Go to James Fallows's e-mail exchange with Tony Blair about Bill Clinton
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
Bill Clinton and His Consequences (February 2001)
Contributions from James Fallows, Pat Oliphant, P. J. O'Rourke, Randall Kennedy, Francis Davis, Margaret Talbot, Glenn C. Loury, Roy Blount Jr., Carl M. Cannon, Wilfrid Sheed, Arlie Russell Hochschild, Tish Durkin, William Schneider, and Jack Beatty.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Clinton Era" (January 26, 2000)
A look back at Atlantic articles—by James Fallows, Thomas Byrne Edsall, Peter Edelman, and others—assessing Bill Clinton and his presidency.
[A Web-only sidebar to "Post-President for Life," March 2003 Atlantic Monthly]
[This is the transcript of an interview between former President Bill Clinton and James Fallows, of The Atlantic Monthly, on October 21, 2002. It occurred at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Clinton was in Fayetteville to deliver a speech on foreign policy honoring his mentor, the late Senator J. William Fulbright. Also present at the interview were two of Clinton's associates from Arkansas, including Rodney Slater, former Secretary of Transportation.
Clinton and his group arrived 45 minutes late. Clinton strolled into the interview room and took out a cigar, which he never lit.
An Interview With Bill Clinton
by James Fallows
The transcript that follows, which was prepared by James Fallows, is verbatim but has not been checked with the Clinton office. It may have spelling or other errors. Ellipsis marks (...) indicate a pause or change in topic in Clinton's own discourse rather than deleted material. Only one brief part of what Clinton said is omitted; he asked that it be off the record, because it was a privileged communication from a current government official.
Clinton began with a monologue about Fayetteville.]
There's Fay Jones, who among other things, designed a chapel in the mountains, the Ozark mountains, the Thorncrown Chapel about 50 miles from here—that Prince Charles gave an award from the Royal Academy of Architects. The Royal Academy said it was one of the ten most beautiful buildings built anywhere in the world in the 1990s. [On checking, this turns out to be slightly off but basically true.]
I lived in one of his houses. And Hillary was in one of his buildings.
Bob Leflar lived in a Fay Jones house. And his son was here. [Slater: Yeah, I saw him!]
This town is one of the most interesting towns in America. Full of character. This guy who just came up to us, his daddy was born to a frontier marshal in 1900. And Dr. Leflar lived to be 91 or 93, 94. He taught until he died. He taught free for a dollar a year after he was 70, because they couldn't pay him. He taught for many years. For many years he was America's foremost authority on the subject of conflict of laws, between states, how you resolve them. And a very highly regarded torts teacher. But his main expertise, for which he became famous, was appellate judging. So he taught for many, many years a course for judges, for appellate judges, at NYU Law School. And he would fly up from Fayetteville to Little Rock to New York, and go teach his class, and come back. He did this for twenty years and was never late to a class. And he had... at one time more than half the members of the Supreme Court had been students in his class. He was a legendary law professor, but he never wanted to leave Fayetteville.
I was the youngest person ever hired to teach here. [Context from speech is Fulbright's having been the youngest president of the university.] The youngest since he [Leflar] had been hired at 26 in 1926, when I came home in 1974. And I shared offices with him.
His niece was basically my first serious girlfriend. Her daddy was this old, fire-eating populist hill-country lawyer. I lost out to Sam Walton's son in the competition for her affections. She subsequently married a guy whose father owned 20-something patents from Kodak. They got a divorce. She's now a social worker in Oakland who spends half her time in the inner city working virtually for free. She spends half her time taking paying clients so she can afford to work and get psychiatric and psychological services to poor people. And she married a guy who's a carpenter. She raised a family and finally brought her daughter to see me in the White House.
I mean, all these rich, textured characters. I could tell you stories... I saw people out there I could not bee-leeeeve.
[One of Clinton's Arkansas friends mentions Leflar: back in '48, he was instrumental in helping integrate the law school.] Clinton: You know who our first black student was? Alex Haley's brother. George Haley. Roots!
This building, the other thing you need to look at, when you go outside? Before you walk out, go out the front door. Take a look at this thing. It's breathtaking. This building is the flagship of the first university built under the Morrill Land Grant Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln in the early 1860s. It was opened in 1871. We were still under Reconstruction. This is called Old Main, the main building of the university. Under Reconstruction—you're not going to believe this, go back and look, the north tower is higher than the south, to remind people under Reconstruction of which side won!
But this town was also the home of an incredible man named Isaac Murphy, who originally came from Huntsville, which was Orval Faubus's home. Little town of 1,100 over here. The irony of it is, Faubus made Arkansas infamous, by defying the Union. Isaac Murphy lost his wife and daughter to exposure fleeing the southern troops. He was one of the 18 percent of Arkansans who fought for the Union in the Civil War. He was our first post-Civil War governor. And he was an amazing man, but he was a schoolteacher in Fayetteville. And he gave—I'm going to try to put this in my autobiography—he gave a speech, at the end of the Civil War, pleading for reconciliation. And it started off, the first sentence was, "We have all done wrong... There is no one who has fought in this conflict who has not shed blood..." It was just unbelievable.
We had the secession convention like all the southern states did. We had 37 counties. Though the state voted to secede, five of the counties tried to secede from Arkansas. See, these five counties around here were hill-country counties, so there was no cotton culture! There were actually a hundred and fifteen free blacks in Marion county, ninety miles east of here. This was in the 1850 census, before all the southern states passed rules saying freed slaves had to get out.
When the five counties tried to get out of Arkansas, they couldn't, because the counties were the creatures of the state. But Isaac Murphy kept trying.... And [those counties] supplied most of the troops that fought for the north, including Isaac Murphy.
But Isaac Murphy was the only man who would never yield. They actually beat the others into submission and they finally voted for secession. Until every delegate but Isaac Murphy said okay. And then he had to hide his family when the Union forces came up through here.
The Civil War in the West really raged in north Arkansas for a good long while. And his wife and daughter, in trying to escape, on a cold rainy night both got pneumonia and died. Casualties of the Civil War. Interesting story...
This whole area is just fascinating. And just out west of here is a little town called Pea Ridge, [which] was pivotal to the victory of General Grant in the West. Because it was at Pea Ridge that the Confederates tried to break through the Union forces. So they rebuffed them. Grant kept sweeping down here, and crossed at Vicksburg, and won the battle there. And then all he had to do was simply march east. It was just a question of cleaning house across the east. Then they turned up north, and Lee got defeated at Gettysburg.
[I give him the November issue of The Atlantic and he says "Iraq...."] I'm neither fish nor fowl. That is, I believe that he [Saddam Hussein] is very bad. We have a lot to answer for, and he is basically partly our creature. I'm not criticizing President Bush on this because I did the same thing. I've sat there and pontificated about how [Saddam] is the only guy to use chemical weapons on his own people. Yeah he did it, and the Reagan Administration was for him when he did it. Nobody raised a peep then, because he was against Iran. We now know that he got his anthrax strain from an American company while we looked the other way. We also know that, or at least a British journalist has alleged, that Casey [the head of the CIA under Reagan] tried to give him cluster bombs. I don't know if that's true or not 'cause I read it in the British press and you never can tell. I wouldn't give it the same credence I would if I read it there [points at The Atlantic].
I think they [the original Bush Administration] feel badly about abandoning the Shiites. At least we tried to protect the Kurds. And, so... I'd like it if it happened. On the other hand, if it happened as a result of our initiative, it would be a very high price to pay. Because of what I said out here today. We are trying to create a process. I didn't exactly adhere to the Levin view [referring to Senator Carl Levin of Michigan], because I don't think you can treat the UN like a shrine. It is an institution that is still becoming, it's not where we want it to be. We, and others, sometimes cast our veto votes in ways that are more about us than about the global interests.
So I think we have to try to give the sanctions one more chance. He's not going to live forever, there are options for regime change short of bombing the living daylights out of them. And we know that these... we know that the inspectors have gotten a ton of stuff out of there. But the effort of trying will bring us together.
My model here is Kosovo, where the Russians couldn't quite let us go. They're Slavs, they're Orthodox Christians... But then it was a bona fide emergency. You had NATO, you had the nonaligned countries, you had the Muslim countries, and then Russians could feel that they were part of a deal.
So my view is that the process can be almost as important... In the absence of an emergency, the process can be as important as product. So that what I want is, if we have to take military action, I will support the President if I believe he has done everything reasonably possible to build not... not only to build a broader coalition but to do it within a framework of trying to strengthen the UN. Even if in the end in the Security Council there's a veto. And I thought they took a big step forward when they agreed to scrap all the extraneous language and just go for it, which the press indicates that they have agreed to go just for free and unrestricted inspection.
The '91 authority gave them [the current Bush Administration] authority to take military action. But they can't do it now because we're under these '98 restrictions on the inspections, which had been accepted. We need to be trying to deal with the substance, the product, which is the chemical and biological weapons and the nuclear program. But the process [is] needed to further international cooperation and do it within the context of trying to build the UN. Because if you just do the first without the second, the price would be truly extraordinary.
Now, on the occupation thing, I have a slightly different take. [From the Atlantic cover "The Fifty-first State," which he is pointing at.] My view is that we ought to be there but it really ought to be as internationalized as possible. Just like we did in Kosovo. Including the Russians and OPFOR [opposing force] and whatever. Let everybody do it. Probably they ought to guarantee the oil contracts. But, I've reached the... and, maybe, I know that.... It's a funny thing when you're not in office anymore. You don't do the security briefings. You have to understand. It requires a little humility. In some ways your vision is clearer, because you see the big things clearer. But in other ways your vision is cloudier, because you may miss the exigencies of the moment. So whenever I offer a judgment I try to show some humility, because I know that some things I see more clearly than I did when I was in, but some things I'm quite sure I don't see as clearly.
But I'm pretty sure this is the right thing to do. Press ahead with this thing, try to.... We knew when we did the bombing in '98 that we hit all the known or suspected sites based on the intelligence we had, from all the people that were doing that work there. We knew at the time that we had set his program back a couple years. But sooner or later in the millennium the new Administration, whether it was Gore's or Bush's, would have to take this matter up again.
So I don't really have... that's why I'm sort of in the middle of this thing. One of the reasons I went to Great Britain [was] to try to defend Blair in the Labour Party conference, because my view was, they were presenting Tony as if he were just in the Bush Administration's hip pocket, but that's not at all true. Tony was more or less where I was. He took the problem very seriously. He was somewhat bullish on our ability to have good things happen in Iraq. But he also was determined to pull for the moderates in the Bush Administration who wanted to do this, if at all possible, with broader Allies and in a way that strengthened the multilateral process and the UN. So I always thought Blair did not get enough credit within Great Britain for trying to bring the Europeans and Americans together, under the UN rubric, or as close as possible to it. That's what I hope will happen.
[Q: What about the recent speech by Al Gore, in which he criticized the Administration for using the prospect of war for political ends?] Well, I neither heard it nor actually read it. All I read were the press reports. And [here Clinton pauses for perhaps 15 seconds, the only such break in the conversation] my observations would be three.
One is, I think he was right to be genuinely disturbed about the documents that were uncovered from the Republican political consultants, which indicated that the timing was dictated by the politics of the midterms. I can only imagine what they would have done to us if they'd found a computer disk that said, 'Hey, we got to bomb Bosnia because we're not in good shape for the '94 elections.' I mean, they would have just killed us.
And so I think the idea [was] that at the time America was taking a much more unilateral tone. This was before the President's speech in Cincinnati. So I think he was right to do that. In the news reports—I want to say again, I did not read the speech... Al Gore has a good, clear unambiguous record of being strong, both before his service as Vice President and in all the private meetings we had in the White House, on the importance of trying to contain Saddam Hussein and dealing with his chemical and biological weapons. So if he said what I think he said, I think it's fine. The news reports implied that he only talked about the political timing and the savaging of the international process and didn't express sympathy with the Administration's dilemma in trying to find a way to deal with this and in understanding that America takes it more seriously than a lot of other countries do. I'm not sure that's a fair report of what he said. Because I didn't read his speech.
But I guess what I thought was, The points he raised were points well raised—and legitimate for a Democrat to raise. That's what the loyal opposition ought to do. But from my point of view... Because I believe that this is a serious problem that has to be addressed, when I raise them I try to raise them in the context of this serious problem we face from Iraq.... I'm for the Administration dealing with this. And let's talk about how to deal with it. That's the way I've always felt about it.
So I think the news reports didn't get that—but that may just have been the way the speech was reported. I just know Al Gore. I know how he looks at this. I think the press might have been so starved for somebody to start a debate that they'd spin it. So that's why I never criticize the speech, because I agree with those two points. But I agree with them raised in the proper context.
And I've heard Al... We had endless conversations about Iraq. So, if he said what I think he said, I think it's fine. [I remark, sarcastically: It would be really surprising if the coverage were wrong.] Well, it happens, you know. I know that Colin got irritated with me because they showed him a clip from my thing on Letterman. I didn't say, Don't do the thing [invade]. I said you've got to be concerned because right now he has maximum incentive not to use or give away these weapons. We do have a deterrence operating now. He [Saddam] knows it. If he uses or gives away these weapons, he'd be in terrible shape. If we come after him, since he knows the outcome is certain, he has maximum incentive to use them.
Well, the way they played the clip to Colin on the Today Show, the Sunday morning show, he got mad, and said he wasn't going to respond to a late night talk show. And then ten days later the CIA said the same thing I did. It doesn't mean that we should be paralyzed, particularly if he's actively developing a nuclear program.
But what it does do, it makes the other point more important. It makes the point... getting caught trying to make the UN work, getting caught trying to broaden the alliance. 'Cause if you listen to the President's speech in Cincinnati, which I thought was a real step forward in how they've been discussing this—basically very well done. You saw what their strategy was. To publicly and privately tell the people in charge of these stocks in Iraq: Look, if we come after you, if you don't do this [fire the weapons], we'll take care of you. If you do it, we'll try you for war crimes. That may be the only play they've got. And I don't have enough intelligence to know now—intelligence reports—to know what our options are. But that is a legitimate concern.
[Q: Why do you think Bush changed course?] Well, I think... I think first of all, I think Blair has probably been quite effective behind the scenes. I would imagine that—given what I read Brent Scowcroft said in public—I would imagine that the former President Bush and a lot of his allies, who after all were not shy about using force in the Gulf War, but I imagine they have been rather effective behind the scenes. And I think that [the hawks] were somewhat sobered by the reactions of the Germans and other allies. They might have complained about it but they heard it.
Furthermore I think President Bush has pretty good political instincts. I think his antennae are sharper than, you know, than the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz wing. I think he's got a sense of what the traffic will bear.
But for whatever reason... And Colin, you know, Secretary Powell, he must have been weighing in. And he, after all, has more military experience than all those people counseling war. I just think they're coming to a place—and it might all be a ruse, but it looks legitimate. It looks like they're really trying to get this passed. It looks to me like it's a real straight-up deal. I tried to support the President's speech in Cincinnati [which endorsed the UN approach] as well as his efforts in the UN. I think changing this resolution [so that it called for tougher inspections] was really smart. Because, I mean, how are the French or Russians going to justify a vote against real inspections in favor of phony inspections?
The problem is—and not just in this case, but in any relation. If you and I, once you stop overreaching in a relationship, you remove the excuses that the other people in the relationship have for whatever irresponsible thing they're doing. So I think the burden has now shifted to others to say why they won't be for a clean resolution and unimpeded inspections.
That's sort of my take on it. I like where this thing is going. It seems—it feels legitimate. It feels like this is not just a vast charade, preparing for a conflict. If that's true and the conflict comes, we'll have much broader support and be much closer to where we were in Kosovo. And that will guarantee a much greater likelihood of success in the aftermath. And if, God forbid, [Saddam] does use or give away any of those weapons, we'll have a more broadly shared responsibility, because everybody else is going to be aware of the risks just like we are.
[Q: I just talked with Pat Buchanan, who said that he is sure, from the look in George Bush's eyes, that he wants to do it, wants to go to war.] A lot of the liberals think that too. And I think that part of [Bush] does want to do it.
Like I said, if I were one of those guys, I would feel pretty bad that I got talked into this hundred-hour war [in 1991]. But I've never criticized the Bush Administration for not deposing Saddam Hussein. A lot of people urged me to and I said, Look, it's not fair. Because I know the facts. And the facts are that George Bush had to promise not to march on Baghdad to get the Arab support. But there was another option. If we'd thought about [garbled] Barry McCaffrey could have just destroyed the Republican Guard... Cut 'em off, go south. And then they could have set up the same kind of protective zone they did for the Kurds in the north and for the Shiites in the southeast. That would have stopped the swamps from being drained.
I mean the marshes. They could have even set up UN protective zones over the oil refineries at Basra and had even more control to require... if you want the cash [from oil], to direct the cash to the children, the wounded, all that kind of stuff. So there were other options. But in terms of just not marching on Baghdad, it's not fair to criticize former President Bush, because he couldn't have had the international coalition if he'd done it.
He honored his word. But I do think they want to do it. And I also think a lot of them believe they're... what that little compact disk said, that CD, that they gotta have an enemy, keep America thinking about it all the time. But I think a lot of them really believe that the Iraqis would be better off without him and could handle it. That's my instinct too, by the way. My instinct is that the Iraqis will do pretty well when he's gone. It's just that we can't go around deposing people without global support. We just can't do it. Just like we can't, you know... every African leader I know wants [Robert] Mugabe [the president-turned-tyrant of Zimbabwe] gone. But they'd be mad if we sent fifty thousand soldiers to depose him.
[Q: Now, about your post-presidential plans? Could we discuss what you plan to do, and what you think about this concept of yourself and Jimmy Carter as the first examples of a future wave of young ex-Presidents?]
I must say, I read your memo [discussing the theme of Clinton and Carter as previews of active, young ex-Presidents], and until you said that, I hadn't given much thought to it. And now I realize that Jimmy Carter, who was only a year older than me [actually, two] when he got out, is much more likely to be representative than President Reagan or former President Bush.
If you look at the former Presidents that played a real role, they basically break down into three types. Jefferson essentially went back to his business but continued to exercise great indirect influence over the affairs of the country. He gave advice to Madison and Monroe, counseled them.
Then there's Teddy Roosevelt, who basically could have run for what would de facto have been a third term, although he had only been elected once... He was disappointed in Taft and so he decided to be an independent candidate. He started a third party, ran, and became a real actor.
Then there is the "find some other way to serve and make a real difference" model. And the best known examples of that are John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. Quincy Adams going back to Congress for eight years, Jimmy Carter building his foundation and working around the world and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, which I think he richly deserved. But there are two other important examples. One is Herbert Hoover, who went back and did the Hoover commission and did other things. And the other is William Howard Taft, who was made Chief Justice.
Now, I had to sort of reconceive my life when I got out. I'd been in one vein for thirty years. I didn't want to go back to elective office. I didn't want to be a judge. And I wanted to be more active than Hoover. That's why I mainly thought of Carter.
What I thought was, when you're not President any more, you lose your power but not your influence, but the influence must be concentrated in a few areas. So I decided that I wanted to build a foundation that would concentrate in the areas where I thought I could make a difference, where I had great interest. The economic empowerment of poor people, in America and around the world. The promotion of racial and religious reconciliation, in America and around the world. Inspiring more people to public service and citizen service, in America and around the world. And then trying to deal sort of seriatim with specific problems, whether it's education or AIDS—it's turned out to be AIDS now, for the next couple of years—that would basically increase the capacity of democracies to solve their own problems.
For instance I have now solved—I have now signed, excuse me—agreements with 15 Caribbean countries and Mozambique and Rwanda to try to take their AIDS care programs national. And working with the drug companies.
So that was my foundation. And I'm building a library and museum in Arkansas, which I have tried to make... there will be an educational program there. I've tried to do some things with that library that others have not done. I've tried to make it more than just a little shrine to me. It will be America's first museum about our transition into a new millennium—about a new way of working, of relating to each other and the rest of the world. And to illustrate what I believe, that there are certain ideas that need to become deeply embedded in the American psyche. The kinds of things I was talking about today. Things that go way beyond party. What kinds of things do we need to embrace? What are the new American political ideas that should drive us in the next several decades? And I'm trying to do it in a way that makes it very accessible, both physically in a building that I hope will win international environmental awards...
Both years I've been out of office I've spent more than half my time in public-service work. Rather than bore you with all the specifics I can just give you that Chronicle of Philanthropy article .
But there are elements in what I do now that are like Thomas Jefferson or Teddy Roosevelt. In the sense that I still—I talk to people in the Democratic Party who might want to be President. If they want to talk to me, I'll talk to them and give them my best advice. Because I can't run again myself, I haven't been like Teddy Roosevelt in that sense. But I have done a hundred events for the Democrats this year. Well over a hundred. From the first of the year through Election Day I will have done well over a hundred events. For the House, the Senate, the governors, the committees. But what I... I hope that I will continue to be giving the advice, all that kind of stuff. I'd like for my direct political involvement to go way down. I've been in 30-something countries. Spent over half my time on my foundation. I still have to make a living till I pay my legal bills off. And I've written quite a bit on my book. I've worked hard.
But it's like I'm working as hard as I ever have. And I'm trying to get to a place where I won't have to do as much direct political work. But this year I don't know who else would have done it if I hadn't. I mean, we were outspent a hundred million dollars in 1998 and we won the midterms, because of the reaction against impeachment. And if we'd had more people willing to run, we would have won more. This year, I think we'll be outspent on the order of 180 million dollars. And I didn't want it to be any worse, because I think the elections are important, I think the differences are important between the two parties. And I wanted to honor the support that I'd been given by all these people when I served. So I was glad to do it.
Next year, the soft money will be gone. My belief is that next year I'll be able to cut way back on it. We'll have all these people out there running for President. Everybody will just naturally want them there. So I believe that my direct involvement in electoral campaigns—I hope I'll be able to diminish that.
But I don't mind continuing to talk to the members of my party, and the DLC and other groups I care about, about the direction of politics. Because I am interested in that. I expect that most of what I do will be done through my foundation, and I am trying to get to the point where over the next three or four years, after I get my book written and my legal bills paid and my houses paid, and all that kind of stuff, I'd like to get where I can just spend a hundred percent of my time on public service. That's my objective, and I hope by the time I'm sixty I'll be able to do that.
[Q: What about the John Edwards episode on Meet the Press? The conventional story is that you called him after his appearance and said: It's time to hit the books before you go out in public again. Is that accurate?] No. But it's got a smidgen of truth in it, but it has nothing to do with his Meet the Press appearance. I never saw the Meet the Press program.
But way before his Meet the Press appearance, when [Edwards] was making all these other television shows, he called me. He asked me my advice. I told him: John, you're great on TV. You make a great talk. You can talk an owl out of a tree. But my opinion is, presidential elections are won by the strength of the candidate, and having a network of support, and then by the mega message, having the big message. And that it's easier for a governor than a senator to have a big message. It may be easier for a senator than a governor to have the right position on all the issues seriatim.
Every presidential election is really about three things. At the bottom level it's about the specific issues. Then there's the big deal. What's this election about? What's the subject of the election, what's the meta message? And then right at the top is, How do you feel about this person to be President? I thought that, for example, in the 2000 election, I thought that Bush had the only conceivable meta-issue, mega message, that could succeed. At the time I had a sixty-five-percent approval rate. What could he say? So the compassionate conservative message was, Well, hey, I'm not going to be all that much different from them, but with a smaller government and a bigger tax cut. Wouldn't you like that? After the election, in open ended [polling], when asked why they voted for George Bush, 41 percent of his voters open ended said, smaller government.
So they sat around and thought, How did they thread the needle? How did they possibly make the case that they're entitled to govern to moderate swing voters, when our deal works better than their deal? So they made their deal look like our deal. and they said, We won't be all that different from them, but you'll get the same results with a smaller government and bigger tax cuts. That let them thread the needle—or at least they got close enough for the events to unfold.
So, what I encouraged them to do, I said, you know, just look at Edwards. He's a smart, articulate guy, he's tough as nails. He's got a compelling life story. He's been a senator as long as George Bush had been governor of Texas. But... he's been a senator. And beside that, if you're a Democrat you've got to be better. We don't run as corporations. We don't have like an institutional entitlement. I was the first guy to get re-elected since Roosevelt from our side. We just don't have a lot of the sort of stuff that they do. Which means that in order for us to have any kind of chance to win, our candidate has to have a good meta message.
So I told him, months before that Meet the Press thing, that he'd been on TV enough to be hot. Which was good. But if I were in his position I'd spend lots of time trying to think things through. 'Cause I told him that I thought that my association with the Democratic Leadership Council, with the education commissions in the state, with policy boards, with these groups most of you had never heard of, had given me a chance over a ten-year period to decide what I really believed about the big issues facing the country. And to build a meta-message of the bigger themes that would be the basis of my campaign. By the way, the great thing about this approach is, if you've got a theory of the case, first of all it gives you a way of organizing all your specific positions. And then if you win, you don't need to wonder what you'll do. You've actually got something in place. You can go to work with a plan. Just try to do what you told the voters you'd do. It's a huge difference.
[Q: Do you have a meta-message for the Democrats now?] Well, if I did I wouldn't say it, 'cause I don't want to get credit for it. I don't want any credit for this. One of the reasons I didn't do that talk show... If I did one I'd probably have to do it on radio, because I told myself I would give at least half my time every year to public service. But another reason is, I don't want to take up oxygen, when I can't do it any more. Look, I can't run. If somebody needs me to go do something [for the party], and nobody else can do it, I'll go do it. But I'm perfectly happy for these other leaders in our party to go out there and get all the publicity. Then they come up with their schemes I want them to have all the credit. I don't want any credit. I'm just trying to do what I can do based on the experience I've had and the unique perspective I've had.
[Q: Let me ask you about your book. Maybe you can do anything, but with respect it's hard to imagine you sitting in a room for hours at a stretch, pulling out your hair and writing. Can you actually write this book?]
Yes. [The "yes" was very quick a sharp. Then a pause and a shift to a more jovial and reflective tone.] But let me tell you how I'm doing it.
You know, I was scared to death I wouldn't be able to do it. So we had this old barn at the house, a hundred-year-old barn. And I converted it into an office. There was a little apartment in the back, so I made it a little bigger and converted it into an office. And in this office I have all my Native American pottery and stuff I've been collecting for thirty years. And my photo albums from the White House, the kind of non-right-wing-kook books about the Administration, a whole collection of other people's memoirs, my tapes of the White House years, increasingly tapes I've done with Ted Widmer for oral history. [Widmer was a White House speechwriter and now teaches at Washington College in Maryland.] And then I have out in the garage all these boxes of stuff. I've got my grade school band programs. I've got every letter I wrote to my mother in college and every letter she wrote to me. I organize this stuff, I bring the boxes in, I sit down and make an outline. I read what I've got in the oral history. And I sit and I write in a notebook.
I have a notebook, and I write it all. I got the most done in August when I didn't have anything else to do. But when I get free days, book days, I go out there and I sit at a glass table, and I sit there and I write. I do get some work done on the road. I make outlines of how I want to write the next section. I started out with an outline I made well over a year ago that I've pretty much stuck to. But it has been difficult. It's been frustrating. I haven't gotten the time. When I get a little bit behind... I'm more or less on schedule for where I'm supposed to be—to be finished next June. So it can come out around Thanksgiving. I want to have it come out at the holiday season.
Some of this has been painful for me, but it's all been wildly instructive. And it convinced me that nearly every person over fifty should try to find a time to sit down and engage in the same exercise, even if you never intend to publish anything. You need to think about what really meant something to you. Who did you really love. Who really made you what you are. What the seminal events did. And also it's an incredible discipline. Because I found it shocking to me what I remember and what I don't. It's shocking to me what I can remember factually—and how hard it is for me to be absolutely sure about how I felt at the time. You know, how did I feel when I was 16? I don't really know. Because I have some letters and other things it's a little easier to kind of return to those days. I've got an amazing amount of stuff in my pre-public life, and I'm working through it.
But so far I've had the time of my life. You know, this is scary. And you know it's frightening to write a book. Even if you've been totally honest, and think the book is you, what if people don't like it? [Yeah, tell me about it.] You can't make 'em buy a book. You know, what was that line from The Producers—"Sometimes they won't come and you can't make 'em?" [Clinton laughs heartily]
[Q: What books do you have in mind as models?] First of all, Grant's are way the best presidential memoirs. That's another debt we owe to Mark Twain. Although they're mostly about his pre-presidential years and the war. He had a hell of a story to tell, but he told it well. He was smart. So I've been very influenced by that.
I think that Merle Miller's oral history of Harry Truman is better than Truman's memoir. Truman wrote them but they were sort of stilted. A lot of people... a lot of Presidents have been disadvantaged either by using ghostwriters, so you can always tell it's not them, or by their preconceived notion that they had to defend themselves from every attack. Or show a certain almost platitudinous demeanor.
Mine's not like that. I'm just telling a story. I'm doing my best, anyway, to do it.
I like Kay Graham's autobiography very much. I like Lillian Hellman's autobiography very much. I like Mark Twain's autobiography very much, although his is too disorganized. He could get away with the way he did it in snippets in a way I couldn't get away with. But I love what he said. Mark Twain had this great line at the very beginning, about what a small part of a person's life was revealed in his actions, the great mass of his life goes on in his head. It is not and cannot be written. But I got a bunch of other ones I like. Those in particular I like.
[Q: Would you like to write a number of books, like Carter or Nixon?] I'd like to write more, if people like this one. This book will not be as policy-oriented as a lot of the books I could write. I've actually been talking to John Kenneth Galbraith about writing a book about American government. I'd be very interested in doing it with him. I think he thinks my autobiography a little frivolous and wants me to get that over with so I can do something serious and worthwhile. [This last sentence delivered wryly.] I've considered writing a number of books. I'd like to do that a lot.
[Q: What about this idea that there will be many more young ex-Presidents? What influence would they have?] It depends on what we do with it. They'll still be different people with different aspirations for their lives. What I would like to see us try to do is first of all find a few things we could do together. And secondly, if we're still all compos mentis, I'd like to see us organize really constructive debates about our honest disagreements—in a respectful way, so America could hear them. Because I think that so much of the American political life has been poisoned by this intense, destructive nature of public debates. So instead of people having an honest debate about the issues it's which person can you make look unpatriotic, or without a shred of redeeming social value, or whatever.
I think it's wrong. But it's hard if you're in the moment, and you think you're benefiting from it to walk away from it. Once we've got a handful of people who have been President and don't have a vested interest in hurting anybody else publicly and personally, I think we might be able both to do things together and sort of edify the American people about how to handle our differences. How to discuss our honest differences over policy. And I'm rather looking forward to it.
[Q: As a former President, what limits are you under, in terms of the issues you can and cannot raise?] I really try not to complicate the President's job with regard to international affairs. And one of the reasons I felt freer to say as much as I did say about Iraq is, I took the position that he hadn't taken a position. So I wasn't being either disloyal or violating the tradition of former Presidents because... he thought Iraq was serious. I did too. [Huge yawn here.] He hadn't yet said what he was going to do.
But I'll give you an example. The Administration's only asked me to do two things. One is to go to East Timor, which I was happy to do. The other was to talk to Jiang Zemin. Both of us happened to be in Hong Kong, and we had that plane down in China. They have to be careful about that, because they depend on all those right wingers for support and they've spent ten years saying what terrible people Hillary and I were, and they've got to preserve their credibility. If they asked me to do too much they'd wonder if they didn't mean it then or don't mean it now. They didn't mean it then, but it was in the interests of so many people to do it.
I just think that in so far as possible, I should not try to make President Bush's job more difficult when it comes to navigating the world. But if and when they do things with which I disagree, particularly if they reverse a specific policy, as they did with the comprehensive test-ban treaty, Kyoto, international criminal court, strengthening the bioweapons convention, a number of other things—then I don't think I have to go on the attack. I just have to say, This is their view, this is my view, here's why I believe the way I do. I don't think that's being hateful or bad for the country or anything else.
A lot of this is not so much, not ever differing, but it's how you say it, and whether you're somewhat respectful. Even when I give these political speeches, almost in every speech I say, I don't want you ever to treat them the way they treated me. Don't do it. But if you're not going to get into the politics of personal destruction, then we have to be more vigorous and clear about the things that affect the American people's lives, where we do have convictions. And you can do it... I said that most of our adversaries are really honorable people. They honestly disagree with us. It ought to be enough to have an honest discussion, honest disagreements.
I just don't wanna do anything to make the climate any harsher or to make his job any more difficult in navigating the problems of the world. I've been very supportive, for example, of the way they've handled the reaction to these Korea revelations. I think that was exactly the right thing to do. Because Korea is still basically... The North Koreans want to end their isolation. They're profoundly insecure because the only thing they do well is weapons and missiles.
Follow-up questions from James Fallows for Bill Clinton. The interview was conducted by e-mail.
—"Using up oxygen." President Clinton spoke at length about his desire not to "use up oxygen" for the people who actually can run for the nomination—while at the same time doing what he can for the party and its ideas. How does this play out operationally? Has he spoken specifically with any of the candidates about how, when, and about what topics he should speak until a nominee is chosen? Has he already worked out guidelines for himself, or will they be improvised as he goes along?
A number of very able Democrats are either actively running or seriously considering a race for the presidency, and as the year goes on, they will be speaking out with more power and frequency about their ideas and views on the direction this country should take. As they do, the media and the public at large will be paying closer attention to what they have to say, because one of them may very well become our next President. Then, when I may have something to say from time to time, as I did before the Democratic Leadership Council recently, I expect it will be heard as a part of the larger progressive message. Meanwhile, I will speak with candidates and others who want to talk with me.
—Governors vs. senators. Mr. Clinton also spoke about the advantage governors have as candidates, based on their real-world operating knowledge. The one governor now in the race is Howard Dean, who is generally believed to be a long-shot. Does President Clinton think that the advantages that come with a governor's background could make Dean a serious contender for the presidency?
Howard Dean has been a good governor. He has done important things, and his background as a governor does bring advantages. However, because I don't plan to endorse a candidate before the party makes its choice, I don't want to 'handicap" the race.
—Long-shots or dark horses. Various press reports have talked up the prospects of John McCain or Gary Hart as long-shot, "exciting" Democratic presidential candidates. Does President Clinton take either possibility seriously?
As I said above, I do not plan to "handicap" the race as it develops, so I would not want to comment about the specific prospects of any potential contender. Gary Hart is a serious man with good ideas, as we see with the work he and Senator Rudman have done on homeland security. Sen. McCain has become increasingly outspoken on progressive issues that make him attractive to Democrats. I wish he would join our party. But I think it is unlikely.
—Al Gore's decision not to run. Did President Clinton talk with Vice President Gore before this decision? Does he have any observations on its effect on the Democrats' overall chances.
I keep in touch with Al Gore, and respect his decision, and I don't know what its effect on the 2004 election will be. I do believe that, with several very qualified Democrats likely to be in the race, we're in for a spirited campaign season and I believe the person our party chooses will have a good chance to succeed in November 2004. And I believe history will show that Al Gore did more good things for Americans as Vice President than any other person who ever had that office.
—Senator Clinton. In addition to the main complication of the President's situation—he's the party's strongest spokesman, but he can't run himself—there is the additional twist of his being the husband of a potential future candidate. How does this affect the issues he can address?
Hillary has made clear that she has no plans to run for President. She is working very hard to be the best senator she can be for New York, and I'm proud of all she has already accomplished for our state and America and the world. We have worked for many of the same things throughout our lives, and generally have no conflict in that regard.
—AIDS vs the De Soto approach. President Clinton has been seriously involved both with the AIDS initiative and with Hernando De Soto's legal-reform work. In principle, does he intend to maintain both of these as long-term commitments? Or will one take priority over the other?
"I consider my work on HIV/AIDS, especially focusing on treatment, and on empowerment of the poor, to be primary missions of my foundation. So I expect to continue working on both over the long term. I am excited about the ideas of Hernando De Soto and want to find ways to keep helping him expand his creative solutions to global poverty. And I consider the AIDS pandemic to be one of the world's foremost challenges in the early twenty-first century, so I feel a great responsibility to use whatever influence I might have to make a difference in combating this dreaded disease. There is, ultimately, a link between the two subjects. Poverty can contribute to the spread of AIDS and inhibit our ability to prevent and treat it. And the more AIDS undermines the economies of the world, the more it can deepen the condition of poverty as well."
—This question comes from Cullen Murphy, The Atlantic's managing editor. He is also the author of the Prince Valiant comic strip, one of whose plot devices is a curse on Prince Valiant so that he will "never be content." Cullen wonders: does this post-presidential stage of life bring contentment? Or does it, in its way, open a new round of aspirations, tensions, and so on? (Or both?)
That's a really good question, and one that I imagine many people confront in their lives, not just former Presidents. There is a certain liberation that comes with leaving the White House. And in that sense, there is more room for the kind of contentment that comes with having more free time, more freedom to decide what to do in life. But in the bigger scheme of things, I hope never to be "too content," because I consider myself as having a lifelong responsibility to use whatever influence I retain to help other people. I left the presidency, but I didn't leave the lifelong commitments that helped bring me to the White House in the first place. So that's why I established a foundation and that's why we're working on AIDS, empowerment of the poor, citizen service, and religious and racial reconciliation. There are limits on how much I can do, but no limitation on my desire and determination to do what I can.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly.