the clinton years

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interview: george stephanopoulos
Around this time, the influence of Dick Morris is starting to be felt, and he's using a code name.

Charlie. The first time I ever saw the word "Charlie" was on a little yellow post-it note on the president's desk next to his phone saying, "Charlie called." I thought, "Hmm, that's odd." And you just sort of file it away. The first time, though, I remember thinking that something was going on was in December of 1994. The president gave this Oval Office address, which was supposed to be his official response to the Republican win and set in the agenda for 1995 -- there was a lot of debate over whether or not it was a good idea, but it was being given.

And I remember in the drafting process, he and Hillary were sitting up in the residence all day long, and then a lot of us were back in the White House working on various drafts, working with the speechwriters. And one draft came back with this new language in it. I think it was called the Economic Bill of Rights or new language that was labeling the new Clinton agenda, which was the old Clinton agenda under the framework of a bill of rights. And I remember walking in with the draft, and Hillary was there, and the president was there, and I said, "Hey, where'd this language come from? It's pretty good." And Hillary just smiled, and I thought sure that meant it was her. But it turns out that that was Dick's first real major influence on a major address.

Is this where he is typing upstairs and handing his typewritten words to the president, who is writing them down in longhand so that you guys won't know?

Apparently, when I was in there asking who wrote this language, he was in a room one floor up typing it out. And you're right. The president would then take his typewritten language and put it back into his scrawl. And, obviously, he changed it himself, and that would come back to those on the official staff, so the president would have deniability from his own staff on who was working on the speech.

What was the reaction of you and the other loyal staff members when you found out that Dick Morris had come back and was working secretly for the president?

There was no one moment early on where it was announced. It was never announced, really. It just happened. And the second point is that, at one level, a lot of us who had been around were used to things like this happening. And Dick, at the time . . . was a guy who had worked with Clinton before, and he was another adviser, and there's always new advisers coming in and "flavor of the month" and things like that. I don't think any of us realized how deep and tangled this tie was.

At this particular moment, in late 1994-early 1995, how influential is Dick Morris on the president?

He's worming his way in. I think the president during December was casting around in a lot of different ways. Remember, that was also the month where he was up at Camp David with Mary Ann Williamson and Tony Robinson, and that created a little mini-controversy when it got out.

This was the self-help guru, Tony Robinson.

Right. So he was looking around a lot of different areas. And Dick was starting to work his way in. Now, Dick had laid the groundwork in September or October of that year, because he had apparently talked to the president before the election and had advised him, rather than trying to take credit for these big things that you did, to start with the little ideas first--things like family medical leave, and build a pyramid of your accomplishments. People will take the smaller accomplishments. They are more willing to accept that you had something to do with it. And the president came away believing that that strategy was right. And so he had gained some more confidence from the president there.

My guess is that he really started to solidify his position in two places in December, 1994, and January, 1995 -- the Bill of Rights speech from the Oval Office, and then the State of the Union the next month was when Dick really started to get his hold back on the president and on the political apparatus.

You write in your book that, "No single person more influenced the president of the United States than Dick Morris."

Over the course of the first nine months of 1995, no single person had more power over the president, and therefore over the government, than Dick Morris -- no question about it.

When the State of the Union speech was written, was there a similar process . . . of a a daytime president and a nighttime president?

To use the word "process" is to imply a kind of organization that wasn't there. It really was parallel universes, both somewhat chaotic. And, yes, there was the whole normal State of the Union process, briefing books, get the memos from the academics, start working on it three months ahead of time, have the speechwriters do a draft, and then there was Dick at his little typewriter alone with the president. And there was really not much meeting between the two processes. What ended up happening was a speech that basically spliced the two together without much editing. And I think it ended up being the second-longest State of the Union ever, exceeded only by, I think, the one in 1998 or 1999.

Was the staff resentful of Morris?

Resentful? They despised him. We all despised him, and more than that. It was for a couple of different reasons. Number one, it certainly seemed to a lot of us that his views unfiltered were simply just accepting the Republican ideas and claiming them as your own -- abandoning everything we had fought for, everything we had fought for in the election and everything we had fought for in the first two years in the White House.

Second is more a quality of life issue. It's incredible in the White House at that time to be living with a parallel black hole White House that you couldn't fight openly, that you never knew when its influence was going to be brought to bear, that you couldn't see. And you'd be in a situation where the entire administration would be sent down a path for a certain speech or a certain initiative, and then late at night it gets upended in a phone call with Dick Morris. It's just an incredibly unproductive and just dispiriting way to work.

Dick Morris told us that, by the time of the 1996 election, he didn't care if one Democrat was elected to Congress, as long as Bill Clinton was reelected.

Every once in a while Dick speaks absolute truth, and that's one comment that's absolutely right. He didn't care about the Democrats at all. He would have thought that it's actually better for Clinton to be working with a Republican Congress. It doesn't matter what gets done, he would appear stronger.

. . . In April, 1995, the president says in a press conference, "The president is still relevant here."

Channeling Dick Morris. Dick Morris was telling him to buck up his confidence, the president is still relevant, the president is still relevant. Perfect example of the stage direction coming out of the actor's mouth, as opposed to the script.

When that comment showed up on the front pages of all of the papers the next day, what were you thinking?

There wasn't a lot of time to think about it. I think late the next morning the Oklahoma City bombing happened, and the president was relevant.

During the period of the bombing, the president played a role that a lot of people have likened to the role Ronald Reagan played at certain times. Was this a watershed moment for Clinton?

As horrible as it was, it was a moment he was born to be president for. This sounds so cliched, but it's true -- he immediately felt what happened in Oklahoma City and was able to articulate it. And it was a time when people were looking to him to do that. There was a lot less conscious planning there than people I think want to attribute to it. It was really him acting instinctively, I think, at one level. And the times, frankly, when the White House tried to put a little more planning into it and tried to be a little more political at Dick's instigation were the times that backfired -- giving the speeches that were too harshly condemning the right and various other hate groups out in the country. Some of that was okay, but there was always a very dangerous line the president ended up walking in those weeks of appearing, on the one hand, to embody the national pain and grief, and on the other, to be exploiting it.

By the next month, the debate is the balanced budget debate in May 1995. On June 13, 1995, the president gives a speech, promising to balance the budget in 10 years. The next day on the Hill, Democrats are livid. They're furious about this.

One, because the president had promised he wouldn't do it to the Democratic leaders, Gephardt and Daschle; and, two, more importantly, it wasn't so much the speech, although they didn't like the speech, and a lot of us in the White House and Democrats thought this strategy of forcing the Republicans to actually meet the goal that they had set out of balancing the budget and spelling out the cuts was what was starting to work. But even more upsetting to them were the backroom quotes in the newspaper from Dick Morris, where he said this was basically an attempt to get in their face and to triangulate them and put them at a disadvantage so the president could rise.

What was triangulation, and did it work?

Triangulation. . . . It was basically to treat Democrats and Republicans in the House alike, as if they were both adversaries. The president is supposed to push off either one in equal measure and appear to be above the political fray.

This was Dick Morris's idea.

Yes, and it's empty of substance. It's amoral. But it makes some political sense at some level. And what the president was so skillful at, as frustrating as it could be at times, was taking parts of Dick's theory, parts of the triangulation theory, but not going too far with it. And he got in more trouble when he accepted it whole.

After the 1994 elections, how did the role of Mrs. Clinton change in the White House?

It started to change a little bit before the 1994 elections. It was clear by August-September, 1994, that health care was dead. One of the most painful times in that period was August of 1994, when she tried to go out on a bus tour for the health care effort, and the crowds were just hateful. It was like the negative image of the bus trips in 1992, and there were some horrible signs out there. G. Gordon Liddy was talking about doing target practice against Mrs. Clinton and the president in his backyard, and it had reached a fever pitch. And from that moment on, she started to recede publicly and also recede from the actual formal decision-making processes in the White House.

Did her power diminish in the White House or not?

[Long pause] Sure. But it's hard to know exactly how, because her greatest power is the power of all first ladies -- the power to be alone with the president when no one else is and just to speak your mind. What clearly changed was her active formal role in meetings. You didn't see her in the cabinet room any more or the Roosevelt Room in meetings of the National Economic Council or other issue meetings. She simply receded from all of that. But my guess is also that she knew that health care had failed, that this had hurt the president, and that she had to give.

Dee Dee Myers tells us that when she's removed, she hears signals, that Mrs. Clinton never confronted her, but Dee Dee Myers believes that Mrs. Clinton engineered her ouster as press secretary. Is that an accurate representation?

Sure. I mean, I think there's no way to know for sure. But Hillary made no secret that she was unhappy and she wanted a change, and it happened.

Was her way of doing things indirect? One of the things that Dee Dee said is, "Look, if I was doing something wrong, Mrs. Clinton never confronted me with it, but I kept hearing from people around that she was unhappy with me," and she comes to blame Hillary . . .

I think Dee Dee is right. I mean, I don't know . . . It's hard to know exactly how she would work, because she wouldn't talk to anybody who she would perceive to be Dee Dee's ally over that, but everybody knew. You knew she just thought it was a communications problem. That was what you heard all of the time. You can never do a perfect job from the podium. I couldn't do it. We all made mistakes, but that was usually the first line of attack rather than addressing any substantive problems beneath the communication. But what's difficult, I guess, about answering your question is it's just hard to know exactly how it worked, except you just felt it. It was in the air.

In the fall of 1995, the government shutdown is dominating the government at this time. The president is doing some real brinkmanship. What was the strategy with the Republicans in the fall of 1995?

Smoke 'em out. There were a few parts. One, nobody knew, and it was perilous, because no one knew who would get blamed more for the shutdown, Democrats or Republicans. But there was more than the shutdown involved. First, there was also this threat that they would not extend the debt limit -- that this was the big hammer that would force the president to accept whatever the Republicans wanted.

Our strategy was very simple. We couldn't buckle, and we had to say that they were blackmailing the country to get their way. In order to get their tax cut, they were willing to shut down the government, throw the country into default for the first time in its history and cut Medicare, Social Security, education and the environment just so they could get their way. And we were trying to say that they were basically terrorists, and it worked.

So the first part was that they were threatening not to exceed the debt limit, but the secretary of the treasury somehow found a magic way to keep the treasury running.

It was amazing. Bob Rubin is a genius. He always had this great word, too. If he said one word more often than any other word in 1995, it was the word "unthinkable." Whenever they would say there would be a default, he would say, "It's unthinkable." And meanwhile, he was working behind the scenes to find a whole bunch of different borrowing authorities to prevent default, and to give the president as much room and time as we needed. And it bought us about a month, and that month made the difference.

How important was it to this administration having Bob Rubin, first, as head of the economic team, and then as treasury secretary. You had a liberal Democrat. . .

A perceived liberal, yes.

In January of 1996, again, it's a tough scandal month for the White House. The travel office memo comes up. Safire calls her a congenital liar in a prominent column. The billing records are discovered, and Hillary Clinton is called before the grand jury, when before she had always been able to meet with the prosecutors in the office. What was going on at the White House during that time?

It was typical Clinton White House moments -- bad news follows good. Everybody had felt so good about the way the shutdown had ended. Like we had stood firmly for our principles, we had prevailed, the Republicans were in disarray, things were starting to look good up in New Hampshire, and then, wham, Hillary has to go to the grand jury.

What I think it did more than anything else, though, was galvanize everyone to think that Ken Starr now clearly had crossed a line. Before that moment, there had been a lot of people in the White House who just said, "Listen, the best thing to do is just let's cooperate, let's do the best we can." But when he basically tried to humiliate the first lady by having her appear in person before that grand jury, I think that there was a real sense that the Rubicon had been crossed.

And, Starr, of course, felt that discovery of the billing records indicated that the White House hadn't been playing straight with him.

I'm sure that's true, and I still wish I knew how those billing records got there.

In that run up to the 1996 election, the strategy seems to be the president talking about values issues -- school uniforms, deadbeat dads. Dick Morris is adamant that this focus on the little things is what won the election. What's your take on that?

It didn't hurt, but it's silly to say it won the election. Presidential elections are decided on big issues, and what won the election in 1996 was the condition of the economy. The economy was doing very well, and Dick and others were right to say that the president has to articulate that, has to talk about how well things were going in the country. The election in 1996 was also won because the Republicans had painted themselves into an extremists corner during the government shutdown, and people got that they had tried to blackmail the country for an extremist agenda.

And, finally, the election was won because the country overall was simply not going to go back a generation with their president. Bill Clinton was the first non-World War II president elected in the late twentieth century. There was no way after he got elected that the country was going to go back to someone of the older generation. And that was very clear the night of the State of the Union, in the contrast between the president's forward-looking, optimistic, packed with small ideas State of the Union address, and Bob Dole's somewhat cranky and negative response.

In July of 1996, there is a meeting about the welfare bill. You were there. And members of the cabinet stood up and gave passionate arguments on both sides. Do you remember that meeting, and where the different leading lights of the cabinet came down?

Yes. Welfare reform was kind of "Custer's last stand" for liberal Democrats in the White House. Everyone understood that the country had changed. The country is a more conservative place than even when we were elected, and certainly than it was 20 years ago, and that there had to be an awful lot of accommodations and concessions. But welfare reform really divided right down the middle the Clinton coalition. There were the New Democrats who said the real Bill Clinton is defined by issues like welfare reform. And there was the other side that said the real Bill Clinton is defined by not giving in on these basic bedrock commitments that the Democrats have always been for.

And the problem with welfare reform is: what is the problem? There really weren't a whole lot of conversations between the sides. And it was so clear even at that meeting in the cabinet room. The president had already vetoed it twice. The Republicans had the votes, had a majority in the Congress. But it wasn't anything like the welfare reform Clinton had promised in 1992.

. . . Everyone knew, in the end, that this was a decision that the president was going to make alone. Everyone knew that Dick Morris was sitting up there in the White House saying, "If you [don't] sign this, Mr. President, you will lose." Everyone knew the paradox; that Clinton had promised welfare reform, had been given welfare reform, but the guts of the bill weren't what he promised early on in 1992. Everybody feared that Dick might be right.

So all of the arguments were made, but they were made in a relatively cool, understated, almost somber way. I would say it was the most presidential, non-national security meeting I had ever been to in the cabinet room. It felt more like the meetings in the cabinet room about sending the military into Bosnia or Haiti or watching a strike against Iraq than it felt like an argument about domestic policy. Everyone knew what the stakes were.

And I would say that the best argument for signing came from Bruce Reed, who everybody respected, everyone trusted. He had been with the president from the beginning of the campaign. And he said, "Listen, this is not exactly what we promised, but we've gotten a lot more than we've gotten from the Republicans in the past on child support, on going after deadbeat dads, on a variety of other issues, and this is the right thing to do." Probably the most powerful voice on the other side was the quietest. It was probably Bob Rubin's. He didn't say much, he didn't argue it forcefully, but you would have thought that the big economics guy would go with the conservatives on this one, and he didn't. The cipher in the room was Vice President Gore, who didn't say a word, and went in and gave his counsel privately to the president.

. . . Dick Morris called me the morning of that meeting, and he's practically crying, because I think he had felt overnight that the president was starting to think that he might veto the bill again. And Dick was saying, "I need you on this. I need you on this. He needs to sign this to win. If he doesn't sign this, he's going to lose." And he was crazed because he thought he was losing the argument. . . . Clinton probably spent the whole night arguing the case in the alternative to Dick, which made him worried that he was going to lose. But he was saying quite clearly, "If you don't sign this, you'll lose."

In August 1996, Democratic convention scandal breaks with Dick Morris. What the atmosphere was like at the convention in Chicago?

Dick had been going a little crazy for weeks, I mean, even more crazy than normal. He was getting more manic. And he was starting to like dictate entire convention speeches for everybody speaking on the podium in real time. He would go into Al Gore's office and dictate a brand new speech and say, "You must say this."

He would go into Hillary's office, do exactly the same thing, and frankly he was just pissing everybody off. They were done with him. No one really knew what was going on behind the scenes. . . . He and I were both called up to Hillary's suite to go over her speech. And while we were waiting, he turned to me and said, "There might be this story coming out in the Star magazine. It's not true." Boy, was there nothing I wanted to talk about less. I mean, there was no way I wanted to know the information. I certainly wasn't going to defend him. I was kind of hoping it was true. But I didn't want to have the conversation at all. It turned out two days later that it was true, and he was gone.

How was the decision made to fire him?

It wasn't really a decision. I mean, there was no alternative. And basically the story broke Wednesday night. The night after the speeches, Harold Ickes, who has been Dick's mortal enemy since like 1966, pulls me aside. They used to run against each other in these Upper West Side city council races in Manhattan on different sides, and they just despise each other. . . . Harold's munching on a big pear, and his mouth is full, and he's just saying, "You've got to see the tabloids tomorrow. Dick with a prostitute is coming out. He's gone." And he was just like laughing, and he had his hands around my shoulder. I was enjoying it as well. I'm not claiming any superiority here.

But I went out and went to bed that night and didn't think of it again. I figured it would take care of itself. And at six o'clock the next morning, my phone rings and it's Dick. I thought it was just going to be the standard morning phone call about the polls, but I pick up the phone, and he said, "I just want you to know this is my last day on the campaign." And all I could say was, "I'm sorry." And at that exact moment, I meant it, if for no other reason than it was too tragic to see someone literally the moment they had been working for their whole life -- that night the president he had helped reelect was going to give his nomination speech -- and he was being forced out on that morning. And at one level, it was quite sad. But he deserved it; he had to go.

What I didn't know was that he had spent the whole night, the previous six hours, in a tooth-and-nail battle of wills with Jack Quinn and Erskine Bowles, the lawyers and the president's chief of staff, trying to prevent them from the inevitable firing. But he knew by the morning that he had to go.

Any vivid recollections of election night in 1996?

What stands out most to me was how different the feeling was from 1992. Yes, it felt good to have the vindication of winning and to have the chance to go on for the next four years and keep on doing what we were elected to do. But you can't help but have been a more sober experience. So much had happened over the four years in between. There had been so many near escapes, so many near-death experiences, so many disappointments, crises, along with the victories, that it was harder to build up that same kind of passionate excitement for the win, as quietly satisfying as it was. And so instead of hundreds of people out on the lawn and the core of the staff right there on the base of the stage, there were a bunch of us up in a suite of the Excelsior Hotel, quietly watching on TV. It was a very, very different feeling.

You write in your book that, on that night, you make a kind of a peace with Hillary, or she seems to make kind of a peace with you.

The peace had actually been building for a little while. Over the course of the 1996, she appreciated the Democrats in the White House carrying on the fight. And so there'd be a lot of phone calls of encouragement. But, yes, it was a very vivid moment. I was just about to walk out to go do the final interviews for the last night, and I caught her in the hallway. She had just been helping Chelsea get dressed. And she knew it was basically my last night. I was going to leave the White House in a few weeks, and she just caught me in the hallway and looked me in the eye and said, "I love you, George Stephanopoulos." And I said, "I love you, too." There was so much hope in her eyes that night. They were tearing up. It was almost as if we've endured the first four years, so we can achieve in the next four years. I think she felt all of the problems were behind her and they were now free to go on and free to close off a lot of the unpleasantness of the past.

By then you had already made your decision to leave. Was it announced at that point?

It had come out. I told the president the night before the last debate that, I thanked him, I was very grateful. I was going to work on through the election, but after that I really wanted to go out on my own. He asked me to reconsider, but he knew that I wanted to leave. And a lot of us just were too exhausted at the end of the first year to go on.

The legacy question. In your most succinct way, how do you think this president is going to be remembered in history, good and bad?

The obvious answer is that I don't really know. There is so much good and bad mixed up in him and in his record that it's impossible to sort out without any perspective. But I guess I'd say, boy, he did a good job, but he might have been great. And where people will end up coming down on either side of that, I'm not sure. It would be hard to be seen as one of the greatest because he didn't face a great war or a depression or any kind of great national crises.

But it turns out that he actually achieved so much of what he promised to do, and left the country in such better shape than when he came in. And you can't give him all of the credit for that, but he certainly deserves some. He was a terrific steward, and he did try to point the country to the future. But he couldn't escape his past. And like I say, I don't know how people will tease that out over time. And an awful lot depends on what happens next.

. . . One common theme that seems to reflect the character of the man himself is that there's a lot of lurching from crisis to crisis. There are great moments, and then there are these near-disasters with a lot of pulling back from the brink. . . . Is there something in the man?

Yes, well, no. There may be something in the man, but there's also something in the times. . . . Clinton is a big person with many different contradictory parts. So the White House carried out those contradictions every single day. And no single person in the White House or single faction or single group of people could ever fully embody everything he did. People could only see parts of him and could only act on parts of what they thought he believed and acted on. So I think that explains part of it.

But I think it was also exacerbated because, probably, we live in the most transparent of times. He had an opposition, which partly because of who he was, never saw him as really truly a legitimate president. And he seemed to have this capacity to inspire intense hatred in those who didn't like him, and people never wanted to let him go. And I think that explains part of it.

. . . I do think that a lot of it would have happened regardless. I'm wondering, how does it hold together? The shame of it is, when you think back in a different vein, so many of the crises were tied to his private activities -- not just the sex stuff -- I mean life before the White House. And you can argue whether or not it is legitimate for those things to have been looked into. . . . And it seems that so many of the successes were lived in a different part of him, in his mind and in the things that he wanted to do as president.

Even the policy failures were not crises. Health care wasn't a crisis, it was just a loss. It was a tough, tough loss. And it wouldn't cause any kind of a collapse in the White House in the way the personal matters did. But the truth is that the other thing that holds all of those crises together is that they are all dealing with, at some level, putting a gloss or covering up his past in a way that it would have been a lot less trouble just to let it out. But nobody could ask, and he couldn't tell. . .

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