John Brummett, Columnist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette who has followed Clinton's career in Arkansas.
Interviewed May 11, 1996
Briefly, describe your relationship with Clinton, how long it's lasted, what kind of
familiarity with him.
I began covering state government in 1979 and '80. He was 32, 33 years old and
the Governor of the state. I became acquainted with him, and fairly closely
associated with him by covering his office, and soon he was running for
re-election and I covered that campaign. And spent a lot of time traveling
with him. In Arkansas, one element of campaigning is to go out to the airport
and get in a little charter plane and go out and try to make four or five stops
around the state, day in and day out. And there were a lot of occasions when I
was traveling with just him and the campaign aide and then again, he lost that
race and I got to see him sort of imploding, his whole career sort of falling
apart on him. And then in 1982, the same sort of relationship. I was covering
the race, covering him, primarily, spending a lot of time with him. Maybe more
in 1982. And that's when he was coming back, sort of reinvented. The whole
point of that '82 campaign was for him to say to the voters of Arkansas, "You
sent me a message. You taught me a lesson. I got the message. I learned the
lesson. I'm sorry. I won't make those mistakes again." Rather extraordinary
thing to do. But it worked. And of course he was very energized and trying to
make his comeback. So I saw him in both those contexts. With his career
threatened with extinction early in life, sort of a dramatic comeback two years
later. And we spent a lot of time talking. I mean when you're on a little
airplane with a guy flying around the state, you might play some hearts, or
tell a few jokes and sometimes you might let your hair down a little bit and
just talk about things. And sometimes that happened. He has a
tendency to let his guard down, to just have a good time and say too much. But
people around him always were trying to get him not to talk too much. That's
one of the standard things that goes with being an aide to Bill Clinton. To
try and corral him and tell him not to talk so much. So in those days there
were times when the people on the staff traveling with him would try to get him
to rest or sleep, rather than just babble with a reporter present which would
be his instinct.
What are Clinton's skills in the political arena?
Politics is both art and science and Clinton is the best at combining the both.
He's the best at each and the best at combining both of any politician I've
ever seen. There may be political operatives who are better scientists and
there may be some political performers who are better, I can't think of any off
hand, but he understands the numbers, he understands what you have to do to
compete electorally. He also has a magical ability to connect with people. A
marvelous speaker, a great one on one campaigner. So that's the artist,
combined with his understanding of issues and of polls.
Describe some of these events that you were part of, witness to, and what they
are emblematic of.
Well, all politicians try to adapt to the audience. They probably try to vary
their performances or their manner according to their audience, but Clinton is
the best I've ever seen. I've been with him on the campaign trail in rural
Arkansas. For example, in 1982 we were in Moralton, Arkansas, a small town, a
weekday morning, he was going store front to store front shaking hands. Not
very many people downtown. He was walking on the sidewalk and a fellow pulled
up in a pick up truck with three yapping dogs in the bed of the pick up and
stopped at a red light maybe 20 yards from him. And we, within what we would
call in Arkansas shouting distance, sort of said, "Hey, how are you? Hey how
are you?" And Clinton instantly began to move toward the guy who was driving
the truck and he turned to this old fellow, Jimmy Red Jones, who was his
campaign aide and almost as a ventriloquist to the side he said, "What kind of
dogs are those? What kind of dogs are those?" As he's moving toward the guy.
And Jimmy Red Jones says, "Well, they look like bird dogs." And Clinton says,
"How old are they?" "Three, three years old." So in full stride, without
missing a beat, Clinton walks to fellow driving who's stopped at the red light
and says, "Hey buddy, those sure are good looking bird dogs. What are they?
About three years old?" And of course the guy lights up. Here's a country
boy from outside Moralton, Arkansas who's spreading the word back home that
Bill Clinton sure knows his bird dogs and he guessed their ages. And it was
the fluid manner in which he did it without anybody knowing that it was largely
a phony moment that I thought was the brilliance of it.
He's intensely physical as you see him move through a crowd.....
He likes to touch. He's one of these people who gets too close. You just want
to say, "Back up." Because he's tall, he's what, about 6'3". He towers over
most people. And I always found that he just wasn't giving me enough space
when I was trying to interview him or visit with him. I wanted to say, but I
don't think I ever did, "How about backing up just a little bit?" He loves to
be very close. He's demonstrative. He'll touch. In a crowd, I sense when he
goes into a room that he connects well with people because he needs to. His
ego requires him to be the center of attention. And strangely he
has the ability to talk to someone, or say he could be talking to you or
connecting with you and charming you, while glancing around the room to see if
everybody is paying attention to him and who's next. It's not unique to him
among politicians, but I think that this egocentric need to be liked enables
him to make that kind of connection which is so effective in politics.
In effect it's an ambiguous gift. It's one of his strengths and weaknesses as
well as a politician and as a person.
Yeah. I think that he wants people to love him. He wants to have that sense
that he is a celebrity, that people know him. And that necessitates that he go
out of his way to make sure that people feel that connection to him. So it's
essentially sort of an ego driven, or a weakness driven thing that allows him,
or drives him to be what most people would agree is one of the best so-called
retail campaigners in the business. But it's not real. It's real for the
moment but like I said, he can be touching your arm and connecting with you and
then if you notice he's looking around because there's somewhere else to go,
another vote to get, another connection to make. And you have a lot of people
in Arkansas who tell stories about seeing Clinton at a social function and what
a delight it was to talk to him and how charming he was but then they'll say,
"You know he was looking around while he was talking to me." Because there's
always another conquest or somebody else he needs to go see to make that
connection that he needs for ego, to fulfill his need for validation that he
gets from other people, from winning the affection or, ultimately, the vote of
other people. I think that's what drives him. That's the fuel.
You said with the Governor it was every two years.....?
In Arkansas, until 1986, we had two year gubernatorial terms and for good
government everybody said, "That's bad." As soon as he gets through with the
legislation he has to begin running again and raising money and there's no
continuity of leadership, but for Clinton it was an ideal situation because I
think the more often he can campaign, and the more often he feeds that need
that he has to connect with people, and the more often he can take a vote,
let's take a vote and count the votes and he wins, then he feels validated. I
mean this guy is absolutely euphoric as returns come in. Even from say, a small
box from some precinct in rural Arkansas, he's showing that he carried Hummilk
precinct three to one, you know, his fist goes in the air. He's pumped about
that. All politicians love to carry boxes, or carry precincts, I don't mean
that, but he seems unusually euphoric about it. The more often you take a
vote, then the better off for him to get validated more frequently. Now, it
turned out in the Congress, or as President, he had a four year term, but in
the off-year elections it turned into sort of a referendum on him. So he had
that opportunity to get that validation two years into his term, and what sent
him into an incredible funk is that he didn't get it. He got the rejection
which is another part of the pattern of his life.
It's quite a profound need to be liked, to be validated, to have that high.
From where did it come?
All of us have to be validated in some way. I get mine from having my byline
and my picture in the paper and having people say, "That's a good column."
That's sort of professional validation but sort of personal validation. It
gives you a sense of worth. His, of course, is carried out in full view of the
public. It's been done, unlike a lot of politicians, he began essentially in
his mid-twenties so we've watched him grow up here in Arkansas. So it's sort
of a better case study. Essentially, he's been seeking the validation of the
voters in Arkansas since he was 27 years old. And we've watched him grovel for
votes and say, "I'm sorry. I've learned my lesson and please give me another
chance." So all of that I think contributes to a situation in which maybe we
over-analyze him. This validation thing, all politicians want it and all
people want it in one way or another. Now having said all that, I think
Clinton is sort of like Sally Field at the Oscars saying, "You like me. You
really like me." I think that he has this incredible need to be liked, for
people to demonstrate that they like him, that they approve of him. And not
having any psycholitical expertise I can only say what everybody else says. It
has to do with the alcoholic stepfather, it has to do with a doting mother who
told him he was wonderful and was the dominant influence in his life but was
also sort of a strange person in that she didn't like negativity in the world,
just sort of let's don't deal with that, in fact, let's deny it. So all of
that I think contributes to this man that, in Arkansas, we've watched since he
was 27 years old. He's now 50. We've watched his adulthood in full view of the
public, trying to achieve this validation that he can only get in a way that's
not real dignified, which is all the time asking us to vote for him to prove
that we love him. That's not really good psychoanalysis, but it contributes
to an explanation of why I center on that validation and this sort of need that
he has for this, because we've watched it so much. You look at other
politicians. They didn't run as often as he did, or they had longer terms, or
they waited later in life, or maybe they'd been on a school board, or maybe
they had a profession before they got into politics. With Clinton that's all
there's ever been. Just since he was a fuzzy headed kid in his twenties. Run,
run, run. Please vote for me. Winning, then losing. Then coming back and
saying, "I'm sorry. I'll never make those mistakes again." So you feel like
you have almost a proprietary interest in him, because he's been somebody whose
development, whose full adult life you've watched in just public view.
When you start out with this process it can be arresting.
As I said, a lot of people go into politics later in life, after they've been a
successful businessman or they practice law, or they've been in business. They
don't, from the day they get out of college, begin running for office.
Clinton, from the time he was 27, not long after law school, was running for
Congress. That was in 1974.
And then others, especially this day and age, a lot of the same people who have
been in politics for a while, are choosing to get out of it because of what it
has become, the difficulties, the loss of any dignity in public life in
America, the invasion of privacy, what little is left of privacy. And I think
those are actually sort of healthy things. To have a life before politics and
then be able to get away from it. With Clinton we've seen neither. We don't
know a Bill Clinton outside of politics. Even as a child, he was a boy, he was
going off to shaking hands, running for Boy's State Governor, going to
Washington, shaking JFK's hand, that sort of thing. Always running for class
office. Plus the only thing that will ever stop him in politics is two terms
as President and then he can't run again. I can't think of anything else that
would stop him. And in this era where politics has become much meaner, much
more instantly mean at least, when privacy's lost, when character becomes a
bigger issue than ever because we ask about the kinds of things that the public
didn't use to ask about, he's been going right along being, just being battered
by this process. Just, just coming out of some elections, he once said to me on
an airplane, he said, "Politics is turning me -- forgive the symmetry if this
is too rough -- politics is turning me into a walking sore." Which it was.
Yet, about five minutes after he said that, he landed in a little country
airport runway and jumped down to go shake some hands. So he knew what it was
doing to him but he was willing to live with it. He was, in fact, anxious to
continue that lifestyle. So I think it is arresting. It's, to spend your
entire life doing what it takes to get elected, doing what it takes to get
elected to higher office, doing what it takes to succeed in politics to the
maximum to become President, it's not a complete life. It's not a full
portrait of a person. Except in Clinton's case it seems to be. That's what it
is. That's who he is.
Any moments that stand out that were particularly revealing of the man out of
all those hours that you spent on the plane?
Well the two that come instantly to mind, one day we got on an airplane and
this was 1980 and Chelsea was just a baby. And he gets on the plane with a
travel aide named Dick Finch. And it's obvious he's sort of down, he's just
not himself. He's not as outgoing or gregarious or talkative as he usually is.
And the fellow, Dick Finch, said, "Is something wrong?" And he said he had
dropped Chelsea. He had been holding his infant daughter and she slipped and he
dropped her and he was afraid that he'd hurt her. He hadn't, everything was
fine, but just the trauma, the emotional trauma of that having happened just
sort of had him drained. He was still shaking that it had happened. So I
remember that because I thought, whatever else you say about the guy he really
cares about that child, obviously. No one wants to drop an infant but I
thought it was a fairly poignant moment.
Then there was another time after a real busy day, about 6 campaign stops, this
would have been in 1982, in and out of an airplane. Hillary and Chelsea are
with him and Chelsea in '82 would have been about 3 or 4 years old. And
Hillary was carrying her, tending to her, getting her in and out of the
airplane. And she had had a difficult day, being the campaign wife and mother.
But those sorts of days, where you have 6 or 8 stops, and it's just filled with
energy, that charges Clinton. So we were flying back to Little Rock, I think
from Jonesburg, and Clinton said, "Hey let's play hearts." It's one of his
favorite things to do, play cards. Just so charged up by all that he'd done all
day that would have exhausted most people, he wants some more challenge.
"Let's play hearts." And of course I'm always ready to play hearts, and a
couple of other people are always ready to play hearts, so we had the little
table set up there in the plane, it was a six-seater, there were two seats in
the back where Hillary and Chelsea were. And the four of us were getting ready
to play cards and as I recall the story, Clinton with the left hand was about
to deal the cards, and Hillary from the back says, "No, Bill, no." And we all
froze. And he said, "What?" And she said, "It's been a hard day for you, and
a hard day for me and you don't need to be playing cards. You could rest, get
some sleep or you could be working on the script for the radio spot, but you
don't need to be playing cards." Well, that was a memorable moment. I
thought, "Well, now, how's this going to turn out?" And in fact he said very
politely, "Dear, it will relax me. I'm going to play a hand or two." And we
played maybe a couple of hands and then the plane landed. I don't know why
that story sticks out in my mind except that it has something to do with their
relationship. Well, it has a lot to do with it. And it's sort of a real life
anecdote I think of what people wonder about Hillary's role with Clinton and
how they interact. He's filled with energy, he always wants to do something,
and she's the one who's saying, she's the one who's probably more tired that he
is, she's not as charged about politics and political interaction as he is,
who's sort of disciplining him and saying, "This is what you're going to do."
And not always in a tactful, or in an appropriate way even. So I share that
for what it's worth as an image I have of those days.
FL: She has been called "the gatekeeper." Sort of the stern gate
keeper. He's described themselves as I always imagine that she was born 40 and
I was born, whatever he said, 14.
Yeah, Clinton is, he seems to me even still to be an overgrown boy having a big
time, given to getting behind schedule and not keeping his commitments and
getting sort of charged up and euphoric about meeting people and thinking he's
going to win an election. And Hillary's the one who's just sort of focused,
and centered, and strict and not nearly as much fun to be around, but has
always played that role with him like she did on the plane, like, "No, you
don't need to be playing cards." Maybe because she was just worn out and it
just offended her that she had been playing her role all day and he was still
having a good time and she was just worn out. That could have been part of it.
But that is the way the relationship works I think. That's why a lot of people
don't like her because she plays that role. Most of the staff people who have
worked for Clinton over the years, that I know, adore him and defend him and
many of them don't have many nice things to say about Hillary because they
thought she was too controlling, at times tyrannical, hard to deal with,
unrelenting when she wanted something done. Even as, they admit sometimes, she
provided a useful role in disciplining her husband it's not the kind of thing
that wins her any popularity contests.
What about in Arkansas?
It worked differently because remember in Arkansas she had another life, she
had a career, she was over at the Rose Law Firm as a Senior Partner. She was
having her own life and her own career. She wasn't living in the State
Capital, living in the Governor's office with nothing else to do, which has
been, I think, part of the problem in Washington. But occasionally, when an
opportunity presented itself, she certainly made her presence known in
Arkansas. Such as the time, I believe it would have been 1987 at the end of a
legislative session in which Clinton had proposed various tax bills extending
the sales tax to certain exempt services to try to raise money for the State.
And the special interests had just beaten him down in legislative committee on
most of them. It was probably his worst legislative session in his dozen years
as Governor. Now the last day of the session, traditional in Arkansas,
everybody knows it's the last day, we'll stay late, stay into the early evening
to tend to procedural matters, and those sorts of things, get all the
amendments out of conference committees but everybody knows this is the last
day. Sometimes people may in fact start drinking a little early on the last
day of the session and it gets a little frivolous, but on this particular year
Clinton was working late at the office because the legislature was working
late. They were going to finish. The one in which he had lost all of his tax
bills. I remember Hillary coming to the State Capital, walking through the
Rotunda, going up, obviously she had finished work for the day and was going to
come be with her husband in the Governor's office on the second floor of the
Capital. So here it is, about 7:00, 7:30 P.M., winter, last day of the
session, dark, all the lobbyists have adjourned a block down the street to the
so-called Chicken House which is the Poultry Federation Headquarters and
they're down there drinking and eating and it's over. They've had a good
session and all they're doing back at the Capital is putting the finishing
touches on some amendments and it will be over. Suddenly, some of Clinton's
floor leaders in the House of Representatives start making motions to bring out
of committee those tax bills that had been defeated. Suspend the rules. I
vote that we suspend the rules and take out from committee house bill such and
such. And half the legislators were back in the so-called Quiet Room, they
weren't paying any attention, they're about to procedurally succeed in getting
all these bills brought up that had special interests had spent weeks beating.
So they sent word down to the Poultry Federation, the Chicken House, "Get back
quick." "Lord, you're not going to believe what they're doing. They're trying
to pull that bill out of committee." And there were a couple of near fist
fights. I remember one legislator with close ties to the Poultry Federation
charging one of the speakers, sort of angry, and I thought, "Oh my goodness."
But they didn't quite have a fight. And the lobbyists managed to head off the
problem. And I went straight away up to the Governor's Press Office and I
said, or to somebody I said, "What happened there? I mean what's going on to
try and bring these things out of committee. That's so uncharacteristic of
Clinton." And whoever the aide was said, "Well, don't you know? Hillary. She
went back there in the Governor's Office and she sort of introduced
combativeness to the whole gubernatorial process. Since she happened to have
some time off, and she happened to be on the second floor, she's the one who
said let's try to get those bills out of committee." So that illustrates sort
of a take charge attitude. It illustrates a kind of heavy hand politically
because all they managed to do was to make everybody angry by preparing to pull
a fast one at the end. And it also sort of foretold what we were going to see
in the White House when she's there all the time, not spending most of her
days, most of her time down at the Rose Law Firm. But when she's on scene all
the time that kind of take charge and that kind of combativeness.
And you see all that in health care, the way it was done, the way it was
mishandled, the heavy handed way it was played. The lack of political finesse,
the fact that everyone acquiesced to her wishes. It illustrates another
element of their relationship that has become obvious in Washington.
Talk a little bit about Clinton and friendship... The Lani Guanier event and
who she was and what happened.....
Well the one occasion I had to interview him in the Oval Office was in the
summer of 1993 which was about a week after he had had this horrible withdrawal
of the nomination of Lani Guanier to head the Office of Civil Rights and the
Justice Department had made him look indecisive, had made him look weak,
alienated him with black voters who are always key to his political success and
was yet another example of a White House that was in disarray and couldn't get
And it had been obviously a very painful moment for him. He had appeared
shaken when he announced he had pulled down her nomination. He had said, "This
is not about moving to the center. This is about my center and I just don't
think I could stand up to her nomination after reading some of her writings
about how to enhance minority voting power." And then two or three days later
he puts forth the nomination of Ruth Ginsberg for the Supreme Court and he
announces it. And Brit Hume of ABC asked him, immediately after the statements
by the President and Justice Ginsberg, asked him about this process that he
followed in nominating a Supreme Court Justice. "Mr. President, you appeared
to zig and zag and you appeared indecisive." And Clinton, as you might recall,
went into a rage and just very angry at the tone and nature of that question
and ended the news conference abruptly in sort of his mad fit and just walks
out. So my interview with him is a few days later. And I had this idea that
these two things were tied together. That having to abandon a friend like Lani
Guanier had been so painful for him that that had affected his mood and that's
why he flew into a rage with the question about Ginsberg. And so I asked him
about that. "Am I right? You were just so stunned by that Guanier thing that
there was a hang over from that and that caused you to react the way you did?"
I just found it remarkable that he said, "Oh no. No relation." It was like,
he said, "Look, we did Lani Guanier wrong. She used to be my friend. We were
friends, maybe we're not any more."
And then he went on to discuss that he just thought the question was
inappropriate for Ginsberg because this was the Supreme Court nomination and
she had just delivered some eloquent remarks and he thought that was an
inappropriate question. So I'd assigned this sort of human quality to him
that all of this was just beating down on him and that's why he went into a
rage, and he just dismissed it, just instantly. Said, "No, there's no
relation between the two." I thought that there ought to be some sort of
emotional hang over from having to abandon somebody who was a friend, a friend
from college. For a high appointment. And he just rather abruptly said no.
And said sort of interestingly, "She was a friend of mine. Or at least she
was." And that was sort of the end of it. And it's just sort of a tough world
in politics to be able to just sort of sever a relationship right there and
scoff at the very notion that it might have affected something two or three
Had that happened again in his career, that same example?
Oh yeah. There's a pattern of that. In his first term as Governor of Arkansas
when he was in his thirties, he had a very large staff of young activist
liberals working for him and they're gone from his life from his public and
personal life. And they were gone after it got deep. Some of them before.
There was an aide named John Denner. Then there was a Chief of Staff, and then
there was Steve Smith who was indicted on misdemeanor charges in the Whitewater
affair. Then there was fellow named Rudy Moore who I think still admires
Clinton but they no longer have a close relationship. Yeah. And it has to do
with, "How am I doing?" Clinton, how is it going for him. And if it's not
going well, somebody has to go. And he does seem to have the ability to
maintain decent relations with people that he cuts away politically. In a
private moment over a drink you could get some of the people who have worked
for him over the years and then been cut loose, to say bad things about him.
But in general, they're going to understand why it had to happen and they're
still for him. And they don't hold bitterness.
And I think that has to do with his ability to connect and the fact that among
people who know him, and have worked with him, that there's just sort of a
prevailing view that he's decent and he's trying even though he may be screwed
up in what he's trying to do and his process is ridiculous and he doesn't
always tell the truth. Those who've been in close proximity to him always
maintain that he means well and we could do a lot worse for Governor or
President. So I think that, that's probably the way, I don't know Lani
Guanier, that's probably how she feels. She feels, in private moments she
feels betrayed but you know. She had about an hour and a half conversation with
him, a heart to heart. I probably shouldn't speak for her but I bet she sort
of understands why he thinks he had to do it that way. Maybe doesn't have any
bitterness about it. Could be mistaken. But, I don't know.
Other revealing patterns....
I think if you just look at the way Clinton dealt with the Federal budget
beginning with the issue of the middle class tax cut and his campaign for
President and his early presidency. He announced for President in October of
1991, and the centerpiece of his announcement was, we're going to cut taxes
for the middle class, which was sort of a New Democrat idea. The Democrats
were called the tax and spenders and the ones who were always going to raise
taxes, and they had lost touch with so-called Reagan Democrats, and here was
Clinton making the essence of his candidacy, we're going to cut taxes for the
middle class. Which is fairly irresponsible thing to do with the budget deficit
exploding, but that's what he said. And it was a new idea and a more electable
kind of rhetoric for a Democrat. Typical of Clinton. He had thought about
what does it take for a Democrat to get elected these days. And that was an
element of it and he was willing to do it. Whatever it takes to win. That
validation and how do we get back in the White House? That's the things he'd
spent years studying.
Then suddenly, Paul Tsongas becomes his main opponent. He expected his main
opponent to be Cuomo or some more traditional liberal and his middle class tax
cut and his New Democrat, he would look like the new idea centrist and it would
run that way. So he runs against Tsongas who becomes St. Paul talking about
the generational morality of the budget deficit and how absurd it is for
Clinton and others to be talking about cutting taxes when we've got this
mounting debt that we're piling on to our children. And he begins to call
Clinton a panderer and he has a pander bear that he shows in debates. And he
gets under Clinton's skin so much that at one point Clinton says, "Oh Paul, you
think you're perfect." Sort of a childish petulant response to this morality
based rhetoric that Tsongas was hitting him with. And so confronted with that
political dynamic, Clinton suddenly has a mad fit and tells his campaign "I'm
not talking any more about the middle class tax cut. I never believed in it.
You guys made me do it anyway."
So this remarkable ability to just switch gears based on the dynamic of a
political contest is one thing that he's always been very adept at. It's not
particularly flattering about what's his core conviction. But it is something
that is a pattern with him. So suddenly he says, "I'm not talking about a
middle class tax cut." He beat Tsongas of course. Tsongas has no money.
Tsongas in the end is not anywhere near the kind of campaigner Clinton is. So
Clinton then gets elected and he didn't talk much about middle class tax cut at
all after that. He gets elected and suddenly his aides go to him during the
transition and they say, "You know this deficit is really a lot worse than we
thought. It's going to grow exponentially, it's going to be 300 billion, 400
billion a year if you don't do something. So you know one of these things you
talked about how we're going to cut it in half by growth over four years and
things, and this middle class tax cut, we can't do that." And Clinton says,
"Okay. This is a great challenge. This is a great policy challenge." Because
he's also a policy wonk. And this is great. I got to change what I'm thinking
now. What am I going to do about this deficit? He spends the first year of
his presidency in an all out battle to get the deficit down which he chooses to
by a combination of reductions in rates of spending growth and tax increases,
which enable the Republicans to call him yet another old, tired tax and spend
liberal Democrat because he's going to raise taxes on high incomes, gasoline
taxes as part of his deficit reduction package. Just tell the people in an
Oval Office address, sorry I can't do that middle class tax cut. Sort of
typical Clinton. Sorry can't do that. I know I said back in October '91 that's
why I was running for President, but can't do that. And then he finally gets a
budget package passed, but the Republicans have so effectively cast him as yet
another tax and spend liberal that he gets wiped out. His party gets wiped out
in the mid-term elections in 1994. And what does he come back with in December
of '94? Saying he's going to do? Middle class tax cut. He's right back to
where he was in October of '91. Saying in a special Oval Office address we're
going to have a middle class tax cut. It's going to be based on child care
credits, those sorts of things. Now what does all that mean? It means
essentially whatever he has to say at that time that's what he'll do. Now
that's not altogether unique among politicians, but he has an extraordinary
ability to disregard what he's said moments before if circumstances require it.
And what does it say about him altogether? It says that he's a great
politician to get away with this kind of thing, to be able to switch gears and
get people to sort of nod and say well, okay. But it also means that there is
an essential weakness too. That rather than say, "This is what I believe and
regardless of what you people said at the ballot box in November of 1994, that
doesn't change what I believe." That's not how he behaves. He wakes up every
day saying, "What are they thinking out there and how can I get in front of
that parade." Now I know that's a harsh thing to say, but I think it's really
what that pattern and the messy process he follows, it's what it reflects. It's
what it says about him. Is he for or against the idea of cutting taxes for the
middle class? I ask you. Well, I'm not sure. He sounds like he is sometimes.
But then he wasn't when he had a majority in Congress. He didn't even mention
it. And yet one day he, according to several published accounts and several
books, he said, "I never believed in it. I only said it because it was
something you campaign consultants said it was something I had to do." So if
you had to say what does he really believe about that, are taxes on the middle
class too high and is it a good policy decision to cut it. I don't know how
you can know the answer to that. Because I don't think there is an answer. It
depends on what the political situation is at the moment.
Focus in a more concise way on the messy process itself.
One thing that I think happens to Clinton in his process of governing is that
he gets ebullient about ideas and he starts talking about them without ever
making any sort of real firm commitment to them. Partly because he doesn't
make real firm commitments on policy because as I just explained he's driven by
a need to adapt to circumstance more than cling to any certain policy or any
sort of guiding tenant. So what you get is some people can go to him and say
what you know what we really need to do to get this deficit down is do an
energy tax, tax BTUs. We could raise a lot of money that way and it has
conservation advantages and it's in Gore's book and it's something we ought to
do. Raise a lot of money that way. And the next thing you know, Clinton's all
fired up about it. And he's talking about it and he's thinking out loud about
it because he loves to talk and to think aloud and interact about issues and he
loves to do that in the presence of reporters. He always has like to do that.
But he never really was committed to it because it's hard to get him to commit
to any policy at all and he's sort of boyishly exuberant about an idea for a
brief period of time and then it loses favor and also he tends to talk about it
before he's made a firm decision and before he's thought about all the
ramifications. It's just a weakness that he has. So what you get is the
appearance of a bunch of feints and false starts where he's out here, he's
leaping to this conclusion, this is what he's going to do and then people begin
to react to his exuberance about it and his thinking aloud about it and he
begins to look like a man who can't do anything right and he backs off. Partly
because he was never really committed to it in the first place. So when a bunch
of industrial states senators or congressmen say, "We can't go with a BTU tax."
He'll say, "Okay. Never mind. How about a gas tax?" So we'll have a gas tax.
Then when some Western senators from states like Montana and Idaho where they
drive a lot say, "We can't pay any seven cents on a gas tax." He said, "Okay.
How much can you pay?" All of this in full view of the public. Part of this
is the political process, I understand. But he's doing it all out in the
public and it looks like a man who's totally inept. Which is what happened to
him early in his Presidency. Or, somebody says we have to try to raise the
fees on grazing out West on public lands and the royalties from mining out
there, and he says yeah great, that's ridiculously cheap. We'll put that in
the bill. And then some Western senators go to him and say, "Will you appoint
some of your staff to work with us on this, because you need to be educated on
this, this is a pretty important deal out West and it may not be a good idea."
And he says, "Sure." And then by the end of the day he's decided to abandon
grazing fees increases altogether. Which the Western senators hadn't even
asked for. It's all this appearance of feints and false starts and groping for
an issue and looking like he doesn't know what he's doing. It's a function of
a couple of things. Number one is, never was committed to the ideas in the
first place, he was just sort of toying with them. Two, he's too exuberant
about ideas. He loves to talk about them. He plays hearts, he doesn't play
poker. I don't think he'd be a good poker player. I mean he's got a good
hand I think he's going to be over here demonstrating that he does. That's the
way he handles policy. And he gets too excited about talking about policy
proposals that he doesn't have a firm commitment to and then his Presidency
looks like amateur hour. Which is what happened in the first year or two. And
then, somehow, he comes through it with a reasonable policy, some were formed,
things perking along pretty well. That's the other thing about him. He always
seems to land on his feet. Somehow. He just looks horrible before he lands.
His fall is horrible. But he lands on his feet somehow.
Would you say health care is part of this messy process?
Oh, sure. Here we had sort of Bill's style versus Hillary's style. Hers was
to bring everybody in and have secret meetings and then let's put out the way
it's going to be. Which is one criticism that they got and that's not the way
to do it either. But with him the idea is, well you know we're thinking about
these purchasing alliances, where a large bureaucratic structure would do the
purchasing of health care. And of course send everybody into a tizzy when the
President of the United States talks about that. Or, Hillary is saying we've
got to have universal coverage for this to work. Everybody has to be covered,
there has to be a payment made for everyone for this to work. And then Clinton
goes to some city and is talking to a group and says, "What is universal
coverage? Does it cover 90/91%?" Essentially, it's undercutting what's she's
saying. Thinking aloud. Course she gets upset about it and staff members have
had to go around behind the President saying, "That's not what he really meant.
We're still committed to universal coverage." Because he thinks out loud too
much. So health care's not the greatest example, as I think the budget is the
greatest example, because health care was the Hillary mistakes and the Bill
mistakes. Sort of two weather systems collided and you had sort of a hurricane
and it did a lot of destruction. I think that's what happened there.
You mentioned the budget but you also think it's a success.
He's the first President to cut the deficit and he cut it in half essentially.
He did it with tough decisions. He did it without any Republican help. He did
it by the landslide of Al Gore's tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Did it in a
political way to label him a liberal tax and spend Democrat and cost his party
the Congress in the mid-term elections. And yet, the economy performs well,
the deficit is down, government is more fiscally accountable under his
leadership than it was before, and he proceeds perhaps to a second term after
all of that.
And that's the thing with Clinton. That's why I think he just commands
ambivalence in those that watch him cause he's such a mess in a lot of what he
does. It's just, you just watch him and you go, "My goodness. Why do you
think out loud? Why are you talking so much? Why do you compromise too
quickly? Why do you retreat so rapidly?" Then a couple of years later you
say, "Why that's a pretty good policy. Things are okay." I watched the same
thing for years in Arkansas. Legislative sessions in Arkansas would just be
madhouses. He didn't get his bills prepared, he gave a State of the State [Union?]
address in which he outlined a lot of policy initiatives that never ... and
then there was a long gap between his speech and actually introducing bills.
The last day of the session he'd be running back and forth. One session he's
actually, that we in the press called the shuttle diplomacy. He, the Governor
of the state running from the House to the Senate with amendments and writing,
in long hand, amendments to try to get things settled. That's the way he does
business. He loves that. He loves policy. He loves interaction. He loves
negotiation. I've seen him at Governors' conferences where he likes to get
involved with the two side, Republicans and Democrats and say, "Well, let's
work this out." He loves that kind of approach. But when you do that in the
full view of the public as President, you look very bad while it's happening.
Washington, to me, is a process oriented town. That's what it's about. That's
what the story is every day. The political process, not the product. The
product is something that you deal with in re-election or you deal with in the
history books. But The Washington Post, The New York Times, they
need a process story today. And Clinton looks horrible in that sort of thing.
Now, Dole is much the same way I think. He's a negotiator and a compromiser
and he's trying to work something out. And I think if the press focused on his
every feint and false start as a legislator, in the way they focus on the
feints and false starts of Clinton as an executive, you'd see similar patterns.
The thing is, you expect that of a legislator trying to form a consensus,
trying to dispose of legislation. You don't necessarily expect it of a
president proposing legislation or trying to be the overall leader of the
country. And Clinton recognized that when he made the famous call to Ben
Wattenberg, to tell him his book, Values Matter Most, was wonderful.
And Clinton said, "I've been behaving like a parliamentary prime minister, like
a chief legislator" and this was two and a half years into his presidency. He
said, "Now I realize that I need to be sort of the leader of the country. The
visionary. The man talking about general values and not getting my hands dirty
with this legislative business."
So that's another thing about Clinton that's sort of the clincher in all of
this. He's a work in progress and he learns as he goes along. I remember Betsy
Wright saying to me in 1993, she said, "He'll figure it out. He always does.
It's going to be worse before it gets better. There'll be a couple more
disasters, but he'll figure it out." And I think he did. Now if he gets
re-elected, my prediction is he'll be so exuberant about being the first second
term president since Roosevelt, he'll be so exuberant that he got more
validation from the voters and won a second term, he'll start making mistakes
again. I think every time he gets re-elected he has to relearn lessons.
That's another part of his pattern, because he's so enthused and exuberant
Let's go back to the Dole Clinton connections and the ways in which they are so
Both Dole and Clinton are political animals who love the
process and are good at it. And the process is not about strident rhetorical
positions, and it's not about revolution. It's not about flame throwing
rhetoric. That's what Newt Gingrich is about and he, in the end, was not a
successful Speaker at least in the beginning, in the first year. And I have no
reason to disbelieve [what I've heard] that in the negotiations over whether
we settle on a budget and we keep government open, that actually everybody knew
that when it was Clinton, Dole and Gingrich in negotiations, the partisan
allies were Clinton against Dole and Gingrich. But I understand if you watched
the interaction of the three you knew that Dole and Clinton were just dying to
do a deal and it was Gingrich who thought he had some sort of vision, and some
sort of revolution to adhere to who was the outsider in that group. That had
it been left to Dole and Clinton they would have worked something out. Because
that's what they're both about. They're both pragmatists in the end.
Pragmatists and deal makers and compromisers.
That's Clinton's record in Arkansas, and of course, it's Dole's record. I
don't think there's that much difference between them in style and philosophy.
I really don't. I think they meet somewhere in the center on a lot of things.
Their public styles are different. Their public manner's different. The way
they are perceived is far different. But in the back rooms of Washington when
you sit them down with a deal to be made, I think they got a lot in common.
One way though they are different aren't they is that they come from different
generations and are expressive of those generations. Can you talk a little
Well, most presidential races are about big themes. For all the talk about
issues they are decided by two or three things that are to do with the national
mood. And one of them sometimes is a generational thing. I think JFK was a
generational moment in American history. Clinton's was supposed to be but it's
been such a wild couple of years and the generational change that his
presidency supposedly represented was sort of tromped by the Republican
revolution in '94, so it's unclear what happened. But one element is are we
staying with this new generation or for the first time ever are we going to go
back? We're going to toy with the new one and then reject it for, and bring
back Grandpa. That's the generation.
Now in terms of how they represent their generations, I don't think I have
anything especially insightful to say about that. Except that everybody would
remark about the war record. That's the ultimate. You got Dole, from his
generation, serving his country in a good war, World War II, and a hero, and
wounded and permanently wounded, disabled. And coming back from that and
having a life of public service. And that whole experience makes him what he
is today. With Clinton you've got the Vietnam generation. And that was more
about getting out of serving your country than doing your duty. It was about
the drug culture, and the protest culture, and the long- haired culture and
Clinton's part of all that. But if you're asking me for more than that, I
don't really know.
One thing about Clinton, you know there have been a lot of people who came out
of the sixties generation and they may have done the drugs, and they may have
protested the war, and they may have managed to stay out of the draft, and they
went to Woodstock, and they did all those things. And yet they've changed
since then. They've become more conservative and their whole view of life has
changed. There are a lot of people like that. With Clinton and Hillary, both,
I think they continue to be influenced by values and a sense of morality that
was defined by the issues in the sixties. Watergate, bad. Republicans, bad.
They did Watergate. I think that's part of what the Clintons are about. Civil
rights, good. And Democrats gave us civil rights. And Republicans opposed. So
Democrats are good and Republicans are bad. Medicare, good. Democrats gave us
that, the Republicans were against it. And I think that those were things that
were part of the political climate in the sixties. With LBJ and the Great
Society. And it defined the way a lot of people thought then who were of that
generation. Many have since changed but I think the Clintons remain to this
day committed to those general ideas and it makes them sort of fish out of
water. They're pragmatists trying to exist in this different world while
they're sort of still defining themselves according to right and wrong as they
learned it in the sixties. I think that's especially true of Hillary who's
very strident about people disagreeing with her. They're bad people if they
disagree with me, she says. And I think that's because of the way they define
morality based on public policy issues. You see a lot of people after the
sixties might have gotten religion, or they might have made a lot of money, or
their values changed essentially. The Clintons have sort of been pragmatic in
managing to get elected since that time, staying in public office, but I don't
think their general values changed. Or at least the general defining values.
But in the end with all those differences, what I'm hearing is that you believe
they are brothers under the skin.
They can do business is what I'm saying. They can work together. If one is in
the legislature and one is President. It makes a difference which one is
President of the United States, obviously. I'm just saying that they are
government operatives and they're political animals. I think they're very much
the same and I think both of them, I think Dole is not as conservative as he
sometimes needs to appear, and I think Clinton is not as liberal as his
detractors try to say. And I think philosophically, you give them ten issues
they might see seven of them the same. Now the other three are going to be big
ones, abortion maybe, or tax cuts, but I just think there's not as much
difference between them as many might think.
Well, the other side of the coin of the need for validation that he gets from
winning elections is the profound way he is affected by voter rejection. He
gets euphoric in victory and sort of loses all sense of proportion, I think, in
the way he behaves with policy initiatives after he wins elections. When he's
rejected by voters, his sense of hurt and depression and anger and obsession
are extraordinary. And the parallels between what happened in Arkansas and
what happened in Washington are eerie. In Arkansas he was elected as the
nation's youngest Governor, as the brightest young political, politician we'd
seen in this state maybe ever. Thirty-two years old, Governor of the State.
He was trying to stop clear cutting in the forests, he was fighting
environmental issues, he was fighting the utilities and saying, "Stop building
these big power plants and spend money on conservation programs." He was
trying to develop rural health programs which upset the doctors in the Arkansas
Medical Society. Tremendous activism, not especially smart in the way he paced
it, or the way he carried it out. And then the votes rejected him after two
years. And it's just a joke around Little Rock, "Did Bill Clinton ask you
during those two years what he did wrong and what he could do better?" He'd
go to a jogging track and he'd just walk up to people and say, "What do you
think? Why did I lose? What did I do wrong?" Grocery store. If you see
Clinton in the aisle of the grocery store during those two years he was out of
office, best just to turn around and go to another aisle cause he's going to
back you up against the canned goods and wants you to analyze how come he lost
and why the people don't love him anymore? He walked around in this funk. So,
let's fast forward to Washington. Gets elected. Is euphoric for the country.
Great hope for the country. Tries to do too much, too fast. The pacing is not
smart, the way he carries it out is not smart. He is labeled by the
Republicans as a liberal tax and spender, a cultural liberal, a social liberal
and in two years he's not on the ballot, although he actually is because in the
mid-term elections the Republicans run against him and his record. And the
Republicans take over Congress and he's left without Democratic control in
either the House of Congress. And he goes, by all accounts he went through the
same thing. He went through the same business of moping, of obsessed why, what
went wrong, why don't they like me, and also anger. There are a lot of
accounts of deep, dark, morose periods in the White House. We saw those here
in Arkansas. It's just an element of this need for voter validation, and the
exuberance and euphoria he gets. But then when he gets rejection, as he has
had, it just knocks him out and he has to got through this period of grieving
really before he can come back. Before he can stagger to his feet. He always
seems to do it cause he came back in Arkansas, and he's managed to come back at
things on the national level and he does stylistically and he does
substantively. He says, "You know I've got to appear less liberal..."
In each case, in Arkansas and Washington, one element of his change, of how he
deals with voter rejection and comes back and reinvents himself, is that he
becomes just a shadow of what he was before in terms of activism and what he
was to do. In his first term in Arkansas, he wanted to stop clear cutting, he
wanted to force utilities to not build power plants but to conserve. He wanted
to establish rural health clinics around the state so people in outlying areas
would have better medical care. When he came back, none of that. None of
that. All were impractical. He had learned his lesson. He abandoned them.
And he instead became known as the education governor. He said, "We're going
to try to make the schools better. We're going to raise the sales tax, we're
going to send Hillary out as head of the standards commission. And we're going
to make the schools better." And I think he rationalized, "I tried to do those
other things and I couldn't, but if I can make these kids in Arkansas smarter,
that's one thing I can do. And by the way, nobody ever got beat being for
education. So it's politically popular. Smarter. Far more measured. A
And to a large extent, rationalized, like this is not what I wanted to do in
the beginning. I wanted to do much more. But this is important. And maybe
this is the central thing. So in Washington, after he analyzed and dealt with
the rejection in the mid-term elections, we don't hear anything about health
reform. Nothing at all. Tried it. Couldn't do it. Not going to talk about
that anymore. You don't hear anything about tax increased to get the deficit
down. Tried that, got beat, and in fact if the Republicans want to repeal that
gas tax, suits me. And whereas in the first two years he was a government
activist with a program ready for anything that ails you, he gets up in his
State of the Union after the mid-term rejection and says, "The era of big
government is over." Co-opted the Republican line. Made it the centerpiece of
the second half of his presidency. So that's what it's about. Becoming more
measured, more pragmatic, retreating, and I think all the while rationalizing,
"I'm still a good and virtuous guy. They slapped me in the face before and I'm
going to try and do something that they'll like but which will be good for
them. Give them sweet medicine rather than bitter medicine."