The "Clinton" production team interviewed over 60 politicians, journalists, and influential players of the Clinton era. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Facebook fans voted for the interviews they wanted to see on the website, and Robert Reich was one of the winners.
The Secretary of Labor under Clinton from 1993-1997, Robert Reich is currently the Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. In this interview, Reich, who met Bill Clinton at age 22, shares an insider's perspective on Clinton, his work ethic, his political life, and his presidency.
Producer: Let's start with that wonderful scene of the first time -- I don't know if it was the first time you met Bill Clinton, but the first time you conversed with him on the ship, on the way over to Oxford.
Reich: Bill Clinton and I were both privileged to become Rhodes Scholars, and in those days, Rhodes Scholars all went to Oxford together to get to know each other on a boat. It seemed very quaint. And before the journey it seemed rather exciting. But in October, which is when those journeys were made, the North Atlantic tends to be very rough. And I got very seasick, and retired down to my cabin thinking I would never come back.
There was a knock at my door, and I remember opening my door and seeing this tall, lanky guy who I had met very briefly at the dock just as we left. And he was holding chicken soup in one hand and crackers in the other, and he said, "I'm Bill Clinton, and I hear you weren't feeling very well." He didn't say, "I feel your pain." That was later. But we struck up a conversation. I was not feeling well, and it became a friendship for the next 40, 50 years.
Producer: And what struck you about him, right off the bat?
Reich: I was struck by his affability, his desire to connect, his empathy, certainly. I mean, here I was, he didn't know me, I was just sick in one of the cabins, why should he come down to give me chicken soup? I was struck by the delight in his eyes in telling stories. He was a storyteller -- he loved an audience, even if it was an audience of one person who was nauseous from being seasick. And in subsequent conversations, I was struck by his ambition -- not in a negative sense. I mean, he really knew where he was going, at least with regard to becoming governor of Arkansas.
Producer: He was already talking about that?
Reich: He was talking about becoming governor of Arkansas. Running for governor, yes. At the age of 22 on the way Oxford.
Producer: Here he is, a guy from Arkansas, among the elite of his generation. He wasn't intimidated. He wasn't a guy who was hiding his Arkansas roots, was he?
Reich: No. He was not hiding. He was not hiding his Arkansas roots. In fact, he was using his Arkansas roots. He loved to be and play a kind of backwoods figure who had a lot of stories and enjoyed using his Arkansas drawl and almost fooling us into thinking he was not quite as bright as he actually was.
Producer: Let's talk about the war and the draft. How did the draft color the experiences of the young Rhodes Scholars that year?
Reich: All of us at Oxford in 1968 and 1969 were preoccupied, if not obsessed, by the war and the draft. We were obsessed by the war because most of us felt that the war was unjustified. It was abhorrent. We had been politically active, many of us, and we felt that we, in a sense, had to continue to do whatever we could even though we were outside the United States. We were also preoccupied by the draft because most of us were eligible. And Bill Clinton was as preoccupied as anybody else.
Producer: What was the concern? I mean, were you guys insulated or not?
Reich: No one was insulated. All of us, except those of us who had physical infirmities could be drafted. We all had different relationships with our draft boards. Some of us got very clear deferments for two years, some of us got conditional deferments, some of us were on the verge of signing up for the National Guard, or had postponed this or that. It was all a kind of patchwork of ways in which we had managed to be at Oxford, but there was no guarantee we were going to be able to continue to be there.
Producer: Were you aware of Clinton's own views on the war?
Reich: Bill Clinton was firmly against the Vietnam War. I don't recall whether he demonstrated. There was a big flap when he ran about whether he did or didn't. But we had a lot of conversations. He was, like the rest of us, concerned that it was wrong morally, it was wrong politically and strategically -- that the whole domino theory that North Vietnam, if it fell, would be the final domino, and South Vietnam would fall and communism was just a spreading threat. That was utterly simplistic. We knew it, and we were very much afraid of the direction things were going in.
Producer: Bill Clinton had friends from Arkansas who went to Vietnam and died there. Do you remember any of that, him talking about that, or...
Reich: We all had friends who went to Vietnam and almost every one of us knew at least one person who died there who was a friend whose death meant a lot to us. And Bill Clinton was no exception.
Producer: So what were the choices, then, that Bill Clinton was confronting? I mean, there was the Frank Aller way, right? There was going, joining. And then there was some kind of middle ground. I mean, if you could tell me kind of --
Reich: For Bill Clinton, becoming a conscientious objector was not really a possibility. He had a political career in front of him and he knew that to be a conscientious objector, no matter how much he objected to the war -- and by the way, I'm not even sure he objected on such deep moral and philosophical grounds that he could have justifiably been a conscientious objector -- nevertheless, it was not appropriate.
On the other side, simply going into battle was also something that was pretty abhorrent. Not only would he lose his scholarship -- that was the least of it. He might lose his life. And he felt very strongly that the war was unjust. So, what were the range of options in between? There weren't any good ones. Dealing with the draft board again and again, trying to get a deferment. Making promises that he'd do this or that -- that he'd join the reserves. Nobody had a good answer, and everybody was dealing with a slightly different set of circumstances.
Producer: Were these deferment options, these middle-ground options, seen as dishonorable in some way? Or was everybody doing them? I mean, would it be seen as kind of sneaky?
Reich: These -- what you might say as "middle ground" -- set of options, between conscientious objector and actually going into battle, were not seen as being sneaky or in any way avoiding one's duty. They were practical options for young men at the time who objected to the war, who had careers in front of them, who felt themselves talented, and who did not want to be in harm's way, directly.
Producer: I wonder if you remember any conversations -- I know this is a long time ago -- any things that you were privy to that could demonstrate or exemplify how much of a struggle this was for him.
Reich: This was a huge struggle for Bill Clinton. As it was for all of us. I remember one evening we had a party for Frank Aller, who had decided that he would not respond to his induction orders, that he would be a conscientious objector and that he effectively would renounce his American citizenship if it came to it. It was a somber party. When I say "party," it was a gathering. I mean, we wanted to support Frank, but we knew that this was a huge, huge decision for him. Bill was there. We all talked about how difficult these decisions were for us. Weighing our consciences, our careers, our ambitions, our upset about American politics and the direction it was going in. All of this weighed so heavily on us. It's very difficult for this young generation to appreciate the extent to which we were all right there on the front line of our own consciences.
Producer: When the Colonel Holmes letter was ultimately made into an issue during the campaign in '92, and those words written during this time came back, I wonder if you remember any of your own thoughts about whether this was, as it was portrayed, a kind of slick, political kind of document? Or whether this was really the anguished words of someone who was really going through something?
Reich: I remember reading the words of the Colonel Holmes document and thinking to myself, "This is exactly as I remembered the anguish that Bill Clinton went through at the time." This was not a slick politician. This was someone, like all of us, who was in very, very deep conflict and also trying desperately to make some sense of the decisions that he was making.
Producer: Let's fast-forward to Yale. You knew Hillary before you knew Bill, is that right?
Reich: I knew Hillary in her undergraduate days. She was president of her freshman class, I was president of my sophomore class at a different institution. I remember that I once suggested a kind of presidents' summit meeting, which one might interpret as a date, and she came up to Dartmouth and we had a very good and interesting time.
And when she ran for office in 2008, some reporter asked me if anything from that date was possibly relevant to how she might be as a president. I couldn't believe the question, but I answered with tongue firmly planted in cheek that she did want a lot of butter on her popcorn when we went to the movies. There was a long pause. And the reporter said, "Well, thank you very much." And that actually appeared in the newspaper. Absurd.
I knew Hillary Clinton from undergraduate days and was enormously impressed with her. She was a terrific energy and enthusiasm, and a great organizer. And I knew that she was going to have a political future.
Producer: What kind of figure did she cut when she got to Yale? I mean, she was, I guess, somewhat well known by this time already.
Reich: By the time we got to Yale Law School, Hillary Clinton -- Hillary Rodham then -- and her group of peers, who were actually a year after us chronologically in age, were actually a year before us in law school, because we had been over in Oxford doing our work as Rhodes Scholars, so her reputation by the time we came to Yale was very well established. She was a leader, she was a doer. She had already distinguished herself.
Reich: I wouldn't say she was intimidating, because most people who ended up in Yale Law School in the late 60s, early 1970s, were pretty self-aware and also had a lot of assurance and confidence. But she was a powerful figure nonetheless.
Producer: What about Bill? What was he like at Yale, early on?
Reich: Bill loved Yale. Yale was a center of intellectual ferment and political ferment. Yale Law School was the kind of place you went if you felt you needed to go to law school, maybe, for your resume, but you really didn't want to practice law. You wanted to do public policy, or maybe go into politics. And it was great in terms of discussions and contacts. And the students were all interesting. Many had political thoughts or ambitions. And so Bill fit right in.
Producer: Was he a diligent law student, would you say?
Reich: He was not a diligent law student. Let me emphasize that. He enjoyed the connectedness with other students, he enjoyed the discussions, he enjoyed the social life of Yale Law School. But he did not apply himself overwhelmingly to his studies.
Producer: You once wrote of him that he could "spend hour upon hour trading jokes, playing cards, gossiping about politicians, taking delight in himself and those around him. And that's how he spent most of his time at Oxford and Yale." Give us a kind of picture of the Bill Clinton you knew at Yale.
Reich: Bill Clinton, between the ages of 22 and 25 or 26, at Oxford and at Yale, told stories. He loved to discuss issues. He loved to be in the center of discussions. He, in a way, loved to perform. Played cards. He was a remarkable center of social life in the best sense of the word. He wasn't a great student. He didn't care about being a student. He wasn't there for being a student. He was there to be stimulated intellectually by other students, and he was there to stimulate and impress them. And make connections. And contacts.
Producer: What kind of mind did he have? Were you impressed by him intellectually? What sort of mind did this guy have?
Reich: It was hard in those days to really tell what kind of a mind he had in terms of his analytic prowess. Because he was so filled with stories and so filled with bonhomie. He was such a great raconteur -- that all of that, in a way, got in the way of the hard analysis. So I didn't know, frankly. It was only years later that I began seeing the real intellect that is at the heart of Bill Clinton.
Producer: I think you know the story of their meeting. Tell us that story. What is the real story of how Hillary and Bill met?
Reich: I take full credit for their meeting. Actually, the first day of law school, I was sitting next to Bill Clinton, and Hillary came up to say hello to me, and I said, "Hillary, this is Bill. Bill, this is Hillary." And they said hello, and obviously, they don't remember a word of it. And I get no credit at all. They say they met in the library. And they have a wonderful, charming story that I'm sure is absolutely correct about how they did meet in the Yale Law library. The only possible question I have is that I don't remember Bill spending a minute in the Yale Law library.
Producer: Would you have described Bill and Hillary at Yale Law School as a natural couple?
Reich: In hindsight, I would describe them as a natural couple from the beginning. But she was so much more obviously intellectual. And her power was so much more disciplined than his. She knew what she wanted to do about particular issues. She was already very involved in educational reform. Bill was less disciplined. He was filled with excitement and energy. He certainly wanted to go into politics. But he didn't have quite as clear a set of ideas as Hillary. So I suppose right at the start I would have said, "Well, it's an interesting connection, interesting couple." I didn't see the potential.
Producer: Did you see the basis of their connection? Did you have a feeling of what kept those two together?
Reich: A short term after they started seeing each other, I certainly saw what it was that they found in each other. She saw in Bill, I assume, not only extraordinary charm -- charm to just knock her off her feet -- but also ambition. Ambition with a specific political end.
And he saw in her a huge intellectual force. Enormous leadership potential. A lot of common sense. A kind of grounding that maybe a man of his age, given his lack of discipline, his excitement, his energy, might not have had ordinarily.
Producer: There was a novelty in her, probably.
Reich: He probably had never encountered a woman his age who was as capable, as powerful, as directed, as was Hillary Rodham.
Producer: She probably wasn't the only woman interested in Bill Clinton. I mean, this guy had some power over women. Is that fair to say?
Reich: It's fair to say that Bill Clinton was charming. Now to say that he had a lot of power over women, that he was seductive, I think is stretching it a little bit. Because at the age of 22 to 25 or 26, a lot of young men are trying to be very charming, and they try to be as seductive as they can be. I don't think -- and there was no reason to believe -- that Bill was any different from anybody else at that time.
Producer: Fair enough. Was it known among Bill's friends that he was going to go back to Arkansas? Was that something that you all knew was going to happen?
Reich: It was very clear he was going back to Arkansas. And it was very clear he wanted a political career in Arkansas. We talked before he applied to Yale Law School about whether it would be better to go to the University of Arkansas Law School or better to go to Yale. The advantage being at the University of Arkansas Law School, obviously, is that he would be there. He could begin to establish his political base. But the advantage of going to Yale Law School was that it had more prestige. He could make more national connections that could be valuable to him for his entire lifetime. And he might even get a better education, at least he thought. So there was no doubt that he was going back to Arkansas and going into politics.
Producer: Your answer, though, presupposes that he was already looking beyond Arkansas. You're talking about national connections. Would you have been surprised to hear him say, "I don't want to stop at Arkansas. I want to continue into national politics"?
Reich: I wouldn't have been surprised to hear him say -- at the time, he was 22, or 23, or 24 -- "Arkansas's just my first step. I then want to go into national politics and even run for President." But he didn't quite say that. He was willing to talk about Arkansas, and his political ambitions in Arkansas. I don't recall him saying the word "President." That might have been just too grandiose.
Producer: So there was little doubt that he was going back to Arkansas. Were you surprised that Hillary would have followed him?
Reich: I was a bit surprised that Hillary followed him back to Arkansas. Arkansas in those days was not quite as modern as it is today. Arkansas was a backwater. Clearly, politically and culturally and in many other ways. Hillary had gone to Wellesley. She had gone to Yale. She was almost a national figure in her own way. She had been involved with some national movements. To go back to Arkansas was obviously a compromise for her. But one that she just as obviously felt was necessary. Not only for Bill's career, but also to build a political base.
Producer: So that was the reason you think she went back there?
Reich: I think she went back because she was in love with him. I don't really think there was anything more complicated than that.
Producer: I want to skip ahead a little bit. It's 1988, and he has been governor for a while and obviously, he's thinking now beyond the governorship. I wonder if you remember watching his nominating speech in the '88 convention where he nominates Dukakis. Do you remember that speech and what your thoughts were? Tell me about it.
Reich: I was there in Atlanta. He came up to me and a couple of his old friends and said, "I have this speech here that I'm going to give." I looked at it. It looked pretty long, in terms of page length. Several of us asked if he wanted to rehearse it, wanted to go over it. We'd be a willing audience. He kind of laughed it off, said he didn't need to. And then when he gave it, I was terribly upset for him. It was obviously way too long. He got carried away. And it must have been crushing to him, when he finally got to the penultimate, "and in conclusion..." and everybody applauded.
Producer: Why crushing?
Reich: Here is a man who prided himself on his ability to charm and communicate. This was his big opportunity. His first major opportunity on the national stage. He was introducing possibly the next President of the United States. He was talking to the leaders of the Democratic Party. And to so flagrantly and obviously get carried away with himself, with his voice, with his text, had to be humiliating.
Producer: That wasn't the real Bill Clinton, really out there, was it? I mean, he was a pretty good speaker.
Reich: Bill Clinton was a very, very good speaker. But like many people who are great speakers and great thinkers and have a lot of energy and ambition, he talked too much.
Producer: Yes, indeed.
Reich: It was equally remarkable how quickly he rebounded. He appeared on a late-night talk show. The host put the hourglass up, as if a joke about Bill's talking. And there was laughter. And he joined in that laughter. He made a joke about himself. And he played the saxophone. And it was as if the country forgave him, and the party forgave him, and it was all over. Yet he maintained the stature he still had as being the person who introduced Mike Dukakis.
Producer: Four years later, I think, you were actually there for his announcement in Little Rock? Tell me about that day. Set the scene again for us and what was going through your head as he announces to be President of the United States?
Reich: I went down for his announcement in Little Rock that he was going to seek the Presidency of the United States. I remember standing behind a pillar at the state house. I don't even think he knew I was there. I didn't want to be conspicuous. But I remember watching him and Hillary. And just saying to myself, "I hope they know what they're getting into." Worried for them. Worried for him. The road to the White House, even then, was not easy. It would require every bit of strength and fortitude. It could hurt his family. It would be a huge sacrifice. And if he were elected President, even more of one. I worried for them.
Producer: Did you feel that he had something to bring to that office? I mean, did you feel yourself hopeful for his chances?
Reich: I was very hopeful. I thought his chances were good. There were many people seeking that office. He had almost succeeded in 1988. He dropped out, he held back. Many of us didn't know quite why he had held back. He was almost champing at the bit. But then -- it was remarkable. It was as if all of the conditions came exactly into play as were necessary to get the nomination. And then to get elected. Had it not been for Ross Perot, for example, it's not clear that Bill Clinton would have been elected in 1992.
Producer: And Mario Cuomo decided not to run. There's a series--
Reich: Yes, there was just a series of happenstances. Cuomo decided not to run, Mario Cuomo. Others dropped out. Ross Perot decided to run as an independent. George Bush, the first George Bush, was caught in that "read my lips, no new taxes," and he decided he had to raise taxes. So the Republican base was angry with him. All sorts of things happened that one could not have expected. And Bill Clinton became President.
Producer: Bill Clinton is somewhat of a legendary campaigner. I wonder if you can recollect your own thoughts. I mean, you probably campaigned a bit with him. I don't know if you were in New Hampshire or not, but you certainly have seen him. Tell people what he was like on the campaign trail.
Reich: Bill Clinton was an extraordinary campaigner. Not only in terms of his energy, but he loved to shake hands. He loved to touch people. He got energy out of it. You know, the world of politics is divided between people who are introverts -- who lose a little bit of energy out of each interaction they have so that by the time the day ends, after 1,000 interactions, they're exhausted -- and people like Bill Clinton who are extroverted -- who get a little bit of energy from each interaction. So by the end of the day, after everybody else is out of it, who can't even see straight, they are more energized than they were at the beginning of the day. Bill used to see people on the road. Just standing there, waving a flag as he went by. And he'd stop the car. He'd have this car stop, he'd go out and shake their hands. He got more excitement and more fortitude from people than any politician I have ever seen.
Producer: And what was behind those encounters? Was this genuine, this empathy for people? Was it just a skilled politician at work?
Reich: People ask whether it was genuine, or whether it was a skilled politician at work. You know, it was somewhat both. To be a skilled politician, you have to be genuine. To really make it work, you have to love people. You have to love the contact, you have to love the energy, you've gotta love inspiring people and getting their adulation in return. You can't separate what's genuine from what is necessary.
Producer: Took a lot of stamina.
Reich: He had extraordinary stamina. He could go from early in the morning to late at night -- talking to people, campaign rallies, meeting with advisors, playing cards, talking about ideas, planning the next day's campaign stops, strategizing over what others were doing -- he was the center of the campaign and the center of the energy of the campaign.
Producer: So, in New Hampshire, of course, two stories break one after the other. Gennifer Flowers and then the draft story. Did you think that was the end of the line for Bill when those things happened?
Reich: When the Gennifer Flowers story broke, and then the draft story broke -- at each point, I thought, "This may be the end." But like the Perils of Pauline, he just came back. He was absolutely not going to let anything get him down. And everybody around him, you know, was frantic. I mean, everybody around him were going, "Oh, woe is me, we can't --- this may be the end." And he would just say, "Don't worry about it. Don't worry. This will be fine."
I remember when he and Hillary, down in Boston, had a television broadcast. And it was about some of the allegations about his womanizing. Hillary was very clear that these were false, that she was absolutely behind him 100%. She was under tremendous strain. I mean, even the scaffolding the lighting was on came down. I was watching from behind, and I was thinking, "How can these two people do this?" I mean, this is beyond a human being's normal energy range. Or capacity. Or endurance. And yet, they did it as if they'd been doing it for years.
Producer: All right, let's skip ahead. He's won, and he's asked you to join his cabinet. Tell us about your own expectations, your own sense of excitement as the new administration prepared to take over in Washington. What was your own expectations for what you could do?
Reich: It's hard to convey the sense of excitement, the headiness that goes with a new administration. Particularly the first administration after the other side has been in power for 12 years. It's almost as if people greeted us as saviors, as people who were going to rescue them. The atmosphere in Washington was almost giddy with excitement. Certainly among Democrats. Republicans weren't very happy.
And I remember even regular people -- I took my kids to McDonald's drive-through, and even the person who was giving us the hamburgers and French fries took a look at me, and I guess she'd seen me on television with Bill Clinton, and said, "Good luck to all of you! We're counting on you!" It was that kind of feeling.
It dissipated [LAUGHS]. Those feelings don't stay. I mean, there's a limit to what can be done in politics. And there's always a letdown after a honeymoon. But we thought we could really change the world.
Producer: And what were your hopes for the kind of President that Clinton in particular could be?
Reich: I hoped and expected that Bill Clinton could apply his agenda -- investing in people, investing in education, in healthcare, in the infrastructure that connected people together. I was firmly of the belief, and I think he was as well -- I'm sure he was -- that in a global economy, people are the only resource a nation has. Capital can go everywhere. Investors, consumers, everybody is -- and everything is -- footloose. But a nation's people determine the competitiveness and the future standard of living of people in that country. So unless you invest in people and in all of the things they need to be more productive, you really can't even begin to talk about and hope for a higher standard of living. That was the agenda. That was putting people first. That was the campaign promise. And that's what we came to Washington to do.
Producer: And you were of the firm belief that he believed that. That he was behind that.
Reich: I was firmly convinced that he believed that. That it was all about investing in people. That the investment agenda was critical. I mean, the nation had spent years disinvesting. We had not put the money and the energy we needed into education, and healthcare, and infrastructure, and basic research and development. If you don't do this, you have lower living standards. And was saw the typical American income was not growing, everything was stagnating. This finally was an opportunity to do something beyond the business cycle that would really fundamentally change people's lives for the better.
Producer: Were there any red flags, particularly around Bill Clinton himself? I mean, you've talked about his conciliatory nature, his wanting to please a lot of people. Do you feel that he was sufficiently in command? Sufficiently understanding of the tricky perilousness of this office? Did he come prepared for what a President needs to be?
Reich: Bill Clinton knew that it would take extraordinary effort, political skill, dedication, and luck to get his investment agenda into place. Particularly once we learned how big the federal deficit was. How much debt that Reagan and Bush had created. But he was determined. Now, I knew he loved to please people. I knew that he didn't want to be irrelevant to the political conversation. I knew that he, in a pinch, might cave. But I also knew that he knew that this investment agenda was critical. That without it, his presidency would not make the fundamental change America needed.
Producer: How long before that went away? That evaporated? I mean, it didn't take very long before that investment agenda was sacrificed, did it?
Reich: The first inkling I had that we were all a bit naïve was when it became apparent that Congress had a lot of different ideas than Bill Clinton and the new administration. Remember, Bill Clinton didn't really know Washington. He had been the governor of Arkansas. Not a big, major state. He had certainly come to Washington, he had been head of the National Governors' Association, but he was not a Washington player. The administration he put together was not big on Washington players. Yes, it had Lloyd Bentsen from the Senate and Leon Panetta from the House, but it was not a "of-Washington" administration. Look at me, I was a professor from some place.
I remember meeting Mack McClarty, who was going to be Chief of Staff. Wonderful man, a very kind man, very generous man. An old friend of Bill Clinton's from Arkansas. And I remember being so impressed with his good-natured personality, but also a little bit worried. I mean, who was going to inform Bill Clinton about what was actually happening in official Washington if there was so many of us who were relatively naïve or from Arkansas?
Producer: There was this disconnect, right? Between the Clinton administration those early months, and the culture of Washington. Is that fair to say?
Reich: There was a disconnect between the Clinton administration -- certainly in the early months -- and the prevailing culture of Washington. Part of that disconnect was insiders versus outsiders.
The Democrats were in control of both houses of Congress. The Democrats had been in control, more or less, for a long time. Those Democrats in Congress had become accustomed to being their own bosses. They had worked with Ronald Reagan, they had worked with George Bush, the first George Bush. And against both Reagan and Bush. But they had developed the habits of mind of independent politicians. Not anybody or any group who were going to be subservient to a new president. Certainly not from Arkansas, who didn't even know his way around Washington. So yes, there was that profound disconnect.
Producer: And I want to get to that wonderful analogy you made of Bill Clinton as sort of using sonar. There were habits of personality here that played into some of the difficulties in the early years, early months.
Reich: It became very apparent very soon that Bill Clinton as President was not going to be an LBJ. He was not going to assert his authority, make deals, crack heads, push his weight around, say to any members of Congress in the leadership that if you don't follow me, you're going to pay for this, because I'm going to remember it. You're not going to get this; you're not going to get that.
You know, LBJ knew how to use power. Bill Clinton knew much of that, but he also wanted to be liked. His instinct was to try to come up with compromises, try to come up with positions that would at least appease his opponents, and also push his agenda forward at least a little bit. He operated almost in the way of sonar. I mean, he could detect, miraculously, I often didn't even understand how he did it, exactly where people were coming from before they even said where they were coming from. He would position himself, almost automatically, in such a way that he deflected their opposition, and he enhanced their willingness to play with him, play on his side. He would appease opponents. He would take positions that were agglomerations of where people were, and somehow satisfy the majority. But that didn't necessarily push his agenda forward. It kept his power. It didn't necessarily mean that the agenda was going anywhere.
Producer: It sounds like there was a vagueness. You describe a president who's a little -- and this has obviously been used about Bill Clinton -- a little bit all over the place. His own mind was more attuned to what other people were thinking.
Reich: Bill Clinton was very attuned to what other people were thinking. Those of us who watched him assumed that he had a strategy in the background. Even though he was appeasing and making deals, and placating, and making people feel basically pretty good, that it was all in pursuit of some strategy that he understood. And that strategy may be changing a bit from time to time -- it looked from the outside a little bit chaotic, not very well planned, not very disciplined. But those of us who watched him thought, "Hmm, maybe he knows something that other people don't know." In other words, it was hard to tell where the placating ended and the strategizing began.
Producer: Do you think he did know where he was going in those early months and years?
Reich: Any leader, particularly a political leader, particularly in a democracy as complicated as the United States has to be willing to be a little bit vague about exactly what he wants to do and when he or she wants to do it. Because there are too many players. There are too many deals that have to be struck. You've got to be an opportunist. You've got to move forward when you can. So this is not the strategy of a big corporation or a football team or any group that really knows exactly what it must be doing and when. This is a kick-it-down-the-road, see-what-you-can-get strategy necessarily.
The question is, when do you get tough, and with whom? How do you ultimately measure your success? And that's where I think that Bill Clinton's tendency towards placating his opponents might have got him into trouble.
Reich: Because if you do too much repositioning, if you are too concerned about keeping friends and not making enemies, then you may inadvertently cause the people who support you to lose confidence that you are actually going to make the sacrifices that they have made. You may convince your enemies, or even others who are dealing with you, that they are more powerful than they really are. You may inadvertently, in other words, undermine your own position.
Producer: What was the White House like? Take us inside the White House. What was the atmosphere like in the White House in that first year?
Reich: The atmosphere in the White House in that first year was... chaos. Mostly good-natured chaos, but a lot of fierce, frightening, sometimes angry, wild chaos. People have analogized the presidency and the White House to trying to drink out of a fire hose. It's worse than that. And the first year of any administration is bizarre in terms of the number of things that come up that are unplanned. The number of emergencies that happen. It's not possible to exaggerate how difficult it was working in Bill Clinton's White House in that first term. And in that first year. Because Bill Clinton himself was voracious. He wanted to do everything. He wanted to deal with every problem. He was in the middle of every conflict. He was placating, he was making deals; he was doing so much, his staff was going nuts.
Producer: And what was it like for you to get his attention, to get anywhere?
Reich: I felt a certain degree of frustration -- I don't think I felt more frustration than anybody else. I was lucky enough to have my own department and my own little territory. So there was a lot that could be done at the departmental level that didn't really require presidential attention. And when I needed presidential attention it was not all that difficult for me because I had known Bill Clinton for years, I kinda snuck in and made a deal, or -- I'm so short -- there was a little jump seat in the presidential limousine, occasionally, just before Bill Clinton was headed off somewhere, I'd run up and say to whoever was around "Don't worry." I'd get in, I'd sit in the jump seat right opposite him and I'd -- you'd know -- make some sort of a deal about jobs or unemployment or something. It would drive the staff absolutely crazy because there were so many people like me who got access to him in so many ways.
Producer: And here was a guy who, as you say, was voracious. I mean, in contrast to Ronald Reagan, who, you know, lucky if he paid attention to one issue at a time, this guy was in every meeting, right? He just drunk in the information. And he knew so much about so much. But that has a downside, and that's what I want to get at.
You've described the almost a college frat kind of atmosphere -- not a college frat, but a sort of seminar kind of atmosphere where everybody's at the table, everybody's talking, and these meetings go on and on and on and on, right? Tell us a little bit about that. And there's Bill Clinton at the seat of the table, involved in all of it!
Reich: Initially there were meetings in the White House that went on forever. For example, we had to reduce to budget deficit. And so we went through the budget, item by item by item. It was driving Leon Panetta, and others from OMB crazy. But Bill Clinton wanted to talk about every item, and others of us were sort of interested, some of us were policy wonks, and it was a great seminar. And we went on forever.
My memory is day after day after day in the Roosevelt Room, with Bill Clinton and Al Gore going over details that ordinarily no President, and certainly no group of advisors, and cabinet officers, would ever deal with. It's not just the minute and minutia. It was also the willingness and eagerness on Bill Clinton's part to talk about everything. He was a college professor, he was also a raconteur. He was at the center of the cyclone, and the cyclone never ended.
Producer: Perpetual cyclone. Were you surprised, did you think Bill Clinton was surprised by the political atmosphere in Washington when you got there? I mean, it's not necessarily a friendly place at the time.
Reich: I think Bill Clinton was surprised. Hillary Clinton was surprised. In fact, all of us from outside Washington were surprised at the hostility. The anger. The Republicans had been in control for 12 years. Here we were, newcomers. We were usurpers, in a way. Democrats on the Hill had been there and had their own fiefdoms and independence and their own power. And here we were. The media, certainly after--
Producer: Wait, finish that thought. You said "usurpers." I mean, there's almost a feeling of illegitimacy about a Democrat having the White House.
Reich: After 12 years of Republican rule, and also after many years of Democrats and Democratic leaders in Congress having their say over Democratic strategy, Washington had achieved a kind of stasis. Republican presidents, Democratic leaders. They didn't get along, but they made deals. And they all had power in their own ways.
Now, we upset the apple cart. I mean, we were not only Democrats in the White House, but we were people who were not associated with the old power structure. We were not part of the Democrats' power structure on the Hill. We were not obviously any part of the Reagan or Bush administrations. And we were from out of town, most of us. We were usurpers in the sense that a lot of people, including the media, sort of started asking the question, who the hell were we?
Producer: And you felt that hostility?
Reich: Initially there's a honeymoon. Initially, people are wildly enthusiastic. But when you begin tripping up, as you inevitably do -- gays in the military, for example. Or, how are we going to get the North American Free Trade Act? Or, does that come before we do something for the unions? Or whatever it was? Every trip-up becomes a big deal.
You know, in journalism, there are only two stories -- "Oh, the wonder of it," and "Oh, the shame of it." And if you get through a honeymoon, and it's all over the wonder of it, then the next big story is, "They don't know what they're doing, they can't get themselves out of a paper bag, they are just incompetent."
There was that, and there was also a Republican base that was becoming more furiously entrenched with regard to issues such as abortions, guns, gay rights, and that Republican base was angry. It was only a matter of time before that Republican base and that anger showed itself.
Producer: But there was such an edge to it. I wonder if you remember the atmosphere around the suicide of Vince Foster.
Reich: The hostility was much larger than anybody had expected. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal was outrageous. They talked about the suicide of Vince Foster and had every innuendo you could imagine. What happened to civilized discourse? What happened to moderate Republicans? What happened to mainstream media? What happened to the way this country used to come together? It all of a sudden seemed to so many of us as if we had entered a new age. And we didn't really know where that hostility was originating from, or why it was there.
Producer: How did Clinton himself deal with that? I mean, did you see his reaction to that?
Reich: Bill Clinton was mystified by the degree of hostility. Whether it was Whitewater or Vince Foster or anything you could put the word "gate" after. It seemed to him, and to all of us, so beside the point. So picayune. So irrelevant. There was no conspiracy. What were they doing? What were they thinking? Why were they doing this? The country needed so much change. Needed major investments. Wasn't it obvious to everybody? That was our political naïveté.
Producer: And what about Hillary? How did she react to this? Because so much of it involved her. The Whitewater stuff.
Reich: I think Hillary was very hurt. She was taken by surprise. She had been through a bruising campaign. That was an education in itself. But once the campaign was over and we all got on with the business of governing, I think the dominant assumption in the Clinton White House, and even extending to Hillary and everybody else around Bill Clinton was: the campaign's over, now the governing begins. And yet the attacks continued. And they became even more vicious. And there was this lingering puzzlement. Why?
Producer: The first budget battle was a tremendously important passage in the story. Take us inside that debate in the White House over what shape the budget -- the Clinton budget was going to take. There were camps.
Reich: There was a significant debate in the White House over the shape that that first budget was going to take. Some of us, myself included, thought that Bill Clinton's campaign promise to put people first and make major investments in education, in healthcare, in infrastructure, in basic research and development, were so important for the nation's future that they could not be sacrificed merely because the deficit was slightly higher as a result of the spending and tax policies of the Bush administration and even the Reagan administration before that. Why should the American public and the goals that Bill Clinton had so clearly evinced for the public be sacrificed because there was essentially a kind of starve-the-beast spending mentality dominant in Washington and in the White House in the Reagan and Bush years? But others said no.
Producer: What others? I mean, tell us specifically.
Reich: Lloyd Bentsen, Leon Panetta, and Bob Rubin, and to some extent Alice Rivlin, who assisted Lloyd Bentsen, felt that it was critically important to satisfy Wall Street and the bond markets that a Democratic administration was serious about reducing the budget deficit.
Now, the irony is that Wall Street had never squawked when the first George Bush was spending like gangbusters or when Ronald Reagan was spending like mad. But the thought was that a Democratic administration has to sort of prove its chops, prove itself capable of being much more fiscally responsible than its Republican predecessors because it's a Democratic administration. Well, to us, to me, to those on my side of the debate, that sounded absurd. I mean, yes, let's satisfy the bond traders to some extent. Obviously, we have to get the deficit down somewhat. But let's not sacrifice the Clinton agenda.
Producer: And where was Clinton himself on all this?
Reich: Bill Clinton, in his own inimitable way, wanted to satisfy everyone. Well, let's see how much we can do. Let's try to get the deficit down as much as we can. Let's get a first budget that does reflect Bill Clinton's priorities, in terms of education and putting peoples first. But let's also satisfy Wall Street and the bond traders. Let's just do it. [LAUGHS].
Well, you know at some point, you've got to do something that is either one or the other. You can't just do both. At some point, a compromise really is a loss, or a concession, or a major step backwards from a goal.
Producer: And hence, I guess, the desire to do it all led to the line-by-line, can we have this much, can we have this much, can we cut back this much, right?
Reich: The desire to do it all, to have the Clinton priorities and yet satisfy Wall Street led to this extraordinary effort to go line by line by line through the budget and to try to extract enough. And then the question was, "Well, how much is enough?" Do you bring the budget deficit down from five percent of the gross domestic product down to two and a half percent? Which is, basically, cutting the deficit by half. That's what many of us said we're perfectly fine to do.
Others, who were the deficit hawks, said, "No, no, no, no. You actually have to reduce the absolute amount of the deficit by half. That was your campaign promise, that's what we need to do. That's the only way we're going to satisfy Wall Street."
And in the background, Alan Greenspan, as head of the Fed, was whispering in ears -- Lloyd Bentsen's ear, and I think also the President's ear, "If you don't get this budget deficit down, I am not going to cut short-term interest rates. And if I don't cut short-term interest rates, by the time you face the next election in 1996, this economy is not going to be growing buoyantly, and you may not be re-elected." That's called extortion.
Producer: So it was Alan Greenspan who settled the argument, in some ways.
Reich: Alan Greenspan basically settled the argument. We didn't know it at the time.
Producer: [LAUGHS]. Okay. So then, as you say, he settled the argument. This budget is proposed and there's this incredible fight over whether it's going to pass or not. Take us to the end of that fight. The day of the vote, as it were. Do you remember?
Reich: There was no certainty over the outcome of that budget battle in either House. Even though the Democrats had a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, it was still very, very close. Congress wasn't happy about the budget. It meant, to many of them, too many of their favorite programs had to be sacrificed. It meant to others, still too high a deficit. It meant that the new crowd in town were pushing them around. It meant that some of them had to take very hard, hard votes that might actually cost them re-election. So it was a real struggle.
Producer: Did you watch the final vote with Bill Clinton? Were you in that when Bob Kerrey cast the final vote? Do you remember that?
Reich: I don't know where I was. I remember I was there. I don't remember physically where I was.
Producer: Do you remember your own sense of suspense at the time?
Reich: I and everyone else watched that final vote with huge trepidation. We knew that if Bill Clinton lost that vote, the signal would be that he can't get the Democrats in the House and the Senate to go along with him. That means he doesn't have power. That's the definition of lacking power. And if this early in the administration our new President lacks power, where do we go next? It was a critical vote for the future.
Producer: So Hillary Clinton was given the role of honchoing healthcare. What was Hillary's mistake? What was her biggest mistake regarding that whole project?
Reich: Healthcare had been given to Hillary Clinton. She had been very concerned and interested in healthcare. She was a tremendously impressive person in terms of her grasp of public policy.
But there was a lingering question in the minds of many people inside the White House and also in Congress, as to whether a President should give his wife, the First Lady, the initiative and the responsibility for the biggest thing that the President was doing? Didn't that belong to Health and Human Services or the White House staff? Weren't there just too many potential kind of conflicts of interest? Would people speak up and blow the whistle if things were not going well? It was complicated.
Also, the process itself became very complicated. The President asked a very talented consultant Rhode Island named Ira Magaziner, who I knew, to head it up. And Ira created a very complicated, almost monster of a system, with so many consultants and toll gates as to when decisions would be made and how would they be made. So much complexity. So many people. So much secrecy, that it became impossible to tell where things were.
And even though it was rational, in the sense that I think that they did it very, very carefully and rationally, it had no political sense to it. Because you see, there were people on Capitol Hill, some very eminent Senators, Pat Moynihan, for example, who had been working on the issue of healthcare for years. And they were not consulted. The worst thing you can do to eminent Senators is to say, "Here is a complicated idea, proposal, piece of legislation, please pass it." [LAUGHS] You know? You're insulting them. You're insulting their intelligence. You're insulting their status.
And the healthcare bill, because of that process, was held up for far too long. And by the time it got to Capitol Hill, it was almost too late.
Producer: They'd been insulted. And that was the end of it.
Reich: The major leaders on Capitol Hill, the people who had worked on this issue for years, who knew more about it -- they felt -- than anybody else, were insulted.
Producer: Was it a little bit of an intellectual arrogance around Hillary?
Reich: Some people would say it was a kind of intellectual arrogance around Hillary, around Ira Magaziner, around some of the people who felt that they knew what was right, and you couldn't do it that way, you had to do it this way. But in fairness, I think they were just simply trying to come up with the most realistic, rational plan they possibly could, and get all the information out on the table. What they forgot is that they were working in Washington! In a political town in which there is really no difference between policy and politics. You can't separate the two.
Producer: I think that's a profound insight. How big a defeat was healthcare?
Reich: The defeat of healthcare was a huge defeat. Bill Clinton had spent a great deal of time and energy, personally. He had sold it to the country, or tried to sell it to the country. He had gone across America with a campaign for his healthcare plan. Cabinet members, I was involved, other Cabinet members, had been sent around the country. It was the number one objective. And to have it defeated -- was a repudiation in a sense. Or at least felt like a repudiation of the Clinton administration.
Producer: And for Hillary personally?
Reich: It must have been a terrible blow for Hillary personally.
Producer: Take us to the fall of 1995. We've had gays in the military. We've had, you know, a barely-passed budget initiative. We've had the failure of healthcare. We've had this drumbeat of scandal. Was there an atmosphere of failure in the White House? I mean -- this is rock bottom for the Clinton administration. I mean, what was the atmosphere like there?
Reich: The beginning of 1995 was rock bottom. All of the hope, all of the excitement, all of the aspiration of the first term had been undermined by a series of what seemed to be missteps. Gays in the military, the defeat of healthcare, the scandals -- which were not really scandals, but which were handled badly. One after another, the opponents of the administration, both Republicans and other opponents, seemed to be winning.
And then, of course, came Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America, and all of this new group of Republicans who took over the Senate and the House. We all felt in January, February, at the start of 1995 that it could not get worse. Bill Clinton himself was frantic. I think that he just did not know what to do. He knew something had to be fundamentally changed. He wanted to be in the game, he wanted to be relevant. But he didn't know how to do it.
Producer: What was your impression of Newt Gingrich? Tell us about Newt Gingrich.
Reich: Newt Gingrich was absolutely full of himself. He was like a little boy who had just broken into the candy story and stolen every piece of candy, and was making out like a bandit. Heading down there with a truck, filled with the candy.
And Newt Gingrich was an intellectual in the sense that he had big ideas. He liked to style himself as somebody with big ideas. But he also loved power. And now he had power. Washington had almost coronated him the new King of Washington. He loved every second.
Producer: Is there some way of describing how he viewed politics, which I think may have been different from other people, or people before him? You've talked about how he viewed politics almost as a blood sport. Is that fair to say? Talk about him in that capacity.
Reich: For Newt Gingrich, politics was a blood sport. It was winning at any cost. A loss was inconceivable, and you did whatever you had to do to win. Whatever you had to do. It wasn't just within the confines of normal politics. You did whatever. You used the media, you came -- [LAUGHING] I don't even want to think about what he might have done. I certainly don't want to accuse him of doing anything terribly nefarious, but the spirit was "anything goes."
Now this is fundamentally contrary -- Bill Clinton was a great politician. Bill Clinton loved a fight. He was willing to fight. But he also wanted to be loved. He wanted to be admired. Newt Gingrich didn't care about being admired and loved. He cared about winning! These are fundamentally different approaches to politics.
Producer: You said in the past, and I think it's profoundly important and fascinating, that part of what underlay the feelings of the Republicans toward the Democrats was a generational suspicion. A feeling, that, as you've said, that Clinton never paid a price for the '60s. And the right couldn't handle that. I mean, tell us what you mean by that.
Reich: You've got to understand, the 1960s represented a fundamental fault line in American culture. It was not only about sex and drugs and rock and roll, but it was also Vietnam. It was about the purpose of the nation. The aspirations of the nation. And all of us: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, every major actor, every major player had been caught up in that shift of tectonic plates.
Bill Clinton came to Washington representing one side. He was, unlike no President before him, clearly a man of the 1960s. The generation that had been in the middle of all those wars. Those cultural wars, those political wars, about Vietnam, American power. Newt Gingrich had been as well, but on the other side. And many of the people Newt Gingrich brought into Washington and into power, and promoted into leadership positions in Congress, had been, again, diametrically on the opposite side.
This was a new war in Washington. You see, when we came to Washington in 1992, 1993, there were still an old guard of Republicans and Democrats who knew each other, who liked each other, saw each other socially, had a code of honor, if you will. I don't think that's too much of an exaggeration. But Newt Gingrich brought into Washington a group that was determined to win. Not only politically, but also win culturally. And win the wars of the 1960s.
Producer: Wow. So there was no sense of collegiality or compromise or bipartisanship at all?
Reich: There was no sense of collegiality, bipartisanship. I remember, in 1993, 1994, as Labor Secretary, I had gone up to the Hill to testify a number of times, and Republican members of various committees had given me a hard time. But there was all a lot of mutual respect; we were all trying to do our jobs.
But when I went up to testify in 1995, it was a completely different experience. I remember one Republican member of one committee said to me, "You're a communist, aren't you?" And at first my reaction was to think he was joking. But he was dead serious. This was not about the issue that I came to the Hill to testify about. This was about fundamental belief. And this was about anger and ideology. And there was no bipartisanship, there was no bridging that divide. This was fundamental and also it was angry.
Producer: Was there any doubt in your mind that Bill Clinton could come back?
Reich: There was no doubt in my mind that Bill Clinton could come back or would come back. He always came back. He came back from his defeat in Arkansas, when he lost that gubernatorial election. Bill Clinton was constitutionally incapable of not coming back. The real question was, how? In what form?
Producer: Tell us about Oklahoma City.
Reich: The terrorist act in Oklahoma City shocked the nation and shocked all of us, obviously. But it also represented to all of us what could happen if hate and fear became the dominant mode of politics in America.
Now, obviously, there were people involved who were consumed by hate, and consumed by fear. And they were not politicians, and they were individuals who were quite disturbed. But Washington had become such a hateful place. And the media had begun to indulge in such anger and hate that that Oklahoma City bombing represented -- felt like -- the nation getting out of control.
Producer: But ironically, it also presented an opportunity for Bill Clinton, didn't it?
Reich: It presented, for that reason, an opportunity for Bill Clinton to say, "We are going, and have gone, too far. We have got to work together. We cannot any longer tolerate this kind of anger, this kind of hate. This nation is better than that."
Producer: And I think -- either he said or he implied that when you hate your government, you hate America. I mean, that essentially was his message.
Reich: Ronald Reagan had said, "Government is not the solution, government is the problem." And that had been the kind of Republican mantra for years. In this country, when people are stressed, they either choose to focus their anger at big government or at big business and Wall Street. Those are the only two options. For way over a century, that's what we've done.
Bill Clinton essentially said to the public, "If you are focusing your anger at government, you are focusing your anger at all of us. Government is just a personification of this country. We are a nation that comes together and decides things through government. If we hate our government, we end up in some odd way hating ourselves. And that's just not sustainable."
Producer: So as the months go on, and Newt Gingrich is essentially President of the United States, there is a shadowy presence that enters the White House. (And I'm talking about Dick Morris.) I wonder if you can remember a sense that there was somebody influencing the President, maybe offstage that you weren't able to see.
Reich: I recall a meeting that the President's economic advisors and political advisors were having about how he was going to spend the next three weeks. What themes he was going to emphasize. How he was going to project and develop some educational message. And I remember somebody from the back of the room -- I think it was Erskine Bowles, then the President's Chief of Staff -- saying, "This is all irrelevant." Irrelevant? We're the staff. We are the people who help the President. Why are we irrelevant? And he didn't exactly say. He said there was some other force in the White House.
And again and again there seemed to be instances. It was almost like in astronomy, there's a black holes. And you can only tell it's there because planets begin moving into its gravitational orbit. But you look, and there's nothing there. That was Dick Morris. Dick Morris was the black hole. I remember going over to the office of one of the President's major assistants and saying, "Something's fishy. Something's going on. What is it?" And this was a very close assistant, and he looked at me with absolute despair. And fear. And said, "We've been taken over." We've been taken over? Like a monster, what are you talking about? And then he just said, "Dick Morris."
Producer: Did you know who this was?
Reich: I vaguely knew Dick Morris. Dick Morris had been pulled in when Bill Clinton lost the governorship in Arkansas, to basically regain it. He was a political operative. I didn't have much to do with him.
Producer: Still, you had an impression of him. Tell us your impression of him.
Reich: My first impression of Dick Morris was of a complete and total jerk. You know, I'm a very generous person. I don't, you know -- I like people. But he was so full of himself. So opinionated, so grandiose. He was telling me, a Cabinet officer, what to do! But he had no authority. [LAUGHS] He was a pollster. What in the world was going on here? And he was also so self-centered and so arrogant. You know, there are a lot of self-centered and arrogant people in Washington, but he took the cake.
Producer: What was your impression of Dick Morris' fundamental belief or message to Bill Clinton? I mean, he described it as triangulation. I mean, does triangulation mean anything?
Reich: Dick Morris told Bill Clinton that he had to be right in the middle. Just go to the right. Move right. Move toward the Republicans. Basically, position yourself between the Democrats and Republicans, and above them. So you sort of have all of the prestige of being President, but you are above politics. And you are not partisan. Which, roughly translated, meant you didn't stand for anything [LAUGHS]. You basically were a figurehead.
And when it came to the 1996 election, I remember having debates with Dick Morris a number of times. I would say, "We've gotta have something that is a theme. Some mandate. The President's gotta talk about something other than school uniforms and v-chips in television sets so parents can control what children see. There are big issues here. The country's facing gigantic issues. Even if the President doesn't want to talk about healthcare anymore, at least talk about education. Talk about infrastructure. Talk about some big themes in human rights or foreign policy. There are a lot of things that we have to do."
And Dick Morris would say back, "But if he does any of that, he won't get re-elected. And if he's not re-elected, he can't do anything of the sort you're talking about." And I'd say back to Dick Morris, "But if he's re-elected without getting a mandate, he's not going to be able to do anything in his second term anyway." So what's the use? And we go around and around and around. Dick Morris was about power. Not about doing anything.
Producer: Do you think Bill Clinton bought into that? I mean, clearly, he was influenced.
Reich: Bill Clinton obviously felt that he'd had to do whatever was necessary to regain his power, and also to win in 1996. He had to play as tough as the other side was playing. And if it meant saying nothing in 1996 except, "You're better off than you were and you ain't seen nothing yet," so be it. He seemed to take almost everything Dick Morris said as gospel.
Producer: At the time, were you disappointed in that?
Reich: At the time I was very disappointed. I thought this was a major sellout. And not only because Dick Morris was so personally obnoxious, but because he was nihilistic. Because he stood for absolutely nothing. It was raw power with no content. And what's the purpose of politics if it's just power? You know, there's got to be something you want to do. Somewhere you want to lead the nation. And Dick Morris was all about polling. Well, polls don't really tell you where you should be, they tell you where you already are. I mean, if leadership is about anything, it's about leading. Not leading people back to where they already are, because they don't need that. They're already there.
You see, there's a fundamental contradiction between leading through polling, and really leading. At one point, I thought, well, maybe I should use Dick Morris. I mean, I knew that the President was reluctant to push for an increase in the minimum wage. He had been stalling on that, but I also had a hunch it was very popular. And if I could convince him and leaders of Congress it was popular, then maybe we could actually get it done.
I went to Dick Morris, I'm almost ashamed to say, and I said, "Well, Dick, do a poll." And almost the next morning, he came back with a poll showing there was a huge popularity, 85% of Americans wanted the minimum wage increased. I don't know how he found it so fast. He must have polled his family. Maybe that was his secret. But once the President and the leaders in Congress saw these polls, they said, "Wow, we've got to raise the minimum wage!" [LAUGHS] So it was possible to do a little bit of jiu-jitsu using Dick Morris.
Producer: So, Dick Morris himself, and some others, actually, would say that, "No, this is all wrong. We actually knew more about who Bill Clinton really was than the liberals like Reich and Stephanopoulos. This is the real Bill Clinton, the centrist Bill Clinton, the DLC Bill Clinton." No? You don't think so? Centrism wasn't really true to who he really was?
Reich: I think that in politics, when people want to discredit a particular position, they say, "Oh, they are liberals," or "They are conservatives; we are centrists." Everybody wants to be a centrist. The real issue with Dick Morris was not centrism versus the liberals, the real issue was leadership versus polling. And you cannot be a leader if you are basing your decisions on polls. You can't lead people to where they already are, because they're already there.
Producer: You saw his administration at that time as being reactive, basically, to what people wanted. But it worked!
Reich: Some people would say the proof of the pudding is it worked. But some others might say the real proof of the pudding is that the second term of the Clinton administration was terribly difficult. Not just with Monica Lewinsky, but with anything. And perhaps one of the reasons it was so difficult is that there was no real mandate to get anything specific done.
Producer: The budget showdown with Newt Gingrich. I gather that, again, there was a debate over whether or not President Clinton should present a balanced budget of his own. Where were you on that debate, what was your feelings about whether he should do that?
Reich: In the showdown with Newt Gingrich, the debate was whether the President should present a balanced budget of his own. And Newt Gingrich did not care about a balanced budget. Let's be clear. I mean, the Republicans -- for years -- had the most unbalanced budgets you can imagine, and Newt Gingrich had been right there, had never mentioned a balanced budget. No, this was all about putting Clinton into a corner. Making it difficult for him to do anything.
If you have a balanced budget and that's your goal, and you are tied into a balanced budget, then how can you justify public investments that may be required, like any family borrowing to send their kids to college, in order to grow the economy? I felt that leading with a budget balance proposition, a balanced budget, was not the right strategy. It was a cave-in. It was another form of placating. You give that to them, they're going to want even more.
Producer: But it happened.
Reich: Well, it so happened, interestingly, that Alan Greenspan -- the same Alan Greenspan who had said to the President, and whispered in his ear, and in Lloyd Bentsen, the Treasury Secretary's, ear, "You better cut the deficit because otherwise I won't cut interest rates and you won't get re-elected" -- Alan Greenspan had, because interest rates were low, generated a huge economic recovery. And the budget automatically balanced. Revenues came in faster than anybody thought they would, and lo and behold, the federal budget was balanced. So balanced, in fact, that it started to show surpluses.
And then, as I predicted, the Republicans said, "No, that's not enough. We want to take those surpluses and cut taxes." [LAUGHS] You know, in the game of jiu-jitsu, it's obvious. If you give them something, they're going to want even more. Cutting taxes is not bad. But if you cut taxes on the wealthy, which is what they wanted to do, you're not helping people who need better schools and better infrastructure and healthcare. You're basically robbing the middle class and the poor to provide tax cuts to the rich.
Producer: I mean, at bottom, the balanced budget fight, and every fight with Newt Gingrich was really about a vision of what government is, wasn't it?
Reich: The fights with Newt Gingrich were about two things. One was a vision of what government is, and should be. That is, whether it is an agent of the people, or it is simply captured in some way by bureaucrats and others. But it was also about raw power. Regardless of what Bill Clinton would have offered or done, Newt Gingrich would have positioned himself in the opposition, and created a choice that would be either Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton.
Producer: As you watched the second term, you were no longer in the administration -- you blissfully went home to your family. I wonder what you felt, particularly, let's say, with the revelations of the Lewinsky affair and what followed. Can you describe your own state of mind about that?
Reich: When the Lewinsky affair unraveled, I was convinced that Bill Clinton had been set up. That he had not had any kind of sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. What a stupid thing to do. He's smarter than that. He not only would be not take the chance -- because he's got all these enemies who are out to get him -- but he wouldn't be so stupid as to jeopardize his entire presidency. For what? No, that was not the Bill Clinton I knew.
So right up until the very moment he effectively confessed to the grand jury, I refused to believe. And when he did, I was frankly shocked. And deeply saddened. Not so much because I am a moralist; look, every President has had all sorts of dalliances, I mean, we certainly know about Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and everybody else. And human nature being what it is, I don't hold Presidents up to a higher standard in terms of their very personal life. But I was shocked that he would have taken such a risk.
Producer: Why did he, do you think? This is, in some ways, the biggest question you can ask about Bill Clinton. Why did he take those risks?
Reich: I've asked myself a number of times why he put himself and his presidency in jeopardy in such a careless way. I can't come up with a good answer.
The presidency is probably the loneliest office in America. Regardless of your friends, regardless of how good your marriage is, regardless of anything, you are alone there at the top. And maybe that loneliness just got to him. Or maybe, Bill Clinton, who so much needed and wanted to be loved, couldn't say no to someone who was going to give him affection and wanted affection back. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. But it remains a mystery.
Producer: I doubt there are many Presidents in our history who have faced quite the pressures. You look at Abraham Lincoln, of course, or FDR -- but quite the day-to-day vise of pressure that this President faced, the determination of the people out to get him out of office in essence.
Reich: Remember, Bill Clinton had been through a grueling campaign in 1992. One where he was accused of just about everything, and his enemies made him into a terrible figure. And that campaign continued in 1993 when he took office. A venomous kind of politics. And 1994, and it continued after he lost Democratic Congress, with even more intensity. And he was pitted against Newt Gingrich. And this man, again and again and again, day after day after day, was subject to the kind of pressure -- often humiliation -- and the kind of opposition that most mortals never have to face. Certainly for that long. Maybe he just had a weak moment.
Producer: It's just such a tragic irony, in a way, that at the moment that he should have felt that he finally had mastered the presidency, that he finally had mastered his enemies, that he gave it to them. He played into their hand.
Reich: It is an irony that at the very moment he did seem to master the presidency, he had won, finally -- I mean, Newt Gingrich was vanquished; he knew the moves; he knew how to combat that kind of unremitting, acerbic, angry criticism -- that he would have given in. And given his enemies something that they could really talk about. And something that was tangible. And something that almost destroyed his presidency, and certainly occupied his attention, took the attention of him and his whole White House away from running the country. Is it because he finally won that he let his guard down? I don't know.
Producer: I wonder if you have any comment about the Starr investigation. Just as a kind of an institution, a role-player in this story.
Reich: Ken Starr's investigation was brutal. I think history will not be kind to Ken Starr. He made it into a personal crusade. And he was playing with the life of a young woman and the life of a president about a matter that, yes, some people in the public would say is of public concern, but many people would say is very, very intimate and personal, and was between Bill Clinton and his wife, and the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Why this was made into a crusade to undermine a president and the presidency, and sacrifice, potentially, the country, is a question that historians will, I think, answer with a very negative assessment of Ken Starr and the people behind him.
Producer: What is your overall assessment of the Clinton Presidency? Was it a success? Was it a failure? How do you feel about it?
Reich: You know, years later, from a vantage point of a presidency and a half beyond Bill Clinton's presidency, certainly of my years with Bill Clinton, the question of whether it was a success or a failure is almost beside the point. Did Bill Clinton help the country? Is the country and was the country better for having him as president? I think, unquestionably, yes.
Could he have done more? Undoubtedly, yes. Did he give it what he could, and did he and the people around him work their tails off, not for themselves, but for the country? Yes. But are there elements of tragedy here as well? Huge elements of tragedy in terms of failures and opportunities lost, and risks made that didn't have to be made? Undoubtedly.
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?