When you decide to join up with Clinton and Clinton decides to have you on
the team, what is it about him that catches your eye? |
Oh, the smarts. The guy had thought everything through, both on the politics
and the policy. When I interviewed for the job, it wasn't really an interview.
It was me listening basically for an hour and a half to Governor Clinton just
go through the entire landscape of the campaign. And in the very first time I
talked to him . . . he said, "It's all going to come down to Illinois on March
17. If I win the game in Illinois, I win Illinois, and I'll get the
nomination." That's exactly what happened. But he had it in his head back in
I thought it was just to be a terrific experience. That this was a smart guy
who was going to move the party a little bit, bring ideas into the campaign and
have a noble loss. Even if he got the nomination, George Bush looked
unbeatable. But I thought it would be a terrific, important experience. But
at some level, I think even if Clinton thought that maybe what he was doing was
a sort of doing a practice run, he also had this unbelievable inner
You had to choose. You were torn between Kerrey and Clinton at that
Yes. I interviewed with both of them on the same day. And it was entirely
different experiences. Kerrey was attractive, I mean, cerebral in a different
way from Clinton, not as earthy as Clinton, a little more ethereal. . . . What
was also different about the interviews is that -- and now this has become
common wisdom to everybody else, but at that time it was a new experience --
this notion of meeting someone who is not just in your face, but kind of in
your skin from the moment he meets you. You just feel completely connected to
him when he turns to you. The difference for me in the end was Clinton. I
agreed with both of them on the issues. There weren't that many big
differences between them on the issues. But Clinton made you feel like a part
of his team from the minute you met him.
Early in the campaign in November, there is a speech in Memphis. What's
going through your mind as you're watching Clinton?
It was in an arena that had been transformed into a church. There were about
15,000 or 18,000 members of the Church of God in Christ, which is basically an
African-American church. Clinton had flown in from New Hampshire that day. We
met with him a little bit before the speech, but then went out into the crowd
to watch. We saw him, far away, surrounded by this circle of black preachers,
almost looking like a fighter surrounded by his entourage. And he was
completely composed. His face didn't betray any sign of emotion, or any sign
that he was thinking.
But what I later learned was that he was composing his speech in his head. And
then when he got up to give the speech, I was completely blown away because it
was this music where he tied together his experiences in New Hampshire with the
economic challenges facing the African-American community. And then he gave
this message that both talked about how we have to, yes, invest more in your
communities, but we also have to take more responsibility. If you're on
welfare, you have to work.
Usually you would think a white politician, a Democrat, wouldn't do that before
a black audience. And I kind of held my breath thinking, "Was he going to get
booed?" And they cheered. And what I immediately went back to -- and maybe it
was just something I was just wishing for -- but I thought, "My gosh, this is
our Bobby Kennedy. This is the guy who can bring blacks and whites together
the way that Bobby Kennedy promised to do back in 1968." And for a lot of
Democrats my age, Bobby is even more of an icon than Jack. Bobby was the great
hope, the first person that we really were aware of politically. And I
remember thinking that night: maybe Clinton can do it.
The campaign is just taking off in New Hampshire. In January, the Gennifer
Flowers story breaks. How do you decide to deal with it when the Star
. . . This was supposed to be a nothing event. The debate had been the night
before. This was an early morning stop at a coffee shop. Clinton had pretty
much beat back Jerry Brown and most of his questions the night before. And we
always started slow in the Clinton campaign. Mornings are not Clinton at his
best time. So we weren't planning on doing anything big there.
I was sitting with Paul, chatting with a few reporters, drinking a cup of
coffee in the coffee shop, while they did their thing meeting with people. And
then all the sudden, Hillary starts to do this kind of impromptu press
conference. Reporters had gathered around. I don't remember much of what she
said, except the words that everyone would soon know, "tea and cookies." And
it was just like bam, all of us all of a sudden we perked up and said, "That's
going to be a problem." Because it was just too good a phrase. You know it
was just impossible for any reporter sitting there that day not to use the most
resonant, rich, colloquial phrase she could possibly use to describe her choice
to work in a law firm as opposed to staying at home. And we knew it was a
problem. But nobody wanted to tell her, because that wouldn't be fun at all.
And I was sitting there with Paul, like the old commercial, saying, "No, I'm
not going to do it. You go do it." "No, I'm not going to do it -- you go do
it." "Let Mandy do it." Because we knew it was a problem the minute she said
"tea and cookies." And we knew a lot of people would take it as proof that she
is this radical feminist who has no respect for traditional women. And we're
going to have to try to clean it up. Of course, there was no cleaning it up,
because the words were already out there.
Why were you reluctant to tell Mrs. Clinton? Why this fear about informing
Because then I would become the embodiment of all those people across
the country who called her a radical feminist who didn't respect traditional
women. And I didn't feel like that at 7:45 in the morning leading into the
Illinois primary. It would not have been pretty. That's kind of a weird
thing with staffers. You get the opportunity to question your boss under the
pretense that you're just playing the reporter, which is very true, and you're
only doing your job by asking the toughest questions. But I think it's
understandable for someone like Mrs. Clinton in that situation to say, "Who do
you think you are, coming at me like that?" even if it's the right thing at
this moment. So, no, I didn't gladly volunteer for that assignment. And I
avoided it quite successfully.
She took it pretty well coming from Mandy. We actually thought it would be a
little better if it came from a woman, rather than one of these young white
boys on the staff. She tried to fix it. She tried to say that she didn't mean
to say any disrespect. I don't remember the exact words she used, but the
damage was done. And I think "tea and cookies" was pretty much of a roadblock
on the evening news that night.
A little later, there is a focus group in Charleston, West Virginia,
looking at video. And you're all gathered around watching with the governor.
Yes. We're trying to figure out the damage that had been done, not only by the
"tea and cookies," but just the overall primary campaign. . . . But the
footage that was used for Hillary was footage from election night, 1992, in New
Hampshire. where she did, She had this elaborate Nefertiti-style hairdo that
night, one that I've never seen since, and had not seen before. And it really
We were all sitting around the focus group watching these dials, and up until
that point they had been pretty steady. And then this picture of Mrs. Clinton
comes on and the dial groups go like wild, and Clinton doesn't miss a beat. He
just says, "Oh, they don't like her hair." I'm sitting next to James on the
couch and he starts to grind his fist into my thigh because it was like someone
farted in church and we were about to start laughing uncontrollably. And we
were just holding it in and he's grinding his fist into my thigh. And we
finally, we're not breathing, we finally run out of the room, get into the
hallway, and just break up laughing.
Looking back, it was kind of sweet that Clinton said that. His instinct was to
protect her. He's a smart politician and he knew that we had a pretty serious
problem coming out of "tea and cookies" and that a lot of people had very
strong feelings about Mrs. Clinton. And he was just being protective of her in
that moment. We didn't dwell on it that day.
James writes about the "SMO" during the campaign. . . . What kind of a
temper did the governor have?
It's just a physical force. It's really not connected to anything in
particular, and it's certainly not personal, but he gets up grumpy. And he
starts slow, as it is, because he stays up quite late and would work quite
late. And he wants to manage every single thing in the campaign. There's
always going to be some bad news in the newspaper when you get up. So it's
just his way of clearing his throat.
Whether it was a bad headline in the newspaper or a stupid scheduling decision,
he would get it all out all at once in the suite over his Raisin Bran. And I
never minded it, because it wasn't personal and it wasn't particularly mean.
It was just ferocious. And it would just pass. He would have the outburst,
and then go on and do his day and do brilliantly at it. Also, for a staffer,
it's a kind of a source of power to be the one who gets the SMO. You're
trusted enough, or you're important enough, to take the wrath and then try to
fix it. Although, that all said, it was much easier when we did it over the
phone rather than in person.
There is a problem with Clinton's image at roughly this point in the
campaign. There is this real perception among many voters that he's this rich
It's amazing. The qualities that work for him so well among elites in the
party, with reporters, with the chattering establishment class that you need to
convince to back your campaign so that you can go present yourself to the
voters -- that he was a Rhodes scholar, Georgetown, lawyer, smart guy -- all
worked against him later as he was being introduced to the rest of the
And what it did was actually reinforce people's doubts about his credibility.
They didn't trust him in large measure because they thought he was this rich
kid who had always had everything handed to him. And we found out was
something quite simple and quite startling. If you simply gave people the
information that Bill Clinton was the son of a single mom who worked his way
through school, they could put the rest of his life in context. And they were
much less concerned about their doubts, because they felt he had worked for
everything he had gotten. And it was incredible.
After the primaries in California, you then set up the war room. What are
you trying to do?
Not to be the Dukakis campaign, which a lot of us had worked in. And a lot of
us felt we had been beat because the Republicans had laid out a pretty
targeted, fierce assault on Dukakis that we didn't answer. We were determined
that if we were going to lose, we were going to lose fighting. We were going
down fighting. In June, we were in third place, broke and we hadn't gotten
paid in two months. And Ross Perot was moving. And like I said, we were not
going to go down without a fight.
And the war room was important, not just for the actual work it would do in
answering the Republican charges and counterattacking, but the very idea of it
was important -- just having a war room so that Democrats, especially, but also
others who were just going to start to pay attention to the campaign, would see
that we weren't like Democrats in the past. They'd see that we were different
-- not only because we were different on our ideas -- but because we fight back
when we're hit.
Later in the fall, polls were looking pretty good for you with Bush. Still,
according to everything everyone had written, there's a sense of fear that
never goes away.
It's a different kind of fear. I remember the first time I ever really
let myself believe we could win and we're going to win. It was late September
in the Washington Hilton on a Sunday morning, and Clinton was about to go give
a speech in North Carolina on NAFTA. And he called me in and had his standard
morning outburst on the speech and was yelling about it. And, but his heart
wasn't really in it, and I could tell. . . . And he suddenly stops yelling,
looks me right in the eye and says, "You think we're going to win, don't you?"
I said, "Yes." And he goes, "I do, too." And for me, that was just
incredible. He was saying out loud what we all hoped for, but could never say.
It would be like talking about a no-hitter in the eighth inning.
And from that moment on, inside we didn't feel like underdogs anymore. We felt
like we had this responsibility to win. And as a staffer, it was starting to
get a little bit out of control, because I had never been through anything like
that and nobody else had either. When you're in a presidential campaign at its
peak in the fall, all the sudden it's not just 20 people in Little Rock sitting
in a room. You're representing a lot of people who have invested in you, and
not just the money. People have just invested their hopes. The whole country
is paying attention. There are millions. And we start to think, my God, if we
blow it now, it's all our fault. And we will have blown this opportunity that
a lot of people are counting on us to carry out.
So the fear of making a mistake and letting these people down and thinking,
basically, that you're going to have to leave the country becomes tremendous.
You just don't want to blow it.
One thing that was so critical here -- and it starts in New Hampshire -- is
this man's skill at campaigning.
Had you ever seen anything like that before?
Never. We called him "Secretariat" because he was just the absolute
thoroughbred of thoroughbreds of campaigners. Whether it was working a rope
line or giving a speech or devising the policy or just having the stamina to
last through four 20-hour campaign days in a row and do it with good humor and
grace. None of us had ever seen anything like this before. He is the
politician probably not only of his generation, but if you're thinking just
pure raw political skills, he's probably the politician of the century. And it
was an awesome sight to watch.
On the one hand, you have this thoroughbred. On the other hand, you had a
candidate who, you realized fairly early on, could also be your worst
Every campaign thinks their candidate is their worst enemy at some point
or another. Because as skilled and smart as he was, he would always take it
that extra mile. If something was a little bit off or a little bit untrue, and
you never knew either what he would say or when something else from his past
would come back and bite you. And so we always had that fear on top of
One of the greatest anxieties -- even though we didn't really believe it -- in
the final month of the campaign, there was all this talk going around
Republican circles that Clinton had written some letter when he was at Oxford
to some official in Sweden saying he was going to renounce his citizenship. On
its face, it was crazy. We didn't really believe it. But after everything
we'd been through, we couldn't be sure. And you never know, are you going to
wake up one morning and son of a gun, there's that letter. And then what do
In that last hectic few hours before the election in November, the governor
and Mrs. Clinton are sitting there at the plane and talking to Ted [Koppel]. And one of
the things that Ted asks is, "Are you going to have a zone of privacy in the
White House?" And Mrs. Clinton was just adamant and confident that not only is
she going to have a zone of privacy, but she's going to do everything she can
to have a normal life. As you're about to win a presidential election, is it
naive to think that a zone of privacy that exists?
It's hard to think back to that time. A little naive, a little arrogant, and a
little sad; because it is naive to believe it; it's arrogant to try to put it
into place; and it's sad that it shouldn't be. The president should have a
zone of privacy. It's crazy, given what we had been through, to believe that
it was going to happen. And it was wrong to try to like push it too hard.
Do you remember your first conversation with the new president-elect?
I remember a couple. I remember that evening I was sitting in my office
back in Little Rock, and it was strange. It was just like the beginning.
From the minute I met him, it was it wasn't like it was ever an interview. It
was just like we were working together. The same thing on election night. I
couldn't even find a moment to thank him or say what an amazing experience this
had been or to congratulate him, because we're spending all the time on the
phone going over the results in the far western states. He's fighting with me
about whether or not he's ahead or behind in Nevada. And I'm thinking, "My God,
you're the next President of the United States."
But the next day was really the nice moment. Late in the day, everybody had
slept in, and the Clintons were having all their staff come one by one to the
little den off the kitchen in the governor's mansion where we had spent hours
and hours and hours writing commercials, plotting strategy, whatever. And I
remember going into the den. It was late afternoon. It was already getting
dark outside. And they both walk into the room, again, a little washed out,
tired, obviously incredibly content. And it was just like a three-way hug.
And Clinton congratulated me. He called me a "master of the universe." Which
is how I knew that Joe Klein had written Primary Colors two years later
-- when that phrase showed up.
But it was just everything you could possibly hope in a moment like that. The
combination of this intimate, close celebration combined with all of the
anticipation of having a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help bring your ideas to
the rest of the country. And it was amazingly powerful. The only thing they
said about the job was, "We just want you to keep on doing what you're doing,"
which was all I wanted to hear.
Almost immediately you had this young, committed, but inexperienced campaign
staff putting together the next government, and the transition in Little Rock.
What stands out in your mind about the transition? Are you sitting around and
he's picking the cabinet?
That's not exactly true, though. The cabinet was being done in a different,
quite closed process. What stands out now is that we didn't know what we
didn't know at the time. We thought we could get away with just carrying on
the work of the campaign for another month or two. . . . It turned out to be a
miscalculation, because what we didn't realize deeply enough is that, despite
all this fiction about a transition, at least metaphorically, the day after the
election this guy is president and will be treated as if he is in many, many
respects. And we weren't ready for it. The single biggest mistake we probably
made was not appointing a White House chief of staff and at least a core staff
that day, so we could act as if we were ready.
Were you in over your head? The staff that had been so successful in
electing the president when it came to the first acts of the government?
To the extent that we were, we believed our victory too much, and didn't
internalize enough what a narrow victory it was. Everybody is in over their
heads when they start, yes. And I think we were at some level. But our
mistake was not that everybody should have been thrown away. But there should
have been more of an experienced structure around us. I like to think that,
even if we made our mistakes, a lot of talented people from the campaign are
still working for the president or are essential to his success. But we also
needed to have a greater respect and greater supervision from some people who
had been there before.
But there was resentment, was there not, of the idea that you needed
Yes. We won. We showed them how to do it. We did it our way. We're going to
govern our way, too. That's dumb. Yes. That's dumb, and it's natural.
You didn't want the Washington insiders who had worked in the Carter
administration in the transition?
No, we did not. No. And that was a mistake. I mean, it depends on who
you're talking about, but sure. We won it our way. We wanted to govern our
way. And we got beat back our way.
Did the transition set the tone for the first couple of weeks in the sense
of a transition that's widely been described as disorganized, and not having a
strong command structure? Did that lead to some of the missteps your first
week or so?
There were an awful lot of successes in the transition, too. The economic
conference was one. But, sure, the first press conference two days after
Clinton gets elected, he gets a question on gays in the military, and answers
it. It gets widely reported and that defines the first few weeks of the
administration. There were a lot of reasons for that. In part, I think that
there was kind of a bias to highlight this issue that we didn't fully
appreciate at the time. And I think it was also a problem for us because we
had no center. We were getting buffeted by a lot of different forces on that
issue, by our own gay supporters on the one hand, by our supporters on the
right in the military within the party, on the other, by the press. And we had
no real good way to coordinate it all.
What do you remember about watching the president get sworn in at the
I just can't believe it. I just can't believe it. And no matter what else
happens from here, it's just amazing. It's funny. So much of it is a blur,
because it was this combination. You had all the pomp of the inaugural and the
real sense that you are a part of history in a way that can never be
replicated. At the same time, we're worried about gays in the military, Zoe
Baird and whether he's going to get the speech on time. And it's almost as if
that moment when he was actually sworn in was a moment out of time --
completely separate from everything else that was happening.
Zoe Baird developed partly because there was an understanding that the
attorney general post is going to go to a woman. And what happens there? Why
did Zoe Baird become such an early problem?
We misread the signals. In part, we didn't think it was going to be a problem
because the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Orrin Hatch, said it
wasn't. So what looked like a kind of an understandable accounting mix-up with
Zoe Baird's household help didn't seem to be that big a problem in the little
vetting that we had done.
But it got picked up on talk radio and the message was crystallized. It was a
very clear message. We're about to appoint an attorney general who broke the
law, who hired illegal aliens and didn't pay the taxes on them. And when it's
crystallized into that sound bite, we all learned on the campaign that it was
an impossible message to ignore or defeat. And it just overwhelmed us. And I
think what it tied into more deeply or as deeply was that this crowd that is
coming in is kind of an elite crowd who have a sense of entitlement. They're
allowed to live by one set of rules, and everybody else has to live by another.
And I think that's where the real political power came from.
Because that's the way some people felt about Clinton himself?
That's the way some people think about politicians themselves. It's the
way a lot of older voters think about the baby-boomer generation in particular.
It's the way some people think about elites from Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, and
Oxford. So it all tied together.
When Zoe Baird pulls out, or was asked to leave, you go in front of cameras,
and you have a pretty rough time.
Actually, it was worse than that. It was before I had to do my first briefing,
as she's testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, refusing to leave,
and I was under pretty strict instructions. In fact, I had been at a meeting
in the Oval Office before my briefing, and this was my first briefing the day
after the inaugural. I was suppose to defend her as best I could, but leave
the president room to cut her loose. You try walking that line in your first
press conference. I didn't do very well at it.
You got hammered.
Oh, I got killed. And they were mad about a lot of different things.
They were upset because we had closed off the upper pressroom. They were
having fun with gays in the military and Zoe Baird was fighting for her life,
unsuccessfully, on Capitol Hill. People knew that she was going to be gone and
knew that I couldn't say so, and knew that it was going to be great fun to
watch me squirm. And I guess it was. And I knew also that I was doing my
best. I was trying to say that the president thinks that she would do a good
job as attorney general.
And now, I'm blanking. I forgot what the question was. I just knew that. . . the minute I said "now," they could tell that I had dumped her. And I
just don't remember what the question was. Oh, well.
You said that there was some real resentment. You had decided to close off
the door to your office, which had traditionally been open for the press.
Hillary had decided. I shouldn't say it that way, because we all backed
it up. We thought we were just going to show the press who's boss. And there
had been a lot of different ideas starting out in the transition, and it goes
to what you were talking about -- the zone of privacy.
. . . I remember hearing at the time that when Hillary had met with Barbara
Bush, Mrs. Bush had kind of encouraged this, "Show the press who's boss"
mentality. And I'm thinking, that's easy for her to say, she's not going to
have to live with it. I think it was sincere, but it was also going to create
incredible repercussions. Now, part of the fallback position was to at least
not allow the press to just simply come up into the upper floors of the West
Wing whenever they wanted to. This was a pure example of arrogance and
inexperience and naivete all mixed together.
You say it was Hillary Clinton's idea?
She was pushing for it, yes. And we didn't fight back hard enough. I think it
was partly to create this zone of privacy. They wanted to have a White House
where people felt that the officials felt that they could walk around freely
and share their ideas. We were insufficiently sensitive to the signal it would
send -- the symbolism of shutting out the press -- and how enraged the working
reporters would be, and how oblivious it was to the traditions of the White
You say it was because of the sense of privacy. Was it also because there
was a lot of lingering resentment about how the Clintons had been treated by
the press during the campaign?
That their privacy had been intruded? I think part of it was this notion that
the only way to protect your privacy is to do it yourself. And, again, there's
this underlying sense of "We're going to show them who's boss. We're in
control now. We got elected, not them. We got elected, in part, by beating
back this over intrusiveness of the press. It's what the people are calling
for and we're going to carry it out." That's all subconscious. It's never
really spoken like that, but it's the feeling animating the decision.
Do you remember what was said at the time?
No, it didn't come up that much. It was more where I'd blame myself and others
on the communication staff, had we been smarter, more experienced, and more
sensitive ourselves, we would have realized that this was a place where we
should really fight back hard and say, this is just too important. And had we
done that, I have no doubt that we would have prevailed. And it was a mistake
The subject of gays in the military came up during the transition, when the
governor was asked about it at a press conference. How does the White House
staff let that turn into such a catastrophe?
It wasn't by choice. We didn't have this plan to go out and impose gays in the
military on day one of the Clinton White House. I don't remember the slogan of
the 1992 Clinton campaign being "gays in the military." It's stupid.
What happened was, like you say, we just lost control of it. There had been a
court case that Clinton got asked about immediately after Election Day. I
blame our own inexperience. I blame the press's hunger for a conflict, and a
lot of the president's opponents who were willing to, one, see the benefit of
making this issue number one; and two, some of his friends, who didn't
understand how much harm it was going to do to their cause.
In hindsight, there was no way to fix this problem quickly. Had we been able
to, obviously, the best solution would have been to come up immediately with
some sort of a six-month or yearlong study period. Sam Nunn didn't want do it.
He was probably a little bit upset about not being named secretary of state.
And he didn't have sincere beliefs about the issue. The joint chiefs were
locked in concrete against any change. And the president's supporters in the
gay community didn't fully understand how counterproductive it would be to hit
this issue so quickly. And it was a miscalculation on all sides.
When the president announces the compromise, he doesn't look terribly
comfortable. He doesn't look terribly strong. He's announcing a compromise
that he doesn't seem to be very happy about.
Why would he be? It didn't make anybody happy. We had lost the first week of
the White House to an issue that most of the country looked up and said, "What
are these people doing? They got elected to fix the economy and nobody heard a
thing about the economy." And it probably cost him ten points in the polls,
the opposition of the joint chiefs of staff, and handed a campaign issue to his
future opponent. You wouldn't be too comfortable talking about it, either.
What did he tell you?
I don't know of any one conversation. Our overwhelming feeling when the
compromise was finally announced was relief. We can finally get on to other
Did you have to fight a sense in Washington that you guys could be rolled
easily? That the president gets into trouble with Zoe Baird because he's
trying to accommodate a constituency, he gets in trouble with gays in the
military because he's rolling to a campaign promise. Was there an early sense
of, "Look, the helpmates are pushovers?"
On the one hand. On the other hand, they also thought we were fighting for
things that were stupid to be fighting over. It's easy to say, "Oh, these guys
are pushovers." On the other hand this, there's this facile idea that "Oh,
Clinton should have just signed an executive order ordering the joint chiefs to
allow gays in the military, and that would have shown them." Who are they
kidding? It would have been overturned by 415-20 in the House the next day and
about 95-5 in the Senate. You wouldn't have shown any backbone at all getting
beat that badly.
But yes, the situation was developing there quite quickly. And, in part, also
because a lot of our negotiations over just putting together the budget plan
were seen to be carrying out in public. On top of that, "Oh, we can't do the
middle-class tax cut like we had hoped." So it seemed to be an awful lot of
concessions early on in the administration -- wise ones, it would turn out over
time -- but they didn't look that way then.
What was the White House staff operation like in terms of setting policy, in
terms of what the meetings were like, in terms of people who had access to the
president, in terms of how long the meetings ran and in terms of how the
president's time was used?
The ones that stick out from those early days are putting together the economic
plan. And to this day, I still have very mixed feelings about them. And it
has become easy to caricature, these all-night bull sessions that are like
college seminars, and undisciplined staff who are running around like a bunch
of kids after a soccer ball, all going to the ball at the same time. It's easy
On the other hand, one of the other strong feelings I remember is thinking,
"Boy, in some ways, this is the way it should be." Not the all-night nature,
but the serious discussion of the earned income tax credit and agriculture
policy, and what is the right and best use of our education dollars. I still
also believe that we were going about things intellectually in a very serious
way. We were blind to the importance of structure, and actually, we didn't
have enough deep-in-your-bones respect for the office itself. So we didn't
realize that there's something important about going about the work of the
White House in a more formal way, even if it feels a little stilted at the
In the end of January of 1993, the White House decides that this retreat at
Camp David should go forward. And everybody loads up on these buses early in
the morning and heads out there. What was that like?
A bad imitation of summer camp. It was a little bit goofy. Here we were. We
had been embattled for three weeks on all these various fronts, trying to put
together an economic plan, and we're going to take off a whole two days, to get
our sense of direction for the administration and to sort of bond as a team. I
guess there's some good sentiment behind that. It's important to bond as a
team. On the other hand, we had had a campaign and an election that was
suppose to determine the direction for the country. We had an awful lot of
work to do back at the White House. And there was no way that anything like
this was going to be anything but caricature in the press.
Everybody had to talk about their fears, the most embarrassing . . .
Everybody. But that Saturday night, a smaller group of the cabinet appointees
and some senior White House staff had to sit around and talk about something
about themselves that no one else knew and what they like to do. Warren
Christopher talked about liking to go to hotel jazz bars, which was kind of
incongruous, but it was a nice thing to know. I think it was the first time I
think I ever heard the president tell the story about getting knocked over by
the boar when he was six years old. I think I said something kind of stupid,
something about watching the Today show when I was seven years old. But
it was a little uncomfortable. And I remember walking away from that night
having even greater respect for Senator Lloyd Bensen who had become our
secretary of treasury, because he refused to go.
Did the president actually have to be taught how to salute? And some
military types weren't satisfied with his salute?
I don't know about some military types. Some pundits. But he was getting hit
for it, regardless. . . . The criticism of the salute was that he just didn't
have a crisp enough salute. I've looked back at some of those pictures. And
it's kind of a tendentious charge, I suppose, but it had become real. And it
was, again, one of those moments -- who could tell him? Clinton and Gore at
that time were very competitive in, in an odd way, in a personal way. So it
didn't really feel right for Gore to tell him. It would be a little bit too
personal. I, obviously, couldn't tell him. I didn't serve in the military. I
didn't know anything about that. So the responsibility fell to his National
Security Adviser, Tony Lake. who had a very brief private meeting with the
president, where he talked about crispening up the salute. And it kind of
During these early months, the raging policy discussion in the White House
is the economic one, and whether deficit reduction ought to come first, or
whether some of the social investments that you talked about in the campaign
ought to come first. Where did you stand on that? And how passionate was the
I wanted to keep as many of the promises as we could. I was committed to the
"putting people first" agenda and actually saw my role, in many ways, as a
defender of the promises. So I wanted to do as much of the investment and keep
as much of the tax cut as we could, and not to the exclusion of deficit
reduction. But that's more where my heart was and where I thought we had to
protect ourselves politically.
. . . It actually was a debate that was over almost before it began. It really
wasn't possible in any realistic way not to do deficit reduction. The
combination of the power of the president's opposition, the demands of the bond
market, the demands of the Federal Reserve and the business community made it
essential to hit a credible number. . . . Somehow the magic number became $140
billion -- no plan would be seen as credible if it didn't hit $140 billion. I
said, "If we can do $137 billion and get part of the middle-class tax cut or
get more money for our welfare reform proposal or Americorps, that sounds worth
it to me." But, no, it had to be $140 billion.
You say that this debate really was over. But didn't the political team
raise a lot of objections to hearing all this deficit talk when, in fact, it
hadn't been a huge part of the campaign?
The issue was more in the transition of it. By the time we get to the White
House, it was pretty clear you had to hit this number. There were certainly
fights over the rhetoric and which things to emphasize in the speech. And we
wanted to do both. And the truth, in part, was that because we put out a
200-page book of our campaign promises, you could use it to justify anything
you wanted to do. We promised to cut the deficit in half in the campaign.
There were moments in the campaign where Clinton promised to balance the
budget, in addition to promising all the social investments.
Woodward writes here, "One of the problems with the job and one of the
little secrets was that a number of fights you picked with the press were on
direct order from Hillary. She has a view that reporters shouldn't get away
with anything. She believed there were evil people in Washington and the press
was part of that evil." What's your take on that?
That's a little overstated. But we picked a lot of the wrong battles
early on. Rather than simply focus on what we said in the campaign on the
problems of real people and the fixing those problems, we had this whole
separate agenda of changing the culture of Washington and doing things in a new
way. What fits into that? Having the first lady run the health care project.
We're going to do that in a new way. Showing the press who is boss.
Admirably, having a cabinet that looks different from cabinets in the past.
Taking on the lobbyists. There are some good ideas in there, but much of the
time spent taking on the culture got in the way of advancing our agenda.
Did the travel office story come out of that hubris?
Yes. We're going to do it our way. We're going to bring in our own
people. These guys have been coddling the press and coddling our enemies for
an awfully long time. They're too closely tied to the Republicans. Looking
back, who cares? What a wasted six months.
You say, "Who cares?" But at the time it became a symbol of not only
arrogance, but of cronyism.
See, that, I think is a blind spot that the Clintons had. And in part because
they had defined themselves, when they were coming into politics, against the
abuses of the Nixon era, against Watergate, against Vietnam. In some ways,
they couldn't believe that they were being charged with the same sorts of
abuses and resented it deeply. You can understand why they would resent that.
I don't think anything that happened there rises to the level of what happened
in Watergate. But simply being charged with it caused them to tighten up. And
they couldn't understand how it would look at all. Wrongly, obviously.
When Mrs. Clinton comes in, she's given the office in the West Wing. Her
chief of staff gets an office in the West Wing. That's terribly important
It's a different kind of partnership -- two for the price of one. We're going
to show a modern couple, a modern White House. We're going to do things in a
different way. That got in the way of advancing the agenda we wanted to
advance. That became the issue and the management. Is it appropriate? Is it
right for a first lady to manage a legislative issue? And I think one of the
things that Mrs. Clinton learned over time in the White House was that there
are battles that was not necessarily worth being fought. Yes, the battle for
health care should be fought, but let's do it in a different way.
When she was put in charge of health care, was there general agreement that
that was an appropriate and good idea?
There wasn't a lot of discussion beforehand. I looked at it and thought, this
will work. It shows how much the president cares about an issue. He's putting
his wife in charge, the person that he's closest to in the world. It shows his
commitment. It was my own blind spot too. I think that's true, but it also
brought on all these other problems.
Was one of the issues that it was above criticism because Mrs. Clinton was
in charge, that staff even wanting to ...
It makes it harder, even though I think that she, at times, tried to encourage,
"Just treat me like anyone else, let's have real debates while I'm heading
this." But it can't help but have a chilling effect because you know that she
goes home with the president at night. She gets the last word. And that
disagreement may carry over into other issues. And I think a lot of people did
pull their punches because of that.
In May, 1993, David Gergen is brought into the White House. Here you are --
the guys who won. You fought the campaign and the president was bringing in...
Ronald Reagan's communications director. Not my happiest day in the White
House. And although it was, in part, well deserved, I took the fall for a lot
of the problems in the first six months. It turned out to be the best thing in
the world for me both professionally. I think I was able to help the president
more in the new job, but I was kind of the symbol of the kids being swept
How did the president tell you about that?
It kind of broke and there had been a lot of buzz. Right after we won the
economic plan, the first House vote, I got some rumblings. Then he was away
giving a speech the whole next day and it started to break in the press. I
didn't know what was going on. I knew something was happening, but I didn't
really know. . . . He called me around 1:30 in the morning and says, "George,
I think we've got to make this announcement tomorrow morning. I think it's the
best thing. I need you by my side." Perfect thing to say. I mean, I was
going to get publicly humiliated. Moved out of this job. But in three
sentences, even though it was late in the game, he says, "I need you by my
side." So that's exactly the reassurance I needed to hear to go through with
the job change. He said exactly the right thing.
What was the reaction among you and the other members of the team when
Gergen came in?
The negative reaction wasn't really personal. I had known David and thought he
was pretty well respected. But it was, we're bringing in Ronald Reagan's
communications director to clean up. What's happening? It felt like a
betrayal of the things that we had fought for.
. . . I knew I couldn't show any unhappiness, or displeasure, or the blood
would be in the water, and I would have no chance of keeping any job in the
White House. But there was this sense of the kids getting blamed for a lot of
things that weren't their fault. The kids didn't pick Zoe Baird. The kids
didn't do the travel office. The kids didn't do gays in the military. But at
the same time, the criticism that the culture of the White House was somehow a
little immature was true, and I was the public face of that. So I had to
In June 1993, the next month, Vince Foster commits suicide. Do you remember
that night, that day?
Even if I didn't, it's been investigated so many times now, I couldn't
forget. Yes. The president was doing Larry King Live from first floor
basement of the White House. And right after he started the taping, right
around nine o'clock, I'm standing in the hallway with Mack McLarty and Bill
Burton, Mack's assistant, comes in, pulls us aside and says, "Got some bad
news. I think Vince Foster killed himself."
And you're kind of shocked. I didn't know Vince that well. I wasn't a friend
of his. I didn't work that much with him, but he was obviously a close friend
of Mack's. And here was a little bit of shock. But as with all moments in the
White House, whatever personal feelings you have, you immediately put aside,
because this is a matter of great public importance right from the start.
We decided right away that we couldn't say anything to the president, since he
was in the middle of the taping. Mack went to call Hillary. I had to call Web
Hubbell, who was Vince's law partner and best friend, with the news.
. . . And I said, "Web, I don't know how to say this to you, but Vince killed
himself." And he said, "What?" "Vince killed himself." "What?" He made me
repeat it seven times. He just couldn't absorb the information. Then the
night kind of unfolded . . . While the president is doing this Larry King
Live, the information is confirmed. And it's clear that Vince Foster did
kill himself. We're starting to get the information out. And now we had this
very particular small problem we had to deal with. We knew that Larry King
would ask the president to stay on for another hour. The president still
didn't know that Vince Foster had killed himself. And we were scared to death
that the story would break on the AP wire and Larry King would be asking him
about it, and it would be the first he heard.
At the end of the hour, Larry says, "Do you want to come back for another hour
right now?" And Clinton says yes. And Mack is standing behind him saying, "No,
no, no." And he's looking at Mack and his eyes widen a little bit. He doesn't
really know what it's about. And he's kind of getting a little annoyed. But
then they stop, and at the break Mack pulls Clinton aside and tells him. I
remember watching from across the hall and all I could see was almost an
imperceptible buckling, a slumping by Clinton. But he nodded his head, and we
didn't go back for the next hour.
And then Clinton, Mack, and I rode up to the kitchen on the second floor. I
said, "We're going to have to put out a statement." And he just said, "You
know what to say." And it wasn't mean or anything like that. It was just he
was completely in another place. And he wanted to go be with Vince's family.
And that's what he ended up doing that evening. For the rest of us, we put out
the statement and went home. The difficulty for that whole next 24 hours, the
next 48 hours, was that we were dealing with this very personal sense that
someone we worked with, in some cases quite closely, had just killed himself.
It's a very personal loss. And combine that with the idea that, if the
pressures got to him at this way, could it be getting to us in a way we're not
really aware of? Everyone in the White House was trying to take care of each
other for that 24, 48 hours. You couldn't walk by someone in the hall without
stopping and saying, "Are you okay? How are you feeling? Do you want to talk
And then Clinton sort of reinforced that in his first messages both to the
staff and the press. And, again, looking back what we perceived to be a very
human response to a human tragedy -- the suicide of one of our colleagues --
saying things like, "No one can know what drove someone to suicide," saying
that, "We should give the family and the White House time to deal with this,"
sounded to the outside world like the seeds of a cover-up. And we were
completely blind to that at that moment.
In September, in a historic moment, perhaps the biggest foreign policy
success of the first year is the handshake with Arafat and Rabin. But this has
to be carefully choreographed, because the wrong picture can send the wrong
message. So what do you do to prep for that?
We didn't have a lot of time, but we did an awful lot of prep for a
single handshake. We actually choreographed it. We did dress rehearsals in my
office on the Saturday. There were about four of us, Rahm and John Podesta,
and a couple of others. Everybody played a character and tried to figure out
which order the handshakes go in. And we got all that worked out on
But then the final dress rehearsals didn't come until we got to the Oval Office
the morning of the event. And the big concern that morning was not the
handshake itself, but the potential hug. And there was a deep concern that all
of these months and years of negotiations would be upset by Arafat's exuberance
-- when Clinton reached over to shake Arafat's hand, he would reach over to
Clinton and hug him. And that would just be unacceptable to the Israelis, who
were happy to be signing this agreement, but didn't want it to be seen like
purely a moment of great joy.
How did they prep to avoid a hug?
Tony Lake is playing Arafat. And Clinton comes up with the defensive
maneuver that he would use in case Arafat goes for the hug. If Arafat went for
the hug, Clinton would squeeze in underneath the biceps and block him. If that
didn't work, he'd do a knee to the groin. Everybody broke up laughing.
It turned out to be unnecessary. . . . There were all these last minute nits
to the agreement. And everybody was getting very tense and saying, "Oh, it's
going to fall apart, it's going to fall apart." . . . One of the chief
negotiators would come in with these notes for Tony Lake. And one of the notes
said Arafat wants to wear his gun. Lake would write back, he can't wear his
gun. Arafat wants to wear his uniform. Can't wear his uniform. Has to be a
safari suit. Arafat wants to wear his medals. No.
And this is all going on the whole morning. And then at the last minute, we
find out that there actually is a problem with the treaty. Perez had agreed to
a way of identifying the Palestinians or the PLO that he hadn't cleared with
Rabin. And so they were having their own problems in the final minutes.
And meanwhile, the rest of us knew it was going to work out, basically. You
couldn't bring everybody to the stage and it doesn't work out at that point.
And we were kind of fascinated spectators of all these little moments. Like
the moment when we're getting ready to go out to the lawn and Arafat's group
enters the same room as Rabin's group. And you see them, just the group
circling each other in the Red Room, almost like a Viennese waltz without ever
touching. And they refuse to touch. And then a moment that I found out about
later -- just before Clinton, Rabin, and Arafat went out to the lawn, they're
standing in the door leading out to the White House lawn, waiting to be
introduced. Arafat leans over as if he's going to shake Rabin's hand and Rabin
goes, "Outside." And he refused to shake his hand.
I found out about this much later in the afternoon, after the ceremony, when I
was debriefing Clinton to figure out what we could say to the press. He told
me this story. Of course, we couldn't tell that to the press at that moment.
But it was such a great detail. Essentially Rabin saying, "I'm going to shake
his hand, I know I have to do it, but I'll be damned if we're going to do it
without anybody watching."
When the ceremony does occur, you look over at your colleague, Rahm
Emmanuel. What do you notice?
He's overcome. He's crying. And for me this was a pretty big moment. It was
an important moment in the White House. But I didn't have this deep visceral
connection to the Middle East. Rahm had served in the Israeli army. His
father was a Holocaust survivor. And for him to be able to have the chance to
work on something that would bring peace to Israel -- I couldn't imagine what
the comparable experience would be like in my life. But watching him, this
tough guy, breaking down and seeing everyone on the lawn who had worked for
years for just a moment like this was the most fulfilling moment I think I had
in the White House. Because it felt like something that really, really
mattered and might work.
In October 1993 . . . Mogadishu happens. The pictures hit the networks.
Clinton is looking at these pictures. What's it like in the White House at
Clinton is angry, and in a bit of denial, saying, "How did this happen? How
did I get pushed into this? I didn't approve anything like this." And there
was this whole debate over the creeping of the mission in Somalia over the
course of that summer. And he's also conflicted. On the one hand, he says,
we've got to send them a message. We can't allow people to think they can get
away with something like this. On the other hand, he knows that the original
mission we went in for -- to help feed the people of Somalia -- was still the
right mission. He knows that the minute those pictures are aired, there are
going to be calls for an immediate pullout, but also believes that we have to
find some way to forestall that, so we can complete the mission. It's like
anything else in the White House. One of the things you learn is there are so
many things happening all at the same time, you almost can't get too consumed
with any one of them.
You talk about a meeting where he walks into your office one Friday evening,
late in October. Do you remember that?
He throws the CIA report about the fighting in Somalia on my desk. And he's
weary. It's late in the day. It's the end of the week. And he asks me, "Do
you think it will be okay?" I said, "I think so. I think you're doing the
right thing. You have to try to complete this." And he says, "I know." And
he just sort of walks away. One of the things that I think is just most
attractive about him is how seriously he took every responsibility of the
office, whatever came later. He knew at this moment that, yes, Americans had
paid a price, and that he and we had probably made some mistakes in the way the
mission developed. But he also was pretty determined not to allow those
concerns or the political concerns to drive him out of a mission where he
thought America was doing the right thing.
It's been written often that the Clinton team at this point considers
foreign policy something to be avoided, that it's Tony Lake's job to keep it
away from the president until it absolutely has to get to him. What's your
take on that? You're elected to fix the economy and foreign policy is on the
I've heard that said so many times by so many people and still believe that
it's fundamentally wrong. Did anybody want to sacrifice moving ahead on our
economic agenda for foreign policy? No. But did people really believe that
the president should not be doing his job? No. And he did spend time on all
the foreign matters he had to. He became more comfortable over time with that
role as he became more comfortable with the issues, and began to understand the
importance of the symbolism, both in how he spoke about it and how much time he
spent on it. But I think it's just a simplistic misreading of our focus on the
economy to say that the president didn't want to do foreign policy or didn't
think it was his job.
. . . At the end of 1993, Whitewater has been building a little bit.
And there is a lot of discussion in the White House. The Washington
Post is going to start reporting. They've requested some documents.
There's a lot of discussion about whether the Post ought to get these
Whitewater documents. Do you remember that meeting?
December 11, right. It was a Saturday morning in the president's dining room
after the radio address. And Gergen and Mark Gehr and, I think, Bruce Lindsey
had been working with the Post. They were asking for all these various
documents about Whitewater. And I think most of us believed that the best way
to handle this will be just give them the documents, no matter what they show.
And there was, far as we knew, no evidence of any wrongdoing. Give them the
documents. It would be a couple days of bad stories, and we'll move on.
Gergen and I often clashed, but this was one area where the two of us were just
in complete agreement. The best way to deal with this was to turn this over to
the Post. And we took different tacks in arguing with the president on
why he should do this. Gergen took the tack that, "You've actually received
quite favorable coverage from the Washington Post. You received
the best first year of coverage of any president I've ever worked with." I
took a somewhat different tack to get to the same end. I agreed with the
president. "Mr. President, you're right. The Post has been unfair.
All the press has been unfair. They've been out to get you from the start.
All the more reason to give them this right now. Don't give an excuse.
Instead, let's just give them the documents, then we'll move on. And you won't
open yourself up to the cover-up charge."
It seemed to me, at the time, that we had him convinced. He said he wanted to
go think about it. He went back later that afternoon and we just got the word
through Mack that he decided not to. And basically the lawyer said it was too
risky. Hillary and the lawyer said it was too risky, and they weren't going to
You had a confrontation with Hillary about this in January of 1994.
Yes. In front of a lot of people. [Laughs] Yes. It was right around
the time when it looked like this predictably, after we didn't turn in the
documents, the press started to get ahold of it. There started to be calls for
a special counsel from Republicans and others in the Senate and the House. And
by January, it had become just like a full-blown mini scandal. It was the only
thing in the paper for days and days and days on end. Democrats -- Daniel
Patrick Moynihan, Bob Kerrey, and others -- had started to call for a special
counsel as well. And it was inevitable. I was trying to make the argument
that it's going to happen one way or the other. It's now inevitable. The only
question is, do we find a way to contain it, ask for it ourselves so we can
You ask for a special counsel?
We're either going to get it imposed on us or we can ask for it ourselves. The
only way to get to appear that we're not hiding anything is simply to ask for
it and move on. Everybody's agreeing. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Then Hillary
walks in. Everybody goes silent. And since I had been the last one talking, I
felt like it was sort of a manner of honor to then say to her what I had just
been saying when she wasn't in the room. I made this case that we had to go
forward, that we had no choice anymore but to go for a special counsel. And,
man, she just jumped down my throat, and basically said, "You never believed in
us. You never stood for us. We were all alone in New Hampshire," and it was
fierce and chilling.
And I was kind of stunned. It was the most hurtful thing I thought she could
say, especially in front of all my colleagues at the time. Thinking about it,
I felt sorry for her too, because you could just see there was so much fear in
her eyes. I think, in her mind, she's just been through the hardest year of
her life. Her father had died. One of her best friends had killed himself.
She was trying to move health care, something she had worked on her whole life,
and now she was being accused of being a criminal, something she'd never faced
before in her life. And she felt alone. It wasn't much of a bomb at the
moment when it was being taken out on me. But . . .
She said, "You gave up on us."
Right. The worst thing she could say. I didn't believe it. I knew it wasn't
true. I didn't like hearing it. I still felt the best thing was to go forward
with the counsel, that I was acting in their interest. But it was fierce.
Later, in January . . . Whitewater is still dominating the agenda. You're
back in the White House. He's dealing with foreign leaders.
And we have a final conference call. It had been arranged by Harold Ickes. We
were going to have a final mini-debate on the question over the phone for the
president. Bernie Nussbaum was arguing the case against asking for a special
counsel. I was leading the team that said we have no choice but to ask for
What looks so odd in retrospect, but didn't feel odd at the time, is that a
group of us, Bernie, me, Harold, David Kendall, the president's lawyer, and I
think Hillary were in the Oval Office talking into the speakerphone and the
president wasn't there. Looking back, what were we doing in the Oval Office?
You're not supposed to be in the Oval Office when the president's not there.
It's his office. It's the office of the elected President of the United
States. It's one of those blind spots that I think we had to the importance of
revering the institution.
It was disrespectful, you thought?
I didn't think so then. But we shouldn't be in that office. But we had this
argument over the speakerphone. I argued one side, Bernie argued the other.
Now, it turns out that Bernie's warnings were correct. He said, "Listen, once
you have a special counsel, you can't control it." That may be, but we had no
choice. If we didn't do it ourselves, it was being done to us. We already had
majorities in the Congress against us. And they could have gotten one
appointed without our consent. And I said, that this was the only way to show
that we were open and to move on. And the president finally agreed.
Going back to the decision on turning the records over to the Post,
what about that decision now? In retrospect, do you regret it?
If I could take back one day, one decision in my time at the White House, it
would be the decision made on December 11, 1993, not to turn over those papers
to the Washington Post. Can't be proved, but I firmly believe that if
we turn those over, we would have never had a Whitewater special counsel. If
you never have the Whitewater special counsel, you never have Monica. You
never have the impeachment of the president.
The story would have died?
It would have flared for three days in the Washington Post, a lot
of cluck, cluck, clucking, but the bottom line would have been there's no
illegal activity here. Let's move on.
In December of 1993, just as health care was in a critical time, the
Troopergate story breaks in the American Spectator and then the Los Angeles
Times. What happens here? You've been here many times, and here it
[Laughter.] . . . It was stuff that happened in Arkansas. We had been
through that before. And basically, I thought we had learned that these sex
stories just weren't going to make that much of a difference. What enraged me,
and drove me crazy was this sense that Clinton called one or two of the
troopers after the story came out. And for me that was pure deja vu, calling
Gennifer, like, "Don't try to fix it yourself. Just let it go. And all of the
troubles always come when you get into this maneuvering of trying to work your
way through it." And especially calling these people from the Oval Office --
it's just nuts.
. . . In February, 1994, the Paula Jones thing comes back, and now she is
giving this press conference. She's out there with a story and apparently
aggrieved. How do you play this in the White House?
When it first comes out . . . she's giving this press conference at the
Conservative Political Action Committee, charging several years after the fact
that some incident may or may not have happened in the Excelsior Hotel.
Basically we just pointed to the messenger and said as little as possible. And
it basically worked. There wasn't a lot of evidence behind it. The charges
were flimsy at first, and she was being promoted by these Clinton haters. Let
the picture speak for itself.
Meanwhile, there was this big internal debate, though, going on at the
Washington Post over whether or not it was appropriate to do a
full-scale investigation and a story. We were working quite hard on that.
There were a couple of camps inside the Washington Post, one arguing
very strenuously to pursue it, to investigate it, to publish it, and another
arguing not to.
I ended up having a lunch with the editor of the Washington Post, where I essentially laid out all the reasons why I felt it would be
inappropriate to give so much credence to the charges when they were so flimsy.
And I basically was arguing that simply by publishing her charges, the
Post was saying, "We believe they're credible." They're making that
I don't know what effect that had on their decision making. But it was
something we were really working hard on. But finally, when she actually filed
a lawsuit, it showed the perversion of the legal system and how we criminalized
all of these political differences. But once the lawsuit is filed, it's
In April, 1994, after the commodities deal and Whitewater, Mrs. Clinton, who
hasn't given a press conference in the White House decides to do it. What's
the strategy here? Why put Mrs. Clinton out in front of the cameras?
Because the questions were about her, and it was her decision. I had very
little to do with that. We watched it. We were glad it was happening. But
that was done by her and her team.
Did it work?
Sure. A lesson we learned so deeply, but always forgot is that whenever the
Clintons went out and actually confronted the questions and answered them for
good or bad, people were quite forgiving, tolerant. They just wanted to see
the questions addressed.
Toward the end of 1994, polls were starting to come in Republicans are
picking up some steam. What's the president's mood?
Denial. Not just the president -- all of us. Actually, he was less in denial
than I think a lot of the rest of us were. He knew that a train wreck was
coming. He could feel that we were in for a bad run in the elections from the
way he was out campaigning. A lot of the rest of us were hoping against hope
that maybe the polls won't hold up. Nobody's going to buy this Contract With
America. But he could feel that something was happening, and he was right.
Nobody knew how bad it would be, though.
At some point here, he starts talking on the side to Dick Morris.
At least a couple times. We didn't know that then. Going into the last
month of the election, it was the first time he had brought back Morris. One
of the things we did notice was that he was questioning our strategy of taking
on the Contract With America, of running on our accomplishments, the big
accomplishments. And instead he was saying that we have to build ourselves. We
have to build from the little accomplishments up, and build on family and
medical leave, things that made a big difference. It was pretty smart. It
made sense. Nobody knew exactly where it was coming from.
During this time you write that there were two sides to Clinton. There was
a "night Clinton" and a "day Clinton."
That's after the election. Just once in that period, he mentions this
guy Dick Morris, who I had never even thought about much before. His name had
come up a couple of times in the campaign, because there was this story about
how Clinton might have once decked him when they were working together on some
governor's race. And a few people spread it around. We had denied it. It had
gone away. I hadn't thought of him since then, didn't, didn't think much about
him. Once Clinton said, "Yes, I had my friend, Dick Morris do a poll." I
didn't think anything of it. But that was the beginning of something that
would rock the whole White House.
On Election Day, 1994, what's the president like?
Working, working, working, working. "Who can I call? What can I do?" He was
doing radio calls to California all day. He knew the election was going south,
and he wanted to do whatever he could to turn it around.
Now, of course, one of the problems in the 1994 election was that in some ways
the more Clinton did, the more he hurt himself. He was the issue, in large
measure. That was the year when all those ads were morphing Democratic
congressmen into Clinton over the course of the ad. Because of the
disorganization in the White House, because of the scandals, he had become the
Now, it's also true that he was being punished for the hard fights he had taken
on -- the assault weapons ban, bypassing the economic plan which included a tax
increase, some Social Security cuts, trying to get health care and failing.
They were using his good fights against him and his bad character traits
against him at the same time. And it was a real combustible mixture.
How did he take it on election night?
[Long pause] On election night, the honest answer is that I don't know. He
was in the White House. Unfortunately, I had become the public face of arguing
back the loss. So I was just doing all these interviews and getting humiliated
in that way. And I didn't talk to him that night.
How about the next day?
Subdued. Yes. Later on, in the time after, yes. I think coming out of
it, in the days and weeks immediately after the election, it was a blow. He
used to talk about how he didn't want to become a prime minister. But I think
the second half of that sentence is, we all understood that had he been a prime
minister, he would have been out of a job after that Election Day. And I think
it rocked his confidence. It rocked our confidence. He was trying to figure
out what went wrong. He lost confidence in us. And he seemed to be just on
kind of a walkabout for several days and weeks afterwards, searching around in
a funk, really.
You say he lost confidence in you. Did the president and did Mrs. Clinton
blame the 1992 political team -- you guys -- for that loss?
In part, yes, sure. We'd pushed forward, and we didn't win. We didn't come up
with the magic formula. We let them down. We misread the election. Not just
the 1992 team, but the whole White House operation.
After the, the election, you sneak into the Oval Office to write the
president a note. Do you want to tell us that story?
This was immediately after the election in these days when we're trying to
figure out how we're going to regroup. We had a trip to Asia. And in the
course of that trip, the president gave a press conference where he was going
to get asked some domestic questions. In their zeal, the newly elected
Republican congress was talking about a constitutional amendment to allow
prayer in schools.
And so I was preparing the president for the press conference. We went over
that he might get this question. We didn't want to be making news on one of
the Republican issues. And I think that was basically the direction I gave.
But I said it in a way that did not emphasize that the first thing the
president had to say was, "I'm against a constitutional amendment." I said,
"You just got to figure out a way to take a pass on it." And whichever words
he used to answer it, it sounded like he was opening himself up to accepting a
constitutional amendment on school prayer, which fed into all the problems of
he doesn't have a backbone. What does he believe in? It was a huge
I was just blaming myself for that, but also knowing that he had been stewing
the whole year about this whole Woodward book, which is massive misjudgment on
my part for thinking that we could make this a better story than it was going
to turn out to be. And so I took that opportunity just before the president
came back, to write him a note, apologizing for the school prayer moment, and
then a broader apology for making the misjudgment about Woodward. I closed out
with some advice as he's going through all of this re-thinking, basically,
"Don't listen to any of us. Do what got you here. Follow your own instincts.
Go back to your roots."
And I left this note off. And I remember thinking that I was quite frightened
to actually be walking into the Oval Office alone, like even that was doing
something wrong. But it was the only way I could figure to get him the note
without ten other people seeing it. And I wanted it to be private. So I left
it off by his phone. He didn't say anything for several days. And finally he
walks into my office one day through the back door and says, "I agree with what
you wrote in that letter." And that was basically all he said. So I started
thinking, does he agree with the apology or the advice, or does it mean I'm
okay or does it mean I'm still in trouble? But it was his way of both
acknowledging his anger and saying, "Let's get back to work."
During the transition period . . . was there a tug of war between those of
you on the political side and those on the economic team about where the
president ought to focus first?
. . . I think the differences were more in degree than in kind. There was no
question we had promised through the whole campaign that you had to both reduce
the deficit and increase investments in the economy, and education, and all of
these other social investments. We also knew by the end of the campaign that
there was no way we could meet the letter of the promises on both sides. So
you had to make a choice. . . But there was no question that the president
knew . . . there had to be significant credible deficit reduction.
Did that disappoint others on this staff who really thought the president
ought to focus more on public promises, like the middle-class tax cut, and
putting people first?
Sure. Because both the beauty and the horror of the 1992 campaign was there
was something in it for everyone. If you believed in the investments, and the
putting people first investments, they were there. If you believed in deficit
reduction, there was that promise to cut the deficit in half. It turned out
that when we actually got into office, doing both was a lot harder than anyone
What were the fights like? Do you remember one in particular?
It was more like an intense seminar than a knockdown, drag-out political fight.
People brought their arguments to the table. People brought to the table what
they believed the core promises of the campaign were. But everybody knew also
that we had tried to do a little bit of everything.
What was Bill Clinton's mood after it became obvious that the
Congress was lost, especially the House, in the 1994 elections?
What strikes more was his mood in the days running up to it. He was in kind of
a frantic, hyper campaign mode, doing everything possible to get himself out
there to be making the case for the Democrats. It turns out that was the
absolute worst thing he could have been doing. No one likes to face this, and
there were a lot of reasons for the losses in 1994 -- a tax increase, a Social
Security tax increase, gun control, a lot of tough votes out there. But what
the Republicans were doing that whole year was making it also a referendum on
Clinton. Remember the morph ads? They would take the local congressman and
turn his face into a picture of Clinton. And so actually the more the
president got out there in those final days, the more harm he was probably
doing to Democrats. But who can tell him that?
And in those final days before the 1994 elections, he was calling drive-time
radio in swing states and contested states trying to send out the message for
Democrats. But, obviously, it didn't work. That night he was sequestered up
in the residence, and a lot of us were down in a basement office down in the
West Wing just seeing the results come in, and hoping against hope that maybe
some of the final states would turn our way. We hoped right up until 11:30
that maybe Harris Wofford would pull it out in Pennsylvania. Maybe there'd be
a surprise in Minnesota. Maybe someone would hold on. Nobody did.
What was the president's reaction?
Depression. I had never seen him in more of a funk than in those three to four
weeks immediately following the campaign. One or two days after the election,
he went to Georgetown, and gave a speech which was like a walkabout through the
interiors of his mind, and he was throwing out all of these different
explanations for what happened. It was part apology, part concession, part
defiance, part analytical deconstruction of what possibly could have happened
in all of these districts. But the truth was he didn't know what had happened,
and didn't really want to face it, and was having a hard time coming to grips
Who did Bill Clinton blame for that loss in 1994?
All of us. He blamed the staff for running a bad campaign, for taking on the
Contract for America directly. He blamed the Democrats in Congress for not
standing by their votes, he felt, fully enough; he did blame the National Rifle
Association. He had a very intricate analysis on how the gun control vote was
actually the most harmful to Democrats in those final days leading to the 1994
election. Obviously, it was hard for him at the beginning, to accept some of
the blame himself. And I've got to say looking back, from the easy perspective
of 2000, I come away believing even more some of our spin of 1994. If you
really look back now, the defeat in 1994 was, in large measure, a result of the
votes that were made in 1993--a tax increase, a Social Security tax increase,
NAFTA, which depressed our base, and those gun votes. And the truth was that
the hard votes had been taken, but the positive consequences weren't manifest
yet to people. You combine that with all of our very early stumbles, our image
problems, gays in the military, a White House too young and too chaotic, and
the president's own personal stylistic problems early on, and it's a recipe for
In the wake of the 1994 elections, there was a bit of a shake-up at the
A bit. [Laughter]
Do you want to talk about that?
No. [Laughter.] Listen, everybody knew something had to happen, but
nobody wants to be the one. And in those days in November, December, January,
you know something's going to happen. You know there's going to be a change.
Some of the shake-up had already happened, anticipating the problems. Leon
Panetta had been brought in, in August of 1994, before the election. So at the
core of the White House there had already been some changes. It was pretty
clear, though, after the election that the president wanted new political
advice, and that people who had served him loyally and people like Stan
Greenberg, Mandy Grunwald, Paul Begala and other outside political advisers
were starting to get frozen out. Some of us inside were feeling the chill, but
it was less obvious.
So the political team that had helped him win in 1992 was basically gone in
Yes. And at some level it's painful, but that's part of the game too. If you
lose a big election, you're going to have to pay the price.
Around this time, the influence of Dick Morris is starting to be felt, and
he's using a code name.
Charlie. The first time I ever saw the word "Charlie" was on a little
yellow post-it note on the president's desk next to his phone saying, "Charlie
called." I thought, "Hmm, that's odd." And you just sort of file it away. The
first time, though, I remember thinking that something was going on was in
December of 1994. The president gave this Oval Office address, which was
supposed to be his official response to the Republican win and set in the
agenda for 1995 -- there was a lot of debate over whether or not it was a good idea, but it was
And I remember in the drafting process, he and Hillary were sitting up in the
residence all day long, and then a lot of us were back in the White House
working on various drafts, working with the speechwriters. And one draft came
back with this new language in it. I think it was called the Economic Bill of
Rights or new language that was labeling the new Clinton agenda, which was the
old Clinton agenda under the framework of a bill of rights. And I remember
walking in with the draft, and Hillary was there, and the president was there,
and I said, "Hey, where'd this language come from? It's pretty good." And
Hillary just smiled, and I thought sure that meant it was her. But it turns
out that that was Dick's first real major influence on a major address.
Is this where he is typing upstairs and handing his typewritten words to the
president, who is writing them down in longhand so that you guys won't
Apparently, when I was in there asking who wrote this language, he was in a
room one floor up typing it out. And you're right. The president would then
take his typewritten language and put it back into his scrawl. And, obviously,
he changed it himself, and that would come back to those on the official staff,
so the president would have deniability from his own staff on who was working
on the speech.
What was the reaction of you and the other loyal staff members when you
found out that Dick Morris had come back and was working secretly for the
There was no one moment early on where it was announced. It was never
announced, really. It just happened. And the second point is that, at one
level, a lot of us who had been around were used to things like this happening.
And Dick, at the time . . . was a guy who had worked with Clinton before, and
he was another adviser, and there's always new advisers coming in and "flavor
of the month" and things like that. I don't think any of us realized how deep
and tangled this tie was.
At this particular moment, in late 1994-early 1995, how influential is Dick
Morris on the president?
He's worming his way in. I think the president during December was casting
around in a lot of different ways. Remember, that was also the month where he
was up at Camp David with Mary Ann Williamson and Tony Robinson, and that
created a little mini-controversy when it got out.
This was the self-help guru, Tony Robinson.
Right. So he was looking around a lot of different areas. And Dick was
starting to work his way in. Now, Dick had laid the groundwork in September or
October of that year, because he had apparently talked to the president before
the election and had advised him, rather than trying to take credit for these
big things that you did, to start with the little ideas first--things like
family medical leave, and build a pyramid of your accomplishments. People will
take the smaller accomplishments. They are more willing to accept that you had
something to do with it. And the president came away believing that that
strategy was right. And so he had gained some more confidence from the
My guess is that he really started to solidify his position in two places in
December, 1994, and January, 1995 -- the Bill of Rights speech from the Oval
Office, and then the State of the Union the next month was when Dick really
started to get his hold back on the president and on the political apparatus.
You write in your book that, "No single person more influenced the president
of the United States than Dick Morris."
Over the course of the first nine months of 1995, no single person had more
power over the president, and therefore over the government, than Dick Morris
-- no question about it.
When the State of the Union speech was written, was there a similar process
. . . of a a daytime president and a nighttime president?
To use the word "process" is to imply a kind of organization that wasn't there.
It really was parallel universes, both somewhat chaotic. And, yes, there was
the whole normal State of the Union process, briefing books, get the memos from
the academics, start working on it three months ahead of time, have the
speechwriters do a draft, and then there was Dick at his little typewriter
alone with the president. And there was really not much meeting between the
two processes. What ended up happening was a speech that basically spliced the
two together without much editing. And I think it ended up being the
second-longest State of the Union ever, exceeded only by, I think, the one in
1998 or 1999.
Was the staff resentful of Morris?
Resentful? They despised him. We all despised him, and more than that. It
was for a couple of different reasons. Number one, it certainly seemed to a
lot of us that his views unfiltered were simply just accepting the Republican
ideas and claiming them as your own -- abandoning everything we had fought for,
everything we had fought for in the election and everything we had fought for
in the first two years in the White House.
Second is more a quality of life issue. It's incredible in the White House at
that time to be living with a parallel black hole White House that you couldn't
fight openly, that you never knew when its influence was going to be brought to
bear, that you couldn't see. And you'd be in a situation where the entire
administration would be sent down a path for a certain speech or a certain
initiative, and then late at night it gets upended in a phone call with Dick
Morris. It's just an incredibly unproductive and just dispiriting way to
Dick Morris told us that, by the time of the 1996 election, he didn't care
if one Democrat was elected to Congress, as long as Bill Clinton was
Every once in a while Dick speaks absolute truth, and that's one comment that's
absolutely right. He didn't care about the Democrats at all. He would have
thought that it's actually better for Clinton to be working with a Republican
Congress. It doesn't matter what gets done, he would appear stronger.
. . . In April, 1995, the president says in a press conference, "The
president is still relevant here."
Channeling Dick Morris. Dick Morris was telling him to buck up his confidence,
the president is still relevant, the president is still relevant. Perfect
example of the stage direction coming out of the actor's mouth, as opposed to
When that comment showed up on the front pages of all of the papers the next
day, what were you thinking?
There wasn't a lot of time to think about it. I think late the next morning
the Oklahoma City bombing happened, and the president was relevant.
During the period of the bombing, the president played a role that a lot of
people have likened to the role Ronald Reagan played at certain times. Was
this a watershed moment for Clinton?
As horrible as it was, it was a moment he was born to be president for. This
sounds so cliched, but it's true -- he immediately felt what happened in
Oklahoma City and was able to articulate it. And it was a time when people
were looking to him to do that. There was a lot less conscious planning there
than people I think want to attribute to it. It was really him acting
instinctively, I think, at one level. And the times, frankly, when the White
House tried to put a little more planning into it and tried to be a little more
political at Dick's instigation were the times that backfired -- giving the
speeches that were too harshly condemning the right and various other hate
groups out in the country. Some of that was okay, but there was always a very
dangerous line the president ended up walking in those weeks of appearing, on
the one hand, to embody the national pain and grief, and on the other, to be
By the next month, the debate is the balanced budget debate in May 1995. On
June 13, 1995, the president gives a speech, promising to balance the budget in
10 years. The next day on the Hill, Democrats are livid. They're furious
One, because the president had promised he wouldn't do it to the Democratic
leaders, Gephardt and Daschle; and, two, more importantly, it wasn't so much
the speech, although they didn't like the speech, and a lot of us in the White
House and Democrats thought this strategy of forcing the Republicans to
actually meet the goal that they had set out of balancing the budget and
spelling out the cuts was what was starting to work. But even more upsetting
to them were the backroom quotes in the newspaper from Dick Morris, where he
said this was basically an attempt to get in their face and to triangulate them
and put them at a disadvantage so the president could rise.
What was triangulation, and did it work?
Triangulation. . . . It was basically to treat Democrats and Republicans in
the House alike, as if they were both adversaries. The president is supposed
to push off either one in equal measure and appear to be above the political
This was Dick Morris's idea.
Yes, and it's empty of substance. It's amoral. But it makes some political
sense at some level. And what the president was so skillful at, as frustrating
as it could be at times, was taking parts of Dick's theory, parts of the
triangulation theory, but not going too far with it. And he got in more
trouble when he accepted it whole.
After the 1994 elections, how did the role of Mrs. Clinton change in the
It started to change a little bit before the 1994 elections. It was clear by
August-September, 1994, that health care was dead. One of the most painful
times in that period was August of 1994, when she tried to go out on a bus tour
for the health care effort, and the crowds were just hateful. It was like the
negative image of the bus trips in 1992, and there were some horrible signs out
there. G. Gordon Liddy was talking about doing target practice against Mrs.
Clinton and the president in his backyard, and it had reached a fever pitch.
And from that moment on, she started to recede publicly and also recede from
the actual formal decision-making processes in the White House.
Did her power diminish in the White House or not?
[Long pause] Sure. But it's hard to know exactly how, because her greatest
power is the power of all first ladies -- the power to be alone with the
president when no one else is and just to speak your mind. What clearly
changed was her active formal role in meetings. You didn't see her in the
cabinet room any more or the Roosevelt Room in meetings of the National
Economic Council or other issue meetings. She simply receded from all of that.
But my guess is also that she knew that health care had failed, that this had
hurt the president, and that she had to give.
Dee Dee Myers tells us that when she's removed, she hears signals, that Mrs.
Clinton never confronted her, but Dee Dee Myers believes that Mrs. Clinton
engineered her ouster as press secretary. Is that an accurate
Sure. I mean, I think there's no way to know for sure. But Hillary made no
secret that she was unhappy and she wanted a change, and it happened.
Was her way of doing things indirect? One of the things that Dee Dee said
is, "Look, if I was doing something wrong, Mrs. Clinton never confronted me
with it, but I kept hearing from people around that she was unhappy with me,"
and she comes to blame Hillary . . .
I think Dee Dee is right. I mean, I don't know . . . It's hard to know exactly
how she would work, because she wouldn't talk to anybody who she would perceive
to be Dee Dee's ally over that, but everybody knew. You knew she just thought
it was a communications problem. That was what you heard all of the time. You
can never do a perfect job from the podium. I couldn't do it. We all made
mistakes, but that was usually the first line of attack rather than addressing
any substantive problems beneath the communication. But what's difficult, I
guess, about answering your question is it's just hard to know exactly how it
worked, except you just felt it. It was in the air.
In the fall of 1995, the government shutdown is dominating the government at
this time. The president is doing some real brinkmanship. What was the
strategy with the Republicans in the fall of 1995?
Smoke 'em out. There were a few parts. One, nobody knew, and it was perilous,
because no one knew who would get blamed more for the shutdown, Democrats or
Republicans. But there was more than the shutdown involved. First, there was
also this threat that they would not extend the debt limit -- that this was the
big hammer that would force the president to accept whatever the Republicans
Our strategy was very simple. We couldn't buckle, and we had to say that they
were blackmailing the country to get their way. In order to get their tax cut,
they were willing to shut down the government, throw the country into default
for the first time in its history and cut Medicare, Social Security, education
and the environment just so they could get their way. And we were trying to
say that they were basically terrorists, and it worked.
So the first part was that they were threatening not to exceed the debt
limit, but the secretary of the treasury somehow found a magic way to keep the
It was amazing. Bob Rubin is a genius. He always had this great word, too.
If he said one word more often than any other word in 1995, it was the word
"unthinkable." Whenever they would say there would be a default, he would say,
"It's unthinkable." And meanwhile, he was working behind the scenes to find a
whole bunch of different borrowing authorities to prevent default, and to give
the president as much room and time as we needed. And it bought us about a
month, and that month made the difference.
How important was it to this administration having Bob Rubin, first, as head
of the economic team, and then as treasury secretary. You had a liberal
Democrat. . .
A perceived liberal, yes.
In January of 1996, again, it's a tough scandal month for the White House.
The travel office memo comes up. Safire calls her a congenital liar in a
prominent column. The billing records are discovered, and Hillary Clinton is
called before the grand jury, when before she had always been able to meet with
the prosecutors in the office. What was going on at the White House during
It was typical Clinton White House moments -- bad news follows good. Everybody
had felt so good about the way the shutdown had ended. Like we had stood
firmly for our principles, we had prevailed, the Republicans were in disarray,
things were starting to look good up in New Hampshire, and then, wham, Hillary
has to go to the grand jury.
What I think it did more than anything else, though, was galvanize everyone to
think that Ken Starr now clearly had crossed a line. Before that moment, there
had been a lot of people in the White House who just said, "Listen, the best
thing to do is just let's cooperate, let's do the best we can." But when he
basically tried to humiliate the first lady by having her appear in person
before that grand jury, I think that there was a real sense that the Rubicon
had been crossed.
And, Starr, of course, felt that discovery of the billing records indicated
that the White House hadn't been playing straight with him.
I'm sure that's true, and I still wish I knew how those billing records
In that run up to the 1996 election, the strategy seems to be the president
talking about values issues -- school uniforms, deadbeat dads. Dick Morris is
adamant that this focus on the little things is what won the election. What's
your take on that?
It didn't hurt, but it's silly to say it won the election. Presidential
elections are decided on big issues, and what won the election in 1996 was the
condition of the economy. The economy was doing very well, and Dick and others
were right to say that the president has to articulate that, has to talk about
how well things were going in the country. The election in 1996 was also won
because the Republicans had painted themselves into an extremists corner during
the government shutdown, and people got that they had tried to blackmail the
country for an extremist agenda.
And, finally, the election was won because the country overall was simply not
going to go back a generation with their president. Bill Clinton was the first
non-World War II president elected in the late twentieth century. There was no
way after he got elected that the country was going to go back to someone of
the older generation. And that was very clear the night of the State of the
Union, in the contrast between the president's forward-looking, optimistic,
packed with small ideas State of the Union address, and Bob Dole's somewhat
cranky and negative response.
In July of 1996, there is a meeting about the welfare bill. You were there.
And members of the cabinet stood up and gave passionate arguments on both
sides. Do you remember that meeting, and where the different leading lights of
the cabinet came down?
Yes. Welfare reform was kind of "Custer's last stand" for liberal Democrats in
the White House. Everyone understood that the country had changed. The
country is a more conservative place than even when we were elected, and
certainly than it was 20 years ago, and that there had to be an awful lot of
accommodations and concessions. But welfare reform really divided right down
the middle the Clinton coalition. There were the New Democrats who said the
real Bill Clinton is defined by issues like welfare reform. And there was the
other side that said the real Bill Clinton is defined by not giving in on these
basic bedrock commitments that the Democrats have always been for.
And the problem with welfare reform is: what is the problem? There really
weren't a whole lot of conversations between the sides. And it was so clear
even at that meeting in the cabinet room. The president had already vetoed it
twice. The Republicans had the votes, had a majority in the Congress. But it
wasn't anything like the welfare reform Clinton had promised in 1992.
. . . Everyone knew, in the end, that this was a decision that the president
was going to make alone. Everyone knew that Dick Morris was sitting up there
in the White House saying, "If you [don't] sign this, Mr. President, you will lose."
Everyone knew the paradox; that Clinton had promised welfare reform, had been
given welfare reform, but the guts of the bill weren't what he promised early
on in 1992. Everybody feared that Dick might be right.
So all of the arguments were made, but they were made in a relatively cool,
understated, almost somber way. I would say it was the most presidential,
non-national security meeting I had ever been to in the cabinet room. It felt
more like the meetings in the cabinet room about sending the military into
Bosnia or Haiti or watching a strike against Iraq than it felt like an argument
about domestic policy. Everyone knew what the stakes were.
And I would say that the best argument for signing came from Bruce Reed, who
everybody respected, everyone trusted. He had been with the president from the
beginning of the campaign. And he said, "Listen, this is not exactly what we
promised, but we've gotten a lot more than we've gotten from the Republicans in
the past on child support, on going after deadbeat dads, on a variety of other
issues, and this is the right thing to do." Probably the most powerful voice
on the other side was the quietest. It was probably Bob Rubin's. He didn't
say much, he didn't argue it forcefully, but you would have thought that the
big economics guy would go with the conservatives on this one, and he didn't.
The cipher in the room was Vice President Gore, who didn't say a word, and went
in and gave his counsel privately to the president.
. . . Dick Morris called me the morning of that meeting, and he's practically
crying, because I think he had felt overnight that the president was starting
to think that he might veto the bill again. And Dick was saying, "I need you
on this. I need you on this. He needs to sign this to win. If he doesn't
sign this, he's going to lose." And he was crazed because he thought he was
losing the argument. . . . Clinton probably spent the whole night arguing the
case in the alternative to Dick, which made him worried that he was going to
lose. But he was saying quite clearly, "If you don't sign this, you'll
In August 1996, Democratic convention scandal breaks with Dick Morris. What
the atmosphere was like at the convention in Chicago?
Dick had been going a little crazy for weeks, I mean, even more crazy than
normal. He was getting more manic. And he was starting to like dictate entire
convention speeches for everybody speaking on the podium in real time. He
would go into Al Gore's office and dictate a brand new speech and say, "You
must say this."
He would go into Hillary's office, do exactly the same thing, and frankly he
was just pissing everybody off. They were done with him. No one really knew
what was going on behind the scenes. . . . He and I were both called up to
Hillary's suite to go over her speech. And while we were waiting, he turned to
me and said, "There might be this story coming out in the Star magazine.
It's not true." Boy, was there nothing I wanted to talk about less. I mean,
there was no way I wanted to know the information. I certainly wasn't going to
defend him. I was kind of hoping it was true. But I didn't want to have the
conversation at all. It turned out two days later that it was true, and he was
How was the decision made to fire him?
It wasn't really a decision. I mean, there was no alternative. And basically
the story broke Wednesday night. The night after the speeches, Harold Ickes,
who has been Dick's mortal enemy since like 1966, pulls me aside. They used to
run against each other in these Upper West Side city council races in Manhattan
on different sides, and they just despise each other. . . . Harold's munching
on a big pear, and his mouth is full, and he's just saying, "You've got to see
the tabloids tomorrow. Dick with a prostitute is coming out. He's gone." And
he was just like laughing, and he had his hands around my shoulder. I was
enjoying it as well. I'm not claiming any superiority here.
But I went out and went to bed that night and didn't think of it again. I
figured it would take care of itself. And at six o'clock the next morning, my
phone rings and it's Dick. I thought it was just going to be the standard
morning phone call about the polls, but I pick up the phone, and he said, "I
just want you to know this is my last day on the campaign." And all I could
say was, "I'm sorry." And at that exact moment, I meant it, if for no other
reason than it was too tragic to see someone literally the moment they had been
working for their whole life -- that night the president he had helped reelect
was going to give his nomination speech -- and he was being forced out on that
morning. And at one level, it was quite sad. But he deserved it; he had to
What I didn't know was that he had spent the whole night, the previous six
hours, in a tooth-and-nail battle of wills with Jack Quinn and Erskine Bowles,
the lawyers and the president's chief of staff, trying to prevent them from the
inevitable firing. But he knew by the morning that he had to go.
Any vivid recollections of election night in 1996?
What stands out most to me was how different the feeling was from 1992.
Yes, it felt good to have the vindication of winning and to have the chance to
go on for the next four years and keep on doing what we were elected to do.
But you can't help but have been a more sober experience. So much had happened
over the four years in between. There had been so many near escapes, so many
near-death experiences, so many disappointments, crises, along with the
victories, that it was harder to build up that same kind of passionate
excitement for the win, as quietly satisfying as it was. And so instead of
hundreds of people out on the lawn and the core of the staff right there on the
base of the stage, there were a bunch of us up in a suite of the Excelsior
Hotel, quietly watching on TV. It was a very, very different feeling.
You write in your book that, on that night, you make a kind of a peace with
Hillary, or she seems to make kind of a peace with you.
The peace had actually been building for a little while. Over the
course of the 1996, she appreciated the Democrats in the White House carrying
on the fight. And so there'd be a lot of phone calls of encouragement. But,
yes, it was a very vivid moment. I was just about to walk out to go do the
final interviews for the last night, and I caught her in the hallway. She had
just been helping Chelsea get dressed. And she knew it was basically my last
night. I was going to leave the White House in a few weeks, and she just
caught me in the hallway and looked me in the eye and said, "I love you, George
Stephanopoulos." And I said, "I love you, too." There was so much hope in her
eyes that night. They were tearing up. It was almost as if we've endured the
first four years, so we can achieve in the next four years. I think she felt
all of the problems were behind her and they were now free to go on and free to
close off a lot of the unpleasantness of the past.
By then you had already made your decision to leave. Was it announced at
It had come out. I told the president the night before the last debate that, I
thanked him, I was very grateful. I was going to work on through the election,
but after that I really wanted to go out on my own. He asked me to reconsider,
but he knew that I wanted to leave. And a lot of us just were too exhausted at
the end of the first year to go on.
The legacy question. In your most succinct way, how do you think this
president is going to be remembered in history, good and bad?
The obvious answer is that I don't really know. There is so much good and bad
mixed up in him and in his record that it's impossible to sort out without any
perspective. But I guess I'd say, boy, he did a good job, but he might have
been great. And where people will end up coming down on either side of that,
I'm not sure. It would be hard to be seen as one of the greatest because he
didn't face a great war or a depression or any kind of great national crises.
But it turns out that he actually achieved so much of what he promised to do,
and left the country in such better shape than when he came in. And you can't
give him all of the credit for that, but he certainly deserves some. He was a
terrific steward, and he did try to point the country to the future. But he
couldn't escape his past. And like I say, I don't know how people will tease
that out over time. And an awful lot depends on what happens next.
. . . One common theme that seems to reflect the character of the man
himself is that there's a lot of lurching from crisis to crisis. There are
great moments, and then there are these near-disasters with a lot of pulling
back from the brink. . . . Is there something in the man?
Yes, well, no. There may be something in the man, but there's also something
in the times. . . . Clinton is a big person with many different contradictory
parts. So the White House carried out those contradictions every single day.
And no single person in the White House or single faction or single group of
people could ever fully embody everything he did. People could only see parts
of him and could only act on parts of what they thought he believed and acted
on. So I think that explains part of it.
But I think it was also exacerbated because, probably, we live in the most
transparent of times. He had an opposition, which partly because of who he
was, never saw him as really truly a legitimate president. And he seemed to
have this capacity to inspire intense hatred in those who didn't like him, and
people never wanted to let him go. And I think that explains part of it.
. . . I do think that a lot of it would have happened regardless. I'm
wondering, how does it hold together? The shame of it is, when you think back
in a different vein, so many of the crises were tied to his private activities
-- not just the sex stuff -- I mean life before the White House. And you can
argue whether or not it is legitimate for those things to have been looked
into. . . . And it seems that so many of the successes were lived in a
different part of him, in his mind and in the things that he wanted to do as
Even the policy failures were not crises. Health care wasn't a crisis, it was
just a loss. It was a tough, tough loss. And it wouldn't cause any kind of a
collapse in the White House in the way the personal matters did. But the truth
is that the other thing that holds all of those crises together is that they
are all dealing with, at some level, putting a gloss or covering up his past in
a way that it would have been a lot less trouble just to let it out. But
nobody could ask, and he couldn't tell. . .