A Visit with Bill Clinton

The conflict between the "A student" and the "pol"

When Clinton was a boy, the race problem was defined as a southern issue, one that centered on an apartheidlike system of separation and denial of legal rights. Now race is clearly a national, not a regional, problem--and we asked Clinton to define exactly what the problem is. "What's wrong," he said, "is that objectively blacks, and to a lesser degree Hispanics, are--profoundly are--worse off than the rest of the country, more likely to suffer from economic and social difficulties that are profound and that make the good life much more difficult."

What, if anything, can a President do about this? Clinton specifically rejected using quotas to enforce "equality as a result," as Lyndon Johnson proposed in his famous Howard University speech in 1965, or expanding civil-rights law, so that disadvantaged groups can more easily use the courts to defend their economic interests.

"I don't think the government in this society is capable of mandating equality of result . . . that the American people should try to mandate a quota system on our society. [As for civil rights laws,] I don't think they are irrelevant. As long as there is a disproportionate impact by race or gender on the difficulties we face, they're not irrelevant. But I think a lot of what we do doesn't have to be race-based. I mean, Social Security wasn't a constitutional right. It was a political decision. We ought to have an election and a political debate in which we say there are several ways in which we are diminishing the capacities of our people and weakening our country."

As solutions Clinton emphasized economic growth--with reminders that this is connected to education and trade and infrastructure projects and everything else--and an attempt to change personal values. In the past generation, he said, the government has clearly helped shift attitudes about smoking. Something similar is possible with attitudes toward work and family. Does this mean the kind of "values" speeches that Vice President Dan Quayle was giving in the spring?

"It's okay to talk about values. It is critically important to try to imbue within people a value structure that will change their behavior. But if all you do is talk about values while you pursue policies"--such as, we assumed, tax changes that hurt the working poor--"that you know will aggravate the very conditions you are railing against, then you're being hypocritical. That's my problem with Quayle and Bush. It would suit me fine if they had a minister I admired to the White House once a month, and let him or her talk about values. But the problem is that their behavior is inconsistent with the real world, which requires us to do more than preach about values. It's 'values plus'--it's not only values, it's values plus action that supports those values. And from my point of view, they're 'values minus.' I think the Democrats, or anybody else, would make a great mistake to minimize the impact of this values appeal, but it rings hollow if your policies are inconsistent with the values you espouse."

The racial matter of which Clinton seemed to lack an instinctive grasp was the question of what to do about the problems of the big inner-city ghettos --problems that exist in Arkansas but that are an overwhelming issue in Los Angeles and New York and Chicago. He repeatedly cited William Julius Wilson's 1987 book The Truly Disadvantaged, which says that today's ghetto social problems, such as crime, welfare dependency, and family disintegration, are primarily the result of the loss of good manufacturing jobs. Clinton seemed to be using Wilson's book as a kind of talisman, in a way he wouldn't have done with a book about an issue with which he was personally more familiar. For example, he told us that according to Wilson, at the end of the Second World War, when the economies of New York and Detroit and Chicago were strong, the black and white rates for out-of-wedlock birth were about the same. "This is all a phenomenon of my lifetime," Clinton said. In fact Wilson doesn't use this particular statistic; he couldn't, because at the end of the Second World War the percentage of births out of wedlock was eight times as high for blacks as for whites. But Clinton seems to have filed away in his mind a sound-bite-like statement along the lines of "the ghetto underclass was created by deindustrialization."

If Clinton truly took on the underclass as President, he'd surely find, as the past few Democratic Presidents have found, that the ghettos are surprisingly resistant to the good old Democratic medicine of economic growth and low unemployment. A different approach would be to assume that the ghettos' problems are primarily cultural, and focus mostly on social acculturation programs targeted on high-poverty areas. Pols always want to do some of each--especially Clinton, who seemingly hates having to endorse either side of any complicated issue.

Still, that you can even worry about how Clinton would deepen his understanding of such subjects makes him unusual. He obviously views racial healing as one of the most important jobs for the next President. He also seems to have a sure, centrist sense of the political perils of the issue. In the 1960s, liberals helped destroy the tenuous public support for Great Society anti-poverty programs by making grants to the likes of the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago gang. Clinton emphasized the need to sustain broad political support:

"I think that upper-middle-class people are ready to be challenged to help people in the cities help themselves. That's why welfare reform has such a powerful resonance in the suburbs. It is not because people want to punish poor people. It's because the experience of people living in the suburbs is that they helped themselves into the suburbs. You speak to the suburbs [and recommend] not maintaining dependence but creating independence. I think that has a powerful resonance, because it makes what you want to do with poor folks consistent with the life experience of middle- and upper-middle-class America."

The most personally revealing answer Clinton gave during our visit concerned Vietnam. First he presented a dull but worthy discourse on the lessons the United States should and shouldn't draw. (We can't fight someone else's war, but we have to be ready to fight some wars.) Then he was asked, "Do you now wish you'd gone?" He paused for a quite a while before answering.

"I can't say that. You know, I was raised in the post-World War Two generation. I always kind of wanted to be in the military. I always liked and admired it. And it's something that I missed in a way--that I missed. But to say that I wished I'd gone would require me to rewrite history to an extraordinary extent. "I had an opportunity that few people of my generation had, because I worked on the Foreign Relations Committee. I had a security clearance. I read six newspapers a day. I sat there through all those hearings. I knew more than most people did--that we weren't being told the truth about how we were doing and what we were doing and what our objectives were. I've often wondered whether I should wish that at that age I didn't know what I knew. But I believe now, just as strongly as I believed then, that our policy was wrong and misguided and that we would have been better off if we had changed it before we did.

"Because I was a kid from Arkansas, a state with a great patriotic tradition, and because I loved my country, I never wanted to feel that I was not patriotic or that my feelings and actions were dictated by just a desire to stay out of harm's way. But I felt--I mean, the passion of my feelings about it was so deep that I think it would be just rewriting history for me to say [I wish I'd gone]. I wish that I'd had the military experience, because I feel that it's an important part of a country to have a strong defense and an honorable thing to do. But the circumstances of that moment were so difficult and unusual that I can't go back and say that I'd rewrite history."

At the end of the interview we gave Clinton another chance to surmount the Jimmy Carter-like problem of having many positions but no identifiable point of view. "If you had to sum up your message for the fall campaign in three, preferably immortal, sentences, what would they be?"

This time Clinton really sat and thought, and then gave us five, with a distinct pause at the end of each sentence: "Our country is in trouble, losing its way economically and coming apart socially. Our government has failed to work for most Americans, favoring special interests and the wealthiest of us only. We need to rebuild America, and to reunite America with policies that put our people at the center of national life, investing in more jobs, basic health care, and world-class education, and with a commitment to pull people together again. We don't have a person to waste, but the problems today are not nearly as great as our lack of faith that we can overcome them. That's the real obstacle."

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