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A Conversation with Former President Bill Clinton

Jim Lehrer speaks with former President Bill Clinton about the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush foreign policy, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his new memoir, "My Life."

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. President, welcome.

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Thank you, Jim.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    First, on the news, do you approve of John Kerry's selection of John Edwards as a running mate?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Absolutely I do. I think it's a good choice. I think he brings energy, vitality. He was on the Intelligence Committee, which is going to be a very important issue for the next several years as we continue to deal with terror and other problems, with weapons of mass destruction. He's come from a different culture. He speaks in a slightly different way. He'll immediately add some credibility and appeal in places like my home state in Arkansas.

    And I think they've got a lot in common, and the voters voted for both of them. They both took the chance and ran this year. So I think it will be good.

    And the most important thing is it was obvious to me that by the time John Kerry made the decision, he was comfortable with it.

    And my advice here almost seems naive I think to a lot of experts, but my counsel was always pick someone you're going to proud of every day after you do it, because when you're the challenger, the only presidential decision you get to make is your nominee. And if you like it, if you think this person could be a good President, I would like to work with this person or give this person a lot of responsibilities, it shows in your body language and just the cast of your head and the way you look and think and act for the whole rest of the campaign.

    So I got that out of John Kerry yesterday. I feel good about it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    A lot of people have compared John Edwards to you. They say your styles are similar, you come from the same part of the country. Do you see a lot of similarities?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Well, I think there is some. We share a common culture, and there is some similarities in our roots, but he's very much his own person and a distinctive person, and I spent most of my life in politics before I ran for national office. He spent most of his life in the private sector, and he has had a term, and I think quite a good term as a Senator from North Carolina.

    But I think he's his own man. As the people get to know him, I think they'll find him fascinating in both the similarities and the important differences.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What about the–the Republicans have already made the point that he lacks foreign policy experience. This is a foreign policy election. This is a foreign policy election. This is a foreign policy time. How do you think that's going to go down?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Well, I think there are two or three answers to that. First of all, he did serve on the Intelligence Committee, and he's intelligent, he works hard and he's learned a lot. He's got a fast learning curve. He certainly proved that in everything he's ever done in his life. And he's had more relevant experience than then-Governor Bush did when he ran for President, and John Kerry–John Edwards is running for Vice President.

    Finally, I think that Senator Kerry has the requisite experience to do the job, and I don't think there's any reason to believe that John Edwards won't learn and learn in a hurry.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    For the record, Mr. President, did anybody from the Kerry campaign, directly or indirectly, approach your wife, Senator Clinton, about being his running mate?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Not to my knowledge. I don't think–because she made it clear when–

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You know, there was a lot of talk about that.

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    I know that, but, you know, she made it pretty clear when she decided not to run for president herself this year, that she felt she had been given a great gift by the people of New York, a chance to serve, and she was doing important work on the Armed Services Committee, and she wanted to continue and honor her commitment to do her full term.

    So, as far as I know, no one did.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    On your book, how do you feel about the reaction to it, thus far?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Well, I feel–I've been astonished by the sales, and profoundly moved by the things that people say to me at these book signings. I love the book signings, you know, because I get to talk to real people, and a staggering number of people have said something very specific to me. "The Family Leave Law saved my family," or "Made our lives better," or, "The education aid that you provided made it possible for me to go to college." One man at 50 years of age got his college degree. People who had been on welfare, who took the welfare reform child care aid and college aid and went back to school.

    It's tons of that kind of stuff, and that is very moving to me. And a lot of people said they thought that I was pulling for them, I was on their side. So it–that I think has been more personally rewarding to me even than the book sales.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Did that surprise you? Did you expect this kind of reaction from, from ordinary folks?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    I just didn't know. I didn't know. And now, or course, that the book's been out a couple of weeks, people who come through these signings have read all or part of it, so then they talk to me about stories and how–their common stories in their lives, you know, which I like that too.

    Other people who lived in houses without indoor plumbing, or other people who have been butted by farm animals, or other people who had funny experiences at their baptisms, and all that. That's kind of fun.

    But the main thing is, the way I kept score in politics was whether people were better off when I quit than they were when I started, and when people can come up and cite specific things you did, that's very moving.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, some of the non-ordinary folks, I guess you would call them, the book reviewers, have not been that kind to you. The LA Times said, "There are flashes of incisive brilliance and numbing stretches of tedious self-absorption" in your book.

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Well, that's what they said, and the lady from the New York Times didn't like the book very much, but Larry McMurtry seemed to like it, and Doug Brinkley, a distinguished historian, seemed to like it, and I guess if I had to choose reviewers, I'd rather have a guy that had written great novels say it was good than, and then have somebody else say it was bad than the reverse. Toni Morrison said she thought it was pretty well written. I think she's a pretty good judge.

    I think it– it depends on whether you like what I wrote about, whether you're interested in it. I mean my life was a combination of fascination with other people, with politics, and with policy, and the impact of government decisions on people's lives and the life of our nation and the life of the world.

    If you're interested in that and you really want to know more about what happened in the last 50 years, you're probably interested in this book, and if you're not, it's probably not all that interesting to you.

    And of course I did try to be self-analytical, both to outline the mistakes I made in my life and try to explain why I did, and the things that on balance I did pretty well on.

    Memoirs are supposed to be somewhat self-absorbed I think.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    So you don't have any apologies about that.

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    No, no. I mean I–it's funny because McMurtry said that he wasn't sure I was all that self-absorbed. He didn't think–he wasn't sure he knew me better, but he knew a lot more about his country he said when he read the book.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    I've read the transcripts of all the interviews you've done thus far since the book came out, and it seemed to me–now you correct me if you think I'm wrong–but it seemed to me as they've progressed, you've gotten increasingly annoyed about questions about the Monica Lewinsky matter. Am I right about that? Are you just tired of talking about that?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Well, I just basically said what I had to say about it in the book, and I think that the thing that has struck me is, starting the very first day when we did these–we did two book signings in New York in midtown and then in Harlem, and then the next day one in Lower Manhattan, a third one. And the media went up to all these people in the line afterward, and they just were begging them to say that's why they bought the book, and they could hardly find a single–

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You mean to read about the Lewinsky

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Yeah. They could hardly find a single solitary soul who would say that. They said, "No, you know, we know about that. That was publicized quite heavily at the time. We're interested in what he did and how his life took shape and what he did as president."

    So I don't know that I'm annoyed by it, but I just don't have much to add to what I've already said about it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    I have to ask you one question about it for the record, and I'm sure this is not going to be any surprise to you because six years ago, the day the Lewinsky story broke–you mentioned this in your book…

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    I wrote it about.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You wrote about it in the book, that because we had a pre–already prearranged interview, you went ahead with the interview, and I did the first interview with you, and I asked you if you had had a sexual–improper relationship. I kept using the past tense, and you kept saying is, "There is no relationship." My question to you is, was that–that was an intentional dodge, was it not?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    It was an intentional dodge because I didn't want–I respect you. I didn't want to lie to you, and I thought that I had to, as I said in the book, buy two weeks time for things to calm down in order to avoid having Ken Starr and his boys win this long fight that they were fighting against me, and–but I also said in the book that I hated it and I tried to–after I did that interview with you–I tried to confine my comments thereafter just simply saying that I didn't violate any laws and I didn't ask anybody else to, and that's pretty much what I said from there on out.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Was this decision to kind of go the "is" route, or in other words, try to deny it for two weeks or for however long, was that your decision you made alone? Did you talk to anybody else about it? How did, how did that come about?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    No, I just made it alone. The only person I–I just asked–one time I asked David Kendall what I thought was going to happen.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Who's your lawyer, who's your lawyer.

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Uh-huh. And he didn't, he knew nothing either at this time. He knew nothing about the facts. So he's not in any way compromised. I said, "What do you think is going to happen?" He said, "Well, everybody's going crazy now, but," he said, "none of this makes any sense." He said, "There's no civil case against you. There's obviously no criminal case in Whitewater against you. They know there's nothing to any of this and that's why Starr maneuvered his way into the Lewinsky case, maybe by being less than honest with the Justice Department about why he wanted to." He said, "I just think if you can just survive this thing, this media hysteria for a couple of weeks, things will settle down and it will come out the way it ought to."

  • JIM LEHRER:

    He was wrong, of course.

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Well, I don't know if he was wrong. I did survive it. I think he–and the voters voted clearly in November of '98 against impeachment, and they wanted me to be censured or something. They wanted the country to move on. And the Republicans decided to go forward with it anyway because they figured that might makes right. It didn't matter if there was no constitutional or legal basis for it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, you mentioned this in your book, about–just for the record, one final question, and then we'll move in. If you had, in that interview with me, said, "Yes, I did have an improper sexual relationship with this young women. I'm so sorry I did it. It was a terrible"–and all the things you say now about it–"It was a terrible mistake in judgment. It's an awful, awful thing," what do you think would have happened?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    I think that people would have said, "He probably committed perjury at his deposition," which I maintain to the present day that I did not.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But the allegation is that you did.

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    That's correct. And I think with–given the media hysteria and the fact that people were saying all the things that were said one more time, I was dead as could be, I think the overwhelming likelihood is that I would have been forced from office, because I think the Democrats would have–some Democrats might have abandoned me.

    I'm not sure that would have happened, but I think–I thought at the time it was a realistic possibility. I think today it still was a realistic possibility. At least I thought it could occur.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And you thought that at the moment that if you in fact admitted that on that first day…

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Yeah, because that's what–because this was like Grover Cleveland being confronted with his child born out of wedlock. You know, he said, "Well, yes, that happened." He had no special counsel. He had a very different national media than existed. He had no, nobody with a vested interest having spent tens of millions of dollars and indicted innocent people because they wouldn't lie about me. He certainly didn't have a congressional opposition like Newt Gingrich and Mr. DeLay and the others.

    I just think that the–I think there was at least a serious chance that would have happened. And I would never have quit. I would have made them do something to run me out, because I just thought it was wrong. I thought it was just as–what they were trying to do was every bit as wrong and more wrong for the Republic than the terrible mistake I had made. But that's really what I wanted to do. I wanted to just, you know, say, "Okay, look, I was at a bad place in my life and I did a bad thing, and I'm ashamed of it," and it just took a while before I thought I could say it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But if you had said it that day, you would have had to have said, "And as a consequence, I resign?"

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    No, I wouldn't have said–

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You wouldn't have said that?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    No, no, no. But I think that under the circumstances that existed because at the time, keep in mind, I knew what Starr had been doing. I knew what had been going on, but I don't even think most Democrats in the Congress had paid much attention to it, and he certainly had received at the time relatively little critical press coverage.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Some people have suggested that actually Starr played into your hands rather than the other way around, but that by the time you did finally come clean, Starr had become an issue in and of itself, and you were able to say, "Hey, I may have done a bad thing, but this guy has done worse." Are you–is that a good–is that a accurate reading?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    I think there's some truth to it, but I think that the reason it had done worse is a political and constitutional term there. I mean no one else had ever had his private life so gone over as I had, and no one else had ever had–been subject to a civil suit in the presidency, and no one else had ever had the civil suit be subject to criminal jurisdiction during the presidency, all because they were frustrated because they knew that I hadn't done anything wrong, they knew Hillary hadn't done anything wrong in Whitewater, and we had spent virtually my entire presidency, and had been bankrupt by a manic, crazed, knowingly false criminal prosecution that had been basically cheerleaded by a lot of mainstream–the members of the press.

    So it was a weird time. I just think everybody kind of lost their mind and–including–you know, and I can't–I just said I don't even try to defend what I did wrong, but I just think that, that it was something we needed to get through and we did get through it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You spent much time of your presidency on the Middle East.

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    I did.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And you said–toward the end of your book, you said you told Yasser Arafat the following, quote: "I am a failure, and you have made me one," end quote.

    You consider yourself a failure because you were not able to force peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    No, not really, but I was trying to bring home to Arafat the terrible mistake he was making, because–well, let's just review the history here real quick.

    I still think the peace agreement in '93 was a good one, the one we signed on the White House lawn. The process, however, turned out to be flawed because of things that the people who put it together couldn't have foreseen.

    The idea was they would take smaller steps first and the hard steps later, and the hard steps meaning what to do about Jerusalem, defining the borders of the Palestinian State, confining the right of return so that it wasn't unlimited, so that you couldn't have unlimited number of Palestinians coming back to Israel and turning both Israel and the new state of Palestine in the majority Arab states in 30 years. All that was supposed to be done later.

    Here was the problem–and we did a lot of good, you know? Before Rabin died we turned over Hebron and Jericho and other areas, the Israelis did, and I signed that. Then under Prime Minister Netanyahu, with Ariel Sharon as Defense Minister, we had that long session at Wye River, and they made a good agreement there.

    But what we found was that by 1998 it was death by a thousand cuts, that is, because we had had by then a lot more Israelis move in, the settlers to the West Bank. So both sides were just strung out. Every little decision was full of political fallout.

    So we decided we had to go to try a final settlement. And I asked Arafat before we went to Camp David, I said, "Now, are you serious about this?" He said, "Oh, yes." He said, "If we don't make an agreement under you, we'll have to wait five years before we get back here again," which looks like it's going to be about right.

    I never expected to get an agreement at Camp David, and I wasn't–I was disappointed that he wasn't somewhat more forthcoming about his positions, but I understood that. Arafat thought all he had to give was security cooperation and a declaration that the conflict was over, and all the physical things had to be given.

    But at the end of my term–to go back to your question–so what I thought was, we'd start at Camp David, work like crazy, and sometime between Camp David and the day I left office we'd have a deal.

    So a couple of days before I leave office, Arafat says, calls to tell me what a great man I am. And I just said, "No, I'm not. On this I'm a failure, and you made me a failure." But I said, "You are the greatest campaign manager in history," I said, "because you've just elected Sharon by a majority that's huge, and you think it doesn't matter, and you'll see."

    And so we're living with it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Why–for people that don't follow this very carefully, why does the Middle East mean so much to you and to every other president and every other secretary of state? What is it that you are willing to devote this kind of time and energy to?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Well, I think in the immediate sense it should mean a lot to every American, because if there were a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I think a settlement with Syria would follow fairly quickly, and I think more than half of the, at least the rhetorical basis for terrorism in the world would go away. In other words–

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Terrorism would go away, the rhetorical–

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    No, no, no. The justification for terrorism, this sort of American Zionist axis suppressing the poor Palestinians and being insensitive to the Muslims and all of that, and I think a lot of that would just go away because, you know, I went out of my way to be the first president who showed a concern, not just for the Arab countries and the oil producers, but for the Palestinians in the street and their troubles.

    And I was convinced that America and the world would be safer and that terrorism would be much easier to manage as a problem if we made this peace. That's the first thing.

    Second thing is we have a historic commitment to the security of the people of Israel and the State of Israel. The United Nations created and recognized Israel over 50 years ago now, and it's important to us. We have a lot of Jewish-Americans here. We have the searing memory of the Holocaust.

    The third reason it's important to us is that Islam is one of the fastest-growing faiths within America, and America needs to show that we're not anti-Islam. We are for, for people being free and having opportunity everywhere, that… We did that in Bosnia, we did that in Kosovo, we did that in numerous other places in the world, but this is important.

    So for all those reasons, the security of Israel, the fight against terror, our ties to the Islamic world and the Muslims of America, we got a big interest in solving this.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    John Kerry said recently, quote, "The Bush administration has pursued the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history," end quote. Do you agree with John Kerry?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Well, I think I should let him speak for himself and I'll speak for myself. I think this: I think that in general I saw my job as the first president whose full term would be served after the Cold War in a global information society where we were interdependent but not integrated. And therefore, we were vulnerable to the worst, and able to seize the best, of what's going on in the world.

    I saw my job as to try to move the world from an unstable condition of interdependence toward more integrated cooperative world community. Therefore, my approach was to cooperate wherever possible and to build institutions of cooperation, an expanded NATO, the World Trade Organization, the Summit of the Americas, the Asian Pacific Leaders, all those, the coalition to fight in Bosnia and Kosovo, to cooperate wherever possible but to act alone if we had to.

    I think what the Bush administration saw was a world they thought was full of dangers and problems, the worst of which in their mind was Saddam Hussein, and that they should act alone whenever they could, and then cooperate when they needed to, and there's a big difference.

    It's not just Iraq. They got out of the Conference of Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a treaty supported by every Republican and Democratic president since Eisenhower. They got out of the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty. They were opposed to the International Criminal Courts, to strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention. They bagged the Antiballistic Missile Treaty to build a missile defense even though we don't know whether it works or not.

    And maybe most troubling and least known to the American people, they're trying to develop two new nuclear weapons, smaller nuclear weapons, and it changed our nuclear doctrine for the first time since the end of World War II, to say that, well, maybe we will be the first to use nuclear weapons if we use these small ones.

    So all those things together have bothered the world. They think that we don't care what they think anymore, and we're–and so our differences are rooted in a whole different way we look at the world. I think–let me put–

  • JIM LEHRER:

    They're huge, are they not?

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    They're huge, but let me put the best face on the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz view. I'll put the best face on it.

    Here we are at the end of the Cold War. We are the only military superpower. We have no idea how long this is going to last, so we ought to get every bad guy we can and fix every problem we can, beginning with Saddam Hussein, not with Osama bin Laden, but with Saddam Hussein. And we ought to do it–if we have to do it on our own, because we're not an occupying power, we're not bad people. We've never tried to occupy anybody. Look at us in Iraq, we're turning it now over to the U.N. We want NATO now to come in, and that's what we ought to do, and because we need to fix every problem we can while we got the whip hand here.

    My view is somewhat different. My view is there will be problems and bad people as long as the earth exists, and since we're moving into a completely interdependent global environment, we're better off building a world we'd like to live in when we're not the only military superpower. That is, we need to build a world of shared responsibility, shared benefits, and shared commitment to our common humanity.

    Therefore, we should cooperate whenever we can, but reserve the right to act alone if that's what we have to do. And that's–it's a different emphasis and it leads us to different places, not just Iraq is in some ways not the best example. It's all these other things that I think have helped to alienate the world from us and that also trouble Senator Kerry.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    In general terms, do you think that's what this presidential election should be about, the way you just outlined it…

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    I believe this election should be about basically two things. One is that, what is our role in the world and how should we pursue it?

    The second is, how do we keep making a more perfect union at home? What is the role of government? What should our economic and health care and energy and education policies be? And what is the role of government? What are the choices that the next president should make? Should the president build on the choices that President Bush has made or should we make different choices at home as well as around the world?

    I think there are two big questions, and I think it has to be about domestic issues as well as foreign policy ones.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. President, thank you very much.

  • PRESIDENT CLINTON:

    Thank you, Jim.

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