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Bob Woodward, Investigative reporter for The Washington Post and author of The Choice.

Interviewed June 28, 1996


FLN: How would you characterize the Bosnian policy and what it tells us about Clinton?

WOODWARD:

Almost formally in the White House the policy was called the "muddle through" strategy or policy for the first couple of years of the presidency. The horror got so bad, so much a vivid part of White House life, that Clinton was looking for a way out. And Tony Lake, his National Security Advisor, saw this and was his kind of partner in the frustration. And I was able to get and look through some of the secret or top secret notes of their meetings in 1995. And you see this frustration mounting on Clinton's and Lake's part. And finally Lake says, we have to break the pattern. We are in the the cycle of crisis management, which means dealing with the day's problem and not the whole problem of the Bosnian horror. Sitting around his office in the West Wing, Lake came up with the idea we need to think where we want to be in six months. Define that very clearly, and work our way back, kind of "end game" strategy as he came to call it. He talked with Clinton about this, Clinton was agitating always, in his frustration for new ideas, new concepts, wanted to break the pattern himself and he said ok, let's go ahead and try this. And the notes show a series of meetings in the summer of '95, where Lake said essentially, let's have a carrot and stick policy. Let's get the Europeans involved, let's deal with all of the parties in Bosnia and offer them something, a carrot, and let's beat them with something, a stick, and laid down a policy that amounted to two prongs. First, get a peace, a peace process going that's really serious, that people are committed to, and the second one was a very aggressive bombing program. And he laid this out in papers to Clinton.

Lake broke his own rule, the first time, normally the National Security Advisor is supposed to be the honest broker and not the conceptualizer, but he took his secret paper to Clinton and said this is what I want to do, getting the State department and the Defense department involved in a very real way. Having a series of meetings with Clinton and going through. And of course the essence of Clinton governing, is indecision. And what they realized, and what Clinton finally realized in Bosnia is that he's going to have to make a series of decisions about bombing, being very aggressive, lay out the U.S. policy. And then send Lake, to the Europeans, initially, and say the President has decided. Now if there's anything you rarely hear in the Clinton White House that is convincing, it is "the President has decided" because people know that it's always open for reconsideration or debate. But formally going through this process, they got aboard, the whole U.S. government, and were able to execute this policy by getting the Europeans aboard, bombing the Serbs, getting NATO to agree to do it, kind of capitalizing on the series of events that were before them. And in fact when the bombing began, when the serious bombing, the end of August, 1995, and it was finally reported to Clinton, he was elated and literally whooped, whispering "whoopee." This is the former person who protested the Vietnam war, somebody who didn't serve in the military. It's kind of coming to the realization that power had to be used, it couldn't just be an abstraction, and once in his discussions with Lake, he said "I'm risking my presidency on this." I believe from my reporting on it, this is the moment Clinton realized that having the presidency has no meaning unless you're willing to risk some of it. To risk the political capital you have, maybe even to risk your re-election to do what is the right thing. Now, the critics argue that Clinton was too late in coming to it, why didn't he do it in '93, why didn't he do it in 1994. He said to one of the people involved in this, when he finally got the bombing going, and sent Richard Holbrook out to negotiate and achieve the Dayton peace that we now have what is really called the Clinton peace. And one of these people came to Clinton and said, well why not sooner? And Clinton said I was decisive when I could be. Which has a lot of truth in it. That a president may know what's right or what he wants to do, but if the allies, if the departments in government, the special interests, if all of those forces that are arrayed out there, that the President has to manage are not in proper alignment, you can never get there. And he did.

If you look at what happened, the campaign promises of Clinton, and then what he did in '93 and '94, it illustrates one of the most salient characteristics of Clinton and the Clinton presidency in the early years. He was not ready for the job. He had been an Arkansas governor, he had no concept of being Commander and Chief, what it entailed to direct a foreign policy and a defense policy. And you look at those little steps in '93 and '94, and they would be funny if they weren't sad.

And as Tony Lake said to President Clinton, there is a cancer on your foreign policy. And they discussed and realized, that if he did not solve the horror, that there would be cancer on his presidency. The very famous phrase that John Dean presented to Nixon in Watergate, and cancers generally or very frequently kill. And so the early phase was Clinton not understanding the presidency, not understanding the power he had. Not understanding a vital dimension of being President, its moral authority and the necessity to step up and say here is where I stand up and say here is where I stand, this ground I will not give.

FL: In all those documents that you had access to, conversations (unintel), was there anything that could offer some insight that what was happening inside of him. Was there certain horrors that moved him more than others.....

WOODWARD:

The notes show at one point in the summer, Clinton in a perfect metaphor. Said we are just kicking the can down the road. We are getting absolutely nowhere. When the horror of Bosnia became very personal, Clinton was moved more than at other times. For instance, in July of '95, he is meeting with his foreign policy team and Vice-President Gore says, there was a picture on the front of the Washington Post who had hung herself, one of the refugees. A nightmarish picture. And Gore said, "My 21-year-old daughter saw that picture and wondered why the world is not doing something. How can we tolerate this?" And according to people who were there it was one of these very chilling moments because Gore was, in talking about the world and his daughter, was really challenging the President. And Gore paused and after referring to his daughter, and added words that were over the line for a Vice-President, and said "And I am too." Clinton said we're trying to do something, we're, you know we're working on it, and game strategy was being drafted, but here the Vice-President is pushing Clinton in a very real way. I found in my research that it's Al Gore who knows the buttons on Clinton's console more than anyone in the White House, perhaps other than Hillary. That he knows that he's loyal to the President, he has the President's interests foremost in his mind. And that he's going to give him, give Clinton, the kind of policy and personal advice that is unfiltered really. And this is the best I can give you, like a younger brother in a way. I mean, such an important part of this is the Clinton/Gore relationship and Clinton solving the Vice-President problem, all Presidents have Vice-President problems of you know they are out of the loop or they are Spiro Agnew, or they are Dan Quayle, or the way George Bush was perceived when he was Vice-President by many people as wimp, weak. One of the things you never find in the clips ah, at least we couldn't find anyplace, is the phrase "dump Gore." It' a real partnership. And so Gore was able to, on a personal level, talk to Clinton like a brother, and somebody who had, who could challenge him, because the challenge was not other than to "here's my best advice." And at one point he explained to Clinton that Clinton was going to have to absorb the searing experience of the presidency itself. Meaning that it's ugly and it's hard, you're criticized, you are the can that is kicked around by everyone, and Gore said you're just going to have to learn to take that in, absorb it, and you're going to have to find a way to discover that enlarged reserve in yourself, and steel yourself and go forward.

FL: He chose a competitor, someone that could challenge him and now is challenging him -- what does that tell us about him?

WOODWARD:

The Clinton/Gore relationship was established back at the time when Gore was first running for President and Clinton was on the sideline, and Gore went to Clinton and said, I'm running for President and I want you to support me. Clinton then Governor of Arkansas. Clinton did not initially, or in fact, did not at any point. But they clicked, they connected, same generation, what, about fifteen months younger, Gore is, and ah, it's one of those things that Gore laid out this philosophy that we, that the successful candidates for President in the democratic party in modern times come from the south. Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, people who actually became Presidents from the Democratic Party. And Gore said essentially to Clinton, it's you and I. We're the kind of people who can win. And when Clinton won the nomination in '92, he met with Gore at great length, realized that picking the kind of mirror image of himself was exactly what he needed to do. And he was willing to take interestingly enough that risk.

FL: What does that tell us about Clinton?

WOODWARD:

Clinton in selecting Gore, selected somebody who is the son of Washington, Gore knows Washington. But somebody who has brains, who has his own political ambition in the future, and seemed not threatened by that which is very unusual in a political figure.

I think in the Clinton/Gore relationship, it's more than a genuine friendship. I think they are kind of spiritual brothers if you will. In this weekly lunch that they have that is kind of the secret thing on Clinton's calendar, Gore goes in with an agenda, one or the other just the two of them, says a prayer at the beginning. It's not something you necessarily associate with either one of them. But it's part of the ritual of the brotherhood between the two of them.

FL: Any other revealing moments in which Clinton speaks and it reveals sort of the internal drama of his response to Bosnia ....?

WOODWARD:

One of the things that goes on in the White House when the President talks to a foreign leader, there are aides that set up the telephone system, and they are military aides normally. In the summer of '95, Clinton is talking to President Chirac and Chirac has some bold ideas about what to do in Bosnia and Clinton realizes that they're insane. And in this conversation where notes were taken, you see the frustration of Clinton, and after the conversation is over between Clinton and the president of France, Clinton as if kind of saying what do I do, how do I get out of this mess, does somebody have an idea--turns to the military aide and says in earnestness--now this is the Commander and Chief to a Navy Captain essentially--and saying 'Do you know what we should do in Bosnia?' The aide, dumbfounded. But it's a measure of Clinton's frustration and it's also Clinton's world, of reaching out to anyone who might be there.

FL: Any other revealing moments....?

WOODWARD:

One other key moment in the Bosnia decision making was Screbenica is falling, I mean, it is the rebirth of ethnic cleansing, thousands of refugees, again, part of the nightmare is being revisited on Clinton. And two of his aides go visit him on the White House putting green, on a Friday night, and Clinton is putting and chipping and he just goes into a rage. We're being slaughtered on this. What are we going to do? Where are the ideas. I'm so frustrated. The people who were there felt like they had fallen down the mine shaft right into his mind. The frustration, the anger, just lashing out. You know, why don't we have some solution? Where are we? This is wrong. We are, also dealing with the fact that he was being beaten up very severely on the political front on this issue, went on and on for forty-five minutes. And these people, and he's putting, he's not even looking at them, puts the balls, they kick the balls back to him, he goes into more, you know, where are we going? How do we fix this? How do we get ourselves out of this mess? Now interestingly enough, it provides, this anger and frustration, some of the intellectual fire to his aides, to think strategically and go down the road and develop, formulate and set in cement this end game strategy.

FL: Can you talk some about what is at the core of his character, his politics....

WOODWARD:

In the first years of the Clinton presidency, I wrote a book called The Agenda about inside the White House, passing the economic plan. And what was fascinating about Clinton in passing his economic plan, which was really delivering on the pledge of the '92 election to fix the economy, you look at his economic plan and it almost didn't pass. And Clinton himself in frustration a number of times said, oh it's a turkey. At one meeting railed and said we, the democratic President and the democrats, we have become the Eisenhower republicans. We're interested in the bond market, we're interested in free trade, we're interested in deficit reduction, normally republican goals. Some historian's going to write a book called The Republican Clinton, because Clinton is temperamentally a centrist. Yes he wants to help people, yes he wants government to do things, when it gets down to the crunch, Clinton, or a portion of him, is traditionally Republican. So this makes what happened in election year, up to the in '96, not just selling out to Republican consultant Dick Morris who has had a big influence on where Clinton positioned himself. But Clinton's whole argument to his staff is, hey look I'm a new Democrat, well new Democrat is conservative, more like the Republicans. There is this side of Clinton and it has its manifestations, it waxes and wanes in the presidency, but it's one of the core truths of who he is.

FL: Talk about what the choice of Dick Morris says about Clinton.

WOODWARD:

When Clinton in '94, after, actually before the congressional defeat, started talking to Dick Morris, it wasn't just turning to somebody who was very experienced in politics, but it was turning to the past, to the reincarnation, the reemergence of Clinton back in Arkansas. Morris was the instrument, so he turned to him and called on him in '94 and he provided the blue print which Clinton has absorbed. Now much is written about this and I write about his, but also make the point, which I think is crucial to this, how does Clinton look at Dick Morris. Clinton tells the people in the White House, well, why all this attention on Morris, he gets, why is he getting all of this press? Why are people calling him the chief strategist? Clinton's saying I'm the chief strategist, I just use these people, they are out there, they provide ideas, some I accept, some I reject. At one point, when Leon Panetta, the White House Chief of Staff is confronting Clinton about Morris, why are you doing this? You essentially have, if you will, a political mistress, somebody who's not under White House staff control. Why are you doing this? And Clinton says oh, some of his ideas are brilliant, some of this ideas are wacky. I, Bill Clinton, know how to separate the good Dick Morris from the bad Dick Morris. As best I can tell as far as Clinton looks at this, these personalities, these people are all instruments, and he decides, oh I'm going to use the hammer now, oh now, I'm going to play a love song here, these are all arrayed for him to carry out his political will.


continued

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