the clinton years

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interview: dee dee myers

photo of dee dee myers

She was spokeswoman for Clinton's 1992 campaign and White House Press Secretary for the first two years of his presidency. She resigned in December 1994.

Interview conducted June, 2000 by Chris Bury

Tell us about the first time you met Bill Clinton.

The first time I met Bill Clinton was actually 1988. I was working for Michael Dukakis here in Los Angeles. Mrs. Dukakis had hurt her neck and the governor decided to go home and be with her, but in Los Angeles a huge fundraiser [was already planned] that [cost] $25,000 a couple or some astronomical figure. And we had about 24 hours to find somebody to replace the candidate.

So [we] called around and the only person we could find who could get there was Bill Clinton. And he flew in and came and gave a speech at this dinner and completely knocked everybody over. People thought, "My God, this guy's fantastic. Why isn't he the nominee?"

He was sure of what he believed, he was funny, he was droll. Then about a month later he gave that awful rambling introductory speech at the convention which really put the brakes on his career for a brief time.

How did you come to work for him in the '92 campaign?

I came in the fall of '91, through a mutual friend, a guy named Mickey Kantor, who went on to be secretary of commerce, both of us from Los Angeles. He called me one day and said, "You know Bill Clinton's getting ready to run for president and he's looking for a press secretary. Why don't you come spend some time with him?" And I was ambivalent. I thought Bush was very popular at the time, still sort of riding high on the aftermath of the Gulf War.

Most of my friends had already sort of given up on the idea of electing a Democrat in '92. But I was persuaded by Mickey. I had met [Clinton] by then two or three times. I didn't know him, but I had met him and seen him speak. [I] had listened to him and thought he was saying some interesting things. So I agreed to go spend the day with him. Bill Clinton is a very persuasive individual. I was convinced that I wanted to go work for him [by the end of the day]. And a couple of days later they called me and asked me if I was offered the job would I take it? I said, "Yeah." I was working on another campaign at the time, which wouldn't finish for another four or five weeks. And they agreed to wait for me. And so off I went in the fall of '91, not knowing if I was going to be gone for a week or a couple of months or, as it turned out, a few years.

What was it like on the road with him early in the campaign?

It's great to be at the beginning of a campaign because for many trips it was myself, Bruce Lindsay, Bill Clinton, and an Arkansas state trooper. No reporter is flying around in borrowed twin-engine airplanes. But in many ways it's the most exciting time in a campaign. And Clinton quickly captured the imagination of the press corps. He was taken pretty seriously. It was not a stellar field.

I just think there was a level of suspicion -- not just suspicion, it had
hardened into a conviction that the press was against them.But there was still the one great question at that point which was, will Mario Cuomo get in? And so the first few months of that fall campaign there was a kind of guarded optimism on the part of the campaign, which was small, and a guarded enthusiasm on behalf of the media, which was still waiting to see if the liberal savior Governor Cuomo would get in.

But it was interesting because by this time [I had] worked for a lot of politicians. I saw a candidate who knew why he wanted to be president and he knew how to get there. He didn't know whether he would be successful, but he had in his head kind of a roadmap based on issues. He had a sense of where the country was. There was this uneasiness, this kind of economic anxiety and he was pulling together a team that was going to help him get there. He was the engine that was driving it and from the very beginning I was really aware this was a special politician. This was somebody who had more innate talent, both with the substantive side and the politics, than anyone I'd been around. And it was just fascinating to watch him.

Talk about the politics. Stephanopoulos calls Clinton "the thoroughbred."

Yeah. We used to jokingly sometimes call him "Secretariat" -- which we stopped because we were afraid someone was going to write it -- because he was a thoroughbred. He was a pure bred.

I'm a baseball freak. So I say he's the guy who could throw a no-hitter and hit 50 home runs. I mean nobody can do that. You know, nobody can master the substantive side of policy and genuinely thrive on the human contact of the politics. But he does both. He was the best strategist in the campaign most of the time. He was totally steeped in the details of how many electoral votes, how many states are we targeting, why are we targeting them, what's our organization in those states, who are the local elected officials who are going to be with us, does this make sense? Every step of the way he was totally involved in decision making. And then he let James Carville and George Stephanopoulos and people like that work through the details. But he knew what was going on.

... Sometimes we had to, you know, I shouldn't say, save him from himself. He's obviously tremendously successful. But one of his tendencies throughout his presidency at times has been to try to do everything, to talk about every issue, to emphasize everything, which means you're emphasizing nothing.

So, that was the flip side of him. He's interested in everything. He has encyclopedic knowledge. He has a voracious appetite for information about everything from the Beatles to the details of nuclear disarmament. That part of his personality was fascinating. He's a genius in the sense that he can take information from an enormous variety of sources and he can digest it and synthesize it and come out with conclusions that are slightly more interesting, slightly better, more original than anybody else in the room. Clinton does that in spades and he does it all the time. I never got tired of watching him blow away people who underestimated him. I think he still does that. I think every new batch of political opponents or Republican legislative leaders or people who sort of thought they could corner him have constantly been rich kidded about just how good he is.

How much did he depend on Hillary Clinton in the campaign? What was her role?

What became something of a pattern in the first couple of years, maybe even
longer ... information would  drip, drip, drip, drip out which would keep
stories alive, alive, alive.You know, I think it varied. I think [he] depended on her quite a bit. It was complicated by Gennifer Flowers, and that happened fairly early on in my association with them. I think he always relied on her advice. She's much more linear and much more disciplined in a lot of ways than he is. I think he relied on her to bounce ideas off of, to kind of, for lack of a better term, kick his butt from time to time. Just to sort of say the things to him that nobody else could say.

January and February of 1992, the Gennifer Flowers thing broke and they appeared on 60 Minutes together. There was a sense that he was in debt to her. And he was obliged to take seriously her advice. I don't know that he wouldn't have anyway, but I think that there was a real kind of --

You're sort of saying here that Mrs. Clinton saved his skin.

Well, I think she did. Sure. By defending him and standing by him and saying to the world, "You know, we've had our ups and downs, it's none of your business. We're still together." And, you know, "Leave us alone." I mean what could anybody else really say at that point?

So there was an indebtedness to her because she had saved him?

Yeah. And I think that that's been a pattern throughout probably their relationship before I knew them, but certainly in his presidency. He tends to do worse when he's furthest and then he screws up and she helps save him. And then he's much more, I don't know, indebted, obliged, mindful, all those things. And I suspect it probably was that way before I was around.

How did she handle the press when Gennifer broke?

I think basically all we tried to do was survive. It was really a tremendous feeding frenzy. I remember we were making a swing through the south right around the time all hell was breaking loose. And we went to Mississippi and Louisiana and then we were headed to Texas. And we got into Louisiana late. I don't remember [but] it may have even been the day of the Gennifer Flowers press conference.

I have a lot of sadness about how it's all ended up for him.  But I have a
reservoir of affection for him that I, I don't really understand.And Governor Edwards was there and he said, "Now, what's this story about this girl? Clinton kind of said, "Yeah," blah, blah, blah. And he said, "How much did they pay her?" And Clinton said, "Well, that's the point, it's $150,000." And Edwards says, "$150,000? If they paid all my girls $150,000 they'd be broke." And Clinton just cracked up because it was much needed comic relief at the time.

Somehow we got through those few days. We did what we could to battle back and to explain and to discredit parts of the story because there was plenty in it that was suspect. Like the hotel she claimed to have had her first liaison with him on X date hadn't been built. There were facts that were wrong, right, so you argue the facts.

But the accusation itself wasn't wrong. I mean the fact that an affair had taken place, that was true.

Well, who knows? I mean I have no idea other than Clinton did admit later in a deposition that he had had some kind of relations with her once, whatever that means. Who knows what the truth is? Obviously in hindsight it certainly appears that there was more to it than that, but I don't know. It's one of the great mysteries of Clinton. There's a lot you don't know.

Did that worry his staff? If there is stuff that you don't know and you have to go out and defend him that puts you in a tough position.

Right. And you know, that got harder over time. Because in the beginning you think "Oh, well, he's saying this didn't happen. Maybe there was some kind of flirtation there or something but it wasn't a twelve-year affair as she'd described it." That was certainly my impression in the beginning.

And there were plenty of facts in there that you could [have] discredited. They were easily disproved. ... You argue the facts and you try to make the case that Clinton has always had political enemies, Arkansas is an interesting state in that regard. A lot of stuff had gone on.

But obviously over time as Gennifer Flowers gave way to the draft, to other questions [it] became harder. It became hard for people like myself and George Stephanopoulos, and Paul Begala who had to go out there and defend him every day. You learn to be very careful and you learn to listen very carefully to what he said and you learn to try not to go further than what he said. And we had a lot of conversations over the months and years about "What do you think that means? What can we say? Where's the safe ground here?"

Was there anyone among the staff who had the stature or the courage to confront Governor Clinton and say "You got to give us the truth here because we have to go out and defend you?"

Well, I think [at] different times James Carville did. To a certain degree, I think George did and increasingly so over his years with Clinton. But I mean at first you're not sure, you don't realize that you need to. It took awhile for people to sort of realize that. The draft was a good example. There was first Clinton's original explanation. People came to him in the beginning and said, "Look, some of these issues we need to really look into are -- one is the draft. What's the story behind your draft?" He said, "I've been through 17 campaigns in 17 years. Every question about my history with the draft has been asked and answered a dozen times. There's nothing else there."

So you first think, "Well, that's a good point." [We were] in the middle of a newspaper war in Arkansas, and it's a state where there's a kind of ribald brand of politics, even though for all practical purposes there's only one party, or at least there was then. And so your first sort of inclination is here's the story. You go back and look at the clips, read it, here's his answer. Then things like the Colonel Holmes letter appear. And you have some very angry reporters who had written stories based on his explanations about what had happened. Now all of a sudden they're confronted with a new reality.

And then a few weeks after that there comes draft induction notice. And that left a lot of people inside the campaign reeling. The reporters, the Joe Kleins of the world who were contemporaries with Clinton look back and said, "How do you forget an induction notice in the middle of the Vietnam War? How do you forget that?" You know, that was an impossible thing to explain. ... [There's] the famous picture of George and Mandy and James under the covers on that day. They were in their hotel room figuring "What do we do?" And they're all on the bed under the covers together. George in his classic darkness, "It's over, it's over, it's over. The campaign's over." But it wasn't over, you know.

One of the things I most admire about [Clinton], particularly at that point, was his resilience. He never quit. You know, I worked for a lot of candidates, in tough campaigns that lost. Most of my candidates lost until Bill Clinton. There was always a point where you look in their eyes and they knew it was over. And there was never that point with Clinton. He never quit. He never gave up. Some people might say it's shameless. But there's a resilience and a fighting spirit about him that you knock him over and he gets back up. And that was certainly true during the campaign.

I don't think there's another politician that I've ever been around in any capacity [that] could go through what he went through in New Hampshire and survive because the campaign was literally just in complete meltdown. The bottom had dropped out and we lost 18 points in a weekend. You're starting with a 34 or 35 percent base to begin with, so now you're down under 20 percent. And everybody thinks it's over except Clinton.

[There is] something about his determination and his willingness to sit down and think "Okay, what's our strategy? What are we going to do?" And then to see him go out and tough it out for that last week -- to go to every town meeting, to go to every high school gym, to never give up and give some of the best speeches of his campaign. [He] came up with "They want this campaign to be about my past, and I want it to be about your future. If you stand up for me on Tuesday, I'll fight for you every day that I'm in the White House." And somehow people responded. But there was this rawness.

So, you're saying there is a paradox here. That in a way the scandals helped Clinton that spring?

Over the course of his public life he's never been more focused than when his back was up against the wall. I don't want to say it helped him but it was the fire that steeled him for the rest of the campaign. He was a much better candidate for going through New Hampshire, not just because of the scandals, but [for] getting down there and campaigning and looking in people's eyes. He really did feel their pain.

It was an amazing thing to watch. ... He took the energy from [the scandals] and he did manage to boomerang it. He was the focus. Everybody was watching him, waiting for him to go down. And what did he do? He used that spotlight to turn the thing from being about him to being about what he could do for the people.

Over the whole time I worked for him I've equally clear memories of other things, but nothing is more compelling in hindsight to me than watching him struggle through that week. It's one of the most intense memories I have about all my years in politics because I've never seen anything like it. And I know that in my lifetime I will never see anything like that again. You know, just the desire and the refusal to go down, and the ultimate triumph.

Did that episode poison relations with the press?

No question about it, yeah. ... The love affair was over, to the degree that it had existed for a couple of months between November and December. And when Clinton was first outlining his policy speeches and as people began to say, "Hey, this guy has got something to say. He's a little different. This is interesting. He could be the nominee." So, a little of the bloom was off that rose. But I don't think it was inevitable relations would get as bad as they were from the press' perspective. And the press was disillusioned because they were starting [to] figure out, "Man, this guy really shaves the truth pretty closely."

From then on how were things different in terms of how Bill and Hillary Clinton viewed the press?

I just think there was a level of suspicion -- not just suspicion, it had hardened into a conviction that the press was against them. I don't think that was true but that was clearly their impression. And leading to that feeding frenzy of Gennifer Flowers and then the draft was, it was easy to understand how they would be at least momentarily completely turned off by it.

But they never really recovered from that. And I think in a lot of ways it was a combination of both Mrs. Clinton and the president, but I think she really contributed to that. In a way I think Bill Clinton is more likely to forgive and move on or at least try to woo people who don't love him. But he never really tried to woo the press as much as he might have.

You're saying there [was] a big difference though. For Hillary it was something else.

His natural instincts might have been to kind of move on in a way, but I think that her intense distrust of the press really affected the culture of the campaign and affected the way he viewed it in a lot of ways. I don't want to say it was entirely her fault but she was much more steadfast in her belief that the press was the enemy. And I think it became the kind of internal culture of the campaign.

Us versus them?

Yeah. Because really by surviving New Hampshire and going south -- Clinton was going to rack up a lot of delegates in the south. He had a lot of governors and good organizations down there working with him. He had to win, but it was a lot easier to see him as the nominee than Paul Tsongas, especially after the next sets of primaries, which were all in the south. James writes about something called the SMO, the standard morning outburst. Stephanopoulos called it "the wave." [I'm] talking about Clinton's temper. How did you see it? Were you ever on the receiving end? Did you ever watch it, and what was it like?

[Laughter.] Yeah. I was fortunate enough not to have to be on the receiving end that often, although anybody who dealt with the press, was perceived to be responsible for the press, said things to the press, would often be on the receiving [end]. But I got a lot less of it than George and James or Stan Greenberg, other people who were around. ...

But in a way it was impersonal. He was kind of letting off steam a lot and ranting and yelling at people, but it wasn't like you're an idiot. A lot of politicians are known for totally berating people in really personal ways. He really wasn't like that.

It was hard because he wanted things to be done that a lot of times staff didn't think should be done. We were trying to stay the course or follow through on a strategy and something would go wrong and he'd want to change it in his morning purple rage. And, so, a lot of times it was difficult to kind of hold the line against what he wanted at that moment.

In the last sort of frantic, frenetic hours before the election in '92, Bill and Hillary give Ted Koppel an interview on the plane. And one of the things that Hillary Clinton said is she's going to maintain a zone of privacy and she's going to live a normal life. What'd you think when you heard that?

I thought that was a reasonable thing to want. After everything that they had been through and how personal it was and how destructive it was in a lot of ways. I mean some of it was just a feeding frenzy for the sake of feeding frenzy. I didn't think that was unreasonable. In hindsight, I think even if Mrs. Clinton believed that, and I still think in many ways it's a fair desire, I would've had a much stronger reaction to it now. And if I'd had an opportunity I would have tried to counsel her against saying it. It's one thing to try to do it; it's another thing to try to set up a bull's eye on your head or create an issue where you don't need to. I guess I should be embarrassed to say it didn't really jump out at me at the time. I thought it was reasonable.

It would be a good thing if there was a little more privacy around people who have to make really difficult decisions so that they could have a place to reflect and people they could talk to without being confident it was going to end up in the press or at least in a book at some point. But I guess the president doesn't really have that luxury. I think it would be a healthy thing for the country but in the culture in which we live, it's not really possible.

What do you remember about either Election Day or Election Night or any conversations you had with the president-elect? Anything that jumps out from that time?

I remember flying around and Nightline was there. We were going from, I think Ft. Worth, Texas to Albuquerque or something. It was three o'clock in the morning, and we were playing hearts. We had the Saturday Night Live -- somebody had edited together all the political skits from the previous years -- on the VCR, and we were just drinking coffee, and playing cards. And I said to him,"Did you ever think you'd get here?" And he looked at me like I was nuts. He said, "Yeah. I always thought this was possible." He looked at me like "Why do you think I got into this race? Why are you asking me this question?"

I realized then that of course he could always imagine it. I don't know that he was confident that he would win but he knew he had a chance and he knew that if he could run the kind of campaign that he wanted to run that he would win. And you know what? There were so few people in the country and the world who believed that when he did, he was once again a step ahead.

So we finished our little tour and I remember going to the Governor's Mansion and down to the basement about 8 o'clock. By that point we already knew it was pretty much over. I mean we knew we were going to win. But seeing that map, standing in the basement -- they had a TV down there -- and he kind of had a half grin on his face looking at the map turning whatever color we were. I think it was different on different networks. As the electoral college count came in and he was closer and closer to that magic number, it was just the weirdest. It's almost anticlimactic in a way.

It's like "Wow, here we are and he's the next president and he's just standing here in his basement, watching TV like millions of other Americans right now." It was just very strange. But I think it's in an odd way slightly anticlimactic, even though it's the biggest thing that can ever happen in politics to you.

Clinton is elected. The transition begins. One of the sort of generic criticisms that's come out is that you had this staff that had just won a campaign, yet you were all young, relatively inexperienced. The transition is not a terrific transition.

Well, yeah, and I think [there's] a lot of fairness in that, but keep in mind that the two people who were in charge of the transition in many ways were Warren Christopher and Vernon Jordan. Hardly spring chickens and hardly inexperienced in the ways of Washington.

But the transition was the worst period of my entire association with the campaign and the presidency. Because here you are -- you've won. You don't get a second off. I mean I was so used to losing campaigns at this point, that like, where's my vacation to the Bahamas? I can remember very clearly on election night being out with all the campaign staff and a lot of the people that worked in the press office. All of a sudden it's about 2 in the morning and they said, "Oh, my God, who's going to staff the phones starting at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning?"

So we kind of drew lots for it, and I went in and 5 or 6 of the young assistants from the press office and we got like 1,000 phone calls that next day. You know, Japanese TV wants to know when they can interview the president-elect, and by the way, who's the secretary of state? It starts at 8 o'clock the morning after the election.

There was all this pressure on the president, obviously, to name the Cabinet and start to put together the next government. And there [are] all these reporters camped out in Arkansas everyday doing nothing but trying to break a story that the president is going to tell them as soon as he makes a decision. There [are] people staked out at the airport trying to see who is coming in and who might be interviewing for what job, chasing down rumors. ...There was very little news except when we would actually announce it, and there were all these reporters with nothing to do.

And then, of course, there was the tremendous amount of uncertainty about our own jobs. You know, nobody told us the day after the election "Hey, yeah, you're going to the White House," or "You're not." So, you know, it's the worst of all possible combinations of political endeavor I can imagine. A hungry and unsatisfied press corps, [a] young, and insecure staff, and a president-elect who is taking his time making really big decisions. So it just stunk. There was no two ways about it. Everybody was miserable. And it did take a long time.

Clinton was very careful about trying to select the Cabinet. And, of course, he had made these pledges about what the Cabinet would look like, and he was trying to make sure that he had the right amount of diversity and enough women and enough African-Americans and enough Latinos; impossible to please everybody. It was a three dimensional chess game going on. Most of it went okay, I think. A lot of his choices weren't stellarly accepted but I don't think they ever are. And then, of course, [we] got to the attorney general's slot and all hell broke loose.

... One of the first things that happened early on was the George Stephanopoulos's office was sealed off from the briefing area. And this caused real consternation among the White House press corps. Why was that done? Whose idea was it?

I don't know where it exactly originated. There was a lot of discussion during the transition about what to do with the press. There was a proposal on the table at one point to move the press from the traditional work space in the West Wing to the OEOB, to get them completely out of the West Wing. And there was a discussion about building a press area on Executive Drive or something. I don't even remember exactly where they thought this was going to happen. And then the compromise position was "No, no, no, you can't move the press out of the West Wing. We'll just keep them from getting into the West Wing."

I think clearly Mrs. Clinton -- I don't know if she was the architect of this idea, but she supported it. And I had to say one of the people who was most uncomfortable about it was George, even though it was because of him in a way that access was being sealed. I mean the argument made was George is the communications director but he does more than just press work. He [works] with a lot of sensitive materials, the press can't be bombing into his office all the time.

Well, obviously, in hindsight it was a hideous mistake. It just alienated people who had been working in the building for years. And it didn't serve the press operation very well because one of the arguments that the press made at the time --which in hindsight was completely true -- is we're one of your first early warning systems. If something's going on, the AP guy is going to come up into your office and say, "Hey did you know about this?" Or if all of a sudden you look out of your door [and] you've got four reporters camped out in the waiting area, you know something's brewing.

...So, it made the press very angry because they lost access to a part of the building that they had had access to. And it didn't serve us. And it was stupid and didn't last very long. I can't remember when the decision was made and the door was finally reopened but it was a complete waste of energy. It alienated people for no purpose. It served nothing, It served no one. And it was a rookie, rookie mistake.

...The Zoe Baird nomination is made. And she is going to fight for it. At the same time you're learning that there is problems with the Social Security that has been paid for the nanny. You're a new press secretary. What was it like for you?

It was hell. And the thing about the Zoe Baird question was that I don't think anybody -- I mean everybody, myself -- let me just say I missed it. I said, "Yeah, this is a problem. You know, it's going to take some explanation. I think Zoe's going to have a little crow to eat on this."

I did not anticipate the reaction from not just the media, but there was some visceral nerve that it touched in the country. You know, here we've elected this kind of populist president and the first thing he does is appoints a woman who is making $500,000 a year as a counsel to a big corporation and she doesn't even pay Social Security taxes on her household help. Not only that, they are illegal. And she's going to be the attorney general. So what we missed was the fed-upness, to make up a word, of people with people in positions of power and privilege getting exceptions to the rules that apply to everybody else. Here's the top law enforcement officer in the country, who makes all this money and doesn't pay Social Security taxes and is going to be totally exempted from it. Not only that, her help was illegal.

It certainly caught me by surprise. I think it caught a lot of people by surprise, because it had come up obviously in the course of her vetting, although not everything was clear at the beginning. I think that there [were] a couple people who sort of saw it coming and were more worried about it, but I wasn't one of them.

... How did the president deal with the fact that you, his press secretary, are being consumed basically by gays in the military [those] first few days?

Everybody was consumed by it. It was one of those things that the president had said during the campaign at an event, a fund-raiser, I think, here in Los Angeles, of the gay community. And then Tom Friedman had asked him about it. He sat down with the New York Times. And barring any other really big news, the Times led the paper with it. And then everybody else sort of got going. Your first reaction is "This is a new administration, there's a lot going on in the world. Is this really what we're going to focus on now?"

People often say to me, "Why did you guys decide to make gays in the military your first big issue?" We didn't do it, we just couldn't figure out how to stop it. ... The question wasn't "What's the first issue you want to pursue as president?" The question is "Are you going to keep your pledge that you made at a fund-raiser?" And it was one of those things. I'm sure Clinton thought it would be a much easier thing to do. And maybe that was naivete on his part and on all of our parts...

I was new to Washington, and didn't know half the reporters in the briefing room. Some of them had been on the campaign, most of them hadn't. And a lot of those people had been at the White House before and they were a lot more familiar with the Pentagon and what the reactions of the Joint Chiefs were going to be.... I didn't think this was going to be something people would welcome with open arms, but I didn't think it was going to overwhelm the first few weeks of the administration. But it did.

Did the president get angry at you for that, that you couldn't make it go away?

No. He didn't. I mean he might have been. He never came and yelled at me directly. I think he probably thought that it was being poorly handled by me. At that time George Stephanopoulos was doing the daily briefings. And so I think George got more of both the rage from the president and the sort of churning reaction from the press. He was the one standing at the podium every day trying to explain how this was going to happen, when every chief of every service was against it and the culture of the military was against it. It was a really rough couple of days. And during that period we were still sort of going through the attorney general. We went right from that into gays in the military and never had a chance to catch our breath. ... Nonetheless, it certainly could have been handled better and in a way that probably didn't result in "Don't ask, don't tell," which ended up seeing more people driven out of the military for being investigated and found out to be gay. I think the consequences of it were terrible in terms of how it affected people.

Clinton had absolutely zero honeymoon, none whatsoever. There was a piece in I believe the New York Times that basically said this would be a failed presidency. You know, ten days into Bill Clinton's first term. And it's like "You got to be kidding me. How can these judgments be rendered so quickly here?" But there was no playing on our part. We didn't hit the ground running with "America, here are the three things we're going to do first" and then get off to start doing them. That didn't happen for months and months and months because we went right from one crisis to the other. It was the attorney general, to gays in the military, to budget fights about supplemental appropriations, and right from there into the haircut, you know?

The president is here in Los Angeles and he gets a haircut from Christophe in May [1993]. And the press finds out about it. Did you know you had a PR disaster in the making?

No. God, I sound like a complete idiot, all the things that I didn't see coming. The president was here in Los Angeles. Christophe had cut his hair a few times during the campaign. He was friend through Harry and Linda Thomason, [a] delightful guy, really nice person. Of course he'd be happy to cut the president's hair. So he jumps on the plane -- the plane is sitting on the tarmac. And he gets his haircut. He's really kind of jolly. You know, hi, he's had a good trip to L.A. He loves California. He's out here.

And for the first time, maybe the second time of his entire presidency, he decides to take a trip back to visit the press, sitting in the press cabin on Air Force One, which he never does. So, he goes back there and says hello. Five minutes, you know. Wasn't it great to be here in California? He leaves. I believe it was John King who was then with the AP. He said "Did he just get his hair cut?" And, you know, what am I going to say? I said, "Yeah, he did." "And was that the guy we saw going down the back stairs of the plane, the long hair, that guy that used to be around the campaign sometimes?" "Yeah."

So, you know, he's like "This is funny. Oh, this is great." So I think John puts something on the AP that said that Clinton had gotten his hair cut. Well somebody called the FAA or something. Some unnamed source at the FAA said, "Yeah, delayed aircraft," which became "delayed aircraft all over the country" which never was really true. And so did I think I had a big problem? The president got his hair cut on Air Force One. What's the problem with that? Okay. It's not a great idea maybe to have this sort of high priced Beverly Hills coiffure. We just won a populist campaign, not a great idea. But it's not the end of the world. I mean who cares?

For $200.

As if the president paid $200 for his haircut, but, yes, he charges $200 a haircut and probably more. Then when it was married to this notion that air traffic was delayed and here was this, you know, populist, putting-people-first president just basking in the perks of his new power sitting on the runway, air travelers be damned. This is the story that got out there and by the time I realized that this was a serious problem it was off to the races. And that thing dominated the news for at least three days. I think it led ABC's broadcast on day two. Because it becomes such a symbolic thing. You have to be careful of these things that become metaphors.

I think George Bush not knowing how a grocery store scanner worked --which [was] absolutely not true -- but that became a metaphor for an out-of-touch president. Bill Clinton sitting on Air Force One getting his hair cut while people around the country cooled their heels and waited for him, became a metaphor for a populist president who had gotten drunk with the perks of his own power and was sort of, you know, not sensitive to what people wanted.

...And you know what? It took him years to overcome that because when I left the White House for years I would travel around and go, "How many of you know the president got his hair cut on Air Force One?" Every person in the audience would always raise their hand. ... It took years for people to get past that.

That same week you had another story developing. I think it was the day or two after the haircut is when the travel office [scandal began]. George Stephanopoulos tells us that it was as if the administration had declared war on the press.

Right. Yeah. Again, this one we could see coming a little bit, but we underestimated the power of the relationships between the former employees of the travel office and the people who they had served for anywhere from 10 to 30 years. And the press rose up in defense of seven people who they thought were poorly treated. And they were poorly treated. I think history will show that there was some evidence of -- I don't want to say malfeasance because people have been acquitted in the court -- but there [were] some unkosher things going on. And yet it couldn't have been more poorly handled if we had scripted it. I mean it was just poorly, poorly handled from the beginning.

George was out of town briefly and, so I ended up having to do the briefing on that first [day] and, and try to explain this decision which I knew from my brief experience with the issue was going to be inexplicable. And I think I got over 100 questions on the same topic. ... It's not a briefing, it's a beating. I was just the person standing behind the podium trying to explain this sort of indefensible [thing]. There was a way to do it. I mean I think it's perfectly defensible for the president to have said, "We're going to go through a process here."

...The plan had originally been to go out there and try to present it to the press for the first time which would not have been that much better. But I quickly realized that I was going to be on the defensive from the second I walked out because the story was leaking out. ...And, in fact, it ended up on the wires a half an hour before my briefing. People were calling me up and starting to ask me the questions that I was going to get in my briefing. I knew what I was in for. And I did as much as I could to get decent answers to the questions before I went out there but they didn't exist.... As soon as I came in from that everyone knew. I didn't have to convince anybody we had a big, big problem on our hands that afternoon.

It went on for, I don't know, it seemed like months. How long did it go on? I mean it went on for -- it did go on for months. That was May and in July we were still dealing with the aftermath of it. Between the independent counsel investigations, I guess it's gone on for years.

What were [the Clintons'] reactions?

They thought they were justified in taking this action. They thought these were political positions [which] serve at the pleasure of the president. We've had this accounting firm come and take a look. There are some practices here that appear to be incompetent, if not illegal. We have a fiduciary responsibility to manage the press's money even if it's not public money. And we have the right to put in our people. What's the problem?

[There were] two problems. One, we could've done something about which the way that it was handled. It was very poorly executed, from the investigation to the announcement. But we also, I think again underestimated the relationships between the press and the travel office staff. ...

So, it was one thing after another. And just it was what became something of a pattern in the first couple of years of the Clinton White House and maybe even longer, where information would drip, drip, drip, drip, drip out which would keep stories alive, alive, alive. When if you could have just put all the chips on the table, taken your hit in one or two days, and moved on, it would have been a lot better.

In May of '93, there's a bit of a shakeup. Memorial Day weekend word starts leaking out that David Gergen is going to be coming into the White House. What was your reaction when you heard that Gergen was going to come in?

I was stunned. Gergen certainly had a lot of experience, but he was a Republican. And I assumed he hadn't even voted for Bill Clinton. Didn't share his philosophy. You know, [he] had many good relationships with reporters, had some not so good. [He] had been around Washington and in some ways represented a lot of the things that we thought we were riding into save the world from, you know.

... It all started to break on Friday night. We were in, I think, Philadelphia with the president and Wolf Blitzer came up to me and said, "Hey, I hear David Gergen's coming in." And I knew enough by then to know just because I hadn't heard it didn't mean it wasn't true. So I got on the phone. I guess I called George and he said, "Yeah, some stuff's going on," blah, blah, blah. And the president came back to the White House that night. He went into some meetings and the Gergen deal got done, and the next morning we were making plans to announce it before we were going to go to West Point.

We were all in the vice president's office, and they were explaining and I just got really upset. ... You know, George was one of the architects of this campaign and a loyal staffer, and there he was just toilet paper, Kleenex, tossed out. He wasn't fired, but I got really choked up and the vice president said, "Come on." So he took me into his office and he just said, "You know what? It's going to be okay," blah, blah, blah. But he had to kind of calm me down.

And I'll never forget that. I mean it was a very human thing. Because my reaction to it was less about policy, although I was worried about that. It was more about what kind of a business is this?...

Wasn't it also a sense among you and the others that they are getting rid of us? I mean Gergen called you guys "the kids." They're getting rid of the kids who ran the campaign?

Yeah. Well, you know, the kids got blamed for a lot of things that went wrong in the early months of the campaign. The kids weren't responsible for gays in the military and the kids weren't responsible for the attorney general and the kids weren't responsible for the stimulus package failing. So why was it that the kids were always being blamed?

Yeah. That was part of it. And George was my ally and he's my friend. It's not just him, but it's all of us sort of being blamed. There was plenty of blame to go around. I'm certainly not going to sit here and say that I didn't have a big hand in a lot of failures of those early months. I did. But I didn't see why it had to be done the way that it was.

What was the president's reaction when the Woodward book came out?

Oh, he was outraged. He had been sold on the idea of cooperating because it was going to be a positive account of this really intellectually rigorous process where big questions were going to be asked and answered, and a budget would be constructed that would both fund the president's political priorities and put the nation on a track to fiscal stability for the next couple of generations.

And instead, it was a portrait of an out-of-control White House -- at least that's how it appeared at the time. I haven't reread the book and I think if I did, given everything that's happened in the last eight years, it would certainly be a lot less surprising or seem a lot less outrageous. But at the time the press seized on the notion that this was a portrait of a White House out of control.

And we were in Italy for the G-7 economic conference. Going back and forth with people staying up all night to read the book and trying to find out where were we vulnerable and how did this happen. And the president was really mad. He was really mad. George Stephanopoulos had been the guy who convinced him that we should cooperate and give Woodward this sort of unprecedented access to the process. And once again, Clinton felt the staff had let him down and the press had betrayed him. [The book] put the worst face on a process that had been difficult. At times there was a lot of disagreement about what should happen but [it] had been an honest process in a lot of ways. Bob Woodward had sort of ensured that it be an honest process. And yet it was not portrayed as such. In June of '93, Vince Foster commits suicide. [Do you] remember much about that day? You were with the president at Larry King Live that night.

I actually remember a lot about that day. It doesn't get much worse than that. It's one thing to have a controversy over whether the president did or didn't hold up air traffic getting his hair cut on Air Force One. It's another thing entirely when someone you know and work with and respect takes his life.

The president was doing Larry King Live. Things were starting to improve in the summer of '93, and they were in the library, the downstairs of the White House residence. And about 9:45, Mark Gearan -- and I can't remember the whole sequence of events of who told who -- but Mark Gearan told me he [didn't] know what happened, but Vince Foster [had] taken his life.

And just at that time, Larry King asked the president if he'll stay on the air for another half an hour. Of course, the president said, "Sure, Larry." So, we're like, "Oh, My God. We've got to put the kibosh on this extra time," [but] we don't want to alarm anybody. We're not sure who all's been notified. We got to stop this interview, only 10 more minutes. Get the president out, inform him, let him go over to the Foster's home. I mean it's kind of -- your head starts working in strange ways. But we're afraid that somebody might pick it up on a police scanner in Virginia or something, and call the show and inform the president on the air. We were terrified of that.

And so we went to the producer of the show ... and said, "This horrible thing has happened. We really have to ask you as a human being, you've got to help us make sure that no calls go through that could possibly be about this, and you got to help us end this interview." And she did.

So, we got the president out of there and Mack McLarty took him upstairs and told him. He came back down and did something -- the only time in my tenure at the White House that I ever knew he did it -- which was left the building without the press. Just got into the limo with just a lead car and a tail service car and went over to the Foster's to try to console the family.

And the next day we were all in shock. I mean, [of] however many people working in the White House complex, Vince was about the last guy that you would have expected to hear this about. We sort of tried to put together what had happened and deal with the logistics of it. And I remember we were downstairs in the chief of staff's office, and Sylvia Matthews came in, and said, "The maids are upstairs and they're about to go into or they did go into Vince's office," I guess. "Don't you think we ought to preserve what was in his trash can?" Oh, yeah. God. You know, I mean we're not thinking like law enforcement experts here. This is the scene of a crime.

We're thinking how in the world could such a horrible thing happen and what can we do to help the family? I mean we knew we would have questions to answer and it was already starting to break out. And we were trying to drop the statement from the president about it. So within a couple of hours we're all of a sudden dealing with some kind of an investigation of a very sensitive event at a very high level. And I think it was at that point that I started to realize that my God, there's going to be all kinds of conspiracy theorists out there. I remember saying to Mark and to George, "You know, I have a really bad feeling about this." I mean it's bad enough that Vince has died but this isn't going to be treated like a human tragedy, this is the beginning of something that is going to go on for a long time.

And it did. The next day the press asked me, you know, well, "Why, why, why?" And I said, "It's unknowable." Even though I could see what was happening, I couldn't stop myself from responding like a human being. You know, it's unknowable. Why does anybody take their life? You can never satisfactorily answer that question. And, of course, that just opened the door. "What is it you're trying to hide? Why can't you answer that question?"

It was no longer about the mystery of a human tragedy, it was about what is the White House trying to cover up? And then, of course, once again we didn't handle it as well as we could have. There were things that were revealed over time, what appeared to be a suicide note was ripped up and in the bottom of a brief case that was found later. And then there [were] all the subsequent questions that have gone on for years about what was in his office, what happened to the documents, what was the chain of custody of those documents, why were they locked in a closet in the West Wing, in the White House residence over the weekend, while the president went down to attend the funeral? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

One of the outgrowths of that was ... [it] brought Whitewater back up which had been around in the campaign and pretty much subsided. There's a debate in the White House about how to handle Whitewater. There is an argument that we ought to turn over these documents to the Washington Post. Do you remember that fight?

Sure. Because the documents in Vince's office included White House legal documents and some personal stuff of the Clintons, including some Whitewater documents and some tax returns.

And that did ignite this whole new round of questions. ... David Gergen, George, myself, a number of other people, believed that the questions were coming, there was going to be a whole new round on Whitewater, and the best thing to do was just take everything that the Clintons had, everything that was in their possession, everything they could get their hands on about these land transactions and the related events, [and] go down to the Washington Post. Sit there and let the Post go through it and then answer questions until there were no more questions.

That would do a couple of things. One, it would create not just the appearance, but the reality of openness, and, two, it makes it a proprietary story. If the Washington Post has all the documents, how can ABC News compete with that, really? It becomes a Post story. It becomes a less competitive story because competition is what sometimes drove these crazy stories, we had discovered.

And it might also bore people to death, really.

Exactly. I still believe to this day that there is a lot less to that than meets the eye. And so, the argument was made very strongly to the Clintons. And they decided that they didn't want to do that.

I think David Kendall and some other people believed that once you did that, once you started turning over your personal records of events that transpired 20 years ago, that had nothing to do with your stewardship of the country, nothing to do with your role as president or first lady, nothing to do with the public trust, that you couldn't, you would never stop. That the requests would come and come and come. Today it's Whitewater, tomorrow it's tax returns or whatever. And that it would just open a door that they didn't want to open. And in some ways, I mean it, it's their life. It was hard for us to argue that they should walk through that door.

There was one meeting you were at with George and Gergen and you are talking about this after the Clintons have already kind of made up their minds. George is talking and Hillary comes in and George has got to finish the argument because Hillary says, in effect, "This concerns me, I want to hear what you're saying." George makes a pitch to her and then what does Hillary Clinton--

...Not everybody, but most people in the room agreed with George and me that the Clintons had made a wrong decision. And everybody was vocally expressing their opinions until the door opened and Mrs. Clinton walked in and everybody clammed up.

And Mrs. Clinton wanted to know what was going on and she looked at George. And George began to make the argument that we'd all been making and nobody backed him up. Nobody backed him up. Everyone just sat there and let George take the beating, you know. And Mrs. Clinton got really angry. She attacked George, which everyone knew was coming, which is why I guess nobody was willing to ride in there to the rescue.

...I guess at the time I couldn't believe it. I thought it had to be coming from a place of anger and it was only later that I realized that, that she did have these ongoing kind of questions about him. To me nobody had worked harder than George. [He] had stood up and tried to do the right thing. Here were twelve people in the room who all basically agreed and only one of them was willing to stand up and tell her what she had asked. And that took a lot of courage.

...That was my kind of reaction to what she said about George, and I also remember thinking this was just a wrong-headed decision. She dug in. She wants to fight. I was somewhat sympathetic. I'm not the person on the receiving end of this, they are. And I understand that this is their life.

But there's no talking her out of it. ... And anybody that stood up and tried to say this was a bad idea was, you know, smashed down and belittled, very personally. And I mean where I said the president didn't really attack people personally, Mrs. Clinton sometimes did and that was a good example.

Were people afraid of her? Were people afraid to speak out against her?

Yeah. And I think because not only would she sort of humiliate you in front of your colleagues or whoever happened to be around. It wasn't like she did it every day. I found that she wasn't the most direct person. Although that was very direct, that to me was the exception rather than the rule. Hillary tended to kind of campaign against people behind their back, and that was certainly my experience. She was not happy with me, but she never confronted me. She never had a conversation with me about it. She would go call Leon in and yell at him and then he'd have to call me in and say, "Mrs. Clinton is really upset about X. You said Y, and she disagrees with that, and you know, she wants you to fix it," or whatever. As opposed to her picking up the phone and calling me. Sometimes it's appropriate, I think, to go through the chief of staff because it's the chain of command. Maybe she's talking to him about six things and one of them is me. But there were times when I thought she should have dealt with me directly and she didn't.

...I didn't respect that. If you have a problem with me or anybody else, it doesn't mean she shouldn't try achieve whatever outcome she wanted to achieve. But I think there is a certain grace and I just think it's a bit better politics and personnel management to be direct.

How powerful was she?

She was definitely a force. No question about it. And to a certain degree it depended on the issue and the time. I mean obviously around health care she was extremely powerful. Always to do with personnel issues if she wanted to weigh-in, she could affect a lot of change. Almost all first ladies have had tremendous power on personnel issues, whether the public realized it or not, whether it was Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan or whoever. And I think a part of it would depend on kind of the ebb and flow of her weighing in on policy decisions and on the ebb and flow of her relationship with the president.

It sounds to me very much like you resent the way she treated you.

Do I resent it? You know, I wished that she would have been more direct with me on a number of things. Yeah. I mean I don't know if I resent it. I just think that it would have been more effective. ... It would've been better if people had been more direct. But, you know, the White House is a place that's full of intrigue and plots and subplots, and there's always something going on.

...It wasn't like I was locking horns with her every day. She was interested in the press. Obviously she paid attention to what was written about the president and about the administration, sometimes more closely than he did. So it wasn't like I was locking horns with her all the time, but there were a couple of times when I did and I just think things could have worked out better if we could have talked to each other. And I did try to talk to her a couple of times. And, you know, she's always very polite. She didn't like confrontation.

There is a summit that summer. You go to Prague and Moscow with the president. And on the trip there is the Whitewater story is still brewing. And Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News has got an interview with the president.

Oh boy did I get yelled at for this. Yeah. We were on our way to Moscow and the United States was in the process of negotiating some denuclearization agreements. And, you know, we had just gotten Belarus on board and we were going to stop in Belarus on the way to Moscow. And so, this was pretty big news. One of the bigger foreign policy accomplishments of the administration to date. And so we decided what we would do is to try to spike the story a little. We would give a correspondent from each of the three networks -- actually we didn't give one to ABC, I think because Nightline was travelling with [us].

So, Rita Braver from CBS was the first and we said "Two questions for each of you." Rita asks a question about the coming summit and the denuclearization agreement and a follow-up about the summit. And then she says "What about this Whitewater thing?"

And the president answers her, no problem. Go into the next room, NBC. Miklaszewski is sitting there. He asks, boom, Whitewater, boom Whitewater, boom Whitewater. And the president just took off his microphone. He said, "You know, I thought we were going to talk about the summit, but if your viewers want," whatever he said, famous thing, throws the microphone on the chair and walks out of the room and proceeds to scream at me for about 10 minutes. He has this thing that he used to do because I'm sure he still does it, this kind of finger in your face, like this. That was the worst I ever got yelled at by him -- just in my face for like 10 minutes because here he was trying to do his job as president and back home this nagging thing was rearing its ugly head again, and I couldn't stop the press from asking about it. You know, "Why do we do this? Why do you sit me down? Why can't you control what these people do?"

Yeah, I really got yelled at. But there was a lot going on. And it was kind of the juxtaposition of being on this trip where real foreign policy business is trying to be done and the remnants of the Cold War dealt with. And yet at home is this political scandal brewing and the whole question of would there be an independent counsel or special counsel appointed by the attorney general to look into this.

Clinton was so mad that he cancelled the interview with Ted Koppel that night. And wants to cancel it again the next night. You remember that debate?

Yeah. I just remember that was really stressful having that ABC crew there that whole time because not only was the president sort of alternately thrilled that they could be there to share the exploits of his diplomacy and frustrated that they wanted to be with him all the time whether he was tired or not or angry or not.

And then we had this thing brewing back home and so that trip was sort of hell for me. I felt like I was constantly, as you are when you're in the press secretary, caught between the Nightline crowd, and the president. And so he wouldn't do [the interview] that night, and, you know, he barely talked to me for 24 hours....

I don't remember exactly how we convinced him to do it, but I think Gergen was actually really helpful in getting the president to put it back on. ... I do remember he was on really late. And not only that but Bill Clinton does not drink. He just doesn't drink. Well, you don't go to Russia and sit down with the president of Russia and not drink. That doesn't happen.

And so we were never really quite sure what kind of state we were going to find the president [in]. I mean he was never really bombed or anything but he barely drinks at all. And so, he'd have a little vodka and you just never quite knew how between the effect of the vodka and the effect of being upside down and you work really hard on these trips.

And so the last night things had gone pretty well and we had had this ceremony sort of signing of these detargeting agreements, denuclearization agreements, and a state dinner and some really great stuff had gone on. And the president was staying in the Kremlin in their guest quarters. They were just attached to the rest of the Kremlin, and so Ted was there. We took the president and he came walking out and there was nobody in the Kremlin. There was Ted Koppel and an ABC crew and probably a producer, and David Gergen, the president and myself walking around. There is probably somebody watching us. But we wandered around through the rooms of the Kremlin, nobody was there.

I thought, "You know, this is clearly a post-Cold War world." You know, where the president and the spy TV crew are being allowed to wander around and photograph at will in the middle of the night. It wasn't the middle of the night, but it was midnight. I'll never just forget that sort of eerie feeling of being there. And you guys have it all on tape.

Things are jelling a little bit later in the year.

Things came together at the end of '93 because NAFTA passed and the budget passed. And then health care was launched and to great fanfare.

The budget was really a tall mountain. ... That was huge. That was the first real victory of the Clinton White House and it was a budget that cut spending $250 billion and increased revenues $250 billion, raised taxes. But it was a good package and we thought, "This is responsible." And we were pretty sure, based on Rubin's knowledge, that Wall Street and other people would respond well to it....

Then in September we said we have two priorities for the fall which [are] to pass NAFTA and launch health care. People said you cannot do both. You cannot do both of those things. You're trying to woo two different constituencies, you're trying to put together two different coalitions, you don't have time. The president doesn't have control of the message enough to do those two things simultaneously, but we did. I mean it was hard. It was hard to get NAFTA done and it was hard to get the sort of health care thing ready and start the process on that but we did.

And, so come December, we are looking at a pretty good second half of the president's first year. And everyone was feeling pretty good and then what happened was you go into this time of [year] people let their guard down. There's not a lot of news and we didn't have a lot planned and as the holidays approached into that void came Troopergate.

So December 1993, there is supposed to be a big party at Gearan's house, and then this story breaks.

Yeah. We knew the story was in the works. Both The American Spectator and the L.A. Times were working on the story that then-Governor Clinton had used Arkansas state troopers to procure women. This was a Sunday, and about 5 o'clock that afternoon I got a call from Dave Gergen saying they are faxing it around or something. We've got a copy of the story.

And once again your best social plans are foiled by some crisis at the White House. Dave and I never made it to Gearan's that night. We went straight to the White House and started going over the story and tried to piece together what was it, what do we know about the accusations made in it. You know, what were we going to say? I just remember being there until late that night and again trying to find the factual inaccuracies in the story and trying to find out who are these people? I mean they all had histories. There were a number of people around from Arkansas who knew.

What was the strategy there to deflect that story?

It was to once again find the factual errors and to tell the subsequent story about some of the individuals, some of the state troopers who had some pretty shady histories. Some of them had been involved in another scandal subsequent to their service to Clinton while he was governor. And so we tried to just -- who are these people, what are their motives, what are the factual inaccuracies in the story, where can we shoot it down?

... Because the story appeared in The American Spectator the first line of defense was "This is The American Spectator. This is a right-wing rag that is committed the destruction of the Clinton presidency. They don't believe it's legitimate. And they'll do whatever it takes, no matter how low, to try to disprove it."

The L.A. Times is another matter.

The L.A. Times is another matter, exactly. So, we tried to keep it out of the L.A. Times and were unsuccessful at that, too.

You know, who knows what the truth is? But I think there were certainly a lot of people with some pretty suspect motives involved in that story. And the author himself has since come out and distanced himself from it and said, "I was used." I don't know what's true and what's not true.

...You know, I think reporters didn't want to be writing about it necessarily. You had to ask yourself, "God, is this really relevant?" Some people thought it was and some people thought it wasn't. But you couldn't avoid that question: Is this really relevant? Does this prove a pattern of this kind of behavior or is this just people out trying to even political scores?

...You know, I'm glad I don't have to defend things like that any more. It was a relief not to have to try to make sense of out some of the president's explanation for his actions in the Lewinsky scandal based on my experience with issues like the draft and Troopergate and other things, Whitewater.

In April of '94, Hillary gives her first and only press conference. Were you involved in the planning of that?

I wasn't. In fact, I think that Mrs. Clinton and her staff kind of sprung it on the rest of [us]. There was a lot going on that day. I would have to go back and look, but there were four or five major news events, including her press conference. And there was a lot of "Where did this come from? Did she talk, did anyone talk to you about it? No. Did anyone talk to you about it? No. How did this get on the schedule? Why didn't they consult anybody before they put this on?" And I think there's a lot of debate about whether it was a good idea. But it was on. And it was going to happen and there it was.

Another example of no one wanting to mess with Mrs. Clinton?

Yeah. ...Once it was announced to the press, I mean it was a bad idea to pull it off. So I don't know where the decision making process happened and whether Mrs. Clinton talked to the president about it or not before she scheduled it.

In August of '94, the crime bill comes up which is very important to this president. But what starts off as a crime bill gets turned around into sort of a debate about midnight basketball and stuff like that. How did you handle that? I mean this was, this was a pretty big deal for, for Clinton.

Yeah. We had a long battle on the crime bill. And because of health care, in a lot of ways, and gays in the military and a lot of what had happened in the first two years, the Republicans had been successful and we had successfully allowed Clinton to be painted as a liberal. So they went into the crime bill and pulled out the stuff that they could use to say, "liberal, liberal, liberal."

Midnight basketball leagues was a great example. I mean why are we spending millions of dollars so that kids in the inner city can play basketball in the middle of the night? You know, we want to put criminals in jail, we want to punish people who do wrong. We don't want to pay for midnight basketball.

I think this was a good example of the White House just battling back and battling back and battling back, because ultimately the bill, in some revised form, did pass. And in it was some good gun stuff. I think in hindsight Clinton will get a lot of credit for taking on the gun lobby....

What was the president like after he loses the House and Senate? Whether he loses but --

...He was furious. He was just furious. He went into a real funk and spent a lot of time thinking, blaming other people, feeling sorry for himself, and consulting secretly with Dick Morris to figure out a strategy to battle back. He was very low, frustrated, dispirited but he never quits. And while I think a lot of us were seeing his funk and his frustration as anger, thought he had been poorly served by some of the strategists, he was already plotting his comeback.

Is that a tough period because the political team that had carried him through the campaign in really the first two years is being blamed in part for that loss?

Yeah, it was tough. I mean that's exactly what happened. The same people who had been the architects of his presidential victory were blamed for losing the House and the Senate and giving him bad advice for those first two years. And he began to push people away. Things started to happen, like he would get a draft of a speech and it would come back completely rewritten. And, you know, like where'd this come from? And [it] partly came through him, but in hindsight it partly came from Dick Morris. And then all of a sudden the president wanted to announce this middle-class tax cut and a middle class bill of rights. And it was like, well, you know, he's jumping on the Republican bandwagon. Where's this coming from?

He was clearly signaling the president is changing his strategy but where is this coming from? And I had never met Dick Morris at this point. People were just starting to figure out there's some dark force out there that [the president] is conspiring with. And sure enough it was Dick. So it was, it was an interesting time. And I left not too long after that.

What was the reaction among people like you and, and others on the staff when they found out that the president secretly consulting with Dick Morris? "Charlie?"

Yeah, Charlie. You know, I guess, it was kind of hard to believe. Although in looking back over his history at the time, people said, "Well he's done this before." He's frustrated.

Did it make you and the others angry though? I mean when you found out that this --

By the time the extent of it really became known I was gone. I wasn't there. ... But, I certainly was in touch with all my friends, and yeah they were mad and I think I agreed with them. I thought it was a bad idea. I mean this guy was unreliable. He was Trent Lott's consultant. Didn't believe in anything.

How did you feel your own departure was handled? There was a period where in the press you were seen going in and basically begging for your job.

I was not at all happy with the way that whole thing transpired. I had gotten into a disagreement with Panetta about how the press office should be structured. And I think there is a lot of frustration and a lot of discussion about Gergen moving on, and bringing in somebody to take, not take his place, because he never really fulfilled, I think, the role that a lot of us thought he would when he came in, which is sort of uber communications director.

But I thought that was a bad idea. I thought that part of the problem with the White House was there were too many people responsible for talking to the press. It wasn't that there weren't enough, there was too many. There was George. Even after he moved out of the communications director job, he was one of the most aggressive talkers to the media. There was Mark Gearan, who had replaced him as communications director. There was Gergen, and there was me. And those were the people that were authorized, whose job description included dealing with the media.

And when Leon came in June of '94, part of his mission was to restructure the White House, which needed restructuring. But we disagreed about what that meant. I said the press secretary should be elevated back to assistant to the president, given the press secretary's job and given the responsibility for day-to-day management of the news media. Leon didn't really agree with that. He thought there should be somebody brought in. That I should still do the daily briefings, travel with the president, do virtually what I was doing now, but there would be that same layer in between. And I said, you know, that doesn't work.

And, so, ultimately we took it to the president and it leaked. It didn't come from me. And Leon never believed that, much to my regret. But I made my pitch to the president and he agreed that I should stay on for a while and give it a shot.

And I think in some places it was played like Leon was mad because he felt it had been played like I had rolled him and that his authority as chief of staff was undermined by it. I was upset because I thought it was played like I was begging for my job. When, in fact, my biggest concern was if you want to hire another press secretary, that's fine, but give somebody the tools to do the job because this doesn't make any sense. It doesn't work for the president. It doesn't work for the press. It doesn't work for the White House. Nobody is benefiting from this arrangement. So let's make an honest decision here to just put it together the way it should be put together, the way it's always been put together.

My relationship with Leon was never repaired from that, and so I left about three months later. I think it was in September. It wasn't the way I would've liked to see it end. But I still feel like I did what I had to do. I thought it was the right thing to do regardless of how it affected me. I mean it didn't make sense before and I think part of the problem was that there was no final authority for dealing with the press. And I think McCurry came in, the press office continued to be organized in the way that it was in the last few months of my tenure, which is the press secretary was the press secretary again. And it worked infinitely better. And I think Leon had a lot of confidence in Mike and that helped. And he wasn't competing with as many people. He had a lot more power than I ever did....

Just looking back on your two years in the White House, how are you going to view the president for that time?

Obviously my feelings have gone through a lot of phases over the years. I still think in spite of everything that he's the most talented person I've ever been around. He has an incredibly high IQ. He has tremendous amount of curiosity. He has a memory like a steel trap, nearly photographic. He really can synthesize things in truly original ways. He is both the politician and a serious policy person. And I just don't think that his likes will come our way again soon, for better and in some ways for worse.

You know, I'm disappointed in a lot of the things that he's done. I think he had potential for greatness. I don't think he achieved it. I think he's done a lot of good things for the country. I have a lot of sadness about how it's all ended up for him. But I have a reservoir of affection for him that I don't really understand.

I think he means well. I think he's flawed like we all are, and his flaws cost him and the country so much, but I think he means well. I know this doesn't absolve him of all the things that he's done but I haven't seen him or spoken to him in more than two years. I did get a letter from him when my baby was born, but there was no note on it or anything. It was kind of a form letter, but it was signed by him. And, you know, someday I hope I can see him again. Maybe when enough time passes it will happen.



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