A Talk With Bill Clinton

The President shows himself to be at once confident about what we should do to better life for the next generation and guarded about how much we can achieve toward that end
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A FEW months ago editors from this magazine interviewed President Bill Clinton in the White House for just under an hour. The physical setting for dealing with a President is usually grander than that for encountering most other politicians, and theoretically calmer. The typical congressional office is cramped enough that an interviewer can hear aides yelling in the next room, "Yeah, he'll get right back to you -- he'll be done with his three o'clock in a minute." The Oval Office, in contrast, is the only uncramped area in the otherwise jam-packed suite of offices in the West Wing of the White House, and one is meant upon stepping into it to be struck by its sense of space and serenity.

Bill ClintonAny competent politician knows how to act as if the visitor of the moment were the most fascinating human specimen imaginable. But all around a President are people looking at their wristwatches, a photographer snapping official mementos of the meeting, someone recording every word the President utters in interview situations, and a variety of other assistants whose interest in the visitor begins and ends with whether he or she will get out of there on time.

We encountered Bill Clinton at the end of a day (June 25) that was an extreme example of the meter-is-running nature of his life. Earlier Clinton had met with the Presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- an event that was no doubt front-page news in the Baltic States but was barely mentioned in the United States. Soon afterward he had a similar meeting with the President of Uzbekistan. The next morning he was scheduled to travel to France for the annual G-7 meeting of leaders of major industrial nations.

Then, around four o'clock that afternoon, news arrived of the terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed nineteen American soldiers. Through the late afternoon Clinton met to discuss the bombing with his national-security team. Shortly after six there was an announcement in the press room that the President himself -- not some representative or press secretary -- would make a statement. The room came alive as camera crews checked their equipment, technicians brought in a giant lectern (which resembled a huge coffin stood on end) and hung the presidential seal on the front of it, and correspondents did teaser broadcasts to say that news was about to be made. At 6:25 a small door near the lectern opened and the President entered -- along with the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser, and assorted other officials whose presence underscored the solemnity of the event. Clinton read a brief, stern statement admonishing the terrorists, which ended "America takes care of our own. Those who did it must not go unpunished." Without taking questions he walked out of the room.

At 6:40 he walked into the Oval Office, where he found . . . us. Much like the leaders of the Baltic nations and Uzbekistan, we were hoping in the time allotted to steer President Clinton's attention toward issues that mattered a lot to us -- in this case, his views on long-term economic challenges. As Clinton sat down to talk with us, an aide handed him a sheaf of briefing papers that covered the issues we seemed likely to focus on and the themes he should stress. Clinton glanced at it for a second and set it on a table. People used to mock Ronald Reagan's dictum that memos for the President should be boiled down to one page. His idea makes more sense when one sees how much time a President actually has to read and reflect.

Journalists interviewing politicians are often surprised to find that they sound smart. Politicians are made to seem buffoons when presented in television sound bites. Also, they spend much of their lives boning up on issues and explaining the positions they take--the very skills that are on display in most interviews. There are exceptions: Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Edward Kennedy have been known for coming across in conversation as affable rather than insightful -- to say nothing of Dan Quayle. But politicians as varied as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Newt Gingrich, and Lyndon Johnson all got ahead partly by persuading people in small groups that they were figures of complexity and depth.

Bill Clinton has this skill. During the first ten or fifteen minutes of our interview he seemed logy and understandably preoccupied. But when we went back and read it on paper, even that part of his conversation was surprisingly coherent; and after he woke up, he had the sort of zip usually associated with his informal TV appearances. By the end of the interview, when we had turned off the tape recorders and were being given the evil eye by staffers and Secret Service agents, he was in his familiar buttonholing mode, standing a little closer than other people do, looming over us with his size and heft and almost but not quite putting his hands on our shoulders -- in general, being the complete communicator.

The substance of Clinton's comments was not quite as reassuring and upbeat as his manner, or as politicians are ultimately required to seem. He talked in detailed and enthusiastic terms about steps he thought would help the country weather its upcoming economic transition -- brought about by the global economy, the rise of computers, the ever-growing gap between rewards for highly skilled and for unskilled workers. But beneath his action plan seemed to be a fatalistic awareness that this transition would be wrenching, like the one a century ago that accompanied the rise of unions and mass production. Like Newt Gingrich or Jack Kemp, Clinton is brimming with specific policy ideas. But Gingrich and Kemp suggest, in tone more than in words, that once their reforms -- tax cuts, empowerment zones -- are in place, everything will be great. Clinton's implied argument, more appealing to a historian's or a journalist's sensibilities, is that things never work out perfectly, but modest changes can make a difference in the long run.

On only two issues did Clinton give answers that were either artfully evasive or simply conventional. The evasion concerned, of course, Social Security. The question was not whether the program costs too much or gives too many of its benefits to people who don't need them. Rather, it was whether the payroll tax that funds Social Security has become another source of economic unfairness in America, taking as it does the biggest tax bite, proportionally, from the people with the lowest incomes.

Clinton dealt with this in a way that avoided the flat-earthism of saying that nothing is wrong with Social Security without being suicidally specific about exactly what should be done. He said, "What I think about Social Security is that we've always done whatever it took to preserve the program in a way that was healthy for the economy. We've always done it in a bipartisan fashion." The vehicle for doing so, he made clear, was a bipartisan commission that would give both parties cover for doing what had to be done -- just what happened in 1983, when the previous set of Social Security changes was passed.

Clinton's conventional answer concerned budget deficits. Since the day he took office, they have blighted his life. Having run in 1992 on a two-part economic platform -- cutting spending in general and raising some taxes to reduce the deficit, while increasing spending for education, job training, public works, and other "investment" accounts -- Clinton discovered during his first year in office that fighting the deficit was driving out nearly every other goal. (The logic ran like this: bigger deficits might cause inflation; fear of inflation would cause the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates; fear of high interest rates would cause the bond and stock markets to crash; fear of these crashes made the Clinton Administration drop most of its investment agenda.) After Republicans took control of Congress last year, they tried to push through budget plans and constitutional amendments requiring that the budget deficit shrink to zero within seven years. These efforts failed -- but the trend of budget deficits nonetheless changed dramatically during Clinton's term. Relatively speaking, U.S. deficits in the late 1980s were the largest among all industrial nations. Now they are the smallest. Some economists therefore argue -- as Thomas I. Palley and Robert A. Levine did in the July Atlantic -- that a continued effort to eliminate the deficit has become more dangerous than the deficit itself, and that America could again make Herbert Hoover's error of holding down spending when spending could produce growth.

"I basically don't agree with those economists, frankly," Clinton said when asked about this theory. "You could argue that the problem is solved. We have an operating surplus -- our budget would have been in balance the past two years, with a surplus, were it not for the interest on the debt run up in the twelve years before I took office." But, he added half sincerely, "there is no point in crying over spilled milk." It is still important to keep the deficit down, so that interest rates will remain low and the private economy can create as many jobs as possible. This, he said, will do more good for more working Americans than would government spending or even tax cuts, which could raise the deficit.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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