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clinton with blumenthal, mccurry & begala (4.30.1998)CHAPTER 5: 1997-1999 INAUGURATION TO IMPEACHMENT Clinton began his second term with optimism and with his eyes set on building a bridge to the twenty-first century.  However, he stumbled over a recurring impediment -- an accusation of sexual impropriety.
Repairing the Breach

The President and the Intern

Taking Care of Business

Speaking his Mind

Repairing the Breach
When the president began his second term he vowed that he would work to move beyond "the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship," which had plagued him for the better part of his first four years in office. But he was not given much of a chance to do so.

Podesta: As you know, late 1995 and then into 1996 was a period of great partisanship in the country, with the government shutdown, et cetera. And I think he wanted to move the country out of that period and into one in which we could work together between parties to get something done for the country.

Shalala: We were feeling pretty good by 1997 about the direction we were moving the country in.... We were beginning to see major trends in this country being affected by Clinton administration policies. Teenage pregnancy rates were starting to come down. The use of drugs and tobacco by young people was beginning to stabilize. Immunization rates were up and we had a major impact on the health of children. So while we're balancing the budget, all of the things that we had in place in '93, '94, '95, '96, while all this other stuff was going on, we're beginning to have an effect on the quality of people's lives.

McCurry: There was some sense that you really were redefining the center of the Democratic Party. That goes back to the president having said, "The era of big government is over." But a real sense that the Democrats finally owned the issue of fiscal discipline and could legitimately portray themselves as a party that knew how to use government, but knew how to use it prudently. The times in which you could really tag the Democratic Party with the label "big spender," "tax and spender," that was going to really go by the wayside, because we had demonstrated that a Democratic president, a Democratic White House would work to balance the budget.

There were several moments where it kind of struck everybody that we had redefined the center of gravity in the Democratic Party for the better, for the future.

Podesta: And I think that the 1997 balanced budget agreement, which contained so many of the president's initiatives, was part of that. But I think more fundamentally, I think he was also talking about the great challenge of building, as he would say, one America. Bringing people of different races, people of different sexual orientations together all around one table, and to build one America, which was, as he noted, the country's strength, not its weakness, especially in this globalized world. And I think he wanted to make much of his second term oriented towards that, both domestically and around the world.

Morris: And ultimately, the deal that he offered to the Republicans in '95 and '96 was the same as the one they accepted in '97. We just had to go through an election, and they had to learn the reality that they couldn't get their way on everything.

Begala: Well, what I worked on a lot with John Podesta was trying to repair some of the relationships with Hill Democrats. I had worked for Dick Gephardt on the Hill, and -- I love Dick. I'm still very close to him and a lot of other Democrats. I had worked on campaigns for Democrats in the Senate, so I had pretty good relationships there. And it was really Podesta who took the lead on this though.

But once a week, every week, every Friday, we -- John and I, Rahm Emanuel, a few others, Ann Lewis -- we would get in a car and go down to Capitol Hill. And we would meet with the senior staff of the Senate Democratic leaders or the House Democratic leader and hash through, "Here's where we stand." Now, that seems pretty elemental, but my understanding was that relationships had been badly, badly frayed.

The President and the Intern
For a White House that had dealt with an enormous amount of scandal, nothing could compare to January 1998 when news broke about the president and a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Talk soon moved from sex in the Oval Office to perjury and obstruction of justice.

McCurry: Tuesday night, we hear that the Post is going to go with the story that the three-judge court has authorized this new line of inquiry for the Independent Counsel's Office and it revolves around these allegations about a relationship with a young intern.

Begala: I get up very early. I used to go in at 5:30 or 6:00 so I could run. So I pick up the newspaper off the front step, and I mean, it's -- you can imagine, I mean, I felt like I was hit with a two-by-four in the solar plexus. I mean, my stomach was in knots, I was sick to my stomach. You know, but you go --I got in the car, went down to the White House, went for my usual run, listened to Imus in the Morning tee off on this, a little taste of things to come. And you just, you buckle your chin strap, and you think, "Okay, I wonder what this is all about."

McCurry: Well, I remember this. It's sort of the quality of being in a state of disbelief, you know, because just nobody believed it. The human instinct is sort of to say, "Well, that can't possibly be true. That's more sludge from [Internet columnist Matt] Drudge." You know, that was the instant take on the story. So, we kind of marched off looking for the ammunition we needed to knock the story down and, of course, it just didn't come.

Lockhart: There was very little discussion that day -- in fact, probably no discussion of the merits of the allegations or the story. We, through a fluke of scheduling, had three interviews scheduled that day as advancers to the State of the Union... and my focus was to make sure that he was ready for those interviews.

So a very small group gathered in his private dining room. The interesting thing about it was these meetings, getting the president ready for interviews, people used to fight to get into. On this day, there was a very small group of people who showed up. There was no big fuss at the door....

How did the president seem that day?

Lockhart: I think that was one thing that was a little -- which made this a little more serious. You know, not quite as sure-footed as he normally was when there was some sensational story and --

What was the difference on this?

Lockhart: Well, I think the difference was this wasn't just sort of blowing off steam -- "This is crazy, you know, why are they doing this?" I think there was some worry. But I'm not sure that I was able to at the time or contemporaneously really understand it.

McCurry: And we kept asking lawyers and others, "Well, where is the strong denial?" You know, we need to have a very strong denial. And, of course, the president as he struggled with the story the day that it broke went through a lot of contorted answers in three interviews that he gave that day in which there were questions about which verb tense he had used because he considered there "is" no relationship. You know, it's just we were all looking at each other saying, you know, "He didn't deny it strongly enough."

We didn't listen carefully as a staff. I think if we had listened more carefully initially the way the president struggled with the answer, warning lights would have went off and we would have said, you know, "We got to be very, very careful here." ...

You know, you can't talk about it. It's embarrassing. Nobody wants to talk about it and yet you have to kind of come up with some kind of denial. And once the signal from the president was that he was denying the story, then we said, "Well, then you've got to get in there and deny the thing with every ounce of energy you've got." And of course, that was bad, bad advice. He got that advice, you know, obviously from more than several of us.

Morris: I was on a subway in New York, on the way to visit a friend of mine. And my pager went off, and I glanced down, and I thought the pager was busted. You know, it was the old phone number, the president's personal line. And you know, that hadn't gone off for a while, and I sort of thought maybe there was a mistake. And then I realized that he was calling about the Lewinsky matter, which had just surfaced in the press....

And I did a poll that night, and I called him back late that night. And I said, "Well, they'll forgive the adultery, but they won't forgive the lying. They won't forgive that you didn't talk about it in the deposition." And I went through the numbers with him, and it was very clear at that point that the shock of the fact that the president was having a relationship with this young woman in the White House was so severe that, combined with the idea that he had lied about it in the deposition, would just have blown up his administration.

So my hope at that point was that he would gradually let the truth out over the periods of weeks that were following; that he would gradually sensitize the public to the truth. Now, I didn't know what the truth was at that point. All I knew was he had told me, "I did something, but not what they say I did." I in my wildest dreams never imagined that he was hanging that distinction on two different kinds of sex, but he was, apparently. But I didn't know what he had done, but I knew that there was something there.

So I was hoping that he would sort of let the public down gently. He interpreted the poll numbers as being that he had to stonewall. And he said, "Well, we just have to win; don't we?"

Begala: Well, it was this horrible hybrid crisis, in part political and in part legal. And the political people felt like, well, we should be handling this, and the political response is, of course, put everything out, get out there and get it behind you, and move on with your life.

Well, lawyers are trained in a different way. They're trained to fight on every count and to reveal as little as possible, and to protect their client from giving out any information that could be helpful to a legal adversary. And they're pretty darned irreconcilable worldviews. At the end of the day, it was more of a legal matter in that there really was a grand jury looking into it, there really was a special prosecutor looking into it.

And so, when you're told if the president -- even if the president did tell you about this, all it would do is make you a witness in a legal matter and make it impossible for you to advise him any more anyway, and you'd be there in front of the grand jury. And so he was never allowed to be candid with his staff.

Taking Care of Business
Throughout the frenzy and turmoil of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton's famed compartmentalization was put to its strongest test. Clinton had to attend to the business of the presidency while he simultaneously dealt with a very public scandal about his private life.

Podesta: I think that one of the reasons that the American public stuck with the president was that he was able to do that and we were able to keep our focus on the people's business. He was able to both keep working on the issues that were important to the public. During that year, for example, we did a trip to China, which proved to be an enormously important trip, which I think laid the foundation for establishing a different relationship with China that ultimately led to the vote we just had recently on permanent normal trade relations with China.

f my memory serves me, the Good Friday accords occurred during that spring, so we were focused on the peace process in Northern Ireland. We were still trying to get our budget priorities through the Congress, which in the end of the day, we did a pretty good job on. So I think the people in the White House who weren't primarily charged with working on this were, in fact, charged with trying to do the people's business. And there was a certain camaraderie that developed. I think people stayed, people worked hard, and we developed a kind of tough hide and a pretty good sense of humor-

You were in the trenches together.

Podesta: And we were in the trenches together. And I think people felt like we were still getting things done. We were still on the right side from the public's perspective. And my sense is that the public kind of sensed that and respected it.

clinton with tony blair Begala: This gets back to the fundamental lesson of political survival that Bill Clinton taught me, which is if you make it about the American people's lives instead of your life, you're going to be okay.

McCurry: You know, we had practical decisions we made and this was true throughout the whole period of 1998. There was a government to run. We had jobs to do. You know, we were not appointed by the president, nor was the president elected by the American people to dwell on this very awkward personal story, this matter that was really about Bill Clinton, the man. It wasn't about Bill Clinton the president. So, all of us had to kind of remember that we still had to get up and show up, report for duty and do the work that the American people expected of us everyday. That's how you get through something like that. You just don't get wrapped up personally in the story. You go ahead and do the work that needs to get done.

Rubin: I can remember a meeting we had at Blair House, at a time when the whole impeachment matter was in a boil, and he had about 50 or so members of Congress -- half senators, half representatives, half Republicans, half Democrats. We discussed Social Security, and it was in a meeting that he led. And it was a remarkable discussion.

And he pursued the various intricacies of Social Security reform as if there was nothing else happening around, in an effort to move that process forward, even though quite a number of the participants in that meeting were people who basically wanted to see him impeached. And that, to me, was an example of the tremendous commitment to and effectiveness of what he was doing, despite these vast external pressures. I developed a great respect for how he handled that whole situation.

Shalala: You know, he probably had more energy for the substantive issues, was more focused when we came in to talk to him about policy issues, than I've ever seen him. And I'm not talking about compartmentalization. I'm talking about the kind of intensity that he brought to the issues. We got a lot of work done. And he was very focused on getting things done and didn't expect the rest of us to chat with him about anything else. But he was focused on policy, in my case, on kids and on what we wanted to do with the health care system.

  • See the N.Y. Times collection of video and audio on Clinton's impeachment

  • Speaking His Mind
    After it became clear that the president did, in fact, have a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the debate in the White House was whether he should address the nation, what he should say and how he should say it.

    McCurry: Several of us talked to the president not long after he concluded his testimony. And the question we were dealing with at that point was, "Do you want to go ahead and give this address to the country tonight?" And he was very adamant that he did. I think he wanted some sense of finishing this awful day and getting on with his life and getting on to vacation with his family. And he wanted some finality to it. So, he wanted to give that speech.

    Again, I think that's where we probably had not served him particularly well, because we didn't know the degree of frustration and anger that went into that deposition. You could see it much more clearly later when it became public. But at that time, because we hadn't participated in it, we really didn't know except for the read of his legal team how difficult it had been. I think knowing that, we probably would have advised against trying to give a very important address to the country....

    The president's anger about what he felt he had been put through led him to really want to address the other side of the coin, in a sense. "What was the nature of this prosecution and the people who had been trying to get me?" There wasn't a big debate in the White House, because really by the time it did boil down to the two or three people he was dealing with, he was again sort of determined to say what he wanted to say.

    You know, it's interesting for all the talk about how Clinton is guided by the spinmeisters and the cabala of advisors and that sort of thing, this was a completely unvarnished version of what the president wanted to say. He knew he had to account for his own behavior but he really wanted to get off his chest some of the anger he felt about the quality of the Starr investigation and it was very genuine.

    Podesta: I think that there was-- I think he was dealing with anger about the way the course of this whole independent counsel matter had taken. He was dealing with the anger of what I think he thought and I think is -- was a politically motivated lawsuit, which was the underpinning of this, the Paula Jones lawsuit, and which was thrown out. But I think that in retrospect it probably was a mistake to talk about that and let that be his message to the American people, because I think his message to the American people was that "I made a mistake and I want to move past it and continue to try to be a good president."

    Begala: I'm no great fan of how Judge Starr conducted his investigation, but I didn't think that was the time or the place to lodge those complaints. But you know, I hadn't been through what he had been through that day, and I gained a lot of perspective on the day they broadcast that videotape. That changed a lot for me. It gave me a much greater willingness to forgive, frankly, and a much greater understanding for what he had been through.

    In fact, when I watched that tape, it was that day I decided, you know, I can go and defend him again. I'm starting to understand how he felt that way. What he did was wrong. It is always wrong to commit adultery. It is always wrong to lie, period. I'm an absolutist about these things. And then I saw what he had gone through that day and I understood the tone of that speech. I didn't agree with it. I still wouldn't have delivered it the way he did, but I came to more -- to greater understanding.

    During the six months from the delivery of the Starr report to Congress to the acquittal of the president, the White House went through a roller coaster ride, never quite knowing what the next step might be. From the low point in the days immediately after the release of the Starr report, to the upbeat performance in the midterm elections, to a foreign policy crisis just as the House prepared to vote on impeachment, the drama came to a satisfying conclusion for Clinton and his staff when the Senate acquitted the president.

    McCurry: It's kind of the opposite of a primal scream. You couldn't hear a pin drop because everyone was either reading [the Starr report] either online, on the Internet or reading whatever copies of it that were available. It's the quietest I've ever seen the White House, because clearly everyone was reading this document at the same time.

    It was a lot of people walking around shaking their heads in disbelief at the goriness of the detail and some of the choice little items that are sprinkled in and out of that report. It was not an easy read.... It was just written, you know, it was written with prosecutorial zeal, written to convince people that Bill Clinton was unworthy of being president.

    Craig: He knew he was in trouble personally. He was in trouble not only with his family which was, I think, first and foremost his concern.... He had trouble with his cabinet.... He was in trouble with his staff.... I found out even more dramatically later on that he was seriously in trouble with his party members on the Hill. There was not a great fund of personal loyalty that the Democrats in the House felt for the president.

    Lockhart: I don't think we ever got to the point where we felt like something was about to collapse on us, but I don't think anyone was naïve enough to know that there wasn't, you know, a combination of three or four things that could happen in a fairly quick way that would cause intense pressure on Democrats.

    And I think, oddly enough, as is the case all the way through this thing, when things looked the worse, we were saved by the independent counsel. And I think Democrats were so offended by the political way that he referred the charges up to Congress and seemed to try to impose his will, that it became a rallying point in a political debate that played out, you know, that we now call impeachment.... I think everybody understood that this was a very serious and precarious position. And you know, from a political point of view, you know, Starr overplayed his hand at just the right time.

    Craig: They promised that it would be heroic bipartisanship. It was not. They promised that members of the House would be able to vote their consciences. They were not. There were promises made right at the beginning by Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Hyde that of course the House of Representatives would never, ever vote to impeach the president against the wishes of the American people. And they were proceeding to do so.

    And that message of partisanship had swept through the country to the extent that we had done much, much better in the congressional elections than any of us ever expected. Rather than lost 40 seats, which most second-term presidents do in their off year election, he actually gained seats. And so coming out of the election, I think most of us in the White House felt pretty good and that what we had to do was not make mistakes. That we had to continue to pursue the high road that we had tried to pursue. Arguing the case on the constitutional legal standards for impeachment on the evidence. That whatever and however wrong the president had been, that conduct did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

    In the mid-term elections of '98, Democrats did better than expected. Did the president feel that that was going to stop the train?

    Lockhart: I think everybody felt at that point, and the president included, that the country had sent a message, and that, you know, the one thing the members of Congress generally listened to is this kind of message. They came in the next day and there were people who used to have offices who didn't have them anymore. Just like the message that was sent in '94, the '94 midterm elections, that was sent loud and clear to the president.

    So I think the president and many people around assumed that there would have to be some delicate discussions of a way to get out of this, but we were all going to get out of this. I don't know that there was anyone who predicted that on election day or the day after or the day after that, that this would play out through February.

    Begala: Within the space of one week, in December of '98: the president of the United States was impeached by the House of Representatives; the putative speaker of the House of Representatives resigned on national television on the floor of the House; the president called in air strikes against Saddam Hussein in Iraq; the president went to the Middle East for some emergency -- I can't even remember why now -- but some emergency trip to the Middle East to make peace; Lawton Chiles, the governor of Florida, a dear friend of the president's, who the president was trying to hire on to the White House staff as a special ambassador to Latin America, died.

    Describe the president on the day of the House impeachment vote that Saturday.

    Lockhart: Busy. I mean, it was an extraordinary day because impeachment was only one of many things that was going on. We had had an unbelievable week leading up to that with two major things going on in the world coming together. The decision to move forward against Iraq took an enormous amount of time and an enormous amount of energy of the president because, as you remember, we had had sort of the false start in November where the planes were literally within a few minutes of dropping the bombs and had been called back because of the diplomatic maneuver. So going down that track again took a lot of time and effort.

    The impeachment vote in an odd way was a little bit secondary to us because we knew it was going to happen. We knew that every member of Congress was on this. There [were] no undecideds. There was no suspense in it. That doesn't diminish the importance of the event. It doesn't happen very often in this country, thank God.

    How did the president seem?

    Lockhart: Well, he seemed resigned to it. I think at this point we had fully entered the period where he took the mental approach that they can do what they want to me, the only way I can beat them is if I focus on my job and I don't take the bait. And, you know, post-August 17th was when that process started. But by December 19th, that process was pretty much complete.

    Craig: Well, we knew it was happening. We knew it was going to be a very, very difficult day for the president, for the presidency, for history, for the country. And if you recall, we didn't realize exactly how difficult the day was going to be when we started into it. I mean, first of all, we had this very powerful and passionate and emotional speech that the first lady gave to the Democratic members. And then the debate began in the House of Representatives and lo and behold the person who was going to serve as the new Speaker of the House resigned with allegations back and forth about his own personal life. And they had one of those great moments in history, I think, on the floor of the House where the Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt, gave one of the speeches of his career about getting beyond the politics of private and personal lives and putting our nation on a different footing when it came to political debate and discourse.

    So the emotion built and built and built and then when the vote occurred on the issue of whether or not there was going to be an alternative permitted to censure the president, and it was quite clear that the majority was not going to allow people to vote their consciences, the Democrats walked out. That was a very powerful moment. And then the votes occurred.

    The Senate, of course, was an entirely different kind of atmosphere. Were you pretty convinced from the beginning that once impeached you would prevail during the trial in the Senate?

    Craig: I go through my life expecting the worst so that when something better than the worst happens, I'm happily surprised. So I can't tell you that I fully expected vindication. There was no vindication in the Senate. We knew that this was going to be a very difficult, very painful process. And we didn't know how it was going to unfold....

    As the votes came in, I had that same sense that, "Gee, can't we just get to the end and know what the results are going to be?" I was very pleased that so many Republicans recognized that this was not a moment to remove a president, that there was insufficient cause constitutionally to remove a president from office, a publicly and popularly elected president.

    Podesta: He was up in the residence, and we sat together, and it actually-- there was no real sense of relief or certainly happiness. I think it was just this thing -- was over. There was one more thing to do, which was to talk to the American people, to reiterate the fact that he was sorry that he had made a personal mistake, but to say that we got to get back to the people's business. And he had worked on a statement, and he was still working on it.

    And he was still reworking it right until the end. And we just talked a little bit, and he said, "Okay, I'm ready to go." We got up and walked back over to the Oval Office, and he came out and read the statement, I think, by himself, and then we went back to work.

    Craig: But it was clear that there was a huge burden that had been removed from his shoulders and that he was happy that it was over and he could go forward to be the best president he could possibly be.

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