Presidential Oral Histories

Al From (2007) Oral History, Domestic Policy Advisor to the Clinton Transition, Founder & CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council

About this Interview

Al From discusses his vision for the New Democrats and his pre-Clinton years leading the DLC..

Presidential Oral Histories |

Al From (2007) Oral History, Domestic Policy Advisor to the Clinton Transition, Founder & CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council

Transcript

Riley

This is the second of the interviews we’re doing with Al From as a part of the Clinton Presidential History Project. So the election happens in ’94. What happens after the election?

From

I told Bruce Reed you ought to just talk to him instead of me. 

Riley

We have spent three times as much time with Bruce as we have with you. I couldn’t believe it has been since April when we last met. 

From

There’s been a whole new administration in. 

Riley

Exactly. Do you mean in [Washington] D.C. or for us?

From

Both. The whole world has changed. 

Riley

Exactly. We’re pleased that you’ve consented to let us come and talk with you. When we concluded the last interview, we’d just gotten to the beginning phases of the administration, so we can spend the afternoon talking about the Clinton Presidency. Let me reiterate: you’ve been through the drill, but you know that this is confidential. You’ll have a chance to review the transcript, so speak candidly because anything that you don’t want to get out for a while we can hold. 

Contrary to the way we usually do things, I want to start with a kind of global question that we might spend a little bit of time on, realizing that there may be some bits and pieces of this we’ll want to come back to and tease out, and we’ll come back to the chronology. Then we’ll go through the Presidency and get your comments on what you were doing and your relationship with the President. In a piece that you had written in 1992, which Darby reminds me basically builds on the credo that is behind this, you had outlined what were the cornerstones of the new Democrat philosophy.

From

Right. 

Riley

What I thought I would do is begin by asking you, not so much to give us a score card, but for us to talk about your sense of how well the Clinton administration performed on each of the five elements of the credo, where the strong suits were and where the weaknesses were. In your Hofstra speech, you came back to this a little bit, repeated it as the fundamental commitments of the administration. But even in the Hofstra speech you didn’t park on growth, values, reciprocity, internationalism, and reinventing government in a way that it would be helpful for us to engage on, to figure out where you felt like they did the best, and where your greatest senses of disappointment were in each of those areas. So, with your permission, I’ll start by asking you that kind of global question. 

From

Well, I think that Clinton’s real legacy was that he was the modernizer of progressive politics all over the world. Was he perfect? Of course not, but I thought he was pretty damn good. Let me just make sure that I have these principles in the right order since we have changed from time to time. Let me just say that, first of all, there is enormous consistency. If you look at the Hyde Park speech that Clinton made in 2000, he took this New Orleans Declaration and he went through and showed how almost every statement in that, in the philosophical part of the New Orleans Declaration, led to an action of the administration. But where do I think he came out? 

I think the single most important contribution, and he’s made a lot of them but this is pretty high up there, was the emphasis on economic growth and opportunity. In the 1980s the Democratic Party had become a party identified with fairness rather than opportunity and growth, and that was a fundamental shift. I may have told you that in the 1980 Democratic platform, when Jimmy Carter was President and running for reelection, the President had the opportunity to set his own platform, every economic plank was a public jobs program. 

The realization and then the effort to carry out an economic program that was founded in the premise that we had to grow the private economy was, I think, a contribution that Clinton made to his party, to his country, and to progressive politics all over the world; that is really as significant as you can have. The record was clear. Was it always smooth? No. I think a lot of what happened in the beginning of 1993 was dictated by Clinton’s desire to fit in with the Washington crowd. The stimulus package was old kinds of investments that never passed anyway. 

His economic policy had three anchors, three pillars. One was fiscal discipline—and you have to say he did a pretty good job of that. Growing the private economy is critical to having a good fiscal policy, but the combination of the kind of tax initiatives he had, the deficit reduction and spending reduction program, and the fact that we had an overall effort to grow the economy led us from those enormous deficits into surplus and on a pace to basically pay off the debt in a very short period. Of course, that got all changed in the [George W.] Bush administration. 

The second pillar was investment in people, people and technology. Bruce or someone else can tell you in much more detail, but I guess some of the investments were not as much as he would have liked. One of the things I remember is Doug Ross, who was one of the Assistant Secretaries of Labor, told me that it took almost a year or two for Clinton to get out of the Labor Department the ideas we had talked about for reforming the training programs that were in the campaign. That goes to the larger point that the leaders of organized labor opposed all three of the tenets of the Clinton economic policy. 

The third one was expanded trade. There’s nobody like Clinton on that issue, in that period. But he did that against real opposition in our party because the leaders of organized labor opposed him on the deficit because they really never believed in any—they wanted money. They wanted money into the economy. They opposed him on the training, basically the investment in people and technology, because they owned the old training regime and they didn’t want a modern one. And they opposed him on trade.

Clinton basically had to give in to the most important economic interest group in our party. With the finesse that only Bill Clinton could have, he took the economic policy in an entirely different direction. And it was successful. I remember once being with John Sweeney, after the ’96 election. He was bragging about how much labor got its people out and got them to vote, and what the labor vote was. I guarantee you that if Clinton had followed the recommendations of the labor leaders, his labor vote would have been a lot less in 1996 because the economy wouldn’t have done as well. 

The key to successful policy is having successful outcomes. That’s the politics. That’s where politics and policy come together, it’s on outcomes. Clinton understood that, understood it from day one going in. Because we were able to have a good economy we got a lot of voters back, even though their interest group leaders may not have liked the policies that led to our success. 

Values was the second cornerstone, and the values that I used in those days, which were family responsibility, faith, freedom, tolerance, and inclusion, all came out of the New Orleans Declaration. I’m not going to get into this, but within the Clinton administration you have to separate out the substantive policy, values, initiatives, and reinforcement with the personal behavior. I’m sure that a lot of people would say that Clinton set back values politics a lot because of his personal behavior. I don’t believe that’s the case. 

I believe what Clinton understood was that if your policies don’t reflect the values that ordinary people believe in, you’re not going to be able to build popular support for them and they’re not going to work. I think he was quite successful. He made initiatives like welfare reform, the earned income tax credit, and he made work more valuable than welfare. That’s one of the big value issues. He wanted an economic policy that worked for the people, worked hard and played by the rules, a values issue. He did that. He understood that the deficit was a values issue because for most people, the question of whether you pay your bills is not just an economic matter, it’s a matter of responsibility and values. 

You can go down the line. I’ve pointed out in a piece—it was in the New Democrat, which was before we had Blueprint—it’s the one on the wall there with the donkey on the cover. It was the 1996 convention issue, where I compared the 1980 platform to the 1996 platform. The word responsibility was not in the 1980 platform. From the perspective of embedding your values into your policies and letting them drive your policies, I think Clinton had a pretty good record.

The third cornerstone was the [John F.] Kennedy ethic of mutual responsibility-reciprocity. The great Dan Yankelovich once told me that where the Democratic Party went wrong in the late ’60s and into the early ’70s was when they forgot the concept of responsibility or reciprocity. You can argue whether Clinton acted personally responsibly in some of the things he did, but the major policy initiatives all reflected this, what I think was the core to John Kennedy and really a core Democratic belief, that opportunity and responsibility go together. The national service program, AmeriCorps, more than any other, embodied all of those values of opportunity, responsibility, and community. Welfare reform was a big part of opportunity/responsibility. But in almost everything we did there was some context of opportunity and responsibility. Ideas like charter schools, where  groups of teachers or parents or interested individuals could get together and form a school, but then take responsibility for it.

The idea of an earned income tax credit is a major antipoverty program: you had to work to get it. Community policing, putting people in the neighborhoods, police in the neighborhoods, triggered the idea of personal responsibility as citizens. If you go through almost every initiative, you will find some connection to opportunity and responsibility going together. That was a major thing. 

The fourth tenet was internationalism. Clinton didn’t have to worry very much about a big war, even though, as every American President in modern times, he has had to commit American troops and put them in harm’s way. But Clinton was clearly an internationalist. That probably didn’t affect the direction of the country as much as it affected the direction of his party. 

Now we’re going back, but I believe that Clinton—I can’t remember if we talked about this last time. In September 1991, we had a meeting of the so-called Clinton exploratory committee. He was thinking of running. It was a day-and-a-half meeting of all these people from around the country who were giving him their advice, and a lot of it was to back off on NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement].

At the end of it, Clinton listened and listened, and he finally just said, If you want me to be a protectionist and an isolationist, get another candidate because I won’t do it. I think that was a very important part of his Presidency. Clinton is somebody who wants to do good things. So even in foreign policy he reached out. He did a lot of stuff in the Middle East that was quite good. He should have had a deal if [Yasser] Arafat would have gone along. In spite of what Jimmy Carter said, the problem was Arafat and not Clinton or the Israelis. 

I think he was clearly an internationalist President. He was adored all over the world, where most people thought his personal stuff was sort of silly and not very important. 

To me, the mechanics of reinventing government aside, just think what he did: he ended 60 years of the welfare system, that’s pretty much a reinvention of a major program. He did things like charter schools, a systemic reform of public education, community policing, changed the way police officers were deployed all over the country, and with enormous results. Maybe some of it was luck because a lot of other demographic things worked. But I think you can go through a host of the initiatives that Clinton had and find that he just had a less bureaucratic instinct for how the government ought to work and he was able to carry that out.

I’m sure you can go through the years and say this initiative didn’t work very well, or that one didn’t work very well. We had the health care debacle and all of that. But overall, one of the things that distinguished Clinton was that we did have this underlying philosophy that he had worked on a lot, which was the embodiment of the first principles of the Democratic Party. Again, not perfectly, but he largely stuck to them. That was the reason for his success. It certainly became the model for Tony [Anthony Charles] Blair and, for a while, Gerhard Schroeder and a whole bunch of others. [Willem] Wim Kok was probably even a little before Clinton. But a whole bunch of leaders, all over the world, including people like Ricardo Lagos in Chile, and others followed the model. 

Riley

Thanks, that’s very helpful. The first six months were pretty rocky in 1993. My sense is that you weren’t terribly pleased with the direction that the administration was heading in this first four, five, or six months.

From

I wasn’t very pleased. It’s an interesting thing, though, because when I go back and think about the things we said that we had to do in the transition, pretty much all of them, over the first three years, got done. But it didn’t always seem like it was very smooth sailing. 

I remember when Clinton called me on Wednesday, eight days after the election, and said, You have to come down here. I want to notch you to be domestic policy advisor in the transition. I got down there, as he asked, very quickly. At the press conference where I was supposed to be announced with Sandy [Samuel] Berger, Bob Reich, and Judy Feder as the four policy people in the transition, we never got to it because all he was talking about was gays in the military. But I think a couple of things happened early on. One is—and these are my theories—that Clinton always worried about the Jimmy Carter mistakes. 

Probably nobody would ever agree with this publicly, whether they think it’s right or not, and you’d never find out from him or Hillary [Clinton] or anybody about this. I would guess that going in, they looked at two things that were Carter mistakes. One was that he left room for a challenge from the left. I think there was a real desire not to allow that to happen. Again, I can’t tell you this was a conscious deal, it probably wasn’t, but I have to believe that it had something to do with gays in the military coming first. Maybe it was just that gays in the military was the issue brought up and they just decided to address it first. 

The other thing is that Carter got into big trouble because he couldn’t deal with Congress. That led Clinton to a mistake. The mistake was, in my view, that he got his initial Congressional people, who were Washington insiders who had worked the Hill in the ’80s, as Democratic lobbyists. There was a fundamental change in the relationship between the President and the Hill that took place in the [Ronald] Reagan years, between the time of Carter and Clinton. 

In the ’70s, if you wanted to get a major thing through Congress, essentially you went and worked with the leadership and worked it through, top down. Reagan changed that because Reagan couldn’t work with the leadership because he didn’t have it. Tip [Thomas O’Neill] was not his political ally even though he was his friend. So Reagan basically changed that by being the first President to effectively go to the country to push big legislative proposals. Since Reagan did that with his first budget in 1981, almost every initiative that a President has tried to sell in the Congress, he’s tried to sell by going to the country. 

The people who Clinton got were people who were friends of mine and very good Washington lobbyists. But don’t forget that the Democrats were largely, either operationally or in reality, in the minority for most of the 1980s. As a result, if you were a Democratic lobbyist on the Hill, you operated a different way. You worked with your friends on the inside to get things in bills because you didn’t dominate the overall direction of it. That kind of experience was not something that led you to be in a position to advise the President to be able to use the public, and use what was Clinton’s great strength, which is that he could persuade anybody of anything. So that probably made his first two years a little tougher.

Riley

I don’t want you to lose your train of thought here, but I want to interrupt with a question about that. Clinton is a brilliant guy politically, so you have to ask yourself how he could allow himself to get put in a position of relying on this kind of advice. I wonder if, in some respects, his experience in Arkansas didn’t misserve him. I mean, he was somebody who in Arkansas had been a very hands-on inside operator, right?

From

But there’s a difference, a big difference. It takes Governors a little while, not necessarily a long time, but a little while to get a handle on this. In a state, the Governor is the strongest character; that’s not necessarily true in Washington. Everybody in Washington has a constituency. All these guys, every one of these 435 guys down on the Hill—four blocks from here, six blocks from here—have their own constituency; they all raise their own money. They aren’t beholden to anybody. So they’re not as easy to roll as state legislators. 

In fact, often the way you get them to roll is by going around them to their constituencies. When there’s a big public groundswell for something, then they tend to move. So it’s not a matter of being hands-on as much as it is the thought that you have to work with the leadership. There’s another element as well, and this is where I was going before. And that is, the Democrats had been in power an awfully long time, 38 years by 1992. One of the reasons that people voted for Clinton is they wanted to change the way Washington worked and the way the Congress worked. Well, his instinct was to accede to their demands and let them determine the way his dealings on the Hill went. The people wanted something different. 

The first week that I was in the transition, I went down there. He called me on Wednesday and I went down there Thursday, got down there Thursday morning.

Riley

Down there being Little Rock?

From

Little Rock, for the press conference. Then he said, You can go back over the weekend. Come back Monday and we’ll figure out where you’re going to stay. So I did. But that weekend when I was back is when he had the Congressional leadership come down. I had the feeling there were going to be some problems.

When I got back, he had already given up things like the line-item veto because [Robert] Byrd was against it. Something else: a Congressional staff cut because [George] Mitchell told him he had already done it. Things like that. It took him a while, and maybe the liberation of Republican Congress, to decide that he had to go and do his own stuff. 

Health care turned out to be a debacle. I don’t know whether it could have been avoided, but I suspect if we’d done welfare before health care, the outcome on both might have been better. The reason, incidentally, is that that there was a national consensus on welfare, and there wasn’t, and probably still isn’t, on health care. In the end, you’re always going to have problems with health care because there are too many rival factions and nobody knew what they wanted.

Riley

Do you know what was behind the decision to bring the members of Congress down there that early? Who was he listening to and what was—

From

Yes. I suppose George Stephanopoulos had something to do with it. Presidents-elect always bring the members of Congress down early. 

Morrisroe

Did he make any special effort during the transition to reach out to members of Congress with whom he’d worked closely in the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council]?

From

I don’t know what he did personally. All of us, or at least those of us who had substantive roles in the transition, had the responsibility of going up and having meetings with members of Congress. It’s a long time ago, but I remember he did the economic summit at Little Rock, which was great, but most of the time for Clinton and the campaign it was sitting there wrestling with appointments. I mean, in the transition it was wrestling with appointments. 

Bruce Reed and I were down there—Bruce was my deputy—and we had staff up here working on domestic policy and we were down in Little Rock. After a couple of weeks we decided to come back to Washington because we weren’t spending that much time with him, he was all mired down in his appointments. We figured we might as well be up here with our staffs.

Riley

There was a division in portfolios, right? 

From

Right.

Riley

There was the staffing and appointments component, and you and Bruce were in the policy-making component?

From

Yes. That’s right.

Riley

Do you know what happened to the product of your labors in the policy areas? You were producing briefing materials for the incoming personnel?

From

We did a strategy memo. I’m trying to find this book. We did a transition book for him, where we did strategy memos, outlines on a lot of the major initiatives, and then background briefing on a lot of that stuff.

By the end of the first term, I think everything we had recommended in that transition strategy was done. We didn’t have health care because he had separated health care out and given it to Judy Feder.

Morrisroe

Can I interrupt with a real quick question about the briefing book you produced? Given that it’s you and Reed doing this work on domestic policy and given that some of the decisions he made in the first six months were not entirely consonant with the priorities of the DLC or what I would presume would be the agenda you laid out for him, were you getting push back from the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party during the transition?

From

I used to say, going into the transition office, I found all these people that I felt we had beaten in the primaries. [laughter] But there are a bunch of answers to that, it’s very complicated. One is that Clinton—when you’re in the White House, you drive some stuff from the White House, but a lot of it, the fine-tuning of the administration, gets done in the departments. I’ll just preface it by telling you this story.

In the first week, early in the transition, I came down there, I went back, got back on Monday morning, and that afternoon, Bruce and I, and Bob Reich and Gene Sperling, who were doing the economics, had a meeting with Clinton and Hillary and probably George and [Bruce] Lindsey, and maybe [Warren] Christopher, whoever was leading the transition. He was talking about what he wanted to do. I said to him at one point, I know you want to make this the most diverse administration ever, and that’s a worthy goal. You’ll have 3,000 jobs to make this the most diverse administration ever. But there are probably going to be 150 jobs that will drive this administration and determine whether or not your programs are going to be pursued and enacted. For those jobs, I think you ought to go with a test of loyalty to your programs and not worry about diversity.

So we break up this meeting and we go into a bigger meeting with a whole bunch of people including [Albert] Gore and [Thomas/Mack] McLarty and others. In the middle of it, Clinton turns to me and says, Repeat what you told me in the smaller meeting. So I did. That’s the last time anybody ever talked to me about appointments. [laughter]

Morrisroe

What was his response to the pitch you made? Did he just listen? Did he have any words of agreement?

From

He listened, but obviously he must have had some thought of agreement or he wouldn’t ask me to repeat it. But there were a lot of factors and a lot of strong personalities in that process of picking people. Diversity was a very strong component and I don’t think that was a bad thing. Part of the problem we had as new Democrats is we won too early. Unlike the Heritage Foundation when Reagan won, we didn’t have this big cadre of intellectuals. You go through the Cabinet—I think that’s where we ended last time. There were a whole bunch of DLC people in that Cabinet. But the DLC intellectuals, a lot of them, went in. 

Bruce was the policy director, the domestic policy director, deputy first time, second term. [William] Galston was the other deputy. Elaine [Kamarck] worked for Gore. Jeremy Rosner was in there for a while. [Robert] Shapiro didn’t get in at the beginning; we got him in later as Undersecretary of Commerce. But there weren’t many of us. As the White House staff was put together, we had our recommendations but, to be honest with you, there were not that many people with real New Democrat DNA in their blood. 

The other thing is, at one point, I think at the end of the transition, after Mack had been appointed, I did this memo to Mack and to Clinton and said that I thought it was really important to have a strong White House staff because the Cabinet seemed to be so diverse, not only in gender and race but in point of view. I thought it was important that they understand that there was a difference in Cabinet Secretaries, who were your liaison to the groups, rather than those who thought they were the groups’ liaison to you. I think there were a number of the latter, at least at the beginning. 

So I urged that they have a strong domestic policy staff in the White House to make sure that people followed his policy. That finally happened, but it took a long time. You had some of these unexpected things like gays in the military, and so the administration was knocked a little bit off stride in the beginning. In this memo that I gave you, which was April 14 or 15, I can’t remember—

Riley

The 16th.

From

But here’s what happened, here’s what led up to it. My older daughter was a senior at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, West Virginia, that year. You wouldn’t know about it except for the mine disaster last year. I had promised the president of the university that I would go down and talk to the political science kids at some point. I went down—it must have been the 14th or 15th, right around tax day. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Buckhannon, West Virginia, but you’ve been to plenty of towns—

Riley

I grew up in Alabama.

From

Did you? Well, it’s sort of like Lee County, Alabama, to come close to home. It’s one of those places where the reporter and the cameraman at the television station are the same person. They wanted me to do a press conference. I go to this press conference and all that I hear are questions about this new tax the Clinton administration was proposing. 

It seems that Donna Shalala, who is a wonderful woman and knows how to run a university, and usually builds good football teams, even though not so good this year at Miami. She actually told me one time that when she became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, the first thing she did was hire Pat Richter and Barry Alvarez because she thought that a great university needed a world-class football team.  

Anyway, she had floated the VAT [value added tax] two days before tax day. So it got all this incredible attention. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I had decided I was going to keep my mouth shut for 90 days because I had told Clinton before the transition, or at the end of the election, that I wouldn’t go into the administration. I figured, having made that decision, I should let those people who really decided to go in to have some time before I started carping about them. But that just was too much.

So I do the speech and the next day there’s only one flight back from that part of West Virginia and it’s at something like 6 o'clock in the morning, which is earlier than I usually operate. But I was in my office by 7:30 and I didn’t have anything to do so I just sat down and did this memo. The thrust of it was that he had done some good things at the beginning, but if you looked at this administration from the point of view of the forgotten middle class, you’d probably be disappointed. 

You can go through the memo and see all the things I talked about. I can’t remember them now. Some of the appointments, gays in the military, not things that I necessarily opposed but I just thought were ill timed for setting off the definition of the administration that was going to be successful. I got a call from Clinton right after that saying why don’t you come down here a week from today? This was on a Friday.

So I went down for this meeting. It was in the Roosevelt Room and it was just about everybody in the administration from the Vice President and Hillary to Bob Rubin. The only outside people—I can’t remember if [James] Carville and [Stanley] Greenberg were there, but maybe. Clinton has a list of all the DLC proposals. He starts going through to find out where we are, and the first one was the crime bill. 

This goes to your question about what we did in the transition with members of Congress. Anyway, the first thing is the crime bill and George Stephanopoulos says, If you just call Chairman [Jack] Brooks next week, you’ll get a crime bill. I said to George, having spent a long time with Chairman Brooks in the transition, How many cops are in that bill? George said, The Chairman said he’d give us the cops later, but he’s going to give us habeas corpus reform, and all this other stuff I didn’t understand because I’m not a lawyer. 

I knew that that was going to be the answer because I went up and visited with Brooks starting the transition and I knew he had something about police officers, that he just wasn’t going to give Clinton additional police officers, his 100,000 cops. So I said to Clinton, Don’t call him, because the only thing you care about in this crime bill is that in 1995, when you’re running for reelection, somebody looks out his window, sees a cop on the street, and says, ‘Boy, I feel safer because there’s a police officer there and my President put him there.’ I don’t remember all the issues that we went through that day, but we went through a lot of the DLC stuff.

Morrisroe

Did you get a sense in going through those that the President was indicating that he wished his staff to be taking action more aggressively on these?

From

Absolutely. Again, everything wasn’t perfect, but in that first year, in the end, we got a good budget deal that helped put the fiscal house in order and laid the predicate for the successful economy. We did national service, which became AmeriCorps and was our number-one cornerstone idea. In fact, we had the first DLC event of his Presidency, which was a retreat that we held in New Orleans in March or April. We had always had this big annual conference at that point of the year to get money in. But in 1992 we did this big event in December, right after the election, at Union Station, which to that point was the biggest Democratic fundraiser ever. I’m sure it has been surpassed many times since then. 

Our staff was too tired to do a big event again in the spring. We had so much money out that we figured out a way to do this small retreat. I didn’t even write Clinton because I figured it wasn’t a big event so he didn’t have to come. He called me and said, I haven’t missed a DLC event in so many years and I’m not going to miss this one. We actually arranged, because our venue was so small that it wasn’t big enough to do this, to go to the University of New Orleans, where we announced the National Service Plan during that conference. 

Anyway, we passed that. The earned income tax credit was part of the budget plan, which was a big DLC initiative, the biggest antipoverty program ever. The next year they passed the crime bill. They actually passed most of the crime bill in both houses the first year. By most standards, it was not a bad first year. I can’t remember whether we did charter schools, probably did, during that same period. The one thing we didn’t do was welfare, which we did in ’95–’96.

Morrisroe

Going back to the national service before we leave that, what role did you and the DLC play in the development of that? Were you involved in policy discussions at the White House or is it—for future researchers trying to appreciate what your role was in the administration. This is obviously one that is a flagship program from the DLC perspective. How did you become involved?

From

We became involved in national service in 1986. We did a report on security that was actually offered by Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, and Al Gore. Part of that was a reference to a national service idea that Charlie Moskos had talked about at Northwestern, which was the germination of what became national service. 

Then in 1988, Will Marshall wrote a book called Citizenship and National Service, which outlined the basic plan, which was a stipend, an education benefit for years of service. That bill became one of the Democratic leadership bills in 1989, it’s either S. 2 or S. 3, the other one being the war powers repeal. I can’t remember which was first. I think it was S. 2, maybe it was S. 3 though. We couldn’t pass it, but with Sam Nunn and Barbara Mikulski and Ted Kennedy, there was a lot of room in between and we did get a pilot project passed.

In ’88–’89, actually a little before that, Clinton was down at a DLC conference in Williamsburg and heard a discussion of national service. He came up that night and said, Jeez, what a good idea. I can just see kids taking a year off to work with people in the Mississippi delta, and earn a year of college scholarship. So that became a staple of the campaign. 

In the transition, when he asked me to be the domestic policy advisor, the thing he said he really wanted me to do is begin the efforts to do national service, prepare it. So I had Bill Galston come in and do the memos that led to the drafting of the bill. Among other things, in December of 1992, long before Clinton was elected, Graham Allison, who was then head of the Kennedy School, had invited Sam Nunn, me, and Mikulski, and I think Senator Harris Wofford, and a few other people, to come up and discuss national service in early December.

So Clinton gets elected and makes me responsible for getting the bill ready. I was going up to Boston and I decided I couldn’t go up there on a national service trip without going to see City Year, so I arranged to visit City Year. The mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, who desperately wanted a job in the Clinton administration, greets me at City Year—I don’t know how he found out I was coming—with a battery of the national press corps. [laughter]

Riley

Self-announcement, right?

From

I said to USA Today and others that the City Year was going to be the prototype for the Clinton national service plan. The jacket I wore today is my City Year jacket that they gave me because I raised them so much money, just with that one statement. In any event, we did follow that model. Of course, they had followed the model in our book. I can’t remember; I was in a lot of meetings. Eli [Segal] then took it over at one point. Eli Segal was one of the great men of all time, my dear friend. What a tragedy. I hope you guys got a chance to talk to him before he died. 

Eli, Sandy Berger, and I were the middle-aged Jewish caucus of the Clinton campaign. [laughter] But, in any event, Eli then took it over and really guided it, and he deserves all the credit for that. They came up with the AmeriCorps name. We had a big hand in shaping it and doing all the preliminary work that led—I’m sure the thing was drafted and redrafted a thousand times after our hand was on it. But the basic premise always stayed the same.

Riley

But you didn’t have a role in selling it on the Hill?

From

I’m sure that we did a lot of selling it on the Hill. I mean, he announces it at a DLC event because it was our cornerstone deal. Nunn, who was a DLC—he wasn’t chairman then but he was a major player in the DLC, obviously. Chuck Robb was in the Senate then. All the people who worked with us in promoting the concept were then the key legislators in driving it. It might have been the [David] McCurdy bill in the House.

Morrisroe

While we’re still in 1993, did you have a role at all in any of the health care discussions the administration was having?

Riley

If I can step in and rephrase—were you surprised at the priority given health care and the President’s decision to put Mrs. Clinton in charge of it?

From

I guess I wasn’t completely surprised with the decision to make health care that high a priority because I knew, from some of the discussions we had had with him in the transition, that he had come to the conclusion that health care was really a critical priority. I think from day one he underestimated how difficult it would be to pass health care. As far as putting Hillary in charge, I can’t say I knew he was going to do that, because I didn’t, at least I don’t think I did. But was I surprised? No, because in Arkansas she was in charge of his biggest initiative, which was education reform, and did a very good job of it. 

I went down and talked to Hillary about health care. In fact, in my office I have this great picture of me and Hillary taken at our December 1992 fundraiser. She signed it and had it framed and gave it to me. I think you’ll see the date on it was June 23rd, which was when I talked to her about the politics of health care. So I was not surprised. I wasn’t deeply involved in the discussions of what to do, at least not at the beginning. 

After it was clear that they were going to have trouble, McLarty asked me to come in and help a little bit on a couple of things. I’ll be happy to talk about that too. Health care was a strange thing for us—not a strange thing. But it was the one item in all the Clinton agenda that we never really worked on here at the DLC with him. Not because we didn’t want to, but we just ran out of time. All the other stuff in the domestic agenda besides health care was done here, or almost all of it, but we didn’t do health care.

He had a separate person in the transition to work with the health care plan. My first connection on health care came in late August of 1993. David Gergen had come in to sort of reroute the administration, put it more on a new Democrat course, in June. That’s a whole other deal. He was on vacation and he called me from vacation and said, I’m coming back on Saturday morning and I want to have lunch with you on Saturday at the Occidental. So I went down there. He said to me, If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose NAFTA. The preliminary discussions in the White House were that they were going to spend 15 weeks on health care and one week on NAFTA at the end, and if we do that we’ll lose it. We want you to go to the President and make the case that he ought to do it differently, if you’re comfortable doing it.  

I said, Yes, I’m happy to do that but I want to do it in a memo. I wrote him a blistering memo. I must say, I could not find this one last night.

Riley

That’s too bad.

From

I’m sure it’s around somewhere. For whatever reason I could not find it, but last night I had only one disk of my memos to the President. I didn’t go through everything on the disk, so it may be there, just misdated or something. Anyway, basically saying that I was really worried the Presidency was going to go awry because in the polling the one characteristic for Clinton that was really going down was strength. And that I thought strength was the key element in a Presidency. 

So I sent that down. The idea was to get him, in the end, to give more time to NAFTA and less time to health care. I knew it was important because Monday morning, first thing, McLarty called me and asked me if the memo had gone in to the President yet. That afternoon he called me. I think I timed 36 straight minutes of [him] yelling at me. [laughter]

Riley

Is that a record for you?

From

It’s close. Finally, he gets done with all that and, as always with Clinton—I mean, I love the guy, you just have to understand him. At the end of it he said, Okay, what do we need to do? I went down and met with Rubin that afternoon. Then I think Rahm [Emanuel] got the responsibility of driving NAFTA through, as he later did with welfare reform. We had a little group that included [William] Daley. I guess they brought in Daley for NAFTA. We got that damn thing done. I did play a role. It is conceivable, I think, that we actually registered here as lobbyists so we could work on NAFTA, which is a rare thing because the DLC never—that’s the only time we had ever done anything like that.

Riley

This is why I pose the question to you about national service and the selling of it on the Hill because I know that you don’t typically engage in lobbying. But you’re making a distinction between having your presence felt through legislation and actually going up and doing something.

From

Well, there’s a bunch of differences. I just don’t remember, but I’m sure that we did whatever was necessary to do on national service too in terms of—I’m sure I made calls. But with national service, as hard as it was to get through, most of the issues wound up being substantive compromises rather than the need to use political muscle. Again, I can’t remember everything we did for national service. The nature of the legislative fight—there might have been a handful of people who we had to work on it and all that, but it wasn’t the same kind of deal, where NAFTA was going to go down.

Riley

Exactly.

From

The thing I remember about NAFTA is that we needed to pass NAFTA with Republican votes. I didn’t think we were doing a very good job of reaching out to those Republican votes. That’s unfair. I didn’t think we were doing a very good job of collecting Republican votes. And you never know when you’re dealing with the other side whether they’re going to decide at the last minute that they don’t want to give you the votes or not. 

I can’t remember if this was official or unofficial or how we did it, to be honest with you, but I did it. I spent several meetings with a guy named Billy Pitts, who, when I was the head of the House Democratic caucus, was Bob Michel’s chief Republican staffer. I don’t even remember whether Billy was still in the House, he may have been. But at least that way we got honest counts on the Republicans and were able to figure out exactly what we had to do. We worked very hard on NAFTA. I think it was pretty important. 

Trade is such a hard sell, particularly among Democratic constituencies. The benefits are disparate enough, the liabilities are concentrated. So it was a very hard deal. I’ve never really gotten a good analogy for trade. The best one I could come up with is that trade agreements are like a spice in a savory stew. If you taste the spice by itself, it’s probably not going to be very tasty, but you take that out of the stew, which is the economy, and the stew isn’t very good. 

For all those people who talked about how terrible NAFTA was, we created what, 22 million jobs in the eight years after NAFTA? Did a hell of a good thing for the economy—I mean it was probably one of the best things we ever did. It’s not because of the provisions of the trade agreement, but what happens because of open trading is that the private economy grows more, and more people benefit.

Riley

You’d mentioned earlier that you thought the sequencing might have been improved if welfare reform had been put earlier. There seems to be, from the outside, a certain logic to that because welfare reform was close to being ready to go and health care was not.

From

As I said, there was a national consensus. Ninety percent of the people wanted welfare reform. The only people who didn’t were the noisemakers in the Democratic Party. There was no consensus in the end on what to do on health care. Health reform, whether in reality or just in imagination, tends to affect a lot more people. There are lot more people who can object. The reason, incidentally, that health care went before welfare wasn’t just because of Clinton, but I think the leadership of the Congress made it pretty clear they wanted that. 

Morrisroe

In 1994, did you expect them to move on welfare before the election? Did that ever come up in your discussions with them?

From

In 1994?

Morrisroe

Yes, correct.

From

Not really. I don’t think the Democratic leadership wanted that to happen.

Riley

One of the things that you focus on in some of your writings is the difficulty—

From

I hate when people read that— [laughter]

Riley

Forgive me, but I’m paid to do that. The difficult governing situation that Clinton found himself in when he came into office. This is a man who is elected with 43% of the vote. How do you govern in an environment when you come in with 43% of the vote and do it successfully?

From

With difficulty. It is difficult. George Bush came in with less than a majority, just assumed he had a majority, and intimidated everybody. But Clinton was too far from a majority to do that. You’ve got to govern with persuasion. Clinton is a pretty good persuader. As I said, I thought, the situation was no better two years later, after ’94. In some degree, it was worse. He was able to skillfully maneuver and get welfare reform and Kennedy-[Nancy] Kassebaum and a whole bunch of other stuff. It was pretty good stuff and led into the ’96 election. 

 Steven Skowronek does this a lot better than I do. I think Clinton also faced this great challenge of being a Third Way President. If you read Skowronek on this, it’s good stuff. He talks about how Third Way Presidents never have that hard-core support in their own party because they challenge too many of the orthodoxies of the party. So they don’t have the kind of cadre of people that would fall on their sword for them, which was a problem we had still. But the opposition probably goes after them with more vehemence than they would a more partisan President because a Third Way President usurps some of the opposition’s turf. They realize that he is a real threat to them, so it’s a very difficult matter of maneuvering and governing. 

I think it is a credit to Clinton and the quality of his ideas that we were able to do as well as we did. It was inevitable that there would be at least one hang up, and there were several. Health care was the most obvious. But we ran into trouble on the crime bill. I think the gun control stuff, midnight basketball, and all that stuff let the Republicans go crazy. We also had the gun provisions, which were particularly hard on southerners.

So the answer is, it was a very difficult balance. Generally, he was able to figure out how to maneuver it. A key to doing it—and this is why welfare reform was such a key element. The key to being successful is to have ideas. Even if you personally don’t generate a majority of support, you have ideas that do. Welfare reform was a very popular idea. Once he got past the roadblock of the Democratic leadership that didn’t want it to go—even though they would have had a better welfare bill if they had done it on their turf, during their term—he was able to maneuver that fairly effectively. Anyway, I just think you need a lot of skill to do it. 

Riley

Was there anything in the foreign policy agenda the first couple of years that was particularly—I had read something in here, I don’t think it was a comment from you—Will Marshall had been critical, in mid ’94, of the direction of the administration’s foreign policy.

From

I don’t know what he was so upset about. Haiti was in that period, right? I can’t remember much else.

Riley

Somalia.

From

Oh yes, Somalia. 

Riley

There were interventions but they didn’t—

From

We also had the Middle East, the Jordan agreement, right? The Israel-Jordan peace and the agreement, the Oslo Accords. I don’t know. I’m not a connoisseur of foreign policy. I never quite understood all the diplomatic niceties. 

Riley

There is one other piece that we skipped, and that’s the Lani Guinier thing, the diversity stuff that you sort of counted as the last straw in the early phase.

From

I can’t remember exactly when he pulled that. I guess it may have been after that memo. But we were not happy with Lani Guinier and Sheldon Hackney and I can’t remember which others. I think when Clinton really realized that it was more than this person whom he liked because she was at his wedding, and that she’d written some stuff that was going to be pretty hard to sell, that he decided to pull her.

I had this really interesting experience. He calls and asks me to do an op-ed in the New York Times defending him on Lani Guinier, pulling Lani Guinier, so I did. I don’t remember any of the arguments, all I know is I did this. So I get asked to be on Crossfire. This is the first and last time that I will ever be on Crossfire. Because, what they did was they had Craig Washington, who was a Congressman from Houston, a friend of mine, and he was on the left and I was on the right teamed with [Patrick] Buchanan. I said, never again. [laughter] There’s no place for a Third Way.  

It seemed to me that one of the political challenges of Clinton was to balance the drive for diversity and the real core Democratic value of inclusion with trying to make sure that we had a broad enough coalition, including white voters. I thought that on issues like affirmative action and others, we were careful on how we handled it. And that was critical. The difference between European social democracy and American liberalism, I guess, is that their value is equality and ours is equal opportunity. I thought that differentiation was very important. Whenever I thought we crossed the line on that I always tried to make a fight. 

Interestingly enough, when I started out today by saying I thought he was a model for modernization of progressive politics, that is a distinction on equality and equal opportunity that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the Brits made as well. They moved from more of the European model to more of the American model. It just goes with our ethic that the point about affirmative action, from my perspective, is that affirmative action ought to be actions that assure that everybody has an equal opportunity, as opposed to quota-like things that said here are the outcomes. It’s why I was against whatever that proposition was in California—

Morrisroe

Proposition 113?

From

Yes, 113; that makes sense. I thought that kids coming out of minority high schools in California didn’t have a real equal opportunity and we needed some extra efforts to make sure that they got to the starting line evenly. That may seem like a rather intellectual, erudite differentiation, but I think it has a lot of ramifications as you play out. In his book, America in Search of Itself, in 1980, Teddy [Theodore H.] White said he thought the central issue of the 1980 Reagan-Carter campaign was whether or not the push for equality had come to quash the desires for equal opportunity on the part of too many Americans. I always took that to heart. 

Riley

You had mentioned a few minutes ago that Clinton called you and asked you to write an op-ed for the New York Times. Was that a commonplace occurrence? Did he often call you during his time as President? I know we’ve been dealing with a period here when you were having more problems with the administration than I perceive that you had later on, but—

From

Not necessarily things like that, but he called a lot. I had a pipeline to him through Nancy Hernreich.

Riley

In what sense? You mean Nancy would put your calls through?

From

Put my calls through, anything I sent over there always went directly to him. That was one of the values of going back to the Arkansas days. A lot of the people who came into the administration didn’t have much to do with the Arkansas people and were not hesitant to show their disdain. I always thought the Arkansas people were pretty important people, core people. 

Morrisroe

Did you ever get any resistance from the Chiefs of Staff wanting you to go through them in the memos you sent to the President?

From

No, not really, not that I can remember. It’s pretty unique. As I’ve told you before, I’m not a personal, carousing buddy with Bill Clinton but we are long-time political allies. When we started there were five of us in the traveling party. I did not have trouble getting through to Clinton when I wanted to.

Riley

Did he have trouble getting through to you? Did you take the 2 o’clock-in-the-morning phone calls?

From

Occasionally. Not as much, but occasionally. It’s the weird deal. 

Riley

Were you surprised when the Congress went Republican in ’94?

From

Yes and no. I was surprised that it did go Republican. I wasn’t surprised that we had a bad year. 

Certainly on that former subject, Bruce Babbitt always used to say I was the only person who could get away with criticizing Clinton and have him still come back to me and take my calls and talk to me on all that kind of stuff. 

The thing I had with Clinton was a bond and a belief in a way of politics. I think he knew that while we might not have always agreed on everything—and we agreed on most things, I must say—I was always out to try to do things that were in his best interest. One of the things you learn in a White House very quickly is there are an awful lot of people who come in and use you and are just eager to write their kiss-and-tell books and go out. I think he appreciated the fact that we could have arguments and disagreements and we always were working for the same deal. 

You mentioned at one point about the health care thing. We were doing our first DLC big conference and Clinton was speaking, in early December of 1993. By that time it was pretty clear that John Breaux, who I think was still chairman of the DLC, co-sponsored his own bill and he was opposed to Clinton. We weren’t all enamored with his bill. He never really made a major effort to persuade us, to persuade me. The one time I was in there for a NAFTA meeting, Nancy came down and said he wanted to see me so I went up there. 

He starts giving me all this stuff about how we ought to do this and that on health care. You could tell his heart wasn’t in it. I wound up getting him to call somebody in the Cabinet to do some event I wanted him to do somewhere out in the country. But right before Thanksgiving, in 1993, McLarty asked me to come in and talk about health care and to go talk to Ira [Magaziner] and see whether I thought there was any possibility of getting on with that bill.

Riley

Who was that? McLarty asked you to do this?

From

Yes. It became clear to me that Ira, who was actually a quite smart guy, I thought, at least from our perspective, was just misreading his politics. He was convinced that after a while [John] Chafee would get a lot of Republicans to go along with the Clinton approach and that [Robert] Dole would go along. I was convinced that, with every passing day, because Dole was going to run in ’96, he was going to be farther and farther away from the President. There wasn’t going to be any Republican movement. 

So I went and told McLarty that, and he asked me if I would get together some meetings with Jim Cooper and Breaux and Roger Altman, who was then the Deputy Treasury Secretary, who would negotiate on the part of the President. We had some meetings at the DLC office. Out of that we had some agreements about how we were going to play the health care bill at the DLC conference. If you go through and look at that first day of the conference, Clinton did exactly what he was supposed to do and Breaux did exactly what he was supposed to do. I was hopeful that that might be the beginning of a possible compromise because we had agreed on a bunch of principles. But the next day there was a story in the paper about—I can’t remember, something happened with Senator [Jay] Rockefeller who was on the other side. Then Dave McCurdy went off the reservation and it got all blown off, and we had some more meetings but we could never quite get there.

Was I surprised at the 1994 election? Yes, I was very surprised the Republicans actually won. I was not so surprised that we took a shellacking. I remember going in for a meeting. Leon Panetta had just become Chief of Staff. Clinton asked me to spend time with him. Leon kept adjusting the time, I couldn’t figure out what it was about. What it was about was he wanted me to be there for a meeting that he was holding on the election. This was the end of September. The President wanted to get on the campaign trail and they’re talking about sending him to safe districts, a lot of minority districts, other places, but basically safe districts.

I told them that I thought if we had to worry about turnout in black areas at the end of September, this election was gone. Where Clinton ought to be—the people we ought to be trying to save are people like [George] Buddy Darden in Georgia. My own view was that the most important thing in an off-year election for members of the House, the most important indicator, if your party is in Presidential power, is the President’s approval rating. So I thought, even if it meant running against the Democrats in the House in October, if he could lift his own approval rating, he probably would have done more to help them than campaigning for them. 

There’s a young Democrat who was viewed as the outstanding member of the 1992 class. He’s a freshman now, named Eric Fingerhut, of Ohio. He’s a really smart guy, he’s back in the state Senate in Ohio. He’s tried to run statewide and can’t get anywhere. Picked the wrong year, should have run this year. Anyway, Fingerhut called me eight days out from the election and said, Bill Clinton is killing me. He represented a suburban Cleveland district. He said, Clinton is killing me. I said, What’s he doing? He said, He’s going to make his third trip to Cleveland, to Lou Stokes’ district. I’ll go be with the President and he’ll say all the right things about me, as he always does, but just being in there in Lou Stokes’ district, time after time after time, kills me out here in the suburbs. 

So I called Panetta and I said, Leon, you know what you guys are doing? He said, We’ll raise some more money for Fingerhut. I don’t think they ever understood that in the end, because the President wanted to be on the campaign trail so much, and nobody likes to have turmoil, that they wound up sending him to all these districts that sort of reinforced the reason that people wanted a change.

Riley

I want to come back and pose a quick question here, and then we’ll take a break. This is a follow-up to what Darby had asked earlier about the Chiefs of Staff. You had had a long relationship with Mack McLarty. Was your relationship good with Leon?

From

In fact, I’d known Leon forever. When I was head of the House Democratic caucus, there was this group of [Richard] Gephardt, [Tim] Wirth, [Norman] Mineta, and Panetta that used to meet up in my caucus room to talk about the budget. Worked two nights a week, so I used to spend a lot of time with him. I’ve known him forever. 

The first day I was in the transition, Leon called me and asked me if I’d make sure his name was considered for Budget Director. The relationship with McLarty, which is still a good one to this day—he just gave me a big check recently, which I like— [laughter]

Riley

People don’t give me big checks. I think I would like it.

From

McLarty gave the DLC a big check. I knew McLarty from the mid ’80s because after we started the DLC, through a mutual friend of ours in New York, he got McLarty interested in the DLC and then obviously Clinton became chairman. He was engaged. So I knew Mack pretty well. But Mack is less of a politico and more reserved. The word I associate with Mack McLarty, the two words, are decency and dignity. So it was always a good relationship. It’s not a relationship like you have with pols. That isn’t Mack. Mack is much more businesslike. 

Riley

Was it your sense that the conventional wisdom is true, that the transition did help the White House run better when Panetta came on board?

From

Well, I guess. Mack probably is too nice a guy. Somebody would do something that crosses the President, Mack would come in and visit with him, probably told him in a very nice way that he shouldn’t do it, and they went out and did it again. Sometimes you need to use that paring knife a little bit. 

Riley

Right, what was it [H.R.] Haldeman said, Everybody’s got to have a son-of-a-bitch and I’m [Richard] Nixon’s.

From

That’s very important. My old mentor Gillis Long always told me, My job is to say yes, yours is to say no. You need somebody who’s going to say no. The other thing is, Mack was very close to the President, very good friends, still are to this day. It’s a lot harder when you’re the childhood friend of the President. It’s a lot harder to say, Mr. President, you’ve got to stop doing this shit. I’ll try to clean up— [laughter]

Riley

I hope you will. I was the one who introduced the earthy language. Why don’t we take a break?

[BREAK]
Riley

So the election happens in ’94, what happens after the election?

From

Clinton is not a very happy camper. 

Riley

Okay, how do you know this?

From

I know it from a number of reasons. For one, we had a DLC conference in December and we had a meeting with him with six or seven Senators and me. McCurdy was chair and McCurdy was not a happy camper either because he had just lost his Senate bid and he blamed Clinton. Let me say, it was a rather rough meeting. Clinton was pissed. McCurdy had probably said some things earlier that he shouldn’t have said. Anyway, what also happened is that we started figuring out—there’s a whole side of this that we’re not getting into, which is Dick Morris coming back and the resurrection of the Presidency. But we started talking about different kinds of ideas and different ways to come back and different things that we ought to do.

We did a post-election poll that Stan Greenberg did for us and, to be honest with you, I don’t even remember what it showed, but it wasn’t very good. Clinton was not very happy with that; he fired Greenberg, probably not because of our poll, and brought in Mark Penn. It was part of a switch to the Morris team. He brought in Penn, Schoen & Berland. Doug Schoen was the original guy that they brought in but Mark quickly took over the Clinton account. 

The first weekend of January, David Osborne did a piece in the Washington Post Magazine about how Clinton could come back. That was on Sunday; on Monday I got a call, and I can’t remember if it was Leon or whoever, but I went in and spent three hours with Clinton and I think with Leon. McLarty may have been there too for some reason.

Riley

In the Oval Office or the residence?

From

In the Oval Office. We talked about what had to happen to come back. We planned a lot of things. We had a session that we did coming out of that meeting up at Camp David to think about themes for the State of the Union.

Riley

Who else was at Camp David, do you remember?

From

He had a bunch of thinkers up there, including—I’m going to really get in trouble on this, Ben Barber, who, when I read his book, I thought that meeting was organized around him. [laughter]

Riley

I read the book and I thought the same thing. 

From

It’s one of the great things about making casual relationships into real big deals, right? Anyway, Osborne was up there, the guy who wrote Bowling Alone.

Riley

Putnam.

From

Robert Putnam. A whole bunch of people like that. I think Galston organized the meeting. Then we did the State of the Union. I remember the ’95 State of the Union very well because I have a thing in my office with a note from Clinton about the ’95 State of the Union. He sent it to me either the night before or the morning of the State of the Union. I called him and I said, This is a great speech. The problem is, it’s three speeches and there are three separate sets of themes and we need to go back to new covenant and we need to pull it all together. He said to me, Rewrite it. [laughter]

Morrisroe

No pressure.  

From

So I called Bruce. Bruce took one chunk and I took another and we rewrote at least a big part of it. Because it was the way things were with Clinton, the part we rewrote was sort of a philosophical overview that pulled everything together, but Clinton just put it on top of the rest of the speech. So that was the hour-and-fifteen-minute or something State of the Union, just outrageous. But it got rave reviews. Years later I bought a CD [compact disc] of great Presidential speeches, which had a lot of speeches starting with Teddy [Theodore] Roosevelt. One of them was the ’95 State of the Union, but they only had excerpts of the part that Bruce and I rewrote, which I thought was good. 

In any event, Clinton wrote me this note, which is on my wall in the office—it says something like, now that we’ve got the theme back, let’s try to figure out the five-minute version. I don’t remember all the details of what went on in that period but there were a lot of things that we tried to do after that election before the State of the Union to regenerate interest. Then Morris came in—he was probably already there, but I met him early in ’95.

Riley

Was that the first time you’d met Morris?

From

Yes, I didn’t know Morris at all.

Morrisroe

What were your initial impressions of him?

From

I thought he was pretty good, but he had shown—Bill Curry came up to see me, and I thought a lot of what they were talking about was reinventing the wheel because it was really going back to the ’92 themes. But we got along pretty well with Morris, I did, until that fateful day.

Riley

You had mentioned McCurdy being a problem at a meeting. He also gave a speech, right, at the DLC meeting?

From

Yes, I can’t remember—that was the genesis of the problem at the meeting.

Riley

Okay. So the meeting occurred after that.

From

The meeting at the White House was during the DLC meeting, but after McCurdy’s speech.

Riley

So there was a lot of unhappiness.

From

  There was not much happiness that day. 

Riley

Your sense then was that you were in a strengthened position to do what you wanted to do with this Presidency, given what had happened? Or is that overstating the case?

From

It’s probably overstating the case. It’s sort of like people ask me if, this fall, whether we’re better off winning or losing the House. I’d say I’d always rather win than lose. Once hit on the side of the head with a two-by-four, Clinton’s instincts, as I think they always are when he gets into any kind of difficulty, are to go back to his core belief in his own instincts, so I think he did that after the ’94 election.

Since this is an important historical vehicle, I’d like to talk a little bit about the ’94 election because I think it’s really important to understand.

Riley

Please.

From

I think Clinton gets a bum rap in this sense. One of the things that people say about Clinton is he is selfish, took care of his own politics but he lost the Congress. I think that is an unfair rap. The reason I do is I think the ’92 and the ’94 elections to the Congress were what I call truth-in-packaging elections. In other words, what happened was that for 30 or 40 years, 30 years anyway, there were a lot of districts in the South that were running pretty consistently Republican for President and voting Democratic for Congress. I went through Congress by Congress, from 1952 on, from the time there were 105 members in the South and 103 of them were Democrats. And all 22 Senators from the old 11 states of the confederacy were Democrats. 

It changed a little bit, but basically Democrats maintained, through 1990, a two-to-one margin in the House. After a brief period when the Republicans did well in the 1980 election in the Senate, we came back in. By ’86, ’88, we had an almost two-to-one majority in the Senate, too, from the seats in the old South, the old Confederacy. There’s a guy named David Bositis at the Joint Center [for Political and Economic Studies], which was the African American think tank, who looked at the vote in the South in the ’80s. He said that in the non-voting rights districts of the South, in other words in the white districts, the Democrats won 60% of the vote in the cumulative vote for Congress in 1980 and won 55% in 1988, or 1990 maybe, I can’t remember. I think it was in 1990.

During the Reagan years, we held our own in the white South pretty much. Then after the ’91 redistricting, when you had almost an agreement—you probably did have an agreement between the civil rights groups and the Republicans, certainly an alliance, to create as many all-black districts as we could, we created another 10 or 12 voting rights districts. But it took the black voters out of marginal districts. You basically wound up with districts that were all black or all white. 

One of the ways that Democrats like John Breaux and Gillis Long, my mentor, had learned to deal with political realities in the South after the Voting Rights Act was to win in—I think it was Merle and Earl Black’s formula—90% of the black vote, 40% of the white vote. You could do that if you had 15% to 20% blacks in your district, then whatever it was, the mathematics worked. But after 1991 it was impossible to do that. 

What you really had is those districts that had been going Republican pretty consistently, some of them since [Dwight] Eisenhower, and certainly since Nixon, and really since [Lyndon] Johnson, because remember Johnson lost—the states he lost were all in the South, even in a landslide. All those districts finally voted Republican for Congress. Whereas before 1994, you had a deal where there was always a ten-point gap between the Democratic vote for Congress, cumulative, and the Democratic vote for President. After ’94, from ’96 on, you had an even vote, same vote, nationally and by region. 

In other words, what I think the New Democrats did is they moved us from a 43% Presidential party to a 48%, 49% Presidential party, but at the same time from a 53% Congressional party to a 48% one. Essentially what you have are more ideological parties, not necessarily good for Democrats, I might say. That’s why you need more Clinton Third Way people because they’re slightly more conservatives than liberals in the country. You now have a liberal party and a conservative party. What it meant was the Democratic advantage of incumbency and history in the South was gone. But that wasn’t Clinton; that was going to happen. In fact, in this paper that we did in 1989, The Politics of Evasion, we had three myths and one of them was the myth of the Congressional bastion. We predicted that would happen, we just didn’t know when. 

If Clinton had a better first two years maybe it would not have happened to quite the degree. Had it not been for those, the sort of working out of the old arrangements and going to the new way of voting in the South, and of white southerners finally saying we’re not going to vote Democratic any more for Congress as we haven’t for President and increasingly as we haven’t for local office. Because of that, Clinton had an election that probably would have been more like Reagan’s in his first midterm. But when you add those extra seats to it, it became, as they call it, a tsunami.

Riley

Some contributing evidence for that, I guess too, is that the scandal issues were playing out in ’94 also, in the Congressional races, right, which you can attribute to Clinton? 

From

There was the bank scandal, right?

Riley

Right.

From

It really started in ’92. You can start to see the movement in those districts. Here’s my theory. I said we went from 60 to 55. We went to 43 in ’92 and to 37 among white voters in ’94. What I really think happened, among other things, is there were a lot of districts, Jack Brooks’ being one of them; he got beaten in ’94. There were a lot of districts that Republicans didn’t even bother to contest, but in ’92 they found they had some traction in those districts after the voting rights thing. So they probably put up more candidates. Not necessarily better ones, but sometimes if you have any candidate—there are a lot of people who got elected this time, for example, in 2006, who, if we thought we were going to win the House we probably would have put up better candidates. And it probably affected a lot of seats all over the country. 

Once that tsunami starts, the bottom falls out, you wind up on election day losing people who up to two or three days before the election were still ahead in the polls. It just sort of drops. 

Riley

But there were contributing factors for Clinton.

From

Oh, yes. Clinton would have had a bad election. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have. But if you had 25 more, 20 more southern White Democrats still in the House, who lost, after that redistricting, over those two elections, you still would have had a small, but real, Democratic majority. 

Let me just tell you one other thing and then I’ll shut up about this. I was head of the House Democratic caucus in 1981 to ’85. We had this incredible budget fight with Reagan in 1981. We had a margin, a majority of 242 to 193. What is that, 49 seats? In 2006, this year, 2005 or 2006, I can’t remember which, they had a majority of 232 to 203. So what you’re talking about is a 78-vote swing. The vote on the budget was exactly the same, 214 to 211. The difference is that there were a lot of boll weevil Democrats, conservative Democrats, who were part of Reagan’s 214 and there were no Democrats, I think, as part of Bush’s 214. People voted the same way, represented the same district in the same way, different party label. Which is not good for the country incidentally, because guys like Johnny Breaux, who voted against us on that budget, helped us on other things, and they were natural bridges because they were Democrats whose allies and political power came from being part of the Democratic caucus. But the Republicans had to reach over to talk to them. Now, if it’s just polarized voting, you don’t have to talk to anybody on the other side.

Riley

Without getting us too far afield, that’s the natural corollary that comes to mind, the loss of the northeastern Republicans, the normalizing on the other side. 

From

Absolutely. I think that’s a great thing. It might help our majorities over the long term, until the overall political attitude of the country changes, and maybe Bush’s failure will make that happen, even though I suspect in 2008 you will see Republicans running. If a Republican wins the Presidency in 2008, when you do this project, after that President is done, the people like me who were engaged primarily before the Presidency began will all have been pushing that Republican candidate to run away from Bush as hard as they can, as hard as the Democrats will. 

In the long haul, when you have a country that’s 30% conservative, 20% liberal, and 50% moderate, you need a broader appeal on the liberal side. If you don’t win 60% of the moderates, you don’t break even. That’s mathematics, it is not ideology. [laughter]

Riley

Okay. So you and Dick Morris got along okay? 

From

We got along okay. 

Riley

The big development in ’95 was the budget battles. Were you brought in and consulted on that or used in any way as a bridge with the people leading up to the government shutdowns?

From

The answer is yes. I can remember going in there a couple of times, but I don’t remember how much. Clinton pushed for the balanced budget and ran into a bunch of problems in his own party, so I’m sure we were engaged and tried to do something about that. The shutdowns were at the end of ’95. It was during the DLC conference in December of ’95 that Clinton gave one of the most important speeches on that.

The other thing that was important in ’95 was Oklahoma City, because every once in a while you need a reminder that maybe the country is going too far one way or the other. I think Oklahoma City was that reminder. That the [Newton] Gingrich, free-wheeling libertarianism— Incidentally, I love Newt Gingrich. I like him very much. I wouldn’t say he’s a friend, but he’s somebody I respect. I think he’s smart. I think he’s wrong a lot. He believes in ideas and I like that very much about him. I don’t say this out of antipathy to Newt Gingrich, but I think he let his ego get away from him. 

But it’s the libertarian nature that you really didn’t need government, that it wasn’t very important. A lot of that anti-government anger dissipated when Oklahoma City happened. 

Riley

That was, I think, the day after somebody, or the President, had proclaimed his relevance to the political system at a press conference. The following day this happened.

From

That was another big part of it. Because every once in a while, as I said, the country just needs a reminder that we need to keep in balance. 

Riley

Ninety-six is a big year. There’s a lot of legislative productivity. I would think that that must have been a period of time that you felt like the President was really very much on his game with respect to your portfolio.

From

The big one was welfare reform. Bruce Reed was in the White House and played a major role in the White House in convincing him to sign the bill. 

Riley

Were you engaged in the effort to swing his mind in the right direction?

From

Oh, yes.

Riley

How so?

From

It was very funny. Either the day of—it must have been the day before, he was going to make his decision on whether to sign the bill. Hernreich called me. I was up in New York. I remember this vividly. Holly Page was with me. Clinton wanted to talk to me before he made his decision. So we were in a cab to LaGuardia with an Asian cab driver who couldn’t speak English. It was one of those times that every time you got on the cell phone, the call was dropped. I don’t know how many times the President would call back. It was just bizarre. And this cab driver couldn’t believe it. He barely spoke English. I made strong arguments to the President that he ought to sign the bill. If he wanted to come back, this is his central promise.

As I probably said last time, I think welfare reform was the most important idea of the ’92 campaign because, to me, the main message of the campaign was, you vote for this guy, you’re voting for somebody who is different from the Democrats you’ve been voting against. If after the third time he had not done that, I think it would have hurt him badly in ’96. It’s also the right thing to do. Ending welfare was one of the great successes of the administration.

Riley

So he accepted your argument?

From

I think he really accepted Bruce Reed’s argument. I gather, inside, at the end, in the Cabinet room, Bruce made the most powerful arguments and actually had him sign that bill.

Morrisroe

Who were making the opposing arguments?

From

I gather Shalala, but I don’t really know. I’m sure a lot of people were making it. Obviously, Peter Edelman was making it because he quit over the deal.

Riley

Right.

From

I don’t remember all the people who were in that part of HHS [Health and Human Services] and in that welfare community, but I’m sure they had a lot of—there weren’t very many people in the black caucus who supported it. Most of the liberal Democrats didn’t support it. There were a lot of people who would make the other arguments. To me, not even on political grounds, but on substantive grounds, I thought that welfare reform was a stunningly important deal. I thought the central element of what a social policy ought to be is to move people back into the social and economic mainstream and not separate them.

In a sense, to me, welfare was sort of like modern-day slavery. We said to these people, you’re not good enough to make it in the real economy so we’ll create this little side show over there, and just keep coming back, we’ll give you a little bit, and don’t cause us any trouble. I thought it was wrong. I thought, both for substantive and political reasons, it was just one of the most critical things he ever did. Moving eight million people from welfare to work is a real achievement. Having poverty rates drop as fast as they did during that period really was an incredible achievement. 

Riley

Was it more successful than you expected it to be?

From

The truth is, you never know exactly what to expect. One of the things we found was—you know Eli went over and did Welfare to Work—that in the business community, people were a lot more receptive to it than we ever thought. 

Riley

That’s interesting, because that’s something that he wanted to talk about. You know we talked with him two weeks before he died. That wasn’t something that we had identified on his agenda, but he and Phyllis [Segal] both said no, this is something he wants to talk about.

From

It’s really important, because the night of the debate in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1996, with Dole, where, incidentally, Clinton’s short two-minute opening statement was opportunity, responsibility, and community. But that night Eli and I, in Stamford I think, hosted a debate-viewing party for business leaders who were gathered to meet with Clinton the next day and endorse Welfare to Work. Then we had this big event. 

The thing that makes it noteworthy, I was with somebody who came down last week for a lunch that [Joseph] Lieberman had for people who stuck with him. I said, Remember that day we had lunch at that Italian restaurant in Stamford? What had happened is, we go through this event, Lieberman and [Christopher] Dodd and I were back there. Clinton said something to us. I’m thinking: I’m getting hungry; we ought to go out to lunch. So I packed up, the motorcade goes to some little Italian restaurant that I don’t think—the Secret Service is panicking, [laughter] they’re trying to do a little advancing. We went in and took over one room. It was quite a scene. But I remember that day very vividly.

Riley

I wanted to ask you a general question. Going into one of the things you touched on earlier that was a key to Clinton’s ongoing success was his ability to fend off opposition, internal party opposition or challenge from his party, in 1995 and 1996 for the Presidency. Was there ever enough discontent with President Clinton in your communities where people were coming to you privately and saying, You think we ought to take this guy on?  

From

The answer is yes. We knew there was discontent on all sides after the 1994 election. In early 1995, Michael Steinhardt—you know who he is? He is the venture capitalist who was the big funder of the PPI [Progressive Policy Institute], our think tank, and of the DLC in those days because they were connected, they were part of the same organization at that period. Barry Diller, who you know, or know of anyway, and a guy named Mitch Hart, who cofounded EDS [Electronic Data Systems] with Ross Perot, wanted to form a third party. 

We had a series of meetings and we wrote something called the New Progressive Declaration, which is around here somewhere, which really was maybe a little farther out, but basically a more pure New Democrat, Third Way message. But in the end—some of them still wanted to do third party, but I thought Clinton was coming back and Steinhardt quit because he got so angry at Clinton. I’m not sure why, it may have been his behavior as much as anything. So there was that period. 

I think once Clinton came back to the fold and that discontent on our side went away, there were—I suppose part of it was that people thought he was going to be pretty ineffective as a President, not understanding that Bill Clinton is like a shmoo: you knock him down, he keeps bouncing up. 

Riley

Was this incipient third-party effort, was it ever viewed as a vehicle for a particular candidate?

From

No, and it wasn’t serious. I remember Steinhardt calling me—I can’t remember what happened—after something happened early in ’96, and he said that if we could have gotten Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp and a bunch of people like that together, we could have swept to victory. I said, I don’t know what you’re smoking, we wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. 

What I really think it was, with at least some of our people, where my head is a lot of times, even though I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life—I guess in that term, in Alabama lingo, I’d be a yellow dog Democrat. I’m just not a super partisan. I don’t think party matters more than anything else. I just think there was a feeling that I have from time to time, that we had to start doing things that were greater than our party. There’s a real desire, at least that I had, to do that. If it means that you do it because you talk to Newt Gingrich, you talk to Newt Gingrich; you weren’t constrained. I think overall, if you read the new [John] Harris-[Mark] Halperin book [The Way to Win: Clinton, Bush, Rove and Taking the White House in 2008], they took that as Clinton’s way of governing. 

I think it’s a problem-solving approach. If there was a feeling that we’re getting away from that, it would be the time that this would bounce up. What I’ve learned is that when somebody looks like they’re weak politically, people like to jump ship. They don’t like weakness.

Riley

There were accounts in ’95 and ’96 that Morris was occasionally being used as a channel to the Republicans to help the White House in their negotiations on a variety of things. The budget is the thing that most comes to mind. Were you ever involved in helping the White House with communications?

From

Certainly not with the Republicans. The only time I ever did anything with the Republicans was what I told you about on NAFTA. Now I’m sure it’s true, on so many of the big Clinton initiatives, we had to get them through with, if not a majority of Republicans, with a large number of Republicans. I’m sure Morris did a lot of reaching out to those guys because he sometimes didn’t know which party he was running a campaign for. 

Riley

Were you involved at all in the ’96 campaign?

From

I can’t remember very much. I think by the time of the ’96 campaign I was pretty much gone. He was way ahead so there wasn’t any feeling of desperation. I’m sure we did a lot of reinforcing, whereas in ’92 I was on the road a lot during the campaign. I don’t really think I was as much in ’96.

Riley

Looking forward to a second term, were you involved at all in helping to craft an agenda that would have been the guiding document, or anything of that nature, for the second term?

From

I’m sure I was. I probably told you, one of the things I used to love was State of the Union time. I always had a major role in the State of the Union. I actually read the draft of the ’96 one in Dick Morris’ famous apartment in the Jefferson Hotel. [laughter]

Riley

Did you keep your shoes on?

From

The year of big government is over.

Riley

You were involved in that?

From

I don’t think I wrote that line, but I was involved in that speech. But I was always involved in the State of the Union. Clinton always invited people to think about what we’re going to do. I always did long memos to him that, as far as I could tell, had some impact but they always were above the din of all the people who were just sending stuff. So, as I said, in ’95 we appeared to be rolling; ’96, I was involved in that. 

Riley

Were you meeting with him on these or would he—would somebody from the White House call you?

From

Occasionally, sometimes I just sent things directly to him. One time I remember was weird in that we had a meeting up in the residence in January of ’98 and I think—I’m trying to remember the purpose of it—we were going to lay out a pretty aggressive agenda, I thought, for the State of the Union in ’98. There was just a small meeting. We talked about some things. I think we did a cover story for, it would still be the New Democrat, on the Clinton legacy and three or four things that were still left to be done. I’m sure we talked about entitlement reform.

But in between that meeting and the State of the Union, we had this little problem called Monica Lewinsky. So that State of the Union wound up being mostly defensive. The other thing that happened in that period—I guess I’m skipping a little bit, but starting at the end of ’97, we started the Third Way discussions.

Riley

We think that’s very important. We’d like to hear about that.

From

It was maybe in May or June of ’97, I remember being at some reception. He came up to me and he said, I’ve been talking to Tony Blair and he wants to do a DLC of England. Then I didn’t hear much from him on any of that. 

Riley

So Blair came to you through Clinton, rather than to Clinton through you.

From

Yes, for the Third Way discussions, yes. Anyway, it must have been the end of September of 1997, Hillary called me at home one night and said, I’m going over to give a speech in Ireland, and Tony Blair would like to have a meeting to talk about New Democrat- New Labor politics and policy, can you come over? So we went over—I think it was the end of October, beginning of November—and we had a day with him at Chequers. 

When I walked in, Blair came up to me and said, You remember the meeting we had in the transition? I first met Blair in the transition; him and Gordon Brown and Jonathan Powell, who was his Chief of Staff, and was in the embassy here. They were new backbenchers in the opposition. They came over. Actually they were new in the Shadow Cabinet. I guess they’d been in the Parliament for a while. We spent three hours talking about the themes of the Clinton campaign. Blair pulled out a piece of paper that had opportunity, responsibility, and community written on it. I still have the notes. So then we did a day at Chequers. In early February of 1998 the Blairs did a state visit. We had a series of meetings here up on the second floor of the White House in the East Wing. I remember we had a state dinner. The thing I really remember about that was this weird deal, that Gore was having a breakfast honoring the Blairs at the State Department. That was maybe the night after the state dinner. 

I told Gore’s people I will have spent two days with Blair, I really don’t have any great desire to get up for a breakfast. They said, No, no, you’ve got to come, you’ve got to come. So Ginger [From] and I wind up going over there and we end up at the head table with the Gores and the Blairs and Gore’s kids. In any event, then we did a deal. We did some things in terms of trying to define progressive politics here that I actually did with Hillary. We sponsored a deal that she hosted the morning in the White House and then we came up to the DLC office in the afternoon with some of the more liberal people in the party and some of our thinkers. I think that was perhaps in the summer of ’98. 

Then we did a Third Way deal at New York University in the fall of ’98. We had had a small, staff-level deal at Airlie House in January or February of ’99 and talked to Blair’s people. They said that they thought he’d be willing to do an event after the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] conference, so we put this thing together. It wound up with Clinton and Blair and (Gerhard) Schroeder and [Willem] Wim Kok and Massimo D’Alema of Italy at the Press Club, which there are pictures of out front, that we did after the NATO conference. 

Then we did a thing in Florence and another one in Berlin, and we have done some others. But the only thing we’ve done since he was in office, we did one in 2002 and he came over and Blair came. But I hope now with Tony actually going out of office that we’ll be able to start these up again. 

Morrisroe

What were your observations of Clinton’s relationship with Blair, and did it change over time?

From

I’m sure that it’s different now than it was, even though it’s still probably pretty close, but they were very close. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are two of the greatest politicians you’ll ever see in your lifetime. They have unbelievable political skill. They both have an interest in ideas, which is really unique among—to have two world leaders like that. You can go back and look at some of the stuff I did in the New Democrat in those days. I did a column after we came back that first time. Their philosophies were exactly the same, to the words. The themes were the same. They were, I thought, very tight. 

I’m not sure what Blair’s support of the war has done to that. I always thought after we left the White House it was a little awkward because Blair, as head of government in Great Britain, had to deal with the head of government in the United States. Clinton wasn’t part of the government any more. So for us, it was more a political event. For them, it was still a matter of the head of state. We had planned a couple more things but we never really did it.

Riley

What were the advantages to having these—were there concrete outcomes from it that you can point to?

From

I think it’s one of the more important things we did. Were there concrete outcomes? Yes. There are ideas that have gone back and forth both ways. At the end of the first meeting we had, Gordon Brown asked me about the earned income tax credit and I sent him all the stuff and they wound up doing the Working Family’s Tax Credit, which was basically the same. I can’t remember exactly, but we picked up some sort of a children’s tax credit that they did. So there were some specific things. Bruce probably can tell you a lot more about that than I can. He was there, he was probably more engaged on that. But I thought it was important for two other reasons. One is the power of these two great world leaders, who were both from center-left parties, or, as Blair said, the center center-left. They were both internationalists as their parties were probably becoming more protectionist—a very important force.

The other thing, I believe, is that it was very good for Clinton to do those things because the fact that Blair, and then other leaders around the world—and at one point, I think at Florence, either Florence or Berlin, maybe Berlin because Blair wasn’t there, he was on paternity leave for baby Leo [Blair]—anyway, we did this set of resolutions, principles of progressive governments, and they basically were opportunity, responsibility, and community. But here’s why I thought it was so important. One of the raps against Clinton was that our politics was just expedient. We were doing this for political reasons, and we didn’t care about anything.

I’ve always believed that the international meetings and the Third Way discussions made the argument that there was more to it than that. There’s a real governing philosophy that guided countries all over the world. So I thought it was really important from that perspective for Clinton. What I started out today saying, and I believe, is that he did a lot of great things as President. There were a lot of remarkable achievements and the numbers are all there to show them. But one of the things that doesn’t get as much attention that was critical, and it was an enormous accomplishment, an historic accomplishment, was the way he helped modernize center-left politics all over the world. 

The Third Way discussions were integral to that. It was really important. When we started, there were very few center-left governments, and I think at one point there were 13 or 15 European countries with center-left governments. 

Riley

You mentioned a couple of places where other people were picking up ideas from the United States. Do you recall any instances where you were picking up ideas from other countries?

From

I thought I said there was some sort of a child’s tax credit that they did. I don’t remember anything specifically, but I’m sure there were.

Riley

Darby, do you have any more questions about this?

Morrisroe

Just one, it’s not directly related to Third Way. Apart from the ideological symmetry between Blair and Clinton, how was their interpersonal relationship? How did they interact with one another?

From

They were pretty friendly, they got along well. Both were the kind of people you like to be with. They both love people. I remember when we were over there in 2002, Clinton was staying at Chequers. They were very much alike. They both had the hotshot barrister wives. They had a terrific interest in what the other was doing. 

What I was going to say, Clinton was staying at Chequers. London is five or six hours ahead of Washington. We had this dinner at this incredible country estate of Sir Evelyn Rothschild. Among other things, they had one room where they had television piped in from the United States. It was the night of the Belmont Stakes in the United States. Clinton came over with the Blairs. I’m sure the Blairs would have liked to have gone home a lot earlier, but Clinton was bound and determined to watch that Belmont Stakes. [laughter] So we were in that little room.

Clinton still would go over to England for party conferences to help out Blair. He did this year.

Riley

You’re kidding?

From

I think so.

Riley

I’ll ask the reverse to the question. What important differences were there between the two of them that you noticed? I’m not talking about political differences, but I’m talking more in terms of characteristics or talents, specific talents. 

From

Again, it’s hard to tell because I don’t really know Tony Blair in the same way. I haven’t seen him—but I suspect he was more disciplined. Clinton is an interesting duck because he doesn’t always show personal discipline, but he does have incredible political discipline when he has to. Blair is not an uptight Brit by any means, but Brits are just a little more reserved than a good old boy from Arkansas. [laughter]

I will tell you, it’s interesting. There’s political difference, obviously, and it goes to what they could do as leaders of their country. At the first meeting, we’re around a table a little bigger than this one, at Chequers. Blair talks about—it’s three or four months after he has been elected. He’s talking about all the things they’re trying to do and opportunity, responsibility, community, all this kind of stuff. He turns to me and said, What’s going on in the United States? 

I said, Well, let me tell you the big difference between your country and ours. You’re just telling me all the things you’re doing and you’re going to get every one of them passed. We don’t have any party discipline. The President’s big initiative at this point is a trade measure called Fast Track, to give him the authority to expedite consideration of trade agreements in the Congress. The leader of the opposition is the leader of the President’s party in the House of Representatives. Under your system, the government would fall. We don’t have any party discipline. 

I sometimes think that if Blair were President of the United States, this country would probably have a different policy but it would also have an entirely different attitude toward the war in Iraq. He can articulate why we’re there in ways President Bush just can’t do. 

One of the things I think that Clinton had to develop as a skill, probably even more than Blair did, was the art of persuasion. In a sense, once Blair captured his party conference, even if people didn’t like to go along, they had to go along. Clinton never had that luxury. So that’s a major point of difference. 

Riley

Okay, we’ve only got about a half an hour left. Let me follow up with one more question. They’re both also very religious, right?

From

As far as I know, probably. I don’t know about Blair.

Riley

I read about it, I didn’t know if you had had any experience—

From

I haven’t, I didn’t go to church. Did you see the movie The Queen? You have to see it. It’s the story of Blair, his relationship with Queen Elizabeth II in the aftermath of [Princess] Diana’s death. That period, the 60-day period that they’re talking about there, was the 60-day period in which our first meeting was at Chequers. I suspect that Blair probably went to church regularly. Clinton—his faith was important to him.

Riley

After the news about Lewinsky broke, how did you react?

From

Well—how did I react? During the Blair state visit we had a series of meetings up in the Blue Room or the Red Room or the Green Room, one of those three up there. One night Tony and his party had gone back to Blair House or wherever they were staying in the embassy, and it was just Clinton and Hillary and Don Baer, whom you have probably talked to, and me and Sid Blumenthal, whom I’m sure you’ve talked to. 

The Clintons and Blumenthal are wild on these conspiracy theories. They were talking about all this stuff and Clinton was in complete denial. At one point I just said to him, I want to make a deal. If you want somebody to defend you as a great President, send him to me. If you want somebody to defend you on all this other stuff, send him to Carville. It’s one of the smartest things I ever did. There was one occasion in the fall where we talked about whether or not we could pull together a censure resolution in the Senate, which we couldn’t. But other than that, I spent a lot of time that year with Hillary, doing various offshoots of the Third Way stuff. How did I react? It was a very difficult year. I tried to stay out of all the Lewinsky stuff because one, I didn’t know anything about it, and secondly, I didn’t want to get involved in all the personal behavior because the thing I cared about was the direction of the administration and the country, and I wanted to make sure that that didn’t collapse.

There’s no doubt the Lewinsky affair and the impeachment hurt the New Democratic movement. It was not good for Clinton. What it meant essentially was it brought an end to the reform aspect of the Clinton administration. The reason was that Clinton needed the support, for his survival, of the very people that you have to push off of to reform the party. So it changed the political alignments a lot within the party. As a result, opportunities that could have really cemented the New Democrat movement as the force that defined the party for a long time just never occurred.  

Riley

You mentioned earlier, entitlement reform being one of the things you felt had fallen—

From

That was one. I’m trying to remember. Andrew Cuomo was one of the handful of people up at that 1998 meeting in the residence. It seems to me that another thing was a real effort to fill in the gaps on poverty. We did do the new markets initiative in ’99, and that was somewhat successful. But the kind of reform fervor was just never there again.

Riley

You just briefly touched on and passed the fact that you had worked on the question of whether censure was possible in the Senate. Can you give us any elaboration about what you were doing and who you talked with and why you reached the conclusion—

From

I talked to Clinton a little bit. I talked to Breaux and Lieberman. I figured if the two of them couldn’t pull something off, nothing would happen. They tried, and there was just not enough support.

Riley

Lloyd Cutler at one point, in something I’ve read, indicated that Cutler was doing some similar work. Were you consulting with Cutler?

From

No, actually it was at the end of the Third Way event at New York University, which was on a brutal day. Hillary had run, with our help and others, the event for the whole day. Then in the last session, Clinton and Blair, and I think Romano Prodi, who then the next week lost his job as Prime Minister of Italy, he’s not got it back, and the Bulgarian President, came. Don’t ask me why he was there. He came—

Riley

Seventh or eighth way.

From

—for the last session. 

In any event, there was a reception after the Clinton panel and at the end of it he pulled me into a back room and started talking to me about it. He called me the next night but we could never get anywhere with it.

Riley

You said that you had done a fair amount of Third Way stuff with Mrs. Clinton during that year. How was she holding up?

From

It was actually a tough year for her, but she’s a strong woman. There’s no question that there was a lot of pain. The public image of her being cold and not being affected by it is just not right. I have tremendous affection for Hillary. I’m sure part of it is having spent a lot of time with her that year.

Riley

We haven’t talked a lot about Al Gore. Talk about consequences of things, I suspect that part of what happened to Gore in 2000 can be attributed to this, and his reaction to it. So let me generally ask you, was Gore an ally during the entire course of the administration or not? 

From

For most of it. Gore is a very complicated person. He has a hard time seeing grays, everything is black or white, which is why he invented the Internet instead of—he did some stuff to help people develop the Internet. It’s why everything that he criticized in the administration, or about the Republicans, was some colossal disaster and never—He always went after everything with a meat ax instead of a scalpel. So it’s very complicated.

I always thought Gore, intellectually, was a New Democrat. He understood what we wanted to do. I thought emotionally he was like his father, which is a southern populist. I thought politically he was basically a creature of Washington and a Washington insider, very attentive to interest-group politics in a way that Clinton wasn’t—in part because Clinton was more driven by ideas, but in part because Clinton was so skilled in dealing with groups that he didn’t have to worry about it nearly as much and he could talk about anything. 

Having said that about Gore, was Gore an ally? I think on a lot of stuff the answer is yes. But I think after the Lewinsky thing, and particularly after impeachment and after Gore declared on the day of impeachment that Clinton was the best President ever, and realized the Republicans had the tape, I think it freaked him out. I just think Gore never could come to grips with how to handle Clinton. Again, this is gratuitous and only my view, but I think that, to be sure, Clinton probably hurt Gore a little bit in the campaign, but I think Gore hurt himself more by running away from the Clinton-Gore record and the Third Way approach. I think that without Clinton, Gore never would have been in any position to run for President in 2000, no matter what.

So on balance, I wouldn’t blame Clinton for his loss, even though, obviously, it probably had some impact. I traveled with Joe Lieberman in that campaign. Clinton wanted to campaign; Gore didn’t want him. The Gore people just didn’t want him. I thought the most striking thing was that Gore, because he has this problem I’d say with nuance, was never able to skillfully push away from Clinton the person and embrace the record, which would have helped him.

Riley

That doesn’t seem to be a terribly difficult thing to do, does it?

From

No, it shouldn't be. But think about it. The day he announced for President he stepped on his own story by having that interview with Diane Sawyer, where he dumped all over Clinton. He didn’t have to do that. I did a lot of speaking in those days with Rich Bond, the former Republican chairman. He’s a great guy and a good friend of mine. Richie always said to me, Gore’s got it ass-backwards. What he ought to do is—he ought to run so tight with the Clinton-Gore record that people would think that everything Clinton did was a Gore achievement. Then at the convention he ought to say what he did, which is, ‘I am my own man’ and nobody was going to confuse Gore’s behavior with Clinton’s. 

Riley

Of course.

From

But he couldn’t do it. So he wound up pushing away everything. I don’t think Gore ever understood—and this is remarkable for somebody who spent eight years watching Clinton—the importance of campaign rhetoric and what you say. Gore at one point said to me after the election, Don’t be too hard on me, because I’ve run a New Democrat campaign. If you look at my Web site, you’ll find almost all my ideas are New Democrat ideas. 

I asked about the themes, the people in power versus the powerful. He said, You really think that matters, rhetoric? I said, I think it’s all that matters because that’s what people hear. Nobody goes to your web site, and everybody knows what you’re saying. I just don’t think Gore—for whatever reason, for a guy who is as experienced as Gore, it just—I’ve known him for a very long time. I like him and I think he’s smart. But you often feel that you need to have an agenda to sit down and talk to him. I think that comes across in a campaign.

Riley

Were there other candidates or potential candidates that you contemplated or that—?

From

In 2000?

Riley

In 2000.

From

No, he was it.

Riley

You said you traveled with Lieberman—

From

I traveled with Lieberman.

Riley

How did Lieberman feel about this?

From

You’d have to ask him. The first thing I did when I got on the plane—first of all, the reason I was on the plane was to be Joe’s friend because Joe and Hadassah [Lieberman] called me about a month into the campaign or so, maybe a little more than that. It was basically all Gore’s staff because the Vice President doesn’t have his own staff. They just wanted to have somebody on the plane Joe could talk to. 

The first night I was on that plane we redid the stump speech, did one that embraced the Clinton record. He was very comfortable with that, but Gore never was. Vice Presidents go to secondary and tertiary markets.

Riley

But I think historically I would be a little bit concerned, given what’s happened more recently with Lieberman, that his standing in that 2000 campaign is going to fade. You’re somebody who is in a position to comment on that and to talk about the importance of his role in that campaign. I think virtually everybody thought that he was an immensely superior campaigner to Gore.

From

I don’t know if he was a better campaigner. Joe isn’t the kind of fiery campaigner that a Clinton can be, for example, but there was an electricity about his campaign, in part because he was the first Jewish-American to run and people were interested. In part, interestingly, one of his great assets that probably people here in Washington, New York, Boston, San Francisco, LA [Los Angeles], don’t appreciate is that a lot of people love Joe Lieberman because of his religion and that he was orthodox. 

We used to go everywhere. People would say, I’m Baptist, but I’m with you. Practically every southern Governor called me at one point after the campaign and said, I wish we could have had Joe down here more. This is a religious country and people responded to Joe being a religious man.  

Riley

Sure. Looking back, are there important things we’ve missed? We’re about out of time.

From

I don’t know. I’m sure we missed some. There are probably a lot of things that have slipped from my memory.

Riley

Is there anything that you look back on as especially missed opportunities with the Clinton Presidency? Were there a few things that you had on your agenda that you thought were nearly in your grasp but managed to—

From

I think that, generally, if you look back to that document and the ten ideas that are at the back of it—

Riley

That’s the New Orleans Declaration.

From

I think you’d find that we did really quite a remarkable job of getting most of the things we worked on into law and that worked out well for the country. I guess I’m sorry Clinton didn’t have—I look at it and say he had three terms, one was the first two years. We got a lot done but we also made a lot of mistakes. It was pretty difficult politically. 

Then we had the period where we really did a lot of great stuff, ’95, ’96, ’97. Then we had the tread water period. Again, we had some important fights, and we did some important things in 2000. We did China, which was important and hard. But I guess what I wish—Clinton was such an extraordinary political leader that if he had taken on something like entitlement reform, I think we could have actually gotten it done. But that opportunity was taken away and that was missed. There are probably other things we could have done in the last couple of years. 

All-in-all, it’s hard to look at a decade where you create 23.5 million new jobs, where poverty goes down at the rate it did, where incomes went up for the first time in a couple of decades. You go through everything. Crime went way down. It’s hard to look at that decade and say, wow, that’s pretty good. We ought to be very proud of the stuff we did, a lot of ideas that had a big impact we developed here in 1989, 1990, 1991, with Clinton. 

So I look back with enormous pride at the Clinton Presidency. I think what we need, frankly, is a new round of Clintonism. I think the principles that guide us are still the right ones. What Clintonism is to me is to take those principles and constantly offer new ways to further them. I think that’s what we need again.

Riley

Think we’re going to get it? We may. There may be a fourth Clinton term.

From

There may be. I don’t know whether we’ll get it or not, to be honest with you. One of the great advantages—you wouldn’t say it then, but in hindsight—is that we lost so badly in the 1980s that the restraints on challenging orthodoxy were a lot less then than they are now. I think the thing that often does-in Democratic Presidential candidates is caution. To win you’ve got to be bigger than your party. You have to surprise people; you have to go against type. 

It’s a lot harder to do that when you’re at 48% or 49% and you think if you just tinker a little bit you’ll get over the top, than it is when you’re at 42% and you figure what the hell, you’re going to lose anyway so you might as well throw a long pass. I don’t know. I hope we will have a new era of reform. I think the country needs it. I think there’s room for a new center in American politics. I think if we do it right, it can be a progressive center. That’s the challenge. 

I hope that one of our candidates can help shape that. We’re going to try to do it here. But there’s nobody like Bill Clinton who has that skill. I hope that Hillary or Tom Vilsack

or Barack Obama, whoever it may be, Joe Biden, whoever is going to run, [William] Richardson, one of those people wind up having the kind of innate skill that he did to build political support around ideas that really challenge orthodoxy and move the country forward.

I’ve seen it twice in my lifetime, once with Reagan, on a lot of things I disagreed with, and once with Clinton, and I’d love to see it a third time.

Riley

You’ve given us a lot to think about. It’s been fun for us but at the same time deeply educational. We always learn a lot, but I think in this case particularly so. Not just because of your reminiscences but your analysis too, which is unique. There are going to be people who I’m confident 30 and 40 years from now will come back to this document and find some useful material.

From

How is this available to the public?

Riley

Let me deal with the time issue first. The release of the cleared material is scheduled for some time in 2009. That’s the cleared stuff. Of course, anybody, including yourself, has the opportunity to say, This piece I want to clear, this piece I want to hold on to for a while. It’s up to you as to how long you want to hold on to it after that.

The cleared materials will probably be available on-line through the Miller Center’s web site, but hard copies will be available at UVa [University of Virginia] and, because we have a partnership arrangement through the Clinton Foundation, through the University of Arkansas because of their work on the pre-Presidential and post-Presidential years, hard copies will be provided at the library in Little Rock.

From

So the thing that we did down there on the pre-Presidential years is part of this thing too?

Riley

Absolutely, and in our case, because your portfolio from, I guess our organizational perspective, fell in with the ’92 campaign, we took the responsibility for conducting this interview. There’s an ongoing project through a similar organization down at the University of Arkansas that is interviewing all the people who knew President Clinton before the ’92 campaign, both in Arkansas, when he went off to get education, and then when he came back. 

In fact, I just got a call yesterday from my colleague down there saying that the Hot Springs and Hope materials have been cleared and they’re going to be released by the library in about two or three weeks. So their first materials will come out then. I don’t think anything else will be coming out before 2009.

From

I went down there, it must have been two or three years ago, not to a public event, some sort of a course. 

Riley

Yes. That was through the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. There’s a woman who ran that. I saw a lot of those. I didn’t see all of them. I probably should have looked at that material. We usually try to pick up stuff like that and get it into the briefing book. I don’t know if they were ever transcribed, I just know that they were available.

From

I did a PowerPoint presentation down there, which I know is available. 

Riley

I can’t remember the woman’s name.

From

I don’t remember either, but I remember the night I did it, it was a three-hour deal and I did an hour—First of all, Frank White, what’s the guy’s name? The guy who beat him for Governor? It was right before he died. He did the first hour. Then I did an hour on the lead-up to the campaign, and then David Wilhelm did it on the campaign. 

Riley

They’ve done that—

From

Actually, it was January 2003.

Riley

I remember seeing those. They would air on Friday night on C-SPAN [Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network]. To show you how bad a political junkie I am, I would park myself in front of my TV on Friday nights and watch these things.

From

You didn’t want to do that—

Riley

My wife didn’t, so we didn’t see all of them. 

But we really appreciate it. Thanks.

From

If I can do anything more for you, I’m happy to do it. I’ll go through and see what I told you that I was going to try to give you. I just don’t know what to do about things like that memo. I’m so averse to these kiss-and-tell things, but on the other hand, I think there are probably three or four memos that are probably really important for the course of the administration.

Riley

I think you’re probably right. You have to be your own best judge about what you feel free to let it go—

From

Since those things went to Clinton as President, I assume it’s in his Presidential papers.

Riley

It would be in his papers, but it will probably be not in our lifetime before those things are cleared and are available. In fact, part of the reason that they support doing this kind of work is because it gives scholars and other interested parties something—

From

And to figure out where to look.

Riley

Exactly.

From

I can just imagine, if I did all this stuff, what other people must do.

Morrisroe

Yours would probably be a bit more difficult to locate to some extent, not being part of a White House office that has a preexisting file structure.

Riley

It would be in the President’s incoming correspondence, though, and the stuff that went out would go out. Now, one of the things that Clinton did was assign Ted Widmer towards the end of the administration, to gather a large number—he requested every Presidential office and all of the executive departments to create an administrative history, an internal administrative history that would be opened immediately after the administration, that could include core documents.

When I was down for a conference in Little Rock a while back, I went in and those things are all available. They’re very uneven. If you look at the things for the State Department, for example, it’s mostly just published materials. But I looked at the domestic policy stuff—I actually wrote Bruce an email after I got back from down there because he did an extraordinary job. He gathered a lot of, not things that would be at this level of confidentiality, but a lot of internal memoranda on the core issues, welfare reform, guns, education, the whole works. There really is a very nice file full of stuff that people can see now.

From

Bruce Reed is a resource that probably is almost incomparable. First of all, he had connections with both Gore and Clinton, but he was a Gore speechwriter in the ’88 campaign. I was so impressed with him that I went out and recruited him. I finally got him to come here at the beginning of 1990. He was here for months before I even knew he was a Rhodes Scholar because he’s so modest. I never asked for a résumé. I’m not very good at bureaucratic stuff.

In any event, he was here. He wrote the New Orleans Declaration. He wrote a lot of the stuff that came out of the Cleveland convention. So he was really there at the beginning of all of this. This may have happened anyway, but in retrospect, I keep telling him the best thing he ever did was when he decided to put three words on the cover of our Cleveland resolutions: opportunity, responsibility, and community. In any event, even though he wasn’t technically the Domestic Policy Advisor in the first term, in the transition he did all the work. My job was to meet with foreign dignitaries and other people who wanted things. His job was to get everything done. He’d done all the work there. 

Even though he didn’t have a title, he was basically Domestic Policy Advisor for both terms and certainly had all the important stuff. 

Riley

He was very generous with his time and talking with us. I’m a big fan of his later pieces, I never miss one. I never realized he had the sense of humor he has.

From

He once did a humor column for the New Republic.

Riley

No, I did not know that. He’s very gifted.

From

Bruce is so quiet and unassuming. We do these big meetings, and when Bruce started to speak at them it was sort of like a Jay Leno monologue. I don’t think anybody realized how funny he was. He’s really a great humor writer. That’s what a lot of The Has-Been has been, I don’t like the title. 

Riley

Maybe the has-beens will rise up at some point. We appreciate it, thanks so much.