the clinton years

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interview: paul begala
What was the atmosphere like when they were prepping for that 60 Minutes? This is high stakes, Super Bowl Sunday. He's never going to have an audience like this in the campaign.

It was terrible. It was terrible. It was very, very, very emotional. People were crying. James was weeping piteously. It was just a horrible thing for people to have to go through, to defend their marriage on national television. And yet, given what had happened, given the media scrutiny, that's what they had to do....

Was there a real worry among those of you who were high up in the campaign, that this could be it? That the campaign could end right here and now?

Yeah. George was most dark. It's his nature, and I'm sure he'll tell you this. I'm very sunny. You know, I'm always optimistic. I was worried. Really more than that though I was just torn up to see what they as a couple were having to go through. Nobody likes to see that, and it's uncomfortable. I don't like being a voyeur, looking into other people's marriages.

But I'm always optimistic. At that time we were at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston, and I went and bought a shirt there. It says "Ritz Carlton, Boston." And I remember telling Mandy Grunwald, "I'm going to wear this shirt at the convention on the night he's nominated, because I think we're going to survive this and I think he's going to be the nominee." And sure enough, I did....

Was there a failure to recognize that the Social Security nanny thing could be a problem, or what do you think it was?

Oh, I think so. The goal posts keep moving. And, you know, sometimes that's as it should be. This had never been a problem before in a prior administration, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't a legitimate objection at that time in that administration. It's one of the things that the next president is going to have to realize too, that there are no fixed rules in this game, that they keep changing every time....

The other thing that got the administration off on shaky footing was gays in the military. And as I recall, you had some specific advice. I mean, you really wanted Clinton to hold off here.

...It was Veterans Day, and he had laid a wreath on a veteran's memorial at Little Rock. As he was walking away, Andrea Mitchell, is my recollection, shouted out to him, "Are you going to keep your promise to put gays in the military?"

Well, that was just the right formulation. At that point people in the press were starting to say, "Clinton is going to break all of his many campaign promises," and so he flashed on it... The right answer is the answer he gave to Ted Koppel the day after the election when he said, "No, I'm going to focus like a laser beam on the economy. Once we get this economy growing, I will address other pressing needs. But if you want to know my priorities, I'm going to focus like a laser beam on the economy." But instead he said, "You bet. I'm going to keep that promise and all of them right away." And you know, he just dove into it....

Was it also a political stumble just on the part of the White House staff?...

Yeah. I think the hardest thing in these things is focus. The night before the election, on that long trip that Nightline came along with, I went back and sat down next to David Gergen, who was covering the campaign then with US News. I said, "I want to have a confidential off-the-record conversation with you, David. How did Reagan keep the focus on the economy when he got started?" And he told me this wonderful story about how Al Haig, as secretary of state in the Reagan Administration, at the beginning had come up with some new anti-drug strategy. He was getting kudos for it in the paper, and he was getting praised on the Hill. And Gergen said Jim Baker, the Chief of Staff under Reagan, called him in and said, "If I see any more of your drug stories in the paper, I'm going to fire you." And I said, "Well, why?" And he said, "Because Baker understood that the one job they had at the start was passing the Reagan economic plan."

Well, that was like turning on a light. I'm a person who craves clarity. I am a reductionist. I want to do one thing. I loved hearing that story, and I related it back to the governor that night. "This is what you need to do. This is how Gergen said Reagan did it." And getting off that focus was an enormous mistake. It's very easy to do because the president can't only do one thing at a time, and that's something I didn't understand. A candidate can restrict himself to one thing, and a president cannot. Things happen.

Those first few weeks was it just too much going on? There was also a lot written that the staff was new, that they were young, that they were in blue jeans, that they weren't like any other staff Washington had seen.

They always say that. The truth is, they were no younger than the staff that other presidents had brought in. If you look at Ted Sorenson in the Kennedy Administration, if you look at Dick Cheney, who was the chief of staff to the president of the United States at age 31, they were fine in terms of age. It's just that they were a little younger than some of the reporters they were covering. No, I think it's just a lack of focus, and I think everybody who was around that has to share some responsibility for that....

One of the first substantive debates that goes on within the White House is that on the deficit plan. There is the economic team, which is adamant that you've got to reduce the deficit first, and then there is a political team which is much more interested in programs that you felt you had promised during the election. Where did you come out on that and how disappointed were you at hearing about all this emphasis on cutting the deficit?

My view was that the campaign had been a sacred thing, that it had been a real compact, because I was there and I saw the connection that Clinton made with people, and the connection that they made with him. And I felt [this bond] very personally, and I know the president did too. So I had this, I think now naive notion, that you would just then get out your campaign book and start on page one, and leaf through and enact everything until you got to page 228. Well, you know, it turns out it doesn't quite work that way, and people who had been around the block a few times tried to explain it, but ... I was loathe to see those campaign promises altered in any way.

...Bob Rubin, speaking for the economic team, said, "I don't know anything about the politics, but I know if you take care of this deficit as a matter of the first order of magnitude, it will help the economy enormously." And Clinton weighed that in the balance, and God love him, this most political of presidents, turned aside the political advice and went with the better economic advice....

There was a sense among some on Capitol Hill, Democrats as well as Republicans, early in the administration, that you could roll this president, that he would cave in to special interests, on appointments. That he caved in on gays in the military and that he was so eager to please that he was a pushover.

Right. And I think even to state it now, you have to smile, because it seems so preposterous to me.

But at the time.

It was very much the case at the beginning of this presidency people thought, "We can roll this guy." They mistook his exuberance, his southern geniality, his desire to please everyone and want to be liked by everyone, and to build bipartisan coalitions for weakness. And that always amused him, because I think he had a sense that he was a pretty resilient guy, a pretty tough guy. But he was deeply interested in trying to get things done. And if that meant trimming a little away from the absolute purity of the holy grail of the campaign promises, that was okay. And if people like me didn't like it, that was okay with him. When he made his decision and he said, "You get behind this," I said "Yes, sir."

...Before he became chief of staff, Mack McLarty went and met with all the former chiefs of staff, and he told me that Jim Baker had said to him, "There's nothing in your life that can prepare you for this, Mack. You may have run a Fortune 500 company, you may have owned a number of auto dealerships, and been a successful businessman, been a politician, state party chairman. Nothing will prepare you for this except doing it." And that was a very wise observation. And it's just like anything, any new job. The longer the president stayed at it, the better he got at it, but nobody can master the White House in the first 6 months. It is just an impossible task.

In May of '93 the president is trying to sell his economic plan, and a decision is made to get him out of the White House, and you go along with him on that trip. Why is it important at this point to get out? Does he want to get out personally? What's behind this?

He wanted to get out personally. I wanted him to get out. I believe then and now that his greatest strength was this really deep mystical bond that he had with ordinary Americans. I used to remind him of the old Greek myth of ... some great force who could only be defeated I think by Hercules picking him off the ground. When he lost touch with the ground is when he lost his power and was easily crushed. And I used to say, "That's you. If you're not in touch with the grass roots, man, you're going to be dead." And so to sell his economic plan, he pushed it as hard as he could on the Hill, but I thought and he agreed, that he needed to be out there in the country.

You dealt with [the Whitewater investigation] a little bit as a spin meister. What was the thinking? I mean, what were you trying to do to get out on Whitewater when it breaks again?

Well, I'm trying to understand why this became a story again.... My sense of Clinton and his wife were they were among the least materialistic people I had ever met. I couldn't imagine them cutting corners to make a buck.... He seemed supremely disinterested in money, as did his wife. So I never really thought there was ever going to be very much there.

... It taught me something that I believed then and now -- that from day one, there was an attempt on the part of a few on the fringe to delegitimize the Clinton presidency. Dick Armey was the Republican leader in the Congress, and he stood on the House floor in the first year of Clinton's term and said, "He's not our president." He pointed to the Democrats, and he said, "He's your president." ... That was a level of contempt for democracy that I found startling. I didn't like anything Reagan did, but I never remember a Democrat saying "Ronald Reagan is not our president." And so I really believed then, all the way to this day, that there are a small few on the fringe who just still believe that Clinton's not really president, so therefore, anything they do to attack him is okay....

The president tried to sell the health care plan to joint session of Congress. Tell us about writing that speech and what happens. I guess you guys were up most of the night writing.

Oh, yes, typical Clinton speech fest, where several people had concocted a bunch of drafts and worked all night and tried to get it just right. With him the editing process goes all the way till he's on the podium. And he will be riding in the car going over there with his left hand changing things. George Stephanopoulos, David Dreyer and I were with him, and I had printed copies of the speech. David Dreyer had the disk that it was on. So I went over to go make copies so that the members of Congress could have the printed copy of the last draft, which was a close approximation. And then Dreyer went and had them load it into the teleprompter. Unbeknownst to us, the teleprompter operators needed something to practice with, so that they could make sure that the screens were at the right height, so they loaded in last year's economic speech.

So the president gets up there, and he looks out at the screen and he sees it says "William Jefferson Clinton, Address to Joint Session of Congress, A New Beginning for the American Economy." And he turns to Gore and he says, "Al, they've got the wrong speech up there." Gore says, "No, no, that's not possible." So Gore kind of looks down so he can see, and he calls George over and tells him, and they go through holy hell to try to find the speech.

Afterwards I asked Clinton, "What was going through your mind? I've got to know." First I went and apologized. I had played a role in that. I was terribly sorry. I wanted to make sure he knew that I felt responsible for it. He was utterly forgiving, not at all angry. I said, "What did it feel like? What was going through your mind?" And he said, "Well, I stood up there, I saw it was the wrong speech, and I thought, 'Well, Lord, I guess you're testing me.' Okay, here goes." Now we had given him a backup text, but it was too small for him to read without his glasses. We had taken his glasses out of his pocket so there wouldn't be an unsightly bulge for the TV cameras. So the poor guy is up there alone and naked on the most complex public policy issue, a fairly complex bill. Worse than that, the teleprompter screens are whizzing forward and backwards with last year's speech, trying to find it. Finally, they killed it all together and reloaded it. Nine minutes the guy went without a note, and no one could tell. It was a phenomenal. It's part of the Clinton legend...

[In 1993 the Clintons were unhappy with their political consultants.] Why?

Because we were not winning in selling our economic plan, and it was everything to him. Now we had a focus too. By July of '93, he was not the "gays in the military" president. He had a singular mission. A vote is coming in August, and here it is the beginning of July, and we don't have our ducks in a row. We didn't have a good message defined. I don't think we had the right Hill strategy. I don't think we had anything set in place properly, and he enunciated that very clearly to us.

So we went to work. McLarty decided that we were going to have a special team organized in a boiler room that Roger Altman would lead, senior guy from the Treasury Department, one of the smartest people I know both politically and economically. And then I was the sort of the Democratic Party guy there, and Gene Sperling and a whole bunch of other people all took time off from everything else and worked full time to pass that plan. And it worked. Sometimes you need that. Sometimes leadership requires, you know, knocking heads together as well as putting heads together...

[In] August '94 Kenneth Starr takes over. What's the thinking at the White House when he takes over from Fiske?

Well, I know the thinking at Carville's office, because I was working with him. Right away he said, "I've met this guy." And I can remember several months before James coming back from a trip and saying, "You ever heard of a guy named Ken Starr?" And I said, "Yeah, I've heard of him. He's a respected judge... Why?" And [Carville] said, "He just came up to me in the airport and said, "Your guy Clinton is going to go down and he's no good." I was surprised to hear that. Still I thought he was still a judge. I didn't know he was a private lawyer by then.

And then Carville never mentioned it again. So when Starr wound up being the Independent Counsel, James was furious, because he believed that Starr never did like Clinton, and made that very plain. My recollection is that the White House told him to lay off and to not do anything about it because they didn't think that was the sort of proper posture to be in....

What was Clinton thinking at this time [in 1994] when Greenberg comes in and says, "Mr. President, here are the polls. They don't look good. You could lose the House and the Senate for the first time in decades."

My recollection is that his reaction was, "We've got to do more. We've got to campaign harder. We've got to get out there more." I mean, he's a very proactive person. I don't remember a specific response, but that was the general sense, "Well, we've got to try harder. We've got to do more. We've got to push harder."...

What was his mood election day, '94, when Gingrich and the Republican majority take over?

Pretty somber, pretty reflective, not angry. [He was] trying to begin to grapple with it, to grope around for "Okay, what do we do now? How do we react to this? How do we handle this?"...

So what happens there, the president kind of changes political teams after '94, that's the fallout?

Yeah. And you know, I don't think that was an irrational choice at all. So then I made my choice. This may not be fair to Dick Morris, by the way, who I've only met once in my whole life back in 1985. But I just didn't want to go, frankly, be second banana on somebody else's team. So I decided I'd go back to Texas, go into the PR business with old friends of mine and teach at the University of Texas.

And the president couldn't have been nicer or more supportive, wanting me to stay, wanting me to be part of the team. But you know, just I thought the time was right for me to get out of Washington and go back to Texas. I think it's one of the best decisions I ever made....

What brought you back [in August of 1997]?

Bill Clinton. I couldn't tell him no. I had gone in '96 to help prepare him for the debates. Erskine Bowles had been on the staff and was back in North Carolina. Clinton had asked Erskine to run the debate prep session. Erskine called me and asked me to help. Well, I was happy to help. I never stopped loving Bill Clinton. I don't think he ever stopped loving me. So I went there, and one of his friends pulled me aside and said, "I think George is going to leave after the campaign, and I think he wants you to come up and take his job." And that was in about October of '96. I said, "No way in hell." Actually, I used stronger language than that. Well, by June of '97 he had talked me into it, and I was happy to do it.

What did the president say to you?

He said, "You need the excitement, and I need the help." He said, "I want some people around here who I know and trust who are old friends. You're down there in Austin, you're having fun, and you're teaching at the university, but that's not enough excitement for you. I know you, Begala. You need to come back here. Come do this with me."

And he knew that I wanted to try my hand at adult work -- that is not just being a party hack anymore but working on the White House staff on serious matters of policy, to see if I was up to that. So he offered me a chance to do that, and I took it....

So in '97, what is your main legislative mission in that fall?

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. 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. 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....

That Wednesday morning, [when you read about the Monica Lewinsky allegations] what happened?

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 you can imagine. 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. 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. You just buckle your chin strap, and you think, "Okay, I wonder what this is all about."

And what happened [when you saw the president that day]?

Well, I'm not willing to go into conversations with him, but it's fair enough to let you know what he said to the American people. "That this all is not true," is what he said to me, and no other details. His lawyers had told him he couldn't discuss it at all. I found that very frustrating, but that seemed to be a pretty absolute rule.

There was a difficulty that arose here between the political folks like yourself and the lawyers. Why?

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 you're told 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. You'd be there in front of the grand jury. And so he was never allowed to be candid with his staff....

[When you found out the president had lied about his relationship with Lewinsky] you made a choice that you weren't going to go on television and defend him.

That's right. I didn't feel like I could. He had told me something that had turned out not to be true. I mean, it's not the first friend who's ever disappointed me, but it was the first friend that ever disappointed me that I wound up on national television discussing. So I just thought, "I am not going to serve his purposes well by going out there and defending him any more on television," and so I stopped.... I was candid about it. I said, "I don't feel like I'm in a very good position to defend him."...

Did he ever apologize to you personally?

Yes, but I don't want to get into that. That's too personal, and it's a private conversation with him. He asked for my forgiveness. I try hard to be a good Catholic. My faith teaches me that it is my obligation to forgive someone who asks forgiveness, and so I do. And it does not come easily. I'd be a better Christian if I told you it was an easy thing. It's a difficult thing. But yeah, he asked for it, and I've given it....

You were working hard on the speech [the day he testified before the grand jury], and there was a great tug of war over the kind of tone the president was going to set.... It's been widely reported that you advocated a more conciliatory tone. People have said that on the record.

That's been widely reported. Yeah, I mean that's true. 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 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...

Was there a point there where you thought this presidency is finished?

Yeah. When he had to call in air strikes, which I was not privy to until the decision was made. I didn't spend a lot of time on national security the American people will be glad to know. But when I was told the decision has been made, and the president's writing a speech, they need you to review the speech, and he's going to launch air strikes, I thought, "This may be more than the country can handle. This may be more than the Congress can handle."...

Give us a sense of what those few days were like.

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 trip 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....

Was there a sense that the president was isolated from others in the staff [during the Lewinsky matter]?

That whole experience was terribly isolating because there was this enormous elephant in our living room that you could not talk about except in the most elliptical ways. You know, Mike McCurry would get 50 questions on it, and the answers would always be either, "Talk to the president's lawyers about this," or "I have nothing to add to what the president has already said." And that's about all you could say. So most of the time you're actually back on the regular business.

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. ... I wanted to make sure that the people had the sense that Clinton was not focused on this Lewinsky scandal entirely. [It] obviously was a major preoccupation and an enormous distraction, but the business of the government goes on. And maybe in an odd way, the fact that he wasn't able to talk to us about it kept him from obsessing on it or kept us from obsessing on it. We actually went for long stretches where we got real work done. ... He passed a major school class size initiative, a child care initiative, a children's health initiative. He delivered the biggest budget surplus in American history. He actually clocked the Republicans on most of the legislative fights that he engaged on. But it was all overshadowed in the press....

When did you become convinced that he would survive and would not be thrown from office?

I think, you know, once he came clean, and particularly once people saw that videotape, people said, "Well, okay." It was the worst case scenario, right? He really had had an affair and he really had lied about it, and yet it was not a crime, and people, they didn't move an inch. Before the whole Lewinsky thing started, to the end, Clinton's job approval hadn't moved a point. Not a point, for how many billions of dollars of negative advertising, comparatively speaking, free press, [it] didn't move a point. At the beginning, people [said] "He's a good president, but a flawed man." Even before they heard of Monica Lewinsky. They finished at the end saying, "He's a damned good president, but a flawed man." ...

What do you see different about [the president] in this last year or so?

Oh, he gets occasionally wistful about the time that he's had in the White House and how wonderful it's been. He is an utterly optimistic person. I don't think he's bitter at all. I don't get that sense. He gets that from his mother. My last conversation with his mother was about this topic of bitterness, and that's what she said to me... She said, "You must never be bitter. That's the ultimate failure in life is to become bitter." And if she told me that, I'm sure she told her son that every day of his life.

You say he's been wistful lately.

A little wistful. I mean, I think he misses it, and I've talked to him about it... He loves the job. He absolutely loves it, and for all that he's been through, he'd go back and do it again in a heartbeat, absolutely, and he's going to miss it desperately.

Now, when he gets out of that wistful mode, he's still dominating the agenda. And this is an astonishing thing. Again, President Reagan was sort of an amiable presence out at the ranch by the last 6 months of his presidency. He had no effect on national policy at all. Here is Bill Clinton -- gives an hour and ten minute long State of the Union address, packed with issues, every one of which is now dominating the presidential campaign and the congressional season.

On top of that, he's a fair bet to get nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize again, both for what he's done Ireland and in the Middle East. Since I've left he's waged and won a war in Kosovo in the teeth of horrific partisan opposition, the likes we've never seen during wartime. So I think he's been stunningly successful. So the big notion that somehow this impeachment was a blot on him, I think that's a bunch of bull. I think that his conduct, his affair, and his lies [are] a terrible blot on him, but the impeachment is a blot on the Republicans who pursued it. I don't think any sensible American believes that impeaching the president is the proper recourse for adultery and lying. I view that impeachment as a blot on the Republicans, and I view my role in helping to win that acquittal as one of the most honorable things I've ever done in my life. Not for someone who had lied to me, but for the constitution of the country that I love.

Clinton's legacy?

I think he will be seen as a stunningly successful president. I think people today in journalism have no idea. Here's my standard. Did you do what you set out to do? Did you keep your promises to the American people?

When I traveled around with him in the country, these are the promises he made: he said, "I'll revive the economy." 22 million jobs later, this is the best economy in the history of the world, in the history of capitalism, the finest economic situation any people have ever had. He said, "I'll reduce the deficit by half." I thought that was a little optimistic over-promising in the campaign. He's more than reduced it. He's now going to pay down the national debt if the Republicans don't squander it away in a tax cut.

He said, "I'll end welfare as we know it." Mission accomplished. He said, "I'll put 100,000 cops on the street and cut crime." The lowest crime rate in 30 years. He said, "I'll expand trade and be a new kind of Democrat, passing a free trade deal with Mexico and then later with China."

Mission accomplished on every critical juncture, except health care, where he promised national health insurance. But he did deliver on that [with] the Kennedy-Kassebaum Bill, which lets you take your health insurance with you, that keeps you from being denied for a pre-existing condition. He passed and signed the Kennedy-Jeffords Bill, which helps disabled people get health care. He passed a children's health initiative that insures 5 million poor children.

What did he promise? What did he set out to do in the most grandiose over-promising campaign you ever saw? And what has he delivered now, 8 years hence? I tell you, it's the most successful presidency since FDR, maybe LBJ if he hadn't had Vietnam, but if you look at what the man set out to do and what he accomplished, stack him up against anybody....

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