the clinton years

homekey chaptersinterviewsanecdotesphoto gallery


interview: rahm emanuel

photo of rahm emanuel

After raising a record $70 million as finance director for Clinton's 1992 campaign, he planned the inauguration and went on to serve as political director, then senior advisor, at the White House. He left the White House in October 1998.

Interview conducted June, 2000 by Chris Bury

You joined the campaign in fall of '91. What was it about Clinton that made you decide to work for him?

He was espousing a new Democratic philosophy. I had worked for Mayor Daley at that point, Ed Rendell, mayor in Philadelphia, Mayor Bob Lanier in Houston -- all campaigns and clients of mine. I believe that the proper shift of the party...was offering a new Democratic philosophy. One that was more focused, willing to bring the values agenda into the party, not being hesitant about that issue. A more centrist area on the economic front...

Your job was to raise money. What was like that in the early months of the campaign?

Well, I would describe it as probably a start-up in today's terms. [The governor] had a lot of connections and a lot of people that he knew through Georgetown, Yale, Oxford, through the National Party Governors. And we tried to create something that had not really been. All the pieces were there but nobody had assembled the pieces... [He was an] unknown governor. A few people knew about what he had, what he was doing, that he was a new voice, a more centrist voice.

Remember, early on until part of December there was still the Cuomo cloud that hung over, that he was going to enter the field. You had two senators. One was Bob Kerrey, and his past, specifically his biography as it related to Vietnam, was kind of the new face of the party. You also had Senator Harkin in there and former Senator Tsongas. So that combination. I remember my father, when I said I was going down to Little Rock to work for Governor Clinton's run for president, he thought maybe somebody needed to check the medication cabinet. He thought somebody was playing around with it. He had never heard of him he said. I said, "Well, I think he's going to be the next President of the United States."...

[The Gennifer Flowers scandal] must have worried you a little bit.

Of course it worried me. I mean, it would worry anybody in addition to fundraising. You have a burden going into any campaign when you're raising money to fund that effort because there's always a desire to spend more money than you have. Then you have this added burden because people remember other presidential campaigns being knocked out for other information that sidetracked their candidates. You had this hit come upon you. It absorbs a tremendous amount of time. You haven't established your identity.... I felt in the fundraising area you became somewhat of the barometer of whether you can sustain....

George Stephanopoulos writes that you came to the realization after Flowers broke that sometimes the candidate can be your own worst enemy.

 The '94 government shutdown  was all built on the political calculation that
Newt thought the guy was going to fold. And he didn't...Yes, the candidate can be your own worst enemy. Yet he is your only asset to get out of that situation. ... There's a heads and tails to that coin. There's one realization, and there's also another, so they're not mutually exclusive. And I think everybody agrees that President Clinton was at that point both the person that [created] this situation. On the other hand he's the person that is quite capable of leading the campaign out of it, as proven correctly....

Let me also say this, every one of us -- at least I know this for David and myself -- we had heard stories about the candidate when we moved down there. So we were quite aware of what we were getting into.... We all went in with our eyes open....

A lot of people have written that [Hillary] was sort of Clinton's organizational side, that she was much more organized and a better sense of that than the candidate did.

...She does think in a more linear fashion. But she was very important to him in the sense of being his partner in how they thought about the campaign and what issues were important, et cetera. She was determined to make sure the campaign was focused....

Give us a sense of the flavor of the war room. What was it like working in there?

There was an intense kind of kinetic energy that circled around James [Carville] and George [Stephanopoulos] and Stan [Greenberg] in a sense of there [were] two center forces. One is clearly the airplane where the candidate is and the apparatus built around the campaign. And then the kind of strategic nerve center of the campaign has all the information coming in and attempt[s] to make single piece of information going out. ... Stan, James, Paulie, myself, Wilhelm, George, Mandy, we all had known each other in one way or another through campaigns we had all worked on, the national Democratic Party. And none of us had clearly risen to the level we were at [on] a presidential campaign. And yet, there was a simpatico of mind and strategy. And it was an amazing quick link with the candidate.

Outside of James you were really a bunch of kids?

... Yes, we were all a bunch of kids. ... No, we had never done a presidential [campaign] and that's a fair criticism. But not many candidates have done a presidential. And, yes, we were young. But I think we all had a very good familiarity with each other. We were comfortable with our roles. And we had a strategic coherence with the candidate, which is essential. And I think that is what served the team as well as the candidate and the campaign well....

What was your first inkling that you might win in '92?

..I think when the electoral map went up on ABC. But not until election night. You can think it inside, but you don't [want to] act it out. Clearly I felt different post-convention and post the set of debates we had. You feel better, but you never let your foot off the gas pedal.

What do you remember about election night? What was going through your mind?

...I had worked in politics at that point 12 or 10 years. I thought, you know, I always wanted to do a presidential. I finally got a chance to do a presidential campaign, do it at a senior level and do it with a candidate I believe in ... and who I believe would do something great for this country. And I thought it was a great amount of hope and opportunity. I felt exhilarated. And given my dad thought I was crazy for moving down, it was probably the first call I made the next morning....

What was your first impression of Bill Clinton as president? Did things change? Did your relationship with him change? Did he seem different to you?

Well, whether he does or doesn't, you treat him different. I think it's Theodore White's book that mentions the fact that the moment somebody's a president and you call him "Mr. President," [the person represents] our culture, our history, our sense as our nation. ... You clearly inevitably think different about them and you respond to them differently. They are no longer "governor." It's "Mr. President." And if anybody for any minute doesn't think that that changes, I don't think they're being honest with you.

After the inauguration there's a lot on this man's plate. He had a very ambitious campaign. Expectations were high. Stakes were high. What was he like there facing all these things that he wanted to do in those first few years?

Through this presidency, even from the announcement, there was always <br>
a sense of headwind.As intense as he was through the seven years I worked with him in the White House. Everything, you know, everything was a priority, most specifically the economic plan, but moving on the agenda and hitting the ground running. So, there was an intensity to the campaign. ... Your most important time at the presidency is your first 18 months....

I remember our first meeting on a Saturday inside the Roosevelt room. I was trying to decide whether you could wear blue jeans to the White House or you had to be dressed up. And I remember the parade going by. I'm back at the White House while the president is watching the parade and I run into Bob Rubin who is looking to find his office, et cetera. [It's as if] somebody flicks the microphone on and it's on volume 10, and it's on volume 10 the rest of your time. You can't cough, you can't breathe, you can't think out loud because the microphone is on. And you have a full agenda. You have a lot of promises you want to keep, and all of them are priorities. There's no doubt everybody from the campaign believed that the economic plan was essential to the presidency. And that was the priority....

When it comes to appointing the attorney general there is a sense that the attorney general should be a woman. Zoe Baird is the name that comes up. What happens with that nomination?

...I think that in a vetting process and in some of the other issues that come up the political team that handled the campaign were at points excluded or not included for some very legitimate reasons in very important decisions. ... Ultimately decisions have a political impact.

Are you saying that the Zoe Baird [situation] was mishandled because the political team didn't--

I'm not sure. Look, hindsight is more than part of it so we get to say that if the political people were more integral to some of this, we wouldn't have that problem. And I think there are a series of decisions early on where the non-political people are making them without the full impact that we later on in the administration get, which is an integration between policy and politics that is essential to any success.

Well, who is making the Zoe Baird [decision]?

I think that at this point it's coming out of the White House counsel's office. It does have a vetting process, people responsible for it. But ...we somewhat had a divided rather than integrated [approach]. But that's part of any new administration. You're just kind of learning that process. And there's that mistake. And it was a costly mistake....

There were a couple of things in those early weeks that set a tone. I think you might agree. Most people who worked in the White House sort of said this already, on the record. The other issue, of course, in that first week is gays in the military.

...It became a priority. It became a dominant part of our first days of our administration. It should not have been. It was mishandled. On the other hand, it is what it is, and that's governing. My point is [the media] brought it up. We didn't bring it up. It was a question he got asked at a press conference. He answered it. And then it became our priority. ...

What did that do to the footing of this new administration?

It totally threw it off. If you're trying to keep a rhythm and a tempo, it totally threw it off. There's no doubt about it. And it was costly. ... And we had to end up doing it.

...We were trying to [build] a coalition about respecting everybody's priorities. Specifically within the gay community, even in the campaign it wasn't a priority. And the president was the first candidate [who] openly advocated bringing gay Americans into the overall nation and making them feel part of this country, rather than excluded...

There is a sense in Congress, and a lot of people have spoken and written about it, that this new president and his White House staff can be rolled. They're going to cave in to whatever constituency is pressing them at the time. What is your thought about that? Did this administration cave in too easily because it had made a lot of promises in those early days?

You know, politics is about mending and tacking and so on, and setting your priorities. We were a very determined administration. We made a lot of compromises to get NAFTA passed and a lot of deals to get NAFTA passed. Did we cave in or not? We got it done. I don't think so.

Did we make changes in his overall economic plan? Yeah. That's the art of sausage baking. That's what passing legislation is about. Did the principles of his deficit reduction plan get passed and priorities both on where you were going to spend money get changed within the government? Yeah. ... Did it change from the beginning? Yeah. Did we make compromises along the way? Darn right. Do them again. But did the ball get across the end zone line? Did a budget get passed according to plan? Did NAFTA get passed according to plan? Did money get shifted to education according to plan? Did we pass a crime bill according to plan? Did we institute six new education programs that had never been on the books according to plan? Yes. Did the basic written legislation change? Yeah. But did the ball get across the goal line? Yup.

What was the argument like early in the administration between those on the economic team who favored deficit reduction and the others who many of your colleagues in the political team who thought this president had made specific social promises that [deserved] to pass?

...I think one of the mistakes we made in selling the economic plan, there's no doubt about it, is part of the political staff was not comfortable totally with the deficit package as the dominant priority. We wanted to make it an investment package and there were clearly investments in there. But you couldn't vote the deficit and investment. Later on, I think we figured out how to make the two work together thematically. Early on, to tell you the truth, we failed at it. There's no doubt about it and the political team failed in making that calculation....

But wasn't there a fundamental disagreement between whether deficit reduction ought to come first or--

There's no doubt it. And I think we gave both for the economy and for political purposes bad advice. And I think it was costly. Because I think, to tell you the truth, the success later on in the presidency, post-'94, is the ability that we were no longer going to have these kind of open running debates. We were going to pick a strategy and all stick to it....

Hillary Clinton, when she becomes first lady moves into the West Wing. Her chief of staff has an office in the West Wing. Neither of these things had ever been done before in the White House. What message did that send to?

That she's going to be an influential player in the administration. I think that's [how] the press read it. That's how we read it.... I mean, I don't think there's any ambiguity in there.

Was the staff frightened of her?

You know, she's a very vocal clear. There's very little times that you leave a conversation not sure where she stands on something. So she's a forceful person....

A number of people have written that when you went into a conversation with Hillary, you'd better be prepared. What did that mean?

You had to have your argument down. And if you weren't succinct or had thought through -- I mean, there's two sides to this. If you were kind of just mealy mouthed, she didn't respect you. And if you went in forceful but had not thought through, she didn't respect you. And she respected people even if she disagreed with them. But you better be good at it and you better know what you're talking about. That's not an unhelpful attribute in my view. That's no different than how the president was. He liked good intellectual hard hitting debate.

...What was it like being on the other end of it when the president was mad at you?

It took its toll. ... It was not a lingering resentment or anything like that. But it can be quite intimidating. And as I'm sure James [Carville] would tell you, when he would burst out at you and things weren't working right, it kept you on your toes....

Around the end of '94, before the elections, the president is getting really concerned. And he starts conferring with Dick Morris sort of on the QT. What's your reaction when you find out that this fellow from the governor's past is now becoming a prominent political adviser?

You know, I did not know Dick Morris and I didn't know anything about Dick Morris. So I didn't have the reaction that other people had. My bigger problem was ... we had messed up the politics.... You cannot separate the politics in a process. We had not managed our politics very well. And I think the president knew that....

[The president] has a tenaciousness about him and an unbelievable determination. So I think he was taking a sounding at that point before he was going to charge ahead again. And that's what he's clearly doing. He was talking to George. He was clearly talking to Dick Morris. He's asking my views. He's asking James' views. I think he was talking to his friends on the Hill and colleagues that he wanted to hear from people around the country. And he was running through the political processes. And he and the vice president were figuring things out. And we knew we had a big problem on our hands and we had to figure it out at that point.

He [holds] a news conference where he says, "I'm still relevant." What was your take there?

Just one of those many moments where you feel you know that it was not the best choice of words and there's a just a big twist in your stomach and that we were going to have something to deal with for a while here.

You say it wasn't the choice of words but did it reflect a certain reality or a certain desperation. Here's the President of the United States saying he's still relevant?

I don't remember him mulling about this at that point. I think he was answering a question. At that point you're dealing with the early stages of the Gingrich revolution in Congress. And Gingrich is pretending to present himself as the new prime minister. And you all were all talking about, writing and reporting that it was a shift of power. And I think he was doing too much education to a reporter about the separation of powers in our, as embedded in our constitution. Using the choice of words that"I'm still relevant" reflected a weakness. And the Chief Executive ultimately is a position about strength, not about weakness. ...September '93 you had this historic meeting between Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Arafat. Stephanopoulos writes in his book about a scene in which you are actually sitting around in blue jeans practicing the handshake before the handshake. Tell us about that.

We had 48 to about 72 hours to plan this historic moment. We pulled up all the tapes [and research files] on Camp David, organized the event, because you have the foreign ministers, the heads of states, who would walk in, et cetera. We had it all down. And the handshake is a very important moment, because in the history of Camp David, as Carter leans to Sadat and Begin and does his handshake, they put their hands together, which was a symbol that I think came out of those two weeks leading up to Camp David.

We don't have those two weeks. This is a moment that's literally thrown on the world out of Oslo. And so we had thought it would be wrong to imitate that handshake because Oslo and Camp David were not the same, number one. Number two, then you're just imitating and then you would get questioned on the imitating. And we knew also that picture would be a picture of memory. And prior to this Rabin and Arafat had not met unlike Begin and Sadat. So I proposed when we were meeting that we needed to come up with a handshake that reflected the spirit of the moment as well as the president's intentions.

And then someone jokingly said, "Well, Rahm, why don't you play Arafat." ... And John Podesta played Rabin at that point. And so we kind of shook hands and we were trying to figure out how the president did it. And so what we decided was the president first do Rabin. He would do Arafat. And rather than turn from one to the next the right thing for him to do is to lead the introduction, since they had not met prior to that literally two minutes in the depth room before they walk out on the red carpet.

And so what he wanted to do was introduce them introducing themselves to the world. And that's why he ends up standing back with his hands grasped. And you can see the fingertips beyond the two bodies. And so that was the role and the moment we were looking for.

It became its own handshake. And the reason it was powerful was that it didn't try to imitate Camp David. It used the precedent of Camp David, but it gave its own real meaning and reflected the truth of that moment, which was they had not met each other. And the president was going to introduce them to each other as representatives of the two respective peoples and publics. And I think that's why that picture stands the test of time, because the picture is honest to the moment.

They were actually asked to shake hands before.

Yeah. I think [Rabin] intellectually knew what he was doing was the right thing. I think he was physically uncomfortable [and] it reflected also the ambiguous feeling of the Israeli public. So he could reflect both their intellectual as well as their physical reactions, which were quite contradictory. And I think that's what made him a strong leader at that point. And he was asked before [to shake hands] and he said no. But when the president stood back, it could have failed because if Rabin said, "No, I'm not doing this," or Arafat said, "No, I'm not doing this," that moment would have collapsed of its own weight. And it could have collapsed of its own weight and it could have succeeded of its own effort. And because they did reach to each other, it worked. And it reflected they were meeting each other and that we were embarking on something new. And that's why I think that moment captured the truth of what was happening....

What were you thoughts at that moment? And the reason I'm asking you is, George writes that at this moment he thought it was the single most inspiring thing that he had been part of.

I told people not to clap or high five because there will be a lot of people in the audience who, as we clearly know, will have ambivalent feelings. And that if this just looked like a political event or felt like one -- and I think to everybody's credit, this was something beyond that. And to this day, I feel tremendous appreciation for the president to allow me to be a small role and part in that process....

Later that year the big fight is about whether or not to have a balanced budget. And this is something that the Democratic administration had not really ever struggled with before. Is there another ideological fight within the staff about whether this is something that we ought to be doing?

...The president [was] clearly determined that he was going to propose a balanced budget. And remember, in this process still we're fighting against the balanced budget amendment, but that we would propose a balanced budget. There was no ifs, ands or buts between him and the vice president on this. And [there were] elements of the staff that were opposed to it, said you couldn't do it. That was the last gasp and he had decided "I'm not having an intellectual ideological debate inside administration between whether I'm a New Democrat or an Old. I ran as one, and that is who I am. That is how I governed as governor. Those are the policies, those are my ideas, those are my principles and that's how I'm going to govern." And I think once he made that turn, I don't think there was every again kind of the open review of whether we're going to be X or Y or where we're going to sit on the kind of ideological spectrum.

Was there more, even more passion with the welfare reform debate within the White House?

Yes. And there should be. It was a big tough call. Bob Rubin was opposed to signing the welfare bill. He's not exactly what I call a flaming liberal. Leon Panetta, who if you remember his early days in the Congress was seen kind of as a moderate Democrat, he was opposed to it. When you're making a decision like that -- and I was for it and others were for it -- you should have an honest debate. And I think that debate served both the decision-making well, et cetera....

[How was the Oklahoma City bombing a critical moment for the president?]

Because I think the dark side of both America and some of the worst elements in America were allowed to be given voice to. And I think the public perceived it as that. ... Early on, remember, people are criticizing him for being a prime minister, and not a president. Oklahoma is that moment in which he emerges dogmatically and in his voice as a president. And I think the American people can see him there. Reagan did it in the Challenger blow up. I think in Oklahoma this president was a unifier. And it was a critical moment where we were looking in at ourselves and we saw the enemy. And he was able to bring out in a very dark moment of revenge I think the better angels of our spirit as a country. And I think that voice is crucial to a president. And he had found it....

Moving ahead to the government shutdown. He's got this extra capital, perhaps because of Oklahoma City. And things are turning around in the administration. It's a better year for the administration in a lot of ways. What turns it against the Gingrich Congress when you come down to those negotiations? When do you know that you get the upper hand?

There were three things. Newt becomes the face of it in the beginning. Two, he overreaches the role of the Office of the Speaker and tries to make it a prime minister which the system can't absorb. And third is the president's own tone of accommodation versus their obstruction. It is that combined picture that turns the tables....

Did you talk to [Hillary] during this week [she testified before the grand jury]?

Yeah. But Mrs. Clinton is not going to show even the closest of confidants any sense of weakness. And I don't think she would show that around the staff, because it could have an impact. And so I can't give you an honest answer. I mean, she was around. It's not like she was hiding. But I couldn't give you an honest answer of how she [felt.]...

Was there a sense among you and the political staff that at this point it's war with Ken Starr?

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 is no doubt about that. Yup.

And the grand jury-

Yeah. Now I may be hanging a lot here, I know, but that moment in which [Hillary] is called in and around the State of the Union is a critical moment in changing the way the White House felt it was being treated by the Independent Counsel and what the intentions were.... [There] was no doubt that this was not being conducted purely on the level of seeking the truth. That there were political intentions and motivations of that office. They were timing things for political impact. And we were going to politically engage, yeah.

You say '96 is kind of sweet?

It is a sweet victory. It's a real sense of our accomplishment, his accomplishment.... I know that sense that a lot of people had written this guy off a lot of times. The biggest emotion was the victory, the sense of history, a part of it, and the political accomplishment of it. I'd been involved in politics. I like politics. And there was a political accomplishment, a win.

Through this presidency, even from the announcement, there was always a sense of headwind. People wrote him off through the Gennifer Flowers, through the draft experience, the gays in the military, the '94 election, and he had defied the oddsmakers again. And so there was that own sense of personal mission we were on and then once again being there.

He was the "Comeback Kid" again?

Comeback Kid--there's no doubt about it. One of the great things that the president has is people underestimate him all the time. I could probably write a good handbook for his opponents, the unbelievable amount of times they underestimate him, his determination.... His opponents always miscalculated the most central element of his being. He's the most determined person I've ever seen in my life. And I think I'm pretty driven.... I don't think they make that mistake anymore.

There was also a sense that he lurched from crisis to crisis. That there was always some kind of near catastrophe, there was kind of a lurching from moment to moment. Why did this president have a presidency like that? Why was there so much danger? Is it something about who he is personally?

Well, at one level you can drive it to him. But we're probably coming at it from different ways because he has fierce political opponents who are determined to sidetrack him. Second, he isn't a president that lays back. He throws himself into it. I'm not sure a lot of presidents [after] getting a trade deal decide they're going to take all their political capital and try to roll it on the Mideast peace agreement in the eighth year.

If you're doing this purely by where and when and how you spend your political capital, he has gone to the table a lot more times than where people would have said,"take your chips and go." ... And some people say he's just doing it for his legacy. He's got enough [in] my view. This guy goes back to the table and plays a lot more times where other people are taking their chips off the table. So your sense of going from crisis to crisis -- there are crises, but there's determination to spend. And part of it is we create our own. Because he decided to not take the political easy course. There are other crises....

In January of '98 the [Lewinsky] story first breaks on "Drudge" and then in the Washington Post. When it first breaks, what is your sense?

...Twice a week [I] bike 12 miles on a stationary bike. I think that was the fastest Wednesday morning bike ride I ever had in my 12 miles. Because I got up about 5:30 in the morning and read the paper. And I'm reading, and I read the headline in the Post. And I think I pedaled pretty quickly that day. So that was my first reaction. I don't remember Tuesday night knowing that it was going to break Wednesday morning....

Did you believe it when you read it?

No. I didn't believe it.... I'll cite everywhere I believe what I said then which is I couldn't quite get the relationship between researching a 24 year-old real estate deal plus researching a 24 year-old woman. I said that outside of the fact that both of them were 24 years old, I didn't understand the correlation between the two. And I always thought [Ken Starr] was doing a real estate deal, at least that's what I was being told for the last five years. ... That's how I thought then which is kind of not different than what I think now....

What did the president tell you?

Well, he came over to the Oval. This is how I remember that morning. And Nancy said, "The president wants to see you." And I said to him, "Is this true?" And he said it wasn't true. And I said, "If this isn't true, you better get your head in the game. We have a fight here." And I said, "Because a lot of people are counting on us."

When you found out it was true what was your feeling?

Well, you act like there's a moment you find out it's true.

Well, there must have been a moment when you did.

Well, yeah, I mean, I think there's different aspects of this story. To this day I don't believe he ever told anybody to lie. I don't think he ever advocated to her or told her to lie. That's not the person I know....

McCurry said, and I think it's kind of an accurate way to phrase it, "If it wasn't complicated, we would have had the answer early on." So, I mean, I kind of knew that. If it wasn't complicated, you would have known the answer. It's clear it was not a yes or no. It was a more complicated question and it was a more complicated answer....

You've been serving this man for many years. The president tells you it's not true. In fact, it is true. The president lies to you. What were you thinking then when you found out the president had not told you the truth?

Well, what did I think then when I realized he hadn't told me the truth? I'm not parsing words, but my view is probably when I asked him "Is this true?" he was probably answering the question about -- because if you remember the headline, it was about the suborning perjury.

Oh, come on, Rahm. I mean --

Give me a second. I'm not giving him any grace period here, okay? I think this is the nuttiest, dumbest thing to do, okay. And I said that. He took an amazing amount of risk with his presidency and with all of us. There is no doubt. I have said it to him. He's said it. I'm not saying anything to you he hasn't said. It's a foolish thing.

...In retrospect I know exactly what he was doing when he was answering me. I'm not just saying I'm happy, disappointed, I was mad or upset. I'm not just giving you a rationalization. I'm thinking through. You asked me "What was he doing?" I'm sure what he thought is he was answering the question I asked him about the subjugation of perjury truthfully, knowing full well my question asked about the entire story. I'm not giving it any grace. I'm just telling you I'm sure that's what he was doing. And I'm guessing, but I'm positive that's how he could say to me in a clean way.

You're telling me you don't believe the president lied to you?

I think I'm being pretty clear. No, that's not what I'm saying. I know he wasn't being honest with me. And I know when he said that, he wasn't being honest with me. And I'm not trying to rationalize what he said. I think I'm being quite clear about all that.

I guess what I'm asking you is what effect did this have on you? I mean, you're a loyal staff member.

... I'm more angry about involving himself with her and putting the presidency at risk than telling me the truth about it.... I'm more upset about the being voracious and being honest with me. I'm more upset about having taken the risk and the foolishness behind that.

On the other hand I'll tell you this. I said it then and I'll say it now and I'll say it the rest of my life. I do not believe the government has the right to investigate somebody's private life. And so when you ask me what I feel, and it's not a single moment, but through that entire twelve months when on the worst of days for me, I believed I was fighting against the right of using the most powerful law enforcement agency in this country to investigate somebody's private life. And if you can do it to a president, you can do it to any American. And I will tell you my grandfather did not come to this country, nor did my father come to this country to see that happen. And so, yes, I made a lot of rationalizations....

As this dragged on and it was clear the president was going to be impeached, was there a point when you thought "This is it. This presidency is on the precipice."

Well, I mean, the first five weeks, the first five months, the first five minutes, you know, sure.

You thought it was over for Clinton?

Well, yeah. I mean, yes. I didn't think you could topple a government for a personal act to be honest. ... And thank God for the American people. Because in the end they kind of had a sinking suspicion that ultimately you were not throwing a president out, no matter how foolish the act was, for sex....

What about the day the president testified before the grand jury from the private residence? James tells us that he runs into Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Clinton asked James to help. What's your mood at that point and feeling among the staff with whom you were close on that day?

I don't want to dress up anything. The fact is you're in that moment. We're all very driven people. And you have a job to do. And so it's not like you get these moments that you step outside your body. I mean, you got a speech to write, a decision to make on whether we should, in fact, address the country. You've got a huge amount of testimony, his testimony. You have the event. And you're not naive or absentminded to history. There's a few of us, you know, Erskine, Doug, Paul, John, myself, on the kind of political side, on the legal side who are essential to holding the place together and keeping the agenda going as well as managing this other issue.... It was a decision internally, Erskine, the political operation and the lawyers, [that] Paul would be the designated writer if we were going to give a speech. The decision was up to the president after the testimony whether he wanted to give one....

The late afternoon, early evening after that grand jury testimony in the private residence, you see the president and Mrs. Clinton. What's their demeanor? What do they say?

...I think he seems relieved that it's over. Nobody quite believes this when you say it, but she's not withdrawn. She's quite out there. She's making jokes about certain questions that they asked and what [the lawyers] were pursuing....

There's a point when he takes a break and after about 45 minutes or an hour of this, he wants to take a break. He will give a speech. We make that decision, but he needs some time. Now, a few of us knew [that] the time he takes is basically to deal with bin Laden.... And what we really were doing was giving him some downtime to meet with some of the national security people.

James Carville tells us that when he sees Mrs. Clinton in the solarium it's obvious that she's been quite upset, that she's been crying and she asks James for his help. Was there a sense that that was a very difficult moment for Mrs. Clinton?

James may have the right memory. But as far as I remember Mrs. Clinton was talking about -- I think they asked ridiculous questions about the sunglasses and stuff like that. So I remember her and the lawyers telling us about that whole exchange. So I don't see that part of Mrs. Clinton. But that's not a part of Mrs. Clinton's going to show in a wider audience....

Let me say this. If that was her mood in the solarium, we all would have felt that. That's not the mood I remember in the solarium. Doug, Paul, Erskine, John and I are up there, plus the lawyers, her, and James. I'm probably leaving some people out, but that's not the mood I remember. But she may have been just like that when she probably saw James on another floor where other people were not around.

Is there heated discussion or debate about how conciliatory the president should be or what his tone should be?

The draft that was presented at that point, I think by Mickey, had a much more confrontational tone to being subjugated to this. Not exactly an irrational reaction. On the other hand, I think the draft that Paul was asked to write struck the tone of both the responsibility, the apology, and accountability --it had a strength to it in that area. And then there was a discussion and a debate and an argument about what was the right one. And then, you know, kind of compromised and balance those out, et cetera....

I remember Doug and I looking at each other and said, "Well, there's something screwy. The lawyers are back there working on the draft with the president, and the political people and the communications people are the ones leaving."

Well, you guys lost that argument.

Right. We did lose that argument. [The speech] was true to what the president wanted to say. I just think that it had some of what Paul said, but not enough of the draft that Paul had. But, you know, hindsight is perfect....

The Starr report comes out and then all the lawyers come out. Is the reason that the lawyers were out and not you guys because you didn't want to have to defend that behavior that was documented in the Starr report?

Well, not defend. I think there's also a sense [that] after a certain point we had lost some credibility. This was now more legal. The questions were going to be more in the legal arena and [the lawyers] needed to, you know, show up and put some time out there....

What was the tension between the legal and the political team during that scandal? What was the sort of cause of that? You had different jobs, I know.

We had different jobs, different responsibilities. I mean, we thought we had a public opinion, political battle. Not that they didn't think they had that as well. But they also had a client and a legal mind frame. And it was making the political and the legal world work together. Or when they weren't working together, which one was the priority....

You know, maybe I'm naive. I don't think [the lawyers] were being malicious in an attempt to deceive, or whatever. But they had their own balance and understood that we were all trying to balance competing needs here.

How would you characterize the relationship between the administration and the press? Not during just this period, but--

...As an institution, bad. With individuals, good. That's how I characterize it...

Did that carry over from the campaign? Were relations bad because the campaign had been, to a certain extent, defined by scandal? Was there an "us" versus "them"?

Oh, it was bad. Some people note the mistake -- and it was clearly a mistake -- of banning the press from upstairs as stupid and wrong. I put it farther back. You guys kept writing him off, and he won. And we wanted to take a victory lap in the end zone and, you know, and pound the ball. Big mistake....

If you want to capsulize this president, what is his legacy to you?

I'm sure a lot of people talked about the economy. So I don't want to. There's no doubt the economy stands as a major accomplishment both from deficit to surplus...

I think if you look at his presidency, there's three to four areas, and I'll try to tick them off. One, his follow-through in ending welfare as we know it. He changed an entitlement. And the early on prognosis of that is it's been very successful. I think we'll have good and bad days ahead of it. But he changed a way the government dealt with a part of American people. I think he's instilled the right values. He put work back at the center of it. And even parts of the bill that he didn't like, he changed them in form. And I think it was one of the most major domestic changes that will be felt -- as we did when we created the welfare system -- it will be felt equally for the 60 years....

The second major change is higher education in America.... Pre-president Clinton, the only commitment the federal government ever had to higher education directly was to poor and low income people. And through the tax code, $10,000 and the Hope Scholarship, he created a new middle class entitlement for higher education. And no Democratic president, no Republican president, no Democrat or Republican Congress will ever take that away. They will never dare the political wrath that will have. And we have more Americans now going to education -- both junior college and four-year college and beyond -- than ever before. And I think the reform to making the financial cost not the prohibitive factor is instrumental in that. Ending an entitlement and creating a whole new one.

The third piece I would say is in the area of civil rights. I don't think it's a coincidence that African-Americans refer to this president as the first black [president]. I think they have felt [a] more integral part of this community. And I extend that to gay and lesbians. If you think back in the '80s, how we treated AIDS and [those] who had AIDS, to today where gay Americans are part of the political system, part of our culture. That is both in the tone and the temperament of this president. He has made a whole part of this country not feel outside, but inside. It was not easy, but I think his temperament and his sense of justice permeated that debate.

And then lastly, you know, a lot of people are going to talk about Russia, China, the Mideast, Bosnia, Ireland. We are the dominant country both economically, culturally, and politically.... And I think if you look at our relationships to our allies and to the third world countries, that we have accomplished a great deal without stoking those fires of resentment that are just sitting there because we are the dominant country economically, militarily, and culturally. And managing both that resentment and that dominant enigmatic power position is not easy. Regardless of whether you talk about China, Russia, whatever area of the world, how you deal with that resentment and that power is the most central force. And I think the president, because of his political skills, handled it unbelievably well.

If you ask me ... the four areas I said: in the area of foreign policy, in America's power and its resentment in the world for that power; his sense of civil rights, of making a part of America who was excluded included; welfare reform; and higher education -- those are my areas of where I think his lasting legacy will be remembered for. It's not to say that it's not the economy. If I said that, it just doesn't hold up to the test of water. I think those are the really the forgotten areas...

What is the biggest change you've noticed about him in the eight years, the most striking thing to you?

You know, I think his ability to laugh at his opponent, not take their criticism personal, but able to kind of laugh at them.... I don't know if the president early on could enjoy that. And I think it took him a while to realize they were his political opponents and they opposed him for a reason. And I mean, those were real disagreements and he was quite comfortable where he was and he was quite comfortable not to be where they were. And I think the biggest change is not making that a personal thing that he had to win them over.



Home | Chapters | Interviews | Anecdotes | Photo Gallery

Copyright ©2000 ABC News Internet Ventures.
Click here for Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Internet Safety Information applicable to this site.

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Prison StateApril 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
http://abcnews.go.com/Sections/Nightline/