October 14, 2003,
Sometimes the spinning stops.
That's what I learned in the course of writing Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. I talked to a couple dozen former Clinton officials. I talked to as many as would talk, in any way that would win their cooperation; I talked to them on-the-record, off-the-record, and on-background with the agreement they could look over any quotes I'd use. I talked to spinners and wonks and speechwriters and friends.
And there were flashes of real forthrightness. If you think Clinton is a weak person, who made excuses for himself, and defeated Al Gore, and couldn't make a decision, and brought out-of-their-depth rank amateurs to the making of foreign policy, and had a pointless second term, and fundamentally misunderstood how to respond to the terror threat and so on: You get the idea you might be surprised that former Clinton officials agree with you.
What appears below is hardly the sum total of all that I was told, but it is telling. There is only so much that can be said on behalf of a failed president; eventually reality intrudes and the obvious cannot be denied. Here, then, is some of what former Clinton officials say about Clinton:
Bernie Nussbaum, former Clinton White House counsel, on Clinton's weakness: "The problem was Clinton's weakness in response to all that criticism. His mother, in her autobiography, talks of how, if there's a room of 100 people, and 99 of them like him, he'll spend all his time with that one person, trying to win him over. It's a dangerous prescription for leadership. But trying to get everyone to like him is an essential part of his personality."
Mickey Kantor, former Clinton secretary of commerce and trade representative, on the Monica scandal: "It's his own fault. No one did this to him. He did it to himself. No one brought this on him except himself."
Elaine Kamarck, former Clinton domestic-policy adviser and Gore aide, on the 2000 election: "Clinton sort of softened up the environment for Gore to be cast as someone who wasn't genuine. Nobody ever thought that Gore had Clinton's exact problems; but they were willing to think that since Clinton was a sleazy guy, there was probably something sleazy with Gore, too."
Don Baer, former Clinton communications secretary, on Clinton's lax decision-making: "I think he wanted to understand the various sides of issues before he came down hard on them.... It may be that the process of doing that, at the end of the day, required too much time and too much lack of discipline to really focus himself and his administration."
Richard Holbrooke, former top Clinton diplomat, on how Clinton and the administration were intimidated by then-Joint Chief of Staff Colin Powell: "Powell overwhelmed most of the new administration. They were children in his eyes, and he was an awesome world figure in theirs."
Dick Morris, former Clinton pollster, on Clinton's wasted second term: "I believe that Bill Clinton totally and completely wasted his second term. Partially due to his laziness in 1997, in 1998 he was totally tanked up by Monica, and in 1999 and 2000 his entire presidency was devoted to the single goal of getting his wife elected to the Senate."
Robert Reich, former Clinton labor secretary, on Clinton's wasted second term: "[T]here wasn't very much political capital left in the second administration the second term for new initiatives."
Jim Woolsey, former Clinton CIA director, on Clinton's 1993 cruise-missile attack in response to an Iraqi assassination attempt against former President Bush: "After a while, they fired a couple dozen cruise missiles into an empty building in the middle of the night, which is a sufficiently weak response to be almost laughable."
Eric Holder, former Clinton deputy attorney general, on the flaccid, law-enforcement response to terrorism: "Ultimately the mistake was the response. We put it in the hands of the FBI and the Justice Department, when it should have been in the hands of the Defense Department, because bin Laden was more than the equivalent of a Muslim mob guy."
Alice Rivlin, former Clinton budget director, on Clinton abandoning deficit reduction after his 1994 congressional defeat: "The president lost his nerve a bit on deficit reduction...and that was a very discouraging period for those of us who thought it was really important."
Donna Shalala, former Clinton Health and Human Services director, on the folly of the Hillary health-care plan: "The program that was developed was too complex...you really had to go to the Hill with principles and start working your way through to get more coverage. A few minutes into it, we knew that. [But] the commitments had been made. Commitments to the First Lady, and to Ira Magaziner, and to a whole organizational scheme for doing it. It wasn't like the president wasn't told that's [a go-slow approach] what he should do."
Lanny Davis, former Clinton scandal lawyer, on how the Democrats first created "the politics of personal destruction" in the 1980s: "We used the scandal machinery. We abused it. And we set the precedent."
Howard Paster, former Clinton congressional lobbyist, on Clinton's lack of a guiding philosophy in decision-making: "I don't think the decisions were consistently ideological, because there were different players in every decision."
Tony Lake, former Clinton national-security adviser, on Somalia: "In Somalia, we inherited a bad mission and made it worse.... In truth, we were sloppy in how we adopted that [nation-building] as the mission."
Mickey Kantor on the 1990's economy: "No one should claim that what we did, what President Clinton did, created the eight most productive years in the history of the United States. No one should claim that."
Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.