The FRONTLINE Interview: Mack McLarty
A childhood friend of Bill Clinton’s, Mack McLarty was the chairman of the Arkansas State Democratic Party in Arkansas when he met Hillary Rodham. The two worked together on Bill Clinton’s Arkansas campaigns, and McLarty later came to Washington as President Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff. He recalls Hillary Clinton’s disappointment when health care reform failed: “she did not succeed in achieving what she had hoped to do … But she immediately turned around and worked on children’s health care issues almost singularly.” McLarty is the chairman of McLarty Associates, a Washington-based consulting company.
In his interview, McLarty discusses the Clintons’ relationship, Hillary’s involvement in Bill’s political career and the difficulties she faced in Washington.
This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Mike Wiser held on June 17, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
When did you first hear about Hillary Rodham?
I heard about Hillary Rodham from Bill Clinton via telephone first, and then met her shortly thereafter. The future president called. He had already moved back to Arkansas, was teaching law at the University of Arkansas after being a Rhodes scholar and getting his law degree at Yale. He said: “Mack, I met this extraordinary woman. She’s just wonderful, and I really want you and Donna” — who was my wife, and still is after 48 years — “to meet her.” And I said, “Oh, we’ll be delighted to.”
He was getting ready to run for Congress, his first race. So they came to our home in Little Rock — we had moved from Hope to Little Rock and had our first child — and were really looking forward to meeting her, because you could tell, not only what he said but how he said it, that there was more than just a spark and an interest.
And I think, if I remember correctly, he said, “This may be the one,” or something to that effect.
… So they came to our home. I was chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, starting my business career, building a business, which is now a fourth-generation transportation business. … Bill Clinton was the only Democratic candidate — those were better times for the Democratic Party in Arkansas — that had an uphill fight. He was running against a very popular Republican incumbent, John Paul Hammerschmidt, who was widely regarded and well respected.
As we met that afternoon, we played basketball in our backyard. The president is a competitive player — it’s not his natural sport, but he’s a competitive player — and both of our wives, showing a little bit of focus, said, “We’re here to meet each other and have a conversation, but let’s concentrate a little bit on the business at hand, the campaign.” So that was maybe a harbinger of things to come, both Donna and Hillary, whom we had just met, suggesting we tend to business as well.
We liked her immediately. We were looking forward to meeting her. She was engaging. She had a presence about her, a maturity about her, clearly an intellect, smart. But she made an effort, and it was not solicitous. It was genuine, warm, funny. And you could tell she was just as crazy about Bill Clinton as he had intimated to me that he felt about her.
What did he see in her?
… I think there clearly was a lot of common interest. They both had very keen intellectual abilities and educational pursuits. They both had been to Yale Law School, where they had met. He clearly respected her in her own right as well as liked her as from a man-woman relationship. But they just had a lot of common interests. While their personalities were different, their interests were clearly much in sync and in common. And although we’ve seen marriages with Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals, or however you want to draw the opposite parallel, in this case it was clearly a simpatico in terms of political philosophy and focus.
And it was pretty easy to discern that he was already moving toward a political career in public service. And you know, we had learned about her Wellesley speech and so forth, and tried to get to know a little bit about her before she came. She clearly had a bright pathway ahead, too. That’s kind of how we saw it.
It was a beautiful day, sunshine-y day. It was a good omen. And when they left, you know, the president either winked at me or gave me some kind of nod, and we both knew what it meant.
Then we went on into the campaign. They were not married, but had developed a serious relationship. Hillary was very active in the campaign. … This was really her first really major, serious interaction in Arkansas.
How did she adjust to Arkansas?
I think Arkansas easily adjusted to her, and she easily adjusted to Arkansas. You know, she made an effort. You could just see it. It was not a pushy or a contrived or forced efforts, I guess a better way to say it. It was authentic.
There wasn’t a culture shock?
… There were some particular points of Hillary Rodham Clinton and that type of thing later when Bill Clinton became governor. But during that period, it was just such a busy, engaged, exciting time trying to get elected and knowing that you were going against the odds. So I viewed it as a great chapter and journey. And if there were some moments that didn’t quite fit easily together, I think all of us were so busy that I didn’t pay much attention to it.
In a way, when you look back now, that campaign looks a little bit like a trial run between the two of them. And she’s sort of testing out Arkansas.
(Laughs.) I thought you meant a trial run for Bill Clinton politically. Maybe both, maybe both! (Laughs.)
It might be both, because she’s on the Watergate Committee.
Yeah. She had worked I think at the Children’s Defense Fund, the Watergate Committee and so forth, and he had come back to Arkansas. I think you’re right.
There are stories about Bill Clinton and about his focus on Hillary, on bringing her there, on convincing her to marry him. Was that something that you saw?
In any marriage, there’s always a courtship, and it takes two to tango. There was clearly an effort on his part to express his love and feelings toward Hillary. But I think the opposite was also true. She just worked so hard on that campaign, and you could just tell the chemistry between them, and really the relationship and love between them, and respect between them, was just pretty obvious to see.
So you weren’t surprised when she decided that she was going to move —
No, I was not.
— to Arkansas to be —
I would have been surprised otherwise.
Who is the Hillary Rodham who arrives in Arkansas?
Hillary Clinton, as I’ve known her for many, many years now, is still very much the same Hillary Clinton that Donna and I met that first day in our backyard. She’s from the Midwest. She’s a person of deep faith, her Methodist upbringing. She easily cites John Wesley in an easy and natural way and believes in a lot of that approach, to helping others and do good deeds when you have an opportunity.
… Smart, straightforward, certainly will express her opinions, but fun to be with, and funny, engaging, but serious. And a little bit later on, I think well after Bill Clinton was attorney general and may have even been governor, by that time Hillary had really started her career in the practice of law and many other activities — the arc of her career has always been about children and families. If you go back to her early days in Arkansas, and even before that, certainly with the Children’s Defense Fund, and even in high school and so forth, that’s always been a natural focus and passion and commitment of hers.
By that time she had established her own standing and reputation, and people liked her, respected her, knew her. It wasn’t just Bill Clinton’s wife or the attorney general’s wife or the governor’s wife; she had a real standing and presence of her own that was natural. And she wasn’t alone in that, but it was very clear. But she gave a speech, and I kidded her after the speech, I said: “That was the most well-organized speech. It was so linear. You just hit each point.” And of course, “linearity,” that’s been a term that’s described her over the years.
As he goes into politics as attorney general and then as governor, she’s involved in some of her own things, but she also goes into business and she goes to work at the Rose Law Firm. He’s not making a lot of money in politics at that point, and so she becomes the breadwinner. How did that partnership work?
They weren’t alone in having the kind of partnership and marriage that they had. Even though public service in probably any state — you’re not going there for the salary — they both had very defined and meaningful careers. It was very much a partnership, very much of an easy, compatible, natural partnership that you saw the first time we met, saw them or met them together.
… Clearly Bill Clinton was a rising star in politics. He’d already made his first comeback from that first defeat in Congress; … won the attorney generalship, which is a tremendous office and platform that can lead to future offices, not just in Arkansas, but many other states. And of course soon after that, he was elected governor in 1978, following David Pryor.
Hillary was on her way with her career, but she’d already started to work on a number of programs that involved families and children. Donna, my wife, and Hillary worked together on the juvenile justice program, so she already had that engagement. She brought the South Shore Bank, kind of the lending — doing well and doing good to Arkansas. I was privileged to serve on that board with a number of other very distinguished Arkansans. She had brought Muhammad Yunus about microcredit long before he was a Nobel Prize winner to Arkansas. She was doing a lot of innovative, meaningful things … to support and build families. That’s where her focus was, in addition to the practice of law. And I believe about this time, a little bit later perhaps, she was named as one of the top 50 lawyers in the nation.
Some people have told us that both of them are brilliant, that Bill was very charismatic, was a great politician, but in some ways was a little bit all over the place and that Hillary was a complement to him, that she keeps things on track and organized. Is that how you saw their relationship?
I could probably name 10 other couples you could describe that way, too. I think many marriages are marked by complementary traits.
So what did she bring to him?
She brought a true love and relationship that they clearly shared. They were clearly building and sharing a life together. I think that’s at the very heart of it. Public service and helping others was certainly a part of that, but it was a much broader relationship than just that. They had their own careers, and they were building those careers. Then of course, their lives changed a lot when Bill Clinton was elected governor at an early age. That’s a serious responsibility, obviously. … And then they had Chelsea in 1980, and just like any couple that has their first child, that changes one’s life.
What was it like when they went into the governor’s mansion for the first time? What was it like for Hillary?
It’s an adjustment for just about anybody. I don’t think it was a shock in the sense that Bill Clinton had already been attorney general, so they’d already been in public life, and that’s a pretty high-profile position. Hillary was already building her career, so she was doing a lot of things in the public eye as well, and interacting with a lot of different groups around the state. … But I think the governor’s mansion is the first time that you live in another house with a staff and a tighter schedule. It’s the first time they had not lived in their own home. And as a couple, all of a sudden it changed, as it does for anyone that’s elected chief executive of a state.
There was a recognition. This is a very smart, broad-gauged, well-educated couple. And this is not like they didn’t give this some thought. They knew what they were getting into.
But this is the first time when Hillary Rodham is really in the public eye, and one of the things that’s in the public eye is that her name is Hillary Rodham. Suddenly the way that she dresses is something that people are talking about.
I don’t think it was exclusive just to Hillary Clinton in Arkansas. I think it really reflects almost any first lady of any state. … And things are beginning to move where women’s roles in business, commerce, law and how lives are organized; all that was changing. So she was kind of right in the middle of that change, and that did cause some natural questions and maybe some criticism, for sure. I think her first reaction was: “I’m doing what I think is right. I’m comfortable with this. This is my business, not yours.” But I think she was pretty quick to learn. Hillary Clinton has many qualities, but one of them, she’s a pretty good, pretty fast learner.
She recognized and understood after a pretty quick period of time there what the dynamics were and I think began to adjust to it some. You had the birth of their first child. And then you had the disappointing defeat, unexpected. I think that’s an important passage or chapter, and I think it tells a lot about their relationship.
… One of the reasons I think Bill Clinton lost that race — there were a lot of political reasons — we tried to do too much too quickly, and some outside forces of the Cuban refugees coming to Arkansas and raising the amount you pay for license plates. “Car tags and Cubans” was one of the campaign slogans used against him, but also the fact that he had had his first child and had become a father. He wasn’t quite as interested in staying till that last dog died, so to speak, or shaking every hand on the campaign trail that he naturally is given to do. He wanted to get home to see his precious daughter. And of course, in that time, Arkansas only had two-year terms as governor — it was later changed by the constitution — so he had faced a re-election very quickly.
I think that really was an element in his defeat, and I wish I had a dollar, so to speak, for the people after that election, which was a surprise loss, to say: “You know, I really didn’t think he would get beat. I just wanted to send him a message.” (Laughs.) Too many people sent messages.
… So I think it’s really telling and meaningful that they decided to stay in Arkansas, that they quickly worked through that disappointing and surprising setback in life. And in many ways, it brought them closer together as a couple. Bill Clinton went to work for the Wright Law Firm, a venerable firm.
… As I was talking to Bill Clinton during that period, I recall a couple things. Working through the loss, he said: “You know, I’m kind of enjoying this practicing the law. I think I might really learn to like this. But if there is an opportunity to consider another run, we should be ready for it. But I don’t think we can force it.” And I personally thought that was just about the right way to evaluate it.
But I think that was actually a good period for them. I think it was a period where [they were] not as much in the public eye — a little bit slower-paced, not quite the demanding schedule. Again, with Chelsea there, the nights were more open. And then of course, the Comeback Kid came to the fore again, and there was an opportunity. Gov. [Frank D.] White, who was a fine man, had made a couple mistakes that had been controversial, and Arkansas still was a Democratic-leaning state.
Bill Clinton handled that campaign right. Hillary Clinton was engaged in that campaign. I think again, lessons learned; they corrected some mistakes. Chelsea was older. It was a different time and place, and they were a little more mature and thoughtful. Not that they were immature at all, but we all get a little bit wiser with passing years and setbacks and defeats if we handle them right. And the president was re-elected as governor, and the rest is history, as they say.
One of the stories we’ve heard is that she really takes over the campaign, maybe not as the formal campaign manager, but that during that attempt to regain the governorship, she’s playing a crucial role.
I think that’s fair. I think Hillary was more engaged. In 1979 and ’80, she was having her first child with Chelsea, so she had some other higher priorities. But I think both she and the president were focused on that campaign, more disciplined, and she certainly was a part of that. There’s no doubt about it.
And Gov. Clinton approached his agenda in a bit more measured way. And then importantly and as a harbinger, a forerunner, Gov. Clinton asked Hillary Clinton to be the point person on educational reform, and this was quite a critical area. Nothing’s more important to families than their children having an opportunity for a good education.
But to achieve some of those standards, teacher testing, all of that, that goes right at the heart of change. And change, whether it be in business, but certainly in politics, is never easy and oftentimes has entrenched opposition. So this was a preview of what was to come later when the president and Hillary were in the White House.
She takes on that responsibility with great commitment, a great sense of understanding the importance, really passionate about doing the right thing, is very articulate, persuasive, forceful. And at the end of the day, Gov. Clinton, with Hillary being the leader of this educational reform under his leadership as governor, it largely is successful.
Some people have said that they took lessons from Arkansas that they thought would apply to Washington, that these things could be successful.
I think that’s fair.
Were there questions about why is the first lady involved in this type of thing? Or was she able to find a way to make it work?
She did find a way to make it work. It was successful. But I think in Arkansas, the home state of J. William Fulbright, maybe there was some progressive views there that maybe people didn’t fully recognize or appreciate. But I do think that Betty Bumpers and Barbara Pryor, as first ladies before Hillary Clinton, had been engaged in certain issues — Betty Bumpers very much involved in health issue; Barbara Pryor very much in cultural and other children’s issues. So there was some precedent for this, but not quite in the way of leading a major reform. But it wasn’t like it was just out of the blue totally without precedent. So I think that helped.
The state, at that point, had gotten to know both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Arkansas is a relatively small state, and there’s a personal connectivity in relationship with state officials.
… People had gotten to know both of them, so there was a level of familiarity, a level of comfort, a level of trust. Even if they didn’t fully agree or didn’t fully understand maybe some of the specifics or details of this educational reform, there was a sense this young, bright, broad-gauged governor who’s come back home, who’s married to a woman that’s not a native Arkansan, who has stayed here with him and supported him through good times and not-so-good times – i.e., when he was defeated — they’re building a family, building a life, they kind of deserve the benefit of the doubt here.
I think Hillary, much like the great counselor and barrister she is, she made her case. And it was a [deep], serious, informed and, at the end of the day, persuasive case that won the day. Not only did it reform education in Arkansas for the better, but it was nationally recognized. And I’ve told the president if he had not been elected president, one of his real legacies would have been [as] the educational governor. … That’s kind of how I remember it. They were good times.
And as you get toward the end of the ’80s, Bill Clinton, Gov. Bill Clinton is a rising star in the Democratic Party.
And by 1987, there’s talk about him running for the presidency.
It’s like horse races — always speculation about that. That’s right.
There’s this dramatic moment there. It seems like he’s going to announce, and he doesn’t. What happened?
Only he can speak fully to that. But we did visit about it. He reached out to a number of people, including me. And I think he concluded it wasn’t quite the right time, that he had had a good run at it as governor.
But part of it, even in 1991 when he decided to run for president in 1992, but certainly in ’87: “I have such a good life. My daughter is growing up right before my eyes. I’m enjoying this job as governor. I’m just not persuaded I need to take a big step here that I may or may not be ready to do politically. But this is a good time in life for me and my family.” And I think that was a real important element in this decision-making process, and I think at the end of the day he made the right decision.
You were at the announcement when he said that he wasn’t going to run? Were people upset?
I think people were disappointed, upset. I’m not sure. I don’t think that’s quite characterizing the moment or feeling. He clearly had the ability and talent to throw his hat in the ring, and he certainly had the skills and the courage to do it. But I think he had the proverbial somber second thought. And as it turned out, I think that served him well.
One of the stories that goes around is that not long after that, there’s talk between the two of them about her running for governor. Was this something that you ever heard?
I don’t remember any conversation that I was part of where that was discussed. I, now that you raise it, remember there might have been some speculation. I don’t recall it being front and center. But I do think it’s fair that by that time, Hillary Clinton had established her reputation, her standing, her profile and her name recognition, both in our state and more broadly, and she was doing things not only in Arkansas but regionally and nationally.
But I think it’s also fair to say — and I think it’s important, because it goes to the real point of who is Hillary Clinton as a person — she and then-Gov. Clinton really had a very high priority on parenting. There was a great commitment to spend time with Chelsea, and I think that’s been reflected in the kind of daughter they raised. And you’re seeing that now in their grandparenting.
… One of the things that a lot of people ascribe to Hillary Clinton is that she has a sense of privacy. She talks about it in that first interview as first lady, of wanting to have her own space and yet being in a very public life. Was that something that you saw in those years in Arkansas?
Yeah, I did. I think that’s fair. I think it’s a pretty human reaction, a pretty natural reaction. The president is more outgoing, but even he liked some moments of privacy. I recall once we got off an elevator on the White House on the wrong floor and someone said: “Oh, Mr. President, you’re on the wrong floor. There are people here.” And he said, “Oh, yes, I used to be a person.” (Laughs.) And of course as president, you do not have much privacy.
But I never viewed it as anything at all, and I don’t think there was ever any feeling that it was unusual or carried to any kind of extreme. She was a professional. She recognized the responsibility as first lady, and she discharged that responsibility. She spoke at commencements and did things that first ladies are expected to do. And she enjoyed it, and she was very capable and good at it.
But there was a feeling: Let’s separate Bill and Hillary Clinton as a married couple and as parents. Give us some zone of privacy here, and don’t intrude too much. There are just certain lines I don’t think anyone should have the right to cross. I think she felt pretty strongly about that.
Let’s go to 1992. That’s a moment where that sort of zone of privacy really comes up against the national media. It starts with the Gennifer Flowers moment very early on in the campaign, and suddenly Hillary Clinton is on camera talking about very personal —
60 Minutes, pretty tough program.
Some say she saved the campaign.
We were here for a meeting that weekend when the story broke, and the campaign changed and had to respond to it. No one quite knew how it was going to play out, including Gov. Bill Clinton. But I think that 60 Minutes interview was a seminal moment, and I think they both handled it well. … I think they came straight at the issue, and it did blunt the criticism. Or it changed the dynamic. Gov. Clinton did well in New Hampshire. And, as they say, the rest if history.
There’s a crisis, and she sort of takes charge and steps in. Is that what you saw at that moment?
Well, yes, I did. And I’m not sure at every defining moment of crisis that Hillary Clinton stepped in, but she’d certainly been a part of it. She’d certainly been engaged and supportive of her husband and of what he’s trying to do. And she’s certainly going to defend her reputation, but more importantly their reputation. And I think that’s an admirable, understandable quality.
In this case, however, she was uniquely called upon to do that, given the nature of the circumstances. But she handled it, I thought, with grace and with strength. You can’t fool that television camera. She and Gov. Clinton looked right into that camera and answered those questions, and people generally understood their answers, accepted them, and they got beyond it. That says a lot.
In the 1992 campaign, the attention turns on her for Whitewater with the New York Times. It turns on her for making a comment about baking cookies. All of a sudden, it’s the candidate’s wife who’s at the center of the controversy. How did she respond to suddenly being the center of attention in the midst of a national political campaign?
I think, due to Hillary’s skills and abilities, she’s always been perhaps a bit more engaged and out front. Not out front in an inappropriate way or ahead of her husband, but she’s been a figure in the campaign, and she’s a very able communicator in her own right, so it’s been a great asset to every campaign that Bill Clinton has run. But you’re right. A national campaign for president is perhaps the most demanding cauldron of political challenge that anyone can possibly face.
The national press was understandably interested in a couple, in a candidate that they didn’t fully know a lot about. It was not like Bill Clinton had been in Washington or been a national figure. … I think she responded to it. Hillary Clinton is a strong person. She’s self-confident, and I don’t think that at all has any tinge of arrogance. There’s real delineation between self-confidence, a belief in what you’re trying to do. In my long working relationship, not just as first lady but going back well before that, Hillary Clinton’s always been open to better ideas. There’s never been “my way or the highway” until you kind of get to the decision point, if that’s her responsibility. But I’ve never seen that.
But in this case, I think she addressed those issues pretty straightforwardly, and I think the press was a little taken back by that.
Bill Clinton wins the election, and there’s apparently talk about what Hillary’s role is going to be. It’s not going to be a traditional first lady role, and will she be in the cabinet? Will she be chief of staff? Will she —
Take me inside that discussion. What was the discussion about?
… I was certainly not part of any conversations or privy to any conversations where a formal role for Hillary Clinton was seriously considered. I do remember the president-elect noting a couple of times … that if another Democrat had been elected president, Hillary Clinton might be the attorney general pick. She was certainly qualified to be a member of the White House staff or a Cabinet. No question about it.
It was more in that context, but it was pretty unlikely that the president’s wife — although Robert Kennedy did serve as attorney general as brother of the president. I don’t remember any serious consideration. But it was obvious she was going to be an engaged partner in addition to being a first lady, as she had been in Arkansas.
I would say the role of a first lady was evolving at that point. You’d had Rosalynn Carter come to Cabinet meetings, which was unprecedented. You’d had Betty Ford, very traditional wife of a congressman, take positions that were different than her husband’s as president. That really had never happened before.
So the world was changing, and Hillary Clinton was a different first lady, a different time and place.
And she was going to get an office in the West Wing and be involved in policy.
Yeah, in domestic policy. Again, I would really underscore the arc of her life and career had been so engaged on important policy issues that were directly related to any president’s agenda, particularly in terms of children and families. Looking back, if you go to the presidential campaign today, Hillary Clinton looked around that proverbial corner, because even in the ’90s and before that, she was already talking about changes in the economy, globalization, technology affecting families, affecting the workplace. I think all of that was pretty natural for her to be involved in domestic policy more broadly.
I would also finally say that every first lady, if you talked to any chief of staff, Republican or Democrat, every first lady has had an enormous influence on their husband as president.
During the campaign, they’d sort of been transparent that she was going to have —
“Two for the price of one” was the bumper sticker.
But when they arrive in Washington, there’s an editorial by Sally Quinn, where she says: “Here’s my advice to you, Hillary Clinton. Don’t go to policy meetings. Don’t have an office in the West Wing. Washington is not ready for a first lady who gets involved in policy like this.” What was the arrival in Washington like, and was the reception there unexpected?
I don’t know that it was unexpected. You had, first of all, a governor running and being elected president. Generally a governor being elected is going to approach things differently in Washington than either a sitting vice president or a senator. … You’re going to get all kinds of opinions for a new administration. You’ve got to remember, the Republicans had been in the White House for 12 years; that’s a big shift, particularly when it’s unexpected and really didn’t crystallize until the last six weeks of the campaign. So that’s a lot of unexpected change in momentum for people to absorb and digest.
So I don’t think it really was unexpected. I think the president-elect, the first lady and all of us — and I traveled to Washington for 20 years in business, and as a member of the national committee and other things. I mean, that’s just part of the landscape. But it was a big change, no question about that.
Now the White House has the president’s staff, the vice president’s staff, and the first lady’s staff. It sounds chaotic.
… One of the things that we got right, and it was because the president-elect directed me to get it right, was to integrate the vice president’s office into the presidency. Bill Clinton and Al Gore had run as a team; they were a generational shift. Al Gore had served in Congress and as a senator. Very valuable experience there. There had been some criticism of the vice president’s office being more ceremonial. I’m not saying was the case, but that had been the conventional wisdom.
For us to integrate the vice president’s office with the president was crucial. That worked extremely well by almost anyone’s account, on the inside or even the outside.
As far as the first lady’s office, to go back to Arkansas, she, Hillary, had been involved in policy there. She obviously had not been in the governor’s office because she had her own career and so forth. But she had been actively involved in policy decisions, certainly the education reform and more broadly. But I think what people might not quite have understood from the outside is that the president valued a lot of the advice and counsel that we received from people like Melanne Verveer and Maggie Williams. We viewed them as a vital, valuable resource in the White House staff. So there wasn’t any kind of “they’re over here, and we’re over here.” It was “we’re all in this together, and we’ve got to coordinate, communicate and integrate.” And I think we largely did that.
And Hillary’s really given the premier portfolio, which is health care.
Well – (laughs) – “premier” is one adjective. I might say it a little bit differently. I would say a critical portfolio, important portfolio, because health care reform had been part of Bill Clinton’s campaign. But no one underestimated that presidents from both Republicans and Democrats had attempted health care reform for 80 years and had failed to accomplish meaningful health care reform.
What did come in to play, I think, in the ’92 campaign was not only the economy, … but that health care was increasingly taking up a larger portion of our gross national product and that health care costs were rising at a much higher rate than other costs in the economy. So it was a much better-understood problem and a concern. And then the uninsured — here we are, the most developed country on earth with 37 million-plus uninsured.
I think the issue was much higher-profile and better understood. And you’re right: The president, just like education reform in Arkansas, did ask the first lady to lead this effort. But no one underestimated the challenge that would be.
But it doesn’t go like Arkansas. The health care reform task force was seen as too secretive and too bureaucratic, and Congress was cut out of it. What went wrong?
Well, I don’t know. (Laughs.) The more recent criticism is that President Obama turned too much over to the Congress. Hindsight is a great substitute for judgment and wisdom. And the first lady has written about it in her book. We tried to do too much in too short a period of time. The president said something like, “We bit off more than we could chew.” So those were both pretty understandable, straightforward statements.
Here’s what I would say about it: No one underestimated the challenge or the importance of the task of health care reform. Looking back, certainly some of the tactical issues would have been different. Maybe some of the policy issues would have been different.
But I would say this: When the first lady first began her initiative there and went to the Congress, she was well received and well respected. You had a real initial positive reception and momentum, but then the opposition began to build. The campaign started. And the rest is history.
… It was a really disappointing and tough defeat, and it set the stage, along with some of the personal attacks and so forth, for the change in Congress in 1994. But I think two points are worth noting. Was Hillary Clinton disappointed? Certainly she was. She’d worked her heart out to enact health care reform, and it was a very visible, high-profile responsibility, and she did not succeed in achieving what she had hoped to do.
But she was also disappointed that what she thought was the right thing to do she wasn’t able to get accomplished for the people she was trying to help. But she immediately turned around and worked on children’s health care issues almost singularly and went forward with the children’s health care program after the defeat that insured a million children. I think that program now has 8 million children insured. And as Sen. [Ted] Kennedy [D-Mass.] said, she was a one-person band, or something to that effect.
So I think that’s very telling, that after a very public loss and putting so much of your heart and efforts into something with a defeat, you still regrouped and tried to get what you could accomplished.
… I do not believe that President Obama would have been successful with the Affordable Health Care Act, the reform of health care and reaching out and insuring millions of Americans who were uninsured and hopefully slowing the cost and improving health care service, without that effort in 1994 led by Hillary Clinton.
In this case, you did the best you could. You knew it was a tough race. Progress was made, but you didn’t get to the goal line, at least not in that time period.
At the same time that she’s doing this, the White House is dealing with Travelgate and Troopergate and Whitewater.
One controversy after another. What is it like inside the White House at that moment? And what is Hillary like?
Any White House is going to get their share of controversies. Whether it’s Democrat or Republican, we’ve seen that. You can go back through history and see that. Iran Contra had been a major controversy. But sure, you’d like to avoid them. And each one of them has their own chapter, and at the time they were certainly vexing, can be distracting, concerning, and all of that took some amount of energy and attention. We tried to really kind of isolate them and handle them on a separate path. [White House Chief of Staff] John Podesta was key in that. I asked John to lead that effort, and he did it very skillfully.
The first year we passed the Economic Deficit Reduction Plan, which was really the key to the Clinton presidency. That’s what the campaign had been about. We only passed it by one vote in the House, and every time Vice President Gore voted for us in the Senate we won, because he broke a tie.
We were able to move forward with the economic plan, the Family Medical Leave Act, which First Lady Clinton had been very involved in. … The president had stepped on the international stage pretty effectively. And at the end of the first year, the president’s approval rating was 55 percent. Again, he’d been elected with 43. I think that’s the way to look at. Then you had health care and the controversies you cite.
I think Hillary was certainly not pleased with this, was unsettled by it, as we all were. It did come somewhat unexpected because we felt like some of the criticism and issues were really either blown out of proportion or just not with merit. In some cases, on the travel office, we, in my judgment, did the right thing, but did it in the wrong way, and wish we had done it differently with the benefit of hindsight. But some of it was political attacks, too.
Is that how she felt?
I don’t think it was just her. I think we all did. But that’s part of politics that we’ve actually seen accelerate and grow over the years. So that just had to be dealt with.
In the midst of this, there’s a tragedy inside the White House, which is Vince Foster’s death. He’s one of her close friends and one of your close friends. You called Hillary. What was that moment like?
… I did call Hillary. You have to remember, [at] that time her father was in failing health as well. … I think that’s where she was, with her father, when I called her, if I remember it correctly. But it was a shock to all of us. I wish we would have known about Vince’s depression. We didn’t; we obviously would have acted on it had we known about it. Those were the feelings we all had.
How did she react after you told her and in those weeks after?
Her first reaction was similar to mine. It was disbelief; this just can’t happen to someone that you felt was such a strong, fine person filled with integrity, such a valued friend and colleague. So your first reaction is just, it just can’t be true.
At the end of ’94, you accomplished a lot of the things that you’ve mentioned, but for Hillary, health care —
It was a setback. There’s no question about it. The president addressed it: “We bit off more than we can chew.” It was a lightning rod in some ways for the campaign. And that ’94 election, where the Republicans came to Congress with Newt Gingrich [R-Ga.], that changed the landscape. And then of course, you had the period where I think the Republicans overplayed their hand. President Clinton steadied himself. The economy continued to improve, building on the economic plan and the deficit reduction plan. The president consistently showed his skill on the international stage, developing relationships around the world.
There was also the Oklahoma City bombing, where President Clinton stepped out there and showed an empathy and understanding, and particularly about government employees and government public servants that changed the dynamic in there. And then, of course, President Clinton was re-elected in the 1996 campaign, this time with a clear mandate. Hillary was very much a part of that campaign as well, was in on the strategy meetings and so forth, in the first Democrat re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt.
To go back to that ’94 election, somebody told us that Hillary Clinton took it personally and took responsibility, whether right or wrong, took responsibility. Was that something you saw?
… I think Hillary did feel a sense of disappointment, a sense of responsibility, a feeling that certainly had contributed to the political landscape. There were some of these other political issues that were getting to be raised in a very heated way. That was part of the landscape as well. And we heard almost the same rhetoric where “our real mission is to defeat this president.” You heard that publicly and privately.
That’s not what any of us came to Washington to do. You come to Washington to try to help the American people and get things done. In my case, I’d always believed to try and do it on a bipartisan basis, where possible, and I thought Bill Clinton running as a new Democrat gave us an opportunity to do that.
But to answer your question specifically, yes, none of us felt that was the only element that contributed to the 1994 congressional elections. History suggests a president generally loses seats in those elections, although ’98 was different.
But she certainly felt a sense of understandable disappointment. I think the real lessons is what happened after that. We saw her regroup, not only go forward with the children’s health care program that I already noted, but really go on with her mission as first lady, then as senator and secretary of state.
And she would reshape her role as first lady.
It’s a compliment that she had the ability to change. It was a different time and place. She had had this high-profile responsibility as health care. It was the second term shortly thereafter, so it was a different passage of the presidency as well. She did reshape, redefine, refocus some of her energy and efforts in the second term.
… Toward the end of the presidency, Monica happens, and Hillary plays a central role in that. And it’s a very public role. Can you talk a little about where she was and how she comes out of that and ends up running for the Senate not long after?
… It was a pretty telling time about Hillary and Bill Clinton’s relationship. They had to work through a very difficult problem that many married couples have faced in one way or another; almost every married couple has had some moment of difficulty, whether it be sickness or loss of a child, you know, an issue of this type or whatever. We all have our ups and downs, and that’s what makes or breaks a marriage.
In this case, they had to do it in a very public-profile way. Not many of us have to do it in that manner. So I think it frankly speaks very strongly to their marriage relationship, the fact that it’s endured their resilience. But it wasn’t easy, I can tell you that. And I don’t think anybody thought it was.
A post-presidency period is a pretty complicated period, too. And here’s President Clinton trying to find his next chapter, writing his book, literally, finding his chapters, but it’s a period of real transition, particularly for a young president. And in Hillary’s case, she’s been first lady. … So she decides to run for the Senate in New York.
Hillary has been a lightning rod in terms of criticism, but she’s also been voted the most respected woman in the world I think 20 times … So that’s a real juxtaposition.
It does show there’s an evolving element of a leader here, of women’s role. But her election in New York was a pretty substantial election. She ran a great campaign, proved herself to be an able campaigner. She got better every day on the campaign trail. Now we see this campaign building on 2008, which was another disappointment. But what happened after that disappointment? Somehow she becomes secretary of state, “team of rivals,” and I think does a truly outstanding job in that role.
My last question is, who is the Hillary Clinton today that is running? You met young Hillary Rodham who didn’t know what was in store for her, and you see her today. Who is she today?
In many ways she’s the same person my wife and I met when she was Hillary Rodham. But I think she’s also, like hopefully all of us, grown, broadened, matured over the years with life’s experiences, both successes and disappointments. I think she is grateful for the opportunities that she’s had to make a difference in this world and in people’s lives, and that comes through repeatedly. I had mentioned the John Wesley quote; that’s right at the heart of who Hillary Clinton is.
In many ways, she’s that same person, full of joy, adventure, spirit, fun, but seriousness of purpose. By the same token, she’s broader, matured like we all hopefully have, with judgment and her understanding of a very different world. But she’s also I think a person who is proud of her marriage to a pretty unique fella; very proud of her daughter, who is accomplished in her own right and is a mother; and now is a grandparent in Hillary and the president’s case.
That’s the montage of Hillary Clinton that I know.