the clinton years

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The Clinton Years
Program #1907K1
Original airdate: January 16, 2001

Produced by
Lisa Koenig
Madhulika Sikka

Senior Producers
Michael Kirk
Scott Willis

Correspondent
Chris Bury

 

ANNOUNCER: They were the president's inner circle.

    CLINTON AIDE: He came in with so much promise, and he wasn't ready.

ANNOUNCER: They believed in him and what he stood for.

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Communications Director: Boy, he did a good job, but he might have been great

ANNOUNCER: This is their story-

    ROBERT REICH, Secretary of Labor '93-'97: On Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, I would say, "Thank God for Bill Clinton."

ANNOUNCER: -stories of hope and disillusionment-

    ROBERT REICH: And then on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I would say, "All that talent and ability. What a waste."

ANNOUNCER: -and of what might have been.

    DEE DEE MYERS, Press Secretary '93-'94: I just don't think, for better and in some ways for worse, that his likes will come our way again.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, stories from inside the Clinton years, a FRONTLINE/Nightline special presentation.

TED KOPPEL, ABC News: Good Evening. I'm Ted Koppel. If by chance you happened to see some or all of our five-part series on "The Clinton Years" last week on Nightline, and now you find me here introducing a two-hour FRONTLINE on the same subject, you may be wondering if it's still worth hanging around. Indeed, yes. Nightline and FRONTLINE collaborated on this project, but each program has its own style and perspective.

If daily journalism is a first draft of history, this broadcast is a second draft of journalism. It was fashioned by my colleague, Chris Bury, who began covering Bill Clinton for ABC News when the young governor from Arkansas was still relatively unknown. Chris personally interviewed 20 insiders who served Clinton during his campaigns and his two terms as president- in all, more than 40 hours of interviews. There's some overlap, but the material is presented in a different context.

I'm simply holding the frame now for the portrait Chris has painted. The broad conclusions may be similar: a gifted, brilliant, driven politician who, but for his flaws, might have achieved greatness. But those are not Chris's conclusions or mine, nor are they the conclusions of Clinton's political enemies. What makes them so compelling is that they come from the inside. They come from his friends.

CHRIS BURY, ABC News: [voice-over] In those heady days after he won the Democratic nomination, the growing crowds lining the roadsides suggested the rest of the country was starting to pay attention to the candidate who sounded - at least to some of us on the press bus - a little bit like his favorite singer, Elvis Presley.

    [to camera crew] We all ready, guys? Let's do it.

    CAMERAMAN: Rolling here.

    [to Clinton] Governor, on this tour you've finally gotten the kind of crowds that Elvis got. Given the fact that your obituary has been written so many times this year, what's your thought about that response?

    Gov. BILL CLINTON (D), Presidential Candidate: I'm surprised by the crowds, but I'm not surprised by the yearning in America.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] Clinton, characteristically enough, never really did answer the question that has come to define his presidency: How could a modern American politician cheat death so often?

The answer to that fundamental question would come to fascinate all of us who have covered Clinton over the years. But only now, looking back, can we see the patterns that began to emerge in that wild and crazy ride. Back when it started, in the chilly precincts of New Hampshire, the idea of another unknown governor rising from the South seemed a long shot, and it was.

But to a young crop of political activists searching for a winner after a dozen years of Democratic defeats, Bill Clinton had the makings of a thoroughbred.

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: We ought to say "pig rows" because if we say "hog rows," they'll think we're going after the Razorbacks!

PAUL BEGALA, Political Strategist: I had been in the business for a number of years by then, and it was still political love at first sight. I thought he was the ablest guy I had ever met in politics.

DEE DEE MYERS, Campaign Spokesperson '91-'92: This was somebody who had more innate talent, both with the substantive side and the politics, than anyone I'd been around. And I was- it was just fascinating to watch him.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Deputy Campaign Manager '91-'92: At the time, it was a new experience, this notion of meeting someone who's not just in your face, but kind of in your skin from the moment he meets you. You know, you just feel completely connected to him when he turns to you.

CHRIS BURY: When Bill Clinton turned to him, George Stephanopoulos was only 30 years old, a hungry up-and-comer on Capitol Hill.

Young Californian Dee Dee Myers, who'd worked mostly for losing candidates, hoped she'd finally found a winner when the governor, as she called him, wowed her in that first meeting.

Texan Paul Begala, who'd cut his teeth on statewide races, was eager to enter the big leagues. And as his more seasoned partner, James Carville, remembers it, the man from Hope, Arkansas, instinctively knew how to connect to a small-town guy from southern Louisiana.

JAMES CARVILLE, Political Strategist '91-'92: This is in a bar, right? It was what you call- I guess in Southern terms, we were just gee-hawing.

CHRIS BURY: The two of you just acting like good old boys?

JAMES CARVILLE: Yeah. And you know, talking about Mama and that kind of stuff that Southern guys talk about.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] He had seduced them all. And as they made their way to the real West Wing, each would, far sooner than the rest of us, come to learn some essential truths about the man. For the new Clinton team, the first inkling that running with their thoroughbred would lead them in unpredictable directions came almost right away.

JAMES CARVILLE: December went fine. If you remember, Cuomo was thinking about running. He decided that he wasn't going to run, and we sort of were doing- picking up pretty good in the polls. We had a pretty good December. Then in January, as we say in the trade, we got a little incoming.

    REPORTER: Have you ever had an extramarital affair governor?

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: Well, if I had, I wouldn't tell you.

CHRIS BURY: Those tabloid headlines - so sensational at the time - turned out to be a pretty fair indicator of things to come.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I remember clearly watching Clinton read the Star story up in the top-floor suite of the Holiday Inn.

CHRIS BURY: Back then, for the Clinton team, the entire episode provided a rough primer on how the candidate handled a certain kind of crisis.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He was basically reading through the whole story, almost giving a running narration as he was going through it, pointing out all the things that he could prove were not true, you know? And in fact, he got more excited as he found the things that he could hit. We went out and pointed- pointed that out.

    REPORTER: Mr. Clinton, what's your relationship with Gennifer Flowers?

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: There really isn't one, obviously. [laughs] I mean, the charges are false. Today she took money to publish a story that she hired a lawyer to say was absolutely defamatory over a year ago.

CHRIS BURY: And so what would evolve into a kind of Clinton crisis playbook began to take shape. First, parse the story. Second, attack the accuser. Then bring in the candidate's wife.

JAMES CARVILLE: Our strategy from day one was to contest at every point. And the best person to give the explanation of what happened and where it was, was then-Governor Clinton and Mrs. Clinton.

CHRIS BURY: In what has become almost a tradition now with American scandals, the next stop for the Clintons would be a very public confessional on one of the network magazine programs. The Clintons agreed to appear on 60 Minutes. After checking into the Ritz Carlton in Boston to tape the interview, the road-weary team hunkered down to prepare them.

PAUL BEGALA: It was terrible. It was terrible. It was very, very, very emotional. People were crying. James was weeping piteously.

JAMES CARVILLE: I didn't know which way it was going to go. And, you know I was tired and I was scared. I was scared for them. I was scared for myself.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They seemed fragile. They were pale. They were drawn. They didn't really want to say too much. But inside, I think they were saying, "Well, we'll be damned if this takes us out."

CHRIS BURY: As the Clinton team held its collective breath, 34 million Americans tuned in for the spectacle. And the man who would demonstrate such a deft touch for highly nuanced language said just enough.

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: ["60 Minutes"] You know, I have acknowledged wrongdoing. I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage. I have said things to you tonight and to the American people from the beginning that no American politician ever has. I think most Americans who are watching this tonight, they'll know what we're saying. They'll get it.

CHRIS BURY: And then Hillary Clinton took the stage for her first star turn in a supporting role.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: ["60 Minutes"] You know, I'm not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I am sitting here because I love him and I respect him and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together. And you know, if that's not enough for people, then heck, don't vote for him.

    REPORTER: How do you think it went Governor? Do you think you answered the questions?

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: We did our best, and we feel good about it. The American people are the judges now. We're going to let them judge.

    REPORTER: What's the bottom line of the case you made, Governor?

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: We trust the American people to make the judgment.

CHRIS BURY: To the team, Hillary Clinton's strong and very public display of support also amounted to a valuable IOU.

DEE DEE MYERS: There was a sense that he was in debt to her, and he was obliged to take seriously her advice.

CHRIS BURY: You're sort of saying here that Mrs. Clinton saved his skin.

DEE DEE MYERS: Well, I think she did. Sure. And I think that that's been a pattern throughout, you know, probably their relationship before I knew them, but certainly in his presidency. I mean, you know, he tends to do worst when he's furthest, and then he screws up, and she helps save him. And then he's sort of much more, I don't know, indebted, obliged, mindful, all those things.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] The governor had tried to put the mess behind him with that 60 Minutes appearance.

    ATTORNEY: [press conference] I would like to introduce my client to you, Gennifer Flowers.

CHRIS BURY: But the next morning, one viewer offered a personal assessment.

    GENNIFER FLOWERS: Last night, I sat and watched Bill on 60 Minutes. I felt disgusted.

CHRIS BURY: Then, in a bit of theater that seemed so bizarre at the time, audiotapes of conversations between Gennifer Flowers and Bill Clinton were played for the press.

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: [Flowers tape] I started calling as soon as I got home last night and I called for a couple of hours.

    GENNIFER FLOWERS: Well, sorry I missed you.

CHRIS BURY: At that very moment the team realized, perhaps for the first time, that their candidate had trouble telling the truth even to them.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Deputy Campaign Manager '91-'92: I was watching this, and I heard his voice on the tape, and it was like- [thumps chest] And the first thought I had was, "He lied."

CHRIS BURY: But for loyal team players, the candidate who at these moments so disappointed them could also be so inspiring. To reconcile those conflicting feelings, they simply found ways to rationalize the lies.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You listen to the tapes and say, "Well, they sound stilted, and it seems like she's trying to set him up in the tapes. And maybe this was entrapment. Maybe he's just being a good guy." You know, you can think a lot of things when you're in the middle of a campaign.

DEE DEE MYERS: So you- you know, you argue the facts and you try to make the case that there- Clinton's always had political enemies. Arkansas is an interesting state in that regard. A lot of stuff had gone on.

CHRIS BURY: The Clinton crisis playbook soon had another page: When scandal erupts, work relentlessly to stay on message.

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: What's your name?

    MAN AT CAMPAIGN STOP: George.

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: Do you live here?

    MAN AT CAMPAIGN STOP: Yes, I do.

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: Good to see you.

    CHRIS BURY: Health care needed reforming. The economy needed fixing.

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: I want you to vote for me because I'm the only fellow running who's had to create jobs for the last 10 years. I really worked hard.

PAUL BEGALA, Political Strategist: He came out and basically said, "Look, I have not lived a perfect life," and people understood what that meant. "But we have bigger problems in our country than one person's apparent infidelity. We have real problems on the economy, and I have real answers, and you're going to have to decide as citizens what's going to determine this election."

CHRIS BURY: If there's one thing we've learned about Bill Clinton - and the campaign was the first clue - it's just as he gets through one scrape, another one's right around the corner. As soon as the team cleaned up after the Flowers scandal, it faced another round of incoming.

    REPORTER: Governor, did you burn your draft card?

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: No. Look, let me just comment on that. This is an old story that was widely reported in 1978. All I ask you to do is look at the facts. The facts are that I had a lock-cinch four-year deferment.

CHRIS BURY: But the draft story had struck a nerve. The campaign's own polling showed Clinton collapsing in a way he never did with the Gennifer Flowers scandal. So the team tore a page from its own playbook and put the candidate on Nightline to explain.

    TED KOPPEL: Tonight, a conversation with Governor Bill Clinton.

CHRIS BURY: He neatly - you might say slickly - turned the tables on the press.

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: Of course I've had some problems in the polls. All I've been asked about by the press are a woman I didn't sleep with and a draft I didn't dodge.

[www.pbs.org: See entire Nightline interview]

CHRIS BURY: The tactic worked. And that ability to come back from the precipice of disaster would become Clinton's signature trait.

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: I think we know enough to say with some certainty that New Hampshire tonight has made Bill Clinton the comeback kid!

CHRIS BURY: His second-place showing in New Hampshire provided Clinton the powerful springboard he needed to go on. During the next eight months, they would never look back.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We called him "Secretariat" because he was just the absolute thoroughbred of thoroughbreds of campaigners. Whether it was working a rope line or giving a speech or devising the policy or just having the stamina to last through four 20-hour campaign days in a row and do it with good humor and grace- none of us had ever seen anything like this before.

CHRIS BURY: But no sooner had the candidate they called Secretariat regained his stride than his campaign stumbled again.

    REPORTER: Can we ask Mrs. Clinton?

    Gov. BILL CLINTON: Sure.

CHRIS BURY: This time, the problem was his political partner, under scrutiny for her work as a lawyer in Arkansas.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.

CHRIS BURY: Hillary had always helped Bill Clinton out of his troubles, but now we would see that she could be a campaign liability, as well as an asset, a lightning rod for larger questions about the role of women in America. What's more, everyone on the campaign lived in mortal terror of telling her she'd slipped up.

[to Stephanopoulos] Why were you reluctant to tell Mrs. Clinton? Why was there this fear about informing her yourself?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Because then I would become the embodiment of all those people across the country who called her a radical feminist who didn't respect traditional women. And I didn't feel like doing that at 7:45 in the morning leading into the Illinois primary. It would not have been pretty.

CHRIS BURY: The team was worried enough to conduct a focus group and to show their boss the videotape.

PAUL BEGALA: So when she came on the screen, the dial- we were using these dial meters. So we would show videotape, talk about people, and the respondents in the group would dial up if they liked what they heard and saw, down if they didn't.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But we were all sitting around the focus group, watching these dials, and up until that point they'd been pretty steady. And then this picture of Mrs. Clinton comes on, and the dial groups go like- the footage that was used for Hillary was footage from election night, 1992, in New Hampshire, where she had this elaborate Nefertiti-style hairdo. And Clinton doesn't miss a beat. He just says, "Oh, they don't like her hair."

JAMES CARVILLE, Political Strategist '91-'92: I stuck my head under the table because I knew I could not look at anybody. And George was kicking me with his foot. And it was like I thought I was going to die because I couldn't come up for air, and I couldn't stop laughing.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We just were just holding it in, and he's grinding his fist into my thigh. And we finally- we're not breathing. We finally run out of the room, get into the hallway and just break up laughing.

JAMES CARVILLE: [laughs] And it was like a- like a sweet thing almost, you know?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, looking back, it was kind of sweet that Clinton said that. His instinct was to protect her. Like, he's a smart politician and knew that we had a pretty serious problem coming out of "tea and cookies" and that a lot of people had very strong feelings about Mrs. Clinton. And he was kind of just being protective of her at that moment. We didn't dwell on it for the rest of that day.

CHRIS BURY: And we were just beginning to see that complicated relationship become an important dynamic in ways none of us could have known, as the campaign tried hard to present the picture of two young, fun couples out on a cross-country ride.

    DANA CARVEY: [as President Bush, "Saturday Night Live"] Come on, now. What do you want? Do you want me to beg? OK, I'm begging. Please, please vote for me. Please?

CHRIS BURY: In that final, 48-hour round-the-clock sprint to the finish, they realized they were going to win.

DEE DEE MYERS, Campaign Spokesperson '91-'92: And it was, like, 3:00 o'clock in the morning. And we were playing hearts, and we had the Saturday Night Live on the VCR, and we were, you know, drinking coffee and playing cards. And I said to him, "Did you ever think you'd get here?" And he looked at me like I was nuts. He said, "Sure, I did."

CHRIS BURY: He had endured the grueling and humiliating ride, surviving one political calamity after another. Bill Clinton was now president-elect. As he strode across this stage, Clinton had good reason to be proud. He had persevered through sheer will and force of personality. But a certain cockiness had also crept in. Indeed, within hours of his victory, he would tell key members of his team they were now "masters of the universe."

The morning after. The president-elect and his wife had assured those of us who covered them that they could somehow change the culture of Washington. The soon-to-be first lady, singed by the scandals of the campaign, even boasted of creating a zone of privacy. The press be damned. They would escape the 24-hour fishbowl known as the American presidency.

But the very first thing they tried to do - a simple walk - turned into one of those feeding frenzies. So much for the walk. Into the armor-plated limo for the block-and-a-half ride to the home of Little Rock friends, who serenaded the neighbor who would now be their president.

For George Stephanopoulos, the day wasn't starting any better. He woke up to thousands of members of the press hungry for a morsel of news, however tiny.

    REPORTER: Can you tell us how many hours of sleep did Governor Clinton get last night, and what did he have for breakfast?

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It's a new world, I guess. [laughs]

CHRIS BURY: Over at transition headquarters, the phones rang off the hook as the team was completely overwhelmed.

DEE DEE MYERS: And we got, like, a thousand phone calls that next day. You know, Japanese TV wants to know when they can interview the president-elect. And by the way, "Who's the Secretary of State?" You know, it starts at 8:00 o'clock the morning after the election.

CHRIS BURY: Sure, they knew how to campaign. But they were not quite prepared to govern.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Communications Director: What stands out now is we didn't know what we didn't know at the time. What we didn't realize deeply enough is that despite all this fiction about a transition, at least metaphorically, the day after the election this guy is president and will be treated as if he is, in many respects. And we weren't ready for it.

CHRIS BURY: It immediately became clear that the words of a president-elect are taken so much more seriously than the rhetoric of a candidate. During the campaign, Bill Clinton had made many promises.

    President-Elect BILL CLINTON: Today I come here with special responsibilities.

CHRIS BURY: On Veteran's Day, eight days after his election, reporters called him on his pledge to allow gays in the military.

    ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC News: How are you going to handle the opposition of the military to your position on gays and lesbians in the military? They're very much against you.

    President-Elect BILL CLINTON: The question here is simply status. Should people who have served their country with distinction, many of them with battlefield ribbons, and who have never had any kind of question about their conduct raised, be booted out of the military?

CHRIS BURY: Another promise that came back to haunt Clinton was his pledge to name a cabinet by Christmas.

    President-Elect BILL CLINTON: [November 12, 1992] I know that some of you might be interested in the cabinet-level appointments, and let me tell you I don't have any to announce today.

DEE DEE MYERS, Press Secretary '93-'94: And so there was all this pressure, you know, on the president, obviously, to name the cabinet and start to put together the next government. And there's all these reporters camped out in Arkansas, every day doing nothing but trying to break a story that the president is going to tell them as soon as he makes a decision.

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We're going to get hit on the woman appointments today. We'll definitely get hit.

CHRIS BURY: One more promise was slowing Clinton down. His vow to name a cabinet that would "look like America" wasn't as easy as it sounded.

    President-Elect BILL CLINTON: With great anticipation, I am appointing a dynamic, talented and innovative lawyer, Zoe Baird, to be attorney general.

CHRIS BURY: Finally, he nominated the first woman ever for attorney general. But in its haste to meet the Christmas deadline, the Clinton team had failed to thoroughly vet corporate lawyer Zoe Baird.

    ZOE BAIRD, Attorney General-Designate: I'm greatly honored by this designation and by your confidence in me to serve the American people well.

CHRIS BURY: But the mother of all Clinton campaign promises was embodied in his team's adage, "It's the economy, stupid." The economic team he put together was remarkable for a Democrat because it was dominated by fiscal conservatives with close ties to the Washington establishment and to Wall Street. The trouble for Clinton was that the government's fiscal house was in worse shape than anyone on his team knew at the time. His old friend, Robert Reich, who would become labor secretary, delivered the bad news.

ROBERT REICH, Secretary of Labor '93-'97: I headed over to the Treasury Department to talk to officials in the Bush administration and try to get the best estimate I possibly could as to how bad the numbers really looked, how bad that deficit was going to be the next year and likely to be in years to come.

CHRIS BURY: And you found out it was going to be worse than you had been told. And you go in December, December 7th I think it was- you go to tell the president the news. What was his reaction?

ROBERT REICH: The president was not happy when he heard that the projected deficit was much larger than we had assumed, larger than we had been told, larger than the Bush administration had told the public. It meant - and he knew that it meant - that we couldn't do everything that he wanted to do, everything that he had promised the public.

    WILLIAM REHNQUIST, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court: Governor, are you ready to take the oath?

    President-Elect BILL CLINTON: I am.

    I, William Jefferson Clinton, do solemnly swear-

CHRIS BURY: So Bill Clinton took office knowing he would have to break many of his campaign promises, something that would earn him a reputation as the compromiser-in-chief.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [inaugural address] And so I say to all of you here, let us resolve to reform our politics.

CHRIS BURY: In his inaugural speech, the new president urged Washington to set aside the intrigue, calculation and maneuvering that dominate every capital. And for exactly 24 hours, Washington would.

President and Mrs. Clinton strolled Pennsylvania Avenue and danced the night away at a procession of inaugural balls. But all the excitement and promise of their own dreams for governing collided head-on with the cold reality of Washington.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Communications Director '93-'94: We picked a lot of the wrong battles early on. Rather than simply focus on what we- as we said in the campaign, on the problems of real people and the fixing of those problems, we had this whole separate agenda of changing the culture of Washington and doing things in a new way.

CHRIS BURY: No sooner had Clinton been inaugurated than he and Hillary tried to establish that zone of privacy. Indeed, Hillary Clinton was the driving force behind one idea to move the press out of the White House entirely to the relative Siberia of the Old Executive Office Building. Instead, a compromise: The White House press room was sealed off from the West Wing, where the press secretary and other key aides had offices.

DEE DEE MYERS: It made the press very angry because they lost access to a part of the building that they had had access to. And it didn't serve us. It alienated people for no purpose. It served nothing. It served no one, you know? And it was a rookie- a rookie mistake.

    HELEN THOMAS, UPI: And how about all these stories on the lifting of the ban on homosexuals in the military? Is that soon or imminent?

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I think the president intends to end discrimination against homosexuals in the military and to make an announcement on that policy, and it will be very soon, probably within the next week but not today.

    REPORTER: Is there an executive order?

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I believe that he said that in the campaign, and I believe that will be part of the answer.

CHRIS BURY: The veterans in the White House press corps were determined to teach the rookies a lesson. In his very first press briefing, George Stephanopoulos was hit hard on gays in the military and Zoe Baird, whose nomination was in trouble because she'd neglected to pay taxes on household help.

    REPORTER: Would the president like for Zoe Baird to offer to withdraw her nomination?

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: No, he thinks that she will make an excellent attorney general.

    REPORTER: So he has no interest in asking her to do it or no indication that she might do it, at this point?

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Not at this point, no.

CHRIS BURY: You got hammered.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Oh, I got killed. And they were mad about a lot of different things. They were upset because we had closed off the upper press room. They were having fun with gays in the military, and Zoe Baird was fighting for her life, unsuccessfully, at the Capitol. People knew that she was going to be gone and knew that I couldn't say so and knew that it was going to be great fun to watch me squirm.

CHRIS BURY: It wasn't only Stephanopoulos squirming. Four days later, in the Roosevelt room, Bill Clinton and the Joint Chiefs of Staff began to sketch a tortured compromise on gays in the military: "Don't ask, don't tell." In a series of tense meetings, Clinton had to invest precious time on an issue he had never intended to force so early. But Republicans and reporters did.

    BRIT HUME, ABC News: The first week of your administration, given your promise to have the laser focus on the economy, to be seen around the country as military gay rights week, I wonder if, in retrospect, you think you could have done things differently to avoid that happening.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: I don't know how I could have done that. This issue was not put forward in this context by me. It was put forward by those in the United States Senate who sought to make it an issue early on.

CHRIS BURY: Now it had a life of its own. In the process, the new president had unwittingly alienated the military, many in Congress and much of the public.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We had lost the first week of the White House to an issue that most of the country looked up and said, "What are these people doing?" They got elected to fix the economy, and nobody heard a thing about the economy.

CHRIS BURY: If the country was confused, the picture for those inside the West Wing wasn't much clearer. The chaotic style that came to characterize the early Clinton White House was not just a matter of inexperienced aides. Part of the problem was Bill Clinton's own inclination for free-wheeling seminars where everyone from cabinet secretaries to the most junior staff was welcome.

LEON PANETTA, Director, Office of Management and Budget '93: It was all kind of- you know, "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.

CHRIS BURY: Leon Panetta, Clinton's budget director, was one of the few experienced hands on deck.

LEON PANETTA: And so rather than kind of a- you know, 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.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We were blind to the importance of structure, to the- and actually, we didn't have enough respect - deep, deep in your bones respect - for the office itself and realize that there's something important about going about these- the work of the White House in a more formal way, even if it feels a little stilted at the time.

CHRIS BURY: In those first few chaotic weeks, Clinton had spent much of his time in the midst of a squabble about the priorities for his very first budget. The liberals wanted the president to honor his campaign promises, including a middle-class tax cut.

PAUL BEGALA, Senior White House Adviser '93-'96 : 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.

CHRIS BURY: But the fiscal conservatives, such as economic adviser Robert Rubin, now well aware of just how bad the deficit was, fought the liberals tooth and nail.

ROBERT RUBIN: The president's view was that the circumstances were substantially worse than he or any of us thought they were, and 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.

[photos by Robert McNeeley]

CHRIS BURY: That debate effectively ended in this meeting on January 28th. Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, implicitly warned Clinton of "serious economic consequences" if he dragged his heels on the deficit. It didn't take long for the president to concede he would have to break many of his campaign promises.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [February 15, 1993] I had hoped to invest in your future by creating jobs, expanding education, reforming health care and reducing the debt without asking more of you. And I've worked harder than I've ever worked in my life to meet that goal, but I can't because the deficit has increased so much.

CHRIS BURY: Two days later, as the president pitched his first budget before the Congress, he acknowledged Greenspan's power. The Fed chairman got the seat of honor right next to the first lady. But only a handful of people realized at the time how much leverage the Fed chairman really had over the new president. Liberals on the Clinton team, including Robert Reich, clearly resented it.

ROBERT REICH: Alan Greenspan was saying essentially this: "Unless you dramatically cut the budget deficit, we are not going to reduce short-term interest rates. And if we do not cut short-term interest rates, this economy is going nowhere. It's never going to take off. The price that you must pay for us cutting short-term interest rates and getting this economy moving is you've got to sacrifice your beloved investment agenda."

CHRIS BURY: So at this point, Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, has Bill Clinton in a vise-grip.

ROBERT REICH: Yeah, Alan Greenspan and the Fed had Bill Clinton in a vise. There was nothing that he could do.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] So Clinton's hands were all but tied on the economy. And during the chaos of the first six months, the new president, who had come to mend the evil ways of Washington, had instead angered the press, alienated the military, and confused the public. By now, Clinton was losing confidence in the very people who had helped him get elected. At the end of May, he secretly reached out to someone with credentials in two enemy camps, a Washington pundit who was also a longtime Republican.

DAVID GERGEN, Adviser to the President '93-'94: It was a bolt out of the blue for me when it- 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.

CHRIS BURY: David Gergen, who had worked for three Republican presidents, was invited to meet with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

DAVID GERGEN: 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, you know, that he had lost his moorings. I also had a private conversation with the first lady saying, you know, "It's widely perceived on the outside that you're the one who's pulled him left, and he can't govern here." They didn't understand Washington very well. They didn't understand the dynamics of the press corps. They were having a hard time figuring out Capitol Hill.

CHRIS BURY: Late on a Friday night, Memorial Day weekend, President Clinton broke the news to George Stephanopoulos that Gergen would be taking over many of his duties. In effect, Stephanopoulos was kicked upstairs.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: At about 1:30 in the morning, the phone rings. And he says, "George, I think we've 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."

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: I am pleased today to welcome to the White House staff one of the nation's most respected journalists and commentators, David Gergen.

DEE DEE MYERS: I was stunned. I really- I was stunned. I was- you know Gergen certainly had a lot of experience, but he was a Republican. And I assumed he hadn't even voted for Bill Clinton, didn't share his philosophy.

CHRIS BURY: The loyalists like Dee Dee Myers feared Clinton was now willing to sacrifice not only the principles of the campaign but also the people on the original team.

DEE DEE MYERS: George was just sort of one of the architects of this campaign and a loyal staffer. And there he was, you know, just toilet paper, Kleenex, tossed out.

CHRIS BURY: But Bill Clinton knew he was in trouble. The pundits were already writing about a "failed presidency," and the hiring of David Gergen was seen as a signal that the new president was trying to make peace with the Washington establishment after months of mutual distrust. [www.pbs.org: View More Robert McNeeley photos]

DAVID GERGEN: The thing that struck me most forcefully when I first got to the White House was the fact that Bill Clinton had lost his way, and most importantly, he'd lost his self-confidence. He didn't believe in himself in the same way he did, the man I'd known. He was a very, very different person.

CHRIS BURY: That first shaky summer in Washington, the suicide of White House lawyer Vince Foster rocked the Clinton team. Foster was one of the Clintons' closest Little Rock friends and Hillary's former law partner. Like his boss, the president, Foster had found Washington so much harsher than Arkansas.

DAVID GERGEN: I was terribly concerned that this would knock the stuffing out of him totally, that he would become terribly embittered about the Washington experience, that he would share the Vince Foster view, expressed in Vince's note, that in Washington "ruining people is considered sport." And you know, I knew that some of that burned in Bill Clinton already.

CHRIS BURY: Instead, Gergen saw something in Clinton he did not expect. The president seemed to draw strength from the adversity. And as he took it upon himself to console those close to Vince Foster, some of Gergen's concern faded.

DAVID GERGEN: I found in that evening one of Bill Clinton's great strengths, and that he's he's got a resilience. He's got an inner toughness that sometimes is not appreciated.

CHRIS BURY: The resilience and inner toughness helped Clinton that first summer in Washington. He'd been having trouble with a Congress controlled by Democrats since he came to town - the bungled appointments, gays in the military, the Waco debacle.

LEON PANETTA, Director, Office of Management and Budget '93: These were all independent fiefdoms, and I think it was the first time he had to deal with truly independent forces that could basically say, "Mr. President, to hell with you!" ][laughs] He didn't like that.

Members of Congress, by their very nature, are a nervous group. They tend to react to, you know, almost every headline. And I think their initial reaction early on was that "There's some chaos here," and that made them very nervous.

CHRIS BURY: Now the centerpiece of the president's economic plan, his very first budget, was badly stalled. So now, as president, he reached over Congress to make his case on television directly to the American people.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [August 3, 1993] We cannot afford not to act. I need your help. I need for you to tell the people's representatives to get on with the people's business.

CHRIS BURY: On Capitol Hill, Clinton's performance generated lots of phone calls, but many in Congress still smelled blood. Clinton was seen as a president who could be rolled.

ROBERT REICH, Secretary of Labor '93-'97: 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.

CHRIS BURY: The West Wing team returned to what it did best, the full-tilt campaign. A war room was set up to track every vote. It came down to one.

    REPORTER: You've made your decision?

    Sen. BOB KERREY (D), Nebraska: Yeah, I have.

CHRIS BURY: Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, an independent-minded Democrat who didn't care much for Clinton.

LEON PANETTA: 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.

ROBERT REICH: Right up until the last moment in the White House, there was a sense of drama and foreboding, and hope.

LEON PANETTA: You're rolling the dice at that point. And we were rolling the dice with Kerrey.

CHRIS BURY: In one breath, Senator Kerrey castigated Clinton as "green and inexperienced," but in the next, he saved the president's neck.

    Sen. BOB KERREY: President Clinton, if you're watching now, as I suspect you are, I tell you this. I could not and should not cast the vote that brings down your presidency.

ROBERT REICH: 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.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: What we heard tonight at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue was the sound of gridlock breaking.

[www.pbs.org: More analysis on the budget decision]

CHRIS BURY: Bill Clinton was playing to type. Once again he was the "comeback kid," but this time as president of the United States, and on the slender thread of a single vote.

ROBERT REICH: 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."

CHRIS BURY: Perhaps he was finally on a roll. Maybe even his ambitious plan of reforming health care and saving billions of dollars would now gather momentum in Congress. Again he appeared before the prime-time cameras, this time from the Congress itself. He seized the moment to turn the spotlight on the leader of his health care initiative, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: When I launched our nation on this journey to reform the health care system, I knew we needed a talented navigator, someone with a rigorous mind, a steady compass, a caring heart. Luckily for me and for our nation, I didn't have to look very far.

CHRIS BURY: Some in the White House saw this as payback for Hillary Clinton's steadfast support of her husband during those difficult moments of the New Hampshire primary. Others saw it as proof of Bill Clinton's old campaign promise that voters would "get two for the price of one."

Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton's efforts were drawing decidedly mixed reviews. No question, she knew her stuff.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: You should not have a health care system in which costs drive who gets health care because it's not only wrong, it's not economical.

CHRIS BURY: But politically, she was clumsy. Barring the public from key meetings of her task force, for example, had tarnished Hillary Clinton's image. But certainly no one over in the West Wing was going to tell her that.

ROBERT REICH: Because she is the wife of the president, it's difficult for people to criticize her, to say, "No, you mustn't do this. That's wrong," because after all, you're talking to the wife of the president. And so there was a subtle intimidation that also went on among the people who were working on that project.

DEE DEE MYERS, Press Secretary '93-'94: She, I think from start to finish, was a force. And I think there was a strong perception that she was somebody that you did not want to cross. You didn't want to get on the wrong side of Hillary.

CHRIS BURY: The first lady became such a force in the West Wing that she installed staff and offices there. Some called it "Hillaryland," impenetrable even by some of the president's top aides.

Consider the case of The Washington Post's request for documents on those tangled Arkansas dealings known as "Whitewater." Hillary had done some of the legal work, and the Feds were investigating.

DAVID GERGEN, Adviser to the President '93-'94: I made a very strong argument to the president why I felt we had to disclose the documents. And the president said, "OK. I agree." Then he turned to me and said, "Now you've got to go talk to my wife. You've got to persuade her to do it." I said, "OK. Fine." I didn't know what I was going to be- I said, "Fine." So that Monday morning, I started calling for an appointment. Never got an appointment. They kept on saying, "I'm sorry. She's too busy."

CHRIS BURY: Which told you what?

DAVID GERGEN: It told me she'd made up her mind, didn't really want to hear the argument. And it also told me that she had a veto power over this question and that, in fact, there were- on some issues, there was a co-presidency.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Communications Director: If I could take back one day, one decision in my time at the White House, it would be the decision made on December 11, 1993, not to turn over those papers to The Washington Post. Can't be proved, but I firmly believe that we turn those over, we would have never had a Whitewater special counsel. If you never have the Whitewater special counsel, you never have Monica. You never have the impeachment of the president.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] Almost immediately, another Arkansas skeleton would come back to rattle the Clintons.

    JEANNE MESERVE, CNN Anchor: A top administration aide used the word "scurrilous" today to describe charges made in the conservative magazine American Spectator that President Clinton, while governor of Arkansas, used state troopers to help arrange dates for him with a number of women.

CHRIS BURY: That took the glow right out of the festive mood at the White House. The West Wing team rushed back from holiday parties. They pulled out the old crisis playbook: First parse the story, then attack the adversaries.

[to Myers] What was the strategy there to deflect the story?

DEE DEE 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.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] For his part, the president also fell back on familiar patterns, in an uncanny parallel to those phone calls to Gennifer Flowers.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Now, what enraged me, drove me crazy, was this sense that, you know- 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 nuts.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: [entering meeting with plate of cookies] Hi, guys! Ho, ho, ho! I suppose I should offer one to the president first.

CHRIS BURY: Once more, true to the crisis playbook, Hillary Clinton assumed her role, rallying the White House troops in her husband's defense.

DAVID GERGEN: 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.

CHRIS BURY: As in scandals past, Bill Clinton found himself in Hillary's debt. Some White House insiders likened their relationship to a see-saw: When he was down, she was up. And as David Gergen remembers it, that dynamic had a genuine impact on her role in the administration's most important piece of domestic policy.

DAVID GERGEN: And I never saw him challenge her on health care in the weeks that followed. I really think that it sealed her position. It put her firmly in charge of how to get health care done.

CHRIS BURY: Is this because he's in the doghouse? Is that what you're saying here?

DAVID GERGEN: Absolutely, I felt he was- you know, watching him in that time, it was very much like watching a golden retriever that has pooped on the rug and sort of just curls up and keeps his head down and is, like, "I can't believe I did this." And it put him in a situation where he was in her dog house.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] The president's past continued to haunt him.

    REPORTER: Mrs. Jones, what was wrong, in your view, with what happened, and why are you coming forward today?

CHRIS BURY: The so-called "Trooper-gate" tempest was soon followed by sensational allegations from Paula Jones.

    PAULA JONES: I'll just put it this way that he presented his self to me in a very unprofessional manner, and I would call it sexual harassment.

CHRIS BURY: Stonewalling on Whitewater, meanwhile, was fueling an outcry for a special prosecutor.

    REPORTER: Mr. President, do you support the idea of naming a special prosecutor to investigate the Whitewater affair?

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: I have nothing to say about that. I've said that we'd turn the records over, and there is nothing more for me to say about that.

CHRIS BURY: Even Democrats joined leading editorial pages in urging the president to show he had nothing to hide. But in the West Wing, Hillary was still digging in on Whitewater.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: 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. You know, 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.

DEE DEE MYERS: She kind of belittled him in front of everybody, and you know, I thought he- he took- he took it. And I couldn't believe that she really- I didn't believe that she really believed it. And anybody that stood up and tried to say this was a bad idea was- you know, was smashed down and belittled very personally.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: 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.

CHRIS BURY: The questions would not go away, even during the president's first major trip overseas.

    REPORTER: What is your thinking now on the public release of documents and an independent counsel?

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: Well, first of all my feeling is that this is a situation without precedent in American history.

CHRIS BURY: Clinton was furious.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: Sorry, you had your two questions.

    REPORTER: OK.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: You had your two questions. I'm sorry you're not interested in the truth.

CHRIS BURY: Dee Dee Myers caught the brunt of his famous temper.

DEE DEE MYERS: Proceeds to scream at me for about 10 minutes, just- you know, there's this thing that he used to do, I'm sure he still does it, this kind of finger in your face, like this. And I'd never been- that was the worst I ever got yelled at by him, but just in my face for, like, 10 minutes.

CHRIS BURY: On that trip, Bill Clinton made the most fateful decision of his presidency. Against the advice of Hillary and his lawyers, Clinton would finally relent. There would be a special counsel.

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The president today has directed White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum to request the attorney general to appoint a special counsel.

CHRIS BURY: Later that summer, Republicans launched their own investigations. Soon the president's domestic agenda was dead in the water. The first lady's health care reform was also in free fall. Once more she'd become a lightning rod.

But there was more to it. The proposals themselves had turned off too many constituencies. The opposition was powerful and wealthy, and by the end of summer the Senate majority leader, Democrat George Mitchell, pronounced it dead.

    Sen. GEORGE MITCHELL, Majority Leader: It is clear that health insurance reform cannot be enacted this year.

ROBERT REICH, Secretary of Labor '93-'97: One cannot understate the extraordinary impact that that health care defeat had, not only on the first lady, on the president, on the White House overall. It shook the confidence of everyone. It was devastating, and it set the Republicans up for a major victory in November.

CHRIS BURY: During the mid-term elections, Republicans gleefully melded Bill Clinton's image into the faces of vulnerable Democrats. For the first time in 40 years, Republicans would take back the Congress.

LEON PANETTA, White House Chief of Staff '94-'97: And that night, when the results started coming in, it was pretty early in the evening when the handwriting was on the wall. And I guess it was George Stephanopoulos came in and said, "This is a landslide." And I kept saying, "No, no. It can't be that bad." He says "Yeah." He says, "I think we're going to lose the Senate, and we may lose the House."

ROBERT REICH: There was no way to interpret it as anything but a repudiation of the Clinton administration, and that's how we saw it. It was a dismal day. I went over to the White House just to see how the president was doing, how other people were doing. And he tried to put the best face possible on it, but he was devastated. Everybody was devastated.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [November 9, 1994] I am the leader of the efforts that we have made in the last two years, and to whatever extent that we didn't do what the people wanted us to do or they were not aware of what we had done, I must certainly bear my share of responsibility, and I accept that. I've got to go. Thank you.

DEE DEE MYERS: He was very low, frustrated, dispirited. But he never quits. And while I think a lot of us were seeing his funk and his frustration as anger, thought he's been poorly served by some of the strategists, he was, you know, already plotting his comeback.

CHRIS BURY: In the days following the Republican revolution, Bill Clinton's nemesis stole the spotlight. Newt Gingrich, the new speaker of the House, was now king of the hill, the toast of Washington, man of the hour. And Bill Clinton?

DEE DEE MYERS: He was furious. He was just furious. He spent a lot of time thinking, blaming other people, feeling sorry for himself.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Communications Director: It rocked his confidence. It rocked our confidence. He was trying to figure out what went wrong. He lost confidence in those- in us. And he seemed to be just on kind of a walkabout for several days and weeks.

CHRIS BURY: Sure enough, Clinton had lost so much confidence in the old West Wing team he'd ordered a shake-up. Dee Dee Myers was out as press secretary. The original hired guns, Begala and Carville, were sent into temporary exile. The "comeback kid" would plot this one without them.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [January 21, 1995] You remember what Mark Twain said, the reports of our demise are premature.

CHRIS BURY: Of course, Bill Clinton had certainly shown us he could take a punch, but none of us knew he had a secret weapon. Inside the West Wing, a new force was taking hold, a presence that was felt but not seen.

ROBERT REICH: There was a powerful gravitational pull. I didn't know where it was or who it was. It was strange. It was new. But the president was gravitating in a different direction, so there must be somebody, there must be something there.

CHRIS BURY: Neither cabinet members nor the new press secretary, Mike McCurry, had a clue.

MICHAEL McCURRY, Press Secretary '95-'98: And it was frustrating a little bit to know that there some- some other group of advisers that were working or some kitchen cabinet or some process that was not part of the defined process of the White House.

CHRIS BURY: Unknown to them, Clinton had an old trick up his sleeve. At times of trouble in his career, one wily operative had successfully guided Clinton back to the political center. Because this man was a mercenary with no party loyalty, Clinton knew he would have to seek his counsel in secret.

DICK MORRIS, Chief Political Strategist '94-'96: From his point of view, he had a liberal Democratic staff that disapproved of everything I would urge. And he wasn't about to announce me with great fanfare if I wasn't able to really make the grade and give him advice that was effective. So both of us were sort of having a trial marriage. And we both figured it was better for me to be involved secretly. So I made up a code name, "Charlie."

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: "Charlie." The first time I ever saw the word "Charlie" was on a little yellow Post-It note on the president's desk next to his phone saying, "Charlie called." "Hmm," I thought. And you just sort of file it away.

CHRIS BURY: At the height of West Wing gossip about "Charlie's" identity, the president delivered this State of the Union speech.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [January 24, 1995] If we agree on nothing else tonight, we must agree that the American people certainly voted for change in 1992 and in 1994.

CHRIS BURY: Much to the staff's surprise, Clinton told them he had written this speech himself. And it was different in tone, in its agenda.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: Let us put aside partisanship, and pettiness, and pride. As we embark on this new course, let us put our country first, remembering that, regardless of party label, we are all Americans.

CHRIS BURY: In truth, Clinton had a ghost writer. He and "Charlie" had written much of the speech in secret, up in the private residence on the third floor of the White House.

DICK MORRIS: The staff knows that he doesn't know how to type, so he didn't want me to type a draft into the White House computer because then the staff would figure out that that wasn't his draft. So he hunted all throughout the residence for a manual or electric typewriter, you know, from the Stone Ages. And they found this dusty IBM Selectric. And the guy lugged it upstairs to his office and blew off the dust.

And then I sit there typing the draft. Then as we finished each page, he would take it into his other room, and he'd copy it over, left-handed, in long-hand, so that he could give it to his staff and say, "This wasn't a speech writer's draft. This is my draft. I stayed up all night working on it." [www.pbs.org: More anecdotes from insiders]

CHRIS BURY: Finally, of course, it became impossible to conceal Charlie's identity. At first he had powerful allies in Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. The staff reluctantly came to grips with the man they regarded as Bill Clinton's evil twin.

[to Stephanopoulos] Was the staff resentful of Morris?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Resentful? They despised him. We all despised him.

ROBERT REICH: Dick Morris was a whirling dervish of egocentric obnoxion.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] But they all knew Morris, far more than any of them, now had the president's ear.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Over the course of the first nine months of 1995, no single person had more power over the president, and therefore over the government, than Dick Morris. No question about it.

CHRIS BURY: The favorite West Wing joke was that the president had developed a split personality. Daytime Clinton worked with his regular staff, but nighttime Clinton belonged to Dick Morris. The team feared the president now relied on polling data more than principles. It got so bad that even Clinton's vacation plans were determined by Dick Morris's polls.

LEON PANETTA: My view was, "You're president of the United States. You've got to make some very important decisions on some very difficult issues." And I mean, I remember at one point basically saying, "Look, you know, Abraham Lincoln did not have to have a pollster in this office to decide what's right and wrong. And you don't need a pollster, either."

ROBERT REICH: The assumption that everything had to be poll-tested, that you couldn't have a good idea for what the president ought to do or where this country ought to go unless some poll indicated that it would be particularly popular with the public- that alone I thought a little bit galling.

CHRIS BURY: Hillary Clinton, another casualty of the Republican revolution, was touring South Asia while her husband was in his post-election funk. Chastened by the collapse of health reform, Hillary was in full retreat, back to more traditional first lady chores. This time she was on the low end of the Clinton see-saw.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We are very excited. Some of you may have noticed the Dolly Madison portrait that is in the Red Room-

DICK MORRIS: After the defeat of '94, which was largely- which Clinton, in his own mind, attributed largely to Hillary's health care proposal and the sort of left direction, Hillary had very little power in the White House in 95 and 96- never came to strategy meetings, was never involved in any of the major decisions, and really was out of the loop.

CHRIS BURY: That April, as the cherry blossoms bloomed in Washington, so did the Republican revolution. The "Contract with America" was sailing through Congress, and the revolutionary-in-chief was still riding high, so high that the president of the United States seemed to all but disappear. Bill Clinton practically had to stomp, shout and wave to remind us he still had a seat at the table.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: The Constitution gives me relevance. The power of our ideas gives me relevance. The record we have built up over the last two years and the things were trying to do to implement it give it relevance. The president is relevant here.

LEON PANETTA: So much attention was being focused on the Republican Congress, so much attention was being focused on Speaker Gingrich, the "Contract with America." And so the real question was what, then- you know, where is the relevance of the president in this process?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: There wasn't a lot of time to think about it. I think late the next morning, the Oklahoma City bombing happened, and the president was relevant.

CHRIS BURY: No president had faced anything like it, the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil, 168 lives lost, many of them children. Bill Clinton, with his delicate touch for such difficult moments, knew exactly how to respond.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: It was an act of cowardice and it was evil. The United States will not tolerate it. And I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards.

RAHM EMANUEL, Senior White House Adviser '93-'99: Oklahoma is where he finds the combination to the lock, in my view. He finds his voice as the president.

CHRIS BURY: Rahm Emanuel was now a rising star in the West Wing.

RAHM EMANUEL: Reagan did it in the Challenger blow-up. I think in Oklahoma, this president was a unifier. And the president is a unifying force that brings a country together.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: April 23, 1995] Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear.

ROBERT REICH: The president has an extraordinary capacity to empathize and also to preach.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.

ROBERT REICH: I don't mean "preach" in terms of telling people what to do. I don't mean in a self-righteous way. I mean in terms of making people aware that the cosmos sometimes works in strange ways, almost a religious aspect.

LEON PANETTA, White House Chief of Staff '94-'97: I think that, more than anything, brought out the human side of Bill Clinton. And people, really for the first time in a long time, connected with the president and what he was trying to be and who he was.

CHRIS BURY: The side of Bill Clinton that had always known how to connect had reemerged. And as much as the deeply personal contact helped victims and their families, it also seemed to help Bill Clinton himself. He literally appeared stronger, strong enough to finally take on the revolution that had made him seem so small and irrelevant.

He and his pollster, Dick Morris, took a bold step. They would position the president apart from Republicans and Democrats. In fact, they would cherry-pick only the most popular ideas from both parties. Their strategy became known as "triangulation."

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: Good Evening. Tonight I present to the American people a plan for a balanced federal budget. My plan cuts spending by $1.1 trillion. It does not raise taxes.

CHRIS BURY: In the West Wing, many considered it heresy. A balanced budget was pure Republicanism. But Morris didn't care what they thought. He took his orders directly from Bill Clinton.

[Photos by Robert McNeeley]

DICK MORRIS: They were Democrats, I was a Clintonista. And my job was to help Bill Clinton get elected, and their job was to try to get the Democrats across the board elected.

CHRIS BURY: And you didn't care if the Democrats controlled the Congress.

DICK MORRIS: I didn't care at all. In fact, I feel that in many ways better for Bill Clinton if the Republicans did because it permitted him to get rid of the craziness of the liberals in the Democratic Party and go with the centrist achievements that I think have worked so well for the country.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] As you might imagine, the Democrats felt Clinton was selling them down the river.

LEON PANETTA: It confirmed some of their worst suspicions that the president was prepared to sacrifice them in the name of going for some kind of position with the Republicans.

CHRIS BURY: With angry Democrats on one flank, the president faced the Republican revolution on the other. They had passed their own version of the balanced budget, one with less money earmarked for Medicare. And Clinton's nemesis, Newt Gingrich, was now daring the president to veto it.

    Rep. NEWT GINGRICH (R), Speaker of the House: I think it's a very big step for him to say to the American people "I'm going to veto a balanced budget."

CHRIS BURY: Bill Clinton took that very big step. His veto would cause the government to shut down. It was high noon in Washington.

MICHAEL McCURRY, Press Secretary '95-'98: We knew we, you know, were going right into brinkmanship with Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress. We knew that the shutdown was going to have a very dramatic impact on the thinking of the American people.

ROBERT REICH: It wasn't at all clear who would lose that blame game. And the party that lost the blame game would probably lose in the 1996 elections, or at least suffer major setbacks. So the stakes were huge.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Communications Director: Our strategy was very simple. We couldn't buckle, and we had to say that they were blackmailing the country to get their way.

CHRIS BURY: But Bill Clinton's team had so often witnessed their boss's tendency to become compromiser-in-chief whenever he got in a tight spot. They held their breath.

[to Panetta] It sounds like you were worried the president was going to cave in.

LEON PANETTA: Yeah, I mean, there were those of us on the staff who thought the president would be willing to, you know, do whatever was necessary to cut a deal. And we kept saying, "No, this is fundamental to everything that you have fought for."

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] They still had no idea what the president would do until Clinton and Gingrich faced off in person.

LEON PANETTA: The president said to Gingrich, "I simply can't do what you want me to do. I don't believe in it, and I don't believe it's right for the country. And even if it costs me the election, I'm not going to do this." And I kind of sighed at that point, and I thought, "He gets it. He gets it."

CHRIS BURY: So the politician who took so many polls, the president who made so many deals, the compromiser-in-chief, finally took a stand.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: I am fighting it today. I will fight it tomorrow. I will fight it next week and next month. I will fight it until we get a budget that is fair to all Americans.

CHRIS BURY: Bill Clinton was again at the brink. His team hunkered down in that familiar war-room mode. The struggle dragged on for weeks. But Newt Gingrich blinked first. Clinton had won by standing his ground. Even his own cabinet was surprised.

DONNA SHALALA, Sec'y of Health & Human Services '93-'01: The shutdown was important because the president stood his ground. He was seen as the "great compromiser." And suddenly, confronted by the possibility of a government shutdown, he called their bluff. His backbone was stiffer than they anticipated. They misread him.

CHRIS BURY: By now, the Clinton team knew enough to savor such sweet moments when it could. In this White House, another round of incoming was practically guaranteed.

RAHM EMANUEL: We all used to have a joke in the White House that we never got more than a four-week run of good news, that we always had some problem we had, you know, take the air out of, suffocate it.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I mean, everybody had felt so good about the way the shutdown had ended. Like, we had stood firmly for our principles. We had prevailed. The Republicans were in disarray. Things were starting to look good up in New Hampshire. And then wham!

    Sen. ALFONSE D'AMATO (R), New York '81-'99: [Senate Whitewater hearing] These records come to us in an almost magical fashion, after almost two years of apparently being in the White House residence.

CHRIS BURY: Hillary Clinton's old law firm billing records, subpoenaed two years before in the Whitewater investigation, had turned up mysteriously in the private residence. The White House lawyer who defended Mrs. Clinton knew this meant big trouble.

JANE SHERBURNE, White House Special Counsel '94-'97: I saw these documents. I saw Vince Foster's handwriting all over them, which by now I recognized, and just realized immediately that this was going to be a problem. You could see the conspiracy theorists going. You could- you know, I saw the next six months of my life, you know, spin out in front of me.

CHRIS BURY: Those of us who covered the Clintons smelled one hell of a story because no one at the White House could explain how those long-lost records just happened to appear. And when Hillary Clinton hit the road to promote her new book about children, this reporter was one of those who hounded her.

    Mrs. Clinton how important is this in terms of turning your image around?

    Mrs. Clinton, can you shed any light on how those documents wound up in the White House living quarters?

    Mrs. Clinton, concerning the questions that have been raised on the travel office and Whitewater, what is the difference in-

[voice-over] Until then, Kenneth Starr, the Republican independent counsel, had enjoyed cordial relations with the White House. But the billing records discovery angered him enough to haul Hillary Clinton before a grand jury.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I am happy to answer the grand jury's questions and look forward to telling them everything I know, with the hope that it will help them in their investigation.

CHRIS BURY: No first lady had ever endured such a spectacle. Over in the West Wing, this amounted to a clear shot over the bow.

[to Emanuel] At this point, it's war with Kenneth Starr

RAHM EMANUEL, Senior White House Adviser '93-'99: Well, I don't know if I'd use "war," but it was clear that this was a battle to the end, to the finish. There's no doubt about that. Yup.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Ken Starr now clearly had crossed a line. When he basically tried to humiliate the first lady by having her appear in person before that grand jury, I think that was a sense- there was a real sense that the Rubicon had been crossed.

CHRIS BURY: So Hillary Clinton in that January of 1996 found herself a lightning rod once more. But this was an election year, and Bill Clinton was determined not to let anything slow him down. He and his shadow, Dick Morris, had a plan.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: The era of big government is over!

CHRIS BURY: And so, thanks to the Morris/Clinton plan, was the era of big ideas. This time, no ambitious agenda like health reform. Clinton campaigned that year on safe, middle-of-the-road proposals that Dick Morris had validated in his polling: V-chips, school uniforms, curbs on teen smoking. And after anguished soul-searching in the West Wing, he adopted the Republican plan to reform the nation's Welfare system.

DICK MORRIS, Chief Political Strategist '94-'96: I think vetoing it would have been the single highest risk. I think if he'd vetoed that bill, he probably would not have been reelected president.

CHRIS BURY: And then dick Morris was gone. A sex scandal of his own on the last day of Bill Clinton's triumphant Democratic convention sent "Charlie" packing. But by now Bill Clinton probably didn't need him anymore. The economy was taking off, interest rates were coming down, Bob Dole wasn't much of a threat. In November, Bill Clinton became the first Democrat since FDR to win a second term.

ROBERT REICH, Secretary of Labor '93-'97: It was a reversal of the tribulations of 1994, the rejection that 1994 represented. And I think the president felt wonderful. He felt that he had not only been vindicated, but all of the pettiness, all of the negativism, all of the Whitewater mess, all of the enemies that he had generated- notwithstanding all of that, the people had been with him, and he would have four more years.

CHRIS BURY: At this point, George Stephanopoulos, one of the originals on the team, had already told the president he would be leaving at the end of the first term. That night he wondered about Hillary Clinton. Four years earlier, she had declared a zone of privacy and strived with Bill to change the culture in Washington. Now, reelected, perhaps they would get another chance.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: There was so much kind of hope in her eyes that night. You know, they were tearing up. I think she sort of felt all of the problems were behind her and, you know, they were now free to go on and free to, you know, close off a lot of the unpleasantness of the past.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: I, William Jefferson Clinton, do solemnly swear-

CHRIS BURY: For the first time, Bill Clinton had taken office without having to worry about reelection. For 25 years, he'd always had to think about his next opponent. Now there was a different goal: a legacy, a presidency for the history books. But he would need the help of Congress, and Congress was still in the hands of his enemies.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [January 20, 1997] The American people returned to office a president of one party and a Congress of another. Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore.

CHRIS BURY: Clinton reached for that public voice he'd found after the Oklahoma bombing. Casting himself as the healer, he quoted from the Book of Isaiah.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: They call on us instead to be repairers of the breach and to move on with America's mission.

CHRIS BURY: The healer went forth and sat with his adversaries. Gone were the confrontational days of the government shutdown.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: First I want to thank Senator Lott for hosting this, and thank the speaker and Senator Lott and the leadership for inviting us to come down here and meet with the bipartisan leadership today.

    Rep. NEWT GINGRICH: If we could have a bipartisan agreement on the budget, a bipartisan effort on education reform, I think we could get a great deal done for the American people this year.

CHRIS BURY: And it worked. They finally made a deal on balancing the budget. Chalk up a plus for the legacy. But soon Bill Clinton's agenda would stall on even more ambitious reforms of Social Security and Medicare. The healer couldn't repair the breach without more allies in Congress. He needed a friend.

[www.pbs.org: View more Robert McNeeley photos]

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: You know, President Truman said if you want a friend in Washington, you need to get a dog.

CHRIS BURY: He got a dog.

But certainly Bill Clinton understood better than anyone that another round of incoming was just a matter of time. And even those of us jaded journalists who'd seen Clinton survive so many moments of danger were stunned when we woke up to this one.

    REPORTER: -explosive allegations that strike at the very heart of the Presidency-

    REPORTER: -a reported affair with a young female aide-

    SAM DONALDSON, ABC News: -a serious impeachment investigation will begin-

    REPORTER: President Clinton, as well as Vernon Jordan, are under investigation by the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr-

    KENNETH STARR, Independent Counsel: No, I can't confirm-

    ROBERT BENNETT, Clinton Attorney: I smell a rat in all this.

    REPORTER: Do you have a moment-

    SAM DONALDSON: The president is outraged-

    REPORTER: Is it true that you advised Monica Lewinsky-

CHRIS BURY: Only months before that eventful morning in January, Paul Begala had returned from exile to an office of his own in the West Wing.

PAUL BEGALA, Senior White House Adviser '97-'99: I mean, I felt like I was hit with a two-by-four in the solar plexus. I mean, i was- my stomach was in knots. I was sick to my stomach.

MICHAEL McCURRY, Press Secretary '95-'98: Well, I don't think I want to describe what my gut was telling me to do at that point, because it had more to do with vomiting than anything else. But you read this, and you said, "This is incredible." I mean, and it was hard to believe.

    JIM LEHRER, PBS: ["NewsHour With Jim Lehrer"] The news of this day is that Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, is investigating allegations that you suborned perjury by encouraging a 24-year-old woman, former White House intern, to lie under oath in a civil deposition about her having had an affair with you. Mr. President, is that true?

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: That is not true. That is not true.

CHRIS BURY: The author of the Clinton crisis playbook returned instinctively to its fundamental strategies: First parse the answer.

    JIM LEHRER: You had no sexual relationship with this young woman?

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: There is not a sexual relationship. That is accurate.

CHRIS BURY: By now, after listening carefully to Clinton for six years, those of us in the press knew the playbook as well as the West Wing team. We, too, parsed the words and pushed his press secretary.

    REPORTER: How in the world can the president be as matter of fact about anything he's doing today when this is blowing up around here?

    HELEN THOMAS, UPI: We'd like to have his answers-

    SAM DONALDSON: The president has always told everyone to tell the truth-

    REPORTER: Is your interpretation of that statement that he meant to categorically deny that he had-

    MICHAEL McCURRY: I'm not going to parse the statement-

CHRIS BURY: But even Mike McCurry was worried about Bill Clinton's answers.

MICHAEL McCURRY: And we kept asking the lawyers and others, "Well, where is the strong denial?" You know, "We need to have a very strong denial." And of course, the president, as he struggled with the story the day that it broke, went through a- you know, a lot of contorted answers in three interviews that he gave that day in which there were questions about which verb tense he had used because he had said that "There is no relationship." You know, it's just- we were all looking at each other saying, you know, "He didn't deny it strongly enough."

CHRIS BURY: That same day, on a subway in New York City, the beeper of a veteran political operative began to vibrate.

DICK MORRIS, Chief Political Strategist '94-'96: 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.

CHRIS BURY: No mistake. Bill Clinton, in trouble again, was reaching out secretly to Morris and his polls.

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DICK MORRIS: And he said, "Yeah, this is horrible. This is just terrible. You know, ever since I was elected president, ever since '92, I've just 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."

CHRIS BURY: And Morris, who now had personal experience with public disgrace, offered to help his old client.

DICK MORRIS: I said, "Nixon was impeached because he just never told the public the truth about Watergate." And he said, "You really think that I could do this?" And I said, "Look, I don't know. Let's poll it. Let's find out." 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." 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." [www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]

CHRIS BURY: The stonewalling included members of his own cabinet, which met two days after the Lewinsky story broke. Unwittingly, they did Bill Clinton's bidding.

    MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Secretary of State '97-'01: I believe the allegations are completely untrue.

    BILL DALEY, Secretary of Transportation: I'll second that. Definitely.

    SAM DONALDSON: But surely, all of you understand that- [crosstalk]

    DONNA SHALALA, Sec'y of Health & Human Services '93-'01: I'll second that, too.

DONNA SHALALA: I did believe the president when he spoke to us January 23rd.

CHRIS BURY: When you went out and affirmed that, did you believe him?

DONNA SHALALA: Yes, absolutely, or I wouldn't have gone out and affirmed it.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] After consulting with a trusted Hollywood producer, who also believed the president, Clinton would give a far more dramatic denial.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [January 26, 1998] But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time. Never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you.

CHRIS BURY: "Back to work," a classic line from the Clinton playbook. Indeed, the president and his staff would stick this scandal out by focusing relentlessly on the picture of Bill Clinton hard at work.

MICHAEL McCURRY: Our goal was to have the president portrayed doing the job he should be doing as president. I think the fact that we did that and that the trains continued to run on time, basically, is probably what helped rescue Bill Clinton from this political scandal.

PAUL BEGALA: This gets back to the fundamental lesson of political survival that Bill Clinton taught me, which is if you make it about the American people's lives instead of your life, you're going to be OK.

CHRIS BURY: And of course, the playbook called for Hillary to perform her role.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: [NBC "Today"] The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband.

CHRIS BURY: "The vast right-wing conspiracy." As they had done so often before, the Clintons were demonizing the adversary. One of the original hired guns was called back to the fold.

    JAMES CARVILLE, Political Consultant: [NBC "Meet the Press"] This started out as a $40,000 land deal that lost money. And about $50 million and five years later, after nobody could find anything, we're wiring up people in hotels, feeding them whiskey, trying to get people to talk and everything else.

JAMES CARVILLE: I wasn't very subtle about it.

CHRIS BURY: But you had their encouragement.

JAMES CARVILLE: No I didn't. I didn't ask them.

CHRIS BURY: And they didn't stop you.

JAMES CARVILLE: No. But they weren't going to-

CHRIS BURY: Which is implicit encouragement.

JAMES CARVILLE: I wasn't going to be stopped. Oh, no, sir! Don't ever- don't ever think that this was anything close to a ploy. I did it. I'm glad I did it. And I pointed out things to people that needed to be pointed out.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] That spring and summer passed as one West Wing insider after another was paraded before the grand jury.

    REPORTER: Monica! Did you have sexual relations with the president?

    REPORTER: Monica!

CHRIS BURY: And the young woman at the heart of the scandal became an infamous overnight celebrity.

Then, just before Bill Clinton himself would face the grand jury, word from someone close to the president that he would change his story. For those of us who followed him, this was a high-level, calculated leak to prepare the public - and even his family - for the messy details to come. For many in the senior staff and cabinet, it was clear confirmation that Bill Clinton had been lying to them and using them all along.

PAUL BEGALA: I was disappointed. I was very angry. It was, you know, about as- you can imagine. You can put yourself in that position, that someone you trusted, who you believed in, who misled you, and then I, in turn, unwittingly misled the country. I took that very, very seriously.

CHRIS BURY: Once you found out that the president had not told the truth, did you feel that he had used you?

DONNA SHALALA: Of course. I mean, what's surprising about that? The president felt like he had used us.

MICHAEL McCURRY: There was, you know, along with disappointment, some anger, the thing that- the overwhelming sense that "You blew this great opportunity to really do some extraordinary things for the country because of this." That's kind of- that's what is the overriding emotion I think most of us felt as we went into that period.

CHRIS BURY: After Kenneth Starr and his deputies completed their grand jury interrogation of Bill Clinton - the only president ever to face such a criminal inquiry - he retreated to the solarium in the private residence of the White House. A few of the original loyalists who'd spent that awkward evening at the Ritz Carlton in Boston during Gennifer Flowers were this time witnessing the Clintons at the very bottom.

JAMES CARVILLE: You know, it was a pretty tough day. It was a pretty tough day.

CHRIS BURY: Was he mad?

JAMES CARVILLE: No, just seemed tired. But no.

CHRIS BURY: What about Mrs. Clinton? Was she upset?

JAMES CARVILLE: Upset? Yeah. Yeah. She was upset. You could tell that she'd been crying. She was not, you know, in too good a mood.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] Once again, in the midst of a personal crisis, Bill Clinton went on national television. To the chagrin of his own staff, he seemed less contrite than sorry for himself. And once again, as he had done on 60 Minutes six years earlier, Bill Clinton admitted no more than he had to.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [August 17, 1998] Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.

CHRIS BURY: The very next morning, Bill Clinton also tried to make it clear he was paying a personal price for his indiscretion. These pictures of the Clintons leaving for a vacation on Martha's Vineyard spoke volumes.

MICHAEL McCURRY: Bill Clinton holding on to Buddy for dear life is the way I remember the picture. [laughs]

CHRIS BURY: You're on the helicopter?

MICHAEL McCURRY: Yeah, I was there waiting to fly off on this happy family vacation. [laughs] I pretty firmly believe that there had not been many conversations between the Clintons, as a couple, on this until they were able to get away and be by themselves.

CHRIS BURY: The old Harry Truman line that Bill Clinton had quoted about friends and dogs took on a certain sad truth during that Martha's Vineyard vacation. But there was little time for healing.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: Today I ordered our armed forces to strike at terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan.

CHRIS BURY: American missiles had leveled targets supposedly tied to Usama bin Laden in retaliation for the bombing of American embassies in Africa. Clinton had rushed back to Washington to manage the crisis. But his national security adviser knew it would be a tough sell to those of us in the press corps, who might view it cynically as an attempt to change the subject.

SAMUEL BERGER, National Security Adviser '96-'01: I remember the president saying, "Let's just do what we think is the right thing to do. We'll probably get it either way." And I think the right thing to do was respond, and we did.

CHRIS BURY: The subject wouldn't stay changed for long. Knowing that Kenneth Starr was about to release his potentially devastating report, Bill Clinton would launch a campaign of contrition.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified, I was not contrite enough. I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned.

CHRIS BURY: Later that day, those sins, catalogued in excruciatingly graphic detail, were made public in the explosively-hyped Starr report. Bill Clinton met privately with an old friend who would soon join his legal team.

GREGORY CRAIG, White House Special Counsel '98-'99: He was a man in deep trouble personally, emotionally. And you could- you could tell it. He knew he was in trouble personally. He knew he was in trouble not only with his family, which was, I think, first and foremost his concern. He had trouble with his cabinet. He was in trouble with his staff.

    REPORTER: Are you considering resignation, Mr. President?

CHRIS BURY: Even the true believers in the West Wing feared he might be finished.

JAMES CARVILLE: I was very afraid that the whole thing could be over, that there'd be a sort of delegation of congressional Democrats and- you know what I mean? Moderate Republicans go down to the White House-

CHRIS BURY: Come to the White House and tell the president it's over.

JAMES CARVILLE: Yeah. Right. And quite candidly, I was not alone in that fear.

GREGORY CRAIG: I was talking to a close friend in the Senate, Kent Conrad, who I've known for 25 years. And I said, "How are we doing up there?" And he was saying they were about two or three days from a delegation of senior senators from the Democratic Party coming down and talking to the president about resigning.

    COURT OFFICIAL: Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God?

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: I do.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] They figured the final blow might be the public release of the president's videotaped grand jury testimony. But ironically, the sight of the president of the United States being asked such humiliating questions was just the break he needed.

    PROSECUTOR: If you touched another person on the breast-

    -touch the genitalia-

    If Monica Lewinsky says that you used a cigar with her as a sexual aid in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?

CHRIS BURY: To Democrats in Congress, and to much of the public, Starr and his deputies seemed harsh and partisan. The president's anger seemed justified. His approval ratings actually moved up. And to the surprise of official Washington, in the mid-term elections that fall, Democrats picked up seats in Congress. Bill Clinton's old archrival, sensing a revolt in his own party, suddenly resigned.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: The American people sent us a message that would break the eardrums of anyone who was listening.

CHRIS BURY: At the beginning of this term, Bill Clinton had tried to assume the mantle of healer. Now he hoped moderate Republicans might hear a healing message in the election results.

But the hardliners still controlled Congress, and they were listening to the constituents who hated Bill Clinton.

    Rep. BOB BARR (R), Georgia: Mr. Speaker and colleagues, today our votes and our consciences must be faced by the rule of law.

CHRIS BURY: And sure enough, on a winter Saturday six weeks later, the United States House of Representatives insured Bill Clinton's presidency would be one for the record books.

    SPEAKER PRO TEM: On this vote, the yeas are 228, the nays are 206. Article One is adopted.

CHRIS BURY: As he and his team quietly watched the proceedings, William Jefferson Clinton became only the second president ever impeached.

JOHN PODESTA, Chief of Staff '98-'01: He was just subdued, I would say, didn't say very much, just watched it. We just kind of watched it and didn't- I think none of us said very much. We just watched the vote take place.

JOE LOCKHART, Press Secretary '98-'00: I think his view was that, "They can do whatever they want. They can impeach me. They can vote in the Senate and remove me. But they're going to have to do that to get me to leave."

    Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST, U.S. Supreme Court: The Senate will convene as a court of impeachment.

CHRIS BURY: Removal from office was never in doubt. The Republicans did not have the two thirds majority in the Senate they needed.

    SENATE CLERK: Mr. Conrad? Mr. Conrad, not guilty. Mr. Coverdell? Mr. Coverdell, guilty.

CHRIS BURY: Bill Clinton, of course, would win the most important vote of his life. The old playbook had worked again. Throughout the scandal, Americans had seen him doing his job. Besides, the economy was good, and by now the thoroughbred's flaws were well known. But there was no glory to be had in this victory. No, this time the comeback kid had simply survived.

    Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST: The Senate adjudges that the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States, is not guilty as charged in the first article of impeachment.

CHRIS BURY: The great personal and political drama of the Clinton presidency was over. Once again, the nation witnessed a remarkable act of presidential contrition.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [February 12, 1999] Now that the Senate has fulfilled its constitutional responsibility, bringing this process to a conclusion, I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people.

CHRIS BURY: One Clinton drama was over, but another was just beginning. Now, as the end of this second term fast approached, Bill Clinton campaigned to have history judge him on a broader canvas.

Over the next two years, Clinton would throw himself into trouble spots abroad and claim credit for economic success at home. He would struggle to find a role for himself, as his two closest political allies, his vice president and his wife, campaigned as his anointed political successors.

But now, only a month after his impeachment, he would try on the role he had once found so uncomfortable, commander-in-chief.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: United States forces, acting with our NATO allies, have commenced air strikes against Serbian military targets in the former Yugoslavia.

CHRIS BURY: Clinton had decided to marshal sophisticated American air power in moral outrage against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. His course became more difficult as the weeks dragged on, the enemy dug in, and some American planes began missing their targets.

JOHN PODESTA: Through impeachment, through the trial, et cetera, this was the hardest time, to know that there were consequences to this, there was collateral damage, there were innocent people who were being put in harm's way, but that we were doing the right thing. But we needed to persevere and press on.

CHRIS BURY: But in the oval office, Clinton knew that all over Washington, even within his own cabinet, powerful voices were raising doubts about his air war.

JOE LOCKHART: I mean, just by the look in people's eyes, they weren't sure that this was going to work. He was the one who was reassuring that, "We have a good plan, we know it'll work. Just," you know, "don't respond, don't react to everybody criticizing you on television all the time. We knew this was going to work. Just stay with it."

CHRIS BURY: In the end, after 78 days of bombing, it worked. Bill Clinton could chalk up his first major success as commander-in-chief.

Clinton's war against the deficit was also paying off. Even Alan Greenspan had to admit he'd never seen such a strong economy. For the first time in years, Bill Clinton seemed like his confident old self.

DAVID GERGEN, Adviser to the President '93-'94: I had the opportunity to go to the White House and hear Bill Clinton speak, and he was, like, the best I'd heard him in a long, long time. I couldn't believe it. So I went to some of his people, and I said, "Has he been speaking like this recently?" And they said, "He's in a zone. He's entered a zone in the last few weeks that nobody quite understands, but it's like a baseball player who's on a hitting streak."

CHRIS BURY: In the final stages of his presidency, it seemed to those of us who followed him all these years that Bill Clinton was determined to tie up loose ends. In those presidential rituals, such as the Washington press corps dinners, he was doing it with a pretty good sense of humor.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [White House correspondents dinner] You know, the clock is running down on the Republicans in Congress, too. I feel for them. I do. They've only got seven more months to investigate me.

CHRIS BURY: Now he was far more willing to poke fun at himself and even at sensitive subjects like his see-saw relationship with Hillary.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: So many unanswered questions.

CHRIS BURY: Consider that skit he videotaped, picturing himself as a stay-at-home husband.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: [video skit] I wish I could be here more, but I really think Bill has everything under control.

CHRIS BURY: The irony, of course, is that now that Hillary was considering a political career of her own-

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [video skit] You forgot your lunch!

CHRIS BURY: -Bill would be the one standing by his woman. In the twilight of his presidency, Bill Clinton saw Hillary's success as an extension of his own legacy.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I am honored today to announce my candidacy for the United States Senate from New York.

CHRIS BURY: But there was for this man of enormous faith in his own ability a far more difficult prize for the history books, peace in the Middle East. Bill Clinton, in a series of all-night sessions at Camp David, would invest his charm, his intellect, his persuasiveness, all of his political skill, to personally bridge the chasm between Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Secretary of State '97-'01: We all worked constantly. And because the president is a night person and because both Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak are night people, the whole schedule kind of got reversed, and you'd actually make an arrangement to have a meeting at midnight or 2:00 in the morning. And so it was very much working through the night and practically working 24 hours straight. The president was so involved that it's impossible to separate him from any part of this.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: Look, if this were easy it would have been done a long time ago. This is difficult. Thank you.

CHRIS BURY: Still, Bill Clinton would not give up, continuing his campaign for some kind of lasting mark on the Middle East until the final days of his presidency.

[to Berger] If you could list one regret that Bill Clinton has about the way he conducted foreign policy, what would that be?

SAMUEL BERGER: I suspect that he would say that he had hoped that we would have ended this administration with a more secure peace in the Middle East than it appears will be the case.

CHRIS BURY: [voice-over] Bill Clinton had one more chance to leave a lasting impression on the American body politic. He didn't seem to mind that it was at Al Gore's Democratic convention. The thoroughbred of campaigners strutted his stuff one last time.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [Democratic national convention, August 14, 2000] Let's remember the standard our Republican friends used to have for whether a party should continue in office. My fellow Americans, are we better off today than we were eight years ago? You bet we are! You bet we are.

CHRIS BURY: But Clinton's own vice president didn't want his help. So Secretariat, as his old team had once called Clinton, savored the spotlight knowing he would spend most of the presidential campaign on the sidelines.

JOE LOCKHART, Press Secretary '98-'00: There's a kind of wistfulness that it's not him running anymore. And he understands, you know, the two-term limit and that you can't run for office forever, but this is the first time he's actually faced with it. So sure, there's part of him that says, you know, "Wouldn't it be great if I was out there making my case?"

CHRIS BURY: On election night, the only real bright spot for Bill Clinton was the victory of his political partner and apt pupil to the United States Senate.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Wow! This is amazing! Thank you, all. Thank you!

    JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN: A big call to make. CNN announces that we call Florida in the Al Gore Column.

    TOM BROKAW, NBC News: NBC news is taking Florida out of Vice President Gore's column.

    PETER JENNINGS, ABC News: In the interest of sobriety, if nothing else we are going to take Florida back into the "Too close to call" column.

CHRIS BURY: Clinton would not admit, at least not publicly, that Al Gore's ultimate defeat would be seen in some ways as a tarnish on his legacy. After all, his chosen successor had failed to hold on to the White House during a time of peace and prosperity.

    Vice Pres. AL GORE: Good evening. Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time.

CHRIS BURY: A new president was coming to town. And even as Bill Clinton prepared to relinquish his office, he feared a final round of incoming. By now, a new independent counsel had finally cleared the Clintons in the Whitewater investigation. But the Lewinsky case - whether Bill Clinton lied under oath - was still open.

JOE LOCKHART, Press Secretary '98-'00 : I think the president believes there's a very real possibility that the independent counsel will prosecute, that that's what he's moving toward. I think the president is a human being, and the prospect of being hounded, even out of the White House, for something that started a long time ago, before he got in the White House, is frustrating and makes him angry and makes him concerned.

CHRIS BURY: By the end of his presidency, some of us who followed Bill Clinton finally came to terms with the question: How could he so often survive one close call after another? Now the fuzzy patterns we'd just begun to notice back in that first campaign had become so much more clear: the permanent Clinton campaign, that crisis playbook, the support of his steadfast partner, his political talent, inner toughness and remarkable ability to take a punch.

DAVID GERGEN: Most people in that job would never have been able to pull out of that first tailspin that he went into, but he did. And that's- the remarkable thing about Bill Clinton is how good he is at pulling himself out of the tailspins. He is "the comeback kid." The other remarkable thing about Bill Clinton is how he gets himself into trouble so he goes into those tailspins. And that's been what's been hard to reconcile.

CHRIS BURY: As he prepared to leave office, many of those who served on his West Wing team remained, like much of the country, ambivalent- dazzled by his performance and disappointed by the man.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Communications Director: Boy, he did a good job. But he might have been great. But it turns out that he actually achieved so much of what he promised to do. He left the country in such better shape than when he came in. And you can't give him all of the credit for that, but he certainly deserves some. He was a terrific steward. And he did try to point the country to the future, but he couldn't escape his past.

LEON PANETTA, White House Chief of Staff '94-'97: I think history will look at this presidency as probably a tale of two presidents. One president extremely bright, capable, compassionate, wanting to do the right thing for the country, wanting to do the right thing for the world. The other presidency will be a tale of someone who made a terrible personal mistake, and that will- I think the bottom line will be that that, to some extent, created a disappointment for what this presidency could have been for the country and for the world.

ROBERT REICH, Secretary of Labor '93-'97: On Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays I say, "Thank God Bill Clinton was there," you know, to hold back the right wing, make the right decisions on a lot of very important issues. And then on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Saturdays, I say to myself, "What a waste." All that talent and all that ability, and we- and he did not do what he intended to do and get accomplished. Maybe if he had been more disciplined, both in terms of his agenda and also his personal life, more could have been done. And then on Sundays, I don't think about it.

DEE DEE MYERS, Press Secretary '93-'94: I just don't think that his likes will come our way again, for better, and in some ways, for worse. You know, I'm disappointed in a lot of the things he's done. I think he had potential for greatness. I don't think he achieved it. I think he's done a lot of good things for the country. And you know, I have a lot of sadness about how it's all ended up for him. But I have a reservoir of affection- of affection for him that I don't really understand.

 

 

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The Clinton Years

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ANNOUNCER: This exploration of the Clinton era continues on the definitive FRONTLINE/NIGHTLINE Web site, where you'll find a breakdown of the key chapters in Clinton's presidency, in-depth interviews with staffers, cabinet members and key advisers, and more than two hours of streaming video, a slide show and commentary by veteran White House photographer Robert McNeely, some of the best anecdotes from the Clinton era, links to The New York Times special series on Clinton's presidency and the best from its extensive archives, plus a chronology, a quiz, and the chance to join in our discussion about this report, at pbs.org or America Online keyword PBS.

Next time on FRONTLINE: Marquese has been stealing since he was 12. Jose took part in a deadly brawl. Manny and a gang brutally attacked a family. Shawn stabbed his father. They were all under 18, but should they be tried as adults? FRONTLINE investigates the new face of Juvenile Justice. [in two weeks]

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