Chris Tsakis, NPR
Bill Clinton, during his interview with NPR in New York City, June 22, 2004.
NPR's Juan Williams interviewed Bill Clinton last week in conjunction with the release of the former president's new autobiography. In this Reporter's Notebook, Williams explores Clinton's take on past political battles, and the 2004 election.
An interview with Bill Clinton is like the old cliché — sticking your head under Niagara Falls and trying to get a drink of water. Clinton gushes ideas and opinions and information. And after an hour-long interview in the back room of a Barnes and Noble bookstore on Fifth Avenue in New York, I walked away drenched in Clinton's latest ideas and with renewed awe for the power and depth of his views on American politics.
First, he thinks the Republican Party is winning by intentionally polarizing politics in America. Specifically, he identifies President Bush's top political advisor, Karl Rove as the man who delights in forcing Americans to identify as far left or far right. Clinton argues that Rove likes the much ballyhooed blue-state-red-state split because it pushes voters into mind numbing squabbles. Clinton says that distracts them from a troubled economy, a problematic war in Iraq and a ballooning federal deficit.
But there are other Republican operatives who draw Clinton's ire. Here's the former president on anti-tax activist Grover Norquist:
"Grover Norquist said sometime in the last six or eight months, I read in The Washington Post, that his great goal for the next few years is to bring — and I quote — the same bitter partisanship to state capitols across America that [Republicans] have brought to Washington. Grover didn't appear in the news for weeks thereafter that because he committed candor."
In Clinton's view, the GOP is using the Sept. 11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to sustain an emotional political dynamic in which voters wave flags and pledge unquestioning support for the president or risk being called unpatriotic.
For example, Clinton cites the 2002 mid-term elections. He notes that before the election voters told pollsters overwhelmingly [by 23 percentage points, Clinton recalls off the top of his head] they preferred the Democrats' position on the economy, on dealing with corporate scandals and the high cost of prescription drugs. And the Democrats had a plan for stopping any repeat of terrorism in the United States by creating a federal department of Homeland Security.
Rove's response, in Clinton's eyes, was "one of the greatest con jobs ever pulled off on the American people." Rove got Republicans to change their tune and agree to support the Homeland Security bill, Clinton said. Then the GOP's top strategist got the party to throw some union-busting "poison pills" into the bill. That drew the opposition of Democrats. When Democrats questioned the Republican design for the department, Clinton said, even decorated veterans such as Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA) were tagged as unpatriotic and oblivious to America's security. "It was a total hot-dog deal," the former president said.
But the "con job" and "hot-dog deal," as Clinton saw it, allowed Republicans to avoid a voter revolt on a sour economy and other domestic issues. Democrats lost seats in the House and lost their narrow majority in the Senate. Clinton, a wide smirk on his face, said he didn't like the tactics but as a "matter of pure politics," he admitted to admiring the success of Rove's strategy.
In Clinton's mind the current conflict between the parties grew out of his 1992 race for the White House. Clinton argues that Rove's approach is a response to Clinton's own successful formula for bringing left and right together, a formula designed to attract bipartisan support. Clinton, for example, drew in the moderate middle of the American electorate by defying liberal lobbies on key issues such as welfare reform and trade deals.
In 1992, Clinton says, the GOP had enjoyed two terms of Ronald Reagan and one term of George H.W. Bush and "thought they had a formulation that would always beat Democrats." Clinton sums up the formulation: "They said we were weak on defense, never met a tax increase we didn't like, we never met a program we didn't love, we couldn't be trusted to take care of the country." Clinton's strategy broke out of the left-right box, and he later called it The Third Way.
"The more our approach worked," Clinton recalls now, "the madder they got, the more they had to go after me personally."
In Clinton's mind the height of the personal attacks on him was his impeachment. Before my interview, he had told Dan Rather on 60 Minutes that he viewed the impeachment fight as "a badge of honor."
When I asked him how his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office and lying to the grand jury could be a "badge of honor," Clinton said he didn't say that. What he meant was that it was a matter of honor that led him to fight Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House for four years ending in 1998, and Tom DeLay, a key antagonist as House majority whip, over the impeachment proceeding that Clinton viewed as wrong.
"I was responsible for what I had done wrong… but the impeachment was illegitimate and every reasonable historian and constitutional authority, lawyers and prosecutors knew that it was illegitimate. And so did Newt Gingrich. He had already told Hillary [Sen. Clinton] they were never going to do it… then he said they were going to do it because they could… [they figured] if we impeached him, even if our reasons are invalid… it is still a black mark on him… so might makes right."
Clinton said Tip O'Neill, the Democrat who was House speaker while Republican Ronald Reagan was in the White House, could have impeached Reagan over the Iran-Contra affair. But he said the Democrats did not want to put the country through such a trauma for political advantage. According to Clinton, the Republicans simply made a different calculation.
When I asked Clinton if he took any responsibility for Al Gore's defeat in 2000 – in the aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment — he reacted with silence. Then he slowly said that was not the question he thought I was going to ask. He assumed I was going to ask if he could have done more to get Gore across the finish line. He notes correctly that at the end of his term he had a 65 percent approval rating — despite having been impeached.
And then Clinton reacted defensively. He said Gore did not lose and noted correctly that Gore got more votes than George W. Bush. He pointed to the Supreme Court decision awarding the election to President Bush as one of the worse decisions in the history of the high court. And he said my question was an insult to American voters because it assumes they are "unfair and stupid." Unfair in that they would punish Gore for Clinton's sins and stupid in that they would ignore their self-interest in putting the best candidate in the White House. But would Gore have won easily at a time of a good economy and world peace if Clinton had not opened the door to scandal?
Clinton reports that he told Gore he was willing to let the vice president lash him with a whip on the steps of The Washington Post if that would convince voters that Gore had no part in the Lewinsky scandal. "He [Gore] dead-panned, 'Well, maybe we ought to poll that.' And then I said 'Well, if we are going to poll it, let's poll it with my shirt on and off.'" said Clinton.
All joking aside, Gore decided to distance himself from Clinton after the scandal and Republicans capitalized on the question of morals and character. Now, four years later, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, is embracing Clinton as a force of politics, a popular two-term president and best-selling author. It is simply a fact of political life today that Clinton is without peer in Democratic Party politics.
In the 2004 campaign the question is whether Clinton is willing to embrace Kerry. Some critics in the party are saying that Clinton's book tour is stealing attention from a candidate that has trouble getting enough of a look from the electorate to establish his identity. But Clinton assured me that he is supporting Kerry. As we ended our interview, I asked him to make a case for Kerry's election. Clinton responded with a five-minute lecture on Kerry's jobs programs, energy conservation plans, and ability to open himself to people who know more than he does. And he added that when duty called in Vietnam, Kerry did not have to go but still "stepped up to the plate."
Clinton is being given a prime time TV slot to deliver a speech on the opening night of the Democratic convention. The former president's rock star book tour continues until he gets to the Boston convention. Given the celebrity, scandal and political power that pour off of him, Clinton's speech is likely to be the biggest hit of the convention, both in the hall and on TV.
One month later, the Republican convention will try to match Clinton's celebrity with the likes of former bodybuilder and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the governor of California. But when it comes to stirring passions in American politics and culture, Clinton remains the real strong man, still erupting with ideas and convictions like a force of nature.