watched him for a long time, and at the end of the day there was nothing his opponents could say about him, whether it was true or not, that could change their opinion of that part of him. Most Americans believed he was on their side.
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?