presidency ran into trouble only hours after his inauguration. In the first
week alone, the new president was developing strained relations with both
Congress and the armed forces over his decision on gays in the military, and he
had to withdraw his choice for Attorney General, Zoe Baird. The problem was
compounded by Bill Clinton's management style -- he loved presiding over long,
unstructured, free-for-all meetings.
Myers: It was hell. It was hell. And the thing about the Zoe Baird
question was that I don't think anybody -- I mean everybody, myself -- let me
just say, I missed it. You know, I said, "Yeah, this is a problem. You know,
it's going to take some explanation. I think Zoe's going to have a little crow
to eat on this."
I did not anticipate the reaction from not just the media, but there was some
visceral nerve that it touched in the country. You know, here we've elected
this kind of populist president and the first thing he does is appoints a woman
who is making $500,000 a year as counsel to a big corporation and she doesn't
even pay Social Security taxes on her household help. Not only that, they are
And she's going to be the Attorney General?
Myers: -- and she's going to be the Attorney General.
Panetta: What tends to happen in the White House and in Washington is if
you allow a vacuum to be created in which you're not delivering your message, a
positive message, then into that vacuum will come some very controversial
issues that then will dominate your agenda. And I think that's the lesson that
they learned, is that in that first instance, in the failure to kind of have
some continuing messages that they were going to deliver as a new president to
the United States, what happened is that both the Congress and the press made
gays in the military the first issue. And they suddenly found themselves with
a controversy they had to confront. I think that was in part a problem with
experience in the White House.
Myers: And then Tom Friedman had asked him about it. He sat down with
the New York Times. And barring any other really big news, the
Times led the paper with it. And then everybody else sort of got
going and it was -- your first reaction is, "This is a new administration,
there's a lot going on in the world, this is really what we're going to focus
on now?" And people often say to me, "Why'd you make gays in the military your
first, big issue?" We didn't do it, we just couldn't figure out how to stop
Emanuel: It became a priority. It became a dominant part of our first
days of our administration. It should not have been. It was mishandled. On
the other hand, it is what it is, and that's governing. My point is [the
media] brought it up. We didn't bring it up. It was a question he got asked
at a press conference. He answered it. And then it became our priority.
Lake: The meetings that I can recall between the president and the JCS
[Joint Chiefs of Staff] -- and there were a number of them -- were never really
contentious so much as, again, trying to work this thing through. And they
were always respectful. I know they weren't happy with it. This was not an
issue that we were asking to address right away. People sometimes ask me, "How
come you chose that, of all issues, to address first?" Well, we didn't choose
it first. We were working -- wanting to work mostly on Bosnia, Haiti, these
other issues, and to set an agenda for the next four years. But it was very
clear that, especially on the Hill, they were not going to let go of this
issue, and if we didn't come up with some formula, then it was going to be
jammed up our noses from the Hill.
Panetta: What I noticed, though, was that in some of the meetings that I
was asked to attend as budget director, that the meetings were often
unstructured and would go on, literally, for an hour and a half, two hours,
more than two hours, in which there was no kind of presentation of "These are
the issues, these are the options," kind of approach. It was all kind of
everybody have your say. And there were people from all over the White House
that were in these meetings. I mean, there were kids that, frankly, had no
business being there, who were sitting in on these meetings.
And so, rather than kind of, a meeting -- you're dealing with the President of
the United States, it's precious time -- he goes into these meetings and it
becomes, frankly, almost a BS operation, in terms of everybody kind of
expressing different viewpoints. Now, you know, I think he kind of enjoyed the
free discussion in those meetings. But it took an awful lot of time away from
the President of the United States. So that was problem number one.
Problem number two was that there never seemed to be closure, and when you've
got a president who's got to make a decision, there's got to be closure. In
other words, the president makes a decision, that's it. You move on. There
oftentimes seemed to be meetings that said, "Oh, we think the president is
going to come down on this decision," and yet, you know, a couple of days
later, it would be changed. So there was no closure.
Stephanopoulos: And it has become easy to caricature, these all night
bull sessions that are like college seminars and undisciplined staff who are
running around like a bunch of kids after a soccer ball, all going to the ball
at the same time. Easy to caricature. On the other hand, one of the other
strong feelings I remember is thinking, "Boy, in some ways this is the way it
should be." Not the all night nature, but the serious discussion of the earned
income tax credit and agriculture policy, and what is the right and best use of
our education dollars.
I still also believe that we were going about things intellectually in a very
serious way. We were blind to the importance of structure -- and actually, we
didn't have enough respect, deep, deep in your bones respect for the office
itself. ... There's something important about going about the work of the
White House in a more formal way, even if it feels a little stilted at the
Reich: I remember I used to get calls from the White House. My
assistant over in the Labor Department would say, "The White House wants you to
do this," or "The White House wants you to go over here. The White House wants
you to go to California." And I discovered that there was not a White House
that wanted me to do anything. There were usually kids about 30 or 32 years
old that wanted me to do something. So I began asking my assistant, "Find out
how old the person is who wants me to go. If the person is under 40, I'm not
going to go. Over 40, then we're going to find out if the president really
wants me to do something."
Shalala: Someone needed to say, "Wear suits. We've got to have a limit
to the number of people who have access to the president, we have to have a
systematic policy and budget development process."
But I liked the youthful enthusiasm that the Clinton campaign came in with. I
think it allowed us to dream big and while we stumbled during that first year,
in some ways, it was worth it, because it meant that we didn't go after little
During those chaotic first weeks
in the White House and following bad news about the size of the deficit, Bill
Clinton made one of the most important decisions of his presidency -- to make
deficit reduction the centerpiece of his first budget. Some members of the
staff argued he was turning his back on campaign promises, in particular that
of a middle-class tax cut. And by now Bill Clinton had already lost so much
political capital that his budget was in deep trouble even though Democrats
controlled both houses of Congress.
Begala: My view was that the campaign had been a sacred thing, that it
had been a real compact, because I was there and I saw the connection that
Clinton made with people, and the connection that they made with him. And this
bond, you know, I felt very personally, and I know the president did too. So I
had this, I think now naive notion that you would just then get out your
campaign book and start on page one, and leaf through and enact everything
until you got to page 228. Well, it turns out it doesn't quite work that way,
and people who had been around the block a few times tried to explain it.
Stephanopoulos: I wanted to keep as many of the promises as we could. I
was committed to the putting people first agenda and actually saw my role, in
many ways, as a defender of the promises. So I wanted to do as much of the
investment and keep as much of the tax cut as we could, not to the exclusion of
deficit reduction. But that's more where my heart was and where I thought we
had to protect ourselves politically.
Rubin: Well, the president's view was not that he was abandoning
anything. The president's view was that the circumstances were substantially
worse than he or any of us thought they were. And that even though it was a
very tough path to take, politically, that if he didn't do the tough thing,
politically, which is deal with the deficit, then the thing that he was elected
to do, which is get the economy back on track, wouldn't happen. And the only
way he could get the other things he wanted to do done would be to get the
economy back on track.
Panetta: The president is someone who really loves to get the best
information from the best minds that he can get a hold of. I mean, I have
never seen him intimidated by an in-depth discussion about issues. He loves
that. And I think he kind of relished the fact that there was this debate that
was going on, and that very strong views were being presented. He never said,
"Cool it. I don't want to hear it." Never said that. He always was intense,
he was interested. He wanted to hear the discussions, because I think in the
president's own mind, he constantly was testing exactly, you know, "How far can
I go? What can I do?"
But he was also smart enough to understand that when he looked at some of the
veterans he said, "These guys have been around a while, and they've seen these
wars." And, you know, he recognized the fact that it wasn't Arkansas, that it
wasn't just a question as a governor of a small state working with that kind of
budget. He recognized the differences, and that's why I think he put a
tremendous amount of trust in his economic team, which ultimately I think made
the difference in terms of the final product.
Rubin: When you think of the enormous amount that was accomplished
during that period, it's really quite remarkable. The president, from a
standing start, put together a government. We put together a budget. The
budget, in effect, represented a broad-based economic strategy that represented
really quite dramatic change from where the country had been. And the
president launched that economic strategy to the nation with his speech to the
Congress in February....
Some of the political advisors wanted to see that tax increase using much
different rhetoric. I mean, basically, Paul Begala, you know, wanted to sell
that tax increase as we're "soaking the rich."
Rubin: Yeah. There was debate on the very day that the speech was
delivered. The morning of that day, there was a draft running around, and I
remember going to see Hillary, and saying, "You know, Hillary, I think the
president's got the substantive message exactly right, but I do think there's a
little question here of tone, and I think the president has to decide exactly
what tone he wants to have."
And I remember, Hillary and I went down to speak to Paul, who was sort of the
"holder of the pen," and we went over sections of this with him. And
basically, Hillary said, "Let's make sure that we don't have a divisive tone to
what we're doing." And I think she made an enormous contribution to avoiding
what I think could have been a counterproductive tone.
In April '93, the stimulus package is up, and Republicans are filibustering
it. You go into a meeting and the president is told what's going on, and he
gets really angry. Can you describe that scene to us?
Reich: The president was told that the stimulus package was just not
going to be passed. There was too much opposition. And he was upset. This
was the first big blow to his presidency. I think he was upset, not so much
because the stimulus package itself was not going to go through. There had
been a lot of debate inside the administration as to whether it was a good
idea, whether it would really help jump start the economy anyway. I think he
was upset that as president, given that the Congress was Democrat, he didn't
have enough power, enough authority to get what he wanted done. Already
opposition was forming. Already his ability to change the direction of the
country was being challenged, even in his own party.
Later that summer, in August, the deficit reduction bill finally passes the
Senate, but it is a harrowing day. What do you remember about that?
Rubin: Yes, it was a harrowing day. In the House, as you remember, it
passed by one vote. And I remember being in the Oval Office the night of the
vote, and a little television screen they had there, which showed the floor of
the House, showed the count as it was building. And we were all sitting -- it
was actually in the little back office off the Oval Office -- watching that
vote, and it was, to use your term, harrowing. But, ultimately, it passed by
one vote and I think there was a sense of very great unease as we watched it.
And then of course in the Senate it was a tie and then the vice president cast
the tie-breaking vote.
In a controversial move and as part
of an effort to reverse his faltering image, Bill Clinton brought into the
White House David Gergen, advisor to three Republican presidents. For several
months, it looked like the presidency was on track. Nominations were getting
through, the budget was passed (by a single vote), and relations began
improving with the press.
Gergen: It was a bolt out of the blue for me when the calls started
coming. I was working for U.S. News and World Report and writing
editorials urging the administration to pull itself together. I had great
hopes that Bill Clinton would launch a new bipartisan progressive era of
reform. I thought that was really important for the country.
I had been writing pieces about "Do this," and "Do that, please." And finally
Mack McLarty called me and said, "We don't know each other but would you come
over and have lunch with me and talk about some of the things that you've been
writing about? I would like to explore some of these issues with you." So, I
went over to the White House mess and I'm sure Mike had this wired but about
three-quarters of the way through the lunch Bill Clinton came into the mess to
say hello, and we talked for a while. I'd known the president for a long time.
And we talked for a while about what he was up to. And then the lunch ended
and Mack McLarty said to me, "Look, we're really looking for someone with
experience, for a graybeard to come in now. Do you have any recommendations?
Could you think about it?" I said, "Sure, I'll think about it."
And then three or four days later Mack called back and said, "The president and
I have been talking about this and we'd really like to ask you to consider
filling this job that we have." That set off a whirlwind of activity over the
next 72 hours or so in which I talked to the president. He made a very strong
pitch to me by telephone. I met with him personally. I met with the First
Lady personally. I had extensive conversations with the vice president as well
as Mack McLarty....
So, when I got there one of the things -- I had this discussion with Mrs.
Clinton as part of my going in. "Look, if I'm going to come in, I've got to
understand how you feel about going to the center, and how you feel about
working with Republicans. I can't come in here as someone who has worked in
three Republican administrations and have you anti-Republican. I can't, I'll
never get anything done. I can't be helpful. And I've got to talk to you
about the press. You know, if there's really going to be a war with the press,
I can't be helpful to you." And she said, "We want to end this war. This is
not where we want to be." And I said, "How about opening the door?" And she
said, "I can't believe it hasn't been done already." And she opened it. She
got it open right away.
What did you tell [the president]? Do you remember?
Gergen: Well, I told him that he was terribly out of position and that
he had lurched to the left when he came in and it sent signals to people like
me, who thought he was going to be a centrist Democrat, that he had lost his
moorings. I also had a private conversation with the first lady saying, "It's
widely perceived on the outside that you're the one who's pulled him left and
that he can't govern here." And then she made a pitch to me about well, that
she was misunderstood, that, in fact, I should remember that she had been a
Goldwater girl in her youth and that she was very much for traditional social
values and she thought he ought to be back to the center. But they also felt
that they didn't understand Washington very well. They didn't understand the
press corps. They didn't understand the dynamics of the press corps. They
were having a hard time figuring out Capitol Hill.
Stephanopoulos: I didn't know what was going on. I knew something was
happening, but I didn't really know. And I went home, it was a Friday night, I
think. It was Memorial Day Weekend. And finally at about 1:30 in the morning
the phone rings. And he says, "George, I think we got to make this
announcement tomorrow morning. I think it's the best thing. I need you by my
side." Perfect thing to say. I mean, I was going to get publicly humiliated.
Moved out of this job. But in three sentences, even though it was late in the
game, he says, "I need you by my side." So that's exactly the reassurance I
needed to hear to go through with the job change. Now, I had -- and fight to
be by his side. But he said exactly the right thing.
... The negative reaction wasn't really personal, like I had known David and
thought he was pretty well-respected. But it was -- we're bringing in Ronald
Reagan's communications director to clean up. What's happening? It felt like
a betrayal of the things that we had fought for.
Myers: Well, the kids who got blamed for a lot of things that went wrong
in the early months of the campaign. The kids weren't responsible for gays in
the military and the kids weren't responsible for the attorney general and, you
know, the kids weren't responsible for the stimulus package failing. You know,
so why was it that the kids were always being blamed?
Gergen: What we tried to do more than anything else in my judgment was
to create an environment for him in which he could make his own recovery. To
tighten the place up, to get the organization tightened up, and to give him the
opportunity to find himself again.
Panetta: Sometimes in preparing him for press conferences, because we
knew there would be questions from the press that would anger him, and the name
of the game is, "Mr. President, don't make news" and so you've got to be
careful how you handle these questions. So we would go through and ask these
questions and his first reaction was to say, "Oh, is that so?" I mean, then he
would really go at it. And the vice president, to his credit, would often say
to the president, "Oh, that's great. Do it just like that, because that's sure
to make the evening news." And the president would kind of look at him, smile,
and then he'd get it together.
Gergen: They had a series of dinners that summer with the press and for
a while there was a truce. It lasted maybe until almost the end of the year of
1993, the first year.
Begala: By July '93, he was not the "gays in the military" president.
He had a singular mission -- and a vote is coming in August, and here it is the
beginning of July, and we don't have our ducks in a row. We didn't have a good
message defined. I don't think we had the right Hill strategy. I don't think
we had anything set in place properly, and he enunciated that very clearly to
us. So we went to work. McLarty decided that we were going to have a special
team organized in a boiler room that Roger Altman would lead, senior guy from
the Treasury Department, one of the smartest people I know both politically and
economically. And then I was the sort of the Democratic Party guy there, and
Gene Sperling and a whole bunch of other people all took time off from
everything else and worked full time to pass that plan. And it worked.
Sometimes you need that. Sometimes leadership requires, you know, knocking
heads together as well as putting heads together.
Panetta: On the Senate side, the most interesting problem we had was
going right to the last vote. Senator Kerrey kept saying-- this is Bob Kerrey
from Nebraska -- that he knew that it was important to get this done, but he
just wasn't sure. He had some concerns about some of the pieces. So we said,
"What are your concerns? We'll deal with those. We'll talk it through."
We're getting close to the vote. We're trying to locate Kerrey. And somebody
tells us that he's in a movie theater in downtown Washington someplace. And
we're all going nuts, saying, "What the hell is he doing going to the show when
we got this big vote coming up tomorrow?" And so we even went as far as to try
to find out, well, what theater is he in? Where is he at? Can we try to get
We had no idea how he was going to vote until the very last moment when his
name was called. We had no idea. And for people that are careful vote
counters, that scares the hell out of you because you have no idea whether
ultimately you are going to win or lose. You're rolling the dice at that
point. And we were rolling the dice with Kerrey.
Reich: Right up to the last minute we didn't know that we had the votes.
There was a lot of arm-twisting, a lot of holding hands, a lot of reassuring.
Some people, some members of Congress, some Democrats who voted for it,
subsequently were punished by the electorate. They did not get back in. They
were worried, justifiably, about their jobs. And right up until the last
moment, in the White House, there was a sense of drama, and foreboding, and
hope. And we watched the tally come in, and we saw that we had enough votes.
Al Gore went up, broke the tie, and there was then jubilation, jubilation. We
had won. This was a big one. This was a hard one we had won.
What was the president's reaction? Do you remember?
Reich: The president was deeply relieved. Had he lost, he would not
just have lost the budget battle, he would have lost enormous political face.
The message would have been, "This guy cannot deliver." And if a president
puts so much behind something and cannot get it done, the president, by
definition, becomes weak.
The intertwining of the Clinton
presidency and scandals started almost immediately. In May of 1993 there were
accusations over the firings in the White House travel office. In July, Deputy
White House Counsel Vince Foster committed suicide and questions began over how
legal material was handled in his office. And then came the allegations that
Governor Clinton had used Arkansas State troopers to procure sexual favors
including those of a woman named "Paula."
Stephanopoulos: We picked a lot of the wrong battles early on. Rather
than simply focus on what we said in the campaign, on the problems of real
people and the fixing those problems, we had this whole separate agenda of
changing the culture of Washington and doing things in a new way.
What fits into that? Having the first lady run the health care project. You
know, we're going to do that in a new way. Showing the press who is boss.
Admirably having a cabinet that looks different from cabinets in the past.
Taking on the lobbyists. A lot of this, there are some good ideas in there,
but much of the time taking on the culture got in the way of advancing our
Did the travel office story come out of that hubris?
Paula Jones and her attorneys hold a press
conference charging Governor Clinton with sexual harrassment.After
initially resisting providing details about her encounters with Clinton,
Jones describes one incident in a hotel room.
Stephanopoulos: Yeah. We're going to do it our way. We're going to
bring in our own people. These guys have been coddling the press and coddling
our enemies for an awfully long time. They're too closely tied to the
Republicans. Looking back, who cares? What a wasted six months.
Myers: This one we could see coming a little bit but -- we
underestimated the power of the relationships between the former employees of
the travel office and the people who they had served for, anywhere from 10 to
30 years, some of these people. And-- the press rose up in defense of seven
people who they thought were poorly treated. And they were poorly treated.
I think history will show that there was some evidence of -- I don't want to
say malfeasance, because people have been acquitted in the court -- but there
was some unkosher things going on. And, yet, it couldn't have been more poorly
handled if we had scripted it. I mean it was just poorly, poorly handled from
And, you know, George was out of town briefly and so I ended up having to do
the briefing on that first -- and, try to explain this decision which I knew
from my brief experience with the issue was going to be inexplicable. And I
think I got over 100 questions on the same topic.... It's not a briefing, it's
a beating, you know...
'93, when the travel office erupts, perhaps the most problematic thing is
the involvement of the FBI because it brings back, in the Washington press
corps at least, these images of Nixon and the FBI.
Stephanopoulos: At no time in the White House was I more victimized by
being thirteen in 1974. I mean, I know no one will believe it, but what I was
doing that day, I thought, was trying to make sure we were saying the same
thing as the FBI. And it was a fact that the FBI was investigating whatever
happened in the travel office, and I said so. And I was completely blind,
deaf, to the implication that this would make us sound like Nixon. I had no
idea, at one level, what I was saying, even though it was true.
...The president is doing this Larry King Live. And over the course of
the hour the information is confirmed. And it's clear that Vince Foster did
kill himself. We're starting to get the information out. And now we had this
very particular small problem we had to deal with. We knew that Larry King
would ask the president to stay on for another hour. The president still
didn't know that Vince Foster had killed himself. And we were scared to death
that the story would break on the AP wire and Larry King would be asking him
about it. And it would be the first he heard.
So, as a matter of fact, at the end of the hour Larry says, you know, "Do you
want to come back for another hour right now?" And Clinton says yes. And Mack
is standing behind him saying, "No, no, no." And he's looking at Mack and his
eyes widen a little bit. He doesn't really know what it's about. And he's
kind of getting a little annoyed. But then, they stop. And at the break Mack
pulls Clinton aside and tells him.
And I remember watching from across the hall and all I could see was almost an
imperceptible buckling, slumping by Clinton. But he nodded his head, and we
didn't go back for the next hour. And then Clinton, Mack, and I rode up to the
second floor of the residence, the kitchen, and I said, "We're going to have to
put out a statement." And he just said, "You know what to say." And it wasn't
mean or anything like that. It was just he was completely in another place.
And he wanted to go be with Vince's family. And that's what he ended up doing
Myers: And so, all of a sudden within a couple of hours we're all of a
sudden dealing with some kind of an investigation of a very sensitive event at
a very high level. And I think it was at that point that I started to realize
that my God, there's going to be all kinds of conspiracy theorists out there.
And I remember saying to Mark and to George, "I have a really bad feeling about
this. I mean it's bad enough that Vince has died but this isn't going to be
treated like a human tragedy, this is the beginning of something that is going
to go on for a long time."
And it did. And the next day, you know, the press asked me, you know, well,
"Why, why, why?" And I said, "It's unknowable." Even though I could see what
was happening, I couldn't stop myself from responding like a human being. You
know, it's unknowable. Why does anybody take their life? How can -- you can
never satisfactorily answer that question. And, of course, that just opened
the door ..."What is it you're trying to hide? Why can't you answer that
question?" It was no longer about the mystery of a human tragedy, it was about
what is the White House trying to cover up. ...
... We knew the story was in the works. Both the American Spectator and
the L.A. Times were working on the story that then-Governor Clinton had
used Arkansas state troopers to procure women. This was a Sunday, and about 5
o'clock that afternoon I got a call from Dave Gergen saying they are faxing it
around or something. We've got a copy of the story.
And once again, your best social plans are foiled by some crisis at the White
House. And, so, that night, we went straight to the White House and started
going over the story and tried to piece together what was it, what do we know
about the accusations made in it? You know, what were we going to say? And I
just remember being there until late that night and again trying to find the
factual inaccuracies in the story and trying to find out who are these
What was the strategy there to deflect that story?
Myers: It was to once again find the factual errors and to tell the
subsequent story about some of the individuals, some of the state troopers who
had some pretty shady histories. Some of them had been involved in another
scandal subsequent to their service to Clinton while he was governor. And so
we tried to just -- who are these people, what are their motives, what are the
factual inaccuracies in the story, where can we shoot it down.
Stephanopoulos: It was the Spectator and it was stuff that
happened in Arkansas. We had been through that before. And basically, we had
learned that, just these sex stories -- I thought we had learned -- just
weren't going to make that much of a difference. Now, what enraged me, drove
me crazy was this sense that Clinton called like one or two of the troopers
after the story came out. And for me that was pure deja vu, calling Gennifer,
like don't try to fix it yourself. Just let it go. And all of the troubles
always come when you get into this maneuvering of trying to work your way
through it. And, especially calling these people from the Oval Office, just
Gergen: And [Hillary] in that kind of environment, her first response is
to rally the troops and get people out defending the president. I think that's
one of the great contributions she's made to him over time. She's the one who
steadies things up. She deploys people, gets them out there.
But I think it was very hurtful to her. I think it was just privately just
very, very difficult for her. Now, let me add this postscript. I believe that
the Troopergate story was a turning point on the health care fight. Let me
explain why. Up until that time that she had been very, very involved in sort
of the effort to put together the health care plan. It had been early
presentations in the fall of 1993. The Troopergate story came along in
December. I think it put him in a substantially one-down situation, with her
psychologically in the dynamics of a marriage.
I can't prove this. My sense has been they are on a see-saw in their
relationship. When that relationship works, they're very good partners. But
when she goes up and he goes down, or he goes up and she goes down, the balance
gets out of whack. On health care, what happened was that that Troopergate
story put that see-saw up so that she went way up and he went way down. And I
never saw him challenge her on health care in the weeks that followed. On the
politics of what was going on, on sort of how to get it presented to the
Congress properly. How to get it through the Congress. I really think that it
sealed her position. It put her firmly in charge of how to get health care