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Richard Reeves, Author of Running in Place a book about Clinton's first year in office and of President Kennedy: Profile of Power

FL: In talking about Clinton you likened him to the surfer politician. Why is that sort of the defining image for you?


I see Bill Clinton sometimes as a kind of surfer politician. The ocean is big and the ocean is deep, and he's smart enough to know a lot about it. But what he's actually doing is riding a board on each wave that comes up. Each new number, each new poll, each new focus group, each new election. And he's skimming. And he's a genius at it. Brilliant. Skimming along from wave to wave and not much worrying. Managing to stay on his feet. Not much worrying about what's underneath it all.

FL: To what extent are these patterns determined by his character and Hillary's?


I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are one person. I think that they both think they wouldn't be where they are today without the other one. They're almost hostage to each other. I think they're right about that, that they wouldn't have gotten this far if it wasn't this kind of team. On the other hand, other people are never privy to that. There's a pattern to his life and to his presidency that has to do with unknown events and unknown information. Which is the information the two of them share. And I'm not talking about pillow talk, 'cause I'm not talking about Eleanor Roosevelt, because I think that's way overplayed. Hillary Clinton is much more important than Eleanor Roosevelt was. Hillary Clinton is like Bobby Kennedy. He is the one true friend that the man at the center has. Bobby was to his brother and Hillary is, I think, to her husband. And no one can break open what happens, but his public actions are affected. Again, and again in his presidency, the President has said things and then backed off, not because of an overall public reaction, but because of what was going on upstairs at the White House, or in the weekend at Camp David.

FL: What does she bring to that team ? What does he bring to it?


To me the Clintons are one person. And Hillary is not a new Eleanor Roosevelt. She is an old Bobby Kennedy. She is the President's confidante, his last advisor, the only person that he truly trusts. And I think that gives a different look to this presidency than to any we have ever seen before or perhaps ever will see again. They make up for each other's deficiencies. Bill Clinton talks too much, thinks too little and is wildly undisciplined. Hillary Clinton doesn't talk at all, she is very disciplined and she hates. Bill Clinton's biggest problem as a President is he doesn't hate anybody. He tends to like everybody he meets. Which is another way of saying he listens to the last person he heard. He needs that institutional memory about who did what to you and what we think of these people that his wife provides and no other human being could. Bill Clinton's supposed to hate you. Bill Clinton's supposed to hate reporters. And he gets, but then it doesn't matter whether you're a reporter, or a used car salesman or whatever. He likes the people he meets. And he forgets that John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt didn't forget who their enemies were. Clinton usually likes them when he meets them.

FL: There was a quote about them, "The presidency could be ruined by the tangled webs of loyalty and betrayal, gratitude and anger in this complex relationship." Talk about this relationship, what you know of it. What any of us can know of it.


We look at a presidency as a continuation of other presidencies and as central to the history of the country. And we do it with non-fiction techniques. We look for facts, we look for information. But the relationship between a man and a woman has never done well in non-fiction. It requires a novelist. And there's a great novel upstairs at the White House, and a greater novel than Primary Colors, in terms of the complexity of the experience and relationship of these two hungry, hungry people, who met when they were kids really and decided they were going to do this. And they have fed off each other and attacked each other and done all sorts of things that are not in non-fiction, and that journalists and historians will never get at, although a great novelist might be able to.

I think the relationship between the Clintons is more dangerous to his election chances than say Robert Dole is. They have shared so many secrets. They have been alone and cornered so often, that there literally is a kind of underplay, a story under the story that goes on all the time. Bill Clinton meets with The Boston Globe, says something and as he's walking out tells the one person that he knew in the room, "My God, this is gonna be real trouble." Meaning that when I get home, like any other husband or wife, when I get home. And that's exactly what happened. The subject was "What did universal mean in universal health care?" And Bill Clinton, in his way said, "I don't know. '98, '97, '95, whatever we can get." But of course at home with Hillary Clinton, much different kind of human being than he is, universal means 100. And the next day he was on television saying he meant 100. It was all a mistake, the other. He's changed his policy in Bosnia over a conversation like that with his wife. Those things are totally unregulated. If the democracy works well, it's because there are checks and balances built in. But there are not checks and balances built in to the private life of the current President and his wife.

FL: Let's talk about Bosnia. Clinton's biographer calls it an almost perfect symbol for the feints and starts in this administration.


I think the Bosnian policy of the United States, which I don't disapprove of, is a perfect example of the Clinton presidency. That is, the President wakes up new each morning and so we have had 365 Bosnian policies a day. He may have been talking about it at home, he may have read something, he may have heard something. He is open to information. This is not a closed man, which changes his take on it. The most dramatic example came toward the end of the first year, when he agreed, at a series of meetings on policy called "Lift and Strike," lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims and strike at Bosnian- Serb targets. That happened on a Friday. Warren Christopher went to Europe to tell NATO allies what we were going to do, and that Monday morning there was a meeting in the Oval Office between Clinton, Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, and Les Aspin, then Secretary of Defense. And as he walked into the room, Clinton was carrying a book called Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan. And he said, "My wife read this and I read some of it too. And it says that we can't succeed doing anything in that society. They've been killing each other for thousands of years and they're going to keep doing it." And Les Aspin said later, he was sitting there thinking, "He's going to go south on Lift and Strike." And he called Europe, got Christopher, and said, "Don't say anything. The President's going to change his mind." And in fact the President did.

FL: You've had long conversations with Clinton over two or three years, at two or three different points. One of them you had conversations about JFK. What were those conversations about and were they revealing of the man?


Bill Clinton once was asked what he thought was the best thing about being President. And he said, "Well I can meet anybody I want to." Which happens to be the exact same answer that John Kennedy gave to that question. And when I wrote about Kennedy, Clinton wanted to talk about Kennedy and invited me, and my wife to the White House. We sat there with the Clintons for a long, long time talking and it was a delightful experience. But being a reporter, of course, I bite the hand that feeds me. And it was interesting that what he was most interested about in John Kennedy, which seemed quite simple to me, was how could Kennedy keep decisions open for so long. Because real politicians, great ones like Clinton and Kennedy, know that it's decisions that make enemies. Politics is not about how many friends you can make. It's about how many enemies you can avoid. And decisions make enemies. Particularly enemies who can organize.

The answer to that question which I kind of mumbled my way through, was that John Kennedy didn't think out loud. John Kennedy didn't talk in public unless he had something to say, where Bill Clinton kind of rambles on, thinks out loud, takes in new information. Mulls it all together which to him makes sense but to the rest of the world makes him seem to be incredibly indecisive and scares the hell out of people.

FL: You also wrote about some of the profound similarities between Kennedy and Clinton. You listed about eight or nine ways in which they are similar.


In a way, Bill Clinton is John Kennedy's political son. That is there are similarities in men who came from two very different places. First they were self created and they both understood that the institutional gaining of the Presidency has been breaking down for a long time and it was really shattered by John Kennedy. So that Bill Clinton coming from nowhere, the exact opposite of the Dalai Lama, they send monks into the mountains to find the right kid. He was the right kid, he came out of the mountains and presented himself to the monks and to all the rest of us. Kennedy made that possible by recognizing that the media was not going to pick the Presidents, but it was the vehicle by which they were going to be chosen.

They are both men who live for action. Life is a race against boredom. They both when they talk of the presidency, talk about governing from the center as from the spoke of the wheel, as opposed to Presidents like Eisenhower or Reagan who governed from the top of a pyramid, the top of an organization chart. The people who want to be part of the center, want to be part of the action. They want everything to go through them. So that chaos, to Bill Clinton and to John Kennedy before him. Chaos is a marvelous way to control people. If only you know everything that's going on, you're giving different signals to different people, nobody can move without coming through you and that's the nature of the exercise for people like Clinton and Kennedy.

FL: You also mentioned another quality of carelessness of people's lives.


They don't have friends. I know that there's a political mythology about the Friends of Bill, the FOB and what not, but like Kennedy he strips away anyone who is of no use to him. And he does it in a pretty smooth and often cruel way. With Kennedy, it reminded me of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. He's careless. The Gatsby character, Daisy Buchanan, was ruining other people's lives when they were of no use to her anymore and moved on. That's what the book was about. Well that's what big time politics is about too. And Kennedy had learned it. Kennedy grew up differently than Clinton. Kennedy treated people like servants. And knew how to get rid of them. Clinton has been much clumsier, picking the wrong people in the wrong spots, not backing them up, backing off of them. But the fact of the matter is, that when they're no longer valuable to them, they're going to be gone. After this election, people like Dick Morris may have trouble getting in the White House gate. He will have served his purpose, depending how the vote goes.

FL: What else as you look over the last three or four years.


Well, Clinton really didn't know very many people when he became President and he began to appoint people very, very slowly. In the transition period, all the work the President does has to do with appointments. And they all think that that's what the Presidency's going to be like. But of course once you become president that becomes very small beer, who's going to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights or things like that. So that the country got a view of him during those days, whether it was Lani Guinier or Kimba Wood, running through large numbers of people who might or might not be appointed to something and then many of those people, some of them picked by his wife, turned out to be disasters and had to be cut out. Whether it was Bernie Naussbaum, or Mac McClarty, or Lani Guinier, had to be stripped away. And he did it very clumsily at first. Now, he's gotten much better at it. You'll look at the top of the Kremlin one day and somebody won't be there. But it took him a long time. He knew what he had to do, but it took him a long time to do it.

FL: But these weren't necessarily friends. What about the capacity for friendship? Is it possible in political life? What do you sense about Clinton as a friend?


I really doubt whether Bill Clinton or the kind of people that become President, have friends in the sense that other people do. They have, or they perceive I think, exactly the same problem as a kind of plain, rich widow. Is he after me for me or for my money. And they just can't bog themselves down after all these years of climbing, climbing, climbing, needing more and more sophisticated people around them, needing better and better information around them. So they strip away the people who helped them on their way. And they end up with a government of strangers and in Clinton's case that's certainly true. He did not know most of the people who are now in the Cabinet or who are his advisors. And he striped away all the Arkansas folks. Most of them seemed to be competent and successful in the Arkansas context, but when they got to Washington, they were in over their heads for one reason or another. But he's not the first person to do this, but he had to turn to the people who he thought he was running against the first time around.

FL: Let's circle back to past President's? What was the importance of Carter's failures? How did he perceive the man and how did this shape his presidency?


I think the presidency is sui generis. Only 42 people know what it's like to be President and I don't think it's like anything else. And I think all of them, they learn how to become President. Certainly Bill Clinton did. But they become President and they don't have the slightest idea what to do. And there's really no one there to help them because we're a funny country. We have very little sense of history. To the point that when a President comes into the White House, all of the papers have been taken out. It's an empty building. All of the paintings have been taken off the wall and we begin anew. That's one of the reasons that we're a great people and one of the reasons that this is a great country, because we are willing to try and try without knowing that other people have tried and failed. But it leaves the President the most vulnerable among us.

And Bill Clinton, who really hadn't been in Washington for a very long time, as soon as he was elected President and invited down the then leaders of the Democratic Congress, Tom Foley, George Mitchell, Dick Gephardt, onto Little Rock. And they had dinner one night. And these three guys who had an agenda, scared the hell out of him, telling him how Jimmy Carter failed as President. Because he didn't understand the Congress, he didn't go along with Congress. The next morning he gives a press conference withdrawing his proposals for term limits, withdrawing any attacks he's made on the Congress, withdrawing plans to reform Congress. Saying, "Pennsylvania Avenue is now going to go both ways." That phrase which has resonated and shattered through American history. He had sold out to those guys, the most unpopular group of guys, save the press, in the country. And his first two years went down the drain, largely because he was ignorant of how Washington actually worked and he had tied a boulder to himself, the 103rd Democratic Congress, which then in 1994 tipped over the boat of state and damn near sunk him.

FL: What does the failure of health care say about the Clintons?


Well, the failure of the health program tells us a lot of things including the fact that it's probably too late to do it. If there was a window of opportunity for a health care plan, I'm certainly among the people who think it was slammed shut by Hillary Clinton. He made a gigantic mistake turning that program over to his wife. I mean if you go back and look at the beginnings of social security programs like that, begin small and build up. Partially because, as Thomas Jefferson said, great endeavors are not launched on small majorities. Thomas Jefferson was a politician. Bill Clinton's a politician and a very good one. Hillary Clinton had the political instincts of a stone. And she did not belong in the kind of position of power to try to basically persuade the American people there had to be fundamental changes in the way we all live and persuade other politicians that they had to go along with this or they were finished. She tried to present the country with a fait accomplis, and said this is it. A thousand pages, ten thousand pages. It never had a chance. No professional ever would have done anything like that. We can say whatever we want about politicians, but politicians are people who sometimes get the rest of the people to do what they ought to do but wouldn't do on their own.

FL: What were some of the other mistakes? It wasn't so much the structure of the plan itself. What doomed this?


Clinton made a string of mistakes. The brilliance of him as a politician is evidenced by the fact that he's still alive and thriving. I even thought that Bill Clinton would have done anything to be President. He's alone one night and the devil comes in and says, "I can make you President. You're the one. And I will only ask you one favor." And Clinton says, "What's the favor?" And, "Not yet, not yet." Clinton shakes on the deal which he certainly would. He gets elected President, he steps into the Oval Office. The devil is standing in a corner and he says, "Gays in the military." There is not a greater fault line in this society, other than race, than the subject of homosexuality on one side and the military on the other side. And Clinton, because he had spent too many nights talking about what seemed reasonable to him about changing attitudes toward the '60's and whatnot, literally, threw that in the teeth of the American people, who never would have accepted it. It was a monument to a kind of ignorance. He did the same thing then again in a different way on health care. On welfare reform, on taxes. It took him a long time to find out what the country feels like as opposed to what polls tell you America's all about. To start a presidency off by jumping on to about the most emotional fault line in the democracy was astounding ignorance. And he paid, and paid and will always pay for that mistake.

Health care failed because I think the person the President put in charge of it has lousy political instincts but has unchecked power because he can't fire her, he can't even face her down as far as I can tell. And though she did a lot of admirable things one of them was not understanding the politics of the situation, beginning with something that Thomas Jefferson said, which is that great projects are never built on small majorities. She made it into a great project instead of trying to slip it by. She would not open the process to the American people and to other politicians. She would not compromise when it was clear that she had gone to far. And she also exercised her power in terms of hiring and firing people. And that affected the health care package just as much as it affected the White House Travel Office. Mrs. Clinton may be terrific at picking people to do certain things, but not to deal with the American public. So the people that she put into office in some ways, or worked with from Bernie Nussbaum to Ira Magaziner, and poor Vince Foster, were the wrong people. These are people who do not understand the political process and they couldn't help her. Perhaps she could have gotten by if she had people who had run for sheriff as they used to say. But it was just a series of mistakes from beginning to end, although it was not a bad plan and certainly the problem it was trying to deal with was real.

FL: You want to go back and talk about that essential quality that Kennedy and Clinton have in common.


The thing that really binds John Kennedy and Bill Clinton is that these are two guys who had soaring, soaring charm. I mean people who can light up a room. And can light up a room and seduce most anyone in it. And politics is really institutionalized charm. Instead of din serial seduction, you're doing mass seduction. Kennedy was fantastic at it. And Bill Clinton's turned out to be fantastic at it too.

FL: Let's talk about generational differences. How is Clinton expressive of his generation?


When Clinton and I were talking at one point, I asked him if he was still carrying the anti-authoritarianism of the 1960's and he said, "Yeah. I'm kind of anti-authority." It's a great answer and a charming one. However he is now the authority. And it seems to me that he has carried so much of the '60's. The openness, the collegial decision-making which serves him very well because like many politicians he's a man who can't stand to be alone, wants to be in a crowd all the time anyway. And he didn't realize, I don't think any of us realized completely that the revolutions, the egalitarianism, the feminism, the civil rights, the openness of the 1960's had not been digested by large numbers of Americans. What came to be known as the angry white male syndrome in fact was real, but it was men who think somehow that the men before the '60's had more power over women, over their families, over the government, over the world and they think the '60's is what took that away from them. I think they're jerks to think all that but it's clear that many, many people do think that. And now they have these two people who seem to come out of Arkansas in beads and bellbottoms and there's this irrational hatred toward the Clintons which I think goes back to the fact that there is still this hatred toward the generation.

FL: Do you see how Senator Dole is expressive of his generation?


If Clinton had been able to choose an opponent he couldn't have done better than Bob Dole. The whole World War II nostalgia thing is lovely to look at. And you've got a candidate for President, Dole, who's vision is backward. We were governed for 50 years by the World War II people, beginning with the Commander in Chief, Eisenhower and ending with the youngest Lieutenant in the Navy, kind of symbolically, George Bush. The country finally turned the corner and is finally ready to go off in a new direction and Clinton has guts enough to go after the Democratic nomination which didn't look like much when he first went for it. He wins. And I think that that has confounded part of the political system to the point where they've now found another Lieutenant from World War II to throw up against him. And I don't think America would go back. I can't imagine what Clinton would have to do, to get Americans to go back that far into our history, which many of us don't remember anyway.

FL: How do you think the discussion of character has hurt American politics?


I think I'm an anti-character political observer. What I see day to day now, is that the word character issue is a cover for executing and writing about dirty politics. Well, we have to do this. It's a job of great character. I don't know what kind of character Caesar had, I don't know what kind of character Napoleon had, and I'm not sure that character is even a virtue. Richard Nixon, a man of apparently low character, betrayed his constituency when he went to China. A man of real character, and part of character I think, is loyalty to your old friends, would not have gone to China. I don't think politics and character mix very well, particularly in divided systems like ours. Maybe if we had a dictator. It would be nice if he were a dictator, benevolent, of good character. But Presidents are judged on three or four big decisions they make and usually those decisions have nothing to do with character and everything to do with politics.

FL: Do you feel the same way about Clinton or is that even relevant?


I don't see character in Bill Clinton's leadership. I see him taking polls and finding out people like words like character and values and challenges and constantly repeating those words. But he repeats them about different things in different generations.

Presidents are not judged by whether they are good to their friends, good to their wives, nice to their children. They are judged by three or four big judgment calls. When they're in office. No one asked whether Abraham Lincoln balanced the budget or loved his wife. He had a big problem. He dealt with it in a certain way. The Presidency, I think, is about politics not character.

FL: Just developing that. What is it that we know about Bill Clinton's character?


Well, I would say that Bill Clinton's hold on the American people is that he does some things very, very well. He's getting as good at the ceremonial presidency as Ronald Reagan was, and in terms of character the only thing you can truly count on him doing is responding the same way the American people, the majority of the American people respond at any given moment. We've got a fairly pure democracy with this guy because he's facilitating public opinion. And I think he would say that makes him a man of good character. I'm not sure it does, but he's not going to betray the American people.

FL: Talk about the reliance on polls and Bill Clinton.


I think among the things that Bill Clinton believes in most strongly are numbers. Who got the vote, and what the polls show. He believes the polls and he sees it as a valid judgment on what kind of job he's doing. When he came back from the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, and saw his approval rating on the desk and it had only gone up 1.5% because of the meetings in Europe, he slammed his hand on the desk and said, "Look at this. All that work for 1.5%. What's wrong with people?" He thinks that's all valid. I asked him about the reports about Jean Bertrand Aristide, when we were thinking about putting him back in power. And there were questions about his character and more. And when I started to talk to Clinton about that he turned to me and said, as if that ended the conversation and it did, "The man got 67% of the vote." That's what Bill Clinton believes in and that's what he thinks democracy is and that's how he governs.

FL: In those long conversations you had with Bill Clinton, what did you learn that you didn't know before?


I don't know how extensive my knowledge of Clinton is. Almost anybody spending time with him is surprised by how smart he really is. Politics, like journalism, is usually for the best second rate minds and I think that while it may be wildly undisciplined, maybe an encyclopedia without an index, Bill Clinton does have a first rate mind. The second thing that I admire in him, and envy, is that at the age of 49, age of 50, the man is still growing. Now that may scare you in politics, because he's growing to believe something different than what he believes today. On the other hand, as another man, I think that's tremendous. I mean he's like Michael Jordan. He is capable of doing things that you can't believe because he's not closed up like most men of his age and experience are.

FL: What did you mean when you said of the both of them, "They prefer public embarrassment to private life."


It's been marvelous watching these people in power. As far as I can tell the Clintons have absolutely no sense of shame, whatever. There's nothing that they won't do to maintain that position. I truly think they prefer public embarrassment to private life. Politics is an endless series of small humiliations. They seem to revel in that. They do seem to be without shame.

When the wife of the President of the United States of America comes on television and tells me that they're thinking about having another child, that they're thinking about adopting children, and whatnot, I'm not against that. I think it's kind of nice they're doing that --but on television? These are private things and I think they have no sense of privacy or shame at all.

FL: How about the process of running? Is it hubris to expect that you'd be the same person coming out of it as going in?


Well, running for office in this country is an endless series of small humiliations. Only a certain kind of person can do it, and only a certain kind of person can survive doing it. The country has been totally corrupted by it. The most corrupted is the leader. Where do you get the money to do this kind of stuff? Why do people spend $50 million to get a job that pays $200,000 a year. It's wrong on the face of it. And why we, and they are corrupted the minute they go into politics. I don't believe Bill Clinton has tried to build up a bankroll. I don't think he knows much about money actually. But he's spent his entire life begging for money from other people to run, to become what he wanted to become. And you have to be very young or very naive not to think there isn't a price to be paid for all of this. He's Governor of Arkansas. If he gets in trouble for Whitewater and all these things, he was Governor of Arkansas, with enormous power. Politicians have enormous power. The change of a comma in a bill can mean billions of dollars to someone or whatnot. And he gets paid $35,000. The danger of that in a political system is mind boggling to me.

FL: In what other ways is running for office disfiguring?


I think it's impossible to run for high public office without being ripped apart and then put back together again by the process itself. To begin with, campaigning is just repetition of emotion. You're with 10 people, you're campaigning to 250 million and you get excited about balancing the budget or whatever. After the first couple times, and you're going to do this thousands of times, you're making it up. I mean if the words aren't artificial, then the emotion is. As they say, pop in the cassette. So that basically it's great training in telling not the truth, a portion of the truth. The old county courthouse joke, I want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Both Clinton and any politician can say which one of those do you want. When Turner Catledge covered Franklin Roosevelt in the '30's and other reporters in other parts of the country would ask him, "What is Roosevelt like?" Catledge said that "Franklin Roosevelt's a man who's first instinct is always to lie. Then he starts to lie and then he looks out and says My God. With these people I can get away with the truth." And he's shift into the truth at the end of the sentence or the end of the speech. He had a much better transmission than Bill Clinton does. Because that description is also true of Bill Clinton, but it takes him longer to get to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And I'm not sure that any human being could go through what he did to get to be President, and not that what he did was so unusual, it was that repetition of emotion that breeds that internal dishonesty.

FL: Bob Hughes the writer had a wonderful phrase when I asked about the damage of running. He said, "It's the purgatory of self-repetition."


It is. We all know what happens. Even if you just give a few speeches, lectures for money as most of us do. I mean, you dirty yourself. You feel yourself getting dirty as somebody's asked you a question and you're going to tell them what you think works and what will take the least energy to give it to them. And so that they don't yet know that they've been dirtied by the process but you know you've been dirtied by it. And if you're running for President, it's slogging through that self diminishing dirt that American politics has become.

FL: What are those contradictory demands that we ask of our candidates? What are the people doing? Aren't we involved in this as well?


It's considered an insult, I think, to say that a politician is trying to be all things to all men. But democracy in fact demands that you be all things to all men. You be a strong leader, ever vigilant to repulse the enemy. You be a feeling human being, ever ready to kiss a baby and mean it. You be able to run the country like a well-run business, but we're going to pay you $50,000 a year to do that when the people who run well-run businesses are getting $50 million a year. You don't sell out to special interests or whatever, when only special interests finance the entire process. I mean, where do people think the money comes from and where do they think it goes? It comes from people who want something from government and they want access to political leaders and it goes to the people who own television stations. And it goes to political consultants who are hired guns who after the election is over will go back to Washington, have a few drinks, and if their candidate won, say that I did it all and this is how much money I made from him. And if he loses it's because the jerk wouldn't listen to what I told him to do. In every aspect the system is corrupt and yet the American people worry about whether some basketball player form the University of Massachusetts or Georgetown took a ride home from a scout from the NBA or whatnot. It's hard to imagine how we got ourselves into this hole. But we're in it and no one seems to be inclined to climb out and you can't climb out because it's so damn slimy.

We, for whatever reason, are getting what we pay for. And we are paying for people who, without shame, can go to the country, butter them up one side, charm them down the other, promise to be all things to all men, to do all things, call each other thieves and goniffs and rascals of the worst kind. When half of them win, and then, one: expect the American people to trust them, while they are, two: not keeping promises which were unkeepable to begin with. And yet year after year, election after election, we let it go on.

FL: At what point does a politician's private life become part of the conversation, at what point should it be part of, that. Does it ever become relevant to you?


I do think that the private lives and the sex lives, if that's part of it, do become relevant at times. And most particularly their health. Because we can go back to the fact that Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated for 2 or 3 years while he was President of the United States. That should have been a felony for his second wife who, with other people, was trying to run the country by lying about his health. So there are points there. Obviously if a President's wife or son or mother turned out to be an agent of a foreign government or an industry or whatnot, I think that would be relevant. And also if in their pursuit of happiness, of private pleasure, politicians either show such arrogance or such stupidity, that you really have to question their judgment to the point that you would not be able to trust any serious matter to them at all. I think that those are probably about where the line should be drawn, but clearly the lines are much lower now.

The threshold of private life is much lower. Partly because we can use words like character issue, and also partly because our politicians are not the elite they once were. And the best example of that would be Gary Hart and to a certain extent, Bill Clinton. Who are not rich men, who are not from great families, who really came from nowhere in a way. And they tried to play like the big boys. Well, Nelson Rockefeller, John Kennedy were rich men and had long driveways. You can't clock who comes in and out of the Kennedy house, nor can you a Rockefeller house. But Gary Hart, living in a little townhouse, and the Miami Herald could sit on his stoop and check the time when Donna Rice went in and when she came out and whatnot. And Clinton with his troubles with the state troopers back in Arkansas, the same kind of thing. He did not have either that old ethic of rich men can do whatever they want or the protections. They're built in life being rich. So that in a way part of the kind of sordidness we now see has to do with the democratization. It has to do with the fact that anyone can become President.

FL: As the biographer of Kennedy and someone who has written about Clinton you haven't said that there is this one thing they share which is this hyperactive libido.


Looking at Kennedy for a long time, and knowing Clinton, I'm not greatly disturbed by their private life, by their sex life. I might be somewhat concerned by the cruelty that could be to members of their family, including their wives and whatnot, but that doesn't mean that they don't have secrets that should not be revealed to the American people. We all have something to hide but most of us are not trying to be President. And in Kennedy's case what was hidden from the public and should have disqualified him from the Presidency, was the fragile nature of his health. We had a man who was living on pharmaceuticals as President during those years. He looked like a god but he was a very sick man. But here comes somewhere a line beyond which it's none of our business. And at least in my mind Clinton seems pretty healthy although he's never released his health records which if I had to make a wild guess I'd say it has to do with depression after his defeat after his first term as Governor. If that's the case, I think the public has a right to know. I don't think the public has a right to know anything about Paula Jones, and I don't think Paula Jones has any right to any taxpayer's or anybody else's money. I mean a full grown woman who goes to a hotel room at 12:30 at night, or says she did or whatever, well that's her problem not mine.

FL: Do you think that election was a defining experience for Clinton?


I've always been fascinated by losing politicians, and have been stunned to find out how difficult it is to put yourself up for public approval and then be rejected. And I've interviewed many of them, written about many of them. People who couldn't function for a year. And the fact that Bill Clinton has never released his medical records, I have always thought rightly or wrongly, has to do with being depressed after he lost the 1980 election for Governor of Arkansas. And was sitting staring at a wall or whatever one does after they've put their powers of seduction up for public grab and the public has rejected it. So I think that information should have come out, or should come out. But some of the other stuff I could care less.

FL: The Clintons seem to press the buttons of the press. The press has been very tough on them from the get go. Why?


I think that Clinton and the press, everybody, was headed for trouble after that campaign because Clinton was pretty successful at seducing a lot of the press and we were in bed with this guy. But of course then, he got out of bed and went on to bigger things, and foolishly on his part, rubbed it in by saying he really didn't need the establishment press because he had Oprah, because he had Larry King, because he had Arsenio Hall. Well, that was great until he got into the White House and then he found out that Oprah doesn't cover the budget. He almost had become I think, with many reporters, one of our own. So there was that natural kind of feeling of envy when he rose above the crowd to what is the highest office really on the planet. And I think some reporters even thought, "Well why not me? I'm as smart as Bill Clinton." But apparently we aren't.

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