Paul Greenberg, Editorial page editor, Arkansas Democrat Gazette. In the early years of watching Clinton climb to power, he coined the term 'slick willie.'
I know you've been asked this many times but when did you conceive of and
why the term, "slick willie?"
As best as I can determine, thanks to the help of the Pine Bluff public
library, it had it's origin on September 27, 1980, shortly after Bill Clinton
gave a speech before the state Democratic convention in which he depicted
himself as in the tradition of progressive governors in this state, an
assertion that offended us at the Pine Bluff Commercial because we
thought of him as more of a trimmer who had broken this succession of reform
governors, from Winthrop Rockefeller, to Dale Bumpers, to David Prior. And so
we used the sobriquet, Slick Willy on that occasion and it caught on.
FL: I know that you see a pattern at work regarding the... first term as
governor, the loss, the coming back, then for the last three and a half years
as President. I know that you feel the pattern and repetition is almost
surreal. Could you talk about that?
Does Bill Clinton's term as Governor of Arkansas parallel his first few
years in the White House? I think so. The similarity is almost eerie in some
respects. Bill Clinton enters the Governor's Mansion in Arkansas in 1979 as a
young, ambitious governor with a full complement of idealistic programs at
least in rhetoric. He talks about preserving the environment in a way that
might threaten local industries, he talks about reforming the tax structure
that could offend corporations and businesses in Arkansas. He originally
welcomes the Cuban refugees that are coming to Fort Chafee, outside of Fort
Smith. He talks about having everyone pay their fair share of taxes, even
people who buy cars. A tax that would affect everyone and stands to offend
every taxpayer. And then, almost too late, realizes how deep into trouble he
has got with the voters and begins to retreat on all of these issues although
not in time to win reelection in 1980. And if you look at the first couple of
years of the Clinton presidency, that ragged zig zag of policies in which he
enters with a very idealistic rhetoric of change and almost before he is
inaugurated he talks about an economic stimulus program that's going to inflate
the economy. And soon gets his health program geared up in this fantastic kind
of Rube Goldberg kind of plan that seeks a comprehensive solution to every
problem that may or may not come up. You also see this far reaching almost
hubris in his first couple of years. He immediately retreats in terms of the
economy, passing taxes instead of an inflationary program. He reached out for
every interest that might be affected by the health plan, retreating again, and
again, and again in order to pass it, until one is not quite sure what Bill
Clinton stands for or where he's heading. So that in both instances he seeks
to pursue the tide of public opinion rather than to channel or course it in any
particular direction. And now it's clear that he is coming back toward the
center, or perhaps even in certain regards to the right, so that Bill Clinton
is once again running either as the newest Clinton, the New Democrat, the
Republican Clinton, I'm not sure.
FL: What's underneath the pattern and the repetition?
I think from the time Bill Clinton was 23-years-old, he chose as his abiding
lodestar the need to preserve his political viability within the system.
That's not my phrase. That's a phrase from probably the most revealing
document Bill Clinton ever wrote which was the terribly confiding letter he
sent the ROTC Colonel who had helped get him into the ROTC program and
therefore sheltered him from the draft during a period when so many others were
being called to service. Having done so this 23-year-old Rhodes scholar sat
down and impulsive as always, Bill Clinton wrote probably the most candid
document he ever authored. Trying to explain why, although he was opposed to
the war, he would not take too active a role in opposing it, and why he needed
to wrestle with all the alternatives of going into the service. And he
concluded by justifying this convenient and really expedient course, by telling
the old colonel that his aim had been to preserve his political viability
within the system. He always had a great faith that he would hold high office
and have a great political career. And indeed it was faith that was justified.
The man is now President of the United States. And even now his guiding
principal would seem to be preserving his political viability within the
system. Winning the next election in other words.
You don't think he's going for anything more than the winning of, rather
than the having of an agenda or...
Does he have a vision or agenda that he pursues, does he have direction in
which he is leading the country? I have never been able to detect any
particular principal that Bill Clinton would not sacrifice in order to advance
his political career. There may be some down the road that have not popped up
yet. But I don't conceive of any particular principal that has guided his
politics. I think that even his supporters and defenders when they're being
straightforward would not say that a sense of direction, a sense of iron
principals is the first thing that one thinks of in connection with Bill
Clinton. On the contrary. One thinks of him as a very flexible politician.
In fact, to Bill Clinton flexibility may be all.
FL: Was there one single sort of moment of retraction or waffling or failure to
sort of follow through that was a turning point for you in the way you regarded
What was the moment Bill Clinton tore it with me? I just got through looking
through about 20 years of my columns about Bill Clinton trying to find the most
interesting ones in the sense of the best and, unfortunately, the worst. And
one thing that surprised me was how many times I had been willing to give Bill
Clinton the benefit of the doubt, or had said, "Well he may have been expedient
in this case, but down the road he will surely find his principals and
continue." But in the Fall of 1991, as Governor Clinton, he had a luncheon for
country editors at the Governors Mansion that I attended. The question of his
stand on the Gulf War came up. At that time the country was still celebrating
our rapid and relatively bloodless victory in that war. And he mentioned
almost casually he had supported the use of force in that war. And that really
threw me. Because I remembered that he had not. Worse than that I had
remembered writing repeatedly that he had not supported authorizing the
President to use force. But Governor Clinton mentioned at that time his
support for the war so casually, with just a slight shrug of the shoulders that
he certainly convinced me on the spot. I remember feeling shaken, knowing that
I would have to go back to Pine Bluff, write a lot of corrections, check the
record, and of course that's what I did. I sped down the 43 miles to the
paper, looked up the clips, and of course he had not supported the war. He had
issued a classic waffle that would allow him later to take whatever side looked
popular whether we had won or lost that conflict. It was a very convoluted
statement saying that he agreed with the minority that opposed the use of
force, but at the same time he might have voted with the majority if his vote
were really needed. In other words, it had so many escape clauses he would
have had a hard time not coming out on top no matter how the war came out. We
have a term for those escape clauses in Arkansas. Those are called "Clinton
Clauses." Seldom, if ever, will you catch Bill Clinton in anything so direct
as a lie. There is always a premeditated quality to many of his statements
that give him an out in case he decided to abandon a promise or betray an
FL: What in the Southern Baptist religion is he particularly drawn to? And what
is it in your words that makes it so different from the Flannery O'Connor
approach to Christianity?
How genuine is Bill Clinton's religious faith and how much of it derives from
his experience in the Baptist church, and particularly the Southern Baptist
Church? I hesitate to comment on that. I don't want to judge other's faith,
less my own be judged. A great teacher once warned us against that habit. I
think certainly he shares the confessional style and the sentimental style that
we associate with the great pulpit orators. Maybe that's why Bill Clinton has
delivered his best speeches to black Baptist congregations. There's a sense in
which he's able to let himself go and express the sentiments that move him.
And he is, I think, a very sentimental person. I don't think those sentiments
go very deeply, and I think of his religion as more of that kind of sentiment
rather than any kind of Flannery O'Connor faith in which you feel the pain that
comes with realizing that when one has sinned, one has deeply offended your
ultimate parent. There's a lot of pain that goes along with confessing one's
sins. And yet, when the President admits an error or promises to follow a
different path in the future, one does not get a sense of Flannery O'Connor,
one does not get a sense of agony and pain. It is a cheaper form of grace that
I detect in Bill Clinton's displays of political faith. But I'm not one to
judge, as I said.
FL: You describe the two of them as characters out of a Fitzgerald novel.
I'm not the only one who has thought of a couple of fictional characters
in relation to Bill and Hillary Clinton. I think by now more than one
columnist has been struck by the parallels to Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Bill and Hillary Clinton's career through the White
House. If you'll recall, Tom and Daisy were a kind of golden couple. And
although they came very close to getting into scrapes, something usually
intervened. Usually it was the bodies of their friends who they left winnowed
about them. Poor Gatsby met his end that way. And those of us in Arkansas
who look around at the fallen reputations of many of Friends of Bill, who
followed him to Washington, feel that same sense of sadness that you have when
you read The Great Gatsby and mourn for the loss of that kind of
misplaced faith, demonstrated by many of his friends. Who probably never would
have gotten into trouble, or wouldn't have been punished for it if they hadn't
been caught in the spotlight that naturally attaches itself to the Presidency
of the United States.
FL: Who are some of them?
Well, the roster of Friends of Bill who have encountered tragedies is long, at
least for a small state. One thinks of Web Hubbell, former Chief Justice of
the Supreme Court, former Mayor of Little Rock, all around civic leader, who is
now in a Federal Correctional Institution; one thinks of Vince Foster whose
death has become kind of a minor industry for certain ghouls. There is David
Watkins, another Arkansas connection who now is in the midst of "Travelgate."
I think of Bill Kennedy, who resigned from his White House post because of
complications arising from "Travelgate" and Nannygate." So the list of
casualties is long and sad.
When we spoke about this election being less about issues, than about these
profound generational differences. In what way do you think Bill is expressive
of his generation and Senator Dole is expressive of his generation?
What is this election about in terms of generational style? I don't think you
could find a greater contrast than that between the styles of these two
candidates. One is out of the ethic of the 1940's when it comes to war,
sacrifice, a kind of Gary Cooper silent American heroism, and also an approach
to the mechanics of politics and the leadership in the Senate that lends itself
to an impersonal, compromising style. And the other is a much more familiar
figure to us in the 1990's. In fact you could even call this the age of
Clinton. I think lot's of us know Bill Clintons all around. People who came
out of the '60's with what was thought to be idealism in the `60's, a kind of
McGovernite optimism about the nature of man and the freedom that awaited us in
the future. A freedom full of love and easy going advance. Many of those
people have now encountered the middle age of the baby boomers. Many of them
have grown a little more self interested in their encounter with the difficulty
of life. They have retained a sentimental attachment to many of those values
that they no longer practice in the heavy going of negotiation and the getting
ahead in life.
So that Bill Clinton is very much a man of the '90's. Or maybe the '90's is
very much a reflection of Bill Clinton. I'm not sure which. But I think we do
live in a Clintonized culture. Just turn on your television set, or read your
newspaper or try to find out what the latest spin is, and you can see what
counts is the right sentimental expression, the right style rather than
anything below the surface, rather than any kind of profound quality. Rather
than any sense of pain or sacrifice that awaits us.
FL: This feeling is really about the intersection between character and policy.
Should character have anything to do with our choice of President? Does
character really have anything to do with politics at all? Isn't politics just
a matter of policy? I think at one time I would have been very suspicious of
those who said we should elect the person of the best character to the highest
office. I mean people with strong characters can be very stubborn characters.
You're looking at a person, I confess, who wrote two endorsement editorials for
Richard Nixon. And I would have at that time dismissed an overemphasis on
character, saying "after all we need an experienced politician. Someone who
can bring us together." If you'll recall the Nixonian themes. And even though
I understood that there was something about Richard Nixon that put a lot of us
off, nevertheless we were electing him to a job, not to sainthood and that we
could trust him to do that job.
But there was a time around 1973 and increasingly into that year, when I
underwent a change of mind and probably of heart about that. And it began to
occur to me that character was very important because unless a leader had
character, he could destroy whatever good he did by losing the faith of the
country. And I think Watergate, in Richard Nixon's case was largely a failure,
not of policy, but of character. There was no inner man to stop Richard Nixon
from letting this get out of control. So that ever since Richard Nixon , I
have had a much higher regard for character in politicians, and particularly in
Presidents. So that yes, I would say that character may be all in a President
because at a crucial moment it may tell and when we most need character it may
not be there. We need character particularly in times of crisis. And I think
we need character in terms of leadership of the country.
The most debilitating thing about the Clinton administration, I don't believe
had been any kind of wickedness or evil. It's very hard for me to associate
evil or meanness with Bill Clinton. He's a very smooth politician and I don't
think he really has a vindictive sense toward his opposition either. Despite
the early strong sentimental feelings of his youth. But he's a great
temporizer. He feels that if he can just put off things the pieces will fall
into place for a political solution that will redown to his credit. And the
practical result of all this is that month after month, year after year, Bosnia
is a very good example of what that kind of temporizing costs us, we only mark
time. We have no sense of direction, of vision, of where we are going. We are
only interested in letting the piece fall so we can find out where we are in
this post cold war world, rather than shaping the world. You don't hear much
about the New World Order any more. You don't even hear it cynically any more.
It has simply disappeared. We are now at the mercy of what the world will do
to us and our job is to somehow get by. It's really a kind of victory now of
drift over mastery. And usually when Americans go through that period we have
to pay for it down the road.
FL: Track the Bosnian policy from beginning to end.
How can you track Bill Clinton's policy on Bosnia? You're asking me to go into
a trackless desert, a wasteland. If you compiled all the zig zags on Bosnia,
there'd be no direction at all to it. I think that what we had there was a
Bill Clinton who was feeling his way, particularly in regard to domestic
opinion as opposed to that of Congressional leaders, as balanced by that of
European allies, without any feeling or character or direction of his own. A
faith that if he just temporized long enough, things would fall into place.
And as each month went by, and each year, and as the horrors increased, Bosnia
became more and more of a disgrace and horror. So Bosnia fell victim not to
any deliberate plan, but the absence of a plan.
And finally, when there was nothing else left to do it seemed, the
Administration did the right thing by being willing to take the lead, lead NATO
and the Western powers once again, almost independently, almost independently
of the United Nations, and bring the parties together and find some way to put
a NATO force on the ground where it should have been, probably, as early as the
last year of the Bush administration. Bosnia is probably the key example of
the cost of vacillation in foreign affairs. And it may not be over yet because
even while moving in to Bosnia, the Administration has made it clear, "We will
move out." It's almost as if the Administration knows it has to declare
victory and get the troops out before election day in order to have a
superficial success there even though it means that the killing may start
FL: Just to be fair, he inherited a situation from Bush and talk about what
some of those difficulties were.
What choices did Bill Clinton have in Bosnia? They were very wide. He
inherited a bad situation because a year of apathy had passed and Bosnia was
already being torn apart. The various warring parties had been given, if not a
green light, then certainly a yellow light by the Bush administration. They
began to realize that the West was divided. There was nothing to stop them
from seizing what they could. And so Bill Clinton inherited a bad situation and
then proceeded to make it three times, or maybe infinitely worse, by delaying,
vacillating and bowing to other people's opinion rather than shaping an
American policy. So that first Bosnia was left to the European powers, just
has Europe had been during the 1930's. Isolationism resulted in the usual
bloodshed and horrors. Finally when there was almost no other recourse, and it
was very clear that the UN had failed and that Europe had failed, at that
point, America once again took the leadership of NATO and the West and actually
employed troops on the ground, together with our allies, giving us a year's
respite during which we could enforce at least a temporary peace there. But
even in this yearlong peace that the Clinton administration has made in Bosnia,
by putting a definite exit date on our involvement there, the Administration
has sent the signal that it is still paying more attention to domestic policy
than to the situation on the ground. Because the plan is clear. We will
remove those troops at the end of the year, declare victory and once again the
killing might start.
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