the clinton years

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interview: james carville

photo of james carville

A political consultant, he ran Clinton's 1992 campaign. He and George Stephanopoulos formed the War Room to respond aggressively to the 'incoming' that hit the campaign. Carville did not take a position in Clinton's administration, but continued to act as an informal political advisor. He co-authored with his wife, Mary Matalin, a 1994 book, All's Fair: Love, War, and Running for President.

Interview conducted June, 2000 by Chris Bury

What do you remember about your very first meeting with Bill Clinton?

The first time we met was in the summer of 1991. . . We were involved in the Senator Harris Wofford race at the time. And basically, we had a pleasant talk. He was kind of what you would think--a very engaging, smart, warm guy.

In his book, George Stephanopoulos says that the two of you were trying to "out-southern" each other. Do you remember that?

The second time we met . . . it was like telling southern war stories. We're roughly the same age. What you'd say in southern terms is that we were just gee-hawing . . . Southern white guys, who were kind of Democrats, who had kind of a different view of civil rights and that kind of stuff. . . . There were only a few of us in our generation.

The two of you were just acting like good ol' boys?

Yes, you know, talking about Mama and that kind of stuff that southern guys talk about.

You go to work for Bill Clinton in 1992. You set up the campaign in Little Rock, and you set up the War Room. What is your mission at that point?

I went to work for President Clinton on December 1, 1991. And we didn't set up the War Room until sometime probably early July. So, at first, our goal was to survive. December went fine. New York Governor Mario Cuomo had decided not to run, and we were 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." We had the Gennifer Flowers thing, and the draft.

We wanted to be sure that we got in the middle of everything and were capable of... not just responding, but also of initiating the attacks.Then there was the New Hampshire primary was at the beginning of February.

. . . Frankly, the night before, we were not that optimistic about doing very well. So then we had to go through the entire primary process, which was pretty doggone tough. Think about it--as late as May, there was a front-page story in The New York Times saying that maybe we'd be broke at the convention. . . . There was real concern in the party that we would not break 25, which would mean that the party couldn't qualify for federal funds in the 1996 election. So, between the time I started to work for the president and when we set up the War Room -- those were kind of the glory days, but there was a lot of angst.

. . . In January, the governor has begun the campaign. The first real crisis is the Gennifer Flowers crisis. What do you remember about how that broke?

George Stephanopoulos called me. It was early in the morning and he said, "Why don't you meet us? Why don't you come to the airport? The governor wants you to come . . . thinks that something's going to break today about some woman." And I said, "Aw, shit, every day something's going to break about some woman." You know what I mean? I was not at all fired up about getting on a plane in January. And he said, "I think you'd better come."

So I went. As the incoming started coming, they were out campaigning. I was in between. They were trying to tell Mrs. Clinton, who was in Georgia at the time, that the story was going to break. . . . From then until the primary, the dominant memory I have is fatigue--just being so tired and not sleeping. And the story broke, and of course they had the sort of press conference, the Gennifer Flowers press conference and the stuttering John thing. . . .

Right after that, we went on a tour down south. . . . My dominant memory in all of that is being tired. We had an event in Boston, Massachusetts. . . . I know what it feels like if you're at a soccer game and you lose control. The media throng there was so intense that I got pinned. Maybe it was three seconds; I don't want to exaggerate it. But I didn't have any control. I thought I was going to be crushed. I was just sort of lifted off my feet. There was this radio guy with a little tape recorder and a mike, and he was screaming and he was crawling over the top of the crowd. And I was sitting there, and my arms were pinned, and I couldn't move my legs. Like I said, for two or three seconds, I panicked that it was out of control--that I wasn't just going to lose the election, but I was going to lose my life--as they say, I was going to be "taking a dirt nap" pretty soon.

The day that Mandy Grunwald went on Nightline, you had a strategy session. What was the strategy?

I equate [a Clinton tirade] to an afternoon thunderstorm. There's a lot of
thunder and lightning, and then it's gone, and the sun is shining again.I think the "cash for trash," was the sort of main thing. . . .

Who came up with the phrase "cash for trash?"

I wish I could say it was me, but I honestly don't know.

In your book, you said it actually was Bill Clinton.

Okay, then it was. . . . The book supercedes my memory.

What was the strategy, and who came up with it?

The strategy was to say that there was a lot of money that was passing hands here. It was all odd that this was coming up around 10 days before the election. The strategy was pretty obvious, and I think the strategy worked pretty good.

You were going to hit the press on Gennifer Flowers' motives.

Yes, and I think it worked.

When Mandy went on Nightline that night and you all were watching, what was the reaction in the campaign?

"Attagirl! Way to go!" It was good. We had pretty good points to make, and people really resent it. At one event in New Hampshire, someone there asked the question, and it was actually a journalist who sort of posed--they didn't identify themselves -- and there was a time when I thought the crowd could have turned physical.

Against the reporter?

Yes, against the reporter. If you did focus groups, if you did events, if you did anything, there was a real backlash to the whole thing

When Governor and Mrs. Clinton went on 60 Minutes, you had prepared an extensive memo for that interview. What were you trying to accomplish?

In that environment, if you let the story take its own course, it was going to be bad for you. You had to get in the middle of the story. Governor Clinton, myself, and most of the people in the campaign all shared this one thing -- we were not just going to let people do what they wanted to do. If they were going to give us a chance to get on there, by God, we were going to get on there. We were going to get in the middle of it. There's a lot of times when people have a strategy to say, "We're just not going to participate in that sort of witch hunt here," or something like that. That doesn't work for very long in presidential races in the United States.

You have to fight back.

You've got to fight back. Yes, sir. And our strategy from day one was to contest it at every point, and to have them out there... The best person to explain what happened ... was then-Governor Clinton and Mrs. Clinton. And that's why we did the 60 Minutes thing, because it was the biggest deal out there. You had to show that you were out there, taking it on.

Why did you advise the president that the best thing he had going for him in that interview was Mrs. Clinton?

Because if the wife, in all of these things, is standing. . . You know what I mean? Remember the famous "This is not some kind of Tammy Wynette thing here?" But in the end . . . people overwhelmingly say "Look, that's his wife, they're fine. . . . Throughout his presidency, she's been the person who's meant the most to him and his job." You could say he's done a little better than survive, and that she has been most of his political prosperity. But clearly, had he gone on without her, it would have been a big gap. If she wouldn't go, my advice to him would be, "Don't you go on the 60 Minutes show." No her, no go.

Throughout that part of the campaign, there was a sense that this guy is lurching from crisis to crisis -- that he lives on the edge.

(Laughs) It sure felt that way. We had an interesting thing. When the draft story hit . . . we made a disastrous decision to go back to Arkansas. . . . I was up for just staying there in Boston if we had to, but don't just let the story go without us being in it. But we made that decision to go back to Arkansas, and we let the story take its course over a few days. And we had really bad results as a result of that. It was a really big mistake that we made.

. . . George comes in, finds out about the letter, and he's shaken. But you see something in the letter that might work.

We dropped 17 points in the polls. We had a collapse. About nine or ten of us . . . flew to New Hampshire. And we say "Look, we gotta have the best week we've ever had in our life to survive this thing. No mistakes." And I remember talking to Governor Clinton and saying, "All of your life has been in preparation for this week. You gotta perform like whatever."

The plane lands, and there's ABC News correspondent Jim Wooten, and he had that look on him and he says, "You gotta look at this." . . . I took the thing and I read it and I said, "You gotta publish this. You gotta really want to talk about this. Publish it, get out front, and people are going to understand it."

I was the same age, remember, and I served in the Marines during the Vietnam War. I was actually one of the few people who was very fortunate to serve during the conflict, but did not serve in Vietnam. But I knew people who did everything they could to get out of the draft. I knew what it was. And I said, "If anybody who is 21 or 22 years old could write a letter like this, you could almost see a future president there." So we took the letter, published it in the newspaper, and we get a Nightline date. . . And Nightline did an interesting thing. They read the whole letter. It was not a short letter; it must have taken ten minutes. Then he did the interview. . . . I think we took more good out of that letter than the letter took bad from us. In a way, the letter was a net plus. And we needed that, because we needed to bounce back a little bit in that final week.

The other part of your strategy . . . was to blame the Republicans. You said that the Republicans had pilfered this letter out of the Pentagon -- which turned out not to be true.

At the time I thought it was true (laughs).

All's fair, right?

. . . An impeccable source told me that they had the sense that it had come from someone connected. . . . In retrospect, as a tactic, I don't think it was particularly effective one way or another. . . .

You write in your book that, on the morning of January 26, you woke up in the middle of the night sobbing uncontrollably. Why?

That was the morning of the 60 Minutes interview. I was 40 at the time. I'm 47 years old. I had reached almost the pinnacle of my career in political consulting. I was a guy that mattered in a presidential campaign. I had been sleeping on floors and running statewide campaigns -- and it came down to the sex interview being the biggest event in the campaign. . . . And I didn't know which way it was going to go. I was tired and I was scared. I was scared for the people I was working with, and I was scared for myself. . . . It was fatigue, it was fear, and it was like, God, is this what I've worked all of this for? Did I come this far to get to this? So I just kind of lost it; I just got emotional (laughs).

You talked about the "SMO" -- the Standard Morning Outburst. What is the SMO, and how did you deal with it?

In a presidential campaign, a lot of decisions are made on the spot. The candidate is on the road, and there's a whole infrastructure out there also. . . .

President Clinton is not a morning person. . . . So we generally had to wake him up to start the day. . . . We'd wake him with polling information and things like that. He'd often complain in a graphic way about a lot of different stuff, and then he'd be finished. It didn't last. He's capable of outbursts, but he doesn't hold it very long. . . .

What's it like to be on the other end of a Governor Clinton tirade?

. . . I equate it to an afternoon thunderstorm: it moves through, there's a lot of thunder and lightning, and then it's gone, and the sun is shining again. Also, he never had a tirade on big things. He had a sense when we had to buckle down. . .

So you've survived the primaries, and now you're running the War Room. What's the mission of the War Room?

. . . I think the Democrats were seared by the Dukakis loss in 1988. We wanted to be sure that we got in the middle of everything, were capable of responding, and also able to initiate attacks and that type of stuff. We also thought that news cycles had become incredibly compressed -- things happen in modern American presidential campaigns almost in real time. . . . The "War Room" was the apparatus we set up to react quickly, and to make decisions quickly. The idea was to have momentum to do things. . . .

. . . In presidential campaign, everything outside of the paid TV literally happens between 10:30 and 2:30 Eastern Time. That's when the editors and all decide what's going to be on the nightly news, and in tomorrow's newspaper. Unless something really big breaks, by 2:30, eighty-five percent of the decisions are made about their coverage.

. . . So my objective was that we knew what we were going to do at 9:30, Little Rock time, which is 10:30 Eastern time. My whole premise was that you have a four-hour window. Those four hours matter way more than any other four hours. You gave a memorable speech right on the eve of the election, in front of all these really young green people. What were you trying to do there?

. . . There's an old saying that "God protects drunks and fools," and I always figured that I have a double, double insurance policy. But what I was trying to say was "We've been through a lot, you've done a lot, you're lucky, and I'm happy for you." I'm a political guy. I had no interest in going to the government. Political campaigns are in my bones. It's what I know how to do. It's in my blood.

A few hours before the election, when the governor was sure he was going to win, Ted Koppel interviewed the Clintons. In that interview, Mr. Clinton says, " I'm going to keep this zone of privacy, even as president." Was that a naïve view at the time?

Frankly and honestly, yes. When you run for president, and become president, they just rip you apart. Every facade of privacy that you have is gone. I think everybody believes that, to some extent, you can maintain privacy. And I think in the end, everybody gets proven wrong. . . .

She was distraught. She said that things were dark. . . . And she said, "I don't know how we are going to get through this. Can you help me?" And I said, "Damn right I can help you." And then they start . . . railroading the whole thing. It was just another railroad job, over nothing more than a grown man acting stupid with a young woman and not wanting nobody to find out about it.

Investigating everything, FBI agents all over the place, squeezing people. You know something that has never been pointed out? In the last 78 indictments that Ken Starr handed down, he never got one conviction. Not one. Zero for 78.

. . . They were mustering people to vote for impeachment like it was going out of style. They politicized this thing to no end. They wanted to make it political? Fine. I'd be glad to jump in to a political fight with them. . . . This thing will never ever go away from me. Never, ever. This is one of the great injustices that has ever taken place. And I wasn't coy about it. I didn't try to hide it or anything else. I wrote a whole book about it.

Read the Independent Counsel's report.

On the day of the Senate acquittal, you said, "I did what I was asked to do."

Mrs. Clinton had said, "Can you help us?" And on August 17, I did what I thought was the right thing. Nobody tried to push me into this. This was not a manipulative thing. This is something that is part of me. I'll be very clear and sort of blunt here. I think that what the independent counsel, what the Republicans, what the national media did to the president is one of the great travesties and injustices. I believe that. . . . I think this whole thing was just ridiculous. . . . I knew what I thought about it, and my views have remained remarkably consistent.

A lot of people on the staff have now said that they were upset at the president because they were lied to.

Yes. I understand. Look, I wish he wouldn't have done it. It was a silly, stupid thing to do to fool around with a young woman like that, okay? But I am not going to abandon a guy over something like this. No way. Some people who I respect have a different opinion. But he was entitled to a defense. I was glad to give him one.

Since those days, the president seems to be in a much better mood.

I don't blame him.

How would you characterize what the president has been like since the impeachment chapter ended? How did it change Bill Clinton?

. . . He's glad he's glad it's over. Obviously, he's a lot more at ease. He's a lot more relaxed than he was. The phone calls during that time were tense. . . . The Republicans just hated Clinton so much. They were just blinded by hate.

How frightened were you that this administration was going to be over?

We were fighting like hell, but . . . I was worried, worried sick, and it wasn't just me. Damn right. And you knew I was in the fight. . . . Looking back, I don't know how rational it was. Public support remained pretty steady. But at the time, I was very scared. Personally, I was very scared for the president, and very scared for me. I was very afraid that there'd be a delegation of congressional Democrats and moderate Republicans coming down to the White House . . . and telling the president that it's all over. And quite candidly, I was not alone in that fear.

Did the president worry about that? How about Mrs. Clinton?

He never told me, but I am sure he did. I would be stunned if he didn't. She never told me, but I'd be stunned if she didn't. It's the kind of thing you just didn't bring up.

You walked right to the edge of the precipice?

Yes, I took a look down. I didn't like what I saw. . . . Now, there's some validity that the president can pick his issues pretty well, but I guess you can't pick your enemies. But he's lucky to have some of the enemies that he has. Some of them were colossally stupid in this. And the public just never supported the remedy. In the end, that was the main thing we had going for us.

Since the impeachment ended, one of the biggest political stories has been Mrs. Clinton running for the Senate. Did that surprise you or did you expect that?

I guess I was a little surprised. I knew that she would stay involved in politics in some kind of way. I suspect that Mrs. Clinton could have millions of dollars before she left the White House. She'd been the most sought-after person on the speaking circuit. God knows what she would have gotten for a book or how many boards she could have sat on, etc., etc.

She has always been enormously interested in public policy. . . . When she told me about this, I told her that I'd do anything I could to help her. If it was me, I would not have done that. I would run for nothing but the state line. . . .

What does the president think about it?

. . . He's interested in it. He's trying to be as helpful as he possibly can. He's very interested, very supportive. . . .

How do you think Bill Clinton looks upon this period in his presidency?

. . .I enjoy him more now. He's a lot more relaxed. He's enjoying himself. And look, he likes politics. There's no question about this. He's into the Senate race. . . . There have been very eventful and tough times. It's like boot camp. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, but I wouldn't go through it again either. . . . I saw a lot of history and I had a chance to participate in a bit of it. . . . It's been amazing. . . .

What is Bill Clinton's legacy?

His positive legacy is that facets of American life are better today than when he took office. You can point to any number of specific things that he did to help that. . . . I would much rather live in the country we have in 2000 than the country we had in 1992. On the negative side, he's a good man who has done a bad thing. He's paid dearly for a mistake he made in the whole Lewinsky thing. On the whole, it has been a hell of an eight years. . . . I think history's going to be very kind to him, when you look at what was accomplished around the world and in the way the United States is viewed.

There's never been a better time to be in America. On the whole, I feel good about things. I wish I'd done a few things differently myself. I wish he'd done a few things differently. But you never get everything you want in life. And it's been an incredible ride. I thank the Lord and I thank Bill Clinton every day for letting me ride in the car with him.

In your very first thinking about Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, the team, what was it that impressed you or drew you?

. . . President Clinton is a lot smarter than you've even heard. He's built to digest things quickly and spit them out. . . .

So it was his innate political intelligence and intuition?

Right. And they just have a lot of chemistry. You had the sense that these were really extraordinary people and extraordinary talented. . . . He could change the chemistry in a room. He could walk into a room of a hundred people and immediately have the sense of each person. . . . It's an instinctive thing. I can't explain it. I've just seen it happen again and again and again. And both of them always ask the right question. . . . He could really focus and get things done.

When he was elected in 1992, what was going through your mind?

. . . I started to have a sense of how much my life was going to change. And in a way, I was naïve about just how much it would change. . . . I'd had failures, and here I was at the pinnacle of my chosen profession. And I was just so happy. I had no idea what lay ahead. . . . People will very often come up to me and say, "I knew you before you were James Carville." I didn't become James Carville until I was 48 years old (laughs). And that's the best way that I can put it. In 1992, I felt an enormous sense of being able to go home with my head up, and no one is going to say I'm a failure. . . .

So many of the staff who worked to get Bill Clinton elected were young people. What did that mean to you, and what did you think as you won?

I felt so good for them, to have something like this happen to you so young in life. Most of the 1992 people have really remained very close to each other over a period of time. The number of young people we had in the campaign was a function of a lot of different things. I think it was a function of Clinton, the candidate, who was something different and new, and the Republicans had been in power for 12 years.

Doing a presidential campaign is something that takes a special kind of person at a special time in their life to do this. I couldn't do it right now. I was 48 on election night. . . . All that I'd ever wanted to do was be a successful political consultant. It was my searing thing. I felt this enormous sense of professional relief that I could go home and not be a failure. . . .

There's been a lot of good times, and a lot of successes. . . . A high point for me was when the president and first lady gave a party when I got married in the White House, and let us invite anybody we wanted. How many people get married and have a party thrown for them in the White House? . . . My anger about investigations is genuine, but there's been a lot of good times. . . . We certainly did have our share of crises.

Were there so many crises because it's part of how Bill Clinton is as a human being?

A lot of the stuff that he did was he was pushing -- the gay thing in the military or the health care thing, or the crime bill -- it was him pushing. That's one set of things. The other big crisis was the Lewinsky thing. I can't defend what he did. I can certainly defend to put it into perspective.

But is there a sense of danger about the man, Bill Clinton?

People say that. Obviously there must be some sense of danger. . . . My daddy gave me a good piece of advice -- that all these things are much easier to get into than they are to get out of. So my advice to people would be, "You got an exit strategy?" Or else don't do it in the first place.

. . . Bill Clinton is a person who causes a lot of passion both ways about people, and there's certainly a lot of turmoil if you look back at the eight years. But there was a lot of good, too. I understand that it's necessary to talk about the turmoil. But as a result of his risk-taking and him pushing things, we do have a lot of things that are better in America. You can talk about the Lewinsky thing, and failure of health care, but you also have to talk about lower crime rates, lower deficits, higher employment, and a lot of foreign policy successes. . . .

I would certainly say that he's learned a lot from both his personal and policy mistakes. . . . He's a bright man. He's an energetic person. He's got a real activist streak about him and he pushes ahead. The only person that ever stumbles is a guy moving forward. You don't stumble backwards; you stumble forward, and you never stumble when you're stationary. So don't worry about stumbling. Keep pushing it forward. And that's pretty much the way I feel about it. That's it.



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