Richard Reeves, Author of Running in Place a book about Clinton's first year in office and of President Kennedy: Profile of
In talking about Clinton you likened him to the surfer politician. Why is that
sort of the defining image for you?
I see Bill Clinton sometimes as a kind of surfer politician. The ocean is big
and the ocean is deep, and he's smart enough to know a lot about it. But what
he's actually doing is riding a board on each wave that comes up. Each new
number, each new poll, each new focus group, each new election. And he's
skimming. And he's a genius at it. Brilliant. Skimming along from wave to
wave and not much worrying. Managing to stay on his feet. Not much worrying
about what's underneath it all.
To what extent are these patterns determined by his character and Hillary's?
I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are one person. I think that they
both think they wouldn't be where they are today without the other one.
They're almost hostage to each other. I think they're right about that, that
they wouldn't have gotten this far if it wasn't this kind of team. On the
other hand, other people are never privy to that. There's a pattern to his
life and to his presidency that has to do with unknown events and unknown
information. Which is the information the two of them share. And I'm not
talking about pillow talk, 'cause I'm not talking about Eleanor Roosevelt,
because I think that's way overplayed. Hillary Clinton is much more important
than Eleanor Roosevelt was. Hillary Clinton is like Bobby Kennedy. He is the
one true friend that the man at the center has. Bobby was to his brother and
Hillary is, I think, to her husband. And no one can break open what happens,
but his public actions are affected. Again, and again in his presidency, the
President has said things and then backed off, not because of an overall public
reaction, but because of what was going on upstairs at the White House, or in
the weekend at Camp David.
What does she bring to that team ? What does he bring to it?
To me the Clintons are one person. And Hillary is not a new Eleanor Roosevelt.
She is an old Bobby Kennedy. She is the President's confidante, his last
advisor, the only person that he truly trusts. And I think that gives a
different look to this presidency than to any we have ever seen before or
perhaps ever will see again. They make up for each other's deficiencies. Bill
Clinton talks too much, thinks too little and is wildly undisciplined. Hillary
Clinton doesn't talk at all, she is very disciplined and she hates. Bill
Clinton's biggest problem as a President is he doesn't hate anybody. He tends
to like everybody he meets. Which is another way of saying he listens to the
last person he heard. He needs that institutional memory about who did what to
you and what we think of these people that his wife provides and no other human
being could. Bill Clinton's supposed to hate you. Bill Clinton's supposed to
hate reporters. And he gets, but then it doesn't matter whether you're a
reporter, or a used car salesman or whatever. He likes the people he meets.
And he forgets that John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt didn't forget who their
enemies were. Clinton usually likes them when he meets them.
There was a quote about them, "The presidency could be ruined by the tangled
webs of loyalty and betrayal, gratitude and anger in this complex
relationship." Talk about this relationship, what you know of it. What any of
us can know of it.
We look at a presidency as a continuation of other presidencies and as central
to the history of the country. And we do it with non-fiction techniques. We
look for facts, we look for information. But the relationship between a man and
a woman has never done well in non-fiction. It requires a novelist. And
there's a great novel upstairs at the White House, and a greater novel than
Primary Colors, in terms of the complexity of the experience and
relationship of these two hungry, hungry people, who met when they were kids
really and decided they were going to do this. And they have fed off each other
and attacked each other and done all sorts of things that are not in
non-fiction, and that journalists and historians will never get at, although a
great novelist might be able to.
I think the relationship between the Clintons is more dangerous to his election
chances than say Robert Dole is. They have shared so many secrets. They have
been alone and cornered so often, that there literally is a kind of underplay,
a story under the story that goes on all the time. Bill Clinton meets with
The Boston Globe, says something and as he's walking out tells the one
person that he knew in the room, "My God, this is gonna be real trouble."
Meaning that when I get home, like any other husband or wife, when I get home.
And that's exactly what happened. The subject was "What did universal mean in
universal health care?" And Bill Clinton, in his way said, "I don't know. '98,
'97, '95, whatever we can get." But of course at home with Hillary Clinton, much
different kind of human being than he is, universal means 100. And the next
day he was on television saying he meant 100. It was all a mistake, the other.
He's changed his policy in Bosnia over a conversation like that with his wife.
Those things are totally unregulated. If the democracy works well, it's because
there are checks and balances built in. But there are not checks and balances
built in to the private life of the current President and his wife.
Let's talk about Bosnia. Clinton's biographer calls it an almost perfect
symbol for the feints and starts in this administration.
I think the Bosnian policy of the United States, which I don't disapprove of,
is a perfect example of the Clinton presidency. That is, the President wakes up
new each morning and so we have had 365 Bosnian policies a day. He may have
been talking about it at home, he may have read something, he may have heard
something. He is open to information. This is not a closed man, which changes
his take on it. The most dramatic example came toward the end of the first
year, when he agreed, at a series of meetings on policy called "Lift and
Strike," lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims and strike at Bosnian-
Serb targets. That happened on a Friday. Warren Christopher went to Europe to
tell NATO allies what we were going to do, and that Monday morning there was a
meeting in the Oval Office between Clinton, Colin Powell, then Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, and Les Aspin, then Secretary of Defense. And as he
walked into the room, Clinton was carrying a book called Balkan Ghosts,
by Robert Kaplan. And he said, "My wife read this and I read some of it too.
And it says that we can't succeed doing anything in that society. They've been
killing each other for thousands of years and they're going to keep doing it."
And Les Aspin said later, he was sitting there thinking, "He's going to go
south on Lift and Strike." And he called Europe, got Christopher, and said,
"Don't say anything. The President's going to change his mind." And in fact
the President did.
You've had long conversations with Clinton over two or three years, at two or
three different points. One of them you had conversations about JFK. What were
those conversations about and were they revealing of the man?
Bill Clinton once was asked what he thought was the best thing about being
President. And he said, "Well I can meet anybody I want to." Which happens to
be the exact same answer that John Kennedy gave to that question. And when I
wrote about Kennedy, Clinton wanted to talk about Kennedy and invited me, and
my wife to the White House. We sat there with the Clintons for a long, long
time talking and it was a delightful experience. But being a reporter, of
course, I bite the hand that feeds me. And it was interesting that what he was
most interested about in John Kennedy, which seemed quite simple to me, was how
could Kennedy keep decisions open for so long. Because real politicians, great
ones like Clinton and Kennedy, know that it's decisions that make enemies.
Politics is not about how many friends you can make. It's about how many
enemies you can avoid. And decisions make enemies. Particularly enemies who
The answer to that question which I kind of mumbled my way through, was that
John Kennedy didn't think out loud. John Kennedy didn't talk in public unless
he had something to say, where Bill Clinton kind of rambles on, thinks out
loud, takes in new information. Mulls it all together which to him makes sense
but to the rest of the world makes him seem to be incredibly indecisive and
scares the hell out of people.
You also wrote about some of the profound similarities between Kennedy and
Clinton. You listed about eight or nine ways in which they are similar.
In a way, Bill Clinton is John Kennedy's political son. That
is there are similarities in men who came from two very different places. First
they were self created and they both understood that the institutional gaining
of the Presidency has been breaking down for a long time and it was really
shattered by John Kennedy. So that Bill Clinton coming from nowhere, the exact
opposite of the Dalai Lama, they send monks into the mountains to find the
right kid. He was the right kid, he came out of the mountains and presented
himself to the monks and to all the rest of us. Kennedy made that possible by
recognizing that the media was not going to pick the Presidents, but it was the
vehicle by which they were going to be chosen.
They are both men who live for action. Life is a race against boredom. They
both when they talk of the presidency, talk about governing from the center as
from the spoke of the wheel, as opposed to Presidents like Eisenhower or Reagan
who governed from the top of a pyramid, the top of an organization chart. The
people who want to be part of the center, want to be part of the action. They
want everything to go through them. So that chaos, to Bill Clinton and to John
Kennedy before him. Chaos is a marvelous way to control people. If only you
know everything that's going on, you're giving different signals to different
people, nobody can move without coming through you and that's the nature of the
exercise for people like Clinton and Kennedy.
You also mentioned another quality of carelessness of people's lives.
They don't have friends. I know that there's a political mythology about the
Friends of Bill, the FOB and what not, but like Kennedy he strips away anyone
who is of no use to him. And he does it in a pretty smooth and often cruel
way. With Kennedy, it reminded me of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. He's
careless. The Gatsby character, Daisy Buchanan, was ruining other people's
lives when they were of no use to her anymore and moved on. That's what the
book was about. Well that's what big time politics is about too. And Kennedy
had learned it. Kennedy grew up differently than Clinton. Kennedy treated
people like servants. And knew how to get rid of them. Clinton has been much
clumsier, picking the wrong people in the wrong spots, not backing them up,
backing off of them. But the fact of the matter is, that when they're no
longer valuable to them, they're going to be gone. After this election, people
like Dick Morris may have trouble getting in the White House gate. He will
have served his purpose, depending how the vote goes.
What else as you look over the last three or four years.
Well, Clinton really didn't know very many people when he became President and
he began to appoint people very, very slowly. In the transition period, all
the work the President does has to do with appointments. And they all think
that that's what the Presidency's going to be like. But of course once you
become president that becomes very small beer, who's going to be Assistant
Attorney General for Civil Rights or things like that. So that the country got
a view of him during those days, whether it was Lani Guinier or Kimba Wood,
running through large numbers of people who might or might not be appointed to
something and then many of those people, some of them picked by his wife,
turned out to be disasters and had to be cut out. Whether it was Bernie
Naussbaum, or Mac McClarty, or Lani Guinier, had to be stripped away. And he
did it very clumsily at first. Now, he's gotten much better at it. You'll
look at the top of the Kremlin one day and somebody won't be there. But it took
him a long time. He knew what he had to do, but it took him a long time to do
But these weren't necessarily friends. What about the capacity for friendship?
Is it possible in political life? What do you sense about Clinton as a
I really doubt whether Bill Clinton or the kind of people that become
President, have friends in the sense that other people do. They have, or they
perceive I think, exactly the same problem as a kind of plain, rich widow. Is
he after me for me or for my money. And they just can't bog themselves down
after all these years of climbing, climbing, climbing, needing more and more
sophisticated people around them, needing better and better information around
them. So they strip away the people who helped them on their way. And they
end up with a government of strangers and in Clinton's case that's certainly
true. He did not know most of the people who are now in the Cabinet or who are
his advisors. And he striped away all the Arkansas folks. Most of them seemed
to be competent and successful in the Arkansas context, but when they got to
Washington, they were in over their heads for one reason or another. But he's
not the first person to do this, but he had to turn to the people who he
thought he was running against the first time around.
Let's circle back to past President's? What was the importance of Carter's
failures? How did he perceive the man and how did this shape his presidency?
I think the presidency is sui generis. Only 42 people know what it's like to
be President and I don't think it's like anything else. And I think all of
them, they learn how to become President. Certainly Bill Clinton did. But they
become President and they don't have the slightest idea what to do. And
there's really no one there to help them because we're a funny country. We
have very little sense of history. To the point that when a President comes
into the White House, all of the papers have been taken out. It's an empty
building. All of the paintings have been taken off the wall and we begin anew.
That's one of the reasons that we're a great people and one of the reasons that
this is a great country, because we are willing to try and try without knowing
that other people have tried and failed. But it leaves the President the most
vulnerable among us.
And Bill Clinton, who really hadn't been in Washington for a very long time, as
soon as he was elected President and invited down the then leaders of the
Democratic Congress, Tom Foley, George Mitchell, Dick Gephardt, onto Little
Rock. And they had dinner one night. And these three guys who had an agenda,
scared the hell out of him, telling him how Jimmy Carter failed as President.
Because he didn't understand the Congress, he didn't go along with Congress.
The next morning he gives a press conference withdrawing his proposals for term
limits, withdrawing any attacks he's made on the Congress, withdrawing plans to
reform Congress. Saying, "Pennsylvania Avenue is now going to go both ways."
That phrase which has resonated and shattered through American history. He had
sold out to those guys, the most unpopular group of guys, save the press, in
the country. And his first two years went down the drain, largely because he
was ignorant of how Washington actually worked and he had tied a boulder to
himself, the 103rd Democratic Congress, which then in 1994 tipped
over the boat of state and damn near sunk him.
What does the failure of health care say about the Clintons?
Well, the failure of the health program tells us a lot of things including the
fact that it's probably too late to do it. If there was a window of
opportunity for a health care plan, I'm certainly among the people who think
it was slammed shut by Hillary Clinton. He made a gigantic mistake turning that
program over to his wife. I mean if you go back and look at the beginnings of
social security programs like that, begin small and build up. Partially
because, as Thomas Jefferson said, great endeavors are not launched on small
majorities. Thomas Jefferson was a politician. Bill Clinton's a politician
and a very good one. Hillary Clinton had the political instincts of a stone.
And she did not belong in the kind of position of power to try to basically
persuade the American people there had to be fundamental changes in the way we
all live and persuade other politicians that they had to go along with this or
they were finished. She tried to present the country with a fait accomplis,
and said this is it. A thousand pages, ten thousand pages. It never had a
chance. No professional ever would have done anything like that. We can say
whatever we want about politicians, but politicians are people who sometimes
get the rest of the people to do what they ought to do but wouldn't do on their
What were some of the other mistakes? It wasn't so much the structure of the
plan itself. What doomed this?
Clinton made a string of mistakes. The brilliance of him as a politician is
evidenced by the fact that he's still alive and thriving. I even thought that
Bill Clinton would have done anything to be President. He's alone one night and
the devil comes in and says, "I can make you President. You're the one. And I
will only ask you one favor." And Clinton says, "What's the favor?" And, "Not
yet, not yet." Clinton shakes on the deal which he certainly would. He gets
elected President, he steps into the Oval Office. The devil is standing in a
corner and he says, "Gays in the military." There is not a greater fault line
in this society, other than race, than the subject of homosexuality on one side
and the military on the other side. And Clinton, because he had spent too many
nights talking about what seemed reasonable to him about changing attitudes
toward the '60's and whatnot, literally, threw that in the teeth of the
American people, who never would have accepted it. It was a monument to a kind
of ignorance. He did the same thing then again in a different way on health
care. On welfare reform, on taxes. It took him a long time to find out what
the country feels like as opposed to what polls tell you America's all about.
To start a presidency off by jumping on to about the most emotional fault line
in the democracy was astounding ignorance. And he paid, and paid and will
always pay for that mistake.
Health care failed because I think the person the President put in charge of it
has lousy political instincts but has unchecked power because he can't fire
her, he can't even face her down as far as I can tell. And though she did a
lot of admirable things one of them was not understanding the politics of the
situation, beginning with something that Thomas Jefferson said, which is that
great projects are never built on small majorities. She made it into a great
project instead of trying to slip it by. She would not open the process to the
American people and to other politicians. She would not compromise when it was
clear that she had gone to far. And she also exercised her power in terms of
hiring and firing people. And that affected the health care package just as
much as it affected the White House Travel Office. Mrs. Clinton may be terrific
at picking people to do certain things, but not to deal with the American
public. So the people that she put into office in some ways, or worked with
from Bernie Nussbaum to Ira Magaziner, and poor Vince Foster, were the wrong
people. These are people who do not understand the political process and they
couldn't help her. Perhaps she could have gotten by if she had people who had
run for sheriff as they used to say. But it was just a series of mistakes from
beginning to end, although it was not a bad plan and certainly the problem it
was trying to deal with was real.
You want to go back and talk about that essential quality that Kennedy and
Clinton have in common.
The thing that really binds John Kennedy and Bill Clinton is that these are two
guys who had soaring, soaring charm. I mean people who can light up a room.
And can light up a room and seduce most anyone in it. And politics is really
institutionalized charm. Instead of din serial seduction, you're doing mass
seduction. Kennedy was fantastic at it. And Bill Clinton's turned out to be
fantastic at it too.
Let's talk about generational differences. How is Clinton expressive of his
When Clinton and I were talking at one point, I asked him if he was still
carrying the anti-authoritarianism of the 1960's and he said, "Yeah. I'm kind of
anti-authority." It's a great answer and a charming one. However he is now the
authority. And it seems to me that he has carried so much of the '60's. The
openness, the collegial decision-making which serves him very well because like
many politicians he's a man who can't stand to be alone, wants to be in a crowd
all the time anyway. And he didn't realize, I don't think any of us realized
completely that the revolutions, the egalitarianism, the feminism, the civil
rights, the openness of the 1960's had not been digested by large numbers of
Americans. What came to be known as the angry white male syndrome in fact was
real, but it was men who think somehow that the men before the '60's had more
power over women, over their families, over the government, over the world and
they think the '60's is what took that away from them. I think they're jerks to
think all that but it's clear that many, many people do think that. And now
they have these two people who seem to come out of Arkansas in beads and
bellbottoms and there's this irrational hatred toward the Clintons which I
think goes back to the fact that there is still this hatred toward the
FL: Do you see how Senator Dole is expressive of his generation?
If Clinton had been able to choose an opponent he couldn't have done better
than Bob Dole. The whole World War II nostalgia thing is lovely to look at.
And you've got a candidate for President, Dole, who's vision is backward. We
were governed for 50 years by the World War II people, beginning with the
Commander in Chief, Eisenhower and ending with the youngest Lieutenant in the
Navy, kind of symbolically, George Bush. The country finally turned the corner
and is finally ready to go off in a new direction and Clinton has guts enough
to go after the Democratic nomination which didn't look like much when he first
went for it. He wins. And I think that that has confounded part of the
political system to the point where they've now found another Lieutenant from
World War II to throw up against him. And I don't think America would go back.
I can't imagine what Clinton would have to do, to get Americans to go back that
far into our history, which many of us don't remember anyway.
How do you think the discussion of character has hurt American politics?
I think I'm an anti-character political observer. What I see day to day now,
is that the word character issue is a cover for executing and writing about
dirty politics. Well, we have to do this. It's a job of great character. I
don't know what kind of character Caesar had, I don't know what kind of
character Napoleon had, and I'm not sure that character is even a virtue.
Richard Nixon, a man of apparently low character, betrayed his constituency
when he went to China. A man of real character, and part of character I think,
is loyalty to your old friends, would not have gone to China. I don't think
politics and character mix very well, particularly in divided systems like
ours. Maybe if we had a dictator. It would be nice if he were a dictator,
benevolent, of good character. But Presidents are judged on three or four big
decisions they make and usually those decisions have nothing to do with
character and everything to do with politics.
Do you feel the same way about Clinton or is that even relevant?
I don't see character in Bill Clinton's leadership. I see him taking polls and
finding out people like words like character and values and challenges and
constantly repeating those words. But he repeats them about different things
in different generations.
Presidents are not judged by whether they are good to their friends, good to
their wives, nice to their children. They are judged by three or four big
judgment calls. When they're in office. No one asked whether Abraham Lincoln
balanced the budget or loved his wife. He had a big problem. He dealt with it
in a certain way. The Presidency, I think, is about politics not character.
Just developing that. What is it that we know about Bill Clinton's
Well, I would say that Bill Clinton's hold on the American people is that he
does some things very, very well. He's getting as good at the ceremonial
presidency as Ronald Reagan was, and in terms of character the only thing you
can truly count on him doing is responding the same way the American people,
the majority of the American people respond at any given moment. We've got a
fairly pure democracy with this guy because he's facilitating public opinion.
And I think he would say that makes him a man of good character. I'm not sure
it does, but he's not going to betray the American people.
Talk about the reliance on polls and Bill Clinton.
I think among the things that Bill Clinton believes in most strongly are
numbers. Who got the vote, and what the polls show. He believes the polls and
he sees it as a valid judgment on what kind of job he's doing. When he came
back from the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, and saw his approval rating
on the desk and it had only gone up 1.5% because of the meetings in Europe, he
slammed his hand on the desk and said, "Look at this. All that work for 1.5%.
What's wrong with people?" He thinks that's all valid. I asked him about the
reports about Jean Bertrand Aristide, when we were thinking about putting him
back in power. And there were questions about his character and more. And when
I started to talk to Clinton about that he turned to me and said, as if that
ended the conversation and it did, "The man got 67% of the vote." That's what
Bill Clinton believes in and that's what he thinks democracy is and that's how
In those long conversations you had with Bill Clinton, what did you learn that
you didn't know before?
I don't know how extensive my knowledge of Clinton is. Almost anybody spending
time with him is surprised by how smart he really is. Politics, like
journalism, is usually for the best second rate minds and I think that while it
may be wildly undisciplined, maybe an encyclopedia without an index, Bill
Clinton does have a first rate mind. The second thing that I admire in him,
and envy, is that at the age of 49, age of 50, the man is still growing. Now
that may scare you in politics, because he's growing to believe something
different than what he believes today. On the other hand, as another man, I
think that's tremendous. I mean he's like Michael Jordan. He is capable of
doing things that you can't believe because he's not closed up like most men of
his age and experience are.
FL: What did you mean when you said of the both of them, "They
prefer public embarrassment to private life."
It's been marvelous watching these people in power. As far as I can tell the
Clintons have absolutely no sense of shame, whatever. There's nothing that they
won't do to maintain that position. I truly think they prefer public
embarrassment to private life. Politics is an endless series of small
humiliations. They seem to revel in that. They do seem to be without shame.
When the wife of the President of the United States of America comes on
television and tells me that they're thinking about having another child, that
they're thinking about adopting children, and whatnot, I'm not against that. I
think it's kind of nice they're doing that --but on television? These are
private things and I think they have no sense of privacy or shame at all.
How about the process of running? Is it hubris to expect that you'd be the
same person coming out of it as going in?
Well, running for office in this country is an endless series of small
humiliations. Only a certain kind of person can do it, and only a certain kind
of person can survive doing it. The country has been totally corrupted by it.
The most corrupted is the leader. Where do you get the money to do this kind
of stuff? Why do people spend $50 million to get a job that pays $200,000 a
year. It's wrong on the face of it. And why we, and they are corrupted the
minute they go into politics. I don't believe Bill Clinton has tried to build
up a bankroll. I don't think he knows much about money actually. But he's
spent his entire life begging for money from other people to run, to become
what he wanted to become. And you have to be very young or very naive not
to think there isn't a price to be paid for all of this. He's Governor of
Arkansas. If he gets in trouble for Whitewater and all these things, he was
Governor of Arkansas, with enormous power. Politicians have enormous power.
The change of a comma in a bill can mean billions of dollars to someone or
whatnot. And he gets paid $35,000. The danger of that in a political system
is mind boggling to me.
In what other ways is running for office disfiguring?
I think it's impossible to run for high public office without being ripped
apart and then put back together again by the process itself. To begin with,
campaigning is just repetition of emotion. You're with 10 people, you're
campaigning to 250 million and you get excited about balancing the budget or
whatever. After the first couple times, and you're going to do this thousands
of times, you're making it up. I mean if the words aren't artificial, then the
emotion is. As they say, pop in the cassette. So that basically it's great
training in telling not the truth, a portion of the truth. The old county
courthouse joke, I want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Both Clinton and any politician can say which one of those do you want. When
Turner Catledge covered Franklin Roosevelt in the '30's and other reporters in
other parts of the country would ask him, "What is Roosevelt like?" Catledge
said that "Franklin Roosevelt's a man who's first instinct is always to lie.
Then he starts to lie and then he looks out and says My God. With these people
I can get away with the truth." And he's shift into the truth at the end of
the sentence or the end of the speech. He had a much better transmission than
Bill Clinton does. Because that description is also true of Bill Clinton, but
it takes him longer to get to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the
truth. And I'm not sure that any human being could go through what he did to
get to be President, and not that what he did was so unusual, it was that
repetition of emotion that breeds that internal dishonesty.
Bob Hughes the writer had a wonderful phrase when I asked about the damage of
running. He said, "It's the purgatory of self-repetition."
It is. We all know what happens. Even if you just give a few speeches,
lectures for money as most of us do. I mean, you dirty yourself. You feel
yourself getting dirty as somebody's asked you a question and you're going to
tell them what you think works and what will take the least energy to give it
to them. And so that they don't yet know that they've been dirtied by the
process but you know you've been dirtied by it. And if you're running for
President, it's slogging through that self diminishing dirt that American
politics has become.
FL: What are those contradictory demands that we ask of our
What are the people doing? Aren't we involved in this as well?
It's considered an insult, I think, to say that a politician is trying to be
all things to all men. But democracy in fact demands that you be all things to
all men. You be a strong leader, ever vigilant to repulse the enemy. You be a
feeling human being, ever ready to kiss a baby and mean it. You be able to run
the country like a well-run business, but we're going to pay you $50,000 a year
to do that when the people who run well-run businesses are getting $50 million
a year. You don't sell out to special interests or whatever, when only special
interests finance the entire process. I mean, where do people think the money
comes from and where do they think it goes? It comes from people who want
something from government and they want access to political leaders and it goes
to the people who own television stations. And it goes to political consultants
who are hired guns who after the election is over will go back to Washington,
have a few drinks, and if their candidate won, say that I did it all and this
is how much money I made from him. And if he loses it's because the jerk
wouldn't listen to what I told him to do. In every aspect the system is corrupt
and yet the American people worry about whether some basketball player form the
University of Massachusetts or Georgetown took a ride home from a scout from
the NBA or whatnot. It's hard to imagine how we got ourselves into this hole.
But we're in it and no one seems to be inclined to climb out and you can't
climb out because it's so damn slimy.
We, for whatever reason, are getting what we pay for. And we are paying for
people who, without shame, can go to the country, butter them up one side,
charm them down the other, promise to be all things to all men, to do all
things, call each other thieves and goniffs and rascals of the worst kind.
When half of them win, and then, one: expect the American people to trust them,
while they are, two: not keeping promises which were unkeepable to begin with.
And yet year after year, election after election, we let it go on.
FL: At what point does a politician's private life become part of the
conversation, at what point should it be part of, that. Does it ever become
relevant to you?
I do think that the private lives and the sex lives, if that's part of it, do
become relevant at times. And most particularly their health. Because we can
go back to the fact that Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated for 2 or 3 years
while he was President of the United States. That should have been a felony
for his second wife who, with other people, was trying to run the country by
lying about his health. So there are points there. Obviously if a President's
wife or son or mother turned out to be an agent of a foreign government or an
industry or whatnot, I think that would be relevant. And also if in their
pursuit of happiness, of private pleasure, politicians either show such
arrogance or such stupidity, that you really have to question their judgment to
the point that you would not be able to trust any serious matter to them at
all. I think that those are probably about where the line should be drawn, but
clearly the lines are much lower now.
The threshold of private life is much lower. Partly because we can use words
like character issue, and also partly because our politicians are not the elite
they once were. And the best example of that would be Gary Hart and to a
certain extent, Bill Clinton. Who are not rich men, who are not from great
families, who really came from nowhere in a way. And they tried to play like
the big boys. Well, Nelson Rockefeller, John Kennedy were rich men and had
long driveways. You can't clock who comes in and out of the Kennedy house, nor
can you a Rockefeller house. But Gary Hart, living in a little townhouse, and
the Miami Herald could sit on his stoop and check the time when Donna
Rice went in and when she came out and whatnot. And Clinton with his troubles
with the state troopers back in Arkansas, the same kind of thing. He did not
have either that old ethic of rich men can do whatever they want or the
protections. They're built in life being rich. So that in a way part of the
kind of sordidness we now see has to do with the democratization. It has to do
with the fact that anyone can become President.
FL: As the biographer of Kennedy and someone who has written about
Clinton you haven't said that there is this one thing they share which is this
Looking at Kennedy for a long time, and knowing Clinton, I'm not greatly
disturbed by their private life, by their sex life. I might be somewhat
concerned by the cruelty that could be to members of their family, including
their wives and whatnot, but that doesn't mean that they don't have secrets
that should not be revealed to the American people. We all have something to
hide but most of us are not trying to be President. And in Kennedy's case what
was hidden from the public and should have disqualified him from the
Presidency, was the fragile nature of his health. We had a man who was living
on pharmaceuticals as President during those years. He looked like a god but
he was a very sick man. But here comes somewhere a line beyond which it's none
of our business. And at least in my mind Clinton seems pretty healthy although
he's never released his health records which if I had to make a wild guess I'd
say it has to do with depression after his defeat after his first term as
Governor. If that's the case, I think the public has a right to know. I don't
think the public has a right to know anything about Paula Jones, and I don't
think Paula Jones has any right to any taxpayer's or anybody else's money. I
mean a full grown woman who goes to a hotel room at 12:30 at night, or says she
did or whatever, well that's her problem not mine.
Do you think that election was a defining experience for Clinton?
I've always been fascinated by losing politicians, and have been stunned to
find out how difficult it is to put yourself up for public approval and then be
rejected. And I've interviewed many of them, written about many of them.
People who couldn't function for a year. And the fact that Bill Clinton has
never released his medical records, I have always thought rightly or wrongly,
has to do with being depressed after he lost the 1980 election for Governor of
Arkansas. And was sitting staring at a wall or whatever one does after they've
put their powers of seduction up for public grab and the public has rejected
it. So I think that information should have come out, or should come out. But
some of the other stuff I could care less.
The Clintons seem to press the buttons of the press. The press has been very
tough on them from the get go. Why?
I think that Clinton and the press, everybody, was headed for trouble after
that campaign because Clinton was pretty successful at seducing a lot of the
press and we were in bed with this guy. But of course then, he got out of bed
and went on to bigger things, and foolishly on his part, rubbed it in by saying
he really didn't need the establishment press because he had Oprah, because he
had Larry King, because he had Arsenio Hall. Well, that was great until he got
into the White House and then he found out that Oprah doesn't cover the budget.
He almost had become I think, with many reporters, one of our own. So there was
that natural kind of feeling of envy when he rose above the crowd to what is
the highest office really on the planet. And I think some reporters even
thought, "Well why not me? I'm as smart as Bill Clinton." But apparently we