the clinton years

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interview: joe lockhart

photo of joe lockhart

He was White House Press Secretary during Clinton's impeachment trial, and held the post from October 1998, when Mike McCurry resigned, until October 2000.

Interview conducted October, 2000 by Chris Bury

The first time you met Bill Clinton, what were your impressions?

The first time I met Bill Clinton was November or December of 1995. I had been called by someone at the White House to come over and consider taking the campaign press secretary job. And I remember going into the Oval Office, and they sat me down. The president wasn't there. It was quite nerve-wracking. And he walked in, said hello, and basically said, "So you want to be the press secretary?" And I said, "Yeah, I think so." And then we talked. For the next 30 minutes, he gave me the sharpest, clearest sense of what the campaign was about and what he expected the campaign press secretary to do, showing that he'd thought the entire thing through and that other people had made him comfortable with me, so it wasn't really an interview. He just wanted to make sure that I understood what he expected, and at the end said, "What do you think?" And I said, "Well, sounds good to me." You know, you're in the Oval Office. What else are you going to say?

Was it clear then that the job he expected you to do? That you were to be an advocate--

Sure. I mean, this was the campaign job. There was no question that as the campaign press secretary, your job was to be political and to advocate on behalf of the president politically. And, you know, he had some ideas. Some were interesting, some were dispensable, about how we were going to run the campaign. None of the information was remarkable in and of itself. It was kind of remarkable that he had thought it through and knew what he wanted, and just wanted to make sure that I had the same sense that he did.

The interesting thing was I went from there and talked to the vice president, who did what was like a job interview. He asked me a bunch of questions about, my background and what I thought. And so I kind of walked away thinking that I'd gotten sort of a history lesson from the president and a job interview from the vice president.

After the campaign you joined the White House staff as a deputy press secretary [and] in 1997, there was a historic Supreme Court decision. The Court ruled nine to nothing that the Paula Jones case could continue. Do you recall the president's reaction to that? Was the president surprised by that decision? Was there much discussion about it?

What I remember about that is I think that the president was in Europe at the time and I was back in Washington. So I called over and got McCurry, or somebody who was with the traveling party, and said, "You guys are about to get hit with this." So I don't have a contemporaneous personal account. I think judging from conversations, though over time later, I don't think the president was particularly surprised. I think he viewed these decisions not necessarily being drawn strictly on constitutional grounds, and I don't think that he ever went into any case where his personal attorneys or the White House counsel's office where he had any degree of confidence despite whatever merits or lack of merits existed.

One of the arguments in that case was that a president should be subject to civil suits because there was no extraordinary drain on his time.

Even having spent eight years in Washington, the Clintons are constantly
surprised at how Washington works. You know, the interesting thing about this is, it in some ways reflects the complexity of the president, because on one level it's an absurd argument, with hindsight. The Supreme Court, nine of the smartest people in this country, could not have gotten it more wrong. And one would hope that if they had this to do over again, they would make a different decision, because obviously it on one level put the kind of burden we shouldn't be putting on a president when it comes to a civil suit; but on another level, his abilities are extraordinary to perform well on a number of different levels simultaneously.

So if you're asking me did it negatively impact his ability to govern, my answer is no. Was it a pain in the ass? Sure. Did it bother him a lot? Sure. But did the country suffer because of the time it took away from him? No.

You say that they couldn't have gotten it more wrong. What do you mean?

Well, they argued that somehow the president didn't have any special responsibility that would keep him from presenting a credible defense for himself. And, unless working 24 hours a day for the country seven days a week isn't a special responsibility, I think they're wrong.

But as I said, nothing's simple, nothing's straightforward, because I'm also making the argument that he was able to do both. And I think that's something peculiar to him. I think if we look into the future at some of the people who think they may want to be president or may well be president, I'm not sure they have the ability to do those things. So, maybe they were right on one level. They were certainly wrong on one level.

January of '98, the Lewinsky story breaks. What was the president's initial reaction?

Well, that was an interesting day, obviously. That's probably an understatement. But it's the one day that I can remember that I got to work late because my daughter had been sick and was up half the night sick, and then as these things always happen, once you sort of get them to bed, you get sick. So I ended up getting to bed about 7:00 in the morning and waking up at 10:00 and calling the office, and somewhat stupidly saying, "Anything going on?" And I found out that there was a few things going on.

There was very little discussion that day--in fact, probably no discussion of the merits of the allegations or the story. Through a fluke of scheduling we had three interviews scheduled that day, as advancers to the State of the Union, with Jim Lehrer and NPR and Morton Kondracke. And my focus was to make sure he was ready for those interviews.

So a very small group gathered in his private dining room. The interesting thing about it was is these are meetings getting the president ready for interviews that people used to fight to get into. On this day there was a very small group of people who showed up. There was no big fuss at the door.

People wanted to stay away, they were wary--

Well, I think people knew this was going to be a pretty difficult session, and so there wasn't a big aggressive beating down the door to get in and show that you could brief the president.

But it was a very direct session ... we went through what the likely questions would be. It was very clear that we were not going to get into expansive answers, and we spent most of the briefing--and this was probably foreshadowing the next couple years--discussing the potential State of the Union questions, the real policy questions, because we knew they were coming, too..

Did the president tell you how he was going to answer questions that day?

Oddly enough, as is the case all the way through this thing, when things
looked the worst, we were saved by the independent counsel. I think that there had been some discussion with the lawyers of just how far you could go because of the ongoing investigation. So there really wasn't a long discussion. I remember we did a session between the first and the second one, because for some reason the press had picked up on the tense of the president's words in the first one. And I remember telling him that they somehow think because you're using the present tense that you are trying to slip, the past tense. So he corrected his tense in the next interview and was wary of that.

But there wasn't a long discussion of the answer because the lawyers made clear that there was an ongoing investigation and we weren't going to litigate this in front of television cameras. They were going to do [it] with the independent counsel.

Did you feel personally shaken on that day when you got up and heard the news? What was your feeling about it?

Well, at this point in time we'd been through a lot of sensational stories that didn't pan out, you know, people who had to live through Whitewater... And I think at the end of the day we found out that there's not much going on there. We had all of campaign finance in 1997 where you would have thought the sky was falling.

So it was a mixture of worry that this was something big and something important and a memory that, you know, things can seem pretty bad on Tuesday and be okay by Friday. So I don't know, I didn't think on that day our life was over.

How did the president seem that day?

I think that was the one thing which made this a little more serious. He was not quite as sure-footed as he normally was when there was some sensational story ...

During this period at the White House in your dealings with Mr. Clinton, did you get the sense that he was isolated, lonely?

Well, I would work with him anywhere between 8:00 in the morning and 10:00 at night, and he was never not surrounded by people. I can't speak to what happened when we all went home. But for the vast majority of that, he was not isolated. He was engaged. We had a lot of work to do. And to the extent that he was working through a serious problem, you get a rare glimpse of it. But it was not, you know, something you saw every day.

Rare glimpse of what?

Oh, just how serious and how this weighed on him. And it would come from anger with a story in the paper some week from somewhere appearing in the paper, or, you know, every once in a while, you'd get the sense that this did weigh on him.

But, most of the time we all had jobs to do and I know that it's hard to believe from the outside--and no one has ever fully, I think, bought into this. But almost everybody didn't focus on this.

Well, you in particular, because you had to deal with the press.

Yeah. I was one of the few people--there was probably half a dozen to a dozen people who worked on this almost full-time. But that's out of many hundreds of people. And the people who were doing economic policy or health policy, they resented this because they were doing good work and weren't getting any attention, and you know, the way you get laws enacted is you get the public behind you, they support it, they pressure Congress, and nobody was paying attention. I mean, [domestic policy advisor] Gene Sperling could have stood on the White House roof taking his clothes off--people still wouldn't have trained a camera up there unless he yelled something about Monica.

So I think they resented it, but they all just continued to go about their work. And the president ... most of the time of his day was filled up with a schedule that looked very much like his schedule in 1995 or 1993 but did not reflect that we had this saga ongoing.

You were with the president in Africa when the Paula Jones suit was dismissed? What was the president's reaction?

...The president was obviously happy, obviously relieved, and obviously vindicated. You know, he felt all along that this was about politics and about money. I think we have ample evidence now that it was. And a judge had stood up and said that.

Later that fall, the president goes before the grand jury. How was he on that day? How did he seem to you?

I think he was ready. He had prepared for it. I think at the time that he went in, he was actually glad that he was going to do this and to get to put his side on the record. I think coming out of it he was angry with the way the independent counsel and his staff conducted the interview and the way they went about it. And I think that had something to do with the public statements he made afterwards.

That day, the White House released photos, and there's a picture--I'm not sure what kind of a policy meeting it was, it must have been foreign affairs. But there's a picture of the president there with Sandy Berger and with Erskine Bowles, and he's got these terrible bags under his eyes, looked like he hadn't been sleeping.

Well, you could probably make the case seven different times during the administration. The president is not one who gets more than five or six hours of sleep. But the days leading up to that he was doing double duty because we had some things going on in the world that were consuming a good bit of his time domestically and on the foreign front, plus he was using the odd hours very early in the day and late in the day to meet with David Kendall to prepare for the session.

We've talked to the political people and we've talked to some of the legal team, and both sides there sort of acknowledge a conflict going on there. What was it like for you as press secretary when you have the political people who want to get one story out and you've got lawyers who are saying you really can't talk about this?

There was conflict. That's a little overplayed, a little oversimplified in some of the accounts. And, you know, there were some people who had no time or sympathy for the lawyers' position. I was not one of those. I think I understood that the lawyers had a role to play that was different than the political or the communications people.

As a group of people, we got along quite well, for people who had sort of been in this from the beginning, and it had winnowed down to--you only had the sort of people who really had to do this because there wasn't a lot of fun by the time we got to August and September. But there certainly were many days where a legal strategy came in direct conflict with a political strategy. There were certainly many days where the lawyers would write things that would make lawyers think "What a great lawyer" and would make political people roll over in their grave.

Any examples of that?

Oh, there was a filing that they had to put into--to the court I guess in response to the referral from Starr. And by all accounts it was a brilliant legal document, and I remember Paul Begala and I looking at it and neither one of us understood the first thing about it. And this was an example where we actually worked well together because we said to the lawyers, "I'm sure this is a great document, but the reporters are going to get through page 3 and give up. So would you mind if we wrote sort of a two-page summary to put on the top of it?" They said sure. So one of the filings, the first two pages were written by me and Paul.

...And, there were cases like that. I think a case where it didn't work was probably when we responded to the 81 questions.

From the House--

Yeah, the 81 questions was a political act by members of the Republican Party in the House, and that was answered in a legal fashion. Now, they should have been answered in a legal fashion because most of them were trick questions. They were designed to cause legal harm to the president. That was all glossed over by those who reported on it at the time. But because this was over a Thanksgiving holiday, everybody had sort of scattered a little bit. So this sort of went up and the people who normally worried about how we were going to answer questions about it and talk about it were gone. And for those who wanted to create an excuse for impeachment, they used that. And in some sense we gave them one.

I'm not sure that we could have changed much because these were not questions asked from any sort of genuine base. They were questions designed to either create legal peril for the president or create a sense that he was stonewalling.

Actually, one of the most decisive discussions we had where there was a disagreement was the night before the Starr report came out, the referral. I and some of the political people were arguing that we couldn't wait to read the report and then write up a response because we'd be dead by the time the report was out. And the lawyers made the opposite argument, which was somewhat compelling, that you can't answer charges that haven't been made because what if they don't charge you with some of them, you'll look stupid.

That conversation was fully engaged, and I'd say about 7 or 8 o'clock at night before the Starr report, we came to a decision, which was, we we knew what the case was. We'd read about it in the newspaper. They'd leaked everything out. So--

You were going to do a preemptive strike.

We were going to do a preemptive strike. But that decision didn't get made until 8 o'clock the night before, so a large group of people stayed up all night. It ended up being a 50-60 page document, sort of rebutting but actually pre-butting the charges that we knew Starr was going to make. And that actually had a big impact that day on how it was seen, because everybody had seen the Starr charges because they'd been leaked. They'd been in the paper every day. They'd been on the evening news--wherever they came from. Because of the way we were playing this, we were not going out and doing the substance of the charges. We were just arguing this was all politics.

So the day the Starr report came out, the only fresh piece of news was, wait a second, they have a defense! They're not just rolling over. So that was one where we argued about it for two days, but finally came to an agreement. And I think some of the lawyers were a little bit uncomfortable with engaging in this exercise, but they were all quite happy when they picked up the paper the next day.

Did you ever have the sense around the fall of '98, September, October, that the president might have to resign?

No, because I think from September of '98 this became fully a political debate, and I knew that we were going to win that debate. I didn't know how long it was going to take. I didn't know how painful it was going to be. But with the referral going up to the Hill, this now became about just raw politics. And I knew we could win a political debate. I wasn't sure during the investigator phase of this before the referral that that was a fight we could win, because, we were getting cut--you know, we could have died from a thousand cuts,two or three new ones each day with all the information that was flowing out of the investigation.

But I think when it got to the Capitol, this became a political debate, not that much different from the budget debates we have from legislative debates, and it was on much firmer footing for us.

Back up a little bit then, before it becomes a political debate. A member of the legal team has told us that he got a call from a very respected Democratic Senator, Conrad of North Dakota, and Senator Conrad warned him that the president was only a few days away from leading Democratic members of Congress paying him a visit saying "you have to go."

I think saying we're a few days away I think overplays it a little bit, but there certainly was a sense during that summer that Democrats were worried about how this all played for them on the Hill, and it's understandable, and needed reassurance. And they were given reassurance, and needed to know that their voices were being heard within our team, and that was fixed.

They were right when they argued that "Your lawyers aren't listening to us," and I think we fixed that problem. I don't think we ever got to the point where we felt like something was about to collapse on us, but I don't think anyone was naive enough to know that there wasn't a combination of three or four things that could happen in a fairly quick was that would cause intense pressure on Democrats.

And, oddly enough, as is the case all the way through this thing, when things looked the worse, we were saved by the independent counsel. And I think Democrats were so offended by the political way that he referred the charges up to Congress and seemed to try to impose his will, that it became a rallying point in a political debate that played out, you know, that we now call impeachment.

That summer, there was some legitimate concern within the White House that this could go in such a way that the president would have to leave?

Listen, I don't think there was anybody who sat around and said, "You know, today this could be our last day here, this is falling apart" But I think everybody understood that this was a very serious and precarious position. And from a political point of view, Starr overplayed his hand at just the right time. Fast forward to October when you become press secretary. Why would you want to become press secretary in the midst of the biggest scandal in this administration?

Well, my first day was the day the House officially took up impeachment within the Judiciary Committee, October 2nd. One of the reasons I wanted to do the job was, this is the biggest so-called scandal in the administration, but it was the second largest so-called scandal that was going on in town, because the largest scandal that was going on in town were Republicans who were making a moral argument that the president should be removed when everybody who understood anything about what was going on in this town knew that this was raw politics.

They were going to remove the president because they could. Newt Gingrich, when Erskine called him to say "Why do you keep pushing this?" his answer was, "Because we can." And this was about showing that they were right in their sort of almost religious fervor and that they could remove the president, not because he should have been removed.

So I think there were a lot of people, myself included, who understood that this was work that was worth doing, because if we removed a president for private behavior, God save the next president who has a Congress from another party, and how far down will we drag the bar for doing this?

Not to revisit the arguments, but it's clear that this wasn't just private behavior. I mean, many people in the White House staff certainly have acknowledged that.

Oh, sure, but this stemmed from private behavior, and the investigation of the president's private life. And the argument that we made that I believe is that even if you assumed everything they said was true about what the president may or may not have done, this didn't rise to the level of an impeachable offense. And my argument is----imagine if we put this in reverse and turned this around and said, okay, the president's impeached and removed for this. Let's start going back through our history and see who else should have been removed. I don't think Ronald Reagan would have survived with the problems he had over Iran-contra, and I think you can come up with three or four other presidents who had some public misconduct that was dealt with in a way short of impeachment.

So I think going into the future there certainly was a danger and I think that's why so many constitutional scholars seemed to get energized by this. I mean, constitutional scholars are hardly a political force in this country. But, you seem to have people, who in a way that wasn't partisan and who cared about how we interpreted the Constitution,lining up very solidly in the category of "What do they think they're doing here?"

In the mid-term elections of '98, Democrats did better than expected. Did the president feel that that was going to stop the train?

I think everybody felt at that point, and the president included, that the country had sent a message, and that the one thing the members of Congress generally listened to is this kind of message. Like, they came in the next day and there were people who used to have offices who didn't have them anymore. Just like the message that was sent in the '94 midterm elections that was sent loud and clear to the president.

So I think the president and many people around assumed that there would have to be some delicate discussions of a way to get out of this, but we were all going to get out of this. So I don't know that there was anyone who predicted that on election day or the day after or the day after that, that this would play out through February.

Describe the president on the day of the House impeachment vote that Saturday.

Busy. It was an extraordinary day because impeachment was only one of many things that was going on. We had had a unbelievable week leading up to that with two major things going on in the world coming together. The decision to move forward against Iraq took an enormous amount of energy of the president because, as you remember, we had had sort of the false start in November where the planes were literally within a few minutes of dropping the bombs and had been called back because of the diplomatic maneuver. So going down that track again took a lot of time and effort.

The impeachment vote in an odd way was a little bit secondary to us because we knew it was going to happen. We knew where every member of Congress was on this. There was no undecideds. There was no suspense in it. That doesn't diminish the importance of the event. It doesn't happen very often in this country, thank God.

How did the president seem?

Well, he seemed resigned to it. I think at this point we had fully entered the period where he took the mental approach that they can do what they want to me, the only way I can beat them is if I focus on my job and I don't take the bait. And post-August 17th was when that process started. But by December 19th, that process was pretty much complete.

And, you know, what made the day interesting was Livingston. ... I literally dropped everything that was in my hand and walked over to the Oval, because I knew this was something we had to deal with. And, he had an interesting reaction to it--what he had through me said publicly. Which was that Livingston was making a mistake here, we can't surrender to this negative political atmosphere. But I think, privately, he was amazed that somebody would make a charge and an important political leader would just collapse and just say, "Okay, fine, throw in the towel." And I think he took some comfort in his belief that he was doing the right thing and some comfort in that he was tough enough to see this through.

Was there ever a sense--and some of the punditry I remember very well that weekend. There was a line of argument that went Livingston has resigned because of a sex scandal, the president may now be forced to resign.

Let me back that up a little bit, because you had a very cynical political strategy being engineered by Tom DeLay through that week, and he'd be an interesting person to find out to what extent he was involved in all of the other things.

But the Republicans for six weeks had argued through Henry Hyde that impeachment wasn't important, that this was like a grand jury, and all they were doing was sending an indictment to the Senate and the Senate would make the tough decisions on whether the president should be removed.

Well, about Thursday or Friday of that week, they all of a sudden shifted 180 degrees and said impeachment was important and it's so embarrassing to this country and so paralyzing that the president should resign. And then Livingston falls right into their lap and creates a model that pundits and commentators and Republicans could argue the president should follow. I mean, that's the reason I didn't sit around my office and watch the commentary. I knew instinctively and immediately that's where this was going. And we had to figure out a way to puncture this, and that's why the president's reaction to this that I reported out on the White House lawn to the press was so important, and it was so important we do it quickly.

And as I remember it, I said something along the lines of, "The president likes Livingston, enjoyed working with him, but we firmly believed that the politics of personal destruction were wrong, whether targeted to Democrat or Republican, and that Livingston could break this cycle right here right now by reconsidering and not resigning." And that put the president on the right side of this.

You said before that the president seemed resigned because you had built in the news, you knew what was coming. How did that resignation manifest itself in terms of how he looked, how he talked, how he acted?

I don't know how you translate it into someone else's life, but to me it felt like the president had gotten almost comfortable with the idea that some injustice had been done to him here. And this was a combination of things going on. There was one of--you know, the president didn't wake up on one morning and say, What I did was wrong, I have to accept responsibility for this and try to make it right. This was a process that happened over time. And that I think came to--that process became complete in and around September.

So I think he on one level accepted responsibility for what he had done and was trying to figure out a way to do everything he could to make it better in any way he could.

I think on the other front, on the defensive of the assault coming in at his direction around the same time, he began to detach himself a little bit from it and not take every single piece of it as an assault on him personally. And by December 19th, I think his view was that they can do whatever they want, they can impeach me, they can vote in the Senate and remove me. But they're going to have to do that to get me to leave, and what I'm going to do is I'm going to get up every day and do my job, because that's the only way I can continue to have a connection with the American public. And if Congress finds a way to remove me, then I'll leave, but I'm not going to do it, and I'm going to continue to do what I was elected to do and the public's just going to have to make a choice over who's right.

On that Saturday after the vote, there's a decision made to have a bit of a pep rally, Democratic members come to the White House. Did you discuss that with the president and did you discuss whether that would be a good idea, whether the appearances of that would be appropriate?

The decision to do that was actually made the day before. This is one of those things that you remember something in a funny way, because we were sitting in the senior staff meeting in the morning, and I had had the thought based on everything that was going on that we needed to have the president with Democrats behind him. And as I was in my mind formulating how I wanted to propose this, Ann Lewis piped up and said, "We need to bring Democrats down here." And I remember thinking that's exactly what I think. And now that it's gotten very controversial, everybody thinks it's her idea, not mine. But it actually was the right idea, and I'll tell you why I think that.

This was all about attacking the legitimacy of the impeachment vote. This was not about sort of appearances and whether you get criticized or not. This was the moment the president was impeached. We had one singular goal here, which was to depict this the way we believed it was, which was a purely partisan, political act by the Republicans. And the best way to do that was to have all of the Democrats come down and say that and stand with the president.

Now, I understand the criticism that came later, and I understand that particularly Senate Democrats didn't think that that was the right thing to do. I think that if they'd been where we were, they would have thought differently. I know it was the right thing to do. If we had somehow allowed this that Saturday and Sunday to take on the possibility that--

Legitimacy.

Legitimacy. If this had gotten the legitimacy that this was real, that this was Republicans acting as statesmen and not partisan politicians, there was no way out. There was a glide path to being removed, and we had to do that, and it was the right thing to do.

We paid a price for it later, but that price is dwarfed by the price we would have paid if we'd stood up and said, "Well, you know, the House has acted in their wisdom and now it's time to move to the Senate. I mean, we couldn't have survived that."

You say you paid a price for it later. What do you mean?

We paid a price for it because Senate Democrats, who were in a different position than House Republicans, saw it as unseemly. And, listen, I don't remember any Senate Democrats saying it was unseemly at the time. What I remember is three weeks of commentary, you know, kicking the crap out of us at the White House, and then all of a sudden, people saying, "Yeah, I guess they're right." So I mean, that's fine. They had their own view.

When you were figuring this out, was there any talk then that this might damage the vice president politically down the road? Did that come up in discussions?

I don't remember any discussion. I think our sense was that we tried to take care of the president's politics and look out for the vice president's politics where we could, and he was the best judge of his own politics. And he can make his own argument, but I believe that this was as much in his interest politically as it was the president's, because, again, to be part of an administration that gets impeached for reasons that are legitimate is, I think, devastating politically. I think to be part of an administration that's impeached for political reasons is something that is quite different, and that's what the message was at the end of that day.

I think the public understood what was going on, and one of the reasons they understood it was because they saw this as Republicans lining up with the Republicans, Democrats lining up with Democrats, and to that it meant politics as usual in Washington and one more reason to turn off the TV.

When the Senate acquitted the president, do you recall that day? Do you recall the president's mood?

Sure. It's very funny because I got in trouble for one thing on this, but it ended up being the most effective thing I said in two years at the White House, when--because I was frustrated with getting the same question day after day, I declared the White House "a gloat-free zone" three or four days before the Senate vote. We knew we were not going to be removed then. And all the press could care about was, well, how are you going to react? Are you going to run around and bang the bongo drum or are you going to gloat? And, you know, I did that. And I remember John Podesta calling me in and telling I'd been too glib. But I think he agreed that it actually sort of put a box around the problem, and we dispensed with it.

But, having said that, that was a very somber day because I think we were glad to be rid of this, but everybody sort of felt the weight of everything we'd just been through, and that was no different for us than it was for the president. You know, the look on his face when he walked out to make the statement I think expressed everything: that he was glad that the Senate had done the right thing, and that he was sorry that he had put the country through this, to the extent for what he was responsible for. And I think that's something he was very aware of at this point.

After impeachment, I can only assume that the White House was hoping for some breathing room. Instead, you got Kosovo.

I think the one thing you learn when you are there is there's no such thing as breathing room. There doesn't seem to be a time in the modern president's life where things are calm. There's always something going on around the world.

The reality was, there was always something going on around the world during impeachment that we had to deal with. The vast majority of people in Washington ignored that. But we quickly shifted from one serious matter to an unfolding crisis in Kosovo.

Was he angry about Kosovo? I mean, did you see the president when the Serbs were moving in, did you see him personally get upset about--

Yeah, I have never seen to date and since the president with such a determined look in his eyes. There was something about what happened in the massacre, which I think happened in December, and the general flouting of the West's beliefs by Milosevic that seems to get to the president, but in a different way than a lot of other things. There wasn't anger. All during Kosovo I never saw the president lose his temper. And I understand in the first term there were some moments in foreign policy crises where, you know, he screamed at people, saying: "How could this happen? How could you do this? Why did this happen?"

But during Kosovo it was replaced with a very quiet and very steely determination that he was certain that he was doing the right thing, and he was certain that what we were doing as far as relying on air power would work. And that was in the face of a lot of people who doubted it. This is on a number of levels. The funny thing about Kosovo was, if you go back and watch the coverage of Kosovo for the week leading up to the bombing campaign starting, there was general outrage about doing nothing. For the week after the first day, there was general outrage about what are we doing. You know, "Why aren't you doing anything? Well, why are you doing this?"

On a more important level, there were certainly those within the Pentagon who were speaking on a regular basis about their doubts about this working. It started in the paper, but you could tell as these meetings went on, as the campaign went on, just by the look in people's eyes, they weren't sure that this was going to work. And the interesting part for me was watching the president during this period because rather than the person you know, I need answers, you know, why is this happening---he was the one who was reassuring that we have a good plan, we know it'll work, just don't respond, don't react to everybody criticizing you on television all the time. We knew this was going to work. Just stay with it.

Was he genuinely worried about sending in American troops? I mean, did he keep up the air war because he was so fearful of having American casualties?

He kept up the air war because he genuinely thought it was going to work. I mean, as we got into day 60 or so, you could not ignore the possibility that it wouldn't work. So there was definitely a lot of work and contingency work going on of how we would--if the ground force was needed, how would we do that?

Did he talk about fear of casualties driving that policy?

No, and I think people have this turned on its head a little bit. He didn't go into this and say let's use the air campaign because that's a much safer way of doing this. I mean, that's a given. He pursued the air campaign because he was convinced that it would work and that he would get the result that he eventually got. I think he took very seriously the risks of escalating that campaign by sending in ground troops and was very aware of it, but had gotten to the point where, if necessary, was willing to do it.

But people who argue that somehow we did the air campaign because he was afraid to have body bags coming back home have it backwards. And it was only when it wasn't working as fast as a lot of people would have expected or a lot of people hoped that work was done on ground troops.I have no doubt in my mind that he would have made the decision, if necessary, to send in ground troops. I also have no doubt that when Milosevic ran up the white flag, there were people who were surprised. But I don't think the president was one of them.

Did you see a noticeable change in the president in these months after impeachment? Was there anything strikingly different about him?

I think that the change that was brought about, from my eyes, was someone who became much more focused and disciplined in going about the way he did his job. He seemed at a certain level, with some exceptions, to be immune to the daily criticism that he was getting. It didn't seem to bother him as much anymore. And we didn't have the sessions where every bad article seemed to set him off, you know, because it was unfair or was allegedly unfair.

I think from my vantage point, he took a much more--it's probably the wrong use of the word---but stoic attitude towards the way Washington worked, and became much more focused on this idea that if I just stick in here and do what I'm supposed to do, that's the only way this thing can all come out in a positive way. And I know that there are people who think that that is a put-on and, you know, if it is, it fooled me.

February of this year, 2000,the White House announces that this is the longest U.S. economic boom in history, 107 months of continuous economic growth. Was there a celebration in the White House? Was there a particular moment that you recall there?

You know, it's one of those things where we couldn't figure out how to measure when it was. So there was kind of a long debate on, "Well, when is it officially?" And anytime you can't quite figure out when the date is, it's hard to plan a party.

But, it's one of these things where I remember the president engaging--I can't remember the meeting. It was in the Cabinet Room, and again, I don't remember why we were all in there. We could have been preparing for a press conference, because we had sort of that cast of characters around, and the president engaging Gene Sperling in sort of a banter back and forth over, "Well, when can we say it is and how do you do it, do you have to wait for the GDP numbers?" And as he continued going, you could tell how much he was enjoying having this discussion. And he sort of got this smile on his face, and you could tell that on one level he was having this conversation trying to figure out a tactical thing, but there was part of him saying, "We did this. I can't believe we're having this discussion."

In July of this past summer, Camp David declared a news blackout. Why'd you do that?

Because we found that when the parties were able to talk freely with the press about what was going on, we spent the first four or five hours every day arguing over the papers.

The newspapers.

The newspapers. The Palestinians would be upset about something the papers had from some Israeli position and they'd want to settle that, and the Israelis would be upset about something the Palestinians said. And the best way, we thought, to keep the conversations productive and focused was just to tell everybody they couldn't talk.

Now, we understood that there are limits to that and there was still some discussions. But if you look at those 12 or 13 days, there wasn't that much, and I don't remember a moment in those talks when either side had a particular grievance with the other on what was in the paper. They obviously had grievances on more substantive things, but, you know, I was sort of seen as the arbiter of this and, you know, Prime Minister Barak would grab me every morning and say, you know, "Anything in the paper today?" And I'd say, "No, nothing to worry about." And he'd say, "Good," and, you know, sort of walk on to start the meetings. So they were very aware of this. And it provided a much more constructive atmosphere for the talks.

What was Mr. Clinton's mood like during this time?

Well, you've got to put this in perspective. He went in thinking that there was probably a 10 percent chance of getting an agreement. But he had been convinced and agreed with the line of reasoning that said that this is the only chance we have, that if you just let this continue to disintegrate, it's going to cycle downward, disintegrate, and you'll have violence on your hands.

So I think he was determined to try to take this shot, understanding that it was a long shot. But I think in the back of his mind he had a sense that if he could keep the parties together long enough and talk to them enough, he could help them find common ground.

So I don't think he went in and thought this was impossible. He understood how difficult this was. And I think after a couple of days of it, sort of looked back and said, "I can't believe I didn't understand how incredibly difficult this was, because once they started talking about Jerusalem, it was like it took it to a whole new level of difficulty."

He kept imposing these deadlines that would come and go and he'd impose another deadline.

Well, not really. Basically, the president had a G-8 meeting to go to, and we were making a rolling judgment over what's going on here is useful. Is there a reason to delay going to the G-8? And the G-8 meeting was quite important, but missing the first day of it didn't seem to us to be all that big a deal. And the discussions were not moving in a very positive way, but they hadn't gotten destructive yet.

So the decision was really no big deal the first night, to just say we'll stay another day. It became a big deal the second night because at that point you were not going to go and stay at the G-8 meeting for 15 minutes and turn around and come back.

And, I stood in the room as they came to this decision, but the talks were called off. This wasn't a ploy. This wasn't some thing we were trying to do to pressure one party or another party. They were off. Both sides agreed. And that's when I went out and told the president that the meetings were off. And I don't think it was in the press more than five minutes when both sides reconsidered in their own way.

This was right around midnight.

Yeah, the cars were running. They had been packed. The cabin sits on a little hill and the driveway comes right up to the cabin. So sitting in the middle of the room, you could hear the president's Suburban. You could hear the engine running outside. And they were all set up, and we were packed and everybody was walking to the door when the phone rang and the parties decided to put this back on for a couple days.

So I don't think it's a situation where we were saying "Here's a line in the sand. No, no, here's a line in the sand." This was up to the parties. I mean, ultimately we had five or six more days of talks that came to nothing,

We saw the stills of the president shuttling back and forth between Arafat and Barak and a couple of times when they were together. Was there ever a sense that a deal was possible? Or was it clear that Jerusalem was such a difficult issue that there was never going to be an agreement on it?

I think that there was vacillation between hopefulness and hopelessness. But there were a few moments where there seemed to be a willingness among both delegations to put a deal together. ... And I think there were a few moments, particularly on the last night, when they would make some progress and then they'd fall back.

But it was very clear that neither side wanted to leave, because we'd say, "Okay, fine, what reason is there to stay?" And then all of a sudden they'd find something new to talk about.

But on the last night, it was clear that we had to do something, and I think any sense of hope was dashed when Arafat sent his representative over and he came in the room and it was sort of, I think, a difficult moment for everybody in the room. But the message was, we can't move in the way that you're all suggesting on Jerusalem, and we're going to have to come back to this at another point.

The president made a very pointed statement in which he praised Prime Minister Barak, and by implication, seemed to criticize Arafat. Tell us about how the president came to formulate it that way, since he had previously been so careful to be neutral.

I think to walk away and say after what happened, that both parties worked in good faith and they just couldn't do it, didn't necessarily accurately reflect what had gone on. Barak had come in, as is, I think, widely known, with some very interesting and forward-moving ideas. And on certain levels, some of the details of these, there was some meetings of the minds between the two delegations.

But ultimately on the broad strokes of this, Arafat made the decision that this was not the time to make a dramatic move. And I think the president was determined to reflect in his comments the importance of what Barak had done.

Did Clinton also feel disappointed by Arafat, that Arafat had let him down?

I think he was disappointed that they couldn't make the deal there. I think because he understands Arafat, and has been in this process, he had some empathy for the difficult position Arafat was in.

What was his relationship like with Arafat? I mean, he's met with Arafat more than any other foreign leader.

I think he's got a very good relationship. I think obviously the current times have put a strain on that, and I think in the past he was always effective in making a case to Arafat and making the case of why taking difficult and risky steps was in his interest.

And despite all of his efforts at this session at Camp David, he couldn't do that, and this was probably the first time he couldn't do that. So I think there was some frustration. There wasn't anger. He didn't see it that way because he understood how much Arafat had at stake here. This wasn't just that he's being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn. This is a big deal. This is the biggest deal you have in this part of the world when you start talking about Jerusalem.

Did the president have too much faith that his own personal and political abilities could bring these two leaders to an agreement that a lot of people thought was just impossible?

That's an interesting question, but with all due respect, it's an irrelevant question because the president knew he had about a one in ten chance of getting this thing done. That's what he said as we walked into the place, you know. But it's the only chance we had.

I mean, there's this ridiculous argument right now that somehow by bringing them together and not getting a deal, we've devolved into violence in the region. When everybody who was part of this process knew that that's where they were going, that they'd had 18 months of steadily deteriorating talks at the level right below the leader, and this was getting worse and worse and worse. And the only chance we had to get a deal was to try to bring them together and take a long shot. And I don't think the president went in thinking that somehow he could ride to the rescue and be the big hero. I think he realized that the United States has an essential role in this process, and it was a difficult call to make--do we play a card now or do we wait.

But this was not a case where he overestimated his ability to bring them together. I think as he sat and talked to them hour after hour, particularly Jerusalem, he completely understood how difficult this was. There's like no comparable situation here where you can say on this issue, you just can't talk about it because the feelings run so high.

What I know from watching, because I watched him during four of these peace summits, it's certainly my belief that if there was anyone who could get this done, he was the person, because he's got this sort of rare combination of being a good politician, he understands the other person's politics. And you can have all the negotiators in the world make proposals, and the other guy will look at you like you don't get it. You know, someone would say something, "Let's try this," and the president would say, "Barak can't sell that at home, that's terrible for him." You know, he understood both of them.

He also was quite a gifted listener, which most people aren't, and could tell when people were just blowing off steam and when people were really trying to send you a message about what it is you were trying to do. Fast forward to the Democratic convention in 2000. The president's got a bit of a tightrope to walk here. He's got to give his speech at the convention. He's got to make his presence, at the same time hand over the baton to Gore. That weekend the president and Mrs. Clinton go to a couple of fundraisers, there's a lot of attention. He gives this speech Monday night, and there is sniping even from within the Gore campaign that the president is still hogging the limelight. Do you recall any discussions about that?

A few. Let me just do a little explanatory preamble to this. Even having spent eight years in Washington, the president and the first lady are constantly surprised at how Washington works. I think at one level they're going to be completely happy to get out of here. They don't understand the rules the way some old Washington hands do. And, I don't think they saw the big deal going out there early.

You know, it was a situation where it could do her some good because she had a big fundraiser planned for the Saturday night, and it was a chance for the president to go out and see a lot of his old friends. They don't all come together like this on many occasions.

And I remember arguing early on, because there was some talk that they would go out and spend six days there, and understanding the Washington rules somewhat better, made the argument that that's not a good idea because it'll be perceived as--exactly as you said--trying to steal the limelight. So, in fact, the trip got shortened a little bit, but probably not as much as it could have been.

But we play by a peculiar set of rules here, and the story came out in The New York Times the day we were leaving that was a very interesting story and was relevant and accurate if it had been run three weeks earlier. There was a debate between the first lady's campaign and the Gore campaign, and it was about fundraising. And because the first lady's fundraiser was going better than the Gores, and they were upset because there's only so many donors out there. And as is the case with most of the things that we do, it was worked out. The president made some calls for the people who were organizing the fundraisers. They got some more people to go there. They reshaped it a little bit.

So three weeks out, the problem that existed was settled. But then The New York Times decided to do a little bit of history and say that there was a raging debate going on. Trust me, if there was a raging debate, I would have been in the middle of it. And I wasn't. I had been in the middle of it three weeks before, but that doesn't matter.

Reality was now set. We had a new paradigm which was anytime Clinton stepped out anywhere near a camera, he was taking something away from Gore, and it didn't matter how you talked about it and what you did. The amazing thing about it is how little of it that we spent all of our time in the Beltway talking about translates to the country, because if we walked out and drove 30 miles in any direction and you asked--tell me about the president and the convention, they'd look at you and nine out of ten would say, "Great speech." Or Republicans say, "That was an awful speech." But no one's going to say, "Well, he was out there too long, and, you know, was he trying to take the limelight" and all of that.

Inside the beltway or not, the reality for you at the White House was there was an impression of a raging dispute between the Gore campaign and the White House about how the president was going to divide his time in Los Angeles. What do you remember about those discussions?

Well, I remember how silly it was. I remember how baseless it was in fact. What the reality was is--I think the New York Times put this on the front page three days in a row. So, you know, they get to set the reality, not me. So those were the questions I was answering.

So it made us change what we were doing. We had requests from everyone to talk to the president at his last convention, and we had made the decision that the best thing to do was to do the morning shows that came on that Monday morning. So that once the president finished his speech, he could walk off the stage and that was it. You know, that would be the turning point for, everybody to focus their attention now on Gore and Lieberman. I mean, it was ironic that the same sort of anchor people who were going on TV every night saying "The president can't get off center stage," were getting off the air, picking up the phone, calling me, and begging me for an interview.

But, you know, we changed what we were doing. We kept a lower profile because of this, but we couldn't go back to Washington. We were there. It says something about how silly it was.

... During this time the president's concerned not only with the Gore campaign, but the campaign of his own wife for the Senate in New York. To what extent did he tell you how you should deal with the press on Mrs. Clinton running for Senate?

Oh, I can't think of many ways that he didn't have that sort of front and center. He was very involved in it, but I can't remember discussions about how we handle sort of her things. I mean, I'm sure there were. I'm trying to think. You know, at Camp David we had the phone call to Mort Zuckerman, and then the Daily News that he managed to tell me about afterwards. You know, that's always the great phone call, saying, "You know, I just talked to a reporter. I'm not sure it's going to turn out okay, you might want to check it out."

To what extent did the president focus on Hillary Clinton's campaign?

I think the president has the ability to focus on a lot of things, but he's got a big part of him that loves politics, and the first lady's campaign gave him an outlet. You know, here was a place where she very much wanted his advice and involvement, which was not always the case with the presidential campaign, and he very much wanted to give it.

I'll never forget the scene the day she was announcing. They were working on the announcement speech, and different from the president, she had never given one of these before, so she was really nervous. And she had all of the consultants and speech writers around, which were making her crazy.

So he ended up going upstairs in the house in Chappaqua, and out in sort of a finished garage. The speech writer set up the computer. And the president was the one who shuttled back and forth because she couldn't deal with the rest of them. He calmed her down, and helped her with going through and making the changes. And he went back and forth, and at one point, he kept coming down and saying, "Okay. She likes this change, but she doesn't like this change. Let's try it this way." And he would tell someone, and they'd try to type it in. He eventually like kicked the person out of the chair. So you had the president sitting there, you know, putting in some changes on the computer.

And you could tell, on this particular Saturday afternoon he was having more fun than he had had in a long time. I mean, he loved it, because on so many levels he had done this before, and he was both helping her with the words, but also helping her with bucking her up, "You can do this. This is going to be great." So it was for him, it's how he had fun.

To what extent did Hillary Clinton rely on Bill Clinton for political advice in this campaign?

Oh, in a large extent. I think she understands that he has a vast reservoir of political skills and experience, and she relied on that, just as he relied on her political sense, and sense of what was in his best interest over eight years. I mean, this goes back and forth between the two. It just happened that once she decided to run for Senate, she became the person who needed the day-to-day advice and he was always there.

...The new Independent Counsel, Robert Ray, comes out with a report that essentially says there's nothing criminal in the Whitewater investigation. The White House isn't cleared, but there is nothing that can be a provable crime. What was the sense in the White House when that report came out?

Well, there was no sense of surprise on the facts because the president and the first lady knew the facts a lot better than everybody else did. But I think there was some sense that they play by a different set of rules here in Washington, the Independent Counsels, the press, whatever, there's never a straight, "Okay, we looked at it and there's nothing there." It's got to be worded in a way where you can create some sense. You know, $50 million later, if they had something, if there was a criminal act, there would have done it. And you can say the White House wasn't cleared, and you would be wrong. The White House was cleared. The president was cleared. The first lady was cleared. We know that based on what the facts that were put forward are, and, you know, I can't put back in the bottle the 73 front page stories in the Washington Post or the 55 Nightlines about the scandal of Whitewater, but the bottom line is: we had someone who was determined to prove something, went around the country, tied up hundreds of FBI agents, spent 40, $50 million on it, and they didn't' find anything.

What was the sense in the White House that day? Was there a--

I think there was a sense that day that the Independent Counsel, in his own way, had to admit that it was time to move on, there was nothing there. But also a sense that we play by, as I said, a different set of rules here, and you know, there's no such thing as a clean bill of health. You know, a few sentences that suggested by innuendo that there was something there that would stay there, and that the Whitewater thing would never really go away.

Was the president embittered by that?

I think he was long past the sort of Whitewater--I mean, his feelings about the Independent Counsel now are totally focused on what's going to happen after he gets out of office and he continues to have an articulated threat from the Independent Counsel that he will indict him, and that's where his focus is.

The Middle East erupted shortly after that. What was the president's personal response? Did he think it was inevitable as a result of the process breaking down?

I don't know if he believes that it's inevitable, but there's nothing that takes up more of his time. I can't follow it day-to-day like I used to, but I certainly know for the first several weeks of this, he was on the phone several times a day with both of them. I think he understands the limits of his influence through this process. There are times that you just can't put down an uprising on the ground from afar, but he understands his obligation to stay engaged, and to keep both parties in a position of not going to a sort of an irretrievable point where they can't make peace. And that's an ongoing process.

The story the last couple weeks--and obviously, you're out now, but you may have a sense of this based on your contacts--the president's probably the greatest campaigner in a generation. Is he frustrated, do you know, at being kept on a leash by the Gore campaign?

The answer to the question is yes and no, so let me do the no part first. The president understands, as a instinctual politician, that the best thing he could do in this election cycle is be out somewhat under the radar, helping to raise money. That's the best thing he can do for Al Gore, and I think he probably did 200 events.

And one of the reasons why the Democrats, in the last week to ten days, could spend dollar for dollar with Republicans, first time since I can remember that this will be the case. It has always been the Republicans have found some big source of cash and dumped a bunch of money in at the end. So, I think he understands.

But I do think, he's being prematurely taken off the stage, because he's 54 years-old, and he understands the two-term limit, and that you can't run for office forever, but this is the first time he's actually been faced with it. So, sure, there's part of him that says, "Wouldn't it be great if I was out there making my case?" But he has said to me a dozen times that one of the first things he learned about politics was you can't ever effectively make the case that you should vote for somebody else because I say so. So I don't think he sits there and believes, "You know, if I just could get out there, this candidate would win", or "If I could just get out there, that candidate would win." So I think he understands most of this, but I think there's a kind of wistfulness that it's not him running any more.

Working with Bill Clinton, did you get the sense that he was having a whole lot more fun in the job the last year and a half or so?

I think you have to go back a little bit to understand that. I think any president learns on the job, and it's because it's difficult to get your hands around. And my understanding of the situation was sort of by mid-1995, this guy had figured out how to effectively manage the different things you need to do as president, from both the public boy pulpit part to the policy making, and you know, in 1997, we were sidetracked by all of the obsession on campaign finance, and in 1998 we know we had Monica and impeachment.

So I think by the middle of 1999, especially after the success in Kosovo, he was very confident in his ability to do it, and I think it was a lot more fun, and I think if you look at the last 18 or 19 months, it was a time of progress and success at the White House and a time where it wasn't a struggle of "do I have the right staff in the right place? Are we doing things the most effective way we can?" He felt that was true, and I think it was a lot more fun for him.

Did you notice that he was funnier?

He's always been funny. And I think he was a little more willing in the last year and a half to poke fun at himself. I was always a proponent of that. I mean, he understood that if you make fun of yourself five times, you can make fun of the guy you really don't like once and get away with it. But if you just go out and say, "This guy's a jerk" in a funny way, you're going to be seen as someone who's got a problem, and you know, is trying to get even.

And I think one of the things that changed was--I had a slightly different attitude towards these public press dinners, which is I always thought there should be a message. and it was often that if you poke a little fun at yourself, you can poke some fun at the press out there and give them a little message about, "Maybe you obsess too much this way and that way."

And we found the right formula couple times; a couple times I'm not sure we did. But it would have been impossible if he wasn't comfortable with where he was and what he was doing. And, we had him washing the damn limousine. He had to feel comfortable enough in his position in the world to let three camera crews follow him around mowing the lawn and doing that.

Tell us about making that video. That's kind of interesting.

I got the idea to do this probably in February. But my original idea was not to do this--I'm a big fan of the cable show "The Sopranos", and it struck me, with all this psychobabble about the president, the way to make fun of the press would be to have the president sit down with the psychiatrist from that show. And I got as far as--she agreed to do it, but I just--you know, there was just part of me that said, "President, psychiatrist, I can't do it." So I sort of put the idea aside.

And then I went out and did this thing at the White House Correspondent's Association with "The West Wing" cast. And I came back from that, and I immediately brought my staff together and said, "We're doing a video, and it's going to be better than the one we did, because if what comes out of this is people talk about me rather than the president, I'm dead."

So we were sitting around and just kicking around different ideas, and we came upon this sort of "Home Alone" idea ...

How did you at the White House decide that the president ought to make this video?

Well, there was in the press a storyline that had hung around for months and months, that somehow the president, all of his friends had left, and he was wandering around talking to the portraits at night, and this and that. So we wanted to make a video that reflected that we knew how ridiculous this was and we were going to poke some fun at the president, but really be poking fun at those who were writing the story. ...

So anyway, sitting around, we came up with the idea of sort of the "Home Alone" theme, you know. And we had originally started it as the--you know, this as the president talking to the portraits, because there was the old Nixon story of him doing that. And we ended up shooting that but it looked terrible, because, you know, we actually had him talking to the Roosevelt portrait, but it was very poorly lit because we did the whole thing very quickly, so we didn't use that.

But it just naturally started to snowball, you know. Well, if we can get him to cut the lawn, maybe we can get him to wash the car. If we can get him to wash the car, maybe we can get him to ride a bicycle. And if we can get him to ride a bicycle, maybe we can get this kid who plays Stewart on the Ameritrade ads, who Xeroxes his face and does this little dance.

And the whole thing just sort of snowballed. I had originally, out of courtesy, asked the first lady's office if she wanted anything to do with it, and they had said no, because they said that's not something that she'd do. And then word got around about what he had done, and I get this call the day before the event, you know, when we're actually supposed to show this, that says the first lady wants to be in it, so we had to come up with something. You know, how can we use the first lady? And it hit me that one of the things that she's remembered for is the line in New Hampshire about, you know, stand by your man, I'm not just home baking cookies. And I thought, okay, fine. What if we had him staying at home baking cookies? And that was the genesis for him running out with the lunch.

But, you know, the whole thing took less than two hours of his time. And it was not seen as something that would make a major statement about the president and his state of mind, and where the country was, and where we are as a civilization.

And I knew the whole thing had gotten out of hand when I got a call from a friend of mine in Italy, saying that his Italian wasn't so good yet, but there was some story on the air in Italy saying something to the effect of--they think the president may have lost his mind. And I started getting mail from all over the world.

You know, the reaction to it was generally positive. There was a minority that thought that somehow it had demeaned the presidency. That's a judgment for others to make, but--

Is it a judgment that you folks discussed?

No. I mean once it got put together, we thought, "This is pretty funny", but we didn't think that this would be something that would be on the network news two days running. But it made the point. You know, it sort of--in its own sort of silly little way, you know, it was the president, he was able to, just for a few minutes, kind of thumb his nose at all the experts who are so sure they knew how he felt, and so sure they could pinpoint and analyze where his head was. And you know, the irony of all of it is, he never thinks about this stuff, and if you had asked him--I mean, when I asked him to do this, he sort of said, "Sure, if you think it's all right", but kind of looked at me and said, "But why is this funny?" Even when I explained it to him, he was like, "Well, if you're sure that's funny, I'll do it but I don't really get it", because he doesn't sort of play by the rules that most of us do here in Washington. He doesn't sort of get ... what gets people juiced up in this town and what doesn't, because they somehow never managed to learn. It's probably they'll be the better for it down the road, but I think there were times when a little better Washington radar would have served them.

It's interesting that you say that. I mean, in the first term that's why David Gergen was brought in, because the White House thought it needed a Washington radar. You're saying that the president, upon leaving the office, still kind of needed a Washington radar.

No, I think he relied on staff, and I think, particularly in the second term was very comfortable, trusted the people he had around him, very little in-fighting in the second four years as opposed to the first four years. And he became much more comfortable I think as a leader, and much more capable of getting the best out of people. But he never completely grasped the sort of unwritten rules of Washington.

What do you mean there, unwritten rules?

Oh, we have a peculiar way of what works and what doesn't in this town, and the high priests who get to decide things, sitting in the metaphorical salons in Georgetown, and the people--you know, the Sally Quinns and David Broders who say things like, "Not in our town." He never quite understood the thinking of how the elite attempt to form opinion here inside the beltway, and he certainly had a distaste for it, but you can have a distaste for it, which I actually do, but I actually have some sense of how it gets formed, and the pressure points in the process where you can try to head off what most people would think would be normal, but in Washington is considered wrong or verboten.

And I don't get the sense that either one of them, over the eight years--despite everything they learned and how smart they were--ever quite understood the rhythm of this city.

The culture?

The culture, the sense of the people who are here all the time and the entitlement that they feel. The sense that presidents come and go, but we're here, and we set the rules. I can understand not being comfortable with it, but it always surprised me that they never figured out what the rules of the game were. If they figured it out, I doubt they would have played the game, but I always got the sense that he never quite figured out--I said the unwritten rules--but, you know, the rules of how we all play here. And that's not a criticism of him. I mean, it's just an observation.

When you consider the president's historical place, his legacy, if you could, in a succinct way, what do you think history is going to write of him, good and bad?

I think the president set this country and this government on a path that has the potential to extend prosperity beyond our wildest expectations, you know, decades, taking advantage of a global, digital world. If that comes to fruition and we live in a period of unprecedented prosperity, I think this president will be looked upon increasingly with great respect and affection.

I think if the bets he made turn out to be wrong, we will spend a lot more time focusing on the impeachment and all that went around that. But it's my guess that if we continue going in the direction we are, and future presidents are able to meet the challenge, that the 1990s will be seen as a pivotal time in our history, where the president was an extraordinary economic steward. Whether that will happen or not, I don't know. But to the extent that the success that we've enjoyed over the last eight years continues, I think that will more and more, as the years go by, define his legacy.

To the extent that this is an aberration, that we continue to go through boom and bust, and this great promise of this time is really empty, then I think he'll be a president remembered for impeachment.

Some people have said something along the lines of history will remember him as a good president who could have been a great president but for personal flaws. Do you buy that?

I think the great part about history is it's not written yet, so those who try to predict it, generally don't know what they're talking about. I think we don't know the impact of the changes he's made on how we manage our economy, so, again, if the impact is profound, I think he'll be seen as a great president who understood things before his time. If we're headed off in the wrong direction or there's some changes that we have no way of anticipating or dealing with, or the leadership is lacking down in the future, then I think he will be remembered more for the limitations he placed on himself than on the things he did. But there's no--the great part about this is there's no way to know this. This is entirely a guessing game that you can't really begin to answer for another 20 or 30 years.

Did impeachment prevent him from accomplishing things that he would have? He said, for example in his interview with Joe Klein in The New Yorker, that Social Security and Medicare essentially were the victims of impeachment. From your own perspective, are there things this president didn't accomplish because of that?

I have no doubt that in his mind he doesn't believe they were opportunities missed. I have a slightly different view, which is impeachment was a manifestation of a partisan political environment run amuck, and that if it wasn't impeachment, our politics have gotten so poisonous, that it would have been something else. And on issues like Social Security and Medicare, this president and this Congress were not going to have a meeting of the minds. So I'm not sure that impeachment stopped anything.

In an odd way, we sort of put ourselves on a path through the limited role of the Executive Branch. The president will be remembered in some circles, almost as much for not what he did, but what he stopped from happening. You know, the path that we were going to take if Newt Gingrich and the people who swept into power in 1994 wanted us to go on was, I think, quite destructive. So whether he'll be remembered or not for stopping that is--it's hard to remember a negative--it's quite important. But he did keep us on this economic path.

... No one will ever forget that this was a president who was impeached. It's so rare that it happens, that it has to be part of the story. But it becomes a question of whether it defines the story or is part of the story, and I don't think anybody knows that yet.

On the OIC, did the president fear that he was going to be prosecuted after leaving office?

I think the president believes that there's a very real possibility that the Independent Counsel will prosecute, that that's what he's moving toward, and I can provide no evidence to the contrary. I mean, you don't keep the office open unless you plan to do something with it. And it's an odd sort of thing, because we've had some discussions in the late summer, early fall, where the president has said several times, "He's probably going to do this, and you need to prepare people for that."

But the odd thing is, is the more we criticize the Independent Counsel, the more the media goes his side. And in this one we've left him alone, and the media's been fairly unanimous, for the editorial pages and the columnists, in criticizing the Independent Counsel for not letting go. So it's an interesting challenge for how you do this. But--

The president's definitely concerned, and you could tell that?

Sure. He knows that, from experience, that common sense doesn't live at the Independent Counsel's Office, and after everything they've done, it would be no surprise if they decided, even after everything had happened in impeachment and everything that happened constitutionally on the Hill, that if they decided that one more time they had to try to prosecute the president.

What did he say about that? Did that make him angry or does the prospect make him incredibly agitated?

I think the president is a human being, and the prospect of being hounded even out of the White House for something that started a long time ago before he got in the White House, is frustrating and makes him angry, and concerned. The real skill that I admire, [is] his ability to put it aside and do his job, because he's been able to do that, at least in the four years that I was there.



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