In June of '93, Vince Foster commits suicide. [Do you] remember much about
that day? You were with the president at Larry King Live that
I actually remember a lot about that day. It doesn't get much worse than that.
It's one thing to have a controversy over whether the president did or didn't
hold up air traffic getting his hair cut on Air Force One. It's another thing
entirely when someone you know and work with and respect takes his life.
The president was doing Larry King Live. Things were starting to
improve in the summer of '93, and they were in the library, the downstairs of
the White House residence. And about 9:45, Mark Gearan -- and I can't remember
the whole sequence of events of who told who -- but Mark Gearan told me he
[didn't] know what happened, but Vince Foster [had] taken his life.
And just at that time, Larry King asked the president if he'll stay on the air
for another half an hour. Of course, the president said, "Sure, Larry." So,
we're like, "Oh, My God. We've got to put the kibosh on this extra time,"
[but] we don't want to alarm anybody. We're not sure who all's been notified.
We got to stop this interview, only 10 more minutes. Get the president out,
inform him, let him go over to the Foster's home. I mean it's kind of -- your
head starts working in strange ways. But we're afraid that somebody might pick
it up on a police scanner in Virginia or something, and call the show and
inform the president on the air. We were terrified of that.
And so we went to the producer of the show ... and said, "This horrible thing
has happened. We really have to ask you as a human being, you've got to help
us make sure that no calls go through that could possibly be about this, and
you got to help us end this interview." And she did.
So, we got the president out of there and Mack McLarty took him upstairs and
told him. He came back down and did something -- the only time in my tenure at
the White House that I ever knew he did it -- which was left the building
without the press. Just got into the limo with just a lead car and a tail
service car and went over to the Foster's to try to console the family.
And the next day we were all in shock. I mean, [of] however many people
working in the White House complex, Vince was about the last guy that you would
have expected to hear this about. We sort of tried to put together what had
happened and deal with the logistics of it. And I remember we were downstairs
in the chief of staff's office, and Sylvia Matthews came in, and said, "The
maids are upstairs and they're about to go into or they did go into Vince's
office," I guess. "Don't you think we ought to preserve what was in his trash
can?" Oh, yeah. God. You know, I mean we're not thinking like law
enforcement experts here. This is the scene of a crime.
We're thinking how in the world could such a horrible thing happen and what can
we do to help the family? I mean we knew we would have questions to answer and
it was already starting to break out. And we were trying to drop the statement
from the president about it. So within a couple of hours we're all of a sudden
dealing with some kind of an investigation of a very sensitive event at a very
high level. And I think it was at that point that I started to realize that my
God, there's going to be all kinds of conspiracy theorists out there. I
remember saying to Mark and to George, "You know, I have a really bad feeling
about this." I mean it's bad enough that Vince has died but this isn't going
to be treated like a human tragedy, this is the beginning of something that is
going to go on for a long time.
And it did. The next day the press asked me, you know, well, "Why, why, why?"
And I said, "It's unknowable." Even though I could see what was happening, I
couldn't stop myself from responding like a human being. You know, it's
unknowable. Why does anybody take their life? You can never satisfactorily
answer that question. And, of course, that just opened the door. "What is it
you're trying to hide? Why can't you answer that question?"
It was no longer about the mystery of a human tragedy, it was about what is the
White House trying to cover up? And then, of course, once again we didn't
handle it as well as we could have. There were things that were revealed over
time, what appeared to be a suicide note was ripped up and in the bottom of a
brief case that was found later. And then there [were] all the subsequent
questions that have gone on for years about what was in his office, what
happened to the documents, what was the chain of custody of those documents,
why were they locked in a closet in the West Wing, in the White House residence
over the weekend, while the president went down to attend the funeral? Blah,
blah, blah, blah, blah.
One of the outgrowths of that was ... [it] brought Whitewater back up which
had been around in the campaign and pretty much subsided. There's a debate in
the White House about how to handle Whitewater. There is an argument that we
ought to turn over these documents to the Washington Post. Do you
remember that fight?
Sure. Because the documents in Vince's office included White House legal
documents and some personal stuff of the Clintons, including some Whitewater
documents and some tax returns.
And that did ignite this whole new round of questions. ... David Gergen,
George, myself, a number of other people, believed that the questions were
coming, there was going to be a whole new round on Whitewater, and the best
thing to do was just take everything that the Clintons had, everything that was
in their possession, everything they could get their hands on about these land
transactions and the related events, [and] go down to the Washington
Post. Sit there and let the Post go through it and then answer
questions until there were no more questions.
That would do a couple of things. One, it would create not just the
appearance, but the reality of openness, and, two, it makes it a proprietary
story. If the Washington Post has all the documents, how can ABC News
compete with that, really? It becomes a Post story. It becomes a less
competitive story because competition is what sometimes drove these crazy
stories, we had discovered.
And it might also bore people to death, really.
Exactly. I still believe to this day that there is a lot less to that than
meets the eye. And so, the argument was made very strongly to the Clintons.
And they decided that they didn't want to do that.
I think David Kendall and some other people believed that once you did that,
once you started turning over your personal records of events that transpired
20 years ago, that had nothing to do with your stewardship of the country,
nothing to do with your role as president or first lady, nothing to do with the
public trust, that you couldn't, you would never stop. That the requests would
come and come and come. Today it's Whitewater, tomorrow it's tax returns or
whatever. And that it would just open a door that they didn't want to open.
And in some ways, I mean it, it's their life. It was hard for us to argue that
they should walk through that door.
There was one meeting you were at with George and Gergen and you are talking
about this after the Clintons have already kind of made up their minds. George
is talking and Hillary comes in and George has got to finish the argument
because Hillary says, in effect, "This concerns me, I want to hear what you're
saying." George makes a pitch to her and then what does Hillary
...Not everybody, but most people in the room agreed with George and me that
the Clintons had made a wrong decision. And everybody was vocally expressing
their opinions until the door opened and Mrs. Clinton walked in and everybody
And Mrs. Clinton wanted to know what was going on and she looked at George.
And George began to make the argument that we'd all been making and nobody
backed him up. Nobody backed him up. Everyone just sat there and let George
take the beating, you know. And Mrs. Clinton got really angry. She attacked
George, which everyone knew was coming, which is why I guess nobody was willing
to ride in there to the rescue.
...I guess at the time I couldn't believe it. I thought it had to be coming
from a place of anger and it was only later that I realized that, that she did
have these ongoing kind of questions about him. To me nobody had worked harder
than George. [He] had stood up and tried to do the right thing. Here were
twelve people in the room who all basically agreed and only one of them was
willing to stand up and tell her what she had asked. And that took a lot of
...That was my kind of reaction to what she said about George, and I also
remember thinking this was just a wrong-headed decision. She dug in. She
wants to fight. I was somewhat sympathetic. I'm not the person on the
receiving end of this, they are. And I understand that this is their life.
But there's no talking her out of it. ... And anybody that stood up and tried
to say this was a bad idea was, you know, smashed down and belittled, very
personally. And I mean where I said the president didn't really attack people
personally, Mrs. Clinton sometimes did and that was a good example.
Were people afraid of her? Were people afraid to speak out against
Yeah. And I think because not only would she sort of humiliate you in front of
your colleagues or whoever happened to be around. It wasn't like she did it
every day. I found that she wasn't the most direct person. Although that was
very direct, that to me was the exception rather than the rule. Hillary tended
to kind of campaign against people behind their back, and that was certainly my
experience. She was not happy with me, but she never confronted me. She never
had a conversation with me about it. She would go call Leon in and yell at him
and then he'd have to call me in and say, "Mrs. Clinton is really upset about
X. You said Y, and she disagrees with that, and you know, she wants you to fix
it," or whatever. As opposed to her picking up the phone and calling me.
Sometimes it's appropriate, I think, to go through the chief of staff because
it's the chain of command. Maybe she's talking to him about six things and one
of them is me. But there were times when I thought she should have dealt with
me directly and she didn't.
...I didn't respect that. If you have a problem with me or anybody else, it
doesn't mean she shouldn't try achieve whatever outcome she wanted to achieve.
But I think there is a certain grace and I just think it's a bit better
politics and personnel management to be direct.
How powerful was she?
She was definitely a force. No question about it. And to a certain degree it
depended on the issue and the time. I mean obviously around health care she
was extremely powerful. Always to do with personnel issues if she wanted to
weigh-in, she could affect a lot of change. Almost all first ladies have had
tremendous power on personnel issues, whether the public realized it or not,
whether it was Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan or whoever. And I think a part of
it would depend on kind of the ebb and flow of her weighing in on policy
decisions and on the ebb and flow of her relationship with the president.
It sounds to me very much like you resent the way she treated you.
Do I resent it? You know, I wished that she would have been more direct with
me on a number of things. Yeah. I mean I don't know if I resent it. I just
think that it would have been more effective. ... It would've been better if
people had been more direct. But, you know, the White House is a place that's
full of intrigue and plots and subplots, and there's always something going
...It wasn't like I was locking horns with her every day. She was interested
in the press. Obviously she paid attention to what was written about the
president and about the administration, sometimes more closely than he did. So
it wasn't like I was locking horns with her all the time, but there were a
couple of times when I did and I just think things could have worked out better
if we could have talked to each other. And I did try to talk to her a couple
of times. And, you know, she's always very polite. She didn't like
There is a summit that summer. You go to Prague and Moscow with the
president. And on the trip there is the Whitewater story is still brewing.
And Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News has got an interview with the president.
Oh boy did I get yelled at for this. Yeah. We were on our way to Moscow and
the United States was in the process of negotiating some denuclearization
agreements. And, you know, we had just gotten Belarus on board and we were
going to stop in Belarus on the way to Moscow. And so, this was pretty big
news. One of the bigger foreign policy accomplishments of the administration
to date. And so we decided what we would do is to try to spike the story a
little. We would give a correspondent from each of the three networks --
actually we didn't give one to ABC, I think because Nightline was
travelling with [us].
So, Rita Braver from CBS was the first and we said "Two questions for each of
you." Rita asks a question about the coming summit and the denuclearization
agreement and a follow-up about the summit. And then she says "What about this
And the president answers her, no problem. Go into the next room, NBC.
Miklaszewski is sitting there. He asks, boom, Whitewater, boom Whitewater,
boom Whitewater. And the president just took off his microphone. He said,
"You know, I thought we were going to talk about the summit, but if your
viewers want," whatever he said, famous thing, throws the microphone on the
chair and walks out of the room and proceeds to scream at me for about 10
minutes. He has this thing that he used to do because I'm sure he still does
it, this kind of finger in your face, like this. That was the worst I ever got
yelled at by him -- just in my face for like 10 minutes because here he was
trying to do his job as president and back home this nagging thing was rearing
its ugly head again, and I couldn't stop the press from asking about it. You
know, "Why do we do this? Why do you sit me down? Why can't you control what
these people do?"
Yeah, I really got yelled at. But there was a lot going on. And it was kind
of the juxtaposition of being on this trip where real foreign policy business
is trying to be done and the remnants of the Cold War dealt with. And yet at
home is this political scandal brewing and the whole question of would there be
an independent counsel or special counsel appointed by the attorney general to
look into this.
Clinton was so mad that he cancelled the interview with Ted Koppel that
night. And wants to cancel it again the next night. You remember that
Yeah. I just remember that was really stressful having that ABC crew there
that whole time because not only was the president sort of alternately thrilled
that they could be there to share the exploits of his diplomacy and frustrated
that they wanted to be with him all the time whether he was tired or not or
angry or not.
And then we had this thing brewing back home and so that trip was sort of hell
for me. I felt like I was constantly, as you are when you're in the press
secretary, caught between the Nightline crowd, and the president. And
so he wouldn't do [the interview] that night, and, you know, he barely talked
to me for 24 hours....
I don't remember exactly how we convinced him to do it, but I think Gergen was
actually really helpful in getting the president to put it back on. ... I do
remember he was on really late. And not only that but Bill Clinton does not
drink. He just doesn't drink. Well, you don't go to Russia and sit down with
the president of Russia and not drink. That doesn't happen.
And so we were never really quite sure what kind of state we were going to find
the president [in]. I mean he was never really bombed or anything but he
barely drinks at all. And so, he'd have a little vodka and you just never
quite knew how between the effect of the vodka and the effect of being upside
down and you work really hard on these trips.
And so the last night things had gone pretty well and we had had this ceremony
sort of signing of these detargeting agreements, denuclearization agreements,
and a state dinner and some really great stuff had gone on. And the president
was staying in the Kremlin in their guest quarters. They were just attached to
the rest of the Kremlin, and so Ted was there. We took the president and he
came walking out and there was nobody in the Kremlin. There was Ted Koppel and
an ABC crew and probably a producer, and David Gergen, the president and myself
walking around. There is probably somebody watching us. But we wandered
around through the rooms of the Kremlin, nobody was there.
I thought, "You know, this is clearly a post-Cold War world." You know, where
the president and the spy TV crew are being allowed to wander around and
photograph at will in the middle of the night. It wasn't the middle of the
night, but it was midnight. I'll never just forget that sort of eerie feeling
of being there. And you guys have it all on tape.
Things are jelling a little bit later in the year.
Things came together at the end of '93 because NAFTA passed and the budget
passed. And then health care was launched and to great fanfare.
The budget was really a tall mountain. ... That was huge. That was the first
real victory of the Clinton White House and it was a budget that cut spending
$250 billion and increased revenues $250 billion, raised taxes. But it was a
good package and we thought, "This is responsible." And we were pretty sure,
based on Rubin's knowledge, that Wall Street and other people would respond
well to it....
Then in September we said we have two priorities for the fall which [are] to
pass NAFTA and launch health care. People said you cannot do both. You cannot
do both of those things. You're trying to woo two different constituencies,
you're trying to put together two different coalitions, you don't have time.
The president doesn't have control of the message enough to do those two things
simultaneously, but we did. I mean it was hard. It was hard to get NAFTA done
and it was hard to get the sort of health care thing ready and start the
process on that but we did.
And, so come December, we are looking at a pretty good second half of the
president's first year. And everyone was feeling pretty good and then what
happened was you go into this time of [year] people let their guard down.
There's not a lot of news and we didn't have a lot planned and as the holidays
approached into that void came Troopergate.
So December 1993, there is supposed to be a big party at Gearan's house, and
then this story breaks.
Yeah. We knew the story was in the works. Both The American Spectator
and the L.A. Times were working on the story that then-Governor Clinton
had used Arkansas state troopers to procure women. This was a Sunday, and
about 5 o'clock that afternoon I got a call from Dave Gergen saying they are
faxing it around or something. We've got a copy of the story.
And once again your best social plans are foiled by some crisis at the White
House. Dave and I never made it to Gearan's that night. We went straight to
the White House and started going over the story and tried to piece together
what was it, what do we know about the accusations made in it. You know, what
were we going to say? I just remember being there until late that night and
again trying to find the factual inaccuracies in the story and trying to find
out who are these people? I mean they all had histories. There were a number
of people around from Arkansas who knew.
What was the strategy there to deflect that story?
It was to once again find the factual errors and to tell the subsequent story
about some of the individuals, some of the state troopers who had some pretty
shady histories. Some of them had been involved in another scandal subsequent
to their service to Clinton while he was governor. And so we tried to just --
who are these people, what are their motives, what are the factual inaccuracies
in the story, where can we shoot it down?
... Because the story appeared in The American Spectator the first line
of defense was "This is The American Spectator. This is a right-wing
rag that is committed the destruction of the Clinton presidency. They don't
believe it's legitimate. And they'll do whatever it takes, no matter how low,
to try to disprove it."
The L.A. Times is another matter.
The L.A. Times is another matter, exactly. So, we tried to keep it out
of the L.A. Times and were unsuccessful at that, too.
You know, who knows what the truth is? But I think there were certainly a lot
of people with some pretty suspect motives involved in that story. And the
author himself has since come out and distanced himself from it and said, "I
was used." I don't know what's true and what's not true.
...You know, I think reporters didn't want to be writing about it necessarily.
You had to ask yourself, "God, is this really relevant?" Some people thought
it was and some people thought it wasn't. But you couldn't avoid that
question: Is this really relevant? Does this prove a pattern of this kind of
behavior or is this just people out trying to even political scores?
...You know, I'm glad I don't have to defend things like that any more. It was
a relief not to have to try to make sense of out some of the president's
explanation for his actions in the Lewinsky scandal based on my experience with
issues like the draft and Troopergate and other things, Whitewater.
In April of '94, Hillary gives her first and only press conference. Were
you involved in the planning of that?
I wasn't. In fact, I think that Mrs. Clinton and her staff kind of sprung it
on the rest of [us]. There was a lot going on that day. I would have to go
back and look, but there were four or five major news events, including her
press conference. And there was a lot of "Where did this come from? Did she
talk, did anyone talk to you about it? No. Did anyone talk to you about it?
No. How did this get on the schedule? Why didn't they consult anybody before
they put this on?" And I think there's a lot of debate about whether it was a
good idea. But it was on. And it was going to happen and there it was.
Another example of no one wanting to mess with Mrs. Clinton?
Yeah. ...Once it was announced to the press, I mean it was a bad idea to pull
it off. So I don't know where the decision making process happened and whether
Mrs. Clinton talked to the president about it or not before she scheduled
In August of '94, the crime bill comes up which is very important to this
president. But what starts off as a crime bill gets turned around into sort of
a debate about midnight basketball and stuff like that. How did you handle
that? I mean this was, this was a pretty big deal for, for Clinton.
Yeah. We had a long battle on the crime bill. And because of health care, in
a lot of ways, and gays in the military and a lot of what had happened in the
first two years, the Republicans had been successful and we had successfully
allowed Clinton to be painted as a liberal. So they went into the crime bill
and pulled out the stuff that they could use to say, "liberal, liberal,
Midnight basketball leagues was a great example. I mean why are we spending
millions of dollars so that kids in the inner city can play basketball in the
middle of the night? You know, we want to put criminals in jail, we want to
punish people who do wrong. We don't want to pay for midnight basketball.
I think this was a good example of the White House just battling back and
battling back and battling back, because ultimately the bill, in some revised
form, did pass. And in it was some good gun stuff. I think in hindsight
Clinton will get a lot of credit for taking on the gun lobby....
What was the president like after he loses the House and Senate? Whether he
loses but --
...He was furious. He was just furious. He went into a real funk and spent a
lot of time thinking, blaming other people, feeling sorry for himself, and
consulting secretly with Dick Morris to figure out a strategy to battle back.
He was very low, frustrated, dispirited but he never quits. And while I think
a lot of us were seeing his funk and his frustration as anger, thought he had
been poorly served by some of the strategists, he was already plotting his
Is that a tough period because the political team that had carried him
through the campaign in really the first two years is being blamed in part for
Yeah, it was tough. I mean that's exactly what happened. The same people who
had been the architects of his presidential victory were blamed for losing the
House and the Senate and giving him bad advice for those first two years. And
he began to push people away. Things started to happen, like he would get a
draft of a speech and it would come back completely rewritten. And, you know,
like where'd this come from? And [it] partly came through him, but in
hindsight it partly came from Dick Morris. And then all of a sudden the
president wanted to announce this middle-class tax cut and a middle class bill
of rights. And it was like, well, you know, he's jumping on the Republican
bandwagon. Where's this coming from?
He was clearly signaling the president is changing his strategy but where is
this coming from? And I had never met Dick Morris at this point. People were
just starting to figure out there's some dark force out there that [the
president] is conspiring with. And sure enough it was Dick. So it was, it was
an interesting time. And I left not too long after that.
What was the reaction among people like you and, and others on the staff
when they found out that the president secretly consulting with Dick Morris?
Yeah, Charlie. You know, I guess, it was kind of hard to believe. Although
in looking back over his history at the time, people said, "Well he's done this
before." He's frustrated.
Did it make you and the others angry though? I mean when you found out that
By the time the extent of it really became known I was gone. I wasn't there.
... But, I certainly was in touch with all my friends, and yeah they were mad
and I think I agreed with them. I thought it was a bad idea. I mean this guy
was unreliable. He was Trent Lott's consultant. Didn't believe in
How did you feel your own departure was handled? There was a period where
in the press you were seen going in and basically begging for your job.
I was not at all happy with the way that whole thing transpired. I had gotten
into a disagreement with Panetta about how the press office should be
structured. And I think there is a lot of frustration and a lot of discussion
about Gergen moving on, and bringing in somebody to take, not take his place,
because he never really fulfilled, I think, the role that a lot of us thought
he would when he came in, which is sort of uber communications director.
But I thought that was a bad idea. I thought that part of the problem with the
White House was there were too many people responsible for talking to the
press. It wasn't that there weren't enough, there was too many. There was
George. Even after he moved out of the communications director job, he was one
of the most aggressive talkers to the media. There was Mark Gearan, who had
replaced him as communications director. There was Gergen, and there was me.
And those were the people that were authorized, whose job description included
dealing with the media.
And when Leon came in June of '94, part of his mission was to restructure the
White House, which needed restructuring. But we disagreed about what that
meant. I said the press secretary should be elevated back to assistant to the
president, given the press secretary's job and given the responsibility for
day-to-day management of the news media. Leon didn't really agree with that.
He thought there should be somebody brought in. That I should still do the
daily briefings, travel with the president, do virtually what I was doing now,
but there would be that same layer in between. And I said, you know, that
And, so, ultimately we took it to the president and it leaked. It didn't come
from me. And Leon never believed that, much to my regret. But I made my pitch
to the president and he agreed that I should stay on for a while and give it a
And I think in some places it was played like Leon was mad because he felt it
had been played like I had rolled him and that his authority as chief of staff
was undermined by it. I was upset because I thought it was played like I was
begging for my job. When, in fact, my biggest concern was if you want to hire
another press secretary, that's fine, but give somebody the tools to do the job
because this doesn't make any sense. It doesn't work for the president. It
doesn't work for the press. It doesn't work for the White House. Nobody is
benefiting from this arrangement. So let's make an honest decision here to
just put it together the way it should be put together, the way it's always
been put together.
My relationship with Leon was never repaired from that, and so I left about
three months later. I think it was in September. It wasn't the way I would've
liked to see it end. But I still feel like I did what I had to do. I thought
it was the right thing to do regardless of how it affected me. I mean it
didn't make sense before and I think part of the problem was that there was no
final authority for dealing with the press. And I think McCurry came in, the
press office continued to be organized in the way that it was in the last few
months of my tenure, which is the press secretary was the press secretary
again. And it worked infinitely better. And I think Leon had a lot of
confidence in Mike and that helped. And he wasn't competing with as many
people. He had a lot more power than I ever did....
Just looking back on your two years in the White House, how are you going to
view the president for that time?
Obviously my feelings have gone through a lot of phases over the years. I
still think in spite of everything that he's the most talented person I've ever
been around. He has an incredibly high IQ. He has tremendous amount of
curiosity. He has a memory like a steel trap, nearly photographic. He really
can synthesize things in truly original ways. He is both the politician and a
serious policy person. And I just don't think that his likes will come our way
again soon, for better and in some ways for worse.
You know, I'm disappointed in a lot of the things that he's done. I think he
had potential for greatness. I don't think he achieved it. I think he's done
a lot of good things for the country. I have a lot of sadness about how it's
all ended up for him. But I have a reservoir of affection for him that I don't
I think he means well. I think he's flawed like we all are, and his flaws cost
him and the country so much, but I think he means well. I know this doesn't
absolve him of all the things that he's done but I haven't seen him or spoken
to him in more than two years. I did get a letter from him when my baby was
born, but there was no note on it or anything. It was kind of a form letter,
but it was signed by him. And, you know, someday I hope I can see him again.
Maybe when enough time passes it will happen.