But the second thing had to do with his bragging. He was always bragging. Sure, these guys have to brag in order to get elected, but Clinton went way beyond. He was always the biggest, the best, the first—even if he wasn’t. And that’s the clincher: a lot of the stuff he said wasn’t right. So I’d end up thinking—I gotta write this speech and it’s hard enough to convey how electric the atmosphere was, what he was really getting across, why people like him, why even when he gives kind of a nerdy, wonkish answer he’s actually making news because he’s the man with the plan. So you want to write about all that. But on the other hand, all these whoppers have just poured out of his mouth on the record…
Would you typically realize right away that these things were lies or would you only realize it later when going over the transcripts? Did it force you to fact-check the transcripts?
That’s the test. Arguably, every one of his speeches should have been fact-checked. I never heard him speak in public without saying two or three things that were abject bullshit. But reporting that isn’t your only job. You’re also covering the president. And Clinton was always making news—making policy, making things happen. Suddenly his policies started to work. That was the real news.
Would I realize the lies were lies right away? Well, when Clinton told The Des Moines Register he was the first president to know anything about farming, I remember listening along and then suddenly thinking, Wait a minute. What could Clinton possibly know about farming? And then quite quickly I remembered that George Washington practically invented the mule, and that there are still Thomas Jefferson varietals of wine around, and how Hoover—whose home state Clinton was in at the time!—saved millions of people from starvation because he knew so much about agriculture distribution. It was a stunning, audacious claim. So I wrote it up.
Was Clinton embarrassed by being called out on this stuff?
I had some run-ins with his staff. There was one story in particular that he loved to tell about cop-killer bullets. Of course, there was no such thing as a cop-killer bullet in 1996. But he would give these speeches proclaiming, “I’m against cop-killer bullets. We gotta stop the manufacture of cop-killer bullets.” What he was apparently referring to were those Teflon-coated bullets used in handguns that could penetrate a bulletproof vest. And he’d come out with these lines like “I never saw a deer in a Kevlar vest.” And I would think, What the hell is he talking about? What are cop-killer bullets?
Finally, Clinton went a little too far for me and I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. He held an event in Chicago with a woman whose husband had been a cop killed on duty. And he made an example out of the guy saying, “We gotta get these cop-killer bullets off the street. This woman’s husband died.” Well, in actuality, the police officer was shot and he did die, but when I finally got the coroner on the phone and asked him about the cop-killer bullet, the coroner seemed stumped. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, wasn’t he shot in the chest?” and the guy said “Well, yeah…” and I said, “Was he wearing a Kevlar vest?” and he said, “Yeah…” and so I asked, “Well? What about this cop-killer bullet?” and the guy said, “No bullet penetrated that vest.” I said, “Oh, well, what happened?” and he explained that he suspected the bullet had either entered through the sleeve or—and he requested I not quote him—it was a hot day and he had unzipped the vest.