Give us a sense of what the White House press operation was like when
you were brought in, and a sense of why you were brought in.|
I think there was a lot of contention in the atmosphere in that the press
operation wasn't always on top of what was happening at the White House,
through no particular fault of DeeDee or anyone else, although she sometimes
got slammed unfairly. I heard from a lot of reporters that this White House
just seems to not really get what we do, or really doesn't care what we
So, I inherited an environment where there were some frayed emotions and
feelings. The main thing I tried to do at the outset was to establish some
measure of friendliness--well, not friendliness--amicability in the
relationship. It's an adversarial relationship, but we try to make it a little
Do you remember the advice you got from Marlin Fitzwater before you took
He gave me a lot of very good advice. One that I failed to follow to my
own detriment was that any time you're standing at the podium talking about the
leadership of Congress, you're probably getting into trouble because you're
being too political. His advice was to not be so rawbone political when you're
standing at that podium.
He also gave you some advice, according to the Woodward book, that you
should have your spies basically everywhere, that you really had to have a
certain intelligence network.
Yes. Marlin is a great believer that you have to have your own system for
verifying the information that you get. You ought to trust but verify.
The White House is a huge organization, first and foremost. It's a funnel
point for a lot of the work of government, and we had, as all White Houses do,
different people with competing agendas bringing their information in. You
needed to make sure you knew what you were talking about and make sure you
reflected other viewpoints and didn't just accept one version of a series of
events or a speech or a new policy or something.
After the Republican Congress comes in in '94 and after a series of
defeats leading up to April of '95, the president in a press conference
declares, "I am still relevant." What was your take on what he said
It's not the phrasing any of us would have picked. It was the idea that,
in fact, we were trying to communicate. But it's like that old adage: You
never stand up and say "I'm a funny guy." You tell them a joke and get the
audience to laugh.
Particularly because of the Murrah Building [bombing] in Oklahoma City, he
began to have some opportunities to demonstrate he was relevant and he was
capable of really seizing back control of the agenda in Washington and doing
battle with this new Republican Congress and defining the agenda for the
When he said that, you, as press secretary, what was going through your
You just sort of say, "That's the one I wish I could have taken back."
Because you just knew that would crystallize a lot of the feeling that the
president had dropped off the radar screen.
Crystallized as a headline right away in your mind?
Crystallized as a headline in the press, saying this is what Clinton has
been reduced to. He has to stand up and proclaim his own relevancy and he's
the President of the United States. But remember, in a way, he was exactly
right. The important thing was he began to get the opportunity to demonstrate
that he was relevant and he clawed his way back out of that hole that he was
in following the mid-term election in 1994.
Beginning actually with the election and through '95, the White House
staff learns that the president is getting some advice that at first is secret
From "Charlie," the code name that Dick Morris used when he called in to
render advice. Long before the president introduced everyone to the idea that
Dick Morris would be a member of the strategic team, it was clear that he was
getting advice that he was taking to heart from some external source. And it
was frustrating a little bit in the spring of 1995 to know that there was some
other group of advisors or some kitchen cabinet or some process that was not
part of the defined process of the White House.
It was frustrating and exasperating a lot of people, Leon Panetta
especially. Finally, Leon insisted we get this process working coherently
[and] bring whoever is on the team and make sure that we're getting the advice.
At that point, Dick became more of a member of the campaign's strategic
council, really setting some direction for the coming reelection
What was your reaction when you found out that the president had
returned to this secret advisor?
I had heard about Morris before and heard amusing anecdotes about him, but
I'd never met him. I really remember meeting him for the first time. He's an
interesting guy, he's bright and there's no question about that. He's really
got a very good strategic sense of politics. He has a very good feel for what
really moves that part of the American--those who are not particularly
partisan, not particularly wedded to either political party. They're up for
grabs in most elections, particularly in national elections. He has a very keen
understanding of them.
But I remember sitting there listening to this guy and saying, "I understand
why Bill Clinton, the political animal, really finds this guy of some utility
because he's really a brilliant strategic thinker."
At the same time, in a place where turf is so important--
Where turf is important and Dick has a unique interpersonal style, too.
He's kind of a weird little guy.
As we're trying to get behind the cosmetics and really understand the
nature of the argument he was making, Morris was making a right-on argument
about where the center of the political spectrum was, where the high ground of
American politics would be in the 1996 election. He helped Clinton define the
ground we wanted to defend as an incumbent running for reelection in
As you were mentioning a moment ago, also in April, later, you have the
Oklahoma City bombing. For a president who has been getting bad press really
since the elections, what does this do for your--
It was a defining moment in many ways because it was the moment where we,
all Americans, needed a president to come and help us understand this horrible
event. We needed someone who would speak to our capacity to get beyond the
tragedy, our capacity to think through the realities of the kind of world we
live in where something like this could happen. We needed a president, quite
frankly, to shut down some of the anti-Arab hysteria that almost swept this
country. ... By Bill Clinton stepping in and filling that role more than
adequately at that moment, that was a turn-around moment for his
Later that fall, the sort of seismic event is the battle over shutting
down the government in November. For you and others on the staff, is there a
moment there when you realized that you'd won or that you've got the
Republicans on the run for the first time in a year?
Not a moment. We weren't quite sure what the outcome would be. We knew we
were going right into brinkmanship with Newt Gingrich and the Republican
Congress. We knew that the shutdown was going to have a very dramatic impact
on the thinking of the American people. ...
But no one anticipated the degree to which the Republicans would be held
responsible for shutting down the government, the degree to which people would
respond favorably to some of the arguments the president was making.
Bill Clinton had not come into sharp focus for most Americans. Who is this
guy? Where is he on the political spectrum? How does he relate to me and my
needs? That was the moment in which they finally said, "He's fighting for things
that I care about. He's standing up to these Republicans in Congress that want
to take the country in a direction I don't believe in."
That was a very critical moment. ... It happened when most of the White
House staff had been sent home. It was against the law for them to show up
because under some federal statute they couldn't get paid and we had interns
serving in staff positions, including the intern who came to deliver the pizza
about that exact time.
We'll get to that later--
--since we're doing this chronologically. There's also a classic
Washington story that serves to symbolize this whole thing for most Americans.
Do you remember your role in getting out the story of Gingrich on Air Force One
and whether there was a specific strategy session to take advantage of
To let people know that he had been whining about not coming off the front
or something? I'll be honest with you. I don't recall a strategic point of
view about it. Nothing happens that doesn't get noticed when the president
travels or when you're out on the road like that. The [press] pool was
watching very carefully what the chemistry and the reaction would be between
Gingrich and Clinton. They noticed that he did not come off the front of the
plane and I think they probably began making some inquiries about it.
I remember first hearing that the Speaker was a little bit peeved at his
treatment from reporters. That's when the story came our way, rather than the
story going out the other direction, is my recollection.
Do you recall how you used it after that?
No. I remember a lot of people thinking that they had flown back after a
funeral that had some emotional toll [on] Bill Clinton. The feeling was that
Speaker Gingrich had certainly stepped a little bit over the line.
One thing I do remember that had a very powerful impact in the
White House was, either the New York Post or the New York Daily
News had a big front page picture of Newt Gingrich as crybaby Newt or
something like that. That circulated pretty quickly around the White House.
Do you recall the president's attitude during the shutdown and your
conversations with him?
He was very, very keen on making sure none of us overstepped the bounds of
what was legitimate, partisan commentary. He more often than not was trimming
my sails when it came to commenting on Newt Gingrich and the Republicans. I
had a more naturally, combative, partisan instinct and the president was
usually the one who said, "Look, that's too over the top because I still need to
negotiate with these people."
As Gingrich has said, as Lott has said, [I think the president was
obviously] having some conversations back and forth with the leadership
privately to try to bring the whole budget negotiation to some conclusion. And
I think he was a little bit afraid. The Republicans used to watch our press
comments and press conferences at the White House very carefully and, of
course, vice versa.
The president didn't want us in front of him making policy. He wanted to
be shaping the events and the conversations he was having directly with the
people on the other side.
Do you remember a fight within the White House about that time on
whether or not the president ought to cut a deal or whether he ought to stand
I remember several. My memory is a little fuzzy now, but over the course
of those days, there were several points [when the] government was going to
slip over and run out of money and we were going to have to start closing
Each time that happened, there was some ... good, legitimate debate with
people who had different points of view.
In January of '96, there is a new development on the scandal front, for
lack of a better word. It's discovered that the [Rose Law Firm] billing
records that had been subpoenaed by everybody had been discovered. Do you
remember how you found out about that and what your thinking was?
I don't remember. I think I probably heard about it from a woman named
Jane Sherburne, who was one of the legal counsels working specifically on the
One of my conditions for taking the job [as press secretary] was that I did
not want to become the day-to-day point person for the press on Whitewater.
... We needed to have someone who would be the designated press contact on
questions that developed out of the Whitewater independent counsel inquiry.
We had almost a separate press operation to do that. I think it was from
that team--Jane Sherburne, Mark Fabiani and those folks--that I first
You could just roll your eyes and say good luck. There was a real easy way
to portray the information negatively and the president's opponents did that.
Of course, I don't think the press was willing to cut the White House, and
particularly Mrs. Clinton, any slack on the suddenly discovered billing
According to the Woodward book, there is a pretty strong debate that
breaks out about whether to make an announcement. And in the Woodward book, it
says that you basically have to bludgeon the legal team in order to get the
information out that they--
I remembered on many occasions, not just maybe that one particular
instance, of saying, "You've got to get whatever factual information you've got
on this out the door and you need to tell [the press] before they hear it
I don't remember what they actually ended up doing, how the story came out.
You send an explosive piece of information to the Republican Congress, it
will most likely leak in very short order. So, why not tell the story
yourself? Why not put the information out there so that it's coming from you
and not from your opponents who will characterize it in the least favorable
light. That argument happened over and over and over again.
There was a faction within the legal team that said, "That's just not
proper. It's not proper for us to do it in public." It's strange. This had
far less to do with political press strategy and much more lawyers who just
have this kind of buttoned-up way of doing business. They felt like they should
do it according to the book.
It wasn't until much later in the process where everybody at the White
House finally figured out there is no way that this Republican Congress is ever
going to treat any of the information coming from the White House fairly. It's
going to be combat from day one.
That week, there was--Time or Newsweek, I'm not sure
which--had the cover with Hillary and that weekend Bill Safire called Mrs.
Clinton a congenital liar. How did Mrs. Clinton react to that?
I don't know. I don't recall having a conversation with her. I know the
president was very, very angry about it.
Remember, Mrs. Clinton had been very badly bruised by the health care
episode in 1994. By the time I arrived there in 1995, she was much less of a
presence within the White House West Wing. She still had very good and
effective staff. They asserted her interests on various things that were
procedure-oriented within the White House, but she was not the kind of presence
within the decision-making councils in the White House that she's described
being in the '93, '94 period.
She didn't talk to you about the press treatment that we--
I would have interactions with her staff and I'd usually more or less
express sympathy saying. Their attitude usually was, "Hey, a lot worse has been
written about her." But it was the president who was furious. I took my cue
from what he wanted to have said, less of what Mrs. Clinton wanted to have
What did the president want you to say? I remember the briefing very
I remember the briefing, too. I cribbed something that Harry Truman once
said. I think he was reacting to a critique of a musical performance by his
daughter. [Truman] said that he would like to deliver the response to the
bridge of the nose of the critic. And that's something that stuck in my mind.
It wasn't exactly what Bill Clinton told me to say, but it was close enough,
expletive deleted. It worked just fine.
Now that you don't have to worry about a briefing, what was it the
president wanted you to say?
It was not for family television.
In the election, one of the issues that comes up fairly late is
campaign finance. Gingrich and Dole are bringing it up every single day. You
develop a strategy basically to keep the president away from reporters. Tell
us about that.
It was a strategy born of necessity and it was not very comfortable because
Bill Clinton enjoys the repartee and the interaction with the press. I think
he would have preferred not to have an environment in which he couldn't do what
candidates normally do.
But when there is a singular focus of a press corps that is 180 degrees
different [from] the communication you're trying to have with the American
people in the midst of an election campaign, there's not much you can do. ... I
threw in the towel at that point.
The press wanted to focus exclusively on questions related to campaign
finance. It was their big story. They chafed at the fact that Bill Clinton
had coasted through the entire reelection campaign, remaining very ahead in the
polls. They had never really gotten at him and the race [wasn't] as close as
everyone had thought it would likely be.
The press corps collectively wanted an issue that they could use to put
Bill Clinton on the griddle and cut him down to size a little bit and we just
didn't make that opportunity available. It was painful for the press
secretary, I'll tell you that. But it was also necessary. ... When you're in
the final weeks of the campaign, the voters actually pay attention to the race
and what the candidates are talking about and they listen. The candidates,
because they have multiple opportunities to talk directly to the voters, can
deliver their message that way. So, it's a flow of information. It's not like
you're hiding in a bunker somewhere.
We just elected to have our conversation directly with the voters and not
through the press corps and it was irritating to many of the reporters. Still
is to this day.
Are you convinced that helped Clinton win?
I think we would have won anyhow. We would have won even if we had elected
to confront some of these issues and dig in and try to unravel some of the
questions that were being asked by, for example, the Riyadi family. If we had
gotten into that, I think we could have weathered that storm and still have
comfortably been reelected because, frankly, there was not much of a campaign
developing in opposition to President Clinton.
Bill Clinton delivers his victory speech on election
So, we probably were better off being there than going back and forth about
campaign finance. On the other hand, matters have only gotten worse since
then. Maybe if we had paid more of a political price during the course of
1996, some of the practices that we're now seeing four years later would not
have developed, because there's essentially no rules now at all covering
On the '96 election, as you say, your strategy was to keep the president
from the press because of the singular focus the press had. In the wake of
what were pretty rocky relations between this administration and the White
House press corps, was this another insult for the press that turned out later
to poison the well or hurt further down the road?
Clinton never got to a point where that relationship with the press corps
was a comfortable one. It was always contentious and something always happened
to make it less than the kind of easygoing banter that some presidents have
enjoyed. It may just be impossible to create that kind of relationship now.
It may be no longer available to any president.
It's too bad. I famously tried several things to warm relations between the
press corps and the president by making the president more available in relaxed
settings. None of it worked particularly well. The formality that comes into
only having the president available in these public occasions and occasionally
in press conferences, that might be the rule for the future.
But the truth is, there was just always a contentious relationship. There
was not a lot of trust on either side. The press corps didn't trust Bill
Clinton very much and Bill Clinton didn't trust the press corps to present
fairly the work of his administration.
In '97, you say the major accomplishment is the balanced budget. Do you
remember any particular moment that stands out or anything that the president
had said to you that jumps out as an anecdote?
There was some sense that you really were redefining the center of the
Democratic Party, ... a real sense that the Democrats finally owned the issue
of fiscal discipline and could legitimately portray themselves as a party that
knew how to use government but knew how to use it prudently.
The times in which you could really tag the Democratic Party with the label
"big spender," "tax and spender," that that was going to go by the wayside, because
we had demonstrated that a Democratic president, a Democratic White House would
work to balance the budget.
Fast forward to January '98. How do you hear about the Lewinsky scandal
developing? What is your first recollection? Was it Drudge over that
Yeah, it was Drudge over the weekend and information that was not taken
very seriously at first because it sounded so utterly improbable. Early the
following week ... Tuesday night, we hear that the Post is going to go
with the story, that the three-judge court has authorized this new line of
inquiry for the Independent Counsel's Office and it revolves around these
allegations about a relationship with a young intern.
What do you find out about it and what do you try to find out about
I remember this. It's sort of the quality of being in a state of
disbelief. The human instinct is to say, "Well, that can't possibly be true.
That's more sludge from Drudge." That was the instant take on the story. So,
we marched off looking for the ammunition we needed to knock the story down
and, of course, it just didn't come.
We kept asking lawyers and others, "Where is the strong denial? We need to
have a very strong denial." The president, as he struggled with the story the
day that it broke, went through a lot of contorted answers in three interviews
that he gave that day in which there were questions about which verb tense he
had used. We were all looking at each other, saying "He didn't deny it strongly
We didn't listen carefully as a staff. If we had listened more carefully
initially to the way the president struggled with the answer, warning lights
would have gone off.
My own personal reaction was--as it has been every time there was a matter
involving allegations or scandal or anything else--is to tread very carefully.
Rely on what you get from lawyers, because you cannot violate the president's
rights by going to him and asking him what's going on.
If I had gone to him and said, "What's the deal with you and this intern?" and
he had answered the question, that information would have exposed me to great
legal liability. I would have been subpoenaed and the president would have
forfeited the right to deal with this matter with his attorneys in confidence.
It was a very, very awkward and hard situation.
Nobody wants to talk about it and yet you have to come up with some kind of
denial. Once the signal from the president was that he was denying the story,
then we said, "You've got to get in there and deny the thing with every ounce
of energy you've got." Of course, that was bad, bad advice. He got that
advice obviously from more than several of us.
Just to back up a minute in the storytelling of this. So, Tuesday
night, you know the story is going to break. You make some phone calls.
Wednesday morning, you see the Post headline. What is your gut, visceral
feeling when you see that?
I don't think I want to describe what my gut was telling me to do at that
point, because it had more to do with vomiting than anything else. But you
read this and you said, this is incredible and it was hard to believe. It was
hard to imagine that any of this amounted to anything other than sort of a
weird bender that we were on for the day.
It was totally bizarre to be sitting there, looking at this paper, reading
this kind of story about the President of the United States of America. You
[wondered], what country did I wake up in this morning? I'm reading this about
the leader of the free world.
So, you make phone calls and what did you find out?
We didn't make phone calls. We were quite accustomed to being in crisis
mode. So, we were in crisis mode and everyone was methodically thinking about
the things we need to do. Where is the president going to be publicly
available to the press? How do we adjust his schedule given this story? Do we
suspend some of these interviews that are scheduled to occur? Do we go ahead
We had practical decisions to make and this was true throughout the whole
period of 1998. There was a government to run. We had jobs to do. You know,
we were not appointed by the president nor was the president elected by the
American people to dwell on this very awkward personal story, this matter that
was really about Bill Clinton, the man. It wasn't about Bill Clinton the
So, all of us had to remember that we still had to get up and report for
duty and do the work that the American people expected of us everyday. That's
how you get through something like that. You just don't get wrapped up
personally in the story.
You say that advice was given to the president from you and others that
he wasn't being forceful enough.
Right. I'm accepting your chronology, I think. But the story breaks on a
Tuesday night. We go through Wednesday. The president gives some interviews
on Wednesday that don't sound particularly convincing. He stumbles through
questions in some of these interviews that had been long, long
So, we then see where we are going. And I think it was Thursday that
everyone convinces the president to get out there and be adamant about his
denial. Of course, he had been hearing the same thing from his friend, Harry
Thomason, and others who were there helping him through this very difficult
Thomason comes in because, according to him, he thinks the problem is
one of stage craft.
Yeah, right and [that we hadn't] found the right venue to be convincing
about this matter. All of us were giving him the advice that it would best for
you to go and confront this matter and demonstrate that you are passionately
denying it. It was, as I say, very bad advice, given the reality.
Do you remember the first press briefing that you conducted on
I don't remember specifically the first one. I remember they all blend
together to one period of torment that I'll never forget. I guess what I
remember most about that briefing was walking into the briefing room and saying
to myself, "There is no physical way to fit this many cameras and this many
people into this room."
I remember almost laughing to myself saying, "This is definitely a fire
hazard or this is an occupational safety violation waiting to be served on
somebody." It was a circus. I certainly was not the lion tamer. I was there
more as the morsel to be served up, I think.
Was your confidence somewhat shaken at this point, early on?
I think my confidence was shaken. I didn't have access to the truth. There
were reasons for that that I understood. It wasn't because anybody was
deliberately not giving it to me. It's because I think the lawyers were trying
to assemble the answers to some of these questions. They were dealing with a
very determined, aggressive prosecutor and we just didn't have facts.
Because we didn't have facts, we had this kind of flimsy little statement
that I wasn't going to budge from and that's what I waved around as my only
line of defense for most of those briefings.
Later on, as the investigation proceeds, first of all, Monica Lewinsky
agrees to cooperate with the Independent Counsel. And you give a briefing in
which you say the president's basically pleased. I remember Sam gave you a
hard time about that. The president couldn't have been pleased at that
But ... if she cooperates there won't be any problem because the truth is
the truth. ... He lived with that fiction and allowed all the rest of us
to live with that fiction, too. But you see the logic of it. If you're
denying that you've had any inappropriate relationship with this woman, then of
course you want her to cooperate to tell the truth, because that's the truth.
So it was perfectly logical. The fact that no one was buying that had put us
in the awkward circumstances that we were in.
The day before the president's grand jury appearance, there's a
front-page story in the New York Times which hints that the president is
going to change his version of events. What did you think when you read that
This is in August, fast-forwarding to August?
This was the most frustrating period I had as press secretary. There was a
story in the New York Times with four bylines on it of all solid, good
reporters, indicating that the president is about to change his story, that
he's going to admit to a very inappropriate relationship with the intern,
Monica Lewinsky, that he's prepared to accept whatever the consequences are for
I wandered all throughout the White House, talking to all the president's
lawyers and all the president's men and women, trying to say, "Somebody has a
media strategy here that I haven't been clued into." ... And not a single person
took any responsibility for that.
In fact, everyone who is a likely source of that story specifically told me
that they didn't give it out. In fact, some of them said it would be crazy for
us to leak a story like that because we wouldn't want to give Ken Starr a
roadmap in advance of the president's deposition.
But clearly someone did it. Or, what is entirely likely as well, a number
of people politically trying to be helpful to the president started exploring
with senior figures of the party. What if the president gives this kind of
testimony? What would be the reaction? There was some attempt to take
And then from that, people thought they had some authoritative signals that
the president was going to give X, Y and Z testimony. [Even though] the
Clinton administration is often accused of having these clever strategies for
dealing with the press, there was completely zero advance planning over the
flow of those stories. There was a New York Times story citing four
sources the following day. Bob Woodward has a byline in the Washington
Post with much the same kind of take on what the president's testimony
No one said to me, "You can go and confirm that story because that is, in
fact, what the president is going to do." But of course, no one said you can't
deny it either. ... So, I was sitting there once again looking like a complete
idiot because there was no information that I had that I could use to answer
Did you at any time get the sense that the president was using this leak
as a way to prepare his wife?
I don't know. That has been speculated upon as a possible theory. There
may be truth to that, I just don't know.
After the grand jury testimony and before he gives his speech to the
nation, the president and you and a few others are in the solarium. Do you
remember what the tenor of the conversation is on what the president should say
and how that is going to be revealed to the public?
I actually was not in the solarium. At that point, I had talked to the
president. Several of us talked to the president not long after he concluded
his testimony. The question we were dealing with at that point was, "Do you
want to go ahead and give this address to the country tonight?" He was very
adamant that he did. I think he wanted some sense of finishing this awful day
and getting on with his life and getting on to vacation with his family. And
he wanted some finality to it. So, he wanted to give that speech.
Again, that's where we probably had not served him particularly well,
because we didn't know the degree of frustration and anger that went into that
deposition. You could see it much more clearly later when it became public.
But at that time, because we hadn't participated in it, we really didn't know
except for the read of his legal team how difficult it had been. Knowing that,
we probably would have advised against trying to give a very important address
to the country-
According to all the reporting on it--and maybe you weren't involved in
the substance of it--there is a debate about how contrite the president ought
There wasn't much of a debate on the White House staff. There had been
some drafts that circulated. My colleague, Paul Begala, had done a very good
job of sitting with the president and getting some sense of what the president
wanted to have said. And the first couple of drafts that kicked around in the
White House had it about right.
It was not about anything except the president having to go before the
American people and acknowledge that he had been very misleading in the way he
had characterized his relationship. Moreover, [he] had a real need to apologize
to a number of people for his behavior and for the consequences of that
The president's anger about what he felt he had been put through led him to
want to address the other side of the coin. What was the nature of this
prosecution and the people who had been trying to get me? There wasn't a big
debate in the White House, because really by the time it did boil down to the
two or three people he was dealing with, he was again determined to say what he
wanted to say.
It's interesting. For all the talk about how Clinton is guided by the
spin-meisters and the cabala of advisors, this was a completely unvarnished
version of what the president wanted to say. He knew he had to account for his
own behavior but he really wanted to get off his chest some of the anger he
felt about the quality of the Starr investigation. It was very genuine.
Of course, it was sliced and diced by the punditocracy. It was judged to
be inadequate, because everyone said he needed to be much more
At what point did you realize that the president had misled you and that
you had misled the press corps and, in turn, the American people?
It was in that same sequence of things. As you read these stories, you
would have to be completely naive not to see that the president is going to
move in this direction. It was that weekend before his deposition where we
finally had to confront the reality that this had not been an entirely straight
I could understand the lawyers' explanation that there was a very
complicated definition of sexual relations that went behind that
finger-wagging. But it just didn't wash, because it flew in the face of what
anyone would commonly interpret as being the meaning of those particular words.
There was, along with disappointment, some anger. ... Because Bill Clinton
is such a good guy, as a person that you respond to at a personal level, I
think he's been enormously effective in so many ways as president and he has
such great capacity for leadership. The overwhelming sense that [he] blew this
opportunity to do some extraordinary things for the country [was] the
overriding emotion most of us felt as we went into that period.
According to the Woodward book and the way he describes it, after the
Starr report is released, there is--in his words again--a primal scream of rage
from you and others. I don't know if that's metaphoric or what, but tell us
about when the Starr report is released.
It's kind of the opposite of a primal scream. You couldn't hear a pin drop
because everyone was either reading the thing on the internet or reading
whatever copies of it that were available. It's the quietest I've ever seen
the White House.
A lot of people [were] walking around shaking their heads in disbelief at
the goriness of the detail and some of the choice little items that are
sprinkled in and out of that report. It was not an easy read.
What didn't you believe about it? I don't mean the details.
It was hard not to believe that factually they had buttoned up this. It's
written in so much awful, awesome detail that you can't escape some of it. But
I remember reading it thinking everything that was the least bit exculpatory
had been diminished or pushed aside in favor of everything that would fit the
theory of the case they were trying to build. There was certainly some
exculpatory information that Starr ignored or suppressed or didn't treat with
the same degree of importance within the report that would have led the reader
in a different direction. It was written with procescutorial zeal, written to convince people that
Bill Clinton was unworthy of being president.
At the same time, you have said it conveyed to you an enormous sense of
recklessness on the part of Bill Clinton.
It did. It was inescapable that you would make that conclusion reading it,
too. Look, once the president acknowledged that he had a very inappropriate
relationship with a subordinate intern, a female employee of the White House,
that's reckless enough. But to add the piling on of all these details just
only compounded the sense that this was an awful episode for everybody on all
That weekend, you and the political staff did not want to do the Sunday
talk shows. Several versions have said, in fact, that you insisted the lawyers
That's right. I don't think anybody felt, given the position that so many
people had been put in the White House, that we could carry the ball that
particular weekend. I think a lot of us, me included, felt like our
credibility was pretty well shot at that point, which is not a good place to be
if you're in the business of dealing with the press. So, we said fine to the lawyers. You guys go out and figure out how you
make the case.
August 18th is the day that Mrs. Clinton, Chelsea and Bill, the famous
shot where they walk out to the helicopter and there's visual distance there.
Bill Clinton holding on to Buddy for dear life is the way I remember the
You're on the helicopter?
Yeah, I was there waiting to fly off on this happy family vacation. It was
very, very awkward for so many reasons because we were all at this very
stressful moment, saying goodbye to our families. Of course, I knew we were
going to be right back in Washington two nights later, because we were going to
take military action against the Osama bin Laden network.
So, we were simultaneously dealing with this really bizarre moment in the
life of the White House and then also getting prepared to do what the president
as commander-in-chief can do. You had all the tension associated with both of
those things going on. And it was a pretty strange moment.
What was it like on that helicopter ride?
Look, the Clintons deserve more privacy than I've given them in some of my
previous interviews on this subject and I'm going to be very careful here. I'll
say this. It was a family that needed to really go through a healing process.
For a lot of different reasons, including the fact that the president was
dealing with a difficult decision that he had to make as Commander-in-Chief, it
was a family that had not had time to really deal with this matter.
I pretty firmly believe that there had not been many conversations between
the Clintons as a couple on this until they were able to get away and be by
themselves. I don't know that. It's not for me to say that. If the president
and Mrs. Clinton ever want to address that, that's their business. But
that was my impression.
And so, it was a family you can easily understand needed desperately to
have some quality time together and they didn't need a bunch of aides and the
press poking at them.
From a news management sense--I think Carville was talking about
this--was there a sense that the president had to be seen taking his medicine
by the public?
It was just such an awful time that I don't think most of us thought about
anything other than getting through the day and getting through what we needed
to get through in order to perform effectively. We had a big test coming up.
Remember we had a movie called "Wag the Dog" out. We knew that it was going to
look completely improbable at this particular time we were striking out against
a terrorist network. And yet, it was the right thing to do because we had good
intelligence reasons for doing what we had to do.
We were much more focused on that, on the reality that we had a very
serious piece of business that lay immediately ahead of us and there was no way
to spin this story.
Anybody who thinks that we had some kind of public relations strategy on
how to get through this just misses the point. This was a family that needed
to get as far away from publicity as possible. They had to get out the door,
get on the helicopter, get to Martha's Vineyard and then basically be by
And as you recall, we just shut it down. The president wasn't very
visible. He wasn't out moving around Martha's Vineyard the way he normally
He wasn't playing golf.
He wasn't playing golf. I got in trouble at one point. I think he
probably got a little bit lonely and he took his dog for a walk and wandered
close enough that cameras could record the event. Then everybody went crazy
because the president had been seen in public. But it was not by any design.
It was just because the president wanted to take his dog for a walk.
That's a pretty lonely picture.
It was a very lonely picture. My guess is that it was a very accurate
picture. Look, there was a lot of anger, a lot of emotion. That's for the
privacy of that family and they can share with all of us whatever they want to
Can you characterize for us what Mrs. Clinton was like at this
She was exactly like any right-thinking human being would imagine a spouse
to be in a moment like that. She was hurt. She loves her husband. She
respects the fact that her husband is right at that moment dealing with some
serious business. She understands that, but all the enormity of that is really
Hillary's story and not Mike McCurry's story. So, I'll let her tell it if she
Do you remember at what point that you let the president know that
you're thinking about leaving?
I had already submitted my resignation long prior to this. [I] set my day
for departing in October before these events and the president's testimony,
learning that he had not been exactly straight with the White House, the
American people on this whole matter. So, I was already sort of half out the
door at that point.
Is there a point at which you're thinking, look, I can't leave
It's a good question. I think that when I finally left, I felt I was
turning over to my successor an opportunity to get things back to normal. The
theory that we had at the White House was the president would do well in the
mid-term elections. The Republicans would drop the impeachment matter and we'd
finally get back to the regular order of business as we went into 1999.
I think if someone had told me in October that the president will be
impeached and there will be this historic process that's going to occur next
year, I think I would have felt obligated to stay. But I just never believed
that that was going to be the course that history would take.
How do you regard the historical legacy of this president--
Not to fault you, because I know you had to ask me this stuff, but we've
spent an awful lot of time on the down side of the Clinton presidency. But I
firmly believe this.
Twenty, thirty years from now, when people think back on this time in
history, Bill Clinton will be a part of it. But what they're going to really
think of is the internet. What has happened is a revolution in the way we
communicate with each other, the way we do business, probably in the way we
report the news and run political campaigns. It's all a part of the change
That happened on Bill Clinton's watch and it arguably may not have happened
if the wrong set of policies had been put in place by this president. The new
economy will be associated in history with this president and this time. And
we don't understand it yet, but I'm firmly convinced that it's going to be more
of the historical legacy than Monica Lewinsky.
The White House does have to perform these other vital tasks at the same
time as you have suggested you were in the dark. How do you function in that
The way many people functioned and got through that period was by doing the
job that they were sent to Washington or sent to the White House to do, because
an awful lot of work of government continued during 1998. The press was
obsessed by Monica Lewinsky and, therefore, the three or four of us that had to
deal with the press everyday had to have that as part of our portfolio.
But remember, 90 percent of the White House walked around not wanting to be
anywhere near this story. They went about doing their jobs. The president got
out there everyday and had a bill to sign or an announcement to make or an
Executive Order to issue. Our goal was to have the president portrayed doing
the job he should be doing as president.
The fact that we did that and that the trains continued to run on time is
probably what helped rescue Bill Clinton from this political scandal. He got
out there. He did his job every single day and the American people said, all
right, it doesn't look like the guy is going to succumb to be self-pitying in
the midst of all this. He's going to continue to do the job that we, the
people, elected him to do.
How did you handle the constant struggle with the lawyers? You have a
public affairs responsibility. They have a legal obligation to the president
and throughout much of that year, you got to be at odds.
We set up a process for the political public affairs squad to sit down
every single morning with the lawyers and just thrash it out so there wouldn't
be mixed signals going out [and] we wouldn't go off on our separate tangents.
We tried to cooperate, understanding that we had our job to do.
It was not always an easy relationship, but I do believe the lawyers were
well-motivated and well-intentioned. I think they were not trying to mislead
any of us on the staff. They just had a very difficult assignment in their
They were, after all, dealing with a very aggressive prosecutor. They were
dealing with someone who was trying to arguably bring this president down. And
that required certain things of them as lawyers. I understand that. I respect
that even if it put me in some very impossible situations. That just was the
nature of the beast.
Of course, I had to rant and rave and throw up my arms and threaten to quit
and do all the things necessary so that we could get what we needed for our
side. We all had to come together at the end of the day and march
Since the scandal, some people have written, we've seen a new side of
Clinton, more relaxed, funnier, more at ease.
Two thoughts about that, post-impeachment. Bill Clinton is now the longest
surviving political figure on the scene when it comes to the ranks of leaders
of the western democracies. He is, in a way, the titular head of that group
now. Being a senior statesman, I think, puts you in a much different position.
He is more relaxed. I think he is more contemplative. I think he is
thinking about the future and maybe looking back a little as he looks ahead.
But there's a wistfulness to it. There's some sense that this is the Clinton
that could have done so much more if we hadn't been dragged into all these
other stories, some of our own making, some of his making, some [invented] by
some of the president's enemies.
If we hadn't been subsumed in this culture of scandal so often, the Bill
Clinton who is out there now, who is so much more relaxed and gregarious and in
a way enjoyable to see, could have been doing so much more for all of
Does Bill Clinton worry personally about his legacy?
I never saw that. In fact, to the contrary, my experience up until the time
I left in 1998 was that he really was adamant that people not think in that
sense. He didn't want people to be retrospective. He wanted people thinking
His brilliance as a politician was that he was always making an argument
about the future, the argument about where we were going to build the bridge
going into the 21st century. That's what lent energy to his persona as a
politician. And I suspect there's still more of that than there is the
I've seen a couple of occasions where he does seem to be a little more
reflective. ... But I don't think he's obsessed with it at all. In fact, to
the contrary, I think that one of his legacies is to really help everyone
understand that politics is about the choices we make for the future. That's
one of the reasons why he was so extraordinarily successful as a politician.