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R.W. Apple, Jr. Interview

FL: Could you talk about this pattern of Clinton's and how to some extent it is a reprise of the first two years as governor...


This pattern of indiscipline has shown up in another way, and that is in what he has tried to achieve. In Little Rock, he had over-promised during his campaign, and he had to pull back. He lost after his first term. Later was elected again and didn't do it to the same degree. Here in Washington he spent an immense amount of political capital very quickly. A series of controversial nominees, some of whose names he had to withdraw with concomitant political damage. Lani Guanier, Zoe Baird, etc. He pushed for legalizing homosexuality in the military, a very tough issue at the best of times. He wanted to rip out and reform, rebuild, reinvent the healthcare system in this country. He wanted to end welfare as we knew it. It was a program for a 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide. Not for a 1992 Bill Clinton 42, 43%. You have to do things early on 'cause you never have quite the mandate in the 3rd or 4th year of your presidency that you do in your first. But, it's not limitless even at the beginning.

And he was not able, or at least he did not, choose priorities carefully, we're going to do this and this. The rest will have to wait. We'll have to see how we do in building majorities in the country and on Capitol Hill. Because now of course a President, regardless of the party alignment in a formal sense, presidents have to build constituencies issue by issue out of the members of both parties, because party discipline no longer exists. Well, I think that the President had trouble mostly because of this quality. Of his over-the-top quality. Of his failure to have a speed governor, the way cars used to have. Too many issues. Too many words. Too much, too much, too much.

Lyndon Johnson was a bit like that, I mentioned him a minute ago. But he had behind him a tremendous political wind. John Kennedy had been assassinated the year before the 1964 election, making Johnson President. And there was, in the country, a tremendous willingness, nay, eagerness to enact things that John Kennedy had talked about, but had thought beyond his reach because of his own small plurality and mandate. In addition, Johnson had buried Barry Goldwater, had crushed Barry Goldwater. So, he was able to do all sorts of things, that most presidents cannot. Clinton took off as if he were Lyndon Johnson in 1965, immediately after he was elected.

I don't mean to suggest, in any way, that these mistakes were made out of intellectual or strategic miscalculation. They were made because this is the kind of man Bill Clinton is. And we tend to repeat our mistakes. Bill Clinton had two years as Governor of Arkansas and followed it up. In some of the same way that he followed up the first two years of his presidency. He was defeated. I have no doubt that Bill Clinton would have been defeated had there been another election in 1994 with Clinton running for President. There wasn't. But, certainly, Clinton's unpopularity was one of the reasons for the huge swing in the Congressional elections. President Clinton was lucky. Lucky in two ways. Lucky that the presidency has a four year term, not a two year term. And lucky that the Republicans did so well. The Republicans then over-interpreted their mandate and the President said to himself, and his people said to themselves, we'd better clean up our act or we're out of here in two years.

They have been remarkably successful at cleaning up their mandates and that suggests one of the other amazing qualities of Bill Clinton, and that is he is never out. He seemed finished, in Arkansas. He seemed finished after the endless speech in Atlanta, when everyone was laughing at him. He seemed finished in New Hampshire. Much the same kind of thing that happened to Gary Hart and had him on the lamb out of the state within 48 hours, had Bill Clinton fighting back on national television, surviving, though not winning the primary, and going on to win. He seemed out again after the first 18 months, two years of his presidency. This fellow, like Bob Dole, is a survivor. To an unusual degree. Most political careers that end in the White House don't have that many near-death experiences in them.

FL: Do you have any particular insight into the Nixon-Dole friendship?


I don't think I have any enormous insights. I do have a thought or two about the relationship. I was at the Nixon funeral when Dole spoke. And it was evident I think to everyone in that room who had known both men that when Dole talked about Nixon's father being a failure, couldn't even grow orange trees successfully in southern California. When he talked about Nixon being hurt by the fact that his father was a failure. And Nixon listening to railroad whistles and wanting to move on, he was talking about Bob Dole and Bob Dole's father. So in the hard scrabble origins of their lives, I think there was a bond. In the degree to which each of them was a loner I think there was, by definition, not a bond, but a similarity, and something each could recognize in the other.

Neither Dole nor Nixon has, or had large numbers of close and personal friends, you had the very strange Nixon friendship with people like Bebe Rebozzo who would not seem to be normal presidential chums. And Senator Dole while, friendly with people like Bob Strauss, David Brinkley, others, with whom he goes to Florida, really in my view has only one, intimate friend, the kind to whom you confess your transgressions and your fears, and that is Mrs. Dole, Elizabeth Dole. A very, warm-hearted person who has tons of friends. But at the same time, a very tough political operative, make no mistake about that. She's a stainless steel magnolia if ever there was one.

Now as for the hostility between Nixon and Dole, I believe that Dole felt to some degree, that his good name was being used by Nixon. Dole is very, very jealous of his good name. He prides himself on his word, the fact that he was trusted by the other 99 members of the Senate in really--I'm about to use the word unprecedented but I won't because I don't know all the precedents--in a highly unusual way. A Senator, a left-wing Democratic Senator, at least as left-wing a Democratic Senator as we have, said to me that if the Senate had voted for [a] President in a secret ballot, it would [have] been Dole a hundred, Clinton zip. Which is much more a measurement of the degree to which Dole made himself a figure of trust in the Senate as it is the questions about President Clinton among many senators. Perhaps normal between opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. At an unsettled political time.

So I don't think Senator Dole liked that much, being a front man and a shill for, Richard Nixon. But you're right, it was a very tangled, and in many ways, very deep relationship. I was amazed. Senator Dole cried at the Nixon funeral, cried while he was speaking or came close that it doesn't really matter. He was one of those plains stoics, that familiar kind of frontier figure in our popular culture. But, there is a tremendous well of emotion there that's bottled up most of the time. And, at unusual and at surprising times he weeps. That's also not something that most politicians do.

FL: But what about Dole's reputation--being perceived as Nixon's hatchet man, edgy, dark--


You know, Bob Dole, had a reputation, partly earned I guess, for being the great ax murderer of American politics. The man who would take out anybody with a single swipe of his trusty blade. I suppose the most remembered, recent example was his appearance on television, was it with Brokaw? The night after the New Hampshire primary when he was defeated by George Bush, and when Brokaw asked him what he had to say to Mr. Bush, he said, I wish he'd stop lying about my positions, and my policies.

The dark Bob Dole had, at that point, only completely seized the popular imagination. He has come a long way. He is one of the best-liked people in Washington. Surprisingly well-liked among reporters who as everyone knows are a nest of left-wing vipers. He is very well-liked among colleagues of both parties. He still has his dark side and his dark moments, but, they certainly are well-hidden and much-suppressed. There was almost universal agreement that he would never get to the nomination without some highly damaging outburst. There hasn't been one in this campaign. There hasn't been anything that was even close to it.

FL: Do you see Clinton and Dole as quite expressive of their generations?


You're leading me a long way down that road to psychobabble here. I think in some ways, Senator Dole and President Clinton are, expressive of their generations. Mr. Dole is a member of the war-time and post-war generation, what I would describe as my parent's generation. The gratification-delayed generation. You work, you save, you slave, you do what's right. Senator Dole is for that very reason, very, very, suspicious of feel-good politics and of feel-good economics. He believes in balanced budgets. That's what they taught in Russell, Kansas before World War II, and after for that matter.

President Clinton feels other people's pain. President Clinton is to many people a great exemplar of the Vietnam generation and I don't mean he is that because he didn't serve, because, the great truth in my mind about the Vietnam generation is not whether you served there or whether you didn't but that your life in some way was heavily affected by that conflict, and by our involvement in it, whether you went to live in Sweden and stayed there or whether, one way or another avoided the draft, or the Dan Quayle route or the Bill Clinton route, or whether you went and fought and were ruined and incarcerated like John McCain. That whole generation, it's a very defining experience, and I do not think Bill Clinton is any exception.

FL: And yet, both of us talked about the way that they are brothers too.....


Well, there is a brotherhood among elected politicians. They lead ridiculous lives. They have almost no private lives. Their private lives are stolen in minutes here, and hours there. Even when they go to the golf course, or sit on their veranda in Florida, they have to worry do their clothes look silly. Is it a good moment to be seen to be relaxing or is there somewhere in the world where people are visibly, that is to say, in front of television lenses, starving, dying, fighting and it will make you look trivial if you're walking around a golf course or if you're sunning yourself. It's not only disruptive of private life in general, it's disruptive of family life. I thought it significant that Dole chose to write a letter to his daughter Robin just before he left the Senate. It was the first thing he did when he came to the Senate. That's a man kind of apologizing for the fact that I'm not gonna be able to spend much time, I haven't been able to spend much time with you. Likewise, President Clinton makes a huge effort, as does Mrs. Clinton, not to penalize their young daughter, Chelsea too much, for being their daughter. That's something that all politicians are conscious of and tormented by, the fact that they may be wrecking their kids lives, in pursuit of their own ambitions.

And then of course there are the policy areas. Bob Dole has supported Bill Clinton on very important issues. Bosnia was one of them. Events push politicians with different ideologies and different approaches toward the same conclusions sometimes. And when it comes to the vote, you can't quite bring yourself. As critical as Dole was of Bill Clinton on Bosnia during all the time when we weren't doing much. What he wanted to do was break the UN embargo and send weapons to the Bosnian Muslims and the White House wanted none of that. And there was very bad feeling, and there were very hot words exchanged. Nevertheless, when the President finally bit the bullet and said, we're going to take part in a peace-keeping force, what do you say Bob, up or down? Senator Dole basically being Senator Dole didn't have much choice. He's not given his life and his experience, he's not in the business of telling the President of the United States he can't do that. So, it's never, as pat as it seems no matter how different they are. One fat, one thin; one from one generation, one from another. One a basic conservative or the other a basic liberal. There is a kind of convergence that sometimes occurs in politicians' lives.

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