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Baring His Soul: The President On The Process Of Rebuilding His
Life
August 10, 2000
Correspondent: George Stephanopolous
Anchor: Ted Koppel


ANNOUNCER: August 10, 2000

BILL CLINTON (From file footage): These allegations are false.

TED KOPPEL, ABC NEWS: At first, he denied it outright.

BILL CLINTON (From file footage): I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

TED KOPPEL: Then he waffled.

BILL CLINTON (From file footage): It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is.

TED KOPPEL: Two years ago he finally admitted his mistake.

BILL CLINTON (From file footage): Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.

TED KOPPEL: Today, he addressed the subject once again.

BILL CLINTON: I'm now in the second year of a process of trying to totally rebuild my life from a terrible mistake I made.

TED KOPPEL: And he asked that Al Gore get a fair shake.

BILL CLINTON: He doesn't get enough credit for what we did together that is good. And surely, no fair-minded person would blame him for any mistake that I made.

TED KOPPEL: Tonight, Baring His Soul. The president on the process of rebuilding his life.

ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, this is NIGHTLINE. Reporting from Washington, Ted Koppel.

TED KOPPEL: At this late stage in his presidency, how we see Bill Clinton, how we react to what he says and how he says it may tell us more about each of us than it does about him. But once again, he has given a nation of arm-chair analysts and political pundits, plenty to chew on.

Fairly or not, public opinion surveys are indicating that Al Gore is tarnished in the minds of some voters by his strong public support for the president during the Lewinsky scandal. There has been some behind the scenes pressure on the president to do two things. To apologize once again and more explicitly for his behavior than he has ever done before, and to publicly absolve Al Gore from any blame. Today, Mr. Clinton did both.

Speaking before thousands of Evangelical ministers in South Barrington, Illinois, the president spoke at length about the affair and its impact on him, his family, and his supporters. He was answering questions in a friendly, low-key interview with a minister who has been one of his own spiritual advisers since 1992. We're going to play for you the entirety of the presidential remarks on the subject. We'll be doing it in two segments. In all, it takes about ten minutes. It is, in all, a remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented chapter in the American presidency. But coming as it does just four days before the beginning of the Democratic National Convention, it also lends itself to a more cynical interpretation. We wanted to give you the opportunity to make your own judgment based on the entire relevant segment. It began with this question from the Revered Bill Hybels.

BILL HYBELS, WILLOW CREEK COMMUNITY CHURCH: So if we were having our regular meeting this would be the time when I would ask the consistent question, what's the current condition of your spiritual life? Let's describe right now where you are at spiritually.

BILL CLINTON: Well, I--I feel much more at peace than I used to. And I think that as awful as what I went through was, humiliating as it was, more to my others than to me even, sometimes when you think you've got something behind you and then it is not behind you, this sort of purging process, if it doesn't destroy you, can bring you to a different place. And I had, you know, I went through--I'm now in the second year of a process of trying to totally rebuild my life from a terrible mistake I made. And I now see--I don't think anybody can say, ´Hey, the state of my spiritual life is great. It's on--it's constant and it's never going to change.' I think I have learned enough now to know that's not true. That it's a--it's always a work in progress, and you just have to hope you're getting better every day. But if your not getting better, chances are you are getting worse. That this, you know, has to be a dynamic, ongoing effort. But, you know, I had to--I had to come to terms with a lot of things about the fundamental importance of character and integrity. And integrity to me means-it's a literal term. It means the integration of one's spirit, mind and body. Being in the same place at the same time with everything, doing what you believe is right, and you believe is consistent with the will of God.

It's been a--an amazing encounter, you know, trying to rebuild my family life, which is the most important thing of all. It took a lot--a lot of effort that I've never talked about and probably never will, because I don't really think it's anybody else's concern. And then to rebuild the support of the people I work with and to try to be worthy of the fact that two-thirds of the American people stuck with me. You know, that's an incredible thing. And so I wake up every day, no matter what anybody says or what goes wrong or whatever, with this overwhelming sense of gratitude. Because it may be that if I hadn't been knocked down in the way I was and forced to come to grips with what I had done and--and the consequences of it in such an awful way, I might not ever have had to really deal with it 100 percent.

You know, I--because this kind of thing happens to--not maybe this kind of thing, but all kinds of problems come up in people's lives all the time. And usually they're not played out with several billion dollars of publicity on the neon lights before people. But they still have to be dealt with. And in a funny way, when you realize there's nothing left to hide, then you--it's sort of frees you up to what you should be doing anyway. I don't know if that makes any sense. But to me, I feel this overwhelming sense of gratitude.

I also learned a lot about forgiveness. I have always thought I was sort of a forgiving, generous person, you know, nonjudgmental in a negative sense. Not that I don't have opinions. But I realized once you've actually had to stand up and ask for forgiveness before the whole wide world, it makes it a little harder to be as hard as I think I once was on other people. And that's meant something to me too. I think I've learned something about that.

TED KOPPEL: When we come back, the rest of that interview. And later in the broadcast, some analysis from George Stephanopoulos and David Gergen.

ANNOUNCER: This is ABC NEWS: NIGHTLINE, brought to you by...

(Commercial break)

TED KOPPEL: In this next segment, the president is asked whether he feels that he has ever before apologized fully for his behavior.

BILL HYBELS: You know, a lot of people, when I--when they learned that I was going to interview you, and a lot of people who know we have been meeting, have said to me, ´The guy never really apologized. The guy never really owned it and came clean about his mistakes. Tried to hide it, said it didn't happen. He never came clean.' That's a little surprising to me. I'm not going to ask for a hand raise or anything. But there's a whole bunch of people here who think you never really said it.

BILL CLINTON: No, I don't know why. I just, you know, to me I had to come--there's a lot of things going on at the time, that you remember, that were unrelated, I think, to the fact that I did something wrong that I needed to acknowledge and apologize for and then begin a process of atonement for. And there were a few days when I basically was thinking more about what my adversaries were trying to do than what I should be trying to do. And finally, you know, this breakfast we had--we're about to have it, actually, you know. We're coming up on the second anniversary of the prayer breakfast I have every year for people of all different faiths in the White House, that we sort of do at the start of school. Because it's kind of a rededication period, you know.

And I've done it for eight years over and above the president's prayer breakfast which is a--you know there's a whole committee that does that. This is just--Hillary and I just invite people to the White House. And we have breakfast and we talk about whatever we're talking about that year. We pray together. And people get up and say whatever they want to say. But I--I think I gave a clear, unambiguous, brutally frank and frankly personally painful statement to me because I had to do it. I mean, I finally realized that I was--you know, it would never be all right unless I stood up there and said what I did that--said it was wrong and apologized for it.

BILL HYBELS: But...

BILL CLINTON: What I think happened was--I think anybody who was there thought so. I think anybody who read it thought so. I don't know what was covered by television really, because I don't watch the TV news much, or what was written in the newspaper or who heard it. But I think anyone who saw that and who observed what happened afterward would not doubt that there had been a--a full and adequate apology.

BILL HYBELS: Well you sent me the text of it right then. And I mean, I read it. And it was, I mean, I'm an elder at this church as well as a pastor. And we have had many times people where they have had to make confessions. And this was as clean, you said, not only am I--you said, ´There's no fancy way--there's not a fancy way to say it. I have sinned.' It was about as clean as I have ever read something like that. And it must have been terribly frustrating for you to live on in the future with a sense that there's a whole bunch of people who just continue to believe you never came clean.

BILL CLINTON: Oh, it--it was for a little bit. But, you know, I think one of the things you learn is that even a president, all you can do is be responsible for what you do, you know. And--and what other people say about it or whether it gets out there--you have to work hard to get it out there--but I suppose there was a time when I was upset about it. But then I realized that that was another form of defensiveness. That if I really thought about that, that was just another excuse not to be doing what I should be doing, which is to work on--work on my life, work on my marriage, work on my parenthood, work on my work with the White House and the administration, and work on serving the American people.

So, you know, believe it or not, I hadn't thought about it in a long, long time now. I thought about it a little bit now because you asked me to do this and I said yes. And here we are in the soup together. But--but I--I don't think about it now, because I realize that any time you are supposed to be doing something with your life and you get off thinking about what somebody else is saying or doing about it or to you or whatever, it's just a crutch for not dealing with what you are supposed to be dealing with. So I finally just let it go. And I hope people can see that it's different. You know, you just have to hope that and go on.

TED KOPPEL: It was near the end of the interview, after a number of other subjects had been discussed, that the President Clinton almost as an afterthought, turned to the impact that the impeachment scandal has had on his vice president.

BILL CLINTON: Last thing I want to say is, I used to say this about Al Gore all the time. I used to say when I was being criticized, you know, he doesn't get enough credit for what we did together that is good. And surely, no fair-minded person would blame him for any mistake that I made.

TED KOPPEL: When we come back, we'll talk about President Clinton's words and their impact with George Stephanopoulos and David Gergen.

(Commercial break)

TED KOPPEL: And joining us now from our Los Angeles bureau, ABC News political analyst George Stephanopoulos and from Boston, US News and World Report editor at large, David Gergen.

How cynical should we be George?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I don't know if we should be cynical about--about the words themselves. They are actually words Clinton has used many times before, especially some in that first segment: gratitude, integrity, forgiveness. These are words Clinton has used several times. And I don't think that this was necessarily something that the Gore campaign and the Clinton White House cooked up together. I think the Gore campaign would have just as easily been just as happy had this not happened today. Finally, though, I do think that there was some need at some point for the president to try to separate himself, his personal problems from Gore's. And this was an attempt at that. He probably just went a little too far.

TED KOPPEL: When I raise questions about cynicism, David, I guess what I'm saying is timing. Everything is timing. If he'd--if he'd done this a couple of months ago, it would have had a different impact than doing it just four days before the Democratic convention gets under way. So your take on it.

DAVID GERGEN, US NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Well, I think George is right, he is sincere about his--his sense of contriteness. He is--he is genuinely contrite. He is seeking personal integrity, integrating his mind, body and soul as he said in the talk. But I do--but I do think coming two days after Joe Lieberman was--was chosen in such an obvious effort by Vice President Gore to distance himself and just a few days before the LA convention begins, there--there is reason to ask whether this wasn't done for political purposes right now. And, you know, I think that he has been, as you said at the top, he has been under pressure from the Gore campaign to apologize and to try to absolve the vice president from any wrongdoing here. And I--there was some talk in the Gore campaign that he would do it Monday night, opening night of the convention. I think from his point of view, this is a much more comfortable venue in which to talk.

TED KOPPEL: Is that--is that, George, what you think the Gore folks are going to see as being sort of adequate compensation here?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I--I got to say, I don't think the Gore folks were all that happy that the president did this today. I mean that's why I guess I--I--if there was a political mastermind behind this, I think you have to question that mastermind's judgment. This is going to eat up the whole day of the news cycle just as Gore is trying to have this rollout into the convention. So--so I don't think that this is something they would have necessarily wanted, even though they do want this absolution almost from the president's personal problems.

TED KOPPEL: I mean, forget about the absolution for a moment. Why in heaven's name would the president agree to do this kind of interview knowing full well that the subject would come up when A, some of the folks at that Evangelical conference have been lobbying to keep the president out of there. They didn't necessarily want him there. What possible advantage does he gain from it, if it--if it isn't seen as an effort to say, all right, one more time, I apologize. I get it. I--I--I did wrong. I hurt a lot of people. And incidentally, none of this was Al Gore's fault. If he hasn't done that to help Al Gore, why did he do it?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you have to question whether he can necessarily help himself, if he can stop himself. There was a clue in--in the excerpts there. The president said, ´Now you and I are both in the soup,' when he's talking to Bill Hybels. He realizes halfway through that this might not be the most helpful discussion to have as the Gore campaign is trying to get into its--into its convention. But he made the commitment and couldn't get out of it.

DAVID GERGEN: I--I disagree with that. I--I--George knows him very well. Let me put that up front. But--but I think that Bill Clinton rarely does anything that he hasn't thought through a little bit in advance before he makes it--before he speaks. And to put himself into this place, I think he knew what he was doing. I do agree with George that from the Gore camps point of view, they really wanted this to be a ramp up week all about Joe Lieberman. And this does--this is a diversion, but they wanted it sometime. It's very unclear when the best time was. It really truly would have been better to have done this before the Republican convention.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: David, I guess you and I don't disagree as much as maybe it sounds like. I think president probably thinks it helps Gore.

DAVID GERGEN: Right.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The Gore people don't necessarily agree. Just the same thing as last week, when he--he was doing the discussions of George W. Bush. And in--in his mind he probably believes he sucked President Bush into the debate and it stepped on the Republican convention story, even if the Gore people don't think it was necessarily all that helpful.

TED KOPPEL: Well, since you're--since you're raising the broader issue, let me pick up on the--the story that our friends over at The New York Times had this morning, and that is the story of huge fund-raising events, both for Bill and Hillary Clinton, taking place this weekend. Sopping up, not only attention, but a lot of money. I mean is it just that they can't let go? Or do they not believe that this is going to be hurtful to Al Gore?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I think it's two separate issues, Ted. On the one hand, the Gore campaign needs the president to raise money for Al Gore. That is his number one benefit to the campaign right now, and they freely say that we definitely need him to do this. What they can't stop is all of the enthusiasm and, you know, it's not too strong a word, kind of love among the Democratic based, particularly the donor base, for President Clinton. And they want to celebrate President Clinton, and the only way they're going to get the money is if you also have the celebration.

TED KOPPEL: No, that's fine. You can do that with him. But can't they--I mean, isn't there enough sensitivity there to realize that doing it for Mrs. Clinton Senate campaign is not the most helpful thing that you can do just before the--the Democratic convention where Al Gore after all is supposed to be the man?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I probably asked the same question that they're asking sometimes in the Gore campaign. Who's going to tell her?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, this is the problem with the campaign in general, though, Ted. They've had a very, very hard time coordinating with the president where it makes both sides happy. Surprisingly hard. It almost goes back to the Eisenhower/Nixon hand off in--in the--in 1960 when there was such an awkward hand off between Eisenhower and Nixon. And here the Gore people really do want the president to get off the stage. They would like to have their own man come--come out and--and be himself.

And the kind of story that was in The New York Times today, lead story, it was two columns about all this fund-raising, is definitely not in the interest of--of the vice president to have this big splashy weekend. The president's going to be spending more time in Los Angeles than the vice president is at this point. And I--I think that is very, very awkward for the Gore campaign, particularly when they want the story this week to be about their vice presidential pick and about Al Gore's agenda for the future.

TED KOPPEL: All right, George, last word. You've got 15 seconds. More helpful than hurtful to Al Gore, what happened today?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Oh, today--today, in the long run, is probably helpful. But it really hurts the run-up to the convention. I think all things being equal it would have been better if it hadn't happen.

TED KOPPEL: George, David, thanks again very much.

When we come back, we want to show you one last excerpt from President Clinton's remarks.

(Commercial break)

TED KOPPEL: There's one more segment we would like you to hear from the president's remarkable appearance, an exchange that took place just before what you have already heard.

BILL HYBEL: Now, you and Hillary have been churchgoers all the time in your public service. And some people think that's just an act. How would you respond?

BILL CLINTON: Well, at least it's a consistent act. I--well I think I have given evidence that I need to be in church.

TED KOPPEL: Once again, and down to the very last days of his administration, Bill Clinton has shown this remarkable ability to command center stage.

Tomorrow on "Good Morning America," Jack Ford interviews George W. Bush on the campaign train in California. That's our report for tonight. I'm Ted Koppel in Washington. For all of us here at ABC News, good night.



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