the clinton years

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interview: dee dee myers
James writes about something called the SMO, the standard morning outburst. Stephanopoulos called it "the wave." [I'm] talking about Clinton's temper. How did you see it? Were you ever on the receiving end? Did you ever watch it, and what was it like?

[Laughter.] Yeah. I was fortunate enough not to have to be on the receiving end that often, although anybody who dealt with the press, was perceived to be responsible for the press, said things to the press, would often be on the receiving [end]. But I got a lot less of it than George and James or Stan Greenberg, other people who were around. ...

But in a way it was impersonal. He was kind of letting off steam a lot and ranting and yelling at people, but it wasn't like you're an idiot. A lot of politicians are known for totally berating people in really personal ways. He really wasn't like that.

It was hard because he wanted things to be done that a lot of times staff didn't think should be done. We were trying to stay the course or follow through on a strategy and something would go wrong and he'd want to change it in his morning purple rage. And, so, a lot of times it was difficult to kind of hold the line against what he wanted at that moment.

In the last sort of frantic, frenetic hours before the election in '92, Bill and Hillary give Ted Koppel an interview on the plane. And one of the things that Hillary Clinton said is she's going to maintain a zone of privacy and she's going to live a normal life. What'd you think when you heard that?

I thought that was a reasonable thing to want. After everything that they had been through and how personal it was and how destructive it was in a lot of ways. I mean some of it was just a feeding frenzy for the sake of feeding frenzy. I didn't think that was unreasonable. In hindsight, I think even if Mrs. Clinton believed that, and I still think in many ways it's a fair desire, I would've had a much stronger reaction to it now. And if I'd had an opportunity I would have tried to counsel her against saying it. It's one thing to try to do it; it's another thing to try to set up a bull's eye on your head or create an issue where you don't need to. I guess I should be embarrassed to say it didn't really jump out at me at the time. I thought it was reasonable.

It would be a good thing if there was a little more privacy around people who have to make really difficult decisions so that they could have a place to reflect and people they could talk to without being confident it was going to end up in the press or at least in a book at some point. But I guess the president doesn't really have that luxury. I think it would be a healthy thing for the country but in the culture in which we live, it's not really possible.

What do you remember about either Election Day or Election Night or any conversations you had with the president-elect? Anything that jumps out from that time?

I remember flying around and Nightline was there. We were going from, I think Ft. Worth, Texas to Albuquerque or something. It was three o'clock in the morning, and we were playing hearts. We had the Saturday Night Live -- somebody had edited together all the political skits from the previous years -- on the VCR, and we were just drinking coffee, and playing cards. And I said to him,"Did you ever think you'd get here?" And he looked at me like I was nuts. He said, "Yeah. I always thought this was possible." He looked at me like "Why do you think I got into this race? Why are you asking me this question?"

I realized then that of course he could always imagine it. I don't know that he was confident that he would win but he knew he had a chance and he knew that if he could run the kind of campaign that he wanted to run that he would win. And you know what? There were so few people in the country and the world who believed that when he did, he was once again a step ahead.

So we finished our little tour and I remember going to the Governor's Mansion and down to the basement about 8 o'clock. By that point we already knew it was pretty much over. I mean we knew we were going to win. But seeing that map, standing in the basement -- they had a TV down there -- and he kind of had a half grin on his face looking at the map turning whatever color we were. I think it was different on different networks. As the electoral college count came in and he was closer and closer to that magic number, it was just the weirdest. It's almost anticlimactic in a way.

It's like "Wow, here we are and he's the next president and he's just standing here in his basement, watching TV like millions of other Americans right now." It was just very strange. But I think it's in an odd way slightly anticlimactic, even though it's the biggest thing that can ever happen in politics to you.

Clinton is elected. The transition begins. One of the sort of generic criticisms that's come out is that you had this staff that had just won a campaign, yet you were all young, relatively inexperienced. The transition is not a terrific transition.

Well, yeah, and I think [there's] a lot of fairness in that, but keep in mind that the two people who were in charge of the transition in many ways were Warren Christopher and Vernon Jordan. Hardly spring chickens and hardly inexperienced in the ways of Washington.

But the transition was the worst period of my entire association with the campaign and the presidency. Because here you are -- you've won. You don't get a second off. I mean I was so used to losing campaigns at this point, that like, where's my vacation to the Bahamas? I can remember very clearly on election night being out with all the campaign staff and a lot of the people that worked in the press office. All of a sudden it's about 2 in the morning and they said, "Oh, my God, who's going to staff the phones starting at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning?"

So we kind of drew lots for it, and I went in and 5 or 6 of the young assistants from the press office and we got like 1,000 phone calls that next day. You know, Japanese TV wants to know when they can interview the president-elect, and by the way, who's the secretary of state? It starts at 8 o'clock the morning after the election.

There was all this pressure on the president, obviously, to name the Cabinet and start to put together the next government. And there [are] all these reporters camped out in Arkansas everyday doing nothing but trying to break a story that the president is going to tell them as soon as he makes a decision. There [are] people staked out at the airport trying to see who is coming in and who might be interviewing for what job, chasing down rumors. ...There was very little news except when we would actually announce it, and there were all these reporters with nothing to do.

And then, of course, there was the tremendous amount of uncertainty about our own jobs. You know, nobody told us the day after the election "Hey, yeah, you're going to the White House," or "You're not." So, you know, it's the worst of all possible combinations of political endeavor I can imagine. A hungry and unsatisfied press corps, [a] young, and insecure staff, and a president-elect who is taking his time making really big decisions. So it just stunk. There was no two ways about it. Everybody was miserable. And it did take a long time.

Clinton was very careful about trying to select the Cabinet. And, of course, he had made these pledges about what the Cabinet would look like, and he was trying to make sure that he had the right amount of diversity and enough women and enough African-Americans and enough Latinos; impossible to please everybody. It was a three dimensional chess game going on. Most of it went okay, I think. A lot of his choices weren't stellarly accepted but I don't think they ever are. And then, of course, [we] got to the attorney general's slot and all hell broke loose.

... One of the first things that happened early on was the George Stephanopoulos's office was sealed off from the briefing area. And this caused real consternation among the White House press corps. Why was that done? Whose idea was it?

I don't know where it exactly originated. There was a lot of discussion during the transition about what to do with the press. There was a proposal on the table at one point to move the press from the traditional work space in the West Wing to the OEOB, to get them completely out of the West Wing. And there was a discussion about building a press area on Executive Drive or something. I don't even remember exactly where they thought this was going to happen. And then the compromise position was "No, no, no, you can't move the press out of the West Wing. We'll just keep them from getting into the West Wing."

I think clearly Mrs. Clinton -- I don't know if she was the architect of this idea, but she supported it. And I had to say one of the people who was most uncomfortable about it was George, even though it was because of him in a way that access was being sealed. I mean the argument made was George is the communications director but he does more than just press work. He [works] with a lot of sensitive materials, the press can't be bombing into his office all the time.

Well, obviously, in hindsight it was a hideous mistake. It just alienated people who had been working in the building for years. And it didn't serve the press operation very well because one of the arguments that the press made at the time --which in hindsight was completely true -- is we're one of your first early warning systems. If something's going on, the AP guy is going to come up into your office and say, "Hey did you know about this?" Or if all of a sudden you look out of your door [and] you've got four reporters camped out in the waiting area, you know something's brewing.

...So, it made the press very angry because they lost access to a part of the building that they had had access to. And it didn't serve us. And it was stupid and didn't last very long. I can't remember when the decision was made and the door was finally reopened but it was a complete waste of energy. It alienated people for no purpose. It served nothing, It served no one. And it was a rookie, rookie mistake.

...The Zoe Baird nomination is made. And she is going to fight for it. At the same time you're learning that there is problems with the Social Security that has been paid for the nanny. You're a new press secretary. What was it like for you?

It was hell. And the thing about the Zoe Baird question was that I don't think anybody -- I mean everybody, myself -- let me just say I missed it. I said, "Yeah, this is a problem. You know, it's going to take some explanation. I think Zoe's going to have a little crow to eat on this."

I did not anticipate the reaction from not just the media, but there was some visceral nerve that it touched in the country. You know, here we've elected this kind of populist president and the first thing he does is appoints a woman who is making $500,000 a year as a counsel to a big corporation and she doesn't even pay Social Security taxes on her household help. Not only that, they are illegal. And she's going to be the attorney general. So what we missed was the fed-upness, to make up a word, of people with people in positions of power and privilege getting exceptions to the rules that apply to everybody else. Here's the top law enforcement officer in the country, who makes all this money and doesn't pay Social Security taxes and is going to be totally exempted from it. Not only that, her help was illegal.

It certainly caught me by surprise. I think it caught a lot of people by surprise, because it had come up obviously in the course of her vetting, although not everything was clear at the beginning. I think that there [were] a couple people who sort of saw it coming and were more worried about it, but I wasn't one of them.

... How did the president deal with the fact that you, his press secretary, are being consumed basically by gays in the military [those] first few days?

Everybody was consumed by it. It was one of those things that the president had said during the campaign at an event, a fund-raiser, I think, here in Los Angeles, of the gay community. And then Tom Friedman had asked him about it. He sat down with the New York Times. And barring any other really big news, the Times led the paper with it. And then everybody else sort of got going. Your first reaction is "This is a new administration, there's a lot going on in the world. Is this really what we're going to focus on now?"

People often say to me, "Why did you guys decide to make gays in the military your first big issue?" We didn't do it, we just couldn't figure out how to stop it. ... The question wasn't "What's the first issue you want to pursue as president?" The question is "Are you going to keep your pledge that you made at a fund-raiser?" And it was one of those things. I'm sure Clinton thought it would be a much easier thing to do. And maybe that was naivete on his part and on all of our parts...

I was new to Washington, and didn't know half the reporters in the briefing room. Some of them had been on the campaign, most of them hadn't. And a lot of those people had been at the White House before and they were a lot more familiar with the Pentagon and what the reactions of the Joint Chiefs were going to be.... I didn't think this was going to be something people would welcome with open arms, but I didn't think it was going to overwhelm the first few weeks of the administration. But it did.

Did the president get angry at you for that, that you couldn't make it go away?

No. He didn't. I mean he might have been. He never came and yelled at me directly. I think he probably thought that it was being poorly handled by me. At that time George Stephanopoulos was doing the daily briefings. And so I think George got more of both the rage from the president and the sort of churning reaction from the press. He was the one standing at the podium every day trying to explain how this was going to happen, when every chief of every service was against it and the culture of the military was against it. It was a really rough couple of days. And during that period we were still sort of going through the attorney general. We went right from that into gays in the military and never had a chance to catch our breath. ... Nonetheless, it certainly could have been handled better and in a way that probably didn't result in "Don't ask, don't tell," which ended up seeing more people driven out of the military for being investigated and found out to be gay. I think the consequences of it were terrible in terms of how it affected people.

Clinton had absolutely zero honeymoon, none whatsoever. There was a piece in I believe the New York Times that basically said this would be a failed presidency. You know, ten days into Bill Clinton's first term. And it's like "You got to be kidding me. How can these judgments be rendered so quickly here?" But there was no playing on our part. We didn't hit the ground running with "America, here are the three things we're going to do first" and then get off to start doing them. That didn't happen for months and months and months because we went right from one crisis to the other. It was the attorney general, to gays in the military, to budget fights about supplemental appropriations, and right from there into the haircut, you know?

The president is here in Los Angeles and he gets a haircut from Christophe in May [1993]. And the press finds out about it. Did you know you had a PR disaster in the making?

No. God, I sound like a complete idiot, all the things that I didn't see coming. The president was here in Los Angeles. Christophe had cut his hair a few times during the campaign. He was friend through Harry and Linda Thomason, [a] delightful guy, really nice person. Of course he'd be happy to cut the president's hair. So he jumps on the plane -- the plane is sitting on the tarmac. And he gets his haircut. He's really kind of jolly. You know, hi, he's had a good trip to L.A. He loves California. He's out here.

And for the first time, maybe the second time of his entire presidency, he decides to take a trip back to visit the press, sitting in the press cabin on Air Force One, which he never does. So, he goes back there and says hello. Five minutes, you know. Wasn't it great to be here in California? He leaves. I believe it was John King who was then with the AP. He said "Did he just get his hair cut?" And, you know, what am I going to say? I said, "Yeah, he did." "And was that the guy we saw going down the back stairs of the plane, the long hair, that guy that used to be around the campaign sometimes?" "Yeah."

So, you know, he's like "This is funny. Oh, this is great." So I think John puts something on the AP that said that Clinton had gotten his hair cut. Well somebody called the FAA or something. Some unnamed source at the FAA said, "Yeah, delayed aircraft," which became "delayed aircraft all over the country" which never was really true. And so did I think I had a big problem? The president got his hair cut on Air Force One. What's the problem with that? Okay. It's not a great idea maybe to have this sort of high priced Beverly Hills coiffure. We just won a populist campaign, not a great idea. But it's not the end of the world. I mean who cares?

For $200.

As if the president paid $200 for his haircut, but, yes, he charges $200 a haircut and probably more. Then when it was married to this notion that air traffic was delayed and here was this, you know, populist, putting-people-first president just basking in the perks of his new power sitting on the runway, air travelers be damned. This is the story that got out there and by the time I realized that this was a serious problem it was off to the races. And that thing dominated the news for at least three days. I think it led ABC's broadcast on day two. Because it becomes such a symbolic thing. You have to be careful of these things that become metaphors.

I think George Bush not knowing how a grocery store scanner worked --which [was] absolutely not true -- but that became a metaphor for an out-of-touch president. Bill Clinton sitting on Air Force One getting his hair cut while people around the country cooled their heels and waited for him, became a metaphor for a populist president who had gotten drunk with the perks of his own power and was sort of, you know, not sensitive to what people wanted.

...And you know what? It took him years to overcome that because when I left the White House for years I would travel around and go, "How many of you know the president got his hair cut on Air Force One?" Every person in the audience would always raise their hand. ... It took years for people to get past that.

That same week you had another story developing. I think it was the day or two after the haircut is when the travel office [scandal began]. George Stephanopoulos tells us that it was as if the administration had declared war on the press.

Right. Yeah. Again, this one we could see coming a little bit, but we underestimated the power of the relationships between the former employees of the travel office and the people who they had served for anywhere from 10 to 30 years. And the press rose up in defense of seven people who they thought were poorly treated. And they were poorly treated. I think history will show that there was some evidence of -- I don't want to say malfeasance because people have been acquitted in the court -- but there [were] some unkosher things going on. And yet it couldn't have been more poorly handled if we had scripted it. I mean it was just poorly, poorly handled from the beginning.

George was out of town briefly and, so I ended up having to do the briefing on that first [day] and, and try to explain this decision which I knew from my brief experience with the issue was going to be inexplicable. And I think I got over 100 questions on the same topic. ... It's not a briefing, it's a beating. I was just the person standing behind the podium trying to explain this sort of indefensible [thing]. There was a way to do it. I mean I think it's perfectly defensible for the president to have said, "We're going to go through a process here."

...The plan had originally been to go out there and try to present it to the press for the first time which would not have been that much better. But I quickly realized that I was going to be on the defensive from the second I walked out because the story was leaking out. ...And, in fact, it ended up on the wires a half an hour before my briefing. People were calling me up and starting to ask me the questions that I was going to get in my briefing. I knew what I was in for. And I did as much as I could to get decent answers to the questions before I went out there but they didn't exist.... As soon as I came in from that everyone knew. I didn't have to convince anybody we had a big, big problem on our hands that afternoon.

It went on for, I don't know, it seemed like months. How long did it go on? I mean it went on for -- it did go on for months. That was May and in July we were still dealing with the aftermath of it. Between the independent counsel investigations, I guess it's gone on for years.

What were [the Clintons'] reactions?

They thought they were justified in taking this action. They thought these were political positions [which] serve at the pleasure of the president. We've had this accounting firm come and take a look. There are some practices here that appear to be incompetent, if not illegal. We have a fiduciary responsibility to manage the press's money even if it's not public money. And we have the right to put in our people. What's the problem?

[There were] two problems. One, we could've done something about which the way that it was handled. It was very poorly executed, from the investigation to the announcement. But we also, I think again underestimated the relationships between the press and the travel office staff. ...

So, it was one thing after another. And just it was what became something of a pattern in the first couple of years of the Clinton White House and maybe even longer, where information would drip, drip, drip, drip, drip out which would keep stories alive, alive, alive. When if you could have just put all the chips on the table, taken your hit in one or two days, and moved on, it would have been a lot better.

In May of '93, there's a bit of a shakeup. Memorial Day weekend word starts leaking out that David Gergen is going to be coming into the White House. What was your reaction when you heard that Gergen was going to come in?

I was stunned. Gergen certainly had a lot of experience, but he was a Republican. And I assumed he hadn't even voted for Bill Clinton. Didn't share his philosophy. You know, [he] had many good relationships with reporters, had some not so good. [He] had been around Washington and in some ways represented a lot of the things that we thought we were riding into save the world from, you know.

... It all started to break on Friday night. We were in, I think, Philadelphia with the president and Wolf Blitzer came up to me and said, "Hey, I hear David Gergen's coming in." And I knew enough by then to know just because I hadn't heard it didn't mean it wasn't true. So I got on the phone. I guess I called George and he said, "Yeah, some stuff's going on," blah, blah, blah. And the president came back to the White House that night. He went into some meetings and the Gergen deal got done, and the next morning we were making plans to announce it before we were going to go to West Point.

We were all in the vice president's office, and they were explaining and I just got really upset. ... You know, George was one of the architects of this campaign and a loyal staffer, and there he was just toilet paper, Kleenex, tossed out. He wasn't fired, but I got really choked up and the vice president said, "Come on." So he took me into his office and he just said, "You know what? It's going to be okay," blah, blah, blah. But he had to kind of calm me down.

And I'll never forget that. I mean it was a very human thing. Because my reaction to it was less about policy, although I was worried about that. It was more about what kind of a business is this?...

Wasn't it also a sense among you and the others that they are getting rid of us? I mean Gergen called you guys "the kids." They're getting rid of the kids who ran the campaign?

Yeah. Well, you know, the kids got blamed for a lot of things that went wrong in the early months of the campaign. The kids weren't responsible for gays in the military and the kids weren't responsible for the attorney general and the kids weren't responsible for the stimulus package failing. So why was it that the kids were always being blamed?

Yeah. That was part of it. And George was my ally and he's my friend. It's not just him, but it's all of us sort of being blamed. There was plenty of blame to go around. I'm certainly not going to sit here and say that I didn't have a big hand in a lot of failures of those early months. I did. But I didn't see why it had to be done the way that it was.

What was the president's reaction when the Woodward book came out?

Oh, he was outraged. He had been sold on the idea of cooperating because it was going to be a positive account of this really intellectually rigorous process where big questions were going to be asked and answered, and a budget would be constructed that would both fund the president's political priorities and put the nation on a track to fiscal stability for the next couple of generations.

And instead, it was a portrait of an out-of-control White House -- at least that's how it appeared at the time. I haven't reread the book and I think if I did, given everything that's happened in the last eight years, it would certainly be a lot less surprising or seem a lot less outrageous. But at the time the press seized on the notion that this was a portrait of a White House out of control.

And we were in Italy for the G-7 economic conference. Going back and forth with people staying up all night to read the book and trying to find out where were we vulnerable and how did this happen. And the president was really mad. He was really mad. George Stephanopoulos had been the guy who convinced him that we should cooperate and give Woodward this sort of unprecedented access to the process. And once again, Clinton felt the staff had let him down and the press had betrayed him. [The book] put the worst face on a process that had been difficult. At times there was a lot of disagreement about what should happen but [it] had been an honest process in a lot of ways. Bob Woodward had sort of ensured that it be an honest process. And yet it was not portrayed as such.

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