The New Yorker
Author, Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics
"A Natural President: The Presidency of Bill Clinton"
September 16, 2002
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
was a very profound impact that it had on September 11--that Clinton's
fecklessness and emotional immaturity had on September 11.
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.
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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