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A prominent national journalist, teacher and public lecturer, David Gergen is currently a professor of public service at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and co-director of the school's Center for Public Leadership. He is also editor-at-large at U.S. News & World Report and a regular analyst on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Nightline. Gergen was born in Durham, North Carolina and discusses his book, Eyewitness to Power.
Eyewitness to Power
EYEWITNESS TO POWER
Chapter Nine: Riding the Roller Coaster
The Bill Clinton I found in the Oval Office that summer was very different from the fellow who had taken the oath in January. He had wanted to be a transformational president, he had told James MacGregor Burns and Georgia Sorenson shortly before his inauguration. Jefferson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Kennedy -- they would be his models. "Not for eighty years -- not since Woodrow Wilson had come to office -- had a new president offered such a considered strategy of leadership," they wrote.
By summer, Clinton had seen his hopes go smash. As he opened up to me in our early talks, his frustrations flowed to the surface. As he and Hillary had come riding into town, their ideals flying high, they felt they had met resistance at every turn. They were angry with Republicans and the press for denying them a honeymoon. He was also unsparing in self-criticism. Somehow, he felt, he had allowed himself to get way out of position, too far over to the left, and he had to get back to the political center, which he described as his natural home. He recognized that he had presented no core vision and had never come up with the right public message after his inauguration. He took blame as well for what had gone wrong in the White House, right down to the disorganization in his staff.
Worst of all, he had lost his self-confidence. He acted as if the stuffing had been knocked out of him, a far cry from earlier days. As governor, he had always brimmed with optimism. Whatever might befall him on a Monday, he would wake up Tuesday thinking it was a brand-new world, waiting to be conquered. Mistakes were what you learned from, not what you brooded over -- or not for long. The first months in Washington had taken a cruel toll, especially because his ambitions had been so lofty.
But if Clinton was down, he wasn't out. He was never a quitter. Instead, he liked to wear out his opposition by hanging in -- or, as he put it, "showing up for work every day." He had wanted this office since he was a kid, of course, and he wasn't going to surrender it without a fight. Just as he had rebounded from defeats as a governor and campaigner, he was prepared to do so now as president.
Men who make it to the presidency usually have a reserve of internal strengths they can call upon when in trouble. He certainly did, and in the months that followed, I saw them all emerge: resilience, persuasiveness, a luminous intelligence, courage, a capacity to learn from mistakes, and a deep caring about the public good. They are the best of Bill Clinton -- the qualities that carried him to the White House and allowed him to become one of the five presidents of the twentieth century who served two full terms.
Never in my time at the White House did I see him engage in anything unethical or underhanded. There was no corner-cutting or finagling. I knew he still had an eye for women. As men do, we might talk of one or another we had seen during the day. The Vice President liked to join in stories, too. But so far as I could tell, that was all there was -- talk. I brought with me an attractive, young, intelligent assistant, Dianna Pierce, who was frequently with him alone, and he never made a pass or an inappropriate remark. Nor did he to any of her female friends. The Clinton I was seeing was a man at his Sunday best.
Not that he was perfect. I've known some public men with tempers, but his was the worst by a magnitude of at least two. Early on, I flew with him to Chicago on a small version of Air Force One, and when he learned that small details of his airport visit with Mayor Richard Daley had been mishandled, he erupted so violently that I wished I had a parachute.
Bill Clinton getting mad is like Mount Vesuvius erupting. At the White House, he would usually blow at least once in the morning and straight into the face of George Stephanopoulos. Perhaps he felt that George was the son he never had and could trust him to take it. Certainly, Stephanopoulos bore up with a stoicism that was commendable. He sensed that if he didn't talk back, Clinton would cool off and, within a few minutes, we could get back to work. A White House photographer once captured the two of them, Clinton exploding and Stephanopoulos passive, their faces inches apart. I imagine that negative went the way of Rose Mary Woods's lost tape. Though brief, those scenes were jarring.
From the beginning, there were also signs of trouble at home. A chipper president would arrive at the office in the morning, almost whistling as he whipped through papers. A phone would ring. It was a call from upstairs at the residence. He would listen, utter a few words, but as we started back to work, his mood would darken, his attention wander, and hot words would spew out. Had we seen the outrageous things his enemies were saying about him now? Why hadn't we attacked? Why was he working so hard and getting so little credit? Why was his staff screwing him again? What, I would wonder, had she said to him now?
Perhaps I was overreacting when I also thought that this White House was too paranoid about the outside world. Nothing matched the distrust I had seen in the Nixon White House. But it was that experience -- and the price Nixon paid -- which made me extrasensitive as I listened to President Clinton, the First Lady, and others in their entourage talk of countless enemies. Sure, I argued, there are folks out there who would like to do you in, but there are plenty of others -- in the press, on Capitol Hill, over in Georgetown, up in New York -- who will give you a fair shake if you approach them in the right spirit. Make the system work for you, not against you.
My advice did not always go down well. I told myself that this was a White House under siege. It was natural that feelings were raw and jagged. Clinton was smart enough to see that down the road he must address these deeper problems. Otherwise, like Nixon, he could face more serious trouble. But for now, just over four months into his presidency, he had an immediate crisis on his hands: how to pull himself out of a ditch so he could govern. If he didn't do that, all the rest wouldn't matter. If he did, he would take care of the rest later on. Or so I thought. A bumpy ride lay ahead.
The Makings of a Comeback
Over the next seven months, Bill Clinton staged a spectacular comeback. In late May, he stood at 38 percent in the public opinion polls and observers wondered if he were doomed. By late December, he had risen to 58 percent and could take credit for many of the most substantial accomplishments of his presidency -- congressional passage of his budget plan, NAFTA, national service, and the Brady Bill; signing of a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis; and the launch of the Vice President's efforts to "reinvent" government. With the First Lady's plan for health reform also opening to positive reviews, Clinton seemed poised once again to embody great new hopes for social reform.
Some commentators said that since the turnaround started around the time of my arrival, I must have been primarily responsible. Not true. I believe I was one of those who helped, but Bill Clinton was the chief architect of this comeback, just as he has been for others in his life.
Clinton had dug a deep hole for himself and now, rallying, he almost climbed out. He was the one who rediscovered his remarkable strengths and turned them again to his advantage. The rest of us on his team provided a supportive environment. We tightened up operations at the White House, so he wouldn't be burdened with more snafus, but mostly we encouraged him to remember who he was. We were there for him emotionally. We cheered him on when he won and cheered him up when he lost. In psychological terms, we created a "safe space" where he could work things out on his own.
In earlier years, I had learned that men who are elected president usually know a lot more about what works for them than do their staffs. They are also the only ones on the ballot; no one in their employ won a single vote. Conservatives who said "Let Reagan be Reagan" were ultimately right. What better rule now? "Let Clinton be Clinton," I decided. Give him your most honest evaluations but don't try to substitute your judgment for his. Instead, a staff must try to bring out the best in a president.
Both Clintons were eager to shape up the White House operation. Some changes seemed cosmetic to the outside but were dramatic within the microcosm of the White House. Early in the administration, for example, Stephanopoulos had wanted to keep access open to reporters, but Hillary and Susan Thomases had wanted to exile them to the Old Executive Office Building across the street. As a compromise, a door was shut between the press room and the office of the press secretary. Reporters could visit Stephanopoulos and Myers only with permission. That access had never been blocked before, and reporters rightly resented the change. George and Dee Dee weren't happy, either.
In our first conversation, I asked Hillary to have the door reopened, and she immediately agreed. She even wondered why it had not been done before! As tiny as that move was, the press saw it as a symbolic gesture that promised better days were ahead. And for a while, they were. Both Clintons agreed to talk with reporters more and invited them to a round of dinners that summer. As he sensed that they were no longer baying at him, Clinton felt less tense and regained his old ease in talking with them. The war against the press was moving toward a truce.
With encouragement, Clinton also began paying more attention to other centers of power. For too long, he had treated foreign policy as a sideshow -- as if he were telling his foreign policy advisers: Keep the world quiet while I fix things at home. In the Cold War, presidents typically spent at least 60 percent of their time on foreign affairs; with Bush, the figure could rise to 75 percent. Clinton early on reversed the tables: domestic affairs probably consumed 75 percent of his time, foreign affairs less than a quarter. Foreign embassies were outraged that their heads of government couldn't get on Clinton's calendar. When a small plane crashed on the White House lawn, people joked that it was CIA director Jim Woolsey trying to get an appointment. No president in more than half a century had been so cavalier toward the larger world.
Now that he was in trouble, Clinton listened more closely to his national security adviser, Tony Lake, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. They told him that he had the capacity to be a strong foreign policy president but he had to engage. Stop flitting in and out. Each day should begin with a thorough briefing; regularly, he should meet with his whole NSC; once a week, he should sit down privately with his secretary of state. His schedulers had to treat foreign policy as an integral part of White House life. Clinton accepted some of their recommendations. He still waited too long to wrap his mind around a problem; his decisions were still too tactical and improvised, but he was on a better path. On big questions in foreign policy, he usually got it right in the end.
We also tried to slow down the pace within the White House, so there would be less chaos and he would have a chance to breathe and think. Every White House has a degree of internal confusion. Reagan joked that in his White House, the right hand did not know what the far right hand was doing. But the early Clinton White House was beyond the pale. Vice President Gore, who likes tidiness, had the most apt analogy: we could be like ten-year-olds playing soccer. Nobody is ever in position; everyone is swarming around the ball.
And so it was. As the President prepared to enter the Rose Garden for a public ceremony -- an occasion that always invited the press to shout out questions -- as many as ten to twenty staffers would stream into the Oval Office, mill about, and and pepper him with conflicting advice. One would whisper in his ear; another would stuff a piece of paper in his hand. It was done with the best of intentions, but to someone accustomed to a buttoned-down Republican style, it was a shock.
In the weeks that followed, Clinton began his recovery by becoming more focused and disciplined. With the rest of us also pushing hard, the White House pulled together and built sturdier relations with the outside world. We were a long way from a well-oiled machine, but we were running more smoothly. More important, his self-confidence was returning. As we say in Washington, he was becoming more presidential. And that strengthened him for what really mattered: getting things done.
Winning Twin Victories
The most significant turning of those seven months came through two critical victories on Capitol Hill. Clinton began struggling during the transition to reconcile his campaign promises with the hard realities of exploding federal deficits. The internal fight was long and messy, spilling over into the first weeks of his presidency. Clinton had promised voters that he would cut taxes for the middle class, and his populist advisers -- Carville, Begala, and others -- wanted him to keep his pledge. Hillary generally sided with them on economic issues. "We didn't come here to spend all our time cutting deficits created by Republicans," she would say.
But Bob Rubin, Leon Panetta, Lloyd Bentsen, Laura Tyson, and his other economic advisers persuaded him that by first pleasing Wall Street, he would ultimately help Main Street. He had inherited annual budget deficits of over $200 billion a year, and the Congressional Budget Office estimated that on the path it was then taking, the federal government would run up additional deficits of over $300 billion in years to come. Unless he had an ambitious plan for budget reduction that would necessarily include tax hikes, he would spook investors, drive up interest rates, and possibly send the economy into another tailspin. "The budget deficits are a bone in the nation's throat," he told me later. "Until we get rid of them, we can't do anything else. That's why I went after them first."
So, early in his presidency, Clinton made that hard call to present a disciplined budget. Instead of tax cuts, he called for tax increases. To minimize the impact on the middle class, he targeted the rate hikes to the top 5 percent of taxpayers. He also pared back plans for dramatic increases in social spending. Trying to keep his campaign pledge of "putting people first," he did call for modest increases in a few programs for "human investment" -- among them Head Start, child nutrition, and the Earned Income Tax Credit -- but that meant he had to cut deeper in other areas that were politically popular.
There were two pieces of foolishness in his early plan. One was a stimulus package to goose up the economy with $16 billion in short-term spending. With growth already under way, Republicans properly batted it down. Clinton told me his biggest mistake was to entrust passage to Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), who didn't seem to mind that it died. From now on, Clinton said, he would keep control of his legislative proposals and learn how to get them through himself. The other mistake occurred over his call for a new energy tax that had been pushed by Gore.
Overall, however, Clinton's budget plan was a sound package that in ordinary times would have attracted bipartisan support. It reflected the pragmatism he wanted to bring to Washington. He came in believing that if he did "the right thing," the country would follow and, over time, he would be politically rewarded. He was a "goo-goo" then -- what old Washingtonians called a "good government" person.
By the time I arrived in early summer, Clinton had squeaked through preliminary budget victories in both the House and Senate. But they were tougher fights than expected and final passage was still problematic. Republicans had united against him, howling that his tax increases were wrongheaded and would pitch the economy into a recession. Few Democrats liked the plan, either, because it starved some of their favorite causes. If they were going to save his budget, Clinton had to convince them there was something in it for them.
After the horrible accounts I had heard about the White House, I was impressed that in this one area, Clinton was cooking. His economic team was clearly one of the best, and after some early slips his legislative team was also coming together. Two men who deserve more credit than they have received for his early successes as president -- chief of staff Mack McLarty and chief legislative assistant Howard Paster -- artfully deployed the administration's resources on Capitol Hill. Roger Altman, the number-two man at Treasury, set up a War Room at the White House to focus day-to-day attention on passage. I didn't like the signal that a "War Room" sent to Republicans, but no Republicans were supporting the budget plan anyway, so I didn't say anything. I spent most of my time working with Mack to shore up the White House -- along with the President's confidence.
Like many leaders, Clinton is at his peak when his back is to the wall, and he worked the Hill like a man possessed. Day after day, he called, cajoled, begged, pressured, promised -- whatever it took. He learned everything he could about each recruit and was masterful in one-on-one conversations. I was reminded of Lyndon Johnson's famous "treatment" of former colleagues on Capitol Hill. Clinton never threatened people the way Johnson did but he could adopt a lot of the same swagger. In Arkansas, Clinton had worked the legislature so hard that they once banned him from the floor. Probably some congressmen wish they could have put a ban on his phone calls after a while. The first call is flattering, the second well received, but a third and fourth?
Clinton had no dams or military bases he could deliver in exchange for votes. Nor was he trusted or even liked by many Democrats. But he could tailor a different argument for each member. More spending for a program down the line. Special consideration on an appointment or a regulatory change. Maybe a presidential fund-raiser. And if those didn't work, he had a clincher in his back pocket: he was the first Democrat in the White House in a dozen years, and the party couldn't afford to let him to fail in his first year. One by one, Democrats reluctantly signed on board.
Clinton won that August by the tiniest of margins. In the House, the tally was 218 to 216, with no Republicans in support. In another party-line vote, the Senate wound up in a 50-50 tie, broken by Vice President Gore. Clinton was holding on by a thread.
Even so, that budget victory was the most important legislative achievement of his presidency. The markets had worried that he would be a free-spending Democrat. When he instead adopted a more prudent plan, Wall Street smiled. When he got Congress to go along, too, it boomed. With the budget under firmer control, Alan Greenspan's Federal Reserve Board felt it safer to lower interest rates. The economy grew more rapidly, inflation fell, unemployment fell, and the stock market rose and rose. Halfway into Clinton's second term, Greenspan announced the economy was in its healthiest shape in half a century. Working families had been left behind during much of the growth in the 1980s and early 1990s, but as labor markets tightened, their incomes finally began to rise in the mid 1990s. The budget went from a deficit of $200 billion to a surplus of $200 billion. Other factors were at work. But Clinton didn't just preside over the economic boom of the 1990s -- he, like Reagan, could claim substantial credit.
If the budget victory was the Mount Everest of Clinton's first year, NAFTA was the Annapurna.
The North American Free Trade Agreement was intended to erase trade barriers from the north of Canada to the southern tip of Mexico, allowing some 400 million people to enrich each other economically and culturally. The United States could also assert its global leadership more effectively, pointing the way toward a high-tech, high-growth future. Clinton had examined NAFTA during his campaign and warily supported it -- with reservations. It definitely represented "good government." But it was also a political minefield. The core of his political base, Big Labor, was adamantly opposed and many environmentalists were equally repelled. For a Democratic candidate to tell the AFL-CIO that he was pro-NAFTA was almost the equivalent of a Republican candidate telling the Christian Coalition he was pro-choice.
The Bush administration had negotiated the basic framework of NAFTA and left it to the Clinton team to fill in the details, many of which were contentious. Clinton early on directed Mickey Kantor, his trade representative and longtime friend, to seek the best deal he could, but keep a back door open. If Kantor could not win an agreement that most Democrats could support, maybe it was better not to have a deal at all. Clinton wanted an exit if needed. As I joined the White House, NAFTA was percolating along as a secondary issue. But Kantor began closing in on a possible bargain and presented Clinton with a critical choice: Do you want it or not?
That question had touched off a ferocious debate inside. Lined up on one side were the economic advisers who backed NAFTA unanimously. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a Texan, was the strongest advocate. Secretary of State Christopher emphasized the importance of NAFTA to America's world leadership. On the other side were the political advisers, led by Stephanopoulos, Carville, Begala, along with Hillary. They thought NAFTA was a disaster -- that he could not win passage, that labor would be angry, and we would once again postpone health care reform, their number-one priority for his first term. Kill it in its crib, they urged.
As often happened, I lined up with the economic and foreign policy advisers. NAFTA was not only an excellent agreement but would, I hoped, advance the cause of bipartisanship. Republicans and some moderate Democrats were bound to support it. I was outspoken as an advocate, drawing the ire of many on the other side. Just what we feared, they thought, a Republican mole. Fortunately, I once again found myself in the same foxhole with McLarty.
Clinton was uncertain. David Rockefeller, a constructive force in U.S. relations with Latin America, organized a business delegation to visit the White House to make the argument. They couldn't get an answer. Late one night, the negotiators called Clinton and said, This is it. You have to decide now. He could complete the deal then, which would then commit him to an uphill fight for passage in Congress, or kill it and blame the other side for failure. Critics who claim that Clinton has no backbone, no principles, and no core were proved wrong that night. "Let's go," he said.
Three times overall, then and on two other occasions, I saw Clinton given a clear opportunity to dump NAFTA and walk away without paying a price. The temptations were huge. But each time, he came back with the same answer: this agreement belongs more to George Bush than to us. It isn't ours. But it is something we have to do.
Once committed, Clinton put the White House at "general quarters." Bill Daley, an executive in Chicago and brother of the mayor, signed up to organize the campaign, working with Kantor; Rahm Emanuel dropped other assignments to help Daley; and Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman, agreed to serve as an informal link to the GOP. On the outside, business and others rallied grassroots support. Our biggest ally turned out to be Newt Gingrich, who promised that if Clinton delivered a passel of Democrats, he would produce at least 100 Republican votes. Inside the White House, people warned Clinton that Gingrich was lying, that he would screw him in the end.
The unexpected announcement that Yasir Arafat and Yitzak Rabin were coming to the White House to seal their peace agreement gave Clinton an opening on NAFTA. We asked three former presidents -- Ford, Carter, and Bush -- to come to the White House for the peace signing and then to stick around the next morning for a NAFTA kickoff. Their presence would send the best possible signal that NAFTA served the national interest. As an overflow crowd gathered in the East Room that morning, we were nervous because the cards for Clinton's speech had been mixed up and we feared he might fumble his remarks. Each of the former presidents was effective. Clinton took the microphone, threw out his cards, and spoke with more passion than I had heard from him in months. The new trade agreement, he thundered, was not only good for America, it was good for the world. He would carry this fight to the Congress with every ounce of energy he could. "Now I understand why he's inside looking out and I'm outside looking in," Bush commented.
Over the days that followed, I watched as Clinton simultaneously worked the Hill and reworked tiny details of the agreement with Mexico to bring in undecided votes. A side agreement was added on citrus that helped to swing part of the Florida delegation in favor. Another side agreement was cut on sugar that helped out in Louisiana. Kantor squeezed so many concessions out of the Mexican negotiators that they said, stop calling. So, McLarty picked up the phone and gently pried loose some more. Clinton was working a delicate balance: he needed enough concessions from Mexico to win a majority in Congress but not so many that the agreement would blow up in Mexico City. The chief Mexican negotiator, Jaime Serra, was adept at helping to achieve that end.
When Clinton publicly embraced NAFTA, opinion polls showed that the public opposed it by 60 to 40. Several congressmen told Clinton early on that they would like to help him on NAFTA, but he had to provide cover for them in their districts so they wouldn't be knocked off in the next election. If voters back home were against NAFTA, a Republican in a close district could easily lose his seat; with labor sitting on its hands, a Democrat would be in even worse shape. Reversing public opinion was thus critical to building a successful coalition on the Hill.
Clinton barnstormed the country, and the business community lobbied its constituents with advertisements and public statements. When Americans are asked about trade, their first instinct is protectionist. But it has long been true that if a clear, articulate case is made, opinion will swing over in favor of free trade. It takes presidential leadership to bring the public around, and Clinton provided plenty of it. In truth, we oversold the benefits of NAFTA, just as so many other presidents, such as FDR and Truman, had done on key foreign policy questions. But the polls began moving in our direction.
A huge obstacle still lay in our path: Ross Perot. He was giving us fits. Coming off his nineteen-point showing in the general election a year earlier, he was still a formidable power. Perot deserved credit for alerting the public to the dangers of budget deficits, but his cracker barrel criticisms of NAFTA were scaring people away. "There will be a giant sucking sound" of jobs leaving the country, he kept saying, and his audiences nodded in agreement. If we were going to win, somebody had to take on Perot one-on-one on live television. Our first thought was Lee Iacocca. He visited Clinton in the Oval Office, agreed to help out on the general campaign, but took a pass on Perot.
Who could do it best? A lightbulb went on one morning with Jack Quinn, the Vice President's chief of staff, and he sought me out privately: "I think Gore ought to debate Perot one-on-one with Larry King as moderator. He's excited about it but wants to know what you think." I urged him to move right away. I had watched Gore working with Clinton to persuade congressmen called in for a visit. The Vice President was at least as effective in argument as the President. If he were half as good in a debate, he could beat Perot. Besides, we had to roll the dice to win this one.
Others took a dimmer view. George Stephanopoulos, whose relations with Gore were testy, was flatly against. He had lots of company. Quinn, McLarty, and I were almost alone in favor on staff, but we held the ace card: the Vice President himself. I thought Clinton would have to resolve the conflict, but before the question even went to him that morning, Gore committed himself to CNN. Clinton had no choice but to buy in. Gore had surprised me, not for the last time. I could not remember anything similar since Nixon went his own way in the Checkers speech, not asking Ike.
As we began exploring how the debate would be structured, I wound up as the intermediary with Perot. He had been at his best on NAFTA when he spoke in front of crowds and whipped people up with his wisecracks. He was a terrific showman. I worried that in an open forum, Gore might win on points but Perot would win the crowd -- and that would sway the television audience. "Ross," I told him over the phone, "at a minimum, if we have an auditorium or outdoor amphitheater, we will need to split the tickets so that each side is equally represented. But wouldn't it be a lot better for the two of you to have a serious, one-on-one debate in a studio, where you won't be interrupted by an audience? Why not come on together with Larry King right here in the CNN studio in Washington? Isn't that the best way to do it?"
I was certain he would insist on an open audience. He would never give up that advantage. "Let's do it in the Washington studio," he said without hesitation. Something about going mano a mano right there on the set appealed to his manhood. "You're on," I answered, trying to hide my delight.
Gore knew that NAFTA would rise or fall on the Perot debate, so he closeted himself to prepare. He also called many of us to his residence for rehearsals. On the final afternoon before the 9:00 P.M. show, he had three of us there: Jack Quinn, television guru Michael Shehan, and me. As he stood at the podium, he was damn near frozen. I had worked with political figures before who had gone tight but this one worried me. Here we were only hours before show time, and one of the most experienced men in politics was barely coherent. I thought for sure that Perot would wipe us out and NAFTA was a goner.
In the next couple of hours, he lightened up a bit but nowhere near enough. "I need to break for dinner and a shower," he said. So he disappeared for a while. Shortly before nine he came downstairs looking fresh, but he was still tight. We were heading toward a disaster.
About twenty minutes before the show, we left his house for the ride across town. I started to pile into the Vice President's limo so we could all keep talking. "Don't get in the limo," Jack instructed me. "You and I and Michael should all ride in the backup. Let Tipper get in there alone with him."
Now, I don't know what happened in those next twenty minutes. But I can say that when Gore got out of that limo on the other end, he was transformed. Clark Kent had turned into Superman. He was ready to crush Perot. I have always wondered: was Tipper his secret weapon, an emotional bulwark for him?
Gore's performance pushed us over the top. Large numbers saw the debate or the clips that followed and resolved their doubts about the agreement. On the eve of the vote, opinion shifted more heavily toward us. Given the protection they needed, clumps of congressmen now began to break in favor. In spite of deep suspicions within the White House, Newt Gingrich also delivered. He and his allies had been quietly rounding up Republican members in favor of NAFTA for weeks. In the end, a majority of Republicans in the House, 132 voted for NAFTA while 43 voted against; among Democrats, only 102 voted for compared to 156 against.
With easy Senate passage, NAFTA marked the high water mark of bipartisanship during Clinton's presidency, even more so than the recent victory on China trade. Passage of welfare reform in 1996 also came close, but in that instance, Republicans maneuvered Clinton into signing a bill that was far more theirs than his. Some of his advisers would resign over it. NAFTA, on the other hand, was a true political marriage. History was also kind to NAFTA. Had Bush completed the agreement, he probably could not have gotten it through a Democratic Congress; had Bush not started the agreement, Clinton probably would not have negotiated it on his own. The agreement succeeded because each man did heavy lifting.
NAFTA was also a textbook case in presidential leadership. At first blush, the United States had signed on to an international undertaking that was unpopular in both the Congress and in public polls. On many occasions in the past, such undertakings have died ignominiously. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee keeps a tally of treaties and agreements signed by the executive branch that have never been approved by the legislative branch and then languish. At last count, there were more than fifty accords on the list. Early on, NAFTA seemed headed for that scrap heap. But Clinton, after fumbling, not only committed himself to a losing cause but also launched a determined and masterful campaign to secure passage.
As Richard Neustadt has pointed out, power can beget power in the presidency. A chief executive who exercises leadership well in a hard fight will see his reputation and strength grow for future struggles. Nothing in American politics is stronger than a president joined in union with Congress. Nothing gives a president more political capital than a strong, bipartisan victory in Congress. That's the magic of leadership. Clinton, after passage of his budget and NAFTA, was at the height of his power as president. Sadly, he couldn't hold.
As it turned out, the budget and NAFTA fights were also a foretaste of some nasty things to come for me. After the budget struggle, I had been much agitated by the attitudes of many White House colleagues toward centrist Democrats who had not gone along with the President's plans. Angry epithets were directed toward senators like David Boren of Oklahoma and congressmen like Dave McCurdy. Word went out that they were now pariahs. I thought that was stupid because Clinton professed to be a New Democrat, and men like Boren and McCurdy were a critical part of that coalition. Better to forgive and forget, bringing them back in the fold for future struggles.
In NAFTA, it was the liberals' turn to abandon their president. Congressman David Bonior of Michigan even used his power as majority whip to organize opposition to Clinton. In olden days, that would have been an act of lèse-majesté. LBJ would have run Bonior out of town. So, the day after the NAFTA fight, I was anxious to see if equal justice would prevail. Hillary joined a large staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room -- the President wasn't there -- where we mapped out next steps. When the right moment arrived, I spoke up to the effect, "I noticed with some interest how the Democratic centrists were punished after they went against the President on the budget vote. I trust that Mr. Bonior will now be treated the same way. After all, he went far beyond what the centrists did to bring down the President."
I had spoken a blasphemy. The room went dead silent. Hillary looked daggers at me. Mr. Bonior, it was agreed, would be invited to the White House for coffee that afternoon in order to be sweet and make up. After all, Bonior was important to the health care fight just ahead. It was instantly apparent that while the President might consider himself a New Democrat, he was in a minority within his own White House. Later, I was told that my comment was an important souring point in my relationship with the First Lady.
There was one other surprise in the aftermath of NAFTA. The President profusely thanked the many members of his own administration and the Democrats who had the courage to stick with him, but he was perfunctory in recognizing Gingrich and the Republicans. A couple of comments here and there, and he moved on. I always regretted that moment. Newt, as one might expect, was angered by how little credit Republicans received for their cooperation. Friends on the Hill told me Newt swore that Clinton would never use Republicans again.
A Fateful Decision
Coming back late one afternoon to my office in December 1993, I was uneasy when I saw the incoming phone message: "Bob Kaiser: Important." Why was the managing editor of the Washington Post calling? It was like hearing that your doctor had just phoned after reading your blood tests.
Even so, I hardly appreciated that having finally gained high ground through his legislative victories, Clinton was now heading toward a cliff.
Five minutes later, Kaiser and I were connected. "You know I don't call you very often," Bob said, "and when I do, I hope you'll think it's serious. But we feel we're getting the runaround over there on Whitewater and I want you to know about it." At issue, he explained, was a letter that a Post reporter had sent to Bruce Lindsay, one of President Clinton's most trusted advisers and longtime friend from Arkansas. The letter contained questions relating to the finances of the Clintons in the years before they came to Washington. It had arrived two weeks earlier, and so far Lindsay hadn't answered. The Post, its nose already twitchy about the Clintons' past, was growing impatient.
"This is the first I've heard about your letter, Bob," I explained. "I'll look into it and get back to you." He knew as well as I did that I was still a relatively fresh face on the Clinton team and that my arrival had been greeted there with minimal enthusiasm by the younger staff. Neither of us was sure how far my influence extended. But Bob and I had also been in the trenches during Watergate -- one at the Post, the other at the White House -- and we remembered how destructive the stonewalling of those days had been. We had also been on the Yale Daily News together in the early sixties, when Bob had distinguished himself even then with his investigative reporting. He's fair but tough -- and, if misled, very tough.
My first visit that night was with Mack McLarty, whose honesty and friendship I had come to prize. He didn't seem to know about the letter, either. After making further inquiries, I suggested to Mack that Lindsay, Gearan, and I pay a personal visit to the Post, sort out what its reporters wanted, and Gearan and I would recommend next steps. Gearan had become the new director of communications. Mack agreed, and a couple of days later, our White House trio set out for an early evening appointment. It may have been a mistake to suggest that we go to them, not the other way around -- would we appear too eager? -- but I wanted to impress upon the Post that in this White House, we would be forthcoming.
Waiting for us was a phalanx of editors and reporters who were suspicious about that very point. They laid out a long list of complaints about a lack of cooperation by Clinton aides, dating back to the 1992 campaign, and asked that the White House let them look over a range of documents relating to potential irregularities in Whitewater and a previous gubernatorial campaign. Lindsay argued that the White House documents were incomplete and, if released, would be subject to misinterpretation. More vehemently, he complained that Post reporters had been unfair in their Whitewater coverage and that giving over more documents would only trigger new rounds of negative stories. He made a good case, but I thought the Post was more persuasive. Gearan and I, comparing notes later, both agreed that the best course was to give the Post all the documents it was requesting.
The next day, I made the case for full disclosure to McLarty. After the Post had a chance to look over the documents and begin reporting from them, we should make them available to the entire White House press corps. Of course, as reporters pored over the files, a barrage of negative stories would probably hit us. But if Watergate had taught us anything, surely it was that a president must come clean up front and take his lumps then, rather than hiding the facts, letting them be dragged out piece by piece, and stimulating his opponents to initiate a criminal investigation. The first course could be rough, but the second could be ruinous. McLarty agreed. He promised to set up a meeting with President Clinton at which Gearan and I could present our case.
The meeting was set for seven o'clock that Friday night, December 10, upstairs in the family residence with the President and Mack. Mrs. Clinton, I was informed, would also be joining us. It smelled like a debate was in the works: the Clintons' lawyers would be making the case against disclosure while Gearan and I would argue in favor. Who knew who else might be in attendance to tip the scales? Lindsay? He would be against. Stephanopoulos? Well, maybe he would be for. Best to wait and see.
A couple of minutes before seven, Gearan and I were waiting nervously in the basement of the White House for the elevator to carry us to the family residence on the second floor. It arrived, the doors swung open and, to our surprise, out stepped Mack. He began tugging us back toward the West Wing. "It's already over," he told us. The Clintons had had their lawyers come in early for a private discussion of the documents, had heard their arguments, and had decided not to give over anything. They didn't even want to hear the case for disclosure!
I was furious. Not only was their decision rash and unwise -- this was the worst possible way to run a White House -- but I felt insulted. They had asked me to join their staff only a few months earlier on the theory that they wanted someone with Washington and press experience to provide personal counsel so they could avoid hitting more rocks. They had also promised full access. Until that moment, they had mostly lived up to their pledges, but here, at a crucial point, they had slammed the door shut.
My flash of anger -- rare, I hoped -- had an effect. I insisted upon an immediate meeting with the President, and Mack agreed. We would gather the next morning and slip in to see the President after his Saturday radio address. Mack delivered the President to his small study just off the Oval Office so that we could speak quietly over a cup of coffee. George Stephanopoulos joined us, and to my delight, he and I agreed. From the day I was forced upon him, there had been tension between us. On the same side, George and I were a good team.
The President was ready to listen. I made three arguments in favor of full disclosure: first, that the newspaper had a meritorious case and, contrary to others in the White House, I thought it had tried to be fair in its coverage of the Clintons; second, that the Nixon years left no doubt about the need for disclosure in such a case; and, third, that given the nature of the controversy, it was especially risky to take on the Post. As the newspaper that vaulted into the top rank of American journalism through its Watergate investigation, the Post would never back down on Whitewater. Indeed, it would be bristling for a fight if we poked a stick in its eye.
It wasn't just Bob Kaiser who was tough. Post executive editor Leonard Downie had won his spurs in Watergate and was a proud, tenacious successor to Ben Bradlee. They and others at the paper already sensed that the Clinton team had misled them several times in the past. If we didn't try to work out a fair settlement, I told the President, the Post would sic a big team of investigative reporters on the White House and that would lead other news organizations into full-throated pursuit. They could drive his presidency over a precipice.
"I agree with you," the President said. "I think we should turn over all of the documents."
But, he added, he didn't feel he could make this decision alone because his wife had been a partner in the Whitewater land transactions. Looking to me, he said, "You'll have to speak to Hillary and get her agreement. If she agrees, we'll do it." It wasn't clear why he had left it up to me to make the argument to his wife. I promised to see her.
That Monday morning, I called Mrs. Clinton's office and asked for an appointment. "We'll get back to you," they promised. Checking later that day, I was told that she would like to see me but her calendar was full in the next few days. "Call back." There were times when one could wander into her second-floor office in the West Wing and see Mrs. Clinton rather quickly; she was usually responsive to staff. This time, it was different: over the next several days, I got shrugs and cold shoulders. The stall was on. I couldn't get an audience.
Having promised the Post an answer by early in the week, I reluctantly called Downie and told him we needed a little more time. He was sympathetic, up to a point. Frustrated, I went back to McLarty and brought it up with the President; again, I was told, take it up with the First Lady. The days slipped by, then a full week, and I realized that we were in a cul-de-sac. There would be no forward movement without Mrs. Clinton's assent, and she had already made up her mind.
Finally, on a Friday afternoon two weeks after the canceled meeting in the family residence, I was informed that the next day Bruce Lindsay would deliver a one-paragraph letter to the Post responding to the request for documents. Its message, in effect: "Screw you."
Early the next week Downie called with an inevitable reply: We feel you're making a terrible mistake. Nothing personal, but we intend to pursue this story relentlessly. And they did.
A growing number of other news organizations joined in the hunt, the New York Times and Newsweek among the most prominent. Coverage of Whitewater intensified, and within a few weeks, other tantalizing tales were floating out of Arkansas. A drumbeat started up for the appointment of an independent counsel by Attorney General Janet Reno, forcing the Clintons at last to turn over all the papers to the Justice Department and to call for the independent counsel themselves. The Clinton presidency was in free fall. On January 20, 1994 -- exactly a year from the inauguration -- a former federal prosecutor, Edward Fiske, was named independent counsel. "There are no limits on what I can do," Fiske warned and he meant it. By August, when he stepped down, he had opened a broad range of investigations of the Clintons. His successor was a former solicitor general and federal appeals court judge. Within months, Kenneth Starr became a household name.
Perhaps the appointment of an independent counsel was inevitable for the Clintons. I don't think so. I believe that decision against disclosure was the decisive turning point. If they had turned over the Whitewater documents to the Washington Post in December 1993, their seven-year-old land deal would have soon disappeared as an issue and the history of the next seven years would have been entirely different. Yes, disclosure would have brought embarrassments. Among other items, Mrs. Clinton's investment in commodity futures apparently would have come to light. But we know today that nothing in those documents constituted a case for criminal prosecution of either one of the Clintons in their Whitewater land dealings. There wasn't anything truly serious there, and disclosure would have shown that.
More to the point, by disclosing the documents, we would have punctured the growing pressure for an independent counsel. Edward Fiske and Kenneth Starr would never have arrived on the scene, we might never have heard of Monica Lewinsky (who had nothing to do with the original Whitewater matter), and there would have been no impeachment. The country would have been spared that travail, and the President himself could have had a highly productive second term.
So much can turn on a single decision in the White House.
It is tempting to blame Mrs. Clinton for the refusal to disclose. She should have said yes from the beginning, accepting short-term embarrassment in exchange for long-term protection of both herself and her husband. She listened too easily to the lawyers and to her own instincts as a litigator, instincts that told her never to give an inch to the other side. Whitewater was always more a political than a legal problem.
But to blame Mrs. Clinton is to accept the false premise that she was supposed to be in charge. She was not. Voters elected her husband to run the government, and he is the one who bears responsibility here. Decisions made within a White House about what to release or withhold from the press belong in the end to him. Should he not have listened to his own inner voice? Why didn't he go to his wife and persuade her that it was in their mutual best interest to take a different path? Why didn't he take charge?
Those questions ran headlong into something fundamental about Clinton and about the style of leadership he brought to Washington.
Three for the Price of One
Bill Clinton is the first baby boomer to reach the White House, bringing with him different attitudes and values than presidents of the past. Like many of his generation shaped by the sixties, he rejects hierarchical structures and has little regard for figures of authority. He prefers loose, freewheeling organizations with a diversity of voices and perspectives. Sitting in the Oval Office, he is as eager to hear from a twenty-five-year-old as a sixty-year-old. That can be thrilling to one, jarring to the other.
One of his strengths is his willingness to share power. He has not tried to micromanage his cabinet officers, and when they have succeeded, he has showered them with praise. They privately complain about the chaos around him and roll their eyes at his personal troubles, but have generally enjoyed working with him. And that's the point: they feel as if they are working with him, not for him. He puts them on an equal plane. Four of his cabinet officers -- Bruce Babbitt, Janet Reno, Richard Riley, and Donna Shalala -- have been in their jobs over the course of both terms. Riley at Education, Shalala at Health and Human Services, Carol Browner at the Environmental Protection Agency and James Lee Witt at the Federal Emergency Management Agency have each served longer in their posts than anyone else in history. Clinton's subcabinet has also set a modern record for longevity in office. On average, they have served in place some 3.36 years. The Nixon average was 1.73 years; Carter, 2.47; Reagan, 3.27; Bush, 2.52.
But that same spirit got Clinton into trouble when he tried an even larger experiment within the White House itself -- power-sharing on a grand scale. It backfired badly.
In my first hours at the White House, I had asked Mack McLarty if he would sketch out the management chart for me. He drew out a plan that showed a single box on top, one box underneath, and then, just below, a long horizontal line from which dangled many boxes. As best I can remember, our conversation went like this:
"That's me in the second box," Mack said. "The senior staff all report through me up the line, as you would expect."
"Mack, where are the First Lady and the Vice President on this chart?"
He paused for reflection. "Every White House has its own personality, as you know," he said. "In this White House, as you will find, we usually have three people in that top box: the President, the Vice President, and the First Lady. All three of them sign off on big decisions. You'll just have to get used to it."
"Well, I'm not sure I'll ever get used to it, but I'll try." I smiled wanly. Privately, I was reminded of the old nursery rhyme, "Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub, and who do you think they be? The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, turn them out, knaves all three."
In fact, it wasn't easy for anyone on staff. The White House is the nerve center of the most complex and powerful government in the world. Every day, thousands of messages arrive requiring an intelligent review; every day, thousands of messages leave telling others how to act and, in some instances, trying to persuade them how to act. Visitors come from Capitol Hill, foreign governments, state and local governments, major corporations, universities, religious groups, and other centers of power. Reporters ask hundreds of questions.
In that whir of activity, it is essential that a White House staff be able to act swiftly and with purpose. The chief of staff, the national security adviser, and others around the president must know which decisions they should make in his name and which must be taken to him for resolution. A steady stream of decision papers moves to the Oval Office hour by hour. The president can take them home overnight to mull, but the next day he will probably need to answer. Sometimes, he can afford to wait, let the issue ripen, seek out more information, but not often. He has to move and keep moving to stay on top. It's okay to make a mistake but not too many. He has to get most of them right the first time, and that's why experience, an inner integrity, a philosophy, and a political sixth sense are so important. The president needs a personal foundation on which to act.
One thing he cannot do is dither. A president must be able to make decisions without hesitation on his own and then, like Harry Truman after he decided to drop the atomic bomb, go home and sleep well at night. He is the only one under our constitutional order who has that awesome responsibility.
To ensure that he has complete and balanced information on which to act, that his decisions are executed swiftly, and that his capacity to govern is protected, the White House staff must devote itself to him with complete attention. Each morning, a member of the staff must wake up asking, "How can I help the President today?" Ultimately, of course, a staff member is answerable to the public and to conscience. But the first instinct must be service to the person elected. All this has always been the case.
Bill Clinton broke the mold. He installed both his wife and his vice president in the West Wing of the White House. No other First Lady had been there before. The chiefs of staff for both the Vice President and First Lady became assistants to the president, also a first. That placed them among the highest aides in the White House and gave them access to important meetings.
It might still have been possible to have a well-managed White House, but Clinton also introduced a three-headed system for decision-making, and that was a rolling disaster as far as I could tell. It caused untold delays, confusions, and divided loyalties. A member of the cabinet or staff might think that the President had decided something on Tuesday only to find that he was in a different place on Wednesday because he had since talked to his wife or the Vice President. An official in the administration who felt the President might not like his idea would first lobby the First Lady or the Veep to line up support, knowing that might turn around the decision in the Oval Office. Or, alternatively, after losing one in the Oval Office, one might appeal to the First Lady to seek a reversal. Almost every fight could be reopened if you were clever enough to game the system.
In most White Houses, it is helpful if a vice president, First Lady, or member of the family occasionally intercedes in delicate matters. Eisenhower used Nixon to tell chief of staff Sherman Adams that he should pack, "and don't forget the vicuña coat"; Nancy Reagan engineered the retirement of chief of staff Don Regan; George W. Bush came to Washington to oversee the departure of chief of staff John Sununu. Some presidents have also found it helpful to introduce a degree of competition and overlapping responsibilities among their aides. Witness the famous clashes within FDR's entourage and the troika under Reagan. But the Clinton operation carried both of these propositions to an extreme.
The messiness of the speechwriting process became the stuff of legend. In February 1993, a group of former White House speechwriters gathered at the home of Bill Safire for the biennial meeting of the Judson Welliver Society, named after the first White House ghost (an assistant to Presidents Harding and Coolidge). After swapping yarns, we watched Clinton make his first Oval Office address to the nation and couldn't get over how young and small he looked in the chair. The stunner came when George Stephanopoulos dropped in late in the evening and revealed that the President's speech had not been put to bed until twenty minutes before airtime. Less than twenty minutes to rehearse! Clinton's reputation in Washington -- precious to his capacity to govern -- suffered badly as stories like that spread.
Equally damaging were divisions created within the staff. Out the window went the old notion that the "White House staff" is in reality the President's staff, with the First Lady and Vice President maintaining subordinate teams tucked away in the East Wing and Old Executive Office Building. In the new world, the First Lady and the Vice President maintained sizable staffs of their own whose primary loyalty ran to them, not to the President.
Jody Greenstone, a woman of immense talent, had come to the White House as my deputy. Jody and I were tagged as "Bill people" when we arrived and everyone assumed he was our liege, which he was, in effect. But we soon found there were "Hillary people" and "Gore people" who were less interested in the President than in the person they served. Some crossed the barriers. The President, for example, had faith in the political judgment of Maggie Williams, chief of staff to the First Lady, and Maggie managed to serve both principals well. But she was a rarity. His critics had been too tough on McLarty, I concluded. Not only was he denied his own deputy as chief of staff, but he also had to keep these different factions in harness, pulling in the same direction.
Getting One Partnership Right
Fortunately, by the time of my arrival, one of the three principals had seen there were too many chefs in the kitchen and was beginning to step back. With the President's support, the Vice President would take the lead in projects that fit his interest (modernizing government, the environment, overseas commissions), would stay out of projects headed by the First Lady (health care), and would otherwise serve as a close-in adviser and consigliere. Some of the President's aides thought Gore was still crowding Clinton too much -- "Does he always have to be standing in the picture?" It was apparent that Gore and Hillary were also competitive, each pursuing power. Even so, the new arrangement that evolved made the best use of a vice president of any White House I have known.
The power and influence of the vice president took a leap forward in the 1970s, when Walter Mondale occupied an office in the West Wing, just down the hall from President Carter. In a city where, it has been said, "nothing propinqs like propinquity," Mondale had immediate access and was a close adviser. Every vice president since has kept a West Wing office. Shortly before Reagan was inaugurated, I called Bob Finch to ask what the key had been to working with the Gipper when Finch had been his lieutenant governor in California. "Weekly lunches," he said. I passed that on to Jim Baker and George Bush, and, sure enough, they set up weekly lunches between President Reagan and Vice President Bush. Those lunches have been a staple at the White House since, providing a valuable forum where the top elected officials of the land can talk privately. In every case, they have also strengthened personal bonds.
In the new Clinton-Gore arrangement, the office reached a higher level altogether. The Vice President became the junior partner to the President. He was more than a man-in-waiting, more than an adviser at the table. Aside from Rubin, he often gave the President some of his shrewdest advice. In their book, Co-Leaders, David A. Heenan and Warren Bennis write about the importance of strong number twos who enjoy the confidence of number one. Repeatedly, the co-partner has been essential to the effectiveness of the boss -- George Marshall to Harry Truman, Chou En-lai to Mao Tse-tung, Steve Ballmer to Bill Gates, Craig Barrett to Andy Grove. That does not guarantee the junior partner will succeed in his own right if he moves up -- other issues arise there -- but it does suggest that a president is well served by identifying and then building up the right person to serve in a more powerful vice presidency.
Clinton was self-confident enough that he could bring a potential rival into the center of his campaign and into the center of his presidency. He didn't mind sharing the spotlight. If he had hoped that the Vice President would also be a valuable link to Congress, he may have been disappointed; Gore's ties with some key members were frayed. Gore, however, studied the issues with intensity, often coming to foreign policy meetings having read not only the memos but also the voluminous cable traffic from overseas. Clinton could always find in him an intellectual companion.
I had known Gore for several years and approached him at the White House as a potential ally. Some thought that I was naive -- he is trying to manipulate you, they told me. But I found our frequent conversations both productive and enlightening. Every week or two, we would meet alone in his office to talk for up to an hour about how Clinton worked, how the operation was running, and about governance. Ginseng tea would come, and he cut off other interruptions.
Since I left, it has been surprising to see Gore become ensnared by ethical controversies. He came to the the vice presidency as Mr. Clean, and while I was at the White House he was the "go to" guy to keep the administration out of trouble. Someone on staff once came to me with disturbing tales from within the building. I wasn't sure whether to talk directly to the President, so I went in to see the Vice President. Gore immediately went to Clinton and blew the whistle. The trouble ended.
Perils of a Co-Presidency
The President's relationship with the First Lady has been complex and nourishing, yet dangerous. He has leaned on her more than anyone else, and she has been a pillar. Had there been no Hillary in his life, I doubt there would have been a White House, either. But it wasn't easy for him or her when they reached their destination.
Teddy Roosevelt was once asked about his rambunctious daughter Alice and replied that he could spend his time managing her or running the country -- but he could not do both. In his first years in office, Clinton had a hard time managing his presidency, his marriage, and himself all at the same time. While he and his wife have a public marriage, no one outside professes to understand it fully. Certainly, I did not, and if it had not become so intertwined with his leadership, I would not write about it here. But one cannot sort out Clinton's presidency without addressing it.
The Bill Clinton I saw needed the emotional approval of his wife on a daily basis. He depended on her, spoke of her, and acted as if she were his Rock of Gibraltar. I saw less of what she received in return but assume she drew heavily from him, too.
When they were in balance, they complemented each other well. Their partnership energized his leadership. She was the anchor, he the sail. He was the dreamer, she the realist. She was the strategist, he the tactician. He was outer-directed, she turned inward. She helped him gain office, he helped her gain power. He leaned to the center politically, she leaned well to the left. She provided an abundance of superego, he came with an extra-large dose of id. He let things bounce off, she internalized them. She was composed, he flew off the handle. He liked to laugh, she was serious. She insisted on a zone of privacy, he told people about his underwear. He thought a lot about the rights of blacks, she focused on the rights of women. She cared most about children, he looked after old folks. Together, they both loved their daughter. Chelsea is their alpha and omega.
But the way they structured their relationship -- and the roiling emotions just beneath its surface -- posed critical problems in his presidency. Even as Gore stepped back from a place in that top box on the management chart, she stayed there. And it just didn't work. No matter how talented, two people cannot occupy that space, jointly making decisions. On the sawdust trail, a vibrant husband-wife team can lift the spirit and quality of a campaign. In some gubernatorial offices, there may be room for co-equals. There is no place for a co-presidency.
Hillary Clinton ran into a buzzsaw the day she walked into the White House. The first woman with an advanced degree to become First Lady, she has few peers in the candlepower she brought. As a social activist, she naturally thought Eleanor Roosevelt might serve as her role model. But as a student at Duke pointed out to me, Mrs. Clinton did not seem to appreciate that in the popular mind, Mrs. Roosevelt derived her power from the Office of First Lady, while Hillary seemed to draw her power from the Office of the President. That went too far for most Americans. Doris Kearns Goodwin has also noted that Mrs. Roosevelt was so much ahead of her time that she could be seen as eccentric. "There she goes again," a couple might say, chuckling. To older men, Mrs. Clinton seemed more threatening, as if she wanted to knock them off their perch. Early on, Hillary recounted for me comments she had heard from middle-aged men: "I would love my daughter to grow up like you. But I am sure glad my wife isn't."
Over the eighteen months I worked with and nearby Mrs. Clinton, I gained great respect for her as a champion of social causes. While our politics were sharply different, I could see her passions for social justice. Critics say she is interested in power; of course she is. But power for a larger purpose, and that is the mark of a good leader. Yet it wasn't long before I was running afoul of Hillary. Our collision was probably inevitable. The two of us just didn't see eye to eye, starting with policy but extending to this central question of how to run a White House.
Shortly after the President's budget victory in his first summer, the Clintons called together the Vice President, top staff, and political consultants to map out strategy for the fall. We met in the Solarium on the third floor of the residence. Health care, NAFTA, reinventing government -- all were on the table. I don't remember what triggered it, but suddenly Mrs. Clinton unleashed a bitter, scathing attack on our efforts in the budget fight. Her words were about the staff, but it was clear the President was her target. We were stupid amateurs, hacks, whatever -- the words but not the scene are buried. Her husband was losing his stature, becoming the mechanic in chief. How could we be so dumb? We should just wait and see how much better the health care campaign would be. Her people were organized, knew what they were doing, and would show us a thing or two. How could you guys possibly want to get a Republican trade agreement through Congress now? Are you going to screw up health care, too?
The President defended himself and his staff, and they got into a row -- far from the last one in the Solarium. The rest of us sat in embarrassed silence. Many couples have harsh, tense conversations. Most conduct them somewhere else -- out of earshot. Apparently, the Clintons had talked that way in front of campaign staffs and even gubernatorial aides for a long time, and their friends ignored it. But the White House is different. One felt party to a massive violation of their privacy. Later on, one of the participants told me that this happened frequently. In the middle of a conversation, she would launch a deadly missile straight at his heart and just before it hit, the missile would explode, the shrapnel hitting the staff. He would respond, and tempers would flare. Get over it, I was told. I never did. Those conversations were demoralizing, deepened the divisions between the Bill and Hillary camps, and made one tiptoe around the principals. Keeping the presidency on track became a heck of a lot harder for everyone.
I do not mean to leave the impression that Mrs. Clinton was a harridan. Clearly, she had internalized her anger over the years, resolving that she should put her energies into working even harder for their joint success. When she saw mistakes made by his team or by him, she couldn't hold back any longer. Her emotions boiled to the surface.
She was also a sensitive, vulnerable woman, as I found. Weeks after our blowup over the Washington Post request for Whitewater documents, I agreed to defend the Clintons on NBC's Today show. I was trying to show I was a team player. Before going on live that morning, I had a call from Hillary. She and her husband were leaving that morning for his mother's funeral in Arkansas. I expressed sympathy for all she had gone through in recent months. As we talked, she started crying. "You can tell your friends at the Post," she said, "that we've learned our lesson. We came here to do good things, and we just didn't understand so many things about this town. It's been so hard."
I murmured a few things and finally said, "I wish I could come over and give you a hug. I would give a lot to cheer you up." I meant it.
Looking back, I wish it had all turned out differently. They did come to Washington to do good things. They were not simply grasping for power. If their relationship had evolved in a different way over the years -- or if he had been elected later in life -- perhaps it would have been more settled and would not have spilled over into his presidency. They would never have attempted a co-presidency. As it was, they each paid a dreadful price in those days I saw them together. And there was worse still to come.
Debacle in Health Care
Sunday night was an odd time to gather at the White House. But we had reached another critical turning point in Bill Clinton's presidency, and he and Hillary wanted to talk. About a dozen of us gathered in the Map Room in the basement of the residence. It was June 1994, and the Clintons' health care plan was on the ropes.
Months earlier, in my first days at the White House, their chief honcho on the project, Ira Magaziner, had come by to talk about the plan he was designing along with the First Lady and President. He wanted to ask about the politics of health and to enlist my support. Though Ira had a penchant for grand schemes, I found him self-effacing and likable. I enjoyed his company.
As he described their plan, then still secret, I could see I was going to play odd man out again. The proposal sounded immensely complex and required far more governmental intrusion into health care than I thought appropriate or politically viable. This initial proposal is not the plan we want at the end of the process, Ira assured me, but it allows us to keep Democratic activists on board while we negotiate our way closer to the center. There we can pick up a majority, including moderate Republicans. You will also like the final plan a lot more than the one you see now.
Never mind my substantive disagreements for the moment, I answered. Let's focus on its legislative prospects. Politics is still the art of the possible, and this plan will be impossible on the Hill, even with Democrats in charge. For thirty years, the only sweeping reforms that have passed have been those with huge bipartisan majorities -- Medicare, civil rights, and tax reform, among others. Instead of starting with a bill supported by the left wing of Congress and trying to move toward the center, we should start in the center with moderates from both parties and gradually build a coalition outward. And instead of sending up a detailed plan, give them a skeletal proposal built on three or four core principles and let people on both sides craft a final plan that will attract a bipartisan majority.
"We're beyond that now," Ira responded. While important decisions still had to be made, the Clintons had already set their course. We parted company with his pledge that the plan would become more centrist and less governmental, and my pledge to help so long as that was the case.
Health care, I soon discovered, had already sparked brutal fights within the administration. In a meeting that summer in the cabinet room, Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services, pulled me aside to say, "We've got to talk." Over lunch a few days later, she confided her misgivings about the plan taking shape. "I didn't come here to set up a new regulatory bureaucracy in Washington," she said. I snapped to attention. Here was a cabinet officer painted on the outside (unfairly) as an unreconstructed liberal saying that the administration should adopt a more market-oriented plan. She was not alone. The entire economic team also had doubts, which they had voiced. The White House was again split into camps: Mrs. Clinton, the political consultants, many other advisers on the populist side; the economics team, Donna, Mack, me on the other. The Vice President stayed out, and Stephanopoulos tried to keep peace. The President, it seemed, was following Hillary's lead.
At health care meetings that summer, the economics group started to muffle their voices. As much as they disliked the plan that was evolving, they saw that only three votes counted: the First Lady, the President, and Ira -- and apparently in that order. In one meeting in the cabinet room, only Laura Tyson, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, challenged the First Lady on cost projections. The rest of us men shuffled our feet and held Laura's coat. No need to say who prevailed.
That fall and then again in his State of the Union in 1994, the President sallied forth with his health care plan, the centerpiece of his first term. It was well received at first because Clinton presented it ably and people saw that the administration was gutsy enough to take on one of the country's most difficult challenges. The First Lady also created a sensation when she testified on behalf of the plan in front of both Senate and House committees.
But on close inspection, the plan turned out to be a gift horse to the opposition, especially the insurance industry, small business, and conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill. Rube Goldberg had met his match. Its 1,354 pages, crammed with different commands to the private sector (thou "shall" do this; thou "shall not" do that), provided luscious opportunities for attack. While liberals thought the plan did not go far enough in embracing the Canadian single-payer model, opponents saw it went far enough to kill it. They remembered how the AMA sank Truman's plan by calling it "socialized medicine." The Clintons' plan, they said, was "government-run health care," a slogan that cut deep with the public. "The government shouldn't choose our health care plan. We should choose our own," Harry told Louise in a television ad widely shown and sponsored by the health insurance industry. Swiftly, opponents framed the public debate in a way that ensured our defeat.
Even so, there was still a possibility that significant reform could be rescued if the White House compromised and pushed for a more modest, bipartisan plan. Early in 1994, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole was genuinely interested in striking a bargain, as was the Democratic chairman of Senate Finance, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Middle-of-the-roaders on both sides, such as Republican senator John Chafee of Rhode Island, stood ready to help. In May, Dole slipped a note to Moynihan: "Is it time for the Moynihan-Dole bill?" Pat Moynihan still keeps that yellow piece of paper in his Senate desk, a reminder of what might have been.
In the White House, however, sentiment had hardened against compromise. Liberal chairmen of House committees were assuring the Clintons they could get the original plan through the House with only Democratic votes. Forget negotiations with the Republicans, they said, they can never be trusted. They will eventually betray you. The First Lady, burned by mounting criticisms, and by what she saw as double-dealing by some Republicans, was persuaded. "Incrementalism" became a dirty word around the West Wing, and those of us who wanted a bipartisan compromise were marginalized. When staff meetings were called on health strategy, I was increasingly left out.
There was a new man in the White House saddle now, Harold Ickes of New York. Son of a famous adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, he shared his father's fervent belief in government and even his curmudgeonly ways. The Clintons invested great faith in his political skills. With his arrival in January 1994, the balance of power within the White House staff slid firmly over to the liberal side. Moderates were now heavily outnumbered and outgunned. Interest in a bipartisan deal was slipping away from us.
Armed with his note from Dole, Senator Moynihan had signaled to the White House that we now had one last chance for a bill: if we would drop our insistence on universal coverage, he thought he could strike a good bargain with Dole and other Republican senators and hopefully could overcome the continuing opposition of Gingrich. We gathered that Sunday night in the Map Room for a climactic decision.
Early the next morning, the President had a live interview scheduled on NBC's Today show, where he would make his final offer. He could now signal a willingness to compromise -- which might make it happen -- or he could continue going for broke, which would extinguish all hope. As far as I was concerned, the lesson of every president from Roosevelt to Reagan was clear on an issue of this magnitude: take what you can now and come back for the rest later.
I cannot reconstruct the full conversation that Sunday night. There was a chorus of arguments from staff urging the President not to give an inch. The First Lady agreed. I said little. My position was known and, given my growing isolation, I knew I could not sway the conversation. I would only harden up the other side. Our hope was Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a former chairman of Senate Finance and still an influential player on Capitol Hill. If we had left health care to Bentsen and Shalala, we would have struck a deal with Congress a long time ago. Lloyd still wanted a compromise now, and finally he cleared his throat to speak. A young staffer immediately challenged him. Then, for reasons never clear, the President exploded. He had already heard more than he wanted. His face was flushed with anger. As long as I am president, he said, I plan to keep fighting for serious reform. I did not get elected to compromise on this issue. We can't trust the Republicans and I am not backing down! We won't compromise!
Looking at my watch, I wrote a note to myself: "At 10:22 P.M. tonight, health care died."
Health care reform never even came to a vote in the House or the Senate. The biggest initiative of Clinton's presidency died in committee. Not since the Vietnam War had there been so large a public policy debacle. And, since then, the number of Americans losing health care insurance has climbed by a million a year and now stands at 44 million. Health care inflation has been rising and Medicare is in serious need of change. As for the President and First Lady, they had crashed to defeat and their bid for greatness went aglimmering.
Lessons from the Health Care Defeat
In their fine book on the health care fight, The System, two veterans of the Washington Post, Haynes Johnson and David Broder, make the case that even a legislative magician like Lyndon Johnson would have had trouble securing health care reform in the current political environment. Trust in the presidency has declined; the White House commands less authority in pursuing major initiatives; Congress is more fractious; the press is more interested in scandal than substance; and interest groups have acquired greater power. The confluence makes leadership far more difficult, as they say.
Change has been especially difficult in health care. Congress has turned back repeated attempts to overhaul the system, starting with FDR and Truman and running through Nixon and Carter. In Clinton's case, the struggle was complicated because Newt Gingrich and fellow conservatives also saw the health care fight as a vehicle for gaining control of Congress. Why cooperate with Clinton? Why not elect a Republican Congress and apply free market principles to the problem?
In trying to overhaul the $1 trillion health care industry, the Clintons were tackling one of the toughest challenges in public policy; they were walking down a path littered with the skeletons of past reforms stretching back six decades. And they were willing to stake their reputations on the fight. For that alone, they deserve credit for political courage.
In an interview with Johnson and Broder, the President manfully acknowledged, "I set the Congress up for failure." He recognized that the defeat of health care was a case study in how not to lead. Because the mistakes we made at the White House can be an important guide to future presidents trying to undertake bold, difficult initiatives, it is worth pausing to look at them more closely. Several conclusions stand out:
Misjudging the values of the country. A leader must understand the core values of the society of which she or he is a part and seek to govern within those values. Americans have long been the least supportive of the welfare state of any industrialized peoples. We are, as sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset says, an "outlier" among Western nations, and the Republican Party is the most antistatist of any major political party. To propose a health care plan that smacked of government control ran directly counter to our core national beliefs in individualism and laissez-faire.
The plan also ran afoul of the new conservatism. LBJ could pass Medicare in the 1960s because faith in government was at a high point. Three-quarters of the population said they trusted government to do what is right all or most of the time. By 1994, only a quarter expressed similar trust. The Clinton plan flew in the teeth of that change. A leader like FDR would have understood and crafted a plan to match the times.
Misjudging the President's political strength. "Great initiatives cannot be built upon slender majorities," Jefferson observed. Clinton had too slender a base to enact one of the most sweeping legislative reforms of the century. His 43 percent plurality in the 1992 elections and his lack of coattails left him without a sturdy following, and the missteps of his early months in office had weakened him further. Even in the fall of 1993, when he first addressed the country on his health care proposals, he lacked the dominance needed for so large an undertaking. The failure to recognize the limits on his authority was, in the judgment of Johnson and Broder, his "greatest mistake."
There was a tendency within the White House to believe that Clinton could "sell" anything. His formidable powers at the podium would put the opposition to flight. Ira Magaziner even believed that Clinton could "make complexity our ally." But the way the opposition was able to seize the high ground from Clinton shows once again that a White House must first get the substance right before it tries to "sell" anything.
Misjudging the Congress. Clinton himself believes his greatest blunder was in the way he approached Congress, starting with an early decision to bypass traditional committee hearings (and a potential Senate filibuster) by including health reform in a budget reconciliation bill in 1993. Senator Robert Byrd, protecting senatorial traditions, put a prompt halt to that maneuver, but it left a residue of bad feelings on Capitol Hill.
In retrospect, it is clear that leaders in the House could not deliver a majority composed only of Democrats. Those promises from the barons fell apart. Their authority within the Congress had eroded as much as the President's within the country. We needed Republican votes, and contrary to Johnson and Broder, I believe we could have gotten them if we had begun by working with Republican moderates. But there was so much distrust on both sides we never seriously tried that path.
Misjudging interest groups. The AFL-CIO and the American Association of Retired Persons never generated as much support as expected, and the Health Insurance Association of America and the National Federation of Independent Business delivered far more opposition. It was not the campaign contributions but the field operations of the opponents that were devastating. Even Johnson and Broder were surprised. Interest groups, they wrote, "have become crypto-political parties of their own -- unelected and unaccountable -- employing skilled operatives who at other times run presidential and senatorial campaigns. This is the development that reformers need to address." Talks with health industry representatives persuaded me that if we had been more accommodating early, they might have worked with us. Another missed opportunity.
Mistaking campaigning for governing. Right from the beginning, the emphasis in the White House was not so much in persuading skeptical or uncertain congressmen as in overwhelming them through public pressure. That was especially true of Republicans. The creation of yet another "War Room" sent an unmistakable signal to opponents in the other party that our intention was not a negotiation but unconditional surrender. Newt Gingrich went into the same mode, seeing the health care fight as his best vehicle for capturing the House. He was in no mood for compromise, either. But we should have recognized that War Rooms do not build bipartisan coalitions; they destroy them.
Letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Until close to the end, I believe that a compromise might have been achieved. Lloyd Bentsen had developed a plan when he was still in the Senate that might have formed the basis of negotiation across party aisles. While incremental, it would have addressed at least parts of the problem. In a campaign for a second term, Clinton could have gained a mandate for further reform and then passed it in 1997-1998, when he was still strong.
In retrospect, it is clear that reform of health care is an issue better suited to the kind of "adaptive work" that Ronald A. Heifetz describes in his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers. Heifetz argues that on some public issues a leader should not hand down a solution from on high but should mobilize followers to work through changes in social understanding and behavior. If Lyndon Johnson had simply sent Congress civil rights bills in the mid-1960s, for example, he might have failed. Johnson instead encouraged a process of social ferment, and when the public mood ripened in his favor he then succeeded in passing legislation. We would have done better following that course in health care reform.
A Dangerous Seesaw
One mystery persists: How did we make all these mistakes in health care? How does a future White House avoid them? There is no single answer. All of us in the administration shared in them to one degree or another -- the President, the First Lady, Ira, and the rest of us, certainly me. I wish I had fought harder to pull the proposal toward the center. Even though my influence was dimming, I should have invested the last ounce.
Overall, a lack of experience in the White House certainly played a key role. Richard Neustadt has pointed out the cruel irony that presidents undertake their biggest missions early, when they are strong but their teams are still green and prone to mistakes. Even as talented a president as Clinton could not expect to storm the Congress, forcing through a proposal as massive and controversial as his health plan. Adding to the lack of experience was an idealism that was blinding because it was suffused with self-righteousness. It is a common disease in the White House, afflicting Republicans and
Democrats alike. Among Clintonites, it was widely thought that the Republicans had engaged in so much malign neglect over the years that the public would rally to Democratic nostrums. People will obviously see we are right and they are wrong. Arrogance, as Neustadt reminds, is as big a danger as ignorance.
But I must record one other observation because it is fundamental to what went wrong in this case. It is not one that I write about happily. President Clinton was not fully himself in this fight. He was not as engaged, politically and intellectually, as I saw him in the budget and NAFTA struggles. True, he gave his utmost in the promotion of the health plan and fought for its passage. But he did not exercise his own, independent judgment in the formulation, presentation, or final resolution of the plan. Even though he had signed off each step of the way, he did not take full ownership of the endeavor nor did he personally marshal the resources of the administration for its success.
The matter goes back to the nature of the partnership he had with Mrs. Clinton and how that partnership was influenced by his own past. To have asked her to lead a national crusade on behalf of health care reform would have been a good idea. She is brilliant and articulate. But to assign her primary responsibility for designing the program and navigating its passage through Congress was to place upon her more of a burden than any First Lady could bear, even Mrs. Clinton.
Primary responsibility for design of the program should have been assigned to the lead cabinet officer in health affairs, Donna Shalala, just as responsibility for design of the budget program is always given to the director of the budget. Ms. Shalala has been a successful president of two universities and a shrewd policy-maker. With marching orders from the President on his goals, she could have drawn upon the expertise of her department, worked with Congress, the cabinet, academics, and outside groups, informed the press, and kept the White House in the loop. The President, First Lady, and Ira could have monitored her closely. What would have emerged is a plan that came as close to achieving the President's goals as possible. The President could have remained out front and taken full charge of passage. The First Lady, too, would have played an indispensable role. That is the way the system is designed to work -- and in the past has led to pathbreaking changes in social policy.
As it was, the President, without meaning to, gave the First Lady "mission impossible." When she was "collecting facts" at public forums around the country, speakers were often chosen who would say what she wanted to hear. When she expressed views, few wanted to contradict her. When she went to Capitol Hill, senators and congressmen were deferential and reluctant to speak candidly. She was like an extremely wealthy person with many suitors who can never be quite sure who is telling the truth.
As experienced as she is in the ways of the world, Mrs. Clinton had never been tested in legislative battle in Washington. She can also have a tin ear politically. To ask that, on her maiden voyage, she take on the most massive social reform in decades, build up a detailed, thousand-page proposal and guide it through a fractious Congress was simply more than she should have been expected to do.
Her critics say, "Well, she wanted it." Perhaps, but we ask presidents to choose what is best for the country. Looking ahead toward the Normandy invasion, the most complex mission in military history, FDR knew that George Marshall, his trusted confidant and a man who had earned it, wanted to head the invasion force. Instead of trying to please Marshall, FDR asked him to remain in Washington because the country needed him there. He sent Dwight Eisenhower in Marshall's place.
The President asked the First Lady in part because he believed in her talents, which was justified. He acted, too, because he wanted to promote women as national leaders, which was welcome. He also liked to share with his wife, which was generous. But does anyone doubt that he also wanted to placate her? Had it not been for his own past, I doubt he would have placed his presidency so fully in her hands.
An incident occurred in December of that year that I now look back upon -- perhaps mistakenly -- as significant to health care. The American Spectator and then the Los Angeles Times both broke stories alleging that Arkansas troopers had been used by then-governor Clinton to procure women for him. One of them, the Spectator said, was a woman named "Paula" who was brought to the Governor in a hotel room where he exposed himself and asked that she "kiss it." The stories were so salacious that I could not believe them, and I joined in the effort to knock them down. No one foresaw that the Spectator piece would encourage Paula Corbin Jones to file suit against Clinton.
In the next few days, it became obvious that the stories had privately humiliated Mrs. Clinton and her husband was deep in her doghouse. Like a bouncy golden retriever who has pooped on the living room rug, he curled up and looked baleful for days. Perhaps I am wrong, but over the next several weeks, I sensed that he was in no mood -- and no position -- to challenge her on anything. As the New Year opened, we were heading into the most important months of the health care fight with a president who was tiptoeing around the person in charge. I cannot recall him publicly confronting her on any health care issue after that.
That January, Mrs. Clinton's team came up with the idea that in presenting his health care plan in his State of the Union address, the President should hold up a fountain pen and pledge to veto any bill that did not guarantee universal coverage. They were looking for a television "moment" that would be replayed many times. I thought the pen and the threat would only enrage Republicans, possibly dooming an eventual bipartisan agreement. When Democratic leaders came to the cabinet room in advance of the speech, she pushed the idea and the President sat mum. I took a last stab at trying to stop it. As the leaders were leaving, I asked Speaker Tom Foley his reaction. He said he would prefer it not be done. I urged him to express his view to the First Lady, which he did. I asked her if she would reconsider. No, we're going ahead, she replied.
That ended the matter. When the President, during his address, waved his pen in the faces of Republicans, he looked like a matador holding up a red cape. The bulls charged. Later on, I realized that after Mrs. Clinton had given her answer to Tom Foley, it had never occurred to me that I might appeal the decision to the President.
I was learning that the relationship between the President and First Lady had a serious danger I had not understood. It was not just the matter of two heads making decisions. It was becoming clear that their partnership, which works well for them personally when in balance, can also tip out of balance. In fact, it operates like a seesaw. If he goes down in the relationship, she goes up. And vice versa: If she goes down, he goes up. Either way, the person on top is not as tethered to the other. The complementarities are out of whack. For all her idealism, she needs his political genius to succeed. For all his energy, he needs her good head to keep him anchored.
In the health care fight, she was high up on the seesaw. She took charge and he let her go. Apparently, he was in no position to challenge her or to assert himself in a way that would have been better for them both. When the enterprise failed, I was forced to ask: Might he have passed a bipartisan reform plan if the shadow of his past had not hung over his relationship with his wife?
A Personal Farewell
By late spring of 1994, I thought I should quietly leave the White House.
When I first arrived, the President and many of the older members of his team -- the Vice President, Mack, Bob Rubin, Bill Galston, Warren Christopher, Al From -- had been welcoming. So had a few of the younger ones like Mark Gearan and Bruce Reed. And I made new friends like Joel Klein and Vicki Radd. But most of the young members of the staff took umbrage at my plopping down in their midst. I didn't really blame them. After all, they had broken their backs to elect a Democrat. Why wouldn't they be angry when a Republican was slipped through the back door? Why not hire another Democrat? And why should they think well of someone whose arrival was linked to the downgrading of George Stephanopoulos, their hero? Fair questions.
I had pledged to myself that I would try to be a complete team player. "I don't want to displace anybody from a West Wing office," I had told Mack. "I just need a phone and a desk." When they offered the old barbershop in the basement, I accepted. It had no windows and was so tiny that my deputy, Jody Greenstone, and I wound up making phone calls from a couch in the hall. We laughed a lot at the absurdity of it all.
How to talk to reporters was another challenge. I knew many of the veterans and liked talking with them. The President also wanted me to form a link with them. In Reagan days, when I was a link to the press, some had found it easy to blame me for any leaks (I was responsible for some, but not the number supposed). I was determined not to be in that position again and worked hard to protect inside information. By my count, I engaged in only two leaks while there, one inadvertent and the other to help out on a story I can't even remember. Still, I had a press problem: whenever Clinton did something right, stories gave me too much credit. Later on, I started getting more hits than I deserved, so I guess it balanced out. But the positive stories further antagonized my new colleagues.
The hardest part was trying to reconcile my views about policy and governance with my new surroundings. I wore my service under three Republican presidents as a badge of honor. I also believed there was a bridge between Reaganism and what Clinton had espoused in his campaign about personal responsibility, individual initiative, and a healthy economy. The Democratic Leadership Council, a platform for the Clinton candidacy, certainly wanted to weave some of Reagan's ideas into the Democratic fabric. Clinton had told me coming in he wanted to become a bipartisan president. But he had appointed many people to his White House who abhorred everything about Republicans, especially Reagan.
Sometimes at meetings I would think I had made a horrible mistake in joining up. Late at night after the President's budget victory, the younger staff started chanting anti-Reagan slogans. I went home feeling depressed and compromised. I noticed that Lloyd Bentsen went home, too. Had it not been for the countervailing presence of men like Bentsen, Rubin, McLarty, and Christopher, I am uncertain I would have made it through. I came to know what it was like to be a liver transplant.
In the early months, the satisfaction came because my thoughts seemed to count and the President was righting himself. He listened to me with attention and respect, and we got on well. My affection for him grew, even as the mystery about him deepened.
But as he gained ascendancy, my star dimmed. I had a growing sense that partisan members of the staff were saying to each other, "Now that we have gotten out of the ditch, we can do this by ourselves. Why do we need that bastard? Let's get him out of here." It wasn't long before I would read nasty quotes about me in the newspapers, attributed to White House sources. A few of the more senior members of the team rallied to my side, but the knives were out down below. I was cut to shreds and was extremely displeased, but -- perhaps dumbly -- was too proud to ask the President for help. I just assumed he would put a stop to it and speak up in my defense. He did not.
The telling issue for me was whether I could still make a difference inside. The endgame came with Whitewater and then health care, as I began crossing swords too often with the First Lady. Our disagreements were fundamental and, even though we treated each other respectfully, I guessed she would be happier if I were somewhere else. As the liberal side of the house gained more power, policy was moving in that direction and I was frozen out of meetings. I was also having more trouble persuading the President, who was down on the seesaw and seemed self-absorbed.
There's such a thing as overstaying your welcome at the White House, so I decided to leave by early summer, a year after I had arrived. I would be well away before the off-year election season began. But the President called and asked if I could give him six months of additional service, working with him and Secretary of State Christopher at the State Department. He said he needed more help there and would appreciate a hand. I accepted because I greatly respected Christopher. Jody Greenstone and Dianna Pierce accompanied me there.
As it turned out, that invitation was a blessing. Christopher and his team were among the finest people I have known in public life. People said that Christopher wasn't a scintillating presence on television, but he had something that counts far more: character and personal integrity. He and Tom Donilon, along with other colleagues there, provided a warm, stimulating haven where I could stay out of the 1994 election fray and also learn more about the practice of American diplomacy. Those were my happiest months in the administration.
That fall, I sent a letter to the President to say that while honored by his invitation to serve, I did want to leave the administration at the end of the year, as we had discussed. I sent the letter early, before the elections, so that it would be clear the results, whatever they were, had not been a factor. I wanted to leave without fanfare. Christopher gave me a gracious farewell from State. Again, I was too proud to ask for anything from the President. A staff-written letter of thanks arrived from the White House. I thought he would say thanks in person. He did not.
Looking back upon my eighteen months, I at first had mixed feelings -- proud that for a brief moment, I perhaps helped a president in trouble; angry that I also felt used. The anger has disappeared over time. If you step into turbulent waters, you should expect to get wet. The pride remains.
Copyright © 2000 - 2002 by David Gergen