The Secret History of the Clinton White House
In newly released interviews, members of Bill Clinton's administration remember his greatest strengths, toughest moments, and worst foibles.
A little over a year after Bill Clinton left the presidency, a stream of former administration officials began making quiet, unannounced visits to Charlottesville, Virginia, to spend a day or two alone with scholars. They usually came to the parlor of an antebellum mansion named for William Faulkner, where they reflected privately into a tape recorder on what they had experienced. Among the initial visitors to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, a nonpartisan research institute with a special focus on the presidency, were Secretary of State Warren Christopher, White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, and Chief of Staff Mack McLarty. The job of collecting these recollections also took the center’s scholars to other places, however, including my own travels, as co-chair of the program, to the personal residence of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Kim Dae-jung in Seoul and to Vaclav Havel’s modest but whimsical office in Prague.
Over a 10-year span, the center collected 134 oral histories on the 42nd presidency. The Clinton archive now runs to 10,000 pages of transcribed conversations, making it the largest of the Miller Center’s presidential projects, which date back to the Ford White House. Roughly half of these interviews were released to the public in November. The rest, following standard oral-history protocols, will be opened as soon as each interviewee is comfortable doing so. The center relies on the presidential-library foundations to fund the considerable transactions costs of these oral histories—including plane tickets, research, and transcription—but the center’s scholars maintain complete editorial control over the proceedings. Indeed, some 50 political scientists and historians from 38 colleges and universities volunteered their time to assist with the questioning.
These oral histories enhance what we know about the modern presidency in three ways. First, because they are not subject to the legal regimens that govern the release of official presidential papers, oral histories can be opened for public use relatively quickly. To the casual observer this will not seem to be very significant. But today, for example, more than 20 years after George H.W. Bush left office, only about 20 percent of his papers are available to the public. The dilatory pace of this release starves those who rely on documents alone of the bread of their existence. Conversely, oral histories provide original source materials about recent presidents while we all wait out the protracted interval for the official papers to be opened.
Second, much that is historically important is never written down—meaning that the documents will have significant deficiencies. The value of oral over written communications is accentuated in the intimate, word-of-mouth culture of the West Wing—especially so since Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. By the Clinton administration, senior White House officials were routinely advised to avoid keeping written records of their activities, including personal diaries, which could be leaked to the press or exploited by congressional opponents via subpoena. One senior Clinton figure confided to us during a casual lunch break that she would occasionally be in meetings of the highest historical importance and find that not a soul was taking notes. Under such conditions, the memory of the participants remains the only available record that something happened.
Finally, there is no better way than oral history to gather the hard-earned wisdom of experienced Washington officials or their considered judgments about the president and other key policymakers. Some object that the subjectivity inherent in this method renders it suspect, an objection Arthur Schlesinger Jr. staunchly rejected in the March 1967 edition of The Atlantic, in his essay “On the Writing of Contemporary History.” Issuing a vigorous defense of oral history in the way the Miller Center practices it, Schlesinger wrote, “It is wholly possible … that contemporary writers [or speakers], trapped as they may be in the emotions of their own age, may still, or in consequence, understand better what is going on than later historians trapped in the emotions of a subsequent age.” He then punctuated the point by favorably quoting George Santayana: “It is not true that contemporaries misjudge a man. Competent contemporaries judge him … much better than posterity, which is composed of critics no less egotistical, and obliged to rely exclusively on documents easily misinterpreted.”
The selections below, most published for the first time, were chosen not just because they are interesting windows onto the Clinton presidency but because they help to illustrate the advantages of oral history. They show people very close to Bill Clinton, who knew this White House better than anybody else, reflecting on their time together in the still afterglow of history. Some of these samplings record candid judgments about what went right and wrong. Others record behind-the-scenes doings or details of personal operating style, about which the routine paperwork of the White House will be completely silent—indeed upon which it is quietly predicated.
It is of course true that any single source may be mistaken—and so we strongly encourage readers to see for themselves what the multitude of sources has to say about Bill Clinton and his times. The entirety of the cleared archive is freely available online.
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, on Clinton’s unrecognized facility with foreign policy issues coming onto the national stage in 1992: As long as I’ve known him, which was since September 1968, it’s been clear that Jack Kennedy was his model. He was hoping to emulate Kennedy in many ways. He was with me, and I think with others, interested in the full range of Kennedy’s presidency, but particularly Kennedy as a foreign policy president and how Kennedy dealt with the Cold War and with Khrushchev. His mentor on the Hill of course was J. William Fulbright, who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and he’s a graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. His curricular interest at Oxford in the PP&E [Philosophy, Politics, and Economics] program was to write a thesis on … alternative futures for the USSR …. So … there was a lot of momentum behind what he brought into the presidency in terms of interest in the outside world.
Deputy Domestic Policy Adviser William Galston, on how Clinton’s political past at first left him unprepared for dealing with Washington politics: A lot of the president’s political instincts were shaped by the bipartisan work on education and related issues that occurred within the National Governors Association. So the president, for 15 years—10 years, anyway—had gotten into the habit of working with reform-minded, moderate Republicans across party lines to move education reform forward. He brought that mindset with him to negotiations with Congress. But that infuriated Democrats, particularly in the House, who thought of every transaction as a highly partisan transaction with a bright line. The bad guys were on the other side of the line. If you do business with them, as the president did—boom! So that was very difficult, and I had some of my most difficult moments trying to negotiate with the House Education and Labor Committee, of which it was said during that period that they’d enact The Communist Manifesto if only they thought they had jurisdiction [laughter] …. Bill Clinton brought those hopes and expectations and habits with him to Washington. One of his bitterest disappointments was the almost complete absence of bipartisan cooperation.
White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, on Clinton’s personal temperament and how it affected his political power in Washington: He was enormously charming and charismatic. He was extremely bright. He was very knowledgeable about policy, obviously, and about history …. But ultimately … he was weak in certain respects. It came from his personality. He came from a dysfunctional family … A stepfather who was an alcoholic, obviously. This is just amateur psychology, I guess, but I think it’s true.
What you try to do in that kind of situation is you try to keep peace. The father fighting with the mother, people throwing chairs around—all you want to do is make peace, you want to get everybody to stop fighting. And that’s what he wanted. He wanted to do great things. He wanted to pass healthcare, and he wanted to do great things. When somebody hit him, he could take a punch. He’s taken a lot of punches. Look, only he could have survived Lewinsky. To survive the impeachment is amazing. To be able to get up in the morning and function in the face of it—can you imagine? What he did is amazing. He could take a punch and keep going, but what he couldn’t do was give a punch and fight back. He had the strength to resist all these blows, but he didn’t have the strength to deliver them, to respond to your enemies, to fight with them. And he generated this impression, I think, of weakness in this first year that I worked with him.
Congressional liaison Charles Brain, on Clinton’s enthusiasm for dealing with members of Congress: As I said, he worked the phones a whole lot, in ways unquantifiable, or unknowable. Just literally to pick up the phone, call anybody any time of the night. I had one member of Congress tell me that his wife would eventually pick up the phone in bed, answer it, say, “It’s HIM again.” … He seemed to especially enjoy dealing with members of Congress that you wouldn’t expect him to get along with, more so than his own members.
Jesse Helms was down for a signing ceremony …. He spent about 20 minutes in the Oval Office talking with Jesse Helms about people that they both knew, because Clinton had been a part-time employee of the Foreign Relations Committee based on the Fulbright [connection] when he was at Georgetown …. But he goes on and on with Helms, who you wouldn’t think they would have anything to do with each other, but they genuinely seemed to enjoy being together.
Domestic Policy Adviser Bruce Reed, on Clinton’s decision to sign a controversial welfare reform bill in 1995, after vetoing two earlier versions: Most of the Cabinet was against it … and then the president turned to me and said, “So Bruce, what’s the case for the bill?” I told him that the welfare-reform elements of the bill were better than we could have hoped for, that it had more money for work, more money for childcare, and we’d gotten every improvement we’d asked for, so that as a welfare-reform bill it was a real achievement. He agreed that it was a good welfare bill wrapped in a “sack of shit,” I think was his phrase ….
I said that the child-support-enforcement provisions alone were worth enacting the bill and that the dire consequences the opponents of the bill predicted really wouldn’t happen because the cuts in benefits for illegal immigrants were too onerous and would never stand up over time. Congress would have to come back and fix them. Most important, we’d made a promise to the American people that we were going to end welfare as we know it and we’d be hard-pressed to go to them and explain why this bill didn’t do that. We shouldn’t assume that we’d ever get another chance, that the history of the issue was that it wouldn’t come our way again and that we owed it to the country to keep our promise ….
The president agonized, the president desperately tried to get the vice president to help break the tie, and the vice president tried mightily to avoid making the decision, to avoid tipping the balance .…the president agonized some more …. [After he announced the decision,] we waited for him in the anteroom next to the press room, and he came out and he said, “Sometimes you never know how right something is until you do it.” As he was answering questions, he got more and more convinced that he was doing the right thing.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, on taking cues from Clinton about how to handle Washington’s political climate: Part of my personal attitude on this whole thing I learned from President Clinton. I like to characterize it as the Terminator model. If they don’t actually shoot you down in the street, carve you up in pieces, and burn the pieces, then you keep going. In other words, unless you’re so totally debilitated that you cannot take another step, your job is to get up the next morning and take that step. So whatever they say, whatever they write, whatever they do legally, if they haven’t broken your bones yet, you keep going. That’s what I believe about Bill Clinton. You will never keep him on the canvas because if there’s one ounce of spirit left that says, “The count is now at seven but I’m on a knee and I’m coming up,” he will come up. So I learned some of that.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman on the difference between Bill and Hillary Clinton: There’s an interesting difference that always has struck everybody who’s watched it up close, which is that she inspires fierce loyalty and he doesn’t. You look at the turnover that she had—or in her case did not have—on her staff, and the turnover that he had. You look at the relationships he ended up having with a lot of people that he was initially close to and were central to his administration, whether it’s George Stephanopoulos or whoever else it may be. She inspired, continues to inspire, fierce loyalty and he doesn’t. It’s quite a difference and I ascribe it to the fact that she does not look at the world as, or at least in my experience, as solely and only politically. She wears her heart on her sleeve much more than he does. Less and less now that she’s her own public figure, but that’s her nature.
Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, on Clinton’s skill as a multitasker: I was in Tokyo. We had been negotiating all day. There were a couple of things I wanted that we didn’t yet have and it was 1:30 in the morning, maybe 2 in the morning.
[Trade Representative] Mickey [Kantor], Warren Christopher, and I went up to the president’s suite at the hotel where we were all staying—the Okura. He was at the dining-room table of his suite and he was dressed in khakis and a plaid shirt, looking reasonably rumpled. He was reading a newspaper when we walked in. He barely looked up. To the left was a book, open, facedown—Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. To the right, the New York Times crossword puzzle with a pen …. He lowered the newspaper—he was wearing his reading glasses—looked up, and said to me, “I’ve been waiting to see you,” which took me somewhat aback .… Chris said, “The negotiations over the framework are at a very delicate phase and I thought Charlene should brief you and tell you what she needs.” … The newspaper came up again covering his face. I remained silent and Chris motioned, [whispering] “Go ahead.” I thought, Well, all right. “Mr. President, this is a complicated topic. We’re at a delicate point. There are a couple of trades I could make. I don’t want to have to make any of them, and so I want to lay out a plan of action.”
As I’m talking, the hand comes out from behind the newspaper, picks up the book, turns it over and he starts to read the book. About a minute goes by. The book gets put back down. The paper goes back up, he turns the page. A hand comes out to the right, and he fills in a word on the crossword puzzle. This is all true—I am not exaggerating. This is going on, and I’m thinking, I don’t care how smart this guy is, this is a completely disastrous briefing session. I finished what I needed to say, and the newspaper finally came down.
He looked at me, and he said, “I think we have an inconsistency between your briefing two weeks ago and where you are now. Let me see if I can spell it out.” And he went through the briefing I had done several weeks earlier in the Oval perfectly …. He had caught the nuance in what I was saying, not only the words in the order in which I had said them. At the end, we agreed on the game plan and we were off and running. We concluded the framework agreement the next day.
I walked out of the room and Warren Christopher and Mickey both burst out laughing and said, “Your expression went from astonishment, to disdain and despair in the beginning of the briefing, to amazement that he could multitask to this degree and miss nothing.”
Congressional liaison Lawrence Stein, on the so-called “wag-the-dog” bombing of Iraq at the time of Clinton’s impeachment (1998): We knew the [impeachment] votes were supposed to be Thursday or Friday. And that Wednesday night, I remember [Chief of Staff John] Podesta coming up to my office and saying, “We’re going to have to attack Iraq.” I remember just sitting down. I couldn’t believe it. He said, “Cohen and Sandy and Tenet say we have to do this.” I said the obvious thing: The wag-the-dog scenario is going to be inescapable. To be honest with you, that was probably the worst moment among many bad ones that I had at the White House. I said, “We can’t do that. We have to figure out a way.” John made the obvious rejoinder, “We can’t sacrifice international policy because these guys were insisting on going on—”…. I said, “All right, I know, we need to inform some people. We need to inform the leadership.” So I started calling. [Representative Bob] Livingston’s guys … said, “Look, we understand. We kind of accept this, but you have to bring your people up and speak to the House.” … It was about 10 o’clock at night.
They convened the House for a meeting with Cohen, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh] Shelton, and Tenet. I remember sitting down with Cohen’s people beforehand … saying, “We have to present a very sound case.” We went through it, and it was an extremely sound case. Shelton started and presented the military situation, Cohen followed up and said, “I’m a Republican, you know I’m a Republican. I’m proud of my Republican credentials, and I’m standing here telling you that this is a necessary act. You’re all going to think that somehow it’s a diversion. It is necessary, we have to do it”—which carried tremendous weight …. They had set up microphones for questions. Tom DeLay stands up and says to Cohen, “Mr. Secretary, can you think of any reason why we can’t go forward with the impeachment vote while the troops are in the field?” At least on the Democratic side, they booed, outright booed him, spontaneously. Cohen said, “Well, yes, I can think of a reason. You have young people going into battle, and to have their president being challenged with potential removal from office, yes, that’s a bit of a problem.”
We heard the next day DeLay was going ahead on Saturday. I tell that for anyone who believed that they weren’t hellbent to do this. They were doing it, they were working the votes, and they were going to break the elbows of anyone who was going to oppose it.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, on Clinton’s little-recognized role in stopping mass violence in East Timor: In September 1999, there was the APEC meeting in New Zealand, but at that time coincidentally, in East Timor there was a great massacre by a militia …. So in the APEC meeting I proposed to discuss the East Timor matter, but the host, the government in New Zealand, said the APEC is for economic matters, so the political issues should be ruled out in discussion.
In response I said that this is the gathering of the world leaders, but there is a massacre in the neighborhood. If you say that this meeting is only for the economy, that we will ignore this matter, then what would people call us as world leaders? We have responsibility … I brought that issue to President Clinton and he said he was in full agreement with me. He suggested I meet first with President Jiang Zemin of China. I said I already met him but I didn’t get any response. Then President Clinton said that if that is the case, then you and I have to take the lead.
We met the Australian Prime Minister [John] Howard. So we three became the first to bring up this issue …. APEC actually is an economic body, [and] Korea in the body has very limited responsibility compared to the United States, which is a huge country. But the president of the huge country stood up and decided to take the serious issue upfront. So I was impressed by his determination and braveness and activeness and great interest. Without President Clinton’s determination at that time I may not have resolved the issue by myself. [East Timor activist José] Ramos-Horta later … came to us and said, “You saved 100 million lives.”
Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, reflecting on the controversy over Clinton’s last-minute pardons in 2001: Huge mistake. I think of all the things he ever did, ever, all the charges, draft, Gennifer [Flowers], Monica Lewinsky, you name it—anything—it is the one thing that has bothered his base of constituency, the people who admire him, bothered them the most, been the most devastating to them, because it is so inexplicable …. It is the single most inexplicable, devastating thing he did. He was going to leave office with a 75 percent approval rating, the highest of any president in any memory—Reagan, Eisenhower, anybody. He was at the top of his game, the economy was in great shape, and just like he’s always done, he did something that was—it’s a terrible fall. I can’t explain it … because this had to do with government, with policy, with judgment, where he is so good. This is not a personal peccadillo that we’re talking about where he has made his mistakes. I don’t get it. And it is so easy not to have done it. This is not like it’s a close question.
General Hugh Shelton, on Clinton’s final days in office: In my last National Security Council meeting, we’re sitting there and the meeting is over. President Clinton says, “Hugh, I need to see you a minute before you leave.” Everybody looks. What’s he want to see Shelton for again?
He gets up and walks around where I am. We step out the side door into the … the Sit[uation] Room. We step in there. Of course there are people all over the place. He says, “This won’t work. Let’s find a more private place.” I said, “Follow me, Mr. President.”… I walked in first and turned around and said, “Will this do, Mr. President?” He said, “This is great.” He reached around and closed the door. I thought, What’s coming now? He came over and he got in my personal space. Basically we were nose to nose, and he said, “Hugh, I’ll be leaving here shortly. I just want you to know how much I personally appreciate the leadership you provided for our men and women in uniform and the advice you’ve given me during your term as chairman.”
He looked at me and said, “You know, you and I are cut out of different pieces of cloth, but I want you to know how much I admire and respect what you stand for. If I’ve caused any embarrassment to the men and women in uniform, I sincerely regret it.”
I looked at him and there were tears trickling down his face. This was a no-BS session here. He really felt deeply that he owed it to me to say that, which I really appreciated. To be candid, I’ve never told anybody about that side of him.