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R.W. Apple, Jr., Washington Bureau Chief, The New York Times

A reporter with a knack for being at the right place at the right time, Apple was having dinner at the White House the night Clinton withdrew Lani Guanier's nomination. Interviewed June 13, 1996


FL: Clinton, and the Lani Guanier nomination. What happened? And then, tell us of your conversation with Clinton and what that reveals.

APPLE:

One of the most revealing episodes in the early Clinton presidency was that involving Lani Guanier. The law professor. Black woman. Friend of Clinton at Yale. Nominated to head the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department. And, one of the examples, that the President and Mrs. Clinton held up in their campaign to make their administration look more like America, in other words, to have more diversity. More members of minority groups, more women than had been the custom in Washington where governments were largely composed of white males. Middle-aged white males. She had written some law school articles. Without going into exhaustive detail, they basically suggested that in certain ways special standards applied to Black people because they'd had a special experience. This set up a hue and cry from conservatives. And the President began retreating and ultimately he cut her loose.

As it happened, the night that President Clinton told Guanier that she wasn't going to get the job and that he was withdrawing her name, my wife and I were invited to the White House for dinner. This is not an every day occurrence. It was a stroke of luck for me, in many ways. The President was two hours late, or very nearly, for his appointment with this small group of us. This was one of the small dinners that he gave. He was repairing relations, we were told, with the Washington press corps. I was placed at his table. And when he came in and sat down after a certain amount of small talk, I said, Mr. President, the word was when I left the office that you were going to sort out the Lani Guinier thing tonight. Have you done so? And he said, yes, I've told her that, I'm going to withdraw her nomination, I can't support her, I've read the law review articles, she doesn't stand for what I stand for. Somebody at the table, I can't remember who, perhaps a journalist, perhaps someone else, it was a mixed crowd, said, well, she's your friend. Couldn't you stand behind her even if she couldn't clear the Senate, even if you did take a defeat at least you'd have been standing behind your friend. And he said, no, I don't agree with what she said, and so I pulled the nomination.

But he went farther. He started talking about how wonderful she was, at the very moment when he had told us that he had chopped off the limb. Here is one of the things he said. "I love her. I think she's wonderful. If she called me and told me she needed five thousand dollars, I'd take it from my account and send it to her. No questions asked." At the very least, a remarkable thing to say about someone whom you have just hit with a 2 by 4. Of whom you have just exposed to a certain amount of public humiliation and scorn by abandoning her. That was a very important moment in the Clinton presidency. He also pulled the nominations of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood. To be Attorney General. But he didn't have a close personal relationship, the way he did with Lani Guanier and the way Mrs. Clinton did with Lani Guanier. To say the least, neither of them, any longer has a close personal relationship with Lani Guanier.

FL: What do you think he ought to have done?

APPLE:

Well, the first thing he ought to have done, is check out what she'd been writing. It is one of dozens of stories about the Clinton Administration, particularly in its earlier days which suggest a level of competence that would not be tolerated on the school board in Westport, Connecticut. You, of course, check people out. You of course, if you're choosing somebody for a very sensitive post that deals with an area of the law, see to it that you are informed, either through your own reading or the vetting of people on your staff, what position she has taken on the law in that area. And he hadn't done it. He read, he told me, he read the law review articles, that day or the day before, in the car on the way to Frederick, Maryland and back for a speech. That's very sloppy. Having done that, having found himself in this situation, having had the law review articles, which by the way were perfectly searchable by the standard legal computer base. Having had these surface, I think he should've stuck with her, because I think it would [have] been a better political thing to do, and a better human thing to do. The two are not always in congruence. But this was a case where they were. It woulda been the more honorable thing to do, to stand by someone whom you had proposed. Lani Guanier did not come to Washington petitioning for this job. The Clintons chose her. Brought her into this debate, so to speak. And, it would [have] been wise politically to have at least some of the onus for her not getting the job fall on the Congress, and on the opposition party.

FL: When you were talking to me about the capacity for friendship or the way various politicians treat their friends, you used the analogy from the book The Great Gatsby.

APPLE:

The Clintons have a very wide circle of friends and acquaintances, drawn from various times in their lives. The expression, FOB, Friend of Bill has become common currency, it could be just as easily FOH, Friends of Hillary's because a lot of her friends have been active in this administration, whether holding jobs or not, like Susan Thomases, who has stayed in New York but has been a very major presence in the administration. I don't want to suggest at all that all or even most of these people feel hard done by because many of them don't, many of them have had a great experience being in government. But at the same time, there is about them as there was about Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel of upward social mobility on Long Island. There is a certain sense that what matters most is the rise and rise of Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Lani Guanier episode was an episode that crystallized that for many people. Some of the friends who have suffered by being in the Clinton Administration have suffered as far as we know, through no fault of the Clintons, that's certainly true of, of most of the Little Rock victims, people who came from the Rose law firm and went back, having failed to take over the government. But, one feels a kind of relentless ambition, that one does not feel, for example, with Bob Dole. Dole, wants to be President very badly, but in a very different sort of way. For example, Dole does not like the trappings of politics very much...the applause and the gifts from the local supporters and all of that. Clinton is always talked about as being the policy wonk, but Dole is the person that really likes to pass bills, and get things into the law books. I don't think that Dole has the kind of desire for power that Clinton does. That may be wrong. But I don't think so.

FL: Just to go back to this.... at what point do you stick by your friends and at what point--

APPLE:

Well, that's a very difficult question for every one of us. I've had friends who have gone to jail. Not a lot, but one or two. And I've had friends who have, oh, in one way or another done very badly and done, evil things to other people. Perhaps not illegal things but evil. And, you wonder how long you stay with them. I guess it depends to a degree on the depth of the friendship. If the friendship's deep enough it'll survive almost anything. Lani Guanier was supposed to be a close friend of the Clintons. A very close friend. She was so described by both of the Clintons. I don't think that that episode suggests that it was a very deep friendship.

FL: She perceives it as such though. Well how then do you--

APPLE:

But she did beforehand, but she didn't afterwards did she? I'm not sure that they didn't perceive it as such beforehand. There is such a thing as self-delusion in this, or if you want to be kinder, there is such a thing as friendship that hasn't been tested. Friendship, that makes no demands, and poses no tests, is easy.

FL: What are the over-arching themes in Clinton's political career that are connected in a very deep way to the person?

APPLE:

I see in, in Bill Clinton, tremendous capacities. He is, articulate, sometimes too articulate. He is, very bright. He is extremely well-informed on policy questions and on a large number of them. He has exhibited these qualities since before he went into politics. They were the qualities in large part that brought him from Hope, Arkansas to Georgetown, to Oxford to Yale Law School. But there are other qualities that have been on show during those years. One, is a longing to be loved. A person who knew him well at Yale, who was in his class at the Yale Law School once said to me, this was very early when I was just beginning to get to know Clinton and to understand him a little bit. Long before he was elected President. You have to remember, this is a man who's always running for Student Council President. This is a man who wants to be liked by everyone in the class. This is a person who wants to have under his picture in the yearbook "Best Liked Boy". I think that still exists. I think that, more than most politicians, obviously politicians by definition have to want to be liked at least by 50% plus. But Clinton seems to crave approval, even adulation, from people of very different kinds, with very different views and very different interests.

Another quality that I have seen, both in his public and private life to the degree I'm privy to his private life which is a very small degree, is discipline. There was a famous lack of discipline, there was a famous moment at the convention in Atlanta when he talked on and on and on until the only applause that he got towards the end of the speech was when he uttered the word, "finally". That showed up early in his term, his speeches were too prolix. He tended to give a 14 sentence answer at press conferences when one sentence would do. It has shown up in his somewhat, ragged marriage, and his apparent involvement with other women on a fairly large scale, while he was married. It has shown up in his great difficulty, particularly before the arrival of Leon Panetta at the White House, in putting in place and enforcing some sort of mechanism to handle his staff. This may sound like very technical stuff, staff management, but if you have two or three hundred people on your personal staff, and you don't put together a system, that means you don't have to see all three hundred. That means, in fact, that staff studies, proposals, ideas, intelligence flows to you through 2 or 3 or 4 people, you're going to be in terrible trouble. As somebody said to me about that staff, in the early days, this is a staff that you have to visualize as a wagon wheel, all rim and hub and no spokes. And sometimes Clinton would see 6 or 7 or 8 or 9, 10 people on an issue in 2 or 3 days. Rather than getting, from one or two people, papers or verbal oral presentations saying, here are the options and here are the arguments. Panetta has reigned that in to some degree, but that was an important failing.

Another important failing that I think he can attribute to lack of discipline is his attempt to do everything right at the beginning. Now there's an old piece of Washington lore which says that you must, go full speed ahead right at the beginning because your mandate is never as strong as it is the day after you're inaugurated. And I think there's some truth in that. But if you inherit a hundred thousand dollars, you may have all your best ideas for spending it on day one, but you need a little bit to live on as you go along. And he spent almost all his capital right away, and he has had to rebuild it from almost nothing, in the latter part of his Administration.


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