NINETY-FIVE DAYS BEFORE his first national election, Bill Clinton stepped into the back room of Doe’s Eat Place, a café in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a few minutes before noon on Friday, July 31st, and the governor, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, khakis and running shoes, seemed relaxed but tired. He began the conversation by explaining the provenance of Doe’s — it’s a knockoff, of sorts, of a steak-and-seafood shack in the Mississippi Delta. Nearly two and a half hours later, he answered the last two questions: Paul was his favorite Beatle, and he voted for, even campaigned for, the Young Elvis stamp. What follows is the conversation that occurred in between, along with accounts from correspondents Greider, O’Rourke and Thompson.
Wenner: I was struck at the convention, after the acceptance speech, with all of you up there not only dancing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” but singing along with it. It warmed my heart, and I thought, “This is truly a generational ticket.”
Thompson: Remember, Carter memorized all of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.
Wenner: But when he was asked to name his favorite Dylan song, he couldn’t. He said, “I can’t; there’s too many.” And pressed to name two or three, he still couldn’t give two or three.
Thompson: But he did quote Dylan in his Law Day speech. He cited Dylan and Reinhold Niebuhr as his two influences. It seduced me.
O’Rourke: Seduced you? You were out the door and —
Thompson: Yeah. I was a believer. Excuse me, I didn’t mean to —
Yeah. Sometimes I think you can overdo this generational business. I hadn’t thought about it quite as much until we were up there singing. I wanted to use that song all during the primary. It captured what I wanted to say about the country and the campaign.
The postwar generation was raised with this sense of unlimited possibility. And then, of course, it was rent by the war in Vietnam and the civil-rights years. I think fundamentally people in our generation are much more idealistic than a lot of others have been, ’cause we were raised to believe things were possible, that we can make a difference.
At the convention I felt a sense of real optimism and hope. A lot of my mail is from people who just have a sense that maybe the government can be made to work again, maybe the country can be made to succeed again, maybe things can happen again.
I was in Spokane [Washington] the other day. I’d never been there before, but one of the guys I lived with at Oxford, who was a Vietnam War resister, was from Spokane. I met a guy who’d been in his high-school class, and we started talking about him. And all of a sudden the years were melting away, and I could see this guy felt, well, maybe we’re all going to be able to do something good, make this all come out all right after all.
And then I met with a group of citizens. There was this woman there about my age, and she said explicitly, “You’ve got to go in there and redeem the Sixties generation.”
Wenner: People have been saying that Sixties idealism is dead, that it didn’t work out, it was a wrong idea.
No. It didn’t all work out, but we did a lot of good.
Wenner: What did we do that was good?
I think that a lot of the young people crossed racial lines in fighting for equal opportunity, for civil rights. Fundamentally, I still believe the opposition to the Vietnam War was accurate. It was the right position for the country. But there were also problems with it — excesses and perceived excesses. The country began to be pretty divided in the late Sixties and still is today.
Wenner: How badly do you think Vietnam hurt this generation, the experience of growing up mistrusting the government, of being cynical about government itself?
Vietnam did cause us to doubt the government, but it also caused a lot of self-doubt. People who went and sacrificed and thought it was right, then came home to a culture that said it was wrong. People who opposed the war — though most of us still think we were right — we were World War II babies. We wanted to serve our country; we wanted to be part of patriotic wars; we wanted to believe in sacrifice. We paid quite a price as a generation for the impact Vietnam had on the country.
Greider: Has 1992 seemed as weird to you as it has to us? Not the ups and downs of the race so much as the flash points of anger and antipolitics, which you’ve been a target of and also benefited from.
I think by and large that’s healthy. I think the American people are saying: “Pox on both your houses. This deal’s not working for the average person. We may not know exactly what changes we want, but we want some fundamental changes.” People are desperately yearning to go beyond the established political debate.
O’Rourke: But are people looking to politics to solve problems that maybe can’t be solved politically?
I think there’s a tendency to do that. If you compare our performance with other countries’, you see that you can’t run a country like ours without a more activist government. Still, I think it’s a mistake and a trap for the Democrats to pretend all our problems can be solved by the political system. Or by the national government.
O’Rourke: It’s not just the Democrats. For fifty years people in both parties have been saying: “Bring me your problems, and I’ll give you a solution. Maybe a maximalist solution, maybe a minimalist solution, but I’ll bring you some kind of solution.”
But I think when we started doing that, most of the problems we were talking about had solutions.
Greider: Back to the anger. What’s underneath it? Are the people right to sense they’ve been cut out of their government?
Yeah. Underneath the anger, there’s the sense that government works for the organized, the rich and the powerful, not for ordinary folks.
Thompson: I believe that myself.
And I think they’re right. The second thing is, there’s a sense that nothing ever really gets done, that we don’t make any progress, we don’t change.
Then, underlying that — and this is what I tried to address in this campaign, with mixed results — there’s a third element. People say this society’s got a lot of problems but ask: “How can the government fix them? What am I supposed to do? How are we going to change the way we are? What is the role of the president in reducing infant mortality or teen pregnancy or drug abuse or whatever?”
There is a sense that the system works for the few, a sense that big problems don’t get solved and a sense that a lot of these things are beyond the reach of our common endeavor. Most people are working harder for less money than they were making ten years ago. The census even shows it.
Greider: They know it, and they know that the politicians have not been talking about it.
That’s accurate. And so there is an atmosphere of fear and concern and anger. But there’s also an enormous amount of hope out there. People know we’re in a new era, that the end of the Cold War gives us a sense of new possibility. And this is — at least it always has been — an incurably optimistic country. Our ability to re-create ourselves at critical junctures is why we’re still around after all this time.
Greider: When you say “mixed results,” I’m curious. Are you grading yourself on how well you’ve communicated all this?
I think I’ve done well at times and not so well at times. Part of it had to do with static in the atmosphere, part of it had to do with just trying to craft an honest and responsive message. But I do believe that to make people believe in politics again, you have to say three things. “Here’s how it’s going to be fair: It’s going to work for everybody. But more important, here’s how it’s going to work: We’re going to restore economic opportunity and a sense of progress.” Then I think you’ve got to say to people: “There are limits to what a government can do if you don’t do your part.”
O’Rourke: That interests me, because if you add up federal, state and local spending, government in one form or another is spending forty-seven percent of our gross national product. That means that forty-seven percent of GNP is being allocated by political means rather than individual choice. I’m concerned about the governmentalization, politicization of so much of our lives. Is it possible to say no to the voters?
Yeah, but I think we need a government that is in some ways less and in some ways more, a government that’s different.
Take health care. We need a system of health care that is private but where the government organizes the insurance markets so that you have managed competition. A system that gives everybody access to basic care and controls the cost but where the docs, the hospitals, the providers and the insurers are still in the mix. That requires more government activity. On the other hand I think that we need less government micromanagement of the health-care system, fewer people on the government payroll second-guessing every decision.
Greider: Governor, what I hear from my labor friends is that you’re stuck in the middle on health-care reform, that — you know the argument — you’re not willing to go all the way to a —
Greider: Yeah, a single-payer system like Canada’s, because that will get you tagged as a tax-and-spend liberal.
No, I’m not willing to do it because the Canadian system is fee-for-service, with no incentives to manage cost, and taxpayer financed, with no incentives for citizen-contribution restraint; it has the second-highest rate of cost increase in the world. Ours is the first highest.
Greider: It’s still better than ours.
It’s better than ours, but I think you get quicker response to certain procedures here. But look at Hawaii. It has a mixed system, with sweeping insurance reforms, heavy emphasis on primary and preventive care, outreach, and its insurance premiums are half.
Wenner: It’s a small system.
I’m simply saying there are some reforms that work. Look at Germany. Germany kept costs under the rate of inflation in the last six years, and they have private insurers in the mix.
Wenner: What are you going to cut within the health-care system?
You’ve got to look at where the money’s going. Because of the way the government has set the system up, we have the most expensive insurance system in the world.
For example, in America, eighty-four cents of the health-care dollar goes to health care, sixteen cents to administration and profit and private insurance companies. In Europe, the first figure’s ninety-five cents, and that relates almost entirely to the way the insurance market is organized. Here, we have 1500 separate companies writing smaller and smaller policies on smaller and smaller groups, necessitating a blizzard of paperwork to keep up with all the differences by doctors and hospitals and the way the government regulates health care. What you’ve got to do is take money out of administration and insurance and put it into direct health care.
Wenner: How do you do that?
Mandate insurance reforms. Simplify the basic package that everybody gets, either from the government or their private employers. And give significant incentives for people to be in very large health-care groups where they have managed care. I was in Las Vegas the other day, and I met with a doctor who heads an HMO [health-maintenance organization] with 700 doctors, so you get lots of physician choice. In the last five years, the costs to enrollees have gone up or down within a range of two percent. By contrast, Medicaid and Medicare are going up at eleven percent a year; private insurance premiums, depending on the size of the employer, are going up even more.
Greider: I want to ask about the politics of all this. Part of the reason for the alienation and anger is that things get proposed, promises get made and —
They die in dark holes.
Greider: The system sort of chews it apart and nothing happens.
There’s a big difference now. This is the first time all the candidates in one major party have campaigned for some sort of comprehensive health reform. Elections make a difference in terms of ratifying things.
Second, Jimmy Carter said he’d do it, too, but there’s been much greater specificity this time and much more public outcry for it. You can go to any substantial group of people and ask them if they know someone who couldn’t change jobs, for example, ’cause they had a preexisting health condition and no one would take them. Worker mobility is one of the most important values in an entrepreneurial society, where most jobs are created by small businesses. The present healthcare system is a big brake on that.
Third thing, there’s a generalized demand for shaking the system up. You’re going to have a hundred new congressmen, and a lot of those who survive are going to have to promise to be more effective and different And of course, you’re going to have to roll some of the interest groups.
Wenner: How are you going to “roll” them?
That’s what we’re having an election about. When you run on the specifics, as opposed to general, you have a lot more leverage. Second, key point, you’re going to have a hundred new congressmen. A lot of people in Congress will want the thing to change.
Thompson: I hate to seem to be anti-health, but I’m concerned about a nation obsessed with law enforcement and rules. I’m worried about the Constitution, especially the Fourth Amendment.
I don’t have the same view of the crime issue you have. I came here from across the river in North Little Rock, talking to a couple hundred kids — and their parents — who participate in a midnight basketball league the mayor started and we helped him with. It’s one of the reasons we’ve had a significant decline in crime on that side of the river this summer as compared with last.
Almost all of them I was talking to are black, almost all of them are middle- or low-income people. Crime’s a real big deal to them. They feel very threatened, and they were very pleased about this ’cause they thought it gave their kids a chance to do something good and to be part of something good.
My problem with Bush is that he’s been more show than go on crime. He goes for symbolic things that are popular ideologically but don’t do much to reduce crime. I don’t agree that he’s trying to put too many police on the street. He’s cut back on aid to cities.
If you want less police brutality, you should have more police on the street, walking the streets, doing community policing. New York City went to community policing and has just reported its first crime drop in thirty-six years.
O’Rourke: We’re also engaged in what seems to be a losing war with drugs. Is the continued criminalization of drugs a wise move? Or should we legalize them?
The war on drugs has enormous costs, but legalizing drugs would have enormous costs, too. Particularly if you legalize drugs that carry a high probability of death or generational addiction. It’s a very tough call. My own view is that you should not legalize them, because the costs on the backside — increased usage — would swamp you.
Wenner: But then what are you going to do about the war on drugs?
The Bush administration has put a lot of money into federal agencies, and I think a lot of it ought to be put on the street — into drug treatment, into proven preventive programs and into community-based boot camps. In the long run, it’s fine to do more on enforcement and, with the winding down of the Cold War, we actually have some opportunities to do more. But the fact is that five percent of the world’s people are using fifty percent of the world’s drugs. Those are the stats in America. So you have a demand culture in America which is overwhelming. That’s what we need to focus on.
Most of the people in the drug culture are profoundly disconnected from the rest of our country. They live in places where it is harder to answer the question “Why not?” The issue is, how do you reconnect them? How do you give them some reason to live the life you’re calling them to live?
O’Rourke: I’m very disturbed about what’s happening among the economic underclass. People seem to be conceiving of themselves exclusively as victims. Many in black areas believe the United States government invented AIDS and crack in order to destroy the black population. What can a government, especially the federal government, do here?
A number of things. First of all, a lot of these places are economic basket cases that could be the target of investment for community-service work, for public-service work, infrastructure work, which, compared to other countries, we’re way deficient in anyway.
One of the things you ought to think about, since you’re concerned about how much money government takes out of the economy, is how we managed to quadruple the deficit in twelve years and reduce investment at the same time. Every major country with which we’re competing invests a higher percentage of its income, through government, in roads and bridges and airports and trains and everything, you name it, than we do. There’s an argument to be made there for job generation.
Second, you have to go into these areas with strategies that enable people to take control of their own destiny. Right now we have the worst of both worlds. In vast blocks of cities, the only incomes come from the government or from drugs. We need to create a small-business entrepreneurial economy in every underclass urban area and rural area in the country through the use of banks like the South Shore Bank, which played a major role in revitalizing the South Side of Chicago.
We need to give people in public housing more control over their own lives through tenant management and ownership. I’ve been through a lot of those housing projects in Chicago.
O’Rourke: Terrifying, aren’t they?
Yeah, but I’ve also been through those that have been swept and cleaned, that have gotten the drug dealers out, that are safe, where people who work on patrols with law-enforcement officials get credit against their monthly rent. For a lot of them, it’s the first job they ever had. They’ve been empowered to take their own lives back.
To most people, “empowerment” sounds like a buzzword, but the truth is that America can’t get very far with a dependent or helpless population. Trying to create an entrepreneurial economy around a different sort of banking system, investing in public-works jobs in the near term and giving people control over their living conditions and requiring them to take more responsibility for it — those are the kinds of things that I think would make a real difference.
Greider: Cassandras like myself have been saying that just as the taxpayers were stuck after the 1988 election with the S&L bailout, the same thing is happening this year; that some time in 1993, no matter who’s elected president, somebody will announce, “Hey, folks, the commercial-banking crisis is worse than we thought, and you’re going to have to pick up the tab.” Do you agree? And if so, why aren’t you telling the folks right now that that’s where we are?
The answer is, I don’t know if that’s where we are. I’m trying to find out. When I became governor again in 1983, my bank commissioner was predicting that the S&L crisis would be exactly what it has become. With the banking system there’s a slightly different set of problems; I think it’s more isolated, not as widespread.
Greider: But isn’t the government stalling again? They’re not closing down the banks, and they’re not dealing —
They’re not closing the banks, and they’re trying to retrieve a number of them. But let me go back to your question. I don’t know the answer. I’m trying to find out, but if I’m convinced you’re right, I want to raise a lot of Cain about it so we’ll prepare people for whatever has to be done later.
Greider: You’ve staked out a very different idea of a banking system, very different from what anybody — either Democrat or Republican — has been talking about for the last fifteen or twenty years. Can you give us a quick sketch of your ideas?
I think every major urban area and every poor rural area ought to have access to a bank that operates on the radical idea that they ought to make loans to people who deposit in their bank.
Greider: That’s pretty radical.
It’s not happening today. A certain percentage of the bank assets of this country have to be devoted to community banking. The lesson of the South Side of Chicago is you need to have people in banks who understand how to make loans to low-income people, who understand that they’re just like other people — that there are differences among them and differences in the quality of their loan proposals.
It is inherently unreasonable to believe that there wouldn’t be vast markets for all kinds of small businesses in a place like South Central Los Angeles that could be owned and operated by the people who live there. Over a period of years, the South Shore Development Bank has helped restructure the economy and the society of the South Side of Chicago by making loans to people who live in the neighborhood, by creating a lot of entrepreneurs in housing rehab and other small businesses.
What I propose, in effect, is to create one of those banks in every urban area of any size and every rural area — in the Mississippi Delta, in south Texas. We’ve had the first rural version of the South Shore Bank up and going in Arkansas for a couple of years, and it’s like everything else. It’s made some mistakes, but on balance it’s done a lot of good.
You know, the South Shore Bank’s Good Faith Fund — loans to real low-income people, mostly for self-employment ventures — was based on the work of Muhammad Yunus at the Grameen Bank, in Bangladesh, which until the recent natural disasters had a ninety-seven-percent loan-repayment rate, better than the commercial banks in Bangladesh, even though it was making loans almost exclusively to poor people.
Greider: I’m intrigued because, with a few eccentric exceptions, I think you’re the only politician I’ve ever encountered who has heard of the Grameen Bank, much less —
I think Muhammad Yunus should be given a Nobel Prize.
Greider: How did you get into that? Is that your policy-wonk side?
Only partly, and partly it was a fluke. My wife had a roommate in college who worked for the South Shore Development Bank. They knew about Yunus, and they started a good-faith-fund loan for low-income people, and they did it in teams.
You know, the way it works in Bangladesh is five village women show up, the bank tells them how loans work, how principal and interest works, how the bank makes its money. The women decide what they’re all going to do, and then they get the money serially, in teams, so when person No. 1 has paid back for a certain number of times, person No. 2 gets a loan, et cetera, till the team has the loan, the team pays off the loan.
Several years ago, this friend of Hillary’s arranged for me to meet with Yunus in Washington, and I spent an hour and a half with him. I was just blown away. It was obvious what the parallels were. He made enterprise work. He promoted independence, not dependence. The idea struck me that whenever the power of the government can be used to create market forces that work, it’s so much better than creating a bureaucracy to hire a bunch of full-time people to give somebody a check. I mean, I just loved it. I loved it.
Greider: Yesterday you used the phrase “economic crisis.” Are we flirting on the edge of something really disastrous, not just in the United States but globally?
There is some reason to worry about international depression or recession. A lot of other economies are slow, but in large part because when our economy is down, we can’t buy as much from others. The best thing we can do to avert a world crisis is to get our economy going.
Thompson: Is bank reform going to energize the fifty percent of the electorate who don’t vote?
Well, let’s talk about the economy for a while, and then we’ll come back to the voting thing. I think there are a lot of voters who would like to vote this year who haven’t been voting.
Thompson: You bet.
And I was mad that Bush vetoed the Motor Voter bill. If nothing else, it was a good gesture to the young and to the disaffected that said, “Hey, we want you to be part of this system.”
There is a big debate, as you well know, about whether the primary cause of our economic difficulties is the deficit, which contributes to keeping long-term interest rates high even though the Fed has brought short-term rates way down. Or whether our difficulties are caused by underinvestment plus systems that don’t work. That is, we need to invest more, but we need to make sure we get our money’s worth.
The thing that bothers me is, what does cutting the deficit drastically do to the other countries of the world, and what does it do here? How many opportunities will the United States forgo if we give up the investment strategy?
O’Rourke: By “investment” you mean federal investment?
No, I mean capital investment, public and private. We need a whole bunch of things in this tax code that focus on increasing private investment. Most jobs are created in the private sector. We’ve got to have an investment program that acknowledges that. I strongly favor an investment-tax credit, a long-term, new-venture, capital-gains tax. I was talking recently to big venture capitalists in California, in Silicon Valley. They said a five-year holding period for new ventures would make a lot of difference to them, and it would only go to people who were creating new jobs. You wouldn’t be churning stocks with it. I favor making the research-and-development tax credit permanent.
But to go back. If high-wage, high-growth countries are producing more-productive people, more new jobs in high technology, more investment in infrastructure than we are, and if everything in the world is mobile except people, the natural resources in your country and the infrastructure you lay down, then I come down on the investment side. We must reduce the deficit but at a more measured pace than others would, because there’s a limit to how much taxes can be raised, and because we’ve got to increase investment.
America has got to get growth back. Growth comes from productive investment — private and public — and I think we can do it and still dramatically lower the deficit enough to get long-term interest rates down. If we only go for the money solution, we give up a lot of jobs, productivity and competitiveness.
Greider: What you’re saying about investment is good, but I don’t see how you can reverse the decline in wages if you don’t also take on the global economy in a more direct way than you seem to be willing to do.
Maybe we’ll have to become as protectionist as Germany and Japan, but I hope not.
Greider: That would be a start.
If you look at what produces a high-wage, high-growth economy, you might have to take on the terms of trade and the global economy more; I concede that. But if you look at America and compare it with any of the rich European countries — and Germany’s the easiest because it’s the only one that’s even close to our size — you see that they are better educated, they invest a higher percentage of their money in their own infrastructure, but they also have much better systems for taking their best ideas and turning them into jobs in their countries.
Here’s the one thing where I’m a little crossways with you. Take two examples: steel and automobiles. From the point of view of the labor movement, our trade policies in steel and automobiles have been disastrous — look at the number of auto-worker jobs and steel-worker jobs we’ve lost. But if you flip it over, we are still using more people per car to make cars than the Japanese are. They use more robots, right? And some of our steel mills are making tons of money, mostly these minimills, when they’re highly capital intensive and using fewer people.
The conclusion I reach is that we have to downscale the number of people we use to make cars. The difference between America and Germany is, right now we just let those people go. We need to be creating opportunities for those people. In Germany business and government and education and labor are all on the same side, and they are moving much more rapidly in tandem into newer technologies and newer jobs.
Greider: Everybody can’t become a computer technician or even a high-value-added industrial worker. What about the millions of people with low-wage service jobs who’ve had the hell kicked out of them for the last ten or twenty years?
After having finally raised the minimum wage — finally — we ought to at least keep it up with inflation. The second thing we need to do is to raise the earned-income tax credit [EITC]. In the last decade, we’ve gone from twelve percent of our population to eighteen percent working forty hours a week and still living below the poverty line. That’s a huge increase. For $4 billion, if our numbers are right, we can raise the EITC enough to lift everybody who’s working forty hours a week, who has a kid in the house, above the poverty line. I would think almost every American, conservative or liberal, would like that.
Greider: Is that the beginning of a kind of broad social contract, like some of the European countries have, that takes everything from child care to health care to wage levels —
But it’s all got to be focused on making people able to do what people have to do. In other words, it’s not government so much as care giver; it’s government empowering people to succeed on their own terms. That’s what I love about the EITC. That’s what I also like about child-care vouchers, which is something we do in this state. We make it harder to raise kids in this country than nearly any other major country — and it’s still the most important work.
Let me make one final comment, and this is something that politicians in this country ought to be upfront about. We are not like Germany and Japan. We have always renewed ourselves through wave after wave after wave of immigrants. And I have always been supportive of that. It’s exhilarating to go to Los Angeles County and see people from 146 different ethnic groups.
But if that is our strategy, particularly now that many wages are set on a global scale, then we are going to have to reconcile ourselves not to being a hard-work, low-wage country but to having a higher percentage of people at lower wage levels. What’s killing us is that these poor folks now don’t think they can be rewarded for their labors.
Greider: You’re attacking the privileged interests in Washington; you’re proposing some ideas about containing lobbyists or at least forcing them out in the open a little bit more. And then people look at your campaign and see the money coming from the K Street lobbyists in Washington, Wall Street and so forth. Help us through that contradiction. Which side are you really on?
I don’t think it’s an inherent contradiction. They all knew where I stood on this before they gave me any money.
Greider: Why are they giving you the money?
I don’t know. A lot of them believe the country will be better off if I win. There are a lot of people who didn’t give me money, too, when I said I wanted a tax system that gave incentives for companies to do stock options and employee ownership and to give people more incentives to put money back in the companies.
Greider: Like who?
I don’t want to embarrass them, but there were a lot of them. Let me just say I view this the way Roosevelt did. Roosevelt always said he was trying to make free enterprise work. He said he was never against business, never against the vital private sector. What is killing the government is that it has been too responsive to a relatively narrow segment of the business community which controls a lot of money but not as many jobs as they used to —
Greider: The biggest corporations.
That’s right, and which has not necessarily acted in its own interest. You also have to make clear distinctions between corporations. We’ve got a company in my state — Nucor — that’s nonunion but has two steel mills, pays their workers an average of $42,000 a year. They get weekly bonuses, and no one has ever been laid off. When profits go down, bonuses go down. If Nucor loses money, the boss takes a bigger cut than the workers do.
You don’t want to generalize about — but this is not so much business versus labor; it is dumb versus smart. The really smart businesses today empower their workers, reward them for being productive, take care of their interests. I’m not going to ever be antibusiness, ’cause that’s where the jobs are. But do we need more power concentrated in the hands of people who are going to take care of workers? You bet we do.
Greider: But it’s not a matter of being pro- or anti-business. In 1992, people are deeply suspicious of the grid of connections in Washington, and you’re in that grid in a very real sense.
Well, a lot of my supporters thought I was going to win. A lot of them supported me because they believed in me, a lot of them supported me ’cause they knew me and in spite of the fact they didn’t agree with me.
Greider: Let me have one more nibble at this question. Goldman Sachs, the big investment house of Wall Street, has dumped more money on you than any other. What’s the relationship there?
Ken Brody was a big partner in Goldman Sachs who’s now sort of semiretired. Although he’d been supporting Republican candidates, he decided the country was going in the wrong direction, and he looked around and found me. He said: “This country’s been good to me, I made a lot of money, I’m worried about the country going downhill, I’d like to turn it around. You don’t have to agree with me all the time, I want to help you.” And he decided to become my New York finance chairman. That’s how it happened.
Wenner: What’s your take on George Bush?
I don’t know how to answer that I spent quite a bit of time with him over the last ten years. Until I started running for president, I had a pretty good relationship with the White House. When I thought they were right, I’d stand up for them. We worked together on national education goals, and I worked with Reagan’s White House on reforming welfare laws. I like to get things done, and I’ve never let my party label stand in the way of doing things.
My feeling about Bush is that his biggest liability is a limited and dated view of what makes an economy run in these times. This is not just a question of him being the captive of his interest groups, as opposed to Democratic interest groups. I think Bush really believes that it’s a nice thing if you can make education better and, when you can, help the environment a little bit, but the No. 1 thing you can do to manage an economy is to keep tax rates low on the wealthiest individuals and the biggest companies and then get out of the way; they’ll make good investment decisions and everything will be fine.
I don’t think Bush sits around and thinks about stuff I sit around and think about — all this stuff y’all call policy-wonk stuff: What is the comparative rate of investment in infrastructure between Germany and Japan? Or what are the comparative educational statistics?
Look at all these other countries governed by conservatives. They believe that what cuts it in the global economy is, do you have a good partnership? Is government promoting enterprise and not regulating it to death? Is government investing in those things that government invests best in? Is it doing a good job with education and infrastructure? Is there some sort of partnership to keep opening new areas of opportunity in new technologies?
We’re still fighting yesterday’s battles. We’re still business against labor, government against business, rich against middle. That’s Bush’s view of the world.
Greider: Aside from all that, would you like him as a golf partner or as a friend?
He was always very nice to me until we had our political falling out. But this has nothing to do with liking or disliking; it has to do with my view that the country is in deep trouble and is on the wrong track. If anybody else had run this year who embodied my thoughts about what ought to be done, in terms of going beyond the present Democratic-Republican debate, the tax and spend versus borrow and spend, I might well not have run. I was having a good time down here, and there was nowhere near the personal problems that apparently existed between Bush and Ross Perot.
Greider: But what you just said is very different from the image that’s been constructed this year: that you’ve been planning to run since you were fourteen.
If I was doing that, why in the living daylights would I do it when Bush had seventy-five-percent approval? All this business about how everybody gets one free run at the White House, with nothing to lose — that’s not true. First of all, it’s just not true you don’t have anything to lose. Look what I’ve been through this year. And secondly, if you become the nominee, you normally don’t get more than one chance.
Thompson: What do you have to lose?
You give up a lot of your life, a lot of your privacy. There’s a lot of pain involved in it. I’ve had a wonderful time. I must say I’ve learned a lot about the country, and I’ve enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t trade the experience, but it’s not been an easy one, as you know.
Greider: One of your guys told us last night that the last two weeks have probably been the best two weeks of your professional life.
Maybe. I don’t know.
Wenner: How does it feel when you wake up and the Field poll in California says 62-28?
I like it a lot better being up than down, but I don’t take it very seriously. This is a very volatile year. What that poll means now — before the Republican convention and before they’ve unloaded on me and unloaded on my state and told everybody how I’m responsible for everything that happened here — is that people are dying to believe again, they’re dying to hope again. You ought to read my mail — people my age writing me, saying they haven’t felt this way since Kennedy was president or since Bobby Kennedy was killed. All those polls mean is people desperately want this country to work again.
We have to be optimistic in this. It kills this country to be pessimistic and cynical and out of it, and so people are beginning to permit themselves to have some hope again. And I think, for all kind of reasons, my asking Gore to join the ticket really reinforced that.
Thompson: If, like Brazil, we had a law that everybody had to vote, would your polls be different now? Or would your outlook be different?
No. Because what I’ve said is what I believe is best for all the people in this country, whether they vote or not. So I’d be running the same campaign, and I think the polls would be about the same. I wish we could open up the system and make it more accessible. But I wouldn’t be running a markedly different campaign if that were so.
Greider: You were for the war in Iraq, and you supported some of the other U.S. interventions in the last ten years. You are now saying we need to use military force to intervene for different reasons. What’s so different from what you’re saying and what Bush is saying about a new world order?
There’s a significant difference. I believe he prefers stability over ferment and democracy and freedom. That’s why he was a little slow in dealing with the democracy movements in the republics of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and why, I think, he was so soft on China. I really disagree with him there. I think that’s why, as soon as the gulf war was over, he was willing to let the Kurds and Shiites be subjected to some things that were unacceptable and which we could have stopped. He favored the stability of Saddam Hussein over the prospect of the breakup of the territory known as Iraq.
The end of the Cold War, the total devolution of central authority in what was the Soviet Union, an apparently good-faith relationship with Yeltsin and our attempts to substantially reduce nuclear arms give us the freedom that we have never had in my lifetime to stick up for those things we believe in — for freedom and democracy and human rights and free-market economics.
O’Rourke: Do you think we could be doing more in Yugoslavia, for instance?
Yeah. It’s dicey. You may have seen the statement I put out last week about it — when Fitzwater jumped on me about it, said I was being reckless, and then Cheney and Dick Lugar said they agreed with me. I think that we ought to keep that airport relief effort open. We have to keep open the option of air strikes against Serbian installations. Going beyond that is somewhat dicey, because in Bosnia you have what is plainly a civil war, which is difficult to intervene in, as opposed to protecting territorial boundaries.
Greider: I don’t hear you talking about the national-security state that grew up out of the Cold War.
One of the things I called for in my defense budget was a reduction and redirection of intelligence spending. A lot of the things we justified because of the Cold War and the apparently always-imminent threat of conflict with the Soviets — a lot of that’s just not there anymore. We need to redirect our intelligence efforts and open them up a little bit. You know, it’s interesting what happened in Iraq. We overestimated their conventional military strength, but we underestimated their capacity in weapons of mass destruction — biological, chemical and nuclear.
Thompson: Who’d be your first appointee to the Supreme Court?
I don’t want to get into that. I have said that Mario Cuomo was the sort of person I thought would be a good judge, somebody with an expansive view of the Constitution and passionate devotion to the Bill of Rights and a capacity to argue through to the end of things.
Thompson: Who on the current Supreme Court would you have appointed?
Harry Blackmun. Wonderful man.
Greider: Do you feel fragile, confident or ordained at this moment of history to reverse the direction of the country?
I feel confident that I can — if given the opportunity to be president, with the kind of people I would bring in and the new sense of energy I think would be unleashed in the country — I think we could do it. I feel confident about the election. I think we’re on the right side of history. The time has come for America to change its policies fundamentally. But I don’t feel ordained, and I don’t think the results of this election are foreordained. I think it’s going to be a very, very difficult election. I don’t care what these polls say; the polls show the people want to hope.
Keep in mind, it still takes more courage to vote for change than it does to stay where you are. And it is not true that hope is always a stronger emotion than fear. In fact, you could argue that usually the reverse is the case.
O’Rourke: Thomas Paine did.
O’Rourke: Thomas Paine argued that the reverse was usually the case.
I think we have an excellent chance to win. I believe if I do win, we would be well positioned to deal with some of these thorny problems and to have the mandate to deal with them. But I think that we’re going to have over ninety days of real, real struggle to do this.
Thompson: Caligula argued that, too. Thomas Paine and Caligula.
O’Rourke: Yes. I don’t know if we want to get Caligula in on this.
Greider: Congressional Democrats have colluded with the Republicans on a lot of the things you’ve criticized. What makes you think that beast is going to change just because you’re in the White House?
Because we’ll have an operative majority for a more progressive course, if there is a president who will take the lead. A lot of those things you’re talking about weren’t supported by a majority of the Democratic party but by just enough Democrats to have some sort of tax bill or some sort of economic package. I think it’s clear that when you get this new blood coming in that the chances of change will be much greater than they’ve been in a very long time. Greater than they were when Carter was elected, after Watergate. Watergate was not a mandate for change; it was a mandate for good government.
O’Rourke: One very specific change.
You got it. Good government. This is not about good government; this is about doing different things.
Greider: One of Carter’s big mistakes was that he wasn’t willing to take on titans in his own party. He thought that somehow they would all cooperate. What about you?
I don’t want to pick a fight, but I think we’re going to have some. I don’t want to overstate the case, but it’s almost like the rebirth of our resolve to do some very fundamental things, and to do them, you’re going to have to have — everybody’s going to have to change, including the interest groups of both parties. You cannot leave things the way they are now and expect to solve the problems we’ve got. All we’re going to get is paralysis and more decline.
Greider: You’re going to break some eggs within the Democratic party?
Well, we’re going to make some nice omelets.