the clinton years

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anecdotes: Through the eyes of some key insiders, details and stories behind the events, decisions and atmosphere during the Clinton years.
"The Phone Call"
Dick Morris

"The Handshake"
Anthony Lake

"Turning Point"
David Gergen

"Seemed Odd"
George Stephanopoulos

"Flying Solo"
Paul Begala

"Hillary & George Clash"
George Stephanopoulos

"The Kids"
Robert Reich

"A Major Worry"
Dick Morris

"The Oversight"
Jane Sherburne

"A $200 Haircut at LAX"
Dee Dee Myers

Robert Reich
the phone call
Dick Morris recounts a call he got from the president, right after the Lewinsky story broke.

Early 1998, the Lewinsky scandal breaks. Where are you when you hear from the president?

I was on a subway in New York, on the way to visit a friend of mine. And my pager went off, and I glanced down, and I thought the pager was busted. You know, it was the old phone number, the president's personal line. And you know, that hadn't gone off for a while, and I sort of thought maybe there was a mistake. And then I realized that he was calling about the Lewinsky matter, which had just surfaced in the press. And when I got off the subway, it paged again. And I went to the office of my friend, and I called from his office.

And we had a conversation that I've related to the grand jury. I want to emphasize that I did not voluntarily share the contents of this conversation. It was only under subpoena that I did. But since I've told the grand jury, I might as well tell you.

I said, "You poor son-of-a-gun. I know just where you're coming from. I know just what you've been through. And every part of me just aches in empathy for you." And he said, "Yeah, this has been a--this is horrible. This is just terrible. You know, ever since I was elected president, ever since '92, I've sort of shut myself down, shut my body down, sexually I mean. But I just--I just screwed up with this girl. I didn't do what they said I did, but I did do something. And I think I may have done so much that I can't prove my innocence."

And I said, "Well, you know, there's a broad streak of forgiveness that runs through this country. And I think maybe if you tell them the facts, you'll be okay." And he said, "You think so?" And I said, "Yeah.

clinton with the legal team ...And I did a poll that night, and I called him back late that night. And I said, "Well, they'll forgive the adultery, but they won't forgive the lying. They won't forgive that you didn't talk about it in the deposition." And I went through the numbers with him, and it was very clear at that point that the shock of the fact that the president was having a relationship with this young woman in the White House was so severe that that, combined with the idea that he had lied about it in the deposition, would just have blown--would have blown up his administration.

So my hope at that point was that he would gradually let the truth out over the periods of weeks that were following; that he would gradually sensitize the public to the truth.

Now, I didn't know what the truth was at that point. All I knew was he had told me, "I did something, but not what they say I did." In my wildest dreams never imagined that he was hanging that distinction on two different kinds of sex; but he was, apparently. But I didn't know what he had done, but I knew that there was something there.

So I was hoping that he would sort of let the public down gently. He interpreted the poll numbers as being that he had to stonewall. And he said, "Well, we just have to win; don't we?" And then we had two or three more conversations over the course of the next few days. And then he told me that it wasn't a good idea for us to talk, because the conversations weren't privileged, and he said, "If you're ever called before a grand jury, you'll have to reveal it. So my lawyers have cautioned me not to talk to you."

Are you convinced that your poll persuaded the president to stonewall at that point?

I wouldn't put it that way. I think that the president felt that he had no option but to stonewall. And I think my earlier conversation with him opened the possibility that he might be able to get by telling the truth. And when the poll came back, it reaffirmed his notion that he couldn't.

  • Read Dick Morris's interview

  • The Handshake
    Anthony Lake describes the strategy that was developed to handle a '93 meeting with Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

    In September, the White House is preparing for the Rabin-Arafat meeting, and there's all kinds of choreography for this handshake, and you play the role of the president. What was your mission there?

    arafat, clinton & peres walking towards the ceremony Well, the night before, we were thinking about the choreography in some meeting, and the president had said, "What do I do if, as is customary in the Middle East, Arafat embraces me?" Because this is not the photo that we were looking for. It could be embarrassing. It was--I watched Rabin's face as he forced himself to shake Arafat's hand, even. After all, the PLO had been on our terrorist list earlier, and this is early on in Arafat's emergence as a peacemaker.

    So the president said, "What do I do if he wants to embrace me?" And we just took the question on board, all of us. And that night I thought about it, and then the next morning volunteered to suggest a way in which he could avoid it without looking as if he was trying to avoid it. And the president said, "What is it?" So I wasn't chosen to act as the president, but I just demonstrated. So he stood up being Arafat. I stood up being him, and showed him--which was to shake his hand with one hand and then to grab his elbow somewhere near the funny bone, if possible, with the other hand and hold it so tight that it would look like a limited hang-out embrace, but would actually--he could hold him off in case Arafat was moving towards more of a clinch.

    And there was then, of course, some joking around with it, and I think it was--I mean, I was serious in doing it, but it also helped to break something of a tense mood as we were worrying at the very last minute about whether, in fact, all of this would be pulled off right.

  • Read Anthony Lake's interview

  • Turning Point
    David Gergen details what he believes triggered the whole Whitewater investigation.

    To me, there was a significant turning point in the relationship with the press that led to the Whitewater Independent Counsel. And George Stephanopoulos and I were both involved with this.

    But there came a time when the Washington Post was seeking Whitewater documents and this was in the late fall, early winter, 1993. And they sent a letter over asking for the documents and the letter sat there for two weeks without getting an answer.

    And then Bob Kaiser of the Post called me and said, "You know, you're fairly new over there, still, this is serious. We feel like we're getting the run-around."

    To make a long story short, I went to the Post -- Bruce Lindsay, Mark Gearan and I. Mark was then communications director--[and] recommended to the Clintons that they turn over the documents. We had a climactic meeting with the president, who agreed to turn over all the documents. But then told me, "You got to get Mrs. Clinton to agree to this before we do it."

    And I couldn't get it on her calendar. They wouldn't let me in to see her. I got into a stall situation. And eventually a letter went back to the Post saying, 'no deal.' In fact, it was a lot tougher than that.

    What did that tell you about the relationship--when it would come to something like that--where Mrs. Clinton obviously was driving the ball here?

    clinton with head in hands Well, there are a couple of things. Let me finish on the press story and then I'll come back on the Clinton story. The press side of this was this was a turning point for the Washington Post. They made a very serious request for documents. And we, in effect, put a stick in their eye. And it was just as sure as night follows day, they then put a large team of investigators on the situation and they really went after them.

    And it was clear it was coming, and the Clintons were told it was coming. But Len Downey of the Post called me and said, 'This is not personal, this is just business, but I want to tell you something. You folks have made a horrible mistake and we have no choice now but to look at this very seriously. And once that started--that's the flagship newspaper of politics in Washington--everybody else got into this thing. Newsweek was there. Everybody else was there.

    And it really put the pressure on 'where are the documents?' And eventually, as you recall, the Clintons decided to voluntarily turn the documents over to the Justice Department and they, themselves, called for an Independent Counsel. And I think it was very symbolically important that on January 20th, 1994, exactly one year after he'd [Clinton] taken the oath of office, the Independent Counsel was appointed. And Mr. Fiske came in and said, "There is no limit to what I'm looking at." And that's exactly where he was going.

    I believe that had we turned over the documents to the Washington Post, there would have been no Independent Counsel. And if there had been no Independent Counsel, there would have been no Ken Starr. And if there had been no Ken Starr, Monica Lewinsky might have had a relationship with the president, but I don't think we ever would have heard about it.

  • Read David Gergen's interview

  • Seemed Odd
    George Stephanopoulos reflects on a conference call with the president one evening in early '94.

    Later in January, the president is off to the summit and going to Prague, Moscow and so on. At the same time, Whitewater is still dominating the agenda. You're back in the White House. He's dealing with Havel, Yeltsin ...-And then at 2:00 in the morning--his time, he's making phone calls back to the White House. What's going on?

    And we have a final conference call. It had been arranged by Harold Ickes. We were going to have a final mini debate on the question over the phone for the president. Bernie Nussbaum was arguing the case against asking for a special counsel. I was leading the team that said we have no choice but to ask for one.

    What was so odd about that, and again, it just shows now--it looks so odd in retrospect--but what's odd is that it didn't feel odd at the time. That a group of us--Bernie, me, Harold, David Kendall, the president's lawyer, and I think Hillary--were in the Oval Office talking into the speaker phone and the president wasn't there.

    You know, looking back--what were we doing in the Oval Office? You're not supposed to be in the Oval Office when the president's not there. It's his office. It's the office of the elected President of the United States. It's just one of those, again, blind spots that I think we had to the importance of revering the institution. Anyway, we, we--

    It was disrespectful, you thought?

    Looking back. I mean, I didn't think so then. But it just, we shouldn't be in that office.

    But we had this argument over the speakerphone. I argued one side, Bernie argued the other. Now, it turns out that Bernie's warnings were correct. He said, "Listen, once you have a special counsel, you can't control it." That may be, but we had no choice. If we didn't do it ourselves, it was being done to us. We already had majorities in the Congress against us. And they could have gotten one appointed without our consent. And I said, this was the only way to show that we were open and to move on. And the president finally agreed.

  • Read George Stephanopoulos's interview

  • Flying Solo
    Paul Begala recalls what happened when Clinton made a September '93 speech to a joint session of Congress to promote his health care reform bill. Despite a lot of planning and preparation, there was a snafu.

    When the president tried to sell the health care plan to a joint session of Congress, tell us about writing that speech and what happens.

    Oh yes, typical Clinton speech fest, where several people had concocted a bunch of drafts and worked all night and tried to get it just right, and with him, the editing process goes all the way 'til he's on the podium. And he will be riding in the car, going over there, with his left hand changing things.

    clinton pondering And so when he got there, George Stephanopoulos, David Dreyer and I were with him, and I had printed copies of the speech. David Dreyer had the disk that it was on. So I went over to go make copies so that the members of Congress could have the printed copy of the last draft, which was a close approximation. And then Dreyer went and had them load it into the teleprompter. Unbeknownst to us, the teleprompter operators needed something to practice with, so that they could make sure that the screens were at the right height, so they loaded in last year's economic speech.

    So the president gets up there, and he looks out at the screen and he sees it says, "William Jefferson Clinton"--we'd always put a heading on it--"William Jefferson Clinton, Address to Joint Session of Congress, A New Beginning for the American Economy." And he turns to Gore and he says, "Al, they've got the wrong speech up there." Gore says, "No, no, that's not possible." So Gore kind of looks down so he can see, and--so Gore calls George over and tells him, and they go through holy hell to try to find the speech.

    Afterwards I asked Clinton, "What was going through your mind? I've got to know." First I went and apologized. I had played a role in that. I was terribly sorry. I wanted to make sure he knew that I felt responsible for it. He was utterly forgiving, not at all angry, and I said, "What did it feel like? What was going through your mind?" And he said, "Well, I stood up there, I saw it was the wrong speech, and I thought, "Well, Lord, I guess you're testing me. Okay, here goes." And with brimming self-confidence--now we had given him a backup text, but it was too small for him to read without his glasses. We had taken his glasses out of his pocket so there wouldn't be an unsightly bulge for the TV cameras.

    So the poor guy is up there alone and naked on the most complex public policy issue, a fairly complex bill, and he went the first nine minutes without a note, and nobody could tell. It was phenomenal. Worse than that, the teleprompter screens are whizzing forward and backwards with last year's speech, trying to find it, and finally, they killed it all together and reloaded it. Nine minutes the guy went without a note, and no one could tell. It was a phenomenal--it's part of the Clinton legend.

  • Read Paul Begala's interview

  • Hillary and George Clash
    George Stephanopoulos recounts an incident in late '93 when questions arose about the Clintons' involvement in an Arkansas failed savings and loan bank, and a failed real estate deal. There were calls throughout Washington for a special counsel to investigate the matter, which came to be known as "Whitewater." The president's staff wanted to develop a strategy that would minimize damage to the administration. Stephanopoulos thought the White House should call for a special counsel before anyone else did. But the first lady disagreed.

    You had a confrontation with Hillary about this in January of '94.

    Yeah. In front of a lot of people. [Laughs] Yeah. It was right around the time when we--it looked like this predictably, after we didn't turn in the documents, the press started to get a hold of it. There was started to be calls for a special counsel from Republicans and others in the Senate and the House. And by January it had become just like a full-blown mini scandal. It was the only thing in the paper for days and days and days on end. Democrats--Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bob Kerrey, and others--had started to call for a special counsel as well. And it was inevitable.

    And I was trying to make the argument that, you know, it's going to happen one way or the other. It's now inevitable. The only question is, do we find a way to contain it, ask for it ourselves so we can move on and--

    You ask for a special counsel?

    Just do it ourselves. We're either going to get it imposed on us or we can ask for it ourselves. The only way to get to appear that we're not hiding anything is simply to ask for it and move on.

    And there were a whole bunch of us in this room, in Mack McLarty's office that afternoon. Everybody's agreeing. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Then Hillary walks in. Everybody goes silent. And since I had been the last one talking. I felt like it was sort of a manner of honor to then say to her what I had just been saying when she wasn't in the room. And I made this case that we had to go forward, that we had no choice anymore but to go for a special counsel. And, man, she just jumped down my throat. Basically, you know, "You never believed in us. You never stood for us. You know, we were all alone in New Hampshire" --and it was fierce and chilling.

    And I was kind of stunned. You know, it was the most hurtful thing I thought she could say, especially in front of all my colleagues at the time. You know, thinking about it, I felt sorry for her too, because you could just see this, there was so much fear in her eyes. I mean, I think in her mind she's just been through the hardest year of her life. Her father had died. One of her best friends had killed himself. She was trying to move health care, something she had worked on her whole life, and now she was being accused of being a criminal. Something she'd never faced before in her life. And she felt alone.

    It wasn't much of a bomb at the moment when it was being taken out on me. But--

    She said, "You gave up on us."

    Right. The worst thing she could say. I didn't believe it. I knew it wasn't true. Didn't like hearing it. Still felt the best thing was to go forward with the counsel. That I was acting in their interest. But, phew, it was fierce.

  • Read George Stephanopoulos's interview

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