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Bill Clinton: The Rolling Stone Interview

With the 2000 election looming, a talk with the soon-to-be former president on the past eight years and the future of America

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton in 2000.

Mark Wilson

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’ 30 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 mid-fifties, 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 Linclon 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 51, but he died at 60. Today, anybody who lives to 65 has a life expectancy of 82.

Is there enough time to repeal the Twenty-second 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 50 to age 80 — 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 like-minded 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 75 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 thirty-two 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 dumbass “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 24-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 talked 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, 81? 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 ’92 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, 38, 39 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 35 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.

And effectively.
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

On 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.