What was the atmosphere like when they were prepping for that 60
Minutes? This is high stakes, Super Bowl Sunday. He's never going to have
an audience like this in the campaign.|
It was terrible. It was terrible. It was very, very, very emotional.
People were crying. James was weeping piteously. It was just a horrible thing
for people to have to go through, to defend their marriage on national
television. And yet, given what had happened, given the media scrutiny, that's
what they had to do....
Was there a real worry among those of you who were high up in the campaign,
that this could be it? That the campaign could end right here and now?
Yeah. George was most dark. It's his nature, and I'm sure he'll tell you
this. I'm very sunny. You know, I'm always optimistic. I was worried.
Really more than that though I was just torn up to see what they as a couple
were having to go through. Nobody likes to see that, and it's uncomfortable.
I don't like being a voyeur, looking into other people's marriages.
But I'm always optimistic. At that time we were at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in
Boston, and I went and bought a shirt there. It says "Ritz Carlton, Boston."
And I remember telling Mandy Grunwald, "I'm going to wear this shirt at the
convention on the night he's nominated, because I think we're going to survive
this and I think he's going to be the nominee." And sure enough, I did....
Was there a failure to recognize that the Social Security nanny thing could
be a problem, or what do you think it was?
Oh, I think so. The goal posts keep moving. And, you know, sometimes that's
as it should be. This had never been a problem before in a prior
administration, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't a legitimate objection at
that time in that administration. It's one of the things that the next
president is going to have to realize too, that there are no fixed rules in
this game, that they keep changing every time....
The other thing that got the administration off on shaky footing was gays in
the military. And as I recall, you had some specific advice. I mean, you
really wanted Clinton to hold off here.
...It was Veterans Day, and he had laid a wreath on a veteran's memorial at
Little Rock. As he was walking away, Andrea Mitchell, is my recollection,
shouted out to him, "Are you going to keep your promise to put gays in the
Well, that was just the right formulation. At that point people in the press
were starting to say, "Clinton is going to break all of his many campaign
promises," and so he flashed on it... The right answer is the answer he gave
to Ted Koppel the day after the election when he said, "No, I'm going to focus
like a laser beam on the economy. Once we get this economy growing, I will
address other pressing needs. But if you want to know my priorities, I'm going
to focus like a laser beam on the economy." But instead he said, "You bet.
I'm going to keep that promise and all of them right away." And you know, he
just dove into it....
Was it also a political stumble just on the part of the White House
Yeah. I think the hardest thing in these things is focus. The night before
the election, on that long trip that Nightline came along with, I went
back and sat down next to David Gergen, who was covering the campaign then with
US News. I said, "I want to have a confidential off-the-record
conversation with you, David. How did Reagan keep the focus on the economy
when he got started?" And he told me this wonderful story about how Al Haig,
as secretary of state in the Reagan Administration, at the beginning had come
up with some new anti-drug strategy. He was getting kudos for it in the paper,
and he was getting praised on the Hill. And Gergen said Jim Baker, the Chief
of Staff under Reagan, called him in and said, "If I see any more of your drug
stories in the paper, I'm going to fire you." And I said, "Well, why?" And he
said, "Because Baker understood that the one job they had at the start was
passing the Reagan economic plan."
Well, that was like turning on a light. I'm a person who craves clarity. I am
a reductionist. I want to do one thing. I loved hearing that story, and I
related it back to the governor that night. "This is what you need to do.
This is how Gergen said Reagan did it." And getting off that focus was an
enormous mistake. It's very easy to do because the president can't only do one
thing at a time, and that's something I didn't understand. A candidate can
restrict himself to one thing, and a president cannot. Things happen.
Those first few weeks was it just too much going on? There was also a lot
written that the staff was new, that they were young, that they were in blue
jeans, that they weren't like any other staff Washington had seen.
They always say that. The truth is, they were no younger than the staff that
other presidents had brought in. If you look at Ted Sorenson in the Kennedy
Administration, if you look at Dick Cheney, who was the chief of staff to the
president of the United States at age 31, they were fine in terms of age. It's
just that they were a little younger than some of the reporters they were
covering. No, I think it's just a lack of focus, and I think everybody who was
around that has to share some responsibility for that....
One of the first substantive debates that goes on within the White House is
that on the deficit plan. There is the economic team, which is adamant that
you've got to reduce the deficit first, and then there is a political team
which is much more interested in programs that you felt you had promised during
the election. Where did you come out on that and how disappointed were you at
hearing about all this emphasis on cutting the deficit?
My view was that the campaign had been a sacred thing, that it had been a real
compact, because I was there and I saw the connection that Clinton made with
people, and the connection that they made with him. And I felt [this bond]
very personally, and I know the president did too. So I had this, I think now
naive notion, that you would just then get out your campaign book and start on
page one, and leaf through and enact everything until you got to page 228.
Well, you know, it turns out it doesn't quite work that way, and people who had
been around the block a few times tried to explain it, but ... I was loathe to
see those campaign promises altered in any way.
...Bob Rubin, speaking for the economic team, said, "I don't know anything
about the politics, but I know if you take care of this deficit as a matter of
the first order of magnitude, it will help the economy enormously." And
Clinton weighed that in the balance, and God love him, this most political of
presidents, turned aside the political advice and went with the better economic
There was a sense among some on Capitol Hill, Democrats as well as
Republicans, early in the administration, that you could roll this president,
that he would cave in to special interests, on appointments. That he caved in
on gays in the military and that he was so eager to please that he was a
Right. And I think even to state it now, you have to smile, because it seems
so preposterous to me.
But at the time.
It was very much the case at the beginning of this presidency people thought,
"We can roll this guy." They mistook his exuberance, his southern geniality,
his desire to please everyone and want to be liked by everyone, and to build
bipartisan coalitions for weakness. And that always amused him, because I
think he had a sense that he was a pretty resilient guy, a pretty tough guy.
But he was deeply interested in trying to get things done. And if that meant
trimming a little away from the absolute purity of the holy grail of the
campaign promises, that was okay. And if people like me didn't like it, that
was okay with him. When he made his decision and he said, "You get behind
this," I said "Yes, sir."
...Before he became chief of staff, Mack McLarty went and met with all the
former chiefs of staff, and he told me that Jim Baker had said to him, "There's
nothing in your life that can prepare you for this, Mack. You may have run a
Fortune 500 company, you may have owned a number of auto dealerships, and been
a successful businessman, been a politician, state party chairman. Nothing
will prepare you for this except doing it." And that was a very wise
observation. And it's just like anything, any new job. The longer the
president stayed at it, the better he got at it, but nobody can master the
White House in the first 6 months. It is just an impossible task.
In May of '93 the president is trying to sell his economic plan, and a
decision is made to get him out of the White House, and you go along with him
on that trip. Why is it important at this point to get out? Does he want to
get out personally? What's behind this?
He wanted to get out personally. I wanted him to get out. I believe then and
now that his greatest strength was this really deep mystical bond that he had
with ordinary Americans. I used to remind him of the old Greek myth of ... some great force who could only be defeated I think by Hercules picking him off the
ground. When he lost touch with the ground is when he lost his power and was
easily crushed. And I used to say, "That's you. If you're not in touch with
the grass roots, man, you're going to be dead." And so to sell his economic
plan, he pushed it as hard as he could on the Hill, but I thought and he
agreed, that he needed to be out there in the country.
You dealt with [the Whitewater investigation] a little bit as a spin
meister. What was the thinking? I mean, what were you trying to do to get out
on Whitewater when it breaks again?
Well, I'm trying to understand why this became a story again.... My sense of
Clinton and his wife were they were among the least materialistic people I had
ever met. I couldn't imagine them cutting corners to make a buck.... He
seemed supremely disinterested in money, as did his wife. So I never really
thought there was ever going to be very much there.
... It taught me something that I believed then and now -- that from day one,
there was an attempt on the part of a few on the fringe to delegitimize the
Clinton presidency. Dick Armey was the Republican leader in the Congress, and
he stood on the House floor in the first year of Clinton's term and said, "He's
not our president." He pointed to the Democrats, and he said, "He's your
president." ... That was a level of contempt for democracy that I found
startling. I didn't like anything Reagan did, but I never remember a Democrat
saying "Ronald Reagan is not our president." And so I really believed then,
all the way to this day, that there are a small few on the fringe who just
still believe that Clinton's not really president, so therefore, anything they
do to attack him is okay....
The president tried to sell the health care plan to joint session of
Congress. Tell us about writing that speech and what happens. I guess you
guys were up most of the night writing.
Oh, yes, typical Clinton speech fest, where several people had concocted a
bunch of drafts and worked all night and tried to get it just right. With him
the editing process goes all the way till he's on the podium. And he will be
riding in the car going over there with his left hand changing things. George
Stephanopoulos, David Dreyer and I were with him, and I had printed copies of
the speech. David Dreyer had the disk that it was on. So I went over to go
make copies so that the members of Congress could have the printed copy of the
last draft, which was a close approximation. And then Dreyer went and had them
load it into the teleprompter. Unbeknownst to us, the teleprompter operators
needed something to practice with, so that they could make sure that the
screens were at the right height, so they loaded in last year's economic
So the president gets up there, and he looks out at the screen and he sees it
says "William Jefferson Clinton, Address to Joint Session of Congress, A New
Beginning for the American Economy." And he turns to Gore and he says, "Al,
they've got the wrong speech up there." Gore says, "No, no, that's not
possible." So Gore kind of looks down so he can see, and he calls George over
and tells him, and they go through holy hell to try to find the speech.
Afterwards I asked Clinton, "What was going through your mind? I've got to
know." First I went and apologized. I had played a role in that. I was
terribly sorry. I wanted to make sure he knew that I felt responsible for it.
He was utterly forgiving, not at all angry. I said, "What did it feel like?
What was going through your mind?" And he said, "Well, I stood up there, I saw
it was the wrong speech, and I thought, 'Well, Lord, I guess you're testing
me.' Okay, here goes." Now we had given him a backup text, but it was too
small for him to read without his glasses. We had taken his glasses out of his
pocket so there wouldn't be an unsightly bulge for the TV cameras. So the poor
guy is up there alone and naked on the most complex public policy issue, a
fairly complex bill. Worse than that, the teleprompter screens are whizzing
forward and backwards with last year's speech, trying to find it. Finally,
they killed it all together and reloaded it. Nine minutes the guy went without
a note, and no one could tell. It was a phenomenal. It's part of the Clinton
[In 1993 the Clintons were unhappy with their political consultants.]
Because we were not winning in selling our economic plan, and it was everything
to him. Now we had a focus too. By July of '93, he was not the "gays in the
military" president. He had a singular mission. A vote is coming in August,
and here it is the beginning of July, and we don't have our ducks in a row. We
didn't have a good message defined. I don't think we had the right Hill
strategy. I don't think we had anything set in place properly, and he
enunciated that very clearly to us.
So we went to work. McLarty decided that we were going to have a special team
organized in a boiler room that Roger Altman would lead, senior guy from the
Treasury Department, one of the smartest people I know both politically and
economically. And then I was the sort of the Democratic Party guy there, and
Gene Sperling and a whole bunch of other people all took time off from
everything else and worked full time to pass that plan. And it worked.
Sometimes you need that. Sometimes leadership requires, you know, knocking
heads together as well as putting heads together...
[In] August '94 Kenneth Starr takes over. What's the thinking at the White
House when he takes over from Fiske?
Well, I know the thinking at Carville's office, because I was working with him.
Right away he said, "I've met this guy." And I can remember several months
before James coming back from a trip and saying, "You ever heard of a guy named
Ken Starr?" And I said, "Yeah, I've heard of him. He's a respected judge...
Why?" And [Carville] said, "He just came up to me in the airport and said,
"Your guy Clinton is going to go down and he's no good." I was surprised to
hear that. Still I thought he was still a judge. I didn't know he was a
private lawyer by then.
And then Carville never mentioned it again. So when Starr wound up being the
Independent Counsel, James was furious, because he believed that Starr never
did like Clinton, and made that very plain. My recollection is that the White
House told him to lay off and to not do anything about it because they didn't
think that was the sort of proper posture to be in....
What was Clinton thinking at this time [in 1994] when Greenberg comes in and
says, "Mr. President, here are the polls. They don't look good. You could
lose the House and the Senate for the first time in decades."
My recollection is that his reaction was, "We've got to do more. We've got to
campaign harder. We've got to get out there more." I mean, he's a very
proactive person. I don't remember a specific response, but that was the
general sense, "Well, we've got to try harder. We've got to do more. We've
got to push harder."...
What was his mood election day, '94, when Gingrich and the Republican
majority take over?
Pretty somber, pretty reflective, not angry. [He was] trying to begin to
grapple with it, to grope around for "Okay, what do we do now? How do we react
to this? How do we handle this?"...
So what happens there, the president kind of changes political teams after
'94, that's the fallout?
Yeah. And you know, I don't think that was an irrational choice at all. So
then I made my choice. This may not be fair to Dick Morris, by the way, who
I've only met once in my whole life back in 1985. But I just didn't want to
go, frankly, be second banana on somebody else's team. So I decided I'd go
back to Texas, go into the PR business with old friends of mine and teach at
the University of Texas.
And the president couldn't have been nicer or more supportive, wanting me to
stay, wanting me to be part of the team. But you know, just I thought the time
was right for me to get out of Washington and go back to Texas. I think it's
one of the best decisions I ever made....
What brought you back [in August of 1997]?
Bill Clinton. I couldn't tell him no. I had gone in '96 to help prepare him
for the debates. Erskine Bowles had been on the staff and was back in North
Carolina. Clinton had asked Erskine to run the debate prep session. Erskine
called me and asked me to help. Well, I was happy to help. I never stopped
loving Bill Clinton. I don't think he ever stopped loving me. So I went
there, and one of his friends pulled me aside and said, "I think George is
going to leave after the campaign, and I think he wants you to come up and take
his job." And that was in about October of '96. I said, "No way in hell."
Actually, I used stronger language than that. Well, by June of '97 he had
talked me into it, and I was happy to do it.
What did the president say to you?
He said, "You need the excitement, and I need the help." He said, "I want some
people around here who I know and trust who are old friends. You're down there
in Austin, you're having fun, and you're teaching at the university, but that's
not enough excitement for you. I know you, Begala. You need to come back
here. Come do this with me."
And he knew that I wanted to try my hand at adult work -- that is not just
being a party hack anymore but working on the White House staff on serious
matters of policy, to see if I was up to that. So he offered me a chance to do
that, and I took it....
So in '97, what is your main legislative mission in that fall?
Well, what I worked on a lot with John Podesta was trying to repair some of the
relationships with Hill Democrats. I had worked for Dick Gephardt on the Hill,
and I love Dick. I'm still very close to him and a lot of other Democrats. I
had worked on campaigns for Democrats in the Senate, so I had pretty good
relationships there. It was really Podesta who took the lead on this
But once a week, every week, every Friday, we -- John and I, Rahm Emanuel, a
few others, Ann Lewis, we would get in a car and go down to Capitol Hill. We
would meet with the senior staff of the Senate Democratic leaders or the House
Democratic leader, and hash through, "Here's where we stand." Now, that seems
pretty elemental, but my understanding was that relationships had been badly,
That Wednesday morning, [when you read about the Monica Lewinsky
allegations] what happened?
I get up very early. I used to go in at 5:30 or 6:00 so I could run. So I
pick up the newspaper off the front step, and you can imagine. I felt like I
was hit with a two-by-four in the solar plexus. I mean, my stomach was in
knots, I was sick to my stomach. I got in the car, went down to the White
House, went for my usual run, listened to Imus in the Morning tee
off on this, a little taste of things to come. You just buckle your chin
strap, and you think, "Okay, I wonder what this is all about."
And what happened [when you saw the president that day]?
Well, I'm not willing to go into conversations with him, but it's fair
enough to let you know what he said to the American people. "That this all is
not true," is what he said to me, and no other details. His lawyers had told
him he couldn't discuss it at all. I found that very frustrating, but that
seemed to be a pretty absolute rule.
There was a difficulty that arose here between the political folks like
yourself and the lawyers. Why?
Well, it was this horrible hybrid crisis, in part political and in part legal.
And the political people felt like, well, we should be handling this, and the
political response is, of course, put everything out, get out there and get it
behind you, and move on with your life. Well, lawyers are trained in a
different way. They're trained to fight on every count and to reveal as little
as possible, and to protect their client from giving out any information that
could be helpful to a legal adversary, and they're pretty darned irreconcilable
worldviews. At the end of the day, it was more of a legal matter in that there
really was a grand jury looking into it, there really was a special prosecutor
looking into it.
And so you're told even if the president did tell you about this, all it would
do is make you a witness in a legal matter and make it impossible for you to
advise him any more anyway. You'd be there in front of the grand jury. And so
he was never allowed to be candid with his staff....
[When you found out the president had lied about his relationship with
Lewinsky] you made a choice that you weren't going to go on television and
That's right. I didn't feel like I could. He had told me something that had
turned out not to be true. I mean, it's not the first friend who's ever
disappointed me, but it was the first friend that ever disappointed me that I
wound up on national television discussing. So I just thought, "I am not going
to serve his purposes well by going out there and defending him any more on
television," and so I stopped.... I was candid about it. I said, "I don't
feel like I'm in a very good position to defend him."...
Did he ever apologize to you personally?
Yes, but I don't want to get into that. That's too personal, and it's a
private conversation with him. He asked for my forgiveness. I try hard to be
a good Catholic. My faith teaches me that it is my obligation to forgive
someone who asks forgiveness, and so I do. And it does not come easily. I'd
be a better Christian if I told you it was an easy thing. It's a difficult
thing. But yeah, he asked for it, and I've given it....
You were working hard on the speech [the day he testified before the grand
jury], and there was a great tug of war over the kind of tone the president was
going to set.... It's been widely reported that you advocated a more
conciliatory tone. People have said that on the record.
That's been widely reported. Yeah, I mean that's true. I'm no great fan of
how Judge Starr conducted his investigation, but I didn't think that was the
time or the place to lodge those complaints. But I hadn't been through what he
had been through that day, and I gained a lot of perspective on the day they
broadcast that videotape. That changed a lot for me. It gave me a much
greater willingness to forgive, frankly, and a much greater understanding for
what he had been through. In fact, when I watched that tape, it was that day I
decided, you know, I can go and defend him again. I'm starting to understand
how he felt that way...
Was there a point there where you thought this presidency is
Yeah. When he had to call in air strikes, which I was not privy to until the
decision was made. I didn't spend a lot of time on national security the
American people will be glad to know. But when I was told the decision has
been made, and the president's writing a speech, they need you to review the
speech, and he's going to launch air strikes, I thought, "This may be more than
the country can handle. This may be more than the Congress can handle."...
Give us a sense of what those few days were like.
Within the space of one week, in December of '98, the president of the United
States was impeached by the House of Representatives; the putative speaker of
the House of Representatives resigned on national television on the floor of
the House; the president called in air strikes against Saddam Hussein in Iraq;
the president went to the Middle East for some emergency trip to make peace;
Lawton Chiles, the governor of Florida, a dear friend of the president's, who
the president was trying to hire on to the White House staff as a special
ambassador to Latin America, died....
Was there a sense that the president was isolated from others in the staff
[during the Lewinsky matter]?
That whole experience was terribly isolating because there was this enormous
elephant in our living room that you could not talk about except in the most
elliptical ways. You know, Mike McCurry would get 50 questions on it, and the
answers would always be either, "Talk to the president's lawyers about this,"
or "I have nothing to add to what the president has already said." And that's
about all you could say. So most of the time you're actually back on the
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 okay. ... I wanted to make sure that
the people had the sense that Clinton was not focused on this Lewinsky scandal
entirely. [It] obviously was a major preoccupation and an enormous
distraction, but the business of the government goes on. And maybe in an odd
way, the fact that he wasn't able to talk to us about it kept him from
obsessing on it or kept us from obsessing on it. We actually went for long
stretches where we got real work done. ... He passed a major school class size
initiative, a child care initiative, a children's health initiative. He
delivered the biggest budget surplus in American history. He actually clocked
the Republicans on most of the legislative fights that he engaged on. But it
was all overshadowed in the press....
When did you become convinced that he would survive and would not be thrown
I think, you know, once he came clean, and particularly once people saw that
videotape, people said, "Well, okay." It was the worst case scenario, right?
He really had had an affair and he really had lied about it, and yet it was not
a crime, and people, they didn't move an inch. Before the whole Lewinsky thing
started, to the end, Clinton's job approval hadn't moved a point. Not a point,
for how many billions of dollars of negative advertising, comparatively
speaking, free press, [it] didn't move a point. At the beginning, people
[said] "He's a good president, but a flawed man." Even before they heard of
Monica Lewinsky. They finished at the end saying, "He's a damned good
president, but a flawed man." ...
What do you see different about [the president] in this last year or
Oh, he gets occasionally wistful about the time that he's had in the White
House and how wonderful it's been. He is an utterly optimistic person. I
don't think he's bitter at all. I don't get that sense. He gets that from his
mother. My last conversation with his mother was about this topic of
bitterness, and that's what she said to me... She said, "You must never be
bitter. That's the ultimate failure in life is to become bitter." And if she
told me that, I'm sure she told her son that every day of his life.
You say he's been wistful lately.
A little wistful. I mean, I think he misses it, and I've talked to him about
it... He loves the job. He absolutely loves it, and for all that he's been
through, he'd go back and do it again in a heartbeat, absolutely, and he's
going to miss it desperately.
Now, when he gets out of that wistful mode, he's still dominating the
agenda. And this is an astonishing thing. Again, President Reagan was sort of
an amiable presence out at the ranch by the last 6 months of his presidency.
He had no effect on national policy at all. Here is Bill Clinton -- gives an
hour and ten minute long State of the Union address, packed with issues, every
one of which is now dominating the presidential campaign and the congressional
On top of that, he's a fair bet to get nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
again, both for what he's done Ireland and in the Middle East. Since I've left
he's waged and won a war in Kosovo in the teeth of horrific partisan
opposition, the likes we've never seen during wartime. So I think he's been
stunningly successful. So the big notion that somehow this impeachment was a
blot on him, I think that's a bunch of bull. I think that his conduct, his
affair, and his lies [are] a terrible blot on him, but the impeachment is a
blot on the Republicans who pursued it. I don't think any sensible American
believes that impeaching the president is the proper recourse for adultery and
lying. I view that impeachment as a blot on the Republicans, and I view my
role in helping to win that acquittal as one of the most honorable things I've
ever done in my life. Not for someone who had lied to me, but for the
constitution of the country that I love.
I think he will be seen as a stunningly successful president. I think people
today in journalism have no idea. Here's my standard. Did you do what you set
out to do? Did you keep your promises to the American people?
When I traveled around with him in the country, these are the promises he made:
he said, "I'll revive the economy." 22 million jobs later, this is the best
economy in the history of the world, in the history of capitalism, the finest
economic situation any people have ever had. He said, "I'll reduce the deficit
by half." I thought that was a little optimistic over-promising in the
campaign. He's more than reduced it. He's now going to pay down the national
debt if the Republicans don't squander it away in a tax cut.
He said, "I'll end welfare as we know it." Mission accomplished. He said,
"I'll put 100,000 cops on the street and cut crime." The lowest crime rate in
30 years. He said, "I'll expand trade and be a new kind of Democrat, passing a
free trade deal with Mexico and then later with China."
Mission accomplished on every critical juncture, except health care, where he
promised national health insurance. But he did deliver on that [with] the
Kennedy-Kassebaum Bill, which lets you take your health insurance with you,
that keeps you from being denied for a pre-existing condition. He passed and
signed the Kennedy-Jeffords Bill, which helps disabled people get health care.
He passed a children's health initiative that insures 5 million poor
What did he promise? What did he set out to do in the most grandiose
over-promising campaign you ever saw? And what has he delivered now, 8 years
hence? I tell you, it's the most successful presidency since FDR, maybe LBJ if
he hadn't had Vietnam, but if you look at what the man set out to do and what
he accomplished, stack him up against anybody....