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JOE KLEIN

Joe Klein
The New Yorker
Author, Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics
"A Natural President:  The Presidency of Bill Clinton"
September 16, 2002

Joe Klein: I have known Bill Clinton for 15 years and he has never told me what he thought of anything I have ever written.  But one day, he came close.  It was at the end of his presidency when I was interviewing him for a piece in the New Yorker that later became the book--The Natural.  People were surprised that Clinton would talk to me at all after Primary Colors.  But, I wasn't because on substantial matters, he knew that I had always been very fair to him.  I had ripped him apart when he needed it and I praised him, pretty consistently throughout.  Indeed I had written the week of the Lewinsky scandal broke in the New Yorker that this would be an era remembered more for its severity of its prosecutions than for the seriousness of its crimes. 

During one of the interviews that we were doing we had spent two hours talking about health care and welfare, which were the sort of issues that he and I talked about very early on in our relationship.  One of the things that struck me in the late 1980's when I got to know him was that he was a one-stop shopping center for social policy issues.  I could call him up from New York Magazine, where I was working at the time, and ask him "who's doing interesting things in housing?"  He would tell me what everybody was doing in housing--all 50 governors.  He would keep on going and going more than I wanted to know.

One of the things that drew us to each other in the beginning was that I had written a lot of the first pieces about the public school choice experiment in East Harlem.  The governor of New York at the time, Mario Cuomo, had not been to visit those schools, but the governor of Arkansas had been.  I was always kind of surprised and delighted by that. 

This interview about health care and welfare reform, which went on for a long time, made both of us feel pretty good, I think.  It was like the good old days in a way.  I was not asking him about Monica Lewinsky or any of the other scandals.  In fact, when my editor for The Natural read my manuscript he said, "this is Bill Clinton above the waist."  We were feeling pretty good.  The First Lady came in and we had a Diet Coke because, you know, you don't have a beer with the president, especially if he does not drink. 

We are in the midst of a conversation and he says, "so why did you write that other book, anyway?" Meaning Primary Colors.  I said, "well, Mr. President,  I saw it as a tribute to larger-than-life politicians," at which point Mrs. Clinton snorted derisively.  I looked at her and I said, "First Lady, would you rather have a larger-than-life president, or a smaller-than-life president?"  She shrugged in agreement.  I said to her, "larger-than-life politicians have larger-than-life strengths and larger-than-life weaknesses."  She looked at me then she looked at her husband and said, "that's for sure."  What that has to do with presidential character, is this:  in the recent era since Watergate, presidential character has all too often been defined by my colleagues as sexual behavior--about what you do in the bedroom or, sometimes in the Oval Office.  I would like to say, with a fair amount of seriousness, that I stand before you a pro-peccadillo journalist. 

I think that if you look at the history of the 20th Century, the politicians with interesting personal and sexual have been far more successful as presidents than the politicians who were not.  Just from an aesthetic point of view, I disapprove of government by goody-goodies.  I do not want to have, as my president, someone who married his high school sweetheart and did nothing else in his life except be ambitious.  We are flawed by nature.  I want to have president who understands our flaws and who has committed some of our flaws.  In fact, my definition of a great president was a guy who cheated on his wife to the point that he ruined his marriage, drank a pitcher of martinis every night that he was in the White House, played poker and cheated at that, lied to his staff, lied to the American people on basic issues of war and peace, stuck the Internal Revenue Service on his enemies and my grandfather voted for him four times--Franklin Roosevelt. 

I blame us, those of us who are in the press, to a very great extent for narrowing down our concept of what is greatness, what is character, what the presidency should be all about.  In our implicit demand, the politicians be something other than human beings.  I would much rather have a human being in there any time.  Give me someone who used to drink, as George W. Bush did, who used to smoke dope, as Al Gore did.  I was so pleased to learn that he had indulged.  Up until that point I had thought that the guy was a robot.  It gave me some hope.  Given someone who has undue and sloppy affection for a pet, who wears loud ties, who has a personality.  I think that we all benefit from that--someone who we would like to see in our living room for four years.

One definition of presidential character, something absolutely integral to it I think  is the ability to do the difficult thing, the ability to go against the polls, the ability to go against your party's base, the ability to think long term rather than short term.  So much of what American life is about now is short term.  You look at the corporate scandals and it was all about "let's boost our earnings for this quarter."  I remember when the movie of Primary Colors was made and I was talking to the director, Mike Niccols, and we had a so-so first weekend.  He said that that was what it was all about--the first weekend.  Your whole future as a film, all of the promotions and the way you are considered is based on the first weekend of how you do.  Everything is rated.  We see how each of the television shows is rated short term.  We do not look at the long term. 

So when you look at a president and how a president performs, the judgment should not be three or four of my colleagues screaming at each other on Sunday morning and having a host say, "on a scale of one to ten, did President Bush do a bad job or a good job last Wednesday at the United Nations?"  It should be a more considerate judgment of what our long term interests are at a very complicated and dangerous moment. 

Bill Clinton had a reputation of having absolutely no character at all--of being all-politician of being totally expedient and oriented to his immediate and short-term political benefit.  I think that is an unfair judgment. 

I will take three areas where Clinton defied those expectations.  By the way, it is absolutely true that up until the current president, Clinton had spent more money on polling and market testing than all of his predecessor combined.  It is absolutely true that every week in the solarium, on top of the White House, there was a meeting where Clinton would sit with Mark Pen, his polling advisor, and get the latest account of the American peoples' feelings down to the minute details.  It is true that Mark Pen would say things to him like, "every moment that you spend discussing foreign policy in the State of The Union message is a moment wasted." 

But, Clinton did come to the presidency with a coherent, long term political philosophy and purpose.  To a  very great extent--a surprising extent--he lived up to it.  I know because I was there and I was one of those who was involved in the formulating of this new philosophy, which has been called The Third Way.  There was a general understanding that the Democratic Party had gone off the deep end and needed to come back.  Clinton once told me that when he was hoping to be Mario Cuomo's vice president, the job of the next president is going to be to move us from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. 

Government was, and very much still remains, the last of our major institutions that stuck in the Industrial Age, where the paradigm is top-down, centralized command and control, assembly line, standardization, and one size fits all.  

In the Information Age, Clinton new that the paradigm was the computer, that the government had to be more decentralized, that bureaucracies had to become more flexible, and that our social safety net had to reflect that--the fact that people had more information and have to have more choices about where they get their health care, where their money for their retirement is held, and so on.

That is how I tried to judge him in The Natural.  Whether or not he lived up to those principles.  The record is very mixed.  In terms of entitlements, he did not get very far.  But in terms of other things, I think that there were major advances.  In many cases, there were advances that went against his pollsters, went against common political thinking, went against the conventional wisdom.

The conventional wisdom is that the first year of presidency is the best time to get something big accomplished.  So, if you are a Republican, you come in and you cut taxes.  It makes your folks happy.  If you are a Democrat, you come in and you raise social spending.  Clinton did neither.  The budget was in a deep hole at that point, his political consultants all wanted him to do a stimulus package of more social spending.  He did a little one and it did not get very far in Congress and he allowed it to die. 

He had promised a middle class tax cut.  He did not deliver on that, either.  But, what he did was quite extraordinary.  He raised taxes on the wealthy and he re-imposed the domestic spending caps that the first President Bush had imposed, and devoted his administration to the long term goal of deficit reduction in the service of an abstract theory.  The theory was, and it had not been proven at that point, that if you reduce the deficit, more money would be available to the capital market, interest rates would come down and the economy would boom.  This is what Bob Reuben, his National Economic Advisor, was telling him at that point. 

It is very rare that a politician will expend political capital at the most important moment of his presidency in the service of an abstraction.  Bill Clinton did that, never got credit for that, but it paid off and I think we all know that it did.  He did not create the boom of the 1990's, but he did not strangle it, either.  The actions of the government sent a very clear message to Wall Street that they were not going to be wild and crazy Democrats spending us to oblivion.  That they were going to be disciplined, prudent and intelligent about economics.  It is not for nothing that James Carvell said, "if there's reincarnation, I want to come back as the bond market because it gets whatever it wants." 

That was not the only time that Clinton acted in the service of an abstraction.  Free trade was also an abstraction.  His party was dead set against it because his party's base to labor unions felt that if tariffs were lowered, jobs would go overseas.  I remember Clinton, during the campaign, going to United Auto worker halls in Michigan and explaining why he was in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement. 

In the fall of 1993, also his first year--the year in which you get something done--there was one of his top advisers, with whom he happened to share a bedroom, who was pushing him to forget about the North American Free Trade Agreement and concentrate all of his energies on health care.  He said no to her, and he said yes to another abstraction, the abstraction of free trade.

A third area where he said no to her and no to the base of his party, was welfare reform.  He campaigned on it in African American neighborhoods and churches .  His sense was that there were risks there, as there still remain risks, but that the system, as it was, was fundamentally unfair and it was a bone sticking in the throat of the Democrats natural constituencies--workers and the middle class--across the country that you would never be able to do the important things that needed to be done on entitlements and other issues if you did not remove the bone of this absolutely unfair and broken system from the consideration of the middle class. 

You know what?  The jury is out on welfare reform, in one very small respect.  At that time I was writing a column for Newsweek  the week that he was to sign the bill, I wrote a column opposed to his signing it because the dirty little secret of welfare is that people are on it for a reason.  A significant number of the women who are on welfare are incompetent--mentally, intellectually, emotionally and sometimes physically--and cannot go to work.

There were different estimates of what percentage of the people on Welfare were like that.  The estimate that was come up with was 20%.  At that point I was saying, "what if it is 21%?"  To force that 1% out on the street is an act of unbelievable cruelty.  We can only hope that does not happen as the five year dates come to fruition. 

But, welfare rolls plummeted.  Most people will not tell you why because it does not fit into an ideological box.  Welfare roles did not plummet because the economy boomed, although that helped.  Welfare roles did not plummet because we began to spend more money on daycare and welfare to work programs.  The main reason why welfare rolls plummeted was because a significant number of people on welfare already had jobs in the underground economy and when they were told, "you now have to go to work," they said goodbye and went to the jobs that they were actually working.  There were a significant number of people on welfare who were already working.  So we should be thankful that we are not paying them to work twice.  That is another area where Bill Clinton was courageous and showed presidential character.

Let me tell you one last anecdote.  When the Mexican peso plummeted, Bob Reuben came to the president and the first thing he asked him to do was go to Congress.  Newt Gingrich called him up that day and said that no way was he coming through Congress with this, that they would trounce it.  Furthermore, Newt Gingrich, in the humility of his spirit, said, "you want to know how people feel about this?  You should go on Rush Limbaugh and talk to him."  By nightfall, Reuben had come up with a scheme to fund support for the Mexican peso.  There was a meeting in the Oval Office.  Reuben was there, the inevitable pollsters and political consultants were there, George Stefanopolous was there, now a moderate. 

The pollster hands Bill Clinton a poll that had appeared that day in the Los Angeles Times -- eighty five percent to fifteen percent, some incredible amount, was opposed to the Mexican bailout.  He turns to Reuben and asks him if this is the right thing to do, and Reuben tells him absolutely.  Clinton then said, "okay, let's do it," and it was a five minute meeting.  The Mexicans recovered and paid back the loan guarantees ahead of schedule.

I am not saying that Bill Clinton showed great character through his presidency.  I had to say it sooner or later, but, "I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky."  Not only was that a show of very bad character indeed, flat out lies, in also had a substantive impact on American policy including, I am afraid to say, the war on terror.  I will tell you exactly why.

First of all, on American policy in general, it removed any possibility that Clinton could take those surpluses and use them to reform Social Security and Medicare.  Those issues were off the table after Monica showed her beautiful face. 

The other area, and to my mind an area of much greater concern, was the FBI.  In the mid-1990's when Osama bin Laden really began to hit the radar screen at the National Security Council, Sandy Berger, Clinton's National Security Advisor, became obsessed with this and how to deal with it.  One of the things that he realized was that the FBI was a mess.  It was a terrible mess and needed to be reformed drastically.  He tried to talk to the FBI director, Louis Freeh, about this, but he was not buying.  In fact, Freeh was spending an awful lot of time investigating the president.  I can tell you, with a great deal of certainty, that Berger wanted Freeh fired and someone put in place who would look for the terrorist cells within the United States and who would place much greater emphasis on that.  I believe that the president wanted to fire him as well but he could not.  Why?  Because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. 

That was a very profound impact that it had on September 11--that Clinton's fecklessness and emotional immaturity had on September 11.

Another area where he did not show character was in his dealings with the military, in part because of his own background.  One of the things you have to be able to do with the American military is to tell them, "take your toys and go use them.  Go fight."  When Clinton wanted to move into Bosnia, Colon Powell said to him, "we don’t  do mountains."  A president who did not feel so insecure about his own military credentials might have taken a look at him and said, "General, I seem to think that I just heard The Commander in Chief of the United States of America tell you to go and come up with a plan for restoring order in Bosnia."  Clinton did not do that.  And time, and time, and time again, he decided to go with the cruise missile option rather than a more robust option.  Robust is the current euphemism for violent.  It would have been very difficult before 9-11, that is for sure.  I did not hear any Republicans clamoring for the removal of Osama bin Laden.  But this was the man with the greatest communication skills of any politician I had ever seen.  This was a job that needed to be done, and it was not done.

I think it is time for a more enlightened form of citizenship and a more enlightened form of partisanship.  I think that we have to start demanding the uncomfortable from our politicians.  As you watch your candidates her e in Virginia this year and in the years to come--and nationally, especially in 2004--if they do not do you the honor of telling you some uncomfortable truths, then do not vote for them.  It is time to get this thing more serious.  It is time for the words of Mark Penn, "every minute you spend on foreign policy is a minute wasted," to be purged from American public life.  This next election cannot be just about what the Democrats want it to be about--the economy.  It has got to be about foreign policy.  I think that, ultimately, we are in a very serious moment and whether the politicians take it as seriously as it should be taken will depend on you.  Presidential character ultimately is a reflection of your character.

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