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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 . 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?
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 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,
... 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
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
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