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Bob Woodward
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Bob Woodward

History will judge Clinton harshly, Woodward tells Miller Center crowd

By Dan Heuchert

William Jefferson Clinton's White House tenure will end in slightly over a year, and at least one Washington observer said that it likely will be remembered as "a squandered presidency."

With the nation's economy booming and a high personal approval ratings, Clinton had a great opportunity to outline a positive vision for America's future and push the nation toward it, famed Watergate journalist Bob Woodward told an overflow crowd of 344 at the Miller Center of Public Affairs in a Nov. 10 appearance.

Instead, "everything is tactical in the Clinton presidency, in the best way and in the worst way," said Woodward, now an assistant managing editor of the Washington Post.

Clinton ought to share credit for the strong economy with his two predecessors, Woodward said. Ronald Reagan passed the largest tax increase in history, and Bush's 1990 budget deal -- in which he broke his famed "read my lips, no new taxes" campaign pledge -- provided needed revenue to the government while cutting spending, he said. Both reduced the deficit.

In 1993, Clinton also raised taxes while further cutting spending and forged a behind-the-scenes deal with Federal Reserve Board chair Alan Greenspan, in which Greenspan pledged to keep interest rates stable if Clinton continued to reduce the deficit, Woodward said. "By creating this stability, they created this boom," he said.

Despite the economic success, Clinton's presidential history will be tarnished by scandals, Woodward said. He paid "an immense price" by waging his successful defense against removal by impeachment, rather than ending the Lewinsky scandal at the earliest possible moment with simple truth-telling. Likewise, "I could have written the speech in 2 1/2 minutes that could have ended the Whitewater probe in 1994," Woodward said.

"He does not tell the truth, and that will be much of his legacy, I think," he said.

Clinton escaped removal in his Senate impeachment trial because "there was no evidence that Clinton committed crimes," just that he participated in unsavory personal behavior, Woodward said. The lack of evidence stood in stark contrast to the Watergate case, in which credible evidence continued to mount almost daily.

In the Clinton case, "as time went on, instead of the evidence getting stronger, all of the evidence got weaker. It evaporated," he said.

Politically, Clinton's successes have come because of his centrist political views -- "[He] naturally moves to the center. He's an accommodator" -- and because he is an outstanding political strategist and a man of great personal charisma.

To the latter point, he told a story about spending an hour in 1994 interviewing Clinton in the Oval Office for his book, The Agenda.

Upon entering the office, "He immediately drilled me with this eye contact that almost grabbed me with its own gravitational force," Woodward recalled. What's more, he maintained eye contact for the entire hour. "I thought, 'he realizes how brilliant my questions are.'

"It was very effective. I thought it was a great interview. But I went back and transcribed it, and it was largely mush."

That intense sense of personal connection comes through in small group settings and on television, Woodward said.

Asked what he thinks the president will do once he leaves office, Woodward said he hopes Clinton will come clean someday. "He could write one of the great presidential memoirs," he said.

The president may yet have a few surprises left. "He is determined to drive his impeachment into the second paragraph of his obituary," Woodward said.

During the closing question-and-answer session, one attendee couldn't avoid the temptation of asking the obvious question: Will we ever know the identity of "Deep Throat," the secret source of many of his Watergate stories?

"Not this afternoon," Woodward quipped.


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