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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 . 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?
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 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,
... 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
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
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
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
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
...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
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
...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
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
...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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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.