Cabinet Room, The White House
Photo By Herb Ritts
This is the third full-length Rolling Stone interview with Bill Clinton. We first met in 1992 at Doe's Eat Place, a steak joint in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he was fresh from winning his party's presidential nomination. A year and a half later, we sat around a table in a private dining room off the Oval Office while the energetic young president discoursed at length on the challenges of occupying the most powerful office in the world.
This final interview - the longest of the three - began in the family quarters in the White House on a beautiful fall day in October and concluded just four days before Election Day, aboard Air Force One, en route to a last-minute campaign appearance in California. We had been promised a quick third session for a postelection wrap-up, but with the Florida vote still up in the air, the president chose not to comment. As we went to press, we still did not know who would succeed him, but we preserved his predictions in this interview, for the record.
The president we encountered this time seemed more humble but also more confident and expansive. No longer just the brightest and most energetic guy in the room, Bill Clinton gracefully exudes the dignity and command of the presidency. On the first day we met, we were sandwiched into his typically furious schedule. In the morning, he had received the leader of the North Korean army - the first presidential contact with an official from that country in fifty years; later, the president would preside over a bipartisan ceremony on the South Lawn to sign the bill normalizing trade relations with China. The president has also been spending late nights dealing with the violence that has broken out in the Middle East in the wake of the collapsed Camp David talks.
Journalists rarely enter the family quarters of the White House. We were invited to conduct the first part of the interview in the solarium, the glassed-in oval room on the third floor that has traditionally been the president's family room, with its inspiring view of the Washington Monument. On one table sits a large collection of Russian dolls painted as Hillary, Bill or Chelsea. A Peter Max lithograph hangs on one wall, as does a beautiful painting of a leopard, a gift from South African President Nelson Mandela. There is also a collection of Beanie Babies for the Clintons' nephews. A passageway leading into the room has been decorated with photographs depicting the Clintons' thirty years in public life. Just down the hall, the president has set up a small music room, where he keeps his saxophones. Naturally, there is a portrait of Elvis on the wall.
When the president enters, he sits down at the small glass-topped dining table, picks up a cigar and cuts off the end but does not light it.
How are you feeling? You must be exhausted.
I was up all night talking to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. I slept an hour, and then another thirty or forty minutes in different snippets - I'd just fall asleep. Today I feel pretty good, because the violence has gone down considerably.
What are you doing from here?
I've spent so much time with both of them, so I know quite a bit about what makes them tick. I understand the pressures they're both under and how they both came to see themselves and their people as victims in this.
Were you shocked by what happened?
I was surprised it spread as quickly as it did, that the feelings on both sides could be stripped to the core so quickly, because they've made so much progress and gotten so close. But in a funny way, Camp David made the Israelis feel even more vulnerable. Barak went further, by far, than any Israeli prime minister had gone before.
They made more progress at Camp David on the security issues than anything else - because it was the most concrete, with the fewest number of unpredictable consequences in the future. They also had a habit of working together on security and getting along. But I think that the Israelis felt aggrieved that they didn't get more done, because they offered so much. Then the Palestinians felt provoked by what happened on the Temple Mount with Ariel Sharon.
Let's not get too far into this -
We don't have to get into the weeds, but the point is that a whole series of events happened and, with each successive event, it seemed that each side misunderstood the other more.
Does any of this tend to piss you off? You formed strong personal relationships with Arafat and Barak. Do you ever just want to say, "Goddamnit, Yasser."
Well, it's frustrating.
This will all be settled by the time this interview is published, so just speak your mind.
It will all be settled, or it won't, by the time this comes out.
The whole thing is frustrating, but you've got to realize we're dealing with fundamental questions of identity. At Rosh Hashana, the Jews go back and read the story of Abraham and Sarah giving birth to Isaac. It's interesting, the circumstances under which the sons of Isaac were born and became separated. And it sounds like sort of an epic family tragedy, and they just sort of kept replaying it, down through the years. That's the thing that bothers me. I just hope that somehow we'll get beyond that. To the outsider who cares about them both, it seems so self-evident that the only acceptable answer is for them to find a way to live together in peace.
LEAVING THE PRESIDENCY AND STARTING A NEW LIFE
You're only in your midfifties, at the peak of your powers, with the most astonishing experience and contacts a man can have. When you're out of office, what are you going to do?
I've laid the basic plans for my library and policy center. And I know I'm going to have an office in New York, because I'll be there as well. I've talked to a lot of people in general terms about it, but I decided that I would try to be effective in this job right up until the end. And in order to do it, I can't be spending vast amounts of time planning out my next step. I probably need a couple of months to just rest, relax, sleep, get a little perspective.
I've thought a lot about ex-presidencies. There have been two really great ones in history: John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. Adams went back to the House of Representatives and became the leading spokesman for abolition. You see the Washington Monument right behind us? Adams and Abraham Lincoln stood together on that mound when the Washington Monument [cornerstone was laid.
Jimmy Carter has used the Carter Center to work on human rights, election monitoring, getting rid of river blindness in Africa, agricultural self-sufficiency. From time to time, he's engaged in various peace issues, primarily in Africa. And he works here at home on Habitat for Humanity.
The challenge is to trade power and authority, broadly spread, for influence and impact, tightly concentrated. I'm sure I'll be involved in this whole area of racial and religious reconciliation at home and around the world, and economic empowerment of poor people, here and around the world.
I'm very interested in this whole idea of the relationship of energy to economic growth and the challenge of global warming, which I believe is real. I believe we can break the iron link between how nations get rich and how they deal with the environment. I think the energy realities of the world have changed drastically in the last ten years, and they're about to really change with the development of fuel-cell engines, alternative fuels and research on biofuels. You can cut the grass out there on the South Lawn and make fuel out of it. I'm interested in all that.
I'm interested in the breakdown of public health systems around the world. Three diseases - AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria -kill one in every four people who die every year now.
I've explored a lot of ideas, but I'm going to take some time when I get out to think about it. I want to make sure that, whatever I do, I give the next president time to be president, and I don't get in his way.
What physical change in you says that you've served eight years and that this is a job that really takes a toll?
I'm in better shape and better health than I was eight years ago, but my hair's gray. I think that's about it. I've got a few wrinkles I didn't have eight years ago. I've held up pretty well. I've had a good time. I've enjoyed it. I couldn't help my hair going gray. It would have probably gone gray if I hadn't become president.
THE TWENTY-SECOND AMENDMENT
You're the youngest retiring president since Teddy Roosevelt. Do you compare yourself much to Roosevelt?
Well, I think the time in which I served was very much like the time in which he served. His job was to manage the transition of America from an agricultural to an industrial power and from, essentially, an isolationist to an international nation. In my time, we were managing the transition from an industrial to an information age and from a Cold War world to a multipolar, more interdependent world.
Then, when Roosevelt got out, he felt Taft had betrayed his progressive legacy. So he spent a lot of the rest of his life in political affairs. He built a third-party political movement and was a very important force. But I think the impact he might have had was tempered by his evident disappointment at not being president anymore. That's not an option for me. I can't run again, because now there's the Twenty-second Amendment.
If there wasn't the Twenty-second Amendment, would you run again?
Oh, I probably would have run again.
Do you think you would have won?
Yes. I do. But it's hard to say, because it's entirely academic.
Do you think the Twenty-second Amendment is a good idea? Is it really consistent with democracy to have this kind of term limit on a president?
I think the arguments for executive term limits are better than the arguments for legislative term limits which I've never supported. On balance, the arguments for executive term limits are pretty compelling. I mean, I have an extra amount of energy and I love this job; I love the nature of this work. But maybe it's better to leave when you're in good.
Maybe they should put "consecutive" in there, limit it to two consecutive terms. See, Teddy Roosevelt was young, but he wasn't young for his time. He was fifty-one, but he died at sixty. Today, anybody who lives to sixty-five has a life expectancy of eighty-two.
Is there enough time to repeal the Twentysecond Amendment?
No, this isn't really about me, because my time is up. But you can't predict all the changes the country will face in the future and whether someone uniquely suited to a given moment will be there.
You may have people operating at a very high level of efficiency in politics from age fifty to age eighty - because of the changes in the human life cycle that are going to come about as a result of the mapping of the genome and pharmaceutical developments. We're learning we may be able to reverse Parkinson's. And we may be able to reverse Alzheimer's.
So, there are going to be a lot of things that are different about aging in the future. We are going to have to rethink it in ways we can't imagine. If it seems appropriate, some future Congress may at least limit the president to two consecutive terms. And then, if the people need a person, a man or a woman, to come back in the future, they can bring him or her back. It may take decades, but it wouldn't surprise me if it happened.
People say that you love campaigning, that you simply don't stop campaigning. How are you going to withdraw from that?
I don't know. I do like politics. But I like governance, too. I like policy. I liked it all. That's one of the reasons why I've been so fortunate. I got to deal with politics, policy and governing, the three things that I really loved - being a governor for a dozen years and president for eight. And I think I got better at it all as I went along.
I think I'll spend a lot of time helping other people. I have worked very hard with Tony Blair to try to build this network around the world of likeminded political leaders, and if I can be helpful to them, I want to be. So, I'm sure that, from time to time, I'll get a chance to do a little politics after I leave here.
But I'm also looking forward to a different chapter in my life. I'm still young enough to learn how to do new and different things. And it's exciting to me. There's never been a period in my life which I didn't enjoy and find challenging and rewarding. I just need a little time to get my bearings, and I just hope I'm not too old to change.
THE BATTLE OVER GAYS IN THE MILITARY
One of the very first things you did in office was try to overturn the military's ban on gays. Why did this backfire, and what did you learn from that?
I think it backfired partly because the people that were against it were clever enough to force it. I tried to slow it down, but the first week I was president, Senator Dole - who, I think, saw it as an opportunity - decided to push a vote in the Senate disapproving of the change in the policy. I tried to put it off for six months, and the Joint Chiefs came down and raised hell about it.
I wanted to do it the way Harry Truman integrated the military. He issued an executive order and gave the military leaders a couple of years to figure out how best to do it. But a lot of the gay groups wanted it done right away and had no earthly idea what kind of reaction would come. They were shocked by the amount of congressional opposition.
A lot of people think I compromised with the military. That's not what happened. We knew that at least seventy-five percent of the House would vote against my policy. If I was going to be able to do anything, I had to have a veto-proof minority in either the House or the Senate. But the Senate voted sixty-eight to thirtytwo against my policy, which meant that I could not sustain my policy in either house.
And it was only then that I worked out with Colin Powell this dumb-ass "don't ask, don't tell" thing. I went to the Army War College and explained what the policy was going to be, based on the agreement we'd reached together. Then they wrote that into law, and then we had several years of problems, where it was not being implemented in any way consistent with the speech I gave at the War College - of which General Powell had agreed with every word.
[Secretary of Defense] William Cohen has now changed the training and a lot of the other elements that contributed to the fact that this policy continued to have a lot of abuse in it, and I think it's better now. But I still don't think it's the right policy. I think the policy that I wanted to implement originally was the right policy.
Would you do it any differently now?
I wish I had been able to get an agreement on the part of everybody involved to take this out of politics. But the Republicans decided that they didn't want me to have a honeymoon. They wanted to make me the first president without one, and - now that we were living in a twentyfour-hour news cycle - the press happily went along.
Republicans made this issue their opening salvo. And they understood - and I didn't understand exactly what I know now - how what we do here plays out in the country. But because it was one of my campaign commitments, I refused to back off. The message out in the country was, "We elected this guy to turn the economy around, and instead, his top priority is gays in the military."
But that's not true; it was Bob Dole's top priority. His top priority was making this the controversy that would consume the early days of my presidency, and it was a brilliant political move. If it happened to me again, I would say, "Why is this the Republicans' top priority? I don't want to deal with this now. We can deal with this in six months when the study is done; let's take care of the American people now."
If it happened now, all the gay groups, who are now much more sophisticated about dealing in Washington than they were then, would come in and say, "That's absolutely right." We would put it back on them. They would be in the hot box, and we could win it.
The country has come a long way on gay-rights issues since '93. Keep in mind that we did drop the ban on gays in national-security positions. We've done a lot to advance the causes the gay-rights community wanted. Plus, all the people I've appointed. The country is overwhelmingly for hate-crimes legislation. The country supports employment-nondiscrimination legislation. The only reason that we can't get those through the Congress is that the leadership of the Republican Party is way to the right of the country.
Politicians have never done much for gay rights. Why did you take it upon yourself, particularly in light of the political heat, to advance the causes of gay people?
I believed in it. It's not very complicated. From the time I was a kid, I had known people who were gay, and I believed that their lives were hard enough with
out having to be hassled about it. I also didn't buy the kind of conservative attack on them, that this was sort of a conscious choice to have a depraved lifestyle. I had had enough gay friends since I was a young man to know that that's not the case. So I saw it as a civil-rights issue. I believed in it.
I also thought that as a white Southern Protestant who could talk to a lot of the so-called Reagan Democrats -the people we had lost that came back - that I was in a unique position to do it.
Al Gore, I must say, reinforced that, because he felt it at least as strongly as I did, and he wanted to do something about it. And we thought that we could do it for the same reason we thought we ought to take on the NRA: that if we couldn't do it with our backgrounds and the kind of culture we came from, who could? When would it ever get done? And so we went and did it.
The climate today is stunningly different. What about what's going on with the Boy Scouts?
The Boy Scouts were wrong. They were reacting to one of these stereotypes for which there is no evidence whatsoever, that gay adults are more likely to abuse children than straight adults. The Scouts were scared. The Girl Scouts have no such prohibitions and have had no known problems.
Isn't the president the honorary chairman of the Boy Scouts or something like that?
Oh, yes. The president is always the honorary chairman of the Boy Scouts. And the gay groups asked me - no, not the gay groups - the press asked me whether I should resign from that. I decided I shouldn't, and I think that's right.
The Scouts do a world of good, and, in our time, they have begun to be more active in the cities, which is really important. Since it happened so near the end of my term, it seemed like resigning would just be a symbolic thing that would cause more harm than good. It's better for me to say I disagree with the position they took and try to persuade them to change their position, which I hope they will do.
The overwhelming thing which changes people's attitudes on these issues is personal contact, personal experience. The country will come to this. They will come to the right place on this. We'll get there. But it's a matter of personal contact.
Most gay people kept their sexual preference secret for a long time. And what a lot of venerable institutions, like the Boy Scouts, are dealing with is not so much an affirmative prejudice; they are dealing with people coming out of the closet. They are worried about their respectability. They want to go back to the way it used to be, when they didn't have to deal with these things openly.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON RICHARD NIXON
In your first year in office, you regularly tallied with Richard Nixon.
I've got a letter that I treasure that Nixon wrote me about Russia a month to the day before he died. How old was he then? Eighty, eighty-one? It was really a lucid, eloquent letter, and a month later he was gone.
I had him back to the White House. I just thought that I ought to do it. He had lived a constructive life in his years out of the White House; he had written all these books; he tried to be a force in world affairs. He paid a high price for what he did, and I just thought it would be a good thing for the country to invite him back.
Was that the first time you met him?
Actually, it's funny because I'd had two other chances in my life to meet him. I was working here in the summer of 1970, and there was a dinner where he was. And I didn't go shake hands with him, because I was young and mad about the Vietnam War. And then, in the 1980s we were both staying in the Peninsula hotel in Hong Kong. I was there on a trade mission. I was supposed to meet him, and somehow it got messed up.
He was kind of a stiff guy, right?
Yes. He met my daughter, who was then going to Sidwell Friends, a Quaker school. His mother was a Quaker, and I think his children went there or at least had some association with Quaker schools. So he had this long talk with Chelsea, who was then thirteen. It was rather touching, because after all this time he still seemed ill at ease with people he didn't know. It was obvious to me that he had thought about what he would say when he met my daughter.
How was he with you?
He told me he identified with me because he thought the press had been too hard on me in '9z and that I had refused to die, and he liked that. He said a lot of life was just hanging on. We had a good talk about that.
I always thought that he could have been a great president if he had been more trusting of the American people. I thought that somewhere way back there, something happened in terms of his ability to feel at home, at ease with the ebb and flow of human life and popular opinion. His weaknesses were reinforced by the way he rose to national prominence. He got elected to the House by convincing people that his opponent -Jerry Voorhis - was soft on communism; then he got elected to the Senate by convincing people that Helen Gahagan Douglas
"The Pink Lady."
Was soft on communism; and he busted Alger Hiss and got to be vice president when he was, I don't know, thirty-eight, thirty-nine years old, still just a kid. Had Nixon won in 1960, he would have been as young as I was when I got elected.
So, all of a sudden, after two terms in Congress and a couple of years as a senator, boom, he was vice president for eight years. And how did he do this? By whipping up popular opinion into a frenzy by demonizing his opponents. That reinforced some of his weaknesses. If he had had to run like I did, in a little state, where you had to go to every country crossroads and where people expect you to run the governor's office like a country store and where you were used to brutal campaigns and used to trusting people to see through them - if you fought hard enough - I think it might have rounded him in a different way. I think it might have prepared him a little.
By all early accounts, he was a nicer guy before the Jerry Voorhis campaign.
Well, look, when he ran for president, he got thirty-five percent of the black vote. And, for a Republican, he had a good record on civil rights in the House and the Senate. When he got to be president he signed the legislation that created the EPA and OSHA and a lot of other stuff. The guy had a very fertile policy mind; he could get out of his ideological box. Remember, it was Nixon who imposed wage and price controls in 1971.
He understood that only a Republican could go to China.
Which presidents do you feel the most affinity for, in terms of the problems they faced and the way they've handled them?
FDR and Wilson - except I didn't have a war, thank God. But Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were dealing with the kinds of challenges that I have dealt with, both at home and around the world. And so I identified with them a lot. And Truman - I liked Truman a lot. I'm from Arkansas, and we border Missouri: I was raised on Harry Truman.
Truman also had to create a new era. Even though most of his ideas - like the U.N. - were hatched when FDR was still alive, he had to organize a world where, after the Second World War, our commitment to the world was not an option. Under Truman, we had to create a set of international institutions where we could be leaders, but also in which we were also interdependent.
ON BOARD AIR FORCE ONE
0n the day after Halloween, we meet up with the president again, at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. Up close, Air Force One is truly awesome and bespeaks all the grandeur and power of the presidency of the United States. It is spotless and gleaming in the morning sun, a flying corporate headquarters loaded into a supersize 747. Secret Service men and military security are there to protect the president and the plane itself, and they sit in back with the traveling press pool. The press is being shown "Gladiator" and the Secret Service guys, "Nutty Professor II," though they will rightfully switch midflight. In the middle of the plane are the staff offices, a conference and screening room with space for thirty people. The president's office is toward the front of the plane. When we enter, he is sitting at his desk, a filled-in crossword puzzle - ripped out of a newspaper - to the side. On a legal pad in front of him, he has written down the names of all fifty states, how many electoral votes each one has and which candidate likely has what. On the couch sits a set of Elvis videos. He wants to talk about `Almost Famous" for a few minutes, and then the interview begins again.
THE 2000 ELECTION: WHY IT'S SO CLOSE
Why do you think the presidential race is so tight? Given the economy, the issues, the incumbency - how could it get to be this close?
For one thing, things have been good for a long time. And a lot of people may take it for granted. They may not be as clear as they should be on what specific policies contributed to it and what could undermine it. I think that's one issue.
I also think that there's not as much general awareness as there might be about the differences between the two parties on health care, education, the environment and crime - where I believe the things we've done over the last eight years had a measurable impact on all those things going in the right direction.
And, third, most presidential races are fairly close, because a lot of presidential voting is cultural.
The way you were raised?
Yeah, the way you were raised and the neighborhood you live in and your socioeconomic and ethnic background. A lot of it's culture.
Keep in mind that in the history of our republic, only two vice presidents have ever been directly elected president. In one of those elections, when Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson, we were effectively a one-party country. In the other, when George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, the country was not in as good a shape as it is now, but it was in pretty good shape.
Bush basically destroyed Dukakis. It was a hugely negative campaign, with a lot of charges that were never effectively rebutted.
This year has been a much more positive race. There have been differences on the issues - but, you know, neither one of them has called each other's patriotism into question or whether they're normal Americans - which is basically the rap that was put on Dukakis, like reverse plastic surgery.
THE OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING
One of the most important jobs that you as president have is to talk to the country in the wake of a national tragedy, to frame the issues. How did you respond to this responsibility after the bombing in Oklahoma City?
I remember making a statement at the beginning, right in the Rose Garden, saying what you would expect me to say: expressing the nation's sympathy for the loss - but also urging the American people not to jump to conclusions about who had done it. In the beginning, a lot of people were saying it was obviously some sort of act of foreign terrorism.
When I went to Oklahoma City for the memorial service, I tried to elevate what the people who worked in that building were doing - that they were public servants. I told myself that I would never again refer to people who worked for the government - even in agencies I thought weren't performing well - as bureaucrats.
At that time, it was fashionable to bash the government. For more than a dozen years, we had been hearing demeaning rhetoric about the nature of government and public service. I tried to point out that these people were our friends and neighbors and relatives. They are an important part of America's family, and their service ought to be honored in that way.
A few weeks later, I gave the commencement speech at Michigan State University. I really believe that was the turning of the tide against the venom of anti-government feeling. The American people are fundamentally decent, and they've got a lot of sense. And I thought that this might break a fever, really, that had been gripping us for too long. And I think it did.
That's where you said, in effect, "You can't love your country if you hate your government." Were you thinking, "I'd like to take advantage of this tragedy" - and with every tragedy comes an opportunity "to make people rethink certain ideas"?
Yeah. I think, maybe not even at a conscious level, the American people were rethinking it. And maybe that's why what I said at the memorial service struck a responsive chord in the country.
Did you mean to connect the Oklahoma City bombing to the metaphorical bomb-throwing of House Speaker Newt Gingrich?
No, I was careful not to do that. I wanted to change the American people's attitude toward public servants and their government. But to do it, you had to focus on what happened.
One of the things that I didn't like about Newt - and he certainly wasn't responsible in any way for the Oklahoma City bombing - was that he was always blaming the 1960s or liberals for everything that went wrong. When that woman, Susan Smith, drove her kids into the lake in South Carolina, he blamed the 1960s. And it turned out that the poor woman had
been sexually abused by her stepfather, who was on the local board of the Christian Coalition or something. And when those two young boys dropped that kid out of the window in Chicago, he blamed the welfare culture.
He was always blaming. So I didn't want to get into reverse blaming. I just wanted to try to make it clear to the American people that we shouldn't have a presumption against government in general or public servants in particular.
THE COLUMBINE SHOOTINGS
What did you do when you heard the news about Columbine?
I called the local officials and the school officials from the Oval Office. You know, that was only the most recent and the most grotesque of a whole
series of highly visible school shootings that we had - and a number of them in the South. One of them, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, that was in my home state -where I knew some of the people who were involved, who run the school, and in the county and the city. There was one in Pearl, Mississippi, and there was one in Oregon.
I thought a lot of things. Number one: How'd those kids get all those guns? And how could they have had that kind of arsenal without their parents knowing? And I thought, after I read a little about it: How did they get so lost, without anybody finding them before they went over the edge?
We had a spate of killings associated with a kind of darkness on the Net.
What do you mean, "darkness on the Net"?
Well, I mean, those kids were apparently into some sort of a satanic thing. There were, earlier, a number of kids who killed themselves who were into talking to each other about some kind of destruction. I worried then - I'm worried now about the people in our society, particularly children, that just drift off. Maybe one of those kids could have been saved if somebody had been there to help, and then all those other children would still be alive.
FIGHTING THE NRA
It seems shocking that we didn't get any major new guncontrol legislation in the wake of that event.
You can't say nothing came out of it, because there was an organization of the young people in Colorado that organized kids all over the country to back commonsense gun legislation. They got about 10,000 kids involved. Then we had the Million Mom March.
But the truth is that when legislation time comes, a lot of the people in Congress are still frightened of the NRA. Even though there's broad public support for these measures, they're still not primary voting issues for a lot of the people who are for them.
The NRA can muster an enormous percentage of the vote - maybe fifteen percent, even twenty percent in some districts, because for those people guns are a primary voting issue. So if you've got a race where you're ahead sixty to thirty, but in your sixty percent, gun control is a primary voting issue for ten percent of the people, and in their thirty it's a primary voting issue for twenty percent of their people - the truth is, you're a net loser by ten percent. That's what happens in Congress and state legislatures. They're genuinely afraid.
The NRA is great at raising money and building their organizational power by terrifying people with inflammatory rhetoric. Did you see the tirade that Charlton Heston carried on against Al Gore and me, saying that we were glad some of these people were killed, because it gave me an excuse to take people's guns away? We never proposed anything that would
take anybody's guns away. I saw a special on television the other night, on ABC - Peter Jennings went out to some of these gun shows and talked to all these people who were absolutely convinced that we wanted to take their guns away.
You got the Brady Bill and a partial assault-weapons ban through Congress in your first term. Why didn't you seize the opportunity, with this post-Columbine atmosphere? You called a White House conference on violence in movies and video games.
Yeah, but we also did lots and lots and lots of events.
And then you thought you could reason with the NRA.
No, I didn't think I could reason with the NRA. I thought Congress would be so shocked and the public so galvanized that we would have a window of opportunity.
So what happened?
The GOP leadership just delayed until the fever went down. That's what happened. They knew that they couldn't afford to have their members voting wrong on closing the gun-show loophole or banning the importation of large-capacity ammunition clips - which allows people to get around the assault-weapons ban.
Were you powerless to do something about that?
We finally got a vote in the Senate, where you can bring things up. And we got a majority vote for it. Al Gore broke the tie. But we couldn't get a bill out of the conference committee in the House. If we could ever have gotten a clean vote
Then you would have won that vote?
Oh, absolutely. We could win the vote today if we could get a vote. But the leadership in the Republican Party - as long as they're in the majority in both houses - can control things, especially in the House. You can write the rules so that you can just keep stuff from coming up.
So despite your power, despite that tragedy
Yeah. And we had lots and lots and lots of events at the White House. We pushed and pushed. I'll remind you that one of the reasons that Democrats are in the minority today is because of the Brady law and the assault-weapons law. There's not a single hunter that's missed an hour of hunting, not a single sport shooter has missed an event. They acted like it was the end of the world. But half a million felons, fugitives and stalkers haven't gotten handguns because of the Brady law.
The level of logic and arguments on this issue are stupefying.
I feel passionately about this. And I'm glad I took them on - and I'm just sorry I couldn't win more. There's a lot of good people out there in America who work hard, and their only recreation is hunting and fishing. They don't follow politics all that closely. They get these NRA mailings. They're good people, but they think they can believe these folks. And the NRA knows that if they can stir them up, they can raise more money, increase their membership. And they do it by basically terrifying Congress.
RACE RELATIONS: CHANGING THE CLIMATE
How would you characterize race relations today, as compared with when you took office?
I think they're considerably better. The country is growing ever more diverse and, therefore, more and more people are having more contacts across racial, ethnic and religious lines. Ultimately, the more people relate to each other, the more they come to not just tolerate - I don't like the word "tolerance" in this context, because it implies one group's superior, putting up with an inferior group - the more they come to genuinely appreciate each other's heritage, find it interesting and find a fundamental common humanity. I think a lot of it is just systematic human contact.
Beyond the human contact, the race initiative we started led to hundreds of efforts, all over the country, to have honest conversations. Sometimes people work around each other for years, and they don't know the first thing about one another. Forget about race; I mean, there are people who work in the White House and see each other every day but probably don't know the first thing about one another.
My administration may have had some impact because we were so much more diverse than any administration in history: People felt that the White House was their house, too, the government was their government, too.
How else has the climate changed?
Look at the difference in the rhetoric of the presidential campaign this year - it's all about racial inclusion. We could argue about the policies - I think that the Republican policies are still divisive - but the rhetoric is about inclusion. And even a number of the Republican members have taken a different tack on immigration.
THE WAR ON DRUGS: TREATMENT AND THE NEED FOR PRISON REFORM
Do you think that people should go to jail for possessing, using or even selling small amounts of marijuana? Is that appropriate?
I think, first of all -
We're not publishing this until after the election.
I understand that. I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be.
We really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment. Some people deliberately hurt other people, and they ought to be in jail because they can't be trusted to be on the streets. Some people do things that are so serious they have to be put in jail to discourage other people from doing similar things.
But a lot of people are in prison today because they have drug problems or alcohol problems. And too many of them are getting out - particularly out of state systems -without treatment, without education, without skills, without serious efforts at job placement. There are tons of people in prison who are nonviolent offenders - who have drug-related charges that are directly related to their own drug problems.
Should we be putting nonviolent drug offenders in jail at all? Or should we put them in treatment programs that are more fitting?
I think it depends on what they did. You know, I have some experience with this. My brother - whom I love and am immensely proud of - kicked a big cocaine habit. His habit got up to four grams a day. He was lucky to live through that - and if he hadn't had the constitution of an ox, he might not have.
I think if he hadn't gone to prison - and actually been put away, forcibly, somewhere - it is doubtful that he would have come to grips with it. He was still denying that he was addicted, right up until the time he was sentenced. So I'm not so sure that incarceration is all bad, even for drug offenders, depending on the facts. I think there are some -
Well, right now, what I'm trying to get at -
Let me finish. I think the sentences in many cases are too long for nonviolent offenders, and the facilities are not structured to maximize success when the people get out. Keep in mind - ninety percent of the people that are in the penitentiary are going to get out. So society's real interest is to see that we maximize the chance that when they get out, they can go back to being productive citizens. That they'll get jobs, they'll pay taxes, they'll be good fathers and mothers, and they'll do good things. And I think this whole thing needs to be re-examined. Even in the federal system - these sentencing guidelines
Would you do away with mandatory minimum sentences?
Most judges think we should. I certainly think they should be re-examined. And the disparities are unconscionable between crack and powdered cocaine. I tried to change that. The Republican Congress was willing to narrow but not eliminate them, the theory being that people who used crack were more violent than people who used cocaine.
What they really meant was: People that used crack were more likely to be poor - and, coincidentally, black or brown. And therefore not have money. Those people that used cocaine were more likely to be rich, pay for it and therefore be peaceful.
We need a serious re-examination with the view toward what would make us a more peaceful, more productive society. Our imprisonment policies are counterproductive. And now you have a lot of places where, before the economy picked up, prison building was the main source of economic activity and prison employment was one of the big areas of job growth.
Do you think people should lose access to college loans because they've been convicted of smoking pot? Which is now a law.
Do you think that we need a major rethink of what these drug-sentencing laws are?
Not just drugs. I think we need to look at: Who's in prison? What are the facts?
I don't believe, by and large, in permanent lifetime penalties. There's a bill in Congress today that has bipartisan support - that I was hoping would pass before I left office, but which I feel confident will pass in the next year or two - that would restore voting rights to former prisoners after their full sentences have been discharged. And they wouldn't have to apply for a federal pardon to get it.
I changed the law in Arkansas when I was attorney general. I changed the voting-rights law in 1977, to restore voting rights to people after they've served their sentence. And my state's one of the relatively few states in the country where you do not have to get a pardon from the governor to register to vote again. Or from the federal government, for that matter. Keeping them with a scarlet letter on their foreheads for the rest of their lives, or a chain around their neck, is not very productive.
WAR IN THE BALKANS
The Balkan intervention was your only major military engagement. What was it like to run a war, night after night? What were your feelings as you went to sleep every night?
I went to sleep every night praying that it would end that night - that Milosevic would give in.
Yeah. And praying that nobody would die, that no American would die. And hoping that no innocent civilians would die but knowing that they would. It's easy for people to talk about war and when it's appropriate to use military force. But you have to know that once human beings start using big powerful weapons, there will be unintended consequences. We wound up bombing the Chinese Embassy, and innocent people died. We hit a school bus.
We have the most skilled air force, with the most sophisticated weapons, in all human history. We had fewer casualties than in the Gulf War, which is normally thought of as a hundred-hour war and a model of technical proficiency, and a lot of the American casualties were from friendly fire. The same thing happened even in the small engagement in Grenada, under President Reagan. These things happen. Once you start killing people, there will be unintended consequences.
How do you get yourself - as a person and as a politician -ready to make the decision to make a military commitment?
You have to be convinced that the consequences of inaction will be more damaging to more people and to your country. And in the case of Kosovo, I didn't think it was close. They had already killed several thousand Kosovars, and they were running some 800,000 of them out of their homes. It was a clear case of ethnic cleansing. And I thought the United States, and our European allies, had to stand up against it. We couldn't let it happen in the heart of Europe. If we did that, we would lose the ability to stop it anywhere else.
Wouldn't it be on your conscience, in some way, for having failed to stop it?
Absolutely. One of the things that just tore at me was how long it took me to build a consensus. It took me two years to build a consensus among our allies for military action in Bosnia. And, as you know, what happened there was, we did a few airstrikes and, all of a sudden, we were at Dayton holding peace talks.
And for all the raggedness of it, the Bosnian peace has held, and it's better now - because we turned back the tide of ethnic cleansing. But over zoo,ooo people died there. And I just knew there was no point in letting it happen again in Kosovo.
AFRICA AND THE SLAUGHTER IN RWANDA
How do you feel, then, about Rwanda? Clearly, it's a different situation: We didn't have the allies in place, we didn't have the intelligence in place. Is there anything that we could have done to prevent it? Do you feel any responsibility, personally?
I feel terrible about it. One of the reasons that I went to Tanzania, to be with Mandela, to try to talk the Burundians into the peace agreement, was because, before my time, over 200,000 people were killed in Burundi. Same deal - the Hutus and the Tutsis. Same tribes, fighting the same battles. The thing that was shocking about Rwanda was that it happened so fast, and it happened with almost no guns. The idea that 700,000 people could be killed in a hundred days, mostly with machetes, is hard to believe. It was an alien territory; we weren't familiar.
After that we began working very earnestly in Africa to train troops to be able to go in and prevent such things. We worked very hard with something called the Africa Crisis Response Initiative. We are now working with Ghanaian forces and Nigerian forces to give them the training and the capacity to prevent the resumption of the slaughter in Sierra Leone.
I think and hope that the United States will be much more involved in Africa from now on. In economic development, we passed the Africa trade bill this year. And in fighting AIDS, TB, malaria in Africa; in debt relief - we passed big debt-relief legislation this year - and we helped them to develop the mechanisms to do this. And when the African countries have leaders who are willing to go in and take their responsibility in these areas, we'll give them the logistical and other support necessary to do it.
That's what happened in East Timor, where we didn't have to put troops on the ground. But we sent 500 people over there and provided vital airlift and logistical and other support - so that the Australians, the New Zealanders and the other troops that came in could bring an end to the slaughter there.
There's sort of a sliding scale here. In Europe it had to be done by NATO. The scale of it and the power of the Serbian government were such that if we hadn't been directly involved with our NATO allies, we never could have turned it back. If we had done all the things we've done since Rwanda in Africa - what would have happened is, the African troops would have moved in, they would have stopped it, and we could have given them the logistical support they needed to stop it.
Another reason to vote for Gore?
Another huge reason to vote for Gore. Governor Bush has said that he doesn't think that's the business of the American military. We're only supposed to fight and win wars. He kept talking about Kosovo, I noticed, as if we were the only forces in Kosovo. We're only fifteen percent of the soldiers in Kosovo.
THE NATURE OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY
Why do you think you were such a lightning rod for partisanship and bitterness and so much hatred during your terms in Washington?
There were a lot of reasons. Mostly, it's just because I won. [The Republicans] believed the only reason they lost in 1976 to Jimmy Carter was because of Watergate. They believed that from the time Mr. Nixon won in '68, they had found a foolproof formula to hold the White House forever - until some third party came in. That's what they believed.
Did you ever hear a Republican articulate that?
Well, not in so many words. I had a very candid relationship with a lot of those guys. They would tell me what was going on. They really believed that America saw Republicans as the guarantor of the country's superiority in values and prudence in financial matters and that they could always turn Democrats into cardboard cutouts of what they really were. They could sort of caricature them as almost un-American. Congress might be Democratic most of the time, because Congress would give things to the American people. But the Republicans provided the values, the strength, the heritage of the country. And they could always sort of do - as I've said about Dukakis - reverse plastic surgery on any Democrat.
So I came along, and I had ideas on crime and welfare and economic management and foreign policy that were difficult for them to characterize in that way. And we won.... And they were really mad.
I think, secondly, I was the first baby-boomer president. Not a perfect person - never claimed to be. And I opposed the Vietnam War. I think that made them doubly angry, because they thought I was a cultural alien and I made it anyway.
So you think the culture wars were very much a part of this atmosphere?
Mmm-hmm. I also think they were even more angry because I was a white Southern Baptist. They didn't like losing the White House, and they didn't like me. They didn't like what they thought I represented. They had worked very hard to have the old white-male Southern culture dominate the political life of America. And they saw me as an apostate - which I welcome. When I take on the NRA or do something for gay rights, to them, it's worse if I do it. It's like a Catholic being pro-choice.
That all happened at the time when we had this huge growth in conservative talk shows, associated think tanks and networks that grew up in Washington from the time of Nixon through the time of Bush. They had sort of a permanent alternative government set up by that time. They went to war the first day of my presidency.
Were you surprised by the difficulties you had in your own party? Georgia Senator Sam Nunn opposed you on gays in the military; Pat Moynihan criticized your healthcare proposal; and Bob Kerrey gave you a hard time with your economic plan.
Not particularly. On gays in the military, a lot of the Democrats who were culturally conservative but promilitary thought that the gays in the military coming up so early was inconsistent with the whole New Democratic approach we were taking. Plus, they thought I was wrong. But, as I explained to you - when we talked last: I didn't bring it up first, Bob Dole did.
Now, on the other issues - the fundamental problem there was that there are no easy answers. Bob Kerrey comes from Nebraska. He and Jim Exon were Democrats, but Nebraska's one of the most Republican states in the country. He thought we should have maybe cut spending a little more or raised taxes a little less - or cut taxes a little less on lower-income working people.
But these guys were your party elders. Shouldn't they have said, "Clinton's our new president. Let's let him have his way"?
Yeah, but I didn't take offense at that. Moynihan believed, first of all with some justification - that he knew more about most areas of social policy than anybody else did. I think he felt we were making a political mistake not to do welfare reform first, which turned out to be right. Secondly, he felt that Washington could not absorb, in a two-year period, the economic plan, which he strongly supported. He was terrific: the NAFTA trade agreement, which he totally supported and which was controversial within our party, and this major healthcare thing. He said, "The system cannot absorb this much change in this short a time."
I didn't take offense at it. They thought I was being bullheaded. And I think, in retrospect, they were probably right.
THE STRUGGLE WITH NEWT GINGRICH
What was your relationship with Newt like?
I had an unusual relationship with him. First of all, it depended on which Newt showed up. The good Newt I found engaging and intelligent; we were surprisingly in agreement in the way we viewed the world.
Due to being the same age?
Partly. Newt supported me in virtually all of my foreign-policy initiatives. And after he got his Congress, he realized that a hundred of them had never had a passport. I remember him calling me once, wanting me to get them to go on foreign missions. He said, "If you ask them, then they can't be attacked back home for going on boondoggle trips."
We actually had a very cordial relationship. He was very candid with me about his political objectives. And he, in turn, from time to time, would get in trouble with the right wing of his own caucus, because they said I could talk him into too much.
On the other hand, as I told you, when he did things like blaming every bad thing that happened in America on Democrats, the 1960s and all that I thought it was highly destructive.
How did it make you feel personally?
At some point, probably around 1996, I got to the point where I no longer had personal feelings about those things - like the Whitewater investigation and the traveloffice investigation. Newt was smart. He knew there was nothing in any of that stuff. It was all politics to him; it was about power.
But he really did believe that the object of politics was to destroy your opponent. He ran former Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright out of Congress on account of that. And he had an enormous amount of success. He won the Congress basically by having a take-no-prisoners, be-againsteverything approach.
Didn't he tell you once on the phone that he was planning to lead a revolution against you?
He thought he was leading a revolution, and I was in the way. I thought he was a worthy adversary, and I thought I would defeat him. I thought the American people would stick with me. He thought that he could create, for the rest of my presidency, almost a parliamentary system, where he'd be the prime minister and make the policy, and I'd be in charge of foreign policy, and he'd help me.
There hasn't been as powerful and as antagonistic a speaker of the house in modern times. You had somebody actually out there, daily, fighting you. Newt vs. Bill.
Yeah. But that's what they decided to do. And you know, now I have a speaker in Denny Hastert, who I can really work with - we got a lot done. The dominant power in the caucus is still Tom DeLay and Dick Armey. And if they had their druthers, they'd still follow the other approach. But the balance of authority, of power, is so close in the House that, more often than not, we work things out.
In the Senate, you've got the same thing with Trent Lott. I have a very cordial personal relationship with Lott. I have a lot in common with Lott, our background and childhood. His daddy was a laboring person. He, as well, could have been a Democrat.
How'd you develop your strategy for dealing with Newt - waiting him out, then outflanking him?
I felt, after they won, that when the people actually saw the fine print on their contract, they would think it was a "Contract On America" instead of a "Contract With America." I had to oppose them where I thought they were wrong. But I couldn't let them push me back into the old confrontation, where they could say, "Clinton's an old Democrat." So, for example, instead of just fighting him on the budget, I offered my own balanced budget.
I thought they had to have a chance to run out their string. When we got to the government shutdown, I wasn't just against what they were doing - I had an alternative. It's easier for the Republicans to be against everything than the Democrats, because people view us as the party of affirmative government. I believed in balancing the budget. I just didn't want to do it the way they wanted to.
What's the bottom line on Newt? If you were a historian, what would you say about Gingrich?
That he was immensely successful in consolidating the power of the Republican Party in its right wing and then winning the Congress, winning the historic struggle for Congress in 1994, by opposing me right down the line.
In '94, the economy was getting better, but the people didn't feel it yet; the budget we passed did not impose great tax burdens on ordinary Americans, but they didn't know it yet. And the crime bill we passed was going to help bring the crime rate down - without interfering with people's gun rights but they didn't know it yet.
Gingrich had the best of all times to run through a gaping hole. And then I made the mistake of trying to do both the economic plan and NAFTA which dispirited some of our base supporters - and then health care, under circumstances that were literally impossible. You could not get a universal coverage plan past the Congress. I made a lot of errors, and he ran through them, and he, therefore, changed the Congress.
People will say that we had one of these historic battles that periodically happens in America about the role of the national government and, indeed, what the meaning of the nation is. And I think he thought he could actually carry out the revolution that President Reagan talked about: drastically shrinking the federal government, drastically limiting its ability to act in the social sphere and moving it to the right.
To me, we had a series of battles that were really the latest incarnation of this age-old battle of, "What does it mean to be an American?" "What is the idea of America?" "What is the purpose of the nation?" And the first one was the government shutdown; there was an impeachment; and I vetoed the Newt tax bill after Newt was gone. All these were ongoing battles.
The same thing is now shaping up over the courts. The most important issue in this election may well be what happens to the Supreme Court. Because we're one vote away from having enough votes that would . . . repeal Roe v. Wade. There are other issues in the courts, which I think are quite profound. There are five votes right now to restrict the ability of Congress to require the states to participate in protecting the American people in a lot of fundamental ways. This is an ongoing battle.
It's the same battle that we had between George Washington and John Adams - and Alexander Hamilton and john Marshall on the one side, and Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and a lot of other people on the other - in the beginning. The same battle Abraham Lincoln had around the time of the Civil War: Could the states secede? Did the federal government have the power to enslave them? Same battle we had at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution when Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson asserted the authority of the nation to prescribe basic conditions in the workplace.
REFLECTIONS ON IMPEACHMENT
In the history books, it will say, of course, that you were the second president ever to be impeached. How does that make you feel? Will it cloud your real accomplishments?
The history books will also record, I think, that both impeachments were wrong. And that's why they failed. And I'm just grateful that, unlike Andrew Johnson, I was less embittered by it, and I had more support, from the public and in the Congress, and so I was able to resume my duties and actually get a lot done for the American people in the aftermath.
Was there ever a point you wanted to give up or it just became too hard?
Did you ever get so angry during it that you think it clouded your judgment?
I got angry, but I always was alone with friends who would deflate me. I don't think it ever clouded my judgment on any official thing. I realized that, when it was all over, I would have the responsibility to work with the Republicans as well as the Democrats.
One of the things I had to learn - it took me almost my whole first term to learn it -was that, at some point, presidents are not permitted to have personal feelings. When you manifest your anger in public, it should be on behalf of the American people and the values that they believe in. All this stuff you can't take personally.
I realized that for the people who were directing it, it was just politics. It's about power and politics. So I was largely able to purge myself of it. I had very strong personal feelings about it, but I tried never to talk about it. I tried to get up every day and just do my job and let others defend me, publicly, and get on with the work of the country.
And vent in private ....
Presidents will always be under siege in some way or another. If you don't want the job, and the attendant heat, you shouldn't ask for it.
Does it make you uncomfortable to talk about this episode now?
No. I just think the less I say about it right now, the better. I think when more time passes, more people will see what happened and the more it will come out. There have been some pretty good books written about it.
What do you think of Ken Starr now?
I think he did what he was hired to do.
You told me you never really met him and had no ill feelings.
I met him once, when he interviewed me. But he was hired to keep the inquiry going past the '96 election and to do whatever damage he could. That's why he was put in, and he did what they asked him to do.
What's your take on Representative Henry Hyde -who was supposed to be Mr. Reasonable, and then went and seemingly defied the will of the people after the '98 elections?
He did what he was hired to do, too. The right wing was in control of the Congress, and they thought they had paid in the 1998 elections when they nearly lost the House. They thought they had a free shot to put a hit on me, and so they did. I don't think it's complicated.
They stayed with their right wing, and they thought they would pay no price in 2000. They thought, whatever happened, it would all be over by then. They thought they could put a black mark on me in history, and that was really important to them. They were really angry they got beat, they were angry.
And it's not an issue now in this election, really.
It is in three or four House seats, but not many.
It's an issue to me.
But it shouldn't be. I think the only way it should be an issue in the election is that it indicates how important it is that there's someone in the White House who can restrain them. Because it's just one example of other things they were doing: to the environmental laws of our country, to the education laws, to the health-care system.
I don't know why that should be an issue. I mean, it's over, and the American people shouldn't expect to dwell on it. They shouldn't have to deal with it.
Who do you think really came through for you and got up and defended you?
Oh, tons of people. The House Judiciary Committee Democrats were really good. And, you know, there were Boo people - including a lot of Republicans who didn't even like me - who filed testimony, talking about how inappropriate it was. And there was that bipartisan panel of career prosecutors, who said that no one would bring any criminal charges on this. A lot of people came forward who had no particular reason to do it. But they were caring about their country, and they were offended by what was going on.
Do you think it was in some way a referendum on the nature, morality or character of the American people?
Not really. People strongly disagreed with what I did. I did, too. I think that they just were able to discriminate between a bad personal mistake and the justification for a constitutional crisis. I think it's about their ability to discriminate between two different kinds of problems and not any change in moral standards.
Do you think we learned anything from the impeachment process?
The one thing it did was point out all the other excesses, that there was a bogus Whitewater investigation. That civil lawsuit against me was bogus. Even the judge who was famous for disliking me personally threw it out as having no merit.
I think that - at least for the time being - it took a lot of the venom out of our public life. Even as hard as George Bush and A1 Gore are hitting each other in this election, they're by and large hitting each other over the issues.
Bush has got some ad up now questioning Gore's integrity - it's amazing that Bush would question Gore's integrity. He knows that there's a certain number of voters who vote for Republicans because they're convinced that they're morally superior to Democrats, notwithstanding the fact that we're awash in evidence now that they're not. And so he's doing that. But there's been very little of that, even from him.
The level of venom is lower than it was. And maybe I absorbed enough for several years. And if so, then that alone might make it worth doing.
It's just crazy for America to have all these fabulous opportunities and some pretty stiff challenges out there to waste our elections and our public officials' time with things that we know are bogus and trivial and cost the taxpayers a fortune, for no other purpose than for one side to pursue political advantage over another. There'll always be some of that. But my instinct is that, in the next four years, we'll have a lot less of it.
THE PRESIDENT AND THE PRESS
As president, you have a relationship with the press that's unique in the world: You are subject to more criticism, more attention - more everything. What's your take on the press in America?
It's very difficult to generalize. On balance, it's a great advantage for the president to have the bully pulpit that can reach everyone in America, everyone in the world, instantaneously. Any criticism that the president has about negative press or incessant carping or whatever you've got to temper that with the fact that they make it possible for you to do your job in the communications age.
I also admire the reporters who are on this airplane. Because I've worked harder and keep long hours, it's been a hard job for them. They go around in the vans, not on Air Force One and helicopters. They have a lot of hard work to do, and by and large, most of them do it as well as they can and as honestly as they can. I have an enormous amount of respect for them.
There's another part of the press - almost a celebrity political press, all the way from the columnists to the people who are on all these talk shows all the time. In order for them to be successful, their comments have to have edge; they tend to be more negative and more dogmatic. There tends to be more heat than light in a lot of what's said in those forums and formats. But that's part of the new age we're living in: They're on the cutting edge between the serious press, the tabloid press, pure political advocacy and entertainment.
You've got all these segments now that are kind of blurred together, compounded by a twenty-four-hour news cycle. The fact that there are umpty-ump channels for people to watch - some of which are news channels, and they have to go after a narrow segment of the market. If you took it all seriously, it'd really be nuts, you know? Once you realize what the environment is, you just learn to deal with it.
The important thing is, too, for presidents especially, to try to hear the criticism. Because it's not always wrong, sometimes it's right, and I find it easier, really, when it comes from thoughtful columnists who are really trying to make a serious contribution to the national debate.
Which columnists or reporters do you think have been particularly smart in their coverage of you in the last eight years?
Tom Friedman New York Times foreign-affairs columnist] is the best one, possibly, that we have, by a long stretch. He understands the world we're living in and the one toward which we are moving. Therefore, whether he's criticizing me or analyzing an issue, he's trying to do it from a completely honest point of view. I think [Los Angeles Times political writer Ron Brownstein is one of the two or three best political columnists in America today. Truly extraordinary. He understood the ideas that underlay the '9z campaign and the whole Democratic Leadership Council effort. He made it his business to study that. I think [Washington Post columnist] E J. Dionne is good.
Do you harbor any resentment toward the "New York Times" for its role in Whitewater?
It's sort of like what they did to Wen Ho Lee, in a way. The same reporter got a story, it was overwritten, and dire things were predicted. But whatever I feel about that has to be tempered by the fact that the Times has a serious conscience when it comes to the national issues. They really have tried and have consistently done an excellent job of analysis. They were trying to come out in the right place, in the right way. So whatever I feel about them is tempered by that.
Do you think, institutionally, it's working right, the press as a whole?
They're doing the best they can in a very new and different environment. I have a lot of sympathy for them. How can presidents hate the press? You can gripe all you want about all the negative coverage you get on the evening news or on the talk shows or being blasted in the newspaper or having them get on something when they're dead wrong, like Whitewater - where they're just dead wrong. But every day they're writing about all the things that affect the American people in their lives. Anytime you want a microphone to have your say, you've got it. So I think to be obsessively negative is a mistake.
LEAVING THE WHITE HOUSE, AND A WORD OF ADVICE
What creature comforts are you going to miss the most about leaving the White House - about not living there?
The movie theater . . . the swimming pool . . . Camp David. Everybody says I'll miss Air Force One the most once I have to return to commercial travel.
What I will miss the most is not the creature comforts. It's the honor of living in the White House, which I have loved. I love my country - I love the history of my country. I was a pretty good American historian before I got there, and I know a lot more now than I did then. I've read a lot about presidents who most people don't know much about including me before I got here. And, even more than that, I'll miss the work. It's the job I'll miss the most - I love the work. I actually love doing this job.
Do you just get off every single day when you get up?
Every day. Even on the worst day. Even in the worst times of that whole impeachment thing. I just thank God every day I can go to work. I love the job - and I always loved it.
On the other hand, is there anything that seems attractive to you about not living there anymore?
I look forward to being a citizen again. It'll be the first time in eighteen years that I've really had a private home that was my primary residence. I'll get up every day feeling a responsibility to be of public service, but knowing that, basically, I'm in control of my life again. It'll be an interesting challenge for me.
Eighteen years is a long time to be a chief executive, living in public houses - with every day scripted out . . . hours and hours every day. Particularly if you work like I do. It's a challenge; I'm gonna be interested to see whether I can meet it and what it means, going to this next chapter of my life. I'm actually excited about it.
What's the one thing that'll surprise the next guy who becomes president, that they just can't know now? What was the greatest surprise to you? And what advice would you give the next president?
He will be surprised how many different things happen at once. Now, Al won't be as surprised by that, because he's been there eight years. That's an other good argument for voting for him, because he knows the experience and he makes good decisions. He'll be a very good president if he wins - he'll be quite good.
The environment, I think, will be less hostile for either one of them than it was for me, and they'll have more of an opportunity to craft cooperative solutions. Under almost any conceivable scenario, Congress will be even more closely divided than it is now, which will require them to all work together. I hope they do. But they'll still be surprised at how many different things they'll have crashing in on them at once.
What particular advice would you have?
After Election Day, they ought to get more rest than I did. I didn't really take a vacation. I think they ought to clear their heads. I would advise them to work as hard as they can to get a good cabinet and a good staff, and then really emphasize teamwork. And when you come to the tough decisions, do what you think is right. It's just not in the nature of human existence to be free of difficulty. When you come down to those tough decisions, you just have to do what you think is right. Tell the American people why you did it and hope they'll go along with it.
"GORE WILL WIN"
This interview comes out after the election. So give me a prediction.
I've always believed Gore would win, and I still do. In the closing days of this election, people will begin to think about whether they really want to risk this prosperity by adopting an economic plan that has a huge tax cut, a huge Social Security privatization program and a bunch of spending that'll put us back into deficit.
People will have to think about whether they want to risk having nobody to restrain a Republican Congress, if they should stay in the majority. And I think they'll think about what will happen to the courts. Those things will be enough to put A1 Gore over, and I think he'll be elected.
What do you think the margin is going to be - the popular vote?
I have no idea. I think it'll definitely be close in the popular vote. Whether it's close in the electoral vote depends on what happens in a dozen states that could go either way.
Predict Florida for me. Predict Pennsylvania and Michigan.
I think Gore will win Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. I've always thought Gore would win Florida. We worked like crazy there for eight years. And we've done a lot for Florida, and a lot with Florida - and Joe Lieberman has helped a lot in Florida. So I think Gore will win Florida.
What have you learned about the American people? You've had a unique exposure to them that nobody else has ever had.
I'll tell you this: When I leave office on January zoth, I will leave even more idealistic than I was the day I took the oath of office, eight years earlier.
The American people are fundamentally good, and they almost always get it right, if they have enough time and enough information. But the biggest problem we have in public discourse today is, there's plenty of information out there, but you don't know what's true and what's not, and it's hard to access it. It's all kind of flying at you at once. It's hard to have time to digest it. But if people have the information, they have time to digest it, they nearly always get it right. And if that weren't the case, we wouldn't be around here after 224 years.
Do you have any special message to young people? Any valedictory thoughts to the kids in school right now as you leave office?
First of all, I think that they should realize that they're very fortunate to be living in this country at this time. Fortunate because of our economic prosperity, fortunate because of our enormous diversity and fortunate because of the permeation of technology in our society. All of which enables us to relate to the rest of the world and to one another in different and better ways.
Secondly, I think they should understand that our future success is not guaranteed -and it depends on their interest in public affairs as well as their private lives - and their participation.
One of the things that's really concerned me about this election is all these articles that say that young people think there's not much in it for them. I think maybe that's because there's been a lot of debate about Social Security and Medicare. They think that's just an old-folks issue.
The Social Security issue is a youth issue. Why? Because when all of us baby boomers retire - and I'm the oldest of the baby boomers, people between the ages now of fifty-four and thirty-six - there will only be two people working for every one person drawing Social Security.
There are all these other issues that concern young people in this election. We have to build a clean-energy future to avoid global warming. There are two stunning studies that have come out in the last month: One, the analysis of the polar ice cap, says that the 1990s was the warmest decade in a thousand years. The other, a projecting study, estimates that if we don't change our greenhouse-gas emissions, the climate will warm between 2.4 and 10 degrees over the next century. Two-point-four is too much; ten degrees would flood a lot of Louisiana and Florida. This is a very serious thing.
Then you've got this incredible scientific technological revolution. If you just take the human genome alone, a lot of the young people in America today, when they have their children, they'll get a little gene card to take home with them from the hospital. And their children will be born with a life expectancy of ninety years.
This is a fascinating time to be alive, but it's not free of challenges. So I would say to the young people: You'll probably live in the most prosperous, interesting time in human history. But there are a lot of big challenges out there, and you'll have to be public citizens as well as private people.
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