It was a long, long way from the dingy back room at Doe’s Eat Place, in Little Rock, Ark., where a year ago we had met Bill Clinton and been so enthralled by his intellect and intensity. This time, one day short of the first anniversary of Clinton’s election, Jann S. Wenner and I were at the gates of the White House grounds, undergoing the usual security shuffle. Secret Service agents rummaged through the Rolling Stone sweat shirts that Jann had brought as gifts. This was a first for both of us and for Rolling Stone —– a relaxed and extended interview with a sitting president of the United States. The West Wing of the White House is somewhat more intimidating than a tamale shack.
Our luncheon with the man was delayed slightly because Clinton was in the midst of a typically hectic day — a flying schedule that bounced him from Jim and Sarah Brady on gun control to a NAFTA promotional event involving notables like Henry Kissinger and Paul Volcker to the Rolling Stone Interview. On the South Lawn, photographer Mark Seliger set up to shoot the cover with a marvelous tableau for a background: the White House on a gorgeous fall day. As Clinton walked down the driveway, surrounded by busy, busy handlers, he looked pressed and a little cranky. But he warmed to the task and looked presidential for the camera, then scooted next door to Treasury to drop by the luncheon for pro-NAFTA celebrities. Up close, I thought his face seemed visibly worn from a year ago, grayer and softer, with a tiredness permanently wrinkled around his eyes.
Half an hour later, his entourage swept back into the West Wing, and Clinton grabbed us for a quickie tour of the Oval Office, where he showed off a new rug with the presidential seal, then led us into his small private dining room across the hall. Woodrow Wilson’s portrait hangs on a wall, and a bust of Harry Truman sits on a sideboard. Clinton, with his incredible penchant for obscure facts, told us, “Woodrow Wilson had big feet, and so do I.”
The president chowed down vigorously (pasta with meat sauce) while we talked and joked about the absence of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, who the year before had described candidate Clinton as a gluttonous fiend for french fries. Two top aides, George Stephanopoulos and David Gergen, sat at the table as mostly silent observers, eating and taking occasional notes. At one point, when it appeared Clinton would have to interrupt the session for other events, he got up and proudly showed off the cozy private study where he reads. One wall is covered with books of every sort, and he seems to know them all.
Our exchange was more focused (and less bizarre) than the first Rolling Stone interview at Doe’s, but once again, the range of his intellect and energy was awesome, much more impressive than the man in TV sound bites. Critical questions elicited some animated finger wagging (mostly in my direction), but his tone was friendly. That is, until the closing moments. An explosion of presidential wrath is an awesome thing to behold, especially when it is right in your face. Believe it or not, I liked him best when he was angry. He seemed authentic and powerful and, when enraged, incredibly presidential. — W.G.
Wenner: Are you having fun?
You bet. I like it very much. Not every hour or every day is fun. The country is going through a period of change, the world’s going through a period of change. There’s a global recession and a lot of pressure on people whose expectations have been dashed by the economic and other events of the last couple of years. So a lot of what ought to be the enormous optimism coming out of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union has been tempered not only by the thorny problems in our area, from Haiti to Somalia to Bosnia, but the same thing’s true for the Russians, they have the Georgian civil war, the fight between the Armenians and the Azeris.
Wenner: But are you having fun in this job?
I genuinely enjoy it. First of all, I’m getting to do what I believe in –— though I’m also humbled to find out how hard it is sometimes to translate convictions into policy and into people’s lives. But it’s exhilarating to have the opportunity and the obligation to try every day. Second, I really think we’re making a difference. The election was a year ago tomorrow. And I really believe that we’re turning the country in the right direction.
Wenner: What’s the biggest laugh you’ve had since you’ve been president?
What’s the biggest laugh I’ve had since I’ve been president, George?
Stephanopoulos: I liked it when you were practicing with [National Security Adviser] Tony Lake.
The funniest thing happened – in a moment of tension, I guess – was when I was practicing shaking hands with [Yasir] Arafat before I shook hands with [Yitzhak] Rabin. We had an understanding that there would be no Arab embrace. [laughs] “Yeah,” Rabin said, “OK, I’ll shake hands, but no kissing.” [laughs] So there could be no Arab embrace. Tony Lake was pretending to be Arafat, and we finally worked out that the way to stop someone from embracing you —– without seeming like a bad guy —– is to embrace his bicep.
If you hold his bicep [with your left hand, while shaking his right hand with your right], he can’t move up and embrace you. I thought, “I got elected president to do this?” [laughs]
Greider: And did you in fact do that with Arafat?
Yeah. In a nice way. But he was fine, he followed the rules.
Wenner: Earlier this year, Time put you on the cover with the headline “The Incredible Shrinking President.” I’m curious how you handle such criticism personally, how you handle it professionally and, from there, what you think about your relations with the press.
I didn’t think much of Time‘s cover, but then again I didn’t think much of the Time cover that showed a photographic negative image of me. Whoever does Time‘s covers is obviously not a fan of the administration, but that’s their business.
This compulsion to make instantaneous judgments and make big things little and little things big is one of the problems of modern politics. There we were, trying to do important things that had been long ignored, which is not a way to shrink the presidency. By any standard the mistakes we made did not even compare with the importance of the things we were trying to do. Time was, I thought, trivializing the presidency and giving itself a vested interest in the failure of it. But that didn’t bother me very much. I didn’t read that article. And I didn’t pay any attention to it.
Wenner: What about the press in general? I see the press as more critical of you than they have been of any other.
Any other president, in the first year.
Greider: What’s going on? That’s not what we expected a year ago, surely.
I don’t know. Some of them got it in their mind that I didn’t like the press, which is not true. And then some of them were mad that I wasn’t doing more press conferences, even though I was answering more questions than predecessors had. So I offered to do more.
But I think most of it is due to the nature of coverage today. There is a qualitative difference now. Used to be a president got a honeymoon. If you go back to Kennedy’s first year as president – we haven’t had a Bay of Pigs yet [knocks on the table], and I hope we don’t in the next two months.
We haven’t been able to do everything I said I’d do in the campaign, but nobody’s accused me of just running away from things. I haven’t stiffed the civil-rights community or anything like that.
Wenner: You do seem to have run into a wall of hostility, not only from the press but from Republicans, who’ve been as vicious as I can recall the opposition.
And they weren’t held accountable for it.
Wenner: Why have the Republicans been so virulent?
A lot of them thought the White House was their plaything, their personal preserve. They thought that as a party they owned the White House, and it was very disorienting to them to have it in someone else’s hands. And a lot of them are very good at being “agin” they’re better “aginners” than builders.
Now, that’s not true of all of them. We’ve gotten bipartisan support for several things. We’ve gotten good bipartisan support on most foreign-policy issues. But there was an astonishing level of party discipline applied to the budget vote and, in the Senate, to the vote on the jobs-stimulus package. But that’s getting a little better now.
Overall, the attacks didn’t bother me all that much, ’cause I knew that sooner or later they had to end. If for whatever reason the press and the Republicans decided that I’d be the first president, at least in modern history, with no honeymoon at all. They could do that, but in the end, I would either succeed or not. I didn’t think it was the right thing to do for the country, but it was their decision, not mine. It was out of my control, so I just got up every day and kept going to work.
Wenner: So your attitude is, this too shall pass?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Because if you get a six-month honeymoon, or a year honeymoon, or whatever it is you’re entitled to, in the end it goes away anyway. So the press decided for whatever reason that they would deny me a honeymoon. It may have something to do with the competitive dynamics, the economics, of the press now. It may have something to do with information overload. I just have no criticism of it. They have to make their decisions, and I make mine. And for whatever reason the Republicans made their decision, but they came back and supported me on Russia. They supported me on a number of other issues, or at least substantial numbers did. There’s a core of them taking a very reasonable, positive attitude on health care.
I got hired to fight for the folks in this country, to face real problems. And any time you face problems in specifics instead of in the abstract, you’re going to be misunderstood, and you’re going to have a lot of opposition. That’s just a part of it. This is not an easy time. It’s easy to be president when the economy is rocking along, when everybody thinks tomorrow is going to be better than today, when they think America is a coherent society. What you’ve got today is a middle class full of frustration, fear and anxiety and a society coming apart in a world that is more uncertain. We know we have to lead, but Americans want us to be discriminating and disciplined in what we do in the rest of the world. And they want us to focus very clearly on what we’ve got to do here at home. And a lot of people, obviously, still hope there are easy answers.
Greider: Let’s talk about Congress. I must say, I’ve heard this from a lot of people — what is it between you and [Georgia Sen.] Sam Nunn? We assumed a year ago he was a close ally, since you both come out of the same kind of politics. But it seems like he has gouged you on one thing after another.
Well, there are two things. First, he really disagreed with my gays-in-the-military position. Deeply, profoundly. He thought it was wrong, and he was really upset it came up so early. He didn’t exactly hold me responsible for that. He knew we were trying to take a reasoned approach and work it through with the military and that Republican senators pushed it up on the agenda. But it still put him in a terribly uncomfortable position, as head of the Armed Services Committee.
“What you’ve got today is a middle class full of frustration, fear and anxiety and a society coming apart in a world that is more uncertain.”
Then I was very disappointed when he didn’t vote for the budget. I thought he was wrong, and I told him so. He took the position that he and [New Mexico Sen.] Pete Domenici had laid out a program about how to deal with the deficit, and since I didn’t take exactly the same position, he would look bad voting for my program. But if that were an argument, then no thoughtful member of Congress would ever vote for any initiative put forward by any president or any other thoughtful member of Congress.
I still talk to him all the time. I had a good talk with him last night about two or three different issues.
Greider: But not just Nunn. The impression is that it’s your wing of the party, the “new” Southern Democrats, who are the ones putting logs in your path.
One reason is that in their own districts and states, they’ve let the Republicans dominate the perception of what we’re trying to do. You have to realize most of these Democratic Leadership Council guys are from moderate to conservative districts, and the Republicans won the rhetorical debate. So a lot of them kept looking for another way to do it.
I have a bigger quarrel, by the way, with the media on this than anything else. I don’t care what they say about me, but let’s sort of even it up. A lot of the people around this town were shocked when 10 days before the budget vote, a poll appeared showing that two-thirds of the American people were convinced their income taxes were going up, when in fact only 1.4 percent were going to have their taxes go up. Why did they think that? Because the Republicans had screamed that taxes were going up, and that had been dutifully reported. For the last 10 days of the debate, I noticed the press began to go out of its way to point out that the budget was progressive.
Greider: Let me try out something on you that I wrote in the spring. What happened from the Bush to Clinton administrations is that the conservative coalition — the group of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats that has dominated Congress for years, particularly the Reagan-Bush years — went at you, tested you and reestablished its dominance.
We beat them on the budget, but it was hard.
Greider: You lost some fights along the way, too, in the process.
But we got most of what we asked for. We made a huge change in the progressivity of the tax system. The biggest battle won in the budget fight — and not even noticed — was what we did with the earned-income tax credit. To lift the working poor out of poverty was a massive change, the biggest income change in the country, I bet, in two decades.
Greider: But is my analysis wrong, do you think? That the conservative coalition is still the marriage in Congress that you have to be either with or against?
No, I just don’t think it’s a monolithic bloc. The Democrats are much more movable, a lot of them are. The key thing will be whether any of the moderate to more liberal Republicans will move or whether they’ll continue to toe the party line. A number of the Republicans would have liked to have worked with us on a health-care bill they could have endorsed, but it just wasn’t an option for them. [Vermont Sen.] Jim Jeffords is the only one who felt he had the political leeway to do it, because of the unique circumstances of his situation back home.
Greider: What exactly is going on in the Republican Party? Do they see you as a one-term president, as someone to gouge every which way they can, so they can come back in ’96? What do you see as their strategy?
They think they hurt me real bad early, on gays in the military. Then they think they won the short-term rhetorical battle over the budget by convincing everybody that there were no budget cuts in it, which is false, and that it was a middle-class tax package, which is false. But then when we moved on to other things and began to have some successes abroad and at home, they became more discriminating. They work with us when they think it’s a good thing, and when they think I mess up, they jump up and down on me.
Wenner: What about discipline in your own party?
Congressional Quarterly ran a story that said that in spite of all the controversies I’ve been in, I now have the highest success rate of any president in his first year, except for Eisenhower. And depending on what happens to the crime bill, campaign-finance reform and one or two other things between now and the end of the session, I may wind up a little ahead of Eisenhower.
Greider: The rap I’ve heard from Democrats — liberal, center-of-the-road Democrats in the Senate — goes like this: Clinton ignores his friends and rewards his enemies. What you need to do is stand in his way and make yourself obstreperous, then he’ll take care of you.
I’d like for them to give me an example of that. I didn’t make any changes not necessary to pass bills. That’s the way bills are normally passed. I don’t think they can make that case in terms of specific things I’ve agreed to do.
Greider: But do you hear that complaint face to face from them? It’s pretty common on the Hill.
It’s frustrating for them, because they thought that they would be in the majority. They thought that people who didn’t agree with them would just roll over and vote for their bills, with no changes. There are very few legislative processes that produce no changes in laws. The answer to that was written better than I could ever write it by Richard Rothstein in [the current issue of] American Prospect. That’s my answer. Go back, he said, and show me another presidency that got more done for progressive causes in less time. And that’s the best I can answer.
“That is what a democracy is all about — working through and getting one more vote than half, in whatever climate you’re in, to move the ball forward.”
Greider: But leave aside whether these folks on the Hill are right or not. The problem you face is one of perception, is it not?
I disagree. What does it cost us? We have all this whining. All I know is, I passed the budget … . What should I do? I should do what these … That very perception is why we’ve had irresponsible leadership from presidents for the last 12 years. This was the first budget since Reagan’s budget in ’81 taken seriously by Congress. Why? If you try to lower the deficit by raising taxes fairly on the wealthy — after they had their taxes lowered — you make them mad, and Republicans say you’re raising taxes on the middle class, anyway. If you cut spending, you can’t satisfy the conservatives in your own party and the Republicans. They’ll always say you’re not cutting enough. But talk to [Senate Majority Leader] George Mitchell, and he will show you that Senate Republicans have voted against more specific spending cuts than the Democrats have. They want it all ways. They want to be for general spending cuts but against all the specific ones.
If you put a bill out there, in detail, you know you’ll have to change it, because that’s part of the process. And then your friends, who’d like it just the way it is, will attack you for changing it. That is what a democracy is all about — working through and getting one more vote than half, in whatever climate you’re in, to move the ball forward.
I have taken on issues that other presidents, Democrats and Republicans, have never even thought about taking on. But presidents are not dictators. And you know, if Congressional Quarterly says I’m doing better than anybody since Eisenhower in my first term, that’s my only answer.
Greider: Did you under-appreciate the power of the status quo lobbies?
Yeah. A little bit.
Greider: Can you give us an example?
Here’s the sort of how-you-can’t-win-for-losing thing. On the stimulus package, the jobs bill, I thought it was so important to have a good one, so we hung tough and didn’t compromise. And we didn’t get anything. Nobody can say that the president didn’t hang tough, but what do I have to show for it?
Greider: I think you should propose it again —
And were Bob Dole and the Republicans hurt by killing it? No. Did the press attempt to hurt them for killing it? No. They rewarded them for winning, instead of punishing them for keeping a half-million people out of work.
Wenner: How come you didn’t get up —
So when you’re president, you can’t win for losing on a deal like that. You’ve got to make up your mind, at various times along the way, whether the cause you’re seeking to further will in fact advance with 85 percent of what you propose instead of 100 percent or whether it’s just better to go down in flames. Or whether by hanging tough, you can prevail anyway. That’s basically what we did with the final version of the budget, where still, legislators were all looking for some easy way out, as if there was some magic spending cut.
Greider: On the lobbyists and interest groups —
This town is more conservative than I thought. And I don’t mean conservative, right to left.
It’s more fixed. It’s more change averse — even the people who think they’re liberal Democrats. There’s a dominant culture here that is very change averse. And that has surprised me a little bit.
Greider: The issue that epitomizes that is campaign-finance reform.
Boy, does it ever.
Greider: What I hear from your allies is that you put some wonderful ideas on the table on campaign finance, then basically walked away from them.
The essential problem we’ve got on campaign-finance reform, at least as it relates to political action committees [PACs], is that House members of both parties have become more PAC dependent than senators.
Greider: But especially the Democrats, right?
They’re more PAC dependent than senators, because they have a smaller geographic and population base and very likely no cachet outside their states. If you’re a senator, you’ve got a statewide financial base.
Wenner: So they have to turn to PACs?
I’m not saying they have to. But the pressures on the House members in these high-dollar races make them more PAC dependent. So we did try to move some what to their position, to work out a compromise, early on. And we’re still getting resistance.
My own view is that the Democrats will make a big mistake if we don’t pass campaign-finance reform, if we don’t also pass a pretty good version of the lobbyist [disclosure] bill that passed the Senate. No. 1, it’s the right thing to do. It will give us more freedom over the long run. No. 2, it is politically the right thing to do. It’s one of the few issues where the Democrats can reach out to significant numbers of the Perot voters.
Greider: Two weeks ago, a month ago, it looked like, OK, the Senate has passed a campaign-finance bill that doesn’t work, and the House, if it does anything, will pass another bill that doesn’t work. And the two will never marry, and Congress will be able to finesse this issue once again.
I don’t think they can.
Greider: Tell us why that’s not true.
Well, it may be. But I hope it won’t be. All I can tell you is, we came out hard for it early and tried to move it. And we got movement in the Senate. As a defensive posture, the House moved a modified line-item-veto bill and sent it to the Senate, saying, “OK, guys, send that one back to us.” The House knows [West Virginia Sen.] Robert Byrd hates that. So they’ve sort of been dancing around this until the end of the session.
“I do believe that the people who are making the films and the shows are just reflecting what they think the consumers want and what they think is really going on in society.”
Greider: Just in terms of your own leadership, the perception is that you have put out these good ideas, then disengaged from them. I gather that in private that’s not the case. But that’s certainly the public impression.
We had to pass the budget, and I didn’t have a lot of votes to spare. A lot of the liberal, progressive Democrats who helped carry the budget hate campaign-finance reform. Since I didn’t have any votes to spare, there was no point in my pushing campaign reform at the same time I was trying to pass the budget. Then we passed the national service bill, which was one of the central elements of my campaign. And then we kicked off health care.
The House leadership pledged to me they would bring campaign finance back up in October. They’re running a little late. But one of the things I got attacked for early was trying to do four things at once. You have to do things in order. So when they told me there would be a time when we could bring this later, that’s what I opted for. I didn’t keep campaigning for it every day. I can’t fight all these battles at the same time.
But Congress will make a serious mistake if they don’t pass campaign-finance reform. It is one thing that there is huge support, right across the spectrum, without regard to conservative or liberal or Republican, Democratic, independent or Perot voters. And it’s a chance for the Democrats to take the lead and redefine the image of the party as a forward-thinking, progressive party, not as a special interest, yesterday party. It’s very important.
Wenner: In the last week or so, you and Hillary have been stepping up the attack on gun violence. How far are you prepared to go on this subject?
I’m prepared to so quite a long way.
Wenner: Given that the Brady bill looks like it’s going to pass at last, what’s next?
We hope it’s going to pass, but there’s still some chance the Republicans will try to filibuster it in the Senate. But here’s what we have to do. First, there are a lot of good things in the crime bill that don’t directly relate to guns, but they’re good things, including more police officers, drug treatment for offenders, alternative sentences for youthful offenders — boot camps and other things.
These things really do work. Today, one of the things everybody knows is that the mayor of Houston [Bob Lanier] is going to be re-elected virtually by acclamation. In no small measure, because through overtime and extra cops, he put the equivalent of another 655 police on the street and had an almost 20-percent drop in crime. But not a 20-percent increase in prison population. In other words, a lot of the drop was in prevention, not just catching people more quickly.
My goal is going to be, first of all, to pass the crime bill and the Brady bill. Then what I’d like to do is to move on to a whole range of other issues. We need to look at nationalizing some of the state reforms. [Wisconsin] Sen. [Herb] Kohl has a bill that would bar people under the age of 18 from owning or possessing firearms except under the supervision of their parents or another qualified adult in an appropriate setting. Virginia’s once-a-month handgun purchase limit is worth adopting. Then we need to move on assault weapons. And we need to do it with our eyes wide open and recognize it’s not an easy thing to do, because if you enumerate weapons, the manufacturers can just change this or that little thing, and all of a sudden they’re making something new. But we should have an assault-weapons ban.
Then we need to look at this whole business of licensing federal gun dealers. There are 286,000 of them now that pay 10 bucks to the federal government. There’s a whole lot of questions that need to be examined. Should we raise the price of the license? Should we do a more detailed check of the people who have them? Should we not have federal pre-emption in this area?
It’s crazy what we have permitted to happen here, literally crazy. A number of things are finally galvanizing the attention of Americans — starting with the killing of the foreign tourists in Florida. But the answer to your question is, I’m prepared to try to move this. In my health-care speech, I dealt with this issue as a public-health problem. That gives us a handle on how guns can be regulated and dealt with. I think I’ve succeeded in moving the debate forward. I gave a speech on this in North Carolina and got two standing ovations in the football stadium at the University of North Carolina.
Wenner: Do you think this is the time, given the shifting landscape on this issue, that you can step forward and challenge the NRA?
Yes, but Congress is trailing the country on this issue.
Greider: Is it conceivable that the country could forget about the political system for a minute — could entertain the possibility of banning handguns? Is that a cockamamie idea in your mind? Or is that in the future?
I don’t think the American people are there right now. But with more than 200 million guns in circulation, we’ve got so much more to do on this issue before we even reach that. I don’t think that’s an option now. But there are certain kinds of guns that can be banned and a lot of other reasonable regulations that can be imposed. The American people’s attitudes are going to be shaped by whether things get better or worse.
Greider: They may be ready for more radical solutions?
We know from national surveys that people are way ahead of Congress on this. They don’t know why the Brady bill hasn’t passed already. Yet they don’t know how to hold legislators accountable yet, because there have always been parliamentary niceties to explain away why we’re not trying to stop this mindless violence. This year we’ll have a clear shot on the crime bill, a clear shot on the Brady bill, then next year clear shots on a lot of other issues. And we’ll see what happens to the debate. But we’ll also have to see what happens in the streets. That’s going to affect us a lot.
People are scared. It is very difficult for me to give a speech on the global economy and all my retraining and investment ideas when people don’t even think their kids can go to school safely. It is a very basic thing. It unites people across very deep divides.
Greider: How do you feel about what the attorney general said about violence on TV? That it wouldn’t violate the Constitution if the government decided to restrict the violent content of TV?
I haven’t done any research on the constitutional argument. You could probably do it, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.
What I do believe is this: In a strict sense, none of us in positions of influence may be at fault for what has happened to any child, any family or any neighborhood. But we are to some extent responsible for what happens in the future. I don’t have any question about the cumulative effect of mindless, destructive behavior communicated through TV or movies on a society that is breaking down anyway. You know, it’s not just a simple matter.
I do believe that the people who are making the films and the shows are just reflecting what they think the consumers want and what they think is really going on in society. I understand that. But because that is what is in fact going on in society, there’s a synergy that is destructive.
This debate has just started. I didn’t know the attorney general was going to say what she said, but I don’t mind the fact that she started the debate.
There is a synergy, and I don’t think we can avoid that fact. The best thing is for us to ask ourselves what can be done to break the link without muzzling the creators. For example, I watched Boyz n the Hood very carefully. While it was very violent, it had no romance about the violence. That is a movie I would’ve wanted a lot of elementary-age kids in the inner city to see, because there was no romance. It was a mean, ugly, sad, heartbreaking tale of basically good kids who wanted to have a decent life who had it taken away from them.
That’s why I think on this violence question, it’s a dicey deal, because you don’t want the cumulative impact of the popular culture to reinforce the destructive developments that are already running like wildfire through society. I would far prefer to see a revolution led by the entertainment community about how they deal with these issues.
Wenner: It’s good to have a president who’s watching “Boyz n the Hood” instead of some old John Wayne rerun. On a related subject, I have to ask a question about drug policy. You issued a national drug strategy last month that emphasized health issues. But the drug budget that came with it is the same as the Bush budget, which emphasized law enforcement. How do you reconcile that?
We do need to make some changes in it, and we’re working on it.
Wenner: So that’s an interim budget?
We’re going to try to make some changes. The main change we want to make is in the crime bill. We don’t yet know how much money we’re going to get for drug treatment for people convicted of crimes, because we are still negotiating. That’s a big issue. For people who are not in the criminal justice system, our biggest change of priority will come if the health-care bill passes next year. Because that bill covers drug treatment, both preventive and treatment services related to drugs.
If health care fails, I’ll have to revisit my whole idea about what to do. But the reason we didn’t try to make radical changes in the drug budget this year is both substantive and a matter of political reality. We have to have a certain level of support for enforcement and interdiction. And one of the things [drug czar] Lee Brown didn’t get credit for — and he should have — is that he wants to change the focus of interdiction to work on the roots of the exports to the United States, not just middlemen. We have to spend some money on that. And since I didn’t just want to drastically move around what is a relatively small amount of money, we decided to go ahead and put the drug treatment into the health-care bill.
Something we can certainly be criticized for in this year’s budget is that when we got through all the cutting, drug-prevention programs funded by the federal government had been cut. We didn’t have as much money as we previously had to give to school districts, for example. The Appropriations Committee had to meet very tough budget caps. And they thought those were the moneys that could most easily be made up at the local level, to support programs like DARE.
I have to tell you, based on my experience as governor, those prevention programs do work. Over time, it’s exactly the flip side of what we said about TV. There is a cumulative impact on the culture that is absolutely impossible to quantify. But I’m convinced it’s positive, and if I have fallen short this year, it’s in prevention programs.
Greider: You are talking about moneys and priorities and budget shifts. I fear that history is going to look back on this period and say we really didn’t make the fundamental shifts that were required. I’m talking specifically about the defense budget. I know you’re cutting more than Bush, but when you’re done, we’ll still have a military that can fight two wars and consume $250 billion a year. Can you compare this moment to the moment after World War II when the Marshall Plan and the GI Bill and Bretton Woods [international monetary agreement] were rearranging the global economy, along with a host of other fundamental reforms? I’m not trying to blame you specifically for this, but it looks to me like the failure of the hour.
First of all, at the end of World War II we had a defense establishment that was consuming a much higher percentage of our income than today. Therefore, cutting it yielded a lot more money than it does now. Second, in the beginning, the United States didn’t put all that much money into the Marshall Plan.
I agree we should be spending more money on defense conversion, more money on new technologies, more money on education and training. What are we doing? We’re spending 16 percent more on Medicaid and 11 percent more on Medicare next year. Everything else is flat or cut. Not cutting defense is not the big problem. A health-care system that has run amok is a bigger problem. I have cut defense very sharply. There is a limit to how many people you can put out on the street without facing severe economic dislocations, which are already very significant in California and elsewhere.
When people look back on this period, if what we’re doing in Russia works, I think the United States will get high marks for what we did to try to save democracy in Russia and promote the denuclearization of the world. We do have to have some new instruments of international economic cooperation and rebuilding, and we have to have a lot more rebuilding in this country. It is going to take more money, but I don’t think it can be done overnight.
We just started in January. We started with the things we should have started with. We passed a budget that has sharp reductions in defense, we’ve begun to rein in the debt, we are trying now to deal with health care, we are at least laying out the framework of the kind of investments we need to make to rebuild the future. We’re going to come up with a whole new retraining system to replace unemployment next year. We’ve passed a lot of things that are empowering to the American people, most importantly national service, motor voter, family leave. We changed the environmental policy of the country dramatically and profoundly, in ways that will actually help the economy over the long run.
We are trying to make the most of this time. If you go back and look at what happened at the end of World War II when Truman was president, it took him about three or four years to get all this stuff worked out. It didn’t happen just lickety-split.
Greider: But if you weren’t faced with a sputtering economy that can’t produce lots of jobs, would you entertain much deeper defense cuts? I’m still stuck on why we need a $250 billion budget or 10 or 12 aircraft carriers —
You can argue around the edges of it, but I wouldn’t go for much deeper cuts right now, because I don’t know what will be the case five or 10 years from now.
Greider: But if you cut back to 1980, it would save a ton more money than you’re saving.
What do you mean?
Greider: If you just cut the defense budget back to what it was in 1980.
We’re gonna have fewer people in the military than we did in 1980.
Greider: The budget’s going to be a whole lot bigger.
Far fewer. That’s because the military relies more on technology now than it did then. We’re only going to have about a million and a half people under arms that’s at the end of five years — maybe 1.4 million. That’s a huge cut from ’87, huge.
Greider: You understand the historical question I’m thinking of. This is what Great Britain did not do after World War II. It did not dismantle its colonial military machinery, and it paid dearly for that. I’m not saying we’re going to be like Great Britain, but it’s a moment of —
There are a lot of other reasons why they didn’t do very well. We’re cutting defense about as quickly as we can. The Europeans are saying I’m abandoning Europe, and they’re as nervous as a cat. There’s the uncertain future of the proliferation, or potential proliferation, of weapons of mass destruction all over Asia and the Indian subcontinent. There are lots of dicey deals out there still that the United States needs to be in a position to respond to. Not so we’ll have soldiers meddling in places we don’t belong, but so we’ll be able to keep the world from being consumed in some other terrible conflict that threatens our security.
Greider: The cruel irony is that in some ways you are a prisoner of your own past on this subject. You were eloquently against the war 20 years ago —
You mean if I had won a Medal of Honor in Vietnam, I could cut defense more?
That might be. But I have to tell you, I’ve not been shy in taking on issues. Most people in the military thought I was cutting defense too much. And most people in the military certainly didn’t agree with gays in the military. We still came out much better on gays than almost anybody has noticed. On this one I just called it the best I could.
The interesting issue is this: If I’d had the money we cut from defense to spend on rebuilding America, it would have been more than enough. The tragedy is, all that money went to the deficit and rising health-care costs. The money we cut from the military would have been sufficient to lower unemployment, to increase growth, to give us what we need in education and training, were it not for the enormous inflation in health-care cost and the size of the deficit I confronted when I took office.
Greider: But that is the trap, right?
That’s right, but what I want you to understand is, I’m the most impatient person on earth. If there is a legitimate criticism about me, it is that I have thrown myself against the wall this year. I’ve tried to do so many things that sometimes when I do things, no one notices. Most Americans don’t know we did family leave or motor voter or national service or changed the environmental policy, because I was always in some other controversy that was getting more ink.
But we cannot turn all these things around at once. I had to have the discipline to recognize that unless I could bring the deficit down credibly, restore some tax equity, give a break to the working poor, at least, if not the rest of the middle class, and get interest rates down and keep them down in the hope of eliciting a growth-oriented response from Japan and Europe, I wasn’t going to be able to move on those other fronts.
There is nothing you have outlined I don’t intend to try to do. But I could not pursue all those objectives at once. I had a sort of gnarled-up ball when I became president, and I had to start unraveling it. You have to begin at the beginning.
Greider: The CIA sent one of its people to Capitol Hill last week or the week before and undermined your policy in Haiti by testifying that Aristide, whom you support, is a nut. I happen to think they’re wrong about that, but —
I do, too.
Greider: But can’t you direct the CIA either to shut up or to support your policy? In another administration, the director of the agency would have been gone by that evening if he had done that to the president.
The director didn’t exactly do that. The guy who expressed that opinion — or at least revealed the research on which that opinion was based — was a career employee. He did all that work in a previous administration under a previous director. Under the rules of Congress, when someone is called to testify and asked their personal opinion, they have to give it.
Greider: Yeah, but the CIA, come on. They’re the last agency to believe in free speech.
All I’m saying is, consider the flip side. What if the story is, today the president suppressed information from the CIA … information that [North Carolina Sen.] Jesse Helms knew about, because he’s been on the committee?
“I have fought more damn battles For more thing here than any other president in the last 20 years.”
Greider: He had you either way.
He knew he had me either way. He knew I’d been given this information when I became president and that I had worked through it and concluded it was not right. So what was I to do? Try to jam it? Eventually, it would have come out. Or should I let the senators get the testimony, and then say why I disagree? The intelligence agencies are in an unusual position. They’re supposed to tell what they know. I don’t agree with the conclusions that were drawn, I thought they were drawn on limited evidence. The personal experience of my special envoy down there, [Lawrence] Pezzullo, of our ambassadors and the personal experience of the president and the vice president of the United States contradicts that.
Aristide is different. He has lived the life of an ascetic. He is not a Chicago pol or an Arkansas county judge. But if you look at what happened when he was in office, there was less, not more, political repression. He has done everything he said to us he would do. And he showed a real understanding of his own limitations in asking a man like [Robert] Malval to be his prime minister.
So I reasoned that since I knew it was out there from before I took office, and it was a matter of fact, and Congress had a legal right to know it, that rather than gagging this guy or playing games with him, the best thing to do was to let it happen. Then we would be able to win the battle once it saw the light of day. And I think we did a pretty good job of winning the battle last week.
Wenner: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself since you’ve become president?
All the old rules are still the ones that count. I feel better every night when I go home if I’ve done what I think is right. I feel better when I throw away the script and say what’s on my mind.
That we’re living in a world that is difficult, so I’m not going to be popular all the time. And that a lot of the problems themselves are uncertain. We know where we want to go, or at least I do, but it’s hard to imagine the whole future. Therefore, since I can’t calculate a bunch of this stuff, I shouldn’t be deterred by things like a Time cover, nor should I be unduly elevated by the magic moments, even the wonderful moment of the Israeli-PLO peace accord. I just have to go on. I have to just make every day count and just do what you think is right and always be prepared to learn.
The thing I’ve learned that’s most important is that there is a culture here that’s important to learn and master. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I agree with you, all those questions you’ve asked, I’m sure I have made some mistakes. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that the do-right rule is the best one overall. Just figure out what you think is right, and do your best to do it. Don’t let somebody else program you, and always keep your ears open so you can hear when you’re wrong.
Wenner: I recently reread the interview we did last year at Doe’s, and I was struck, by the optimism and the hope in your campaign as it reflected not only the ideals of the ’60s generation but the sense you were picking up around the country that people wanted to change. A year later, do you still feel that sense of optimism?
I’m still very optimistic, but change is hard to make and easy to misinterpret. We live in a time when the rough, rubbing sound [rubs his hands together in a gesture of greed] is more prevalent than people taking any kind of pleasure when something good happens. But I’m very, very optimistic. In some ways, I’m as optimistic as I was when we met at Doe’s. And I’m frustrated by the change-averse culture of this town and by the way it reverberates out into negativism around the country. I just have to keep working on it. Eventually the results will pile up and pile up and pile up, consequences will ensue, things will change, and people will begin to grow more sunny. That’s what I think will happen.
[At this point the formal sit-down interview was concluded, but as Clinton headed to the passage that connected his private dining room to the Oval Office, accompanied by Gergen, Stephanopoulos and several other aides anxious to get him to a meeting with former President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State James Baker and others, Greider asked one last question.]
Greider: Believe it or not, I got a call this morning from a guy whose son was one of your Faces of Hope [one of the citizens Clinton met during the campaign and invited to the inaugural]. He was very dejected, disappointed. I told him I was coming over here to see you, and he said, “Ask him what he’s willing to stand up for and die on.” I think there’s a feeling that —
[The president, standing a foot away from Greider, turned and glared at him.Clinton’s face reddened, and his voice rose to a furious pitch as he delivered a scalding rebuke an angry, emotional presidential encounter, the kind of which few have ever witnessed.]
But that is the press’s fault, too, damn it. I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in 20 years, with the possible exception of Reagan’s first budget, and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press, and I am sick and tired of it, and you can put that in the damn article.
I have fought and fought and fought and fought. I get up here every day, and I work till late at night on everything from national service to family leave to the budget to the crime bill and all this stuff, and you guys take it and you say, “Fine, go on to something else, what else can I hit him about?” So if you convince them I don’t have any conviction, that’s fine, but it’s a damn lie. It’s a lie.
Look what I did. I said that the wealthy would have to pay their fair share, and look what we did to the tax system. I said that I’d give working families a break, and I did. People with modest incomes, look what’s going to happen. Did I get any credit for it, from you or anybody else? Do I care if I get credit? No.
But I do care that that man has a false impression of me because of the way this administration has been covered. It is wrong. That’s my answer. It is wrong. I have fought my guts out for that guy, and if he doesn’t know it, it’s not all my fault. And you get no credit around here for fighting and bleeding. And that’s why the know-nothings and the do-nothings and the negative people and the right-wingers always win. Because of the way people like you put questions to people like me. Now, that’s the truth, Bill.
[At this point the president started to walk away but changed his mind and came back, still mad as hell.]
That’s why they always win. And they’re going to keep winning until somebody tells them the truth, that this administration is killing itself every day to help people like them and making some progress. And if you hold me to an impossible standard and never give us any credit when we’re moving forward, then that’s exactly what will happen, guys like that will think that. But it ain’t all my fault, because we have fought our guts out for ’em. And the bad guys win because they have no objective other than to win. They shift the blame, they never take responsibility. And they play on the cynicism of the media.
That’s not what I do. I come to work here every day, and I try to help that guy. And I’m sorry if I’m not very good at communicating, but I haven’t gotten a hell of a lot of help since I’ve been here.