Clinton would reach a conclusion and then he would subject that conclusion to the counter argument. When we prepared for a press conference, Clinton would give an answer and we’d critique it. I always thought it was much more efficient when we gave the answer: “Our suggestion is you answer it this way.” He’d tear that answer to shreds. He’d be the most devastating counter-questioner that you could possibly imagine.
On the 1994 Mexican Peso Crisis
I’m sitting in my office about 8 o’clock one night and Bob Rubin comes in with Larry Summers and says something to the effect that Mexico has 48 hours to live. We went into the Oval Office, and Bob and Larry laid this out quite concisely, and no one was offering the other point of view. I very often found myself in the role of the spinach-server with President Clinton. I said: “You have to understand, Mr. President, I agree with Bob’s and Larry’s position here, but this is $20 billion that you’re putting on the table. That’s a lot of housing that you don’t build in Detroit. They’re saying there’s a 60/40 chance it gets paid back. That means there’s a 40 percent chance it doesn’t. There aren’t a hundred votes in the House and 25 votes in the Senate that will support you, and if you piss this $20 billion down a rat hole, you’re going to be in trouble.”
He listened to all that and said, “We have no other choice.” End of meeting. This is the absolute opposite of the usual protracted meeting, debate, everything, for hours and hours. He said, “We have no other choice, do we?” All of us said, “No.” And he said, “Do it.” We wound up using somewhat questionable—it never was taken to court—legal authority to use this monetary fund to guarantee the loans, but the Mexicans wound up repaying the loans with interest. We actually made money on this deal in the end, although that was not the purpose.
It’s a terribly important story about understanding Bill Clinton and those people who think that he’s simply a political animal and that everything was a calculation and triangulation. He knew there was virtually no upside to doing this. No one was going to give him any credit if Mexico did not collapse. There was substantial downside. Imagine: $20 billion, with a Republican Congress—that’s a pretty big amount of money to throw down a rat hole. But he understood intellectually that we could not let Mexico fail. He was saying, “We’ll deal with the political consequences if we have to.” I left that meeting and thought to myself, I’m really proud to work for this guy.
On Clinton and Boris Yeltsin
People sometimes criticize Clinton for being too close to Yeltsin. Yeltsin was the embodiment of democracy in Russia, particularly up to 1996. He was challenged from the left and from the right, and that train was very wobbly.
The president went to Russia on more than one occasion and tried to talk to the Russian people. He gave one great speech in Moscow. It was actually, a town-meeting format. The question, he said, is not whether Russia is great; the question is how Russia defines its greatness. Does Russia define its greatness by the amount of territory it controls, or does Russia define its greatness by the opportunities it’s creating for its people to have better lives? Clinton often said, “Yeltsin is able to see a different future.” Yeltsin was able to see that there was a different greatness that Russia could regain by modernizing, not by trying to maintain the Baltics, although he continued to fight us.