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. . .