the clinton years

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interview: dee dee myers
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 night.

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 Clinton--

...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 clammed up.

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 courage.

...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 her?

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 on.

...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 confrontation.

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 Whitewater thing?"

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 debate?

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 it.

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, 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 comeback.

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 that loss?

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? "Charlie?"

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 this --

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 anything.

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 doesn't work.

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 shot.

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 really understand.

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.

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