Presidential Oral Histories

Dr. Patrick J Griffin Oral History

About this Interview

Job Title(s)
Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs

Patrick J. Griffin talks about Congressional relations, Whitewater, President William J. Clinton's personality, healthcare reform, the crime bill, Supreme Court nominations, working with Vice President Al Gore, education reform, the budget and the 1995-1996 government shutdown, and working in the Office of Legislative Affairs.

Presidential Oral Histories |

Dr. Patrick J Griffin Oral History

Transcript

Riley

I think we’re ready to begin. A couple of housekeeping matters first, and that is, I always like to begin by reassuring the respondents of the confidentiality of the proceedings on the record, that we’re all pledged to confidentiality. You’re the only person who’s permitted to say anything about what goes on in the confines of the room. Eventually, you’ll have a transcript and that will become the authoritative record of the interview.

The next thing we do is for the aid of the transcriptionist, and that is to get a voice identification, so we’ll go around the room and say a couple of words and identify ourselves. I’m Russell Riley, an Associate Professor at the Miller Center, and I’m directing the Clinton project.

Griffin

Pat Griffin. I’m a former Clinton White House employee and currently President of my own lobbying firm here in Washington.

Walcott

I’m Chuck Walcott. I teach political science at Virginia Tech, which has many more cows than UVA.

Morrisroe

Darby Morrisroe. I’m a graduate student at the University of Virginia and the chief researcher for the Oral History Program.

Riley

Very good. How did you end up getting the job as Director of Congressional Affairs for Bill Clinton? 

Griffin

I think it was principally by not pursuing it. I had no real connection with President Clinton either in the campaign or in his first year in office. I’m really kind of a creature of the Senate. I always saw myself that way but had built a lobbying business subsequent to my years in the Senate. The first year I was watching them and was impressed. I was liking what I was saw but I had no desire to go into government at that time. 

I was traveling in Bratislava with the National Democratic Institute. I was a member of the Board at that time and we were in this post-Wall-coming-down frenzy of people looking at how to get elections going—then how they got the elections going—and how to build democracies. I was bringing Saul Olinsky training to Bratislava. 

I got back from a day-long training in Pilsner just outside of Bratislava and I got a call from a friend who said, Would you be interested in this job? Marcia Hale and Steve Ricchetti were both working there then—Would you be interested in this job? Howard Paster is leaving. I said, Absolutely. I guess I was repressing the fantasy. They said, Well, would you talk to Mack [Thomas] McLarty? I said, Who’s Mack? [laughter] I said, Sure, I’ll talk to Mack. 

Mack calls me the next day and asked me if I was interested. He said, Could you come back right away? I said, No, I’ve got more work to do here. I’ll be back in several days, if that works. He said, When you get back, could you come and visit with me right away? So I went to visit with him the Sunday after I got back.

Riley

Did he call you at a decent hour?

Griffin

It was late at night. It was snowing. I can remember the night very well. I was looking out this window. Bratislava, in this one section, is quite charming given the deprivation right around it. It had this very Christmasy kind of feel to it. It was very impressive. Anyway, I said, As soon as I get back. I got back around midnight on Saturday and I visited with him on Sunday. We had a good meeting. It felt like he was offering me the job but I learned that until you hear the concrete offer—it’s kind of like hearing where somebody stands on a position. It wasn’t quite there. 

I said, Mack, I’m not going to lobby for this job. If you want to offer it to me, I’ll take it. You let me know. He said, Fine. He just reassured me that they wanted me. Within the next couple of days, by the end of the week, there was a firm offer. 

Riley

Did you get the sense that they had some other candidates in mind at the time?

Griffin

I had the sense that there were a number of names running through there. I didn’t have a real clear sense. Afterwards I realized a number of names had come up. People had been working with them. I got the impression that there were some people inside the White House who wanted the job, but that all kind of gelled later in the process. 

I didn’t really care. I wasn’t going to compete, because I knew it was going to take an enormous amount of energy with my partner to dislodge from the company. I also had watched that when people get their names circulated it becomes the beginning of the end for them. It’s like, No, no, no, don’t leak my name out or even nominate me, because then if you don’t get it you wind up with an image that there was something wrong with you rather than you were good enough to be considered.

Walcott

Did you have a sense that there was anybody inside the White House or in the Senate or elsewhere who was kind of your sponsor—who was advocating your candidacy?

Griffin

Afterwards there were many who claimed—I suspect that Ricchetti and Marcia Hale had something to do with promoting me, among other people. I think when Ricchetti knew he wasn’t going to get it, so he thought I might be a good alternative. But he had some other people I know he was promoting. 

Also, [Albert, Jr.] Gore’s office had some play in it. Jack Quinn—we were old colleagues—I can’t really tell. I know there were a couple of folks that were working against me. [John] Podesta wanted the job but I didn’t know for sure, but—at the end I was the last man standing. Someone leaked that phrase to the press about my candidacy in an attempt to disparage me. I was actually proud of the characterization. In the end, I always suspected—he wanted the job.. 

Then there were some rumblings from Hillary [Clinton]-land that because I had represented tobacco interests there would be problems. However, I believe someone was batting down those concerns on my behalf. I think Senator [David] Pryor called up and really spoke pretty aggressively on my behalf. He and I were good friends from Senate days. There were several other Senators as well.

Riley

What was the interval between the time the job was offered and when you actually came on board?

Griffin

Gosh, it was less than thirty days. Yes, I was operating in there at the end of December. Howard had already left mentally. He was gone several months earlier so I was kind of catching up, but I wasn’t officially there until January.

Riley

Did you have extensive conversations with Howard about the environment that you were getting into?

Griffin

Yes.

Riley

Can you tell us about those conversations?

Griffin

Have you spoken to Howard?

Riley

Not yet.

Griffin

That will be interesting. Most of what he says is on the record already. It’s quite stunning. He wanted that job from day one and worked very hard to get that job. He lobbied very aggressively to get it. Something had to have gone deeply wrong for him to be leaving it. I think he was stunned by the amount of work and the culture of the place and how the way they worked. Really, it wasn’t a very efficient place. It was ridiculous. It became absurd after a while. 

There was one thing that I think frustrated him very much which he was his relationship with Mack. He thought he should be Chief of Staff or that he was competent enough to run the place. He miscalculated that dynamic dramatically and was warning me about the fact that he didn’t think Mack was a good leader nor organized enough. Also, it appears that he (Howard) had made some miscalculations on the Hill dealing with liberals—and negatively exposing himself with the more conservative members. 

I don’t think that would have moved him out. I don’t think the President was able to fire anybody, but when he made a move to consolidate some power, he miscalculated dramatically. He made his move on Mack. It wasn’t well received, and his only option was to leave. He had a very different style, personally, from mine. 

Riley

Did any of this give you cause to reconsider, or concerns on entering the office?

Griffin

No. I came in with so much trepidation—

Riley

Tell us about that. Why so? It’s a puzzle, from the outside, that you would leap at a job and yet you would come into it with an enormous amount of trepidation.

Griffin

It just seemed like such an exciting opportunity. I had that desire and thought I could do it, but there was still tons of anxiety. I had never done this before. I wasn’t sure I would know how to do this job. What do I know about working in the White House.

Walcott

Other than Howard Paster, did you talk to anybody else who’d ever done it?

Griffin

Not in advance of the decision, but I reached out to a lot of Legislative Affairs directors subsequently.

Walcott

Both parties?

Griffin

Well, the [Jimmy] Carter guys—I know I talked with them. I remember having some conversation with [Kenneth] Duberstein. Who else? I’m trying to remember now. Powell Moore. I don’t remember all the names, but over the course of my tenure I thought it was valuable. Oh, you know who gave me good advice was Bryce Harlow’s son, [Bryce L. Harlow], a very sharp fellow. Nick Calio, also, because he had been in the first Busch Administration. 

Harlow said—he identified for me right at the beginning a very interesting tension that was pervasive through the three years, and I didn’t appreciate it as much as I did when I left. All of your very senior folks, many of them, have constituencies. I had the Congress, someone had the press, Marcia Hale had the Governors and the mayors. The ones who were always most suspect were the people who ran the press and the Congress. You know—Who do you love more, me [the POTUS] or them? Are you giving me advice that feathers your relationship with them versus what’s good for me? That was a tension and a dynamic that was very important and easy to underestimate for somebody who had not worked in that context before. 

It was always a tough balance, even if you knew you were operating in the President’s interest by leaning into a Congressional play. It was easily exploited if somebody had a different point of view and said, Pat’s just shilling for his friends in the Congress. The President could easily feel suspect. You could do the same thing with the press. Why do we need to do that? You just want to feed the beast out there, whether it was Dee Dee [Myers] or—what was his name? But young Harlow cued me into that and I benefited from it. However, I didn’t always do it right.

Riley

Did you have any understandings with Mack or anybody else at a kind of senior level about what you wanted to do with the job when you came in? I guess since your original conversation with Mack would have occurred before you had extensive conversations with Howard Paster—I’m just trying to determine whether some of the things that you were picking up from Howard about his problems shaped in any way how you attempted to deal with some of these other people in the White House later on.

Griffin

Howard’s tips were really about the culture of the place, too—how to operate. Howard was really obsessed with everybody going to the Hill and him not being in control. That was a big thing. I wound up having a different approach to that than he did. Real estate—where’s your office? On one level I could have cared less coming in, but I kind of bought into it and it turned out to be a very important thing to do. There’s a funny little story associated with that as well. 

I didn’t know enough really to go into depth with Mack on serious questions and challenges. My questions focused on, where was your office going to be? What kind of access did you have to the President? Who you reported to—it was real broad strokes.

Walcott

Talk about the real estate issue.

Griffin

It was funny. I’d gotten settled. I was in Howard’s office before, when I signed on. Out in the fringe was this Harold Ickes issue. I didn’t know who Harold Ickes was. I barely had heard his name. He’s knew my business partner for years but not me. He was this guy coming in, and he was now down in the basement in the old barbershop, in the anteroom of the barbershop, this tiny, tiny space, which, frankly, he was probably very comfortable. He was looking for real estate and he wanted to get upstairs in some of the larger rooms. I could hear it rumbling. It was like a storm coming over.

I’m watching Marcia Hale and Mack deal with this issue. He’s coming in and going to Marcia Hale and trying to talk her into something, and going to Alexis Herman. All of us were on the second floor. Marcia comes in and tells me, Harold is trying to get some real estate. I said, Who the hell is he? In my ignorance I was going to take on anything. Then one day Mack moseys on up. He must have come up to see me three times in the whole time I was there. In this very indirect way, he asked me would I consider switching rooms with Harold—and I said, Stop, Mack. You said you were going to give me 100 percent support if I joined your team, and if you’re now backing away then I’m going to back away. This room has been the Director of Congressional Affairs— I think I said since Truman. It actually didn’t exist then. 

Walcott

He didn’t know that. 

Griffin

I said, I just can’t operate like this. For whatever calculation he made, he said, Fine. It was kind of funny. It went away. I never got approached again. Then about two or three weeks later, Harold and Janice [Enright] came up and they said they wanted to find out who this guy was who just would not move. It became the foundation, actually, of a very powerful relationship that we have to this day, so it was kind of funny.

Riley

Can you take us back to your first day on the job? Do you remember it?

Griffin

I remember the first day meeting Clinton. It wasn’t the first day on the job. I think that was some day in December. No, I don’t have a clue about the actual the first day. Mack said, The President’s on board. The President’s on board. I said, Yeah, yeah. You want to meet the President, but I just knew there was a certain level of baloney in Mack, because I didn’t know the President. He wasn’t hiring me because he knew me, whatever characterizations were being made to him. 

It wasn’t a big deal for me in the moment. What mattered was how we were going to become operational. For him to give me a little dog and pony with the President was not really what was on my mind. But there was a time when we had to do this. Mack and I were wandering around one day kind of getting to know each other. He said, I think the President’s little healthcare meeting is scheduled. Since you’re going to be point on that, why don’t we go see him? I had never been in the West Wing before so the scale—everything was way off. It felt very small, confining, and sloppy. This is where the President works? 

All of a sudden we’re walking down the hall and I’m waiting to go into some room that would have a room leading to a room with the flourishes playing and all this. He opens this door and then, bingo, we’re right there and there’s the President. I thought I was on Saturday Night Live set. Everything looked like this theater set. The guy who played Clinton looked like—it looked like I walked into a TV set. At that moment it was absolutely shocking and stunning. Then Hillary walked in—we went into one of the doors that are into the wall. She came in the regular room. I’m just kind of bouncing around here. She said, Okay, let’s sit down and talk about where we are with the healthcare bill. I’ve been faking it ever since. It was amazing. That was just a wonderful moment. Clinton gave me a big hug on the way out. He said if was are still laughing a year from now it’ll be all right. 

Riley

This was the first time you met?

Griffin

Yes.

Riley

And the first time you met Mrs. Clinton?

Griffin

Yes.

Riley

Did you make any changes in the structure of the operation when you came in? Did you accept pretty much everybody who was there? Did you bring any of your own people in?

Griffin

Initially, I just tried to stabilize what was going on. The fissures were already showing after the first year of very intense activity. Howard was very sensitive to making this a politically correct office in gender and race and that that skewed how the office was set up. In the long run it didn’t hurt it. They weren’t necessarily the strongest people. They were strong enough to do what they had to do but it created tensions in the organization and they were beginning to show. I didn’t really want to mess with that.

What I did—there was a person he had just fired whom I kept—Barbara Chow. I liked her and she turned out to be a very good resource for us. That ticked off a lot of folks who wanted her out, because these firings usually bubbled from the staff.

Then there was a person he had just hired but hadn’t closed the deal on yet. I was hesitant about at first, but when I worked with her a while I was really glad—Janet Murguia, who wound up doing quite well. Then, rather than mess with that, because I knew there was going to be some attrition, I brought in a fellow named Doug Sosnik, he was [Christopher] Dodd’s AA at that time. I had worked with him previously and he came in as my guy. That created tensions, but those kinds of tensions I didn’t care about. I used the pretext of Whitewater—that I needed somebody to help me handle this because that was growing as a major focus in addition to healthcare and these thirty other bills that we had in the, Congress and virtually every committee at all time. Doug stayed with me for a year and then moved over to be political director. That’s really how I handled it. 

Walcott

Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of tensions, maybe not at any particular time, that occur in a staff like that? Is it more than just personalities rubbing against each other after a while?

Griffin

Well, yes, I think it is. Some people work hard and some don’t. Some people don’t know how—I mean, some of these folks were not capable of dealing with members directly. They were a little over their head. There wasn’t anyone who’d ever lobbied before. So they would operate at a very low level. That created some problems. Then you didn’t rely on them very much and they would complain that they weren’t getting access to key meetings. Maybe there’d be one or two who did. The fissures in this group were mainly about personal agendas.

Walcott

What did you do about that, coming in as the new guy?

Griffin

I just glossed over it. I did as much as I could. I worked with one or two of the people who I felt were really talented. I brought in Doug. I had to make a decision every day about whether to stay in the building or be on the Hill—just an endless number of meetings. Some of the folks that I would have normally turned to to represent me were not seen as credible voices in those meetings. Often you had to find a way to personally reengage on those issue. Other than note-taking, being represented by your staff it wasn’t very useful.

The folks who influenced things was very small number. Once it got to the West Wing it was just a handful of people involved. If you weren’t in that handful, or earning your way in, it was very difficult to impact anything. 

Riley

How did you get your marching orders in terms of the issues that you would be spending your time on when you first came on board? How did you determine if healthcare was the number one issue, that it was going to be the number one issue? How did you take stock of what the President or the Chief of Staff wanted you to do with your time once you came on board?

Griffin

It was tricky. It wasn’t an efficient organization, I’ll say that. We had these staff meetings. We had a senior senior staff meeting. That was Mack and half-a-dozen or ten senior folks. Issues of the day got organized there, and assignments made. We spent most of our time reacting even though we had so much in play affirmatively. Then you had another senior staff meeting after that. That first meeting you got a lot of assignments of the day, and crisis of the day. Either in that meeting or in individual meetings with the Chief of Staff and other principals like Harold or the First Lady, you would get other specific things that you were doing. But Mack would kind of be in it. 

The execution left a lot to be desired, but that’s where the assignments came in. Most of our stuff—for me, we had a legislative agenda that could choke a horse.

Riley

You inherited that? I mean, you came in—

Griffin

Absolutely. Yes. All this stuff was rolling. 

Riley

And you’re finding this out from conversations with Steve Ricchetti and—

Griffin

The whole staff. My whole staff informed me on that.

Riley

Okay. So basically you’re absorbing from the existing—

Griffin

What’s already in play.

Riley

And you’re taking that, then, as the sum of your workload in addition to the daily kinds of things—

Griffin

Well, I’m saying that’s the foundation of my workload. How do we keep moving? How do we manage what’s already in play, either stuff that we initiated or that other Democrats initiated on their own. Remember, we’ve got Democrats on the Hill who had been in the wilderness for twelve years with agendas that had been mounting. There’s another tension between them wanting Clinton to take on their agenda and if he doesn’t they’re rolling with it themselves. They have control of both houses.

Riley

This is still true a year into the administration?

Griffin

Oh yes, and it’s complicated by the way Clinton handled his agenda the previous year on the tax cuts, the BTU tax. Remember when they made the House do one thing, the Senate the other? He already had a track record of legislative accomplishment but broke a lot of china in the process. People were using words like, We’re not trusting him. We don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s going to BTU us, make the House walk the plank, cave to the Senate. 

There was a lot of anger and mistrust already mounting over a gigantic legislative agenda that was just chugging along, which was now going to be compounded by putting healthcare on top of 20 to 30 initiatives that went to 27 committees in the House and Senate. On top of that comes Whitewater, which just tipped the thing all over. Then there was a little crime bill and a little gun action on the side that we could talk about—very interesting. That’s what I was walking into. 

My team knew what was going on. They knew what was going on in every committee. They knew the substance. They knew the state of play. Where it was uneven was their ability to make something happen at the highest levels of the Congress and that was a function of their own personalities and their own experiences in town.

Riley

Were they looking to you at this point to help decide how you’re going to slice this up into manageable bites? Or is there just a sense that since all this stuff is in the pipeline we’ve got to—

Griffin

Initially it was let’s just keep going. But they wouldn’t move without a decision from me and I didn’t realize that they were afraid. Howard had created an environment, and it was not completely unjustifiable, in which they could not give an answer to anybody on the Hill unless he okayed it. Every night you get back to the office and you’re going through 70 or 80 phone messages and you see half-a-dozen staff hanging out in the anteroom there and you’re saying, What is this about? All they wanted was, Can I tell him to do this? Can I go ahead with this? Is this a no? Is this a non-starter? It was easy stuff, but they wanted that guidance. 

Eventually we figured out a way to better handle that. Eventually we used a presentation to the Cabinet: where the President’s agenda was at any time, what the key agenda was, what was a Cabinet initiative, and what was our initiative as a way of organizing our own material. We made a presentation. It was very good. The Cabinet appreciated it, the President liked it, and it really helped organize our staff. But that took a few months—

Walcott

Did you work to give, in the long run, your staff a little more autonomy, a little less need to come to you?

Griffin

I’m not sure if I did or not. We made it easier to get guidance. To be honest I don’t think I felt any more comfortable in those first months. Actually in those first couple of months I felt very anxious about how things were handled and managed by me, let alone to my staff. In a way, I was trying to protect them. This was one of the frustrations. I have enormous respect for Mack and his integrity, but his ability to manage this kind of wild force was very challenging for him and it didn’t work in the first couple of months that I was there, to the point where we would take decisions in the morning meeting and just go to the Hill to execute. My whole team would go and we’d be rolling and we’d hear in a couple of hours that they’d been reversed because somebody went right into the President and said, You really don’t want to do that. I never wanted to do that. 

Mack would say, Oh no, I don’t know if we did that. Meanwhile, I’ve made 20 contacts on the damn Hill. That happened a couple of times and I finally said, I’m not going on the Hill. I’m going to wait 24 hours and see if the President reverses anybody. I literally said that. That’s not what I did, but I did wait longer before executing and it was problematic. 

In some ways, I shifted to healthcare, which was a kind of a perverse relief because in that little world I knew the beginning, the middle, and the end. Harold was the healthcare czar. He had deferred to me totally on Congressional aspect of it. He didn’t understand the Congress. He didn’t really care about it and he and I were building a good relationship so he trusted me to do that piece of the effort. Mrs. Clinton was also literally in the room. It was like a self-contained place. As dangerous as that was, that felt safe compared to how we were managing issues in the White House generally.

Riley

Because you knew that that was a priority item and the terrain was noble terrain.

Griffin

Yes. As dangerous as it was and as difficult—the decision-making was very simple but the decisions were challenging. But I knew what they were. I knew where bottom was all the time. As long as I knew where bottom was I could manage.

Walcott

When was it that you more or less focused on healthcare?

Griffin

Within the first 30 days. It felt so dangerous on the other—

Riley

This was within the first 30 days—you’re talking January of ’94?

Griffin

Yes.

Riley

Okay. 

Walcott

Where did that leave the rest of your staff?

Griffin

Well, I kept an eye on them. We talked every day. We wound up developing our own little culture where, instead of everybody hanging out at 8:30, I invited them in and we’d have pretzels and beer and we’d talk through issues. Especially with the more senior folks, we communicated every night around issues and built our own rationale—

Walcott

Was there anybody on the staff who could be a kind of surrogate for you if you wanted—

Griffin

No. On selected issues, but no. Susan Brophy was my deputy. Howard—for whatever reason, thought it didn’t work there. She did a lot of stuff for me, but nobody could really take that role. That was really challenging. That was what I was alluding to in the beginning. It was hard to hand off. Some of it had to do with how they carried themselves, but I also think it was the dynamic in the building and how small a group that was actually responsible for stuff. You really couldn’t let anybody else in, it seemed. We would then kind of manage our stuff in that late evening and through the day. You wouldn’t get out of there before ten any night. That’s when you did your planning for the next day.

Riley

Can we track through the healthcare, and can you tell us your involvement? I noticed Ira Magaziner’s name didn’t turn up in your mention of the people involved at this point. Is that because Ira was gone after—

Griffin

Who’s Ira?

Riley

I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

Griffin

No, Ira was involved. Let me just cue up that first month. I had this kind of water hose thing happening on legislation that was already rolling. Healthcare now is front and center. There’d been no legislative activity that first year of the administration. It had all been Mrs. Clinton, Ira, and wherever they were meeting in these meetings. Maybe one or two, less than a handful of members of Congress were somewhat involved, but not a lot.

Then you had Trooper-gate in November. There’s a little explosion here on Trooper-gate that everybody thought was containable, but it was the seeds of this Whitewater thing that would eventually really overwhelm us in that year, or overwhelm a lot of initiatives. 

I’m trying to figure out where to go. Healthcare is where I start, again with Harold, who becomes the czar. We’re now presenting this 700-page bill that no member of Congress had seen, to then have it passed by the end of the year, with 27 committees needing to sign off. Anybody who’d been in Washington for a while would say this is an absurd notion on its face. Even though it appeared to call the reality of accepting such a goal as absurd, any challenges to it were acceptable. If you did seriously challenge it, then you were just an old insider, either shilling for the Hill or you were just not getting it.

Riley

You’re talking about if you challenge it from the inside? In other words, you’ve got to be on the team.

Griffin

You’re on the team or you’re against the team. That wasn’t everybody, but there were a couple of key people there, even if you whispered resistance to the plan—there was like a little secret police who would pass on—they heard in a meeting that Pat said that this is not going to happen. It would get back, and I’d get a call.

Walcott

Was Mrs. Clinton one of them?

Griffin

She would say, Pat, you know we rely on you to keep the right tone. And it’s not like, Mrs. Clinton, but It’s like, Yes, Mrs. Clinton. I’ll keep the tone up. She knew the challenge but she believed strategically that the way to do it was no doubt, no doubt. It would be an insult to suggest that she didn’t understand. Some of the folks around her who were part of this huge team of healthcare folks that had been accumulating on the development of this stuff, on the policy—Ira in particular—Ira didn’t know the difference. He didn’t. I love him, but he didn’t have a clue as to what it was going to take to implement this legislation. Then there were tons of external folks who were also invested in the process. Not sure what these folks dealing with all the groups really understood about what had to happen to be successful.

Riley

The people who were involved in the construction of the package during 1993 are still there, and there’s a question—

Griffin

Oh, they’re there in force now, ready to go, and don’t have a clue as to what the challenge was really going to be.

Walcott

What were they expecting to do? They were ready to go do what?

Griffin

They were going to ignite the grass roots. That was where the war—not the war room. The birthing room? Some health room—triage room, or something. There was another room that they had. These guys were in there and they had tons of resources so they’re all ready to go. They’ve gone through stage one. Now let’s get it done. A 700-page bill that nobody created up there, blah, blah, blah, and we’ve got to get it done in a midterm election year.

Anybody who didn’t just kind of drink the Kool-Aid on it was not on the team. But you could talk realistically to Harold, you could talk realistically to the President, to Mack. But Mack was gone pretty soon, anyway. Noticeably absent from healthcare is Leon [Panetta], who became Chief of Staff, our economic team, [Robert] Rubin, [Lloyd] Bentsen. They were tangentially involved in this at best.

Riley

By choice?

Griffin

Oh, yes. So, we’ve got the healthcare suit on and we’re up there and these guys are looking at us like we’ve got three heads. Had we had a clear field with nothing interfering like the [Willis, Jr.] Gradison Harry and Louise ads, which were enormously successful and effective, and Whitewater, which was a way of just chopping at our credibility and having a very powerful effect on the President, a negative effect on his ability to do anything—if we didn’t have any of that, just getting it through would have been tough—given the conditions and terms that we had set up. If you recall, in the State of the Union, the President says, No, we can’t take out the mandates. This raised the bar for any compromise significantly.

This is a cute little story. I’m sitting in some prep for the State of the Union—

Riley

This is in ’94?

Griffin

Yes, ’94. I’m still wet behind the ears, trying to read George [Stephanopoulos] and these guys. George says, Why don’t we say that we’ll veto it unless the mandates are in it? Or something like that. I’m saying to myself, Why are we laying down these big markers on this legislation? George says, You don’t have any problem with that, do you, Pat? I said, Well, yes, I think we can do that, but— And he moves in. I did not have the force or the grounding to challenge it aggressively. I said, I guess. But I don’t know why we’re— The response quickly came, Well, we’ve got to. We have to set some markers.

Riley

This is universal coverage?

Griffin

Yes, and I didn’t even know enough about the bill—to this day. The dynamic was to be tough, to put it out there. The people who were shaping that moment—George knew the Hill but he was not acting as a Hill person. Of course, Mrs. Clinton loved that. The tougher and tougher we were, and the more she had the President out there demanding this, the better she thought it was.

Walcott

When was the first point you knew you were going to lose?

Griffin

I had a good that we would get a healthcare bill. I figured at some point people would come to realize that we’d probably have to make a lot more changes than we were making. But I didn’t know what they were. I just had an instinct. I thought we had a chance to get that bill. However, I’d say by March, feeling the intransigence inside the White House, seeing how—[Daniel Patrick] Moynihan was not cooperating on process, it began to seriously troubled me. By March, I was very concerned about what he was up to, and his counsel there, Lawrence O’Donnell, who’s a big star now. 

I was getting increasingly anxious. I thought the House would probably get it through. I was really shocked in the end that [John] Dingell did not want to make a deal with the junior Congressman from Tennessee—

Walcott

Cooper, Jim Cooper.

Griffin

And just to get it out of committee, because we had a lock it in Ways and Means, Energy, Commerce and four or five of the other committees that had jurisdiction, down to the Veterans’ Committee. I was kind of surprised by Dingell’s inaction. I thought in the end he’d kind of roll and we’d at least get it over in the Senate, and then we’d go back to the West Wing and say, Look, this bill is about—we’re on the twenty-yard line now. Let’s get real. 

When he stumbled, that was really a shocker to me. I thought that was tough enough—and then I knew we still hadn’t dealt with the Moynihan issue. He was becoming more and more strident on wanting to delay his committee’s consideration of the legislation—he felt he was completely dismissed by Clinton by not doing welfare reform first, and I think O’Donnell kept feeding him that he was being dismissed, and it was a very bad dynamic. 

[George J.] Mitchell did not want to challenge him. He did not want to take it away from him. He ultimately did, but it was way too late. We all knew that it was just a matter of where is this dog going to die? Whose front door? I’d say by March or April I thought we were in real trouble, mostly because of Dingell, and then compounded with always having the anxiety about the Moynihan piece.

Walcott

If the White House had been willing to be a little more flexible, do you think you would have come out with something?

Griffin

Oh, there’s no question. We could have had that bill. But we had to get it into conference by July, and that was the framework I had laid out. I had laid out a schedule, worked with the leadership, and the leadership signed off with the schedule. [Thomas] Foley was always concerned about schedule. He said, You know, you’re drawing lines in the sand. The lines of our defeat. But he bought the fact that we needed to put pressure on the Senate, and Moynihan. But like I said, the Dingell thing was also a real curve ball. Nobody really anticipated it.

Riley

Moynihan’s relationship with the Clintons was strained from the beginning?

Griffin

Very strained.

Riley

Do you have some idea about why it was so strained?

Griffin

I don’t know. The personalities play such a prominent part in all of this. No matter how complex the policy, the issue, the process—personalities are paramount is the one thing I’ve learned in my 26 years here. The personalities—they missed each other. The President, for all of his talents and his very serious flaws, one of his weaknesses was he could speak to 500 people and have them melt in his hand but he wasn’t as good as I thought he would be in knowing how to work individual people. He could work you in a moment, and if he walked into this room we’d be filled with his charisma; it just is overwhelming. You’d never forget that first time you met him, as I certainly didn’t. But his ability to work somebody individually, over time—I never thought he got it. Moynihan was a good example. There were many, many others.

Riley

Are there any specific instances that come to mind that you could use to illustrate this? I hate to put you on the spot this way, but I’m just wondering if—

Griffin

As we talk maybe something will come up. Nobody has all the talent to do everything brilliantly. He was very thoughtful. He was really concerned about these issues. He knew these issues. He wasn’t equally concerned about every issue. He could speak and he could turn this stuff into language that really resonated. But that interpersonal thing—in Congressional, building those allies is really about that. You don’t build allies around issues that work for you when you’re in a firefight about some personal problem. You’ve got to connect at some other level. That just wasn’t a strong suit of his.

Walcott

Before we leave healthcare, there had to be a ton of people from the administration, from outside the administration, ostensibly being there trying to help, lobbying on your side. How was the effort coordinated?

Griffin

Harold had the Grand Poobah role. You’ve got to find out the name of that other room. Somebody I’m sure will remember. The birthing room?

Riley

They didn’t just call it the war room for healthcare?

Griffin

They might. I thought they had another name.

Riley

Because there were war rooms set up for—

Griffin

The war room concept is still very much alive in Mrs. Clinton’s mind, even to this day. And that’s a good concept. But they had a name for it. A lot of coordination came out of there. Mike Lux and a couple of other fellows and gals worked in there. I would be brought in every once in a while. It wasn’t my job. I didn’t want any of that. But I’d come in and kind of do a talk and get people energized or focused—this is where we need help, blah, blah, blah. It was done in a very sophisticated way. 

There was no question that that piece was all ready to go. What we miscalculated was the power of the Gradison ads, and how much resonance a couple of issues that faltered right out of the—the independent insurers were going to be put out of business. Some of those discussions about their concerns were mind-boggling. I’m sure you can find something else in the system for you to do. That energized people in a way that was completely underestimated. I think it was the PPO [preferred provider organization] provision, or something like that—you would no longer get insurance from an independent insurance—I’m not sure. 

Some of those things were stunning, and the fact that everybody that was opposing us even though we had some of the support of the industry, but they began to become suspect of what we were really thinking. Then again, you had the credibility being challenged through this Whitewater stuff—that we really didn’t know what we were doing. And our lack of flexibility. We just became rigid and crashed upon ourselves.

Riley

Who were you dealing with on the Hill that you felt was really sympathetic to what you were doing with healthcare? 

Griffin

Ironically, Dingell was the biggest champion, but he became—I don’t know why, for some reason he couldn’t move. Rosty, [Daniel] Rostenkowski, was very much in it but more as a pol. I’ll get this done. He was always being very transactional with us about how helpful he was on the committee level. 

On the other side—I forget who was healthcare—[Edward] Kennedy? The authorizing committees. The committee chairmen were mostly pretty responsive except Moynihan. In fact, his ranking member, [John] Chafee, was trying to find a way to connect with us more than Moynihan was. When the process appeared to be collapsing, we are telling Mrs. Clinton and the President that we are dying. However, the Congressional leaders who are saying the same thing to us are telling them (the Clintons) in meetings we were having in the Map Room at night that the legislation can still pass.

In the Map Room, [Richard] Gephardt and Mitchell are saying, We can do this. Look, give me a chance to rewrite this bill. That wasn’t the first Map Room, but by July, remember, he, Mitchell, came up with his own legislation. Mrs. Clinton angrily turns to me and says, Who are you talking to? She asks why are they telling us something else entirely different. It was a very surreal situation. After a while we just said, This is bullshit. This is all I can tell you.

Riley

This is just an inability to confront the President with the realities directly?

Griffin

No, it wasn’t an inability to confront the President. It was an inability to confront Mrs. Clinton and indicate that it would die in July, when we had a few more months yet. They wanted to keep up the appearance of the good fight. In fact, I can remember that caused a lot of tension inside. Mrs. Clinton did not want to hear it and I don’t blame her. But they were telling us one thing and her another, and it wasn’t only just the leaders. It was everybody else in the Congress. 

Finally—this was in August. This was an interesting little moment. We finally accepted this thing is going down. We’re being advised by polling now to begin to step away from this and shift to something else before the election. George and I have been saying it’s over and over since June. We need an exit, a smaller package—whatever. At this point we’re saying it’s dead. 

We’re on a plane with the President. We’re going to [William] Natcher’s funeral, I think. I don’t know what precipitated this. Kennedy wanted to introduce another bill, a smaller bill, in September when the Congress returned from the summer break. Clearly, we assumed Mrs. Clinton would be involved in that and want that. Senator [Tom] Harkin was also kind of leaning into it. I said, George, we’d better get the President to say we’re done. I forget the context. Either the leadership was asking for guidance, or something. I think that was it. I think we should get him to sign this letter and send it off. Let’s move on, the election is around the corner. 

[Stanley] Greenberg was really hammering at that as well. So we got the President to sign the letter. We sent it from the plane. It was a little Air Force One plane. When we got back it took less than 24 hours to get everybody all ginned up about how we’re trying to kill their baby. Kennedy did go ahead with the bill, but we were at least not in that fight. We were trying to finish up the crime bill and all this other stuff.

Walcott

What lasting damage did the healthcare experience do to the Clinton administration?

Griffin

Well, I think it was one of the truly most visionary things that they were trying to do. Mrs. Clinton and the President were really not following polls. They really were trying to get ahead of something and I thought it was very courageous in that regard. It helped focus a debate that continues, obviously. But the way we did it, and the way we got attacked by the zillions of dollars that came after us, made it a caricature. It added another dimension to being liberal, or a Democrat, which is overreaching the trillion dollar—whatever the numbers—of intervention and crushing our economy. 

It allowed a little caricature to emerge and it certainly did in that election in ’94 when we had a string of legislative successes on a variety of things—what [Robert] Dole was able to say— These are not successes; these are excesses. We did good things on education, on the environment, on reducing the size of government—tons of stuff. Instead, he was able to just flip it and point to the healthcare thing. So it became a caricature in a way that was unfortunate. I don’t think it resonates. Mrs. Clinton may have to wear it if she ever runs for President, but I think we’ve been overtaken by events in their own administration.

Riley

In fact, by the time you came in—let me test this notion out with you. By the time you came in early ’94, the prospect for cooperation with the Republicans was pretty much done with?

Griffin

Oh no, no. I think we had a chance for a real bipartisan—the Republicans thought they were going to get a bill. Those first two or three months, I’m convinced, we all were convinced we were going to get a bill. Their whole thing was how to either get some fingerprints on it or not to make it too damaging to some of their constituencies. There was a momentum. If you ask Senator Dole—I don’t know, in retrospect. I got the impression from talking with him, and I worked closely with him on that and other issues, that he thought something was going to happen.

Riley

I base the statement on the inability of the administration to get any Republican support for the budget package in ’93. Of course, then you get NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] later in the year and they get some Republican support there. Your sense, then, is that on healthcare it would have been possible?

Griffin

We got a lot of bipartisan support on a lot of other issues.

Riley

Let me just broaden that out. Tell me about your relationship with the Republican membership. Where were you able to find common ground with them and how did you work?

Griffin

A lot of the issues that we did get bipartisan support for I didn’t spend a lot of time with. Staff did. But on some of the environmental stuff, it was still the old days. You would get 40 Republicans, 50 Republicans, on an issue in the House, and you would work—the Republican—the success of the Minority was to shape the bill, not kill the bill. That was the play on a variety of issues. 

You had seven Republican moderates, or nine Republican moderates, who really had influence over another ten of their own party. Nancy Kassebaum, Chafee—I can’t remember. There was a handful there who wanted to do the right thing. It wasn’t just that margin of difference for cloture. Sometimes it was, but there was another pile, [Arlen] Specter, or a guy like the Wyoming guy, [Alan] Simpson, who was a very conservative guy, but on the right issue, he’d do the right thing. 

That was still the mentality. What emerged, though, is with Whitewater and the healthcare thing the Republicans took a strategy—Let’s not do anything. Let’s just stop them. And it worked for ’94. It just killed us. Like I said, it was brilliant saying, These are not successes, but excesses. They went into ’94 stunned that they won, then continued in that path until they almost imploded. We were quite brilliant in taking advantage of their mistakes. It’s not like we had a great strategy. Their drawing the line and not wanting to cooperate going into ’95 didn’t work, and then we came together again. We can talk about that.

Riley

Yes, we’ll want to come back to that.

Walcott

That strategy of intransigence really was developed in the middle of ’94.

Riley

The Republican strategy.

Walcott

The Republican strategy of simply refusing to cooperate with what the administration wanted.

Griffin

Yes, and it was kind of handed to them. They started out thinking they were going to make a deal and shape this, and then—

Walcott

They beat healthcare and they thought Aha, we can beat anything.

Griffin

And we were stumbling. I think the Whitewater stuff—

Riley

You mention that—why don’t we deal with that more directly. You indicated earlier that you’d actually hired someone to do—

Griffin

I hired someone to help me generally—Doug Sosnik. One of the ways I got more money was to say that he was going to help on this Whitewater thing. But he was helping me on this other stuff as well, on a couple of other issues. What was happening was that we were reacting from the Trooper-gate thing into the Whitewater thing and releasing the records, but that was all internal and there was a lot of energy wrapped around that. Finally, they got organized between Harold and Podesta and set up a separate shop. 

Up until whenever that was, probably January or February, I was handling the legislative part. That was getting increasingly difficult for me to try to be doing issues and dealing with this other stuff that had so many other dimensions to it—the legal, the political, and the press. So they developed another war room on Whitewater. While I would stay involved in any of the hearings, when the Democrats were in control, it was concerning, but not as concerning as when the Republicans took control—we had to pay much more attention to [Alfonse] D’Amato doing oversight hearings, or some of those guys in the House. What’s his name from Iowa?

Riley

[James] Leach.

Griffin

Leach, who seemed so reasonable. Then the whole battle about who was going to do Whitewater, who was going to—the reauthorization of the Special Prosecutor legislation, which we ultimately wound up supporting. Then who was going to be the Prosecutor. There was a lot of activity that I would be involved in.

Riley

So you’re involved in all of that, as well?

Griffin

Yes.

Riley

That’s a kind of crucial juncture in the administration—the reauthorization.

Griffin

Well, the reauthorization of the Special Prosecutor was one ways where we were acting out this fight, taking a measure of whether the Democrats were going to be supportive or not, taking a measure of whether or not the way we had ticked them off up until that point was going to play into how they helped us through this. There was a great deal of concern that the Clintons were not being forthcoming. Democrat or Republican, these guys are not going to die on their sword unless they have a personal connection with the Clintons or they were absolutely convinced that there’s no wrongdoing. I don’t think they were, at all. 

The way the legal strategy was going inside the Clinton family was not giving them any comfort because [David] Kendall was preparing them for legal exposure, which clashes totally with the political strategy and the Congressional strategy.

Walcott

Was this a case where you had to represent the point of view of Congress to them?

Griffin

Yes, which was as difficult as representing the point of view of the administration to the Congress.

Walcott

Did you have problems with being seen as a little less than loyal?

Griffin

Yes, to some extent, like on the reauthorization. Also inside, Bernie Nussbaum, who was a fierce loyalist of the Clintons, understood during the time he was there—he obviously left—that we couldn’t oppose the reauthorization of the Special Prosecutors Act. Of course, that was unsettling to the Clintons because we knew that we were kind of building our own gallows, but you couldn’t really take it on. And I’m the messenger of that. But the other parts were—I’m basically saying, Trust me, where there really is no there there that was creating that dynamic. Are you going to be there? Will you step out when they challenge us, will you step up and say this? 

That’s when these guys would say, You screwed me back on the tax bill. And they’d go into that stuff. That was, in some measure, because there weren’t many of those personal ties built between the President and individuals. In the end, as a party, as we all know, when we get to the impeachment they did stick with him, but there wasn’t a lot of evidence of personal bonds that would have emerged more easily in the beginning.

Walcott

Talk a little bit more about how the President related to members of Congress. Were there regular meetings with the leadership? Were there lots of members going in and out?

Griffin

I had pretty much carte blanche to bring folks in whenever it made sense. We had Democratic leadership meetings. We had bipartisan leadership meetings pretty regularly. Then, around an issue, you would have a lot of activity around the budget debates or the budget negotiations. It depends on what was going on. Healthcare would require a whole bunch of meetings—we had similar meetings around the crime bill, which was really an important piece of legislation that we should deal with at some point, as well as the transition from Mack to Leon. So there was a lot of meeting activity. We tried social gatherings as well—having members come over and just hang out. We never quite accomplished—

Riley

What do you mean, just hang out

Griffin

You know, Let’s just talk about things like guys. Or guys and gals. Again, it’s almost humorous that of all of this man’s talents, that was not his strength—he couldn’t make it gel with individuals over time. Eventually, I recommended against doing them. I remember when I left, Bruce Lindsey called. He wanted to set up similar meetings with members and was asking my advice on how to approach it. I explained that while I insisted on doing them in the beginning because I thought they were essential to building relationships, the actual experience suggested they didn’t work. I said the meeting resulted in losing folks. It wasn’t because he did anything wrong—he just didn’t connect. And these guys had huge egos of their own. This was hard for him to appreciate that their egos were as big as his. As I mentioned, Bruce called me after I left and he said, I’m thinking we should get those meetings going again— He was referring to the ones we held in the residence. We used to have little cocktail receptions up there. I can still remember, in the spring and the summer, the sun streaming in as it was setting, and a big tray of shrimp and some wine, and Clinton talking the entire time, and these guys—they all wanted to talk the entire time as well. 

I said, Bruce, I think it’s a bad idea. Spend the time some other way. I think Clinton believed that if he could talk to you he could convince you of his idea, he just needed the opportunity. Just give me a chance. But just making chit-chat was not of interest to him.

Riley

Did he like dealing with members, or had they become poison by the time you came on board?

Griffin

No, it certainly wasn’t poison. It didn’t go the way he wanted. I got the sense that it was a little different in Arkansas working with the legislature. I don’t think he did a lot of chit-chatting there either, but I think he could get his way. While the administration got a lot of its way legislatively in the first years, and while he was compelling when he spoke to them generally, or over their heads, to the public, I don’t think the personal lobbying went the way he thought it would go. He didn’t like me coming in and saying, Let’s make some call time to try to get votes.

Walcott

He didn’t like to do that?

Griffin

Ugh, it was like pulling teeth. I didn’t do it very often but—half-a-dozen members, I’ve got an hour. Let’s go, Mr. President. He’s sitting there in the Oval Office. First call. Well, we’ve got five minutes left. And he didn’t even make the close on the first call, and we never got to any other call. No, he was not a good closer. I began to realize the complexity of this man. So you try to work with his strength—

Riley

Let me ask the same question about Mrs. Clinton. If you’re doing a lot of lobbying on healthcare and presumably she’s also deeply involved with that, did you make the rounds with her on the Hill? 

Griffin

I did some. Ricchetti wanted to hang out with her, so I didn’t discourage it.

Riley

Was she somebody—

Griffin

She was very good. She had a different set of strengths. I thought she was a great advocate for the concepts. She testified brilliantly. She could get a small room of folks convinced. She was very impressive. A lot of folks were looking to dislike her and to trip her up. She handled herself very well in the caucus and bipartisan meetings that I also attended.

But on one-on-ones she had a different set of skills. You know how relationships balance each other. She would be able to talk directly to you, even if she hadn’t seen you in months—and say, How is your son doing? I hear that he likes getting letters. Do you want me to send him one—? She would remember that. She carried that piece of the family with her. It was an interesting complement to her husband’s skill set.

Riley

Your overall sense is that having her at the head of the healthcare reform effort was probably an unwise—?

Griffin

No. What I think was unwise was the process. I think it was unwise to go off a year and do this in a vacuum and think that you’re going to come back to a town and just kind of dish it up in nine months. They underestimated the impact of that. Our rigidity was a contributing factor. I don’t think it was the only factor, because the onslaught was significant. It was very impressive.

Riley

The reason I raise the question—

Griffin

But I don’t think it was because of her.

Riley

Okay. 

Griffin

The strategic decisions that she had an influence on were more the problem than her personally being a lightning rod.

Riley

Right. But you did indicate that there were instances where people had a hard time dealing straight with her in a way that they might not have had with anybody else in the White House who wasn’t the First Lady or the President. Or is that an overstatement?

Griffin

I don’t know. I think that they were not wanting to take the tough medicine. I have a feeling what was motivating Gephardt and Mitchell was more covering their own butt about where this cat’s going to die, on my door or your door. If they knew they could do that some other way without taking her on, they would have. But the combination of things made for a stunning dynamic in a couple of meetings I was in.

Walcott

From the standpoint of a member of the White House staff, a senior member, who would you rather give the bad news to, the President or the First Lady?

Griffin

Oh, no question about it. Neither one was fun to give bad news to, but the President, was easier, yes.

Riley

You’d rather give the bad news to the President?

Griffin

Yes.

Walcott

People were afraid of the First Lady’s reaction to the bad news?

Griffin

Not afraid. It’s just—would you rather punch a piece of wood or a brick wall? I mean, when she came back, she was tough. She’s like a four-wheel drive going right at you. Zoooom. If you didn’t lean back into your argument, she’d go right over you. It took more energy and focus. The President was not—nobody likes bad news, so he would resist or react, and he’d blow up. Nobody paid much attention to that. That was so overstated.

Riley

You got accustomed to his temper?

Griffin

His temper was a fraction of what it was characterized to be, and when he blew, it was like he sneezed. Bless you, and you walk around it. It wasn’t like he was wedded to whatever initially instigated it. Sometimes it just seemed kind of weird, not understanding where it would come from, and what it was about. The first time or two, I was taken aback by his flare ups. I wondered, What is this? Then you found out it was nothing. But it was much rarer than the way it was characterized.

Riley

You mentioned the crime bill a couple of times as being important both as an accomplishment and as setting the stage for the election. I wonder if you could talk about your involvement in that and just walk us through how you got that through.

Griffin

That was a very interesting piece of legislation substantively and politically. Panetta had now become Chief of Staff. The operation of the White House had changed dramatically.

Riley

Let me sidetrack you and ask you to talk about that first. 

Griffin

That was really a big development. Mack was ready to move on. I do believe Mack provided the Clintons what they wanted in that transition—absolute confidence and loyalty—the President being the first and foremost. But again, not everybody can do everything well. Mack recognized that they needed a tighter organization and Panetta was willing to do it. He had a good record over at OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and all these great Hill relationships. I knew him some but I didn’t know him well. We worked together, but I didn’t get involved in appropriations because he handled it so well. It was actually a relief. 

When he came in he took control of the place in a dramatic way, particularly controlling access to the President. So the notion of going to the Hill when a decision was taken, and thinking that someone would run into the President to reverse it was unthought-of with the new COS. He really bottlenecked the access. 

Riley

Was he also, then, a kind of enforcer of the decision that was taken?

Griffin

Absolutely.

Riley

So if Leon knows it’s—

Griffin

It’s done.

Riley

If we say it’s done, then it’s done and there’s not going to be any—

Griffin

Gradually, he empowered us all. I was concerned that he would just Bigfoot me on the Congressional play. He didn’t have a relationship with me, so we had to build that. George got cut back dramatically, and there was a moment when there was a question of whether George was going to lose his job. Leon and I, and maybe others felt he should not be scapegoated. Leon kind of contained him and then empowered him again. All of us—some guys maybe were never quite comfortable with it, but it worked for me. And Leon did not want to be the Congressional relations guy, so he gave me even more power in the job than I would have had when everybody is running around thinking they’re speaking for the Hill.

Walcott

When you’re talking about everybody, you’re talking about Stephanopoulos. Who else?

Griffin

Anybody. Steph, Mack, [Mark] Gearan, [David] Gergen. But that had already begun to change. I enjoyed dealing personally with Mack—I felt he was very straight with me. As did David Gergen, who had been there at the time. Instead of trying to say, Nobody go to the Hill, I said, Let everybody go to the Hill. As long as it was processed in one place and that I have some influence on that. That took most of the fun out of it, going to the Hill, and served me well. I was already consolidating the benefits of that dynamic. 

Where Howard had blocked people out from going to the Hill and had a kind of ongoing running match against Mack and Gergen, positioning himself as a liberal Democrat, I had a different approach. It was already in a pretty good spot. I kept that philosophy—if people wanted to go to the Hill, that would be fine. But in the end everybody wanted to come to me because they knew Leon was going to listen to me. Instead of trying to sell it to Leon, he created a bottleneck that ultimately empowered me. I then would rely on anybody who wanted to do it as an extension of our operation, as long as it was organized. It got better and better, actually, as we went forward. Leon and I, as a result of it, really had a wonderful working relationship—I had a wonderful experience with him there and remain very close with him still. 

One of the first things that he took on when he got there was this crime bill. There had been crime bills floating around in the Democratic Congress for twelve years, five bills that had never become law. Part of repositioning Democrats was to be tough on crime and to be for the death penalty. We had 28 new death penalties in our proposed bill. It was not a high moment in criminal justice policy.

Walcott

But you had to do some pretty bizarre things to earn the death penalty, didn’t you— attacking a flight attendant on an international flight or something? 

Griffin

Yes, but it was tough, given the traditional politics around the death penalty. They were devastating nationally. The black caucus uniformly was against it. The Hispanic caucus was against it. It was tough. How do we pass a crime bill with our constituency so stridently against it? Clinton, remember, in the middle of his election campaign went back and pulled the plug on some guy. That was one dynamic.

The other was Clinton insisted that we put the assault weapon ban in it. That was a very big dynamic. There’s one little story here that had a big impression on me. We were out at a Senate retreat, he and I, and Mrs. Clinton was there, as was Stephanopoulos. We were coming back from the Senate retreat, but at the retreat he gives a speech. I’m sitting off the stage and [Dianne] Feinstein raises this question, Where is the assault weapon ban in the Senate? This woman is a Senator on the Judiciary Committee asking the President of the United States. Up until this point I thought we were kind of slow-walking the assault weapon ban, given the politics of it, I thought it was a good idea. We’d react on the issue if we had to. 

He turns to me and he says, Griffin, where is it? I said, It’s in the Senate Committee waiting for mark-up. He knew she was trying to gin him up. I didn’t realize it at the moment. I just thought it was a stupid question, so I didn’t think anything of it. The next morning we’re on Marine One going back to the White House. We’re playing hearts or something, and all of a sudden he puts the cards down and says, Why didn’t you brief me as to where this was? I said, Mr. President, it would be a ridiculous thing to brief you where all the legislation is. It would never occur to me that you would need to know the status of all of our proposed legislation when talking to Senators who were responsible for the disposition of the legislation. I asked why would you feel you needed to know?

What do you mean, ‘Why do I need to know?’ he said. I responded I just didn’t think you needed to know the status of each piece of legislation is in each committee and subcommittee with governing jurisdiction—particularly since we were at the Senate retreat. He’s yelling back at me how irresponsible of me to suggest that he wouldn’t be terribly interested in such an important piece of legislation like the assault ban. I said, I thought we were just kind of slow walking this provision, which I was sure we were. He responded, appearing shocked and offended by saying What? How dare you think that I—that is so wrong!

He went into this righteous rage at me. I’m looking at him. Did I make this up? Is this a unilateral decision that I had made here with Mack? He said, We’re going to move that on every piece of legislation that makes sense— I said, Mr. President, I think this is going to be very difficult. His response was, How dare you think that there is any other option. What would people think of me if I did not follow through on the assault weapon ban? I’m sorry, Mr. President. I really got that wrong. 

So I come back, and I tell Leon. He said that I had not come up with this notion on my own. No one stepped in to correct the President. There was no need to go back into it with him. Now, we’re going to move ahead on the assault weapon ban. It was a disaster from day one. I go and tell Speaker Foley, who would wind up losing his seat in the upcoming election due to this issue. At the time of our conversation, he didn’t think he was going to lose, but he knew a lot of seats were going to be lost over it. Foley, Gephardt, and [David] Bonior all said, You are all crazy. We want to see the President. I responded stating, Do you think I would be promoting this if I wasn’t being told to do so? 

We brought them into the Oval Office. It was the three of them, myself, Leon—I don’t know who else was there. Maybe George was there—the President and the Vice President. The Vice President was all, We’re going for it. These three guys said, We’re ready to help you on the crime bill, but Mr. President, don’t push the assault weapon ban. 

The President said, I’m absolutely going to promote it. I can’t remember exactly the dynamic. I think we had to wind up doing it as an amendment. They said, We’re not going to bring up the crime bill that has the assault weapon ban in it. You’re going to have to do it on the floor. We’re not going to have anything to do with it. In that meeting they asked him three times—Foley with the big old kind of hound dog, Please, Mr. President, don’t push the assault weapon ban. Just shaking his head. And Bonior and Gephardt. Gephardt, who said, I’m for it, but this is going to be devastating to our troops. Please don’t do it. They deliberately went at it three times and the President just says, We’re going for it. 

They said, Fine. We’re not going to help you at all. If you’re going to pass this crime bill, or this ban, we’ll have nothing to do with it. They told us that we would have to set up our own whip operation. We were accustomed to using leadership. You’re on your own. The President says, I understand that. We’re going to take care of it. And he looks at Leon and me. 

From that day forward we then get the crime bill scheduled. We now have no cooperation from the Democratic leadership. They give Leon and me a room to work out of to set up our own whip operation. We then work with some of the Democrats who are sympathetic. We know we can’t pass it only with Democrats so we have to get a Republican—we figure we’ve got 30 to 40 Republicans. We need 40 or 45. 

We go to [Robert] Michel, who’s the head of the Republicans at the time, and he says, I don’t know if I can help you. Why don’t you talk to [Newt] Gingrich? Newt was already moving in on Michel. So we go to Newt and he says, I don’t want any part of this crap. But I’ll see if I can authorize somebody to work with you guys. Leon and I are setting up shop up in one of Gephardt’s suite rooms, and Newt sends to us [Michael] Castle from Delaware as being the point person to work with Republicans on this, because Newt knew he had guys who would be supportive.

Leon and I set up our operation. We go through, member by member, trying to convince, basically the Democratic black caucus to vote for this bill. Almost every one of these members had never voted for a death penalty before—same thing with the Hispanic caucus. Then we’re having a separate conversation with the Republicans. Basically, it became one of the real vintage stories of—the deals were not necessarily made on the substance of the issue. The candy store was open.

Riley

Would you care to elaborate?

Griffin

Not entirely, but it was a very transactional kind of set up. Eventually, we got enough to get the crime bill through. The crime bill came to the floor without the assault ban. The intent was to have [Charles] Schumer offered the ban as an amendment—I’d been dragging my feet about going up to the Hill that day. The vote was going to be very close and I guess I didn’t want to be publically associated with it. My staff pleaded with me to go. You’re crazy. You’ve got to be there. I said, This just stinks. This is not going to work. 

Eventually, they made me come down. I remember standing up with this big knot in my stomach, and we’re voting on the assault weapon ban and we win by one vote. I just had all my fingers crossed that we were going to lose. Everybody’s delighted. There’s cheering. It was a big operation. Rahm Emanuel had put together this external outreach operation working with cops and other external supporters.  He did a brilliant thing with that. 

I come back and I’m just sick to my stomach. Everybody’s cheering, pictures are being taken, we’re in the Rose Garden, high fives everywhere. I said, Mr. President, there’s going to be trouble on this. He’s grumpy about something. I said, You know, I think you probably need to talk to [Jack] Brooks. He’s the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who did everything he could to kill this thing. He’s going to be ticked off. You should talk to him to buck him up. He said, Yes, all right. 

I went up to my room and I was sitting there. I was just kind of stunned. I didn’t know how bad it was going to be in the long run, but I knew it was bad, then I get this call. The President wants to talk to you right away. He gets on the phone. He said, Are you finished celebrating? I said, I hadn’t felt like celebrating, Mr. President, what would you like? He says, Come on down. He hangs up on me. 

He says, What the heck did you make me call Brooks for? He is so pissed off. Why’d you make me—? I said, Mr. President, that’s why I asked you to call him, to calm him down. That was crazy. You were out there celebrating. I said, Mr. President, I didn’t like this idea from the start. Don’t tell me about that. 

I don’t remember exactly what happened next. It just kind of dribbled away. It was viewed as a major success. Then it went to the Senate. Dole is now getting traction for stopping everything he can on the President’s agenda. We’re in August or July. It’s now moved over to the Senate and we’re having this leadership meeting to prepare for floor consideration. Foley comes over with the leadership. We’re in Mitchell’s office. I’ll never forget—it was a night of storms, lightning just crashing. You can just hear Foley’s mind racing, saying, We’re still not aligned with the gods on this thing, or some clever comment. 

We have to start this battle in the Senate and Mitchell is as upset as is Dole but for obviously different reasons. Dole has a slightly more conservative base than his counterparts in the House. There is a block of seven or nine Republicans that stopped us from getting cloture at least two times. They were upset because they knew this was about pure politics, not policy. I get a call one night from Nancy Kassebaum saying, This just isn’t right. I cannot continue to support Bob Dole, my colleague, on this. We need to come to some accommodation—Will you come down here tonight? I got some folks to come down and we made some concession and, boom, we got the bill done and went to conference. That was a whole other trauma, a story in itself. The rest is history. We lost 53 seats in the rural areas, particularly in the South.

Walcott

You think that was a key element?

Griffin

Absolutely. Yes. I’d say, for 40 of those seats, yes. For Chairman Brooks to lose his seat? Foley? These guys had been safe forever. And they voted against all this stuff but they were still targeted politically because their President was for the ban, even though the policy was marginal. It still is marginal, unfortunately. The spirit of it was right, but I don’t think it would have worked the way it was crafted.

Riley

Again, not to lose sight of the fact that you’ve got healthcare bubbling around the edges, I guess, when most of this is going on. Or had they already pulled the plug?

Griffin

We were already stumbling. We got it through conference. I don’t know when we got it to conference. We got it through the Senate in July, the last day before the August recess. To have a major victory was an important thing for the President and the Presidency, but in terms of that classic Congressional-Presidential dynamic it was still about healthcare. It was just collapsing, and that’s what Dole was trying to get traction on. So to come through with a major victory while he was shutting us down was very important to the President.

Riley

Yes. He signed the crime bill on September 13.

Griffin

Do you have a conference date there? No, you probably don’t.

Walcott

How active were you in those conference committee dates?

Griffin

I was around for all those conference—on this bill?

Walcott

On this bill, or in general—

Griffin

It depended on the issue. This bill I was very much involved in for a variety of reasons. Even to the last minute, Brooks was trying to kill this bill in conference and we thought we had worked out a deal with Dingell. I’ll never forget, I was down there until about one o’clock in the morning. I came back to my office. I thought we had it just about wrapped up. 

I got a call from Dingell, who was emotionally upset. He said, Patrick, you know what I’ve done? He was on the board of the NRA [National Rifle Association]. He said, I thought you had made this representation to me and— he called him ‘Brooksie’ —is telling me that this is not true. Dingell was so upset. We worked it through, obviously, but boy, there was a lot of broken china after that.

Riley

But as a routine matter, the members didn’t treat conference committees as forbidden ground for the administration?

Griffin

No, they welcomed—

Riley

I was uncertain as to whether there was a sense of institutional protection about that.

Griffin

No, I think it depends on what the strength of the Presidency is at the moment. Sometimes you’re the determining factor, and sometimes they’re just running right by you. But you’re at least an important resource.

Riley

Something else that’s filtering around during that first year that probably is complicating life on the Hill is the campaign finance measure?

Griffin

Yes. That and lobbying reform.

Riley

Were you slow-walking those?

Griffin

Well, this is where my loyalty, I guess, was being compromised.

Riley

Do tell.

Griffin

It was clear that these guys were not going to do that on the Hill, and I guess I wasn’t totally convinced of the reform agenda. I made a mistake in that. Part of why they lost in ’94 was that they were still operating in an old school way. Clinton was on to something that the Congress wasn’t yet. Given the way their constituencies are arranged, they felt they could kind of hide for a while, but eventually it was catching up to them. 

Clinton was doing them a service. Those issues were ones where we should have pushed harder. I don’t think I was alone in it. People realized that they were not going to cooperate. Part of the problem is that we had so many irons in the fire. We were up there asking for so much, and wanting them to do hard things for us, and then asking them to fall off cliffs for us. The equation wasn’t quite equal. I think it got lost in the shuffle. People were understanding that that wasn’t going to—Newt knew the value, when he took over the House, he rammed through the lobbying reform stuff. They backed away from everything to do with campaign finance.

[BREAK]
Walcott

I just asked Pat what the day was like. He’s staying until at least 10:00 and he’s got to be in by 6:30. And then he was talking about how it didn’t always work out as nicely as that.

Griffin

Well, it wasn’t bad. The day got extended. What we were saying was that sometimes you just get home, just about put your feet in bed and you get a call. It’s the White House operator saying, Mr. Griffin, the President would like to talk to you. Please hold. Sometimes he’d come right on, or you’d be in a queue when he’s got four or five people he’s trying to get to. 

One time he called and was railing about—I think it was [Henry] Waxman, or it may have been Senator [Jeff] Bingaman, actually. I don’t remember. He was watching some CSPAN testimony and he said, You talk to him. You straighten him out on this. I said, I will, Mr. President. I went to sleep and the next morning we were doing our regular briefing and he said, Well, what did Waxman say? What did Bingaman say? I just hadn’t a clue of what he was talking about. I completely forgot. 

This happened a couple of times when I got caught. I forgot what he had said. The same thing would happen to Stephanopoulos a lot more because he’d read press—he’d get an early clip or something. George and I—one of us went to the White House operator and said, As soon as he puts us on a call list, will you call us so we can at least wake up? They were great. They would give you rings, You’re in the queue. You at least get a notepad.

Morrisroe

In mid-1994 you also have the retirement of Justice [Harry] Blackmun and [Stephen] Breyer’s nomination. Can you talk a little bit about your involvement and the involvement of the office in the confirmation hearings or the vote? I know it was a fairly smooth confirmation—

Griffin

I’m trying to remember. It didn’t seem like it was going to be very problematic. That was one good thing. Steve and I worked together in the Senate years ago so it was a pleasure to see him again in this capacity. I hadn’t seen him in years. We did some courtesy calls together. A lot of the nominations—again, trying to compartmentalize the activity—I would ask John Podesta to get involved. He was good at and appeared to enjoyed it—I would give nominations to him unless it was a real problem—in any event, if there were problems, John would always be able to think it through. Unless I had to be with him he would handle it. 

In this case, I think I took it within my staff because of my own relationship with Breyer. I remember meeting him. He was staying at some wonderful home in Georgetown. I remember driving out in one of the White House cars to pick him up, and seeing him. He was all ready for his Hill days. He knew exactly how to handle himself so it turned out to be very pleasant, as opposed to some of our nominations, which were a lot more challenging.

Morrisroe

Can you talk about some of those?

Griffin

The one that was the most difficult—and I’m blanking on the name. 

Riley

Henry Foster [Jr.].

Griffin

Henry Foster, the doctor?

Morrisroe

Yes.

Griffin

They’re all doctors, I guess.

Walcott

Surgeon General.

Griffin

That was tough. I’ll never forget it. There was a lot of scrubbing his credentials because of some of the controversy around his early research at Tuskegee, and what his association was in that. I remember the day we were going to make the announcement. He was sitting in the lower floor of the West Wing with his family. I had seen him there as I had come up from the mess. I heard there was a quick meeting in Harold Ickes’ office. 

Riley

Harold has a big enough office to have a couch, now?

Griffin

At this point now, I think he’s upstairs—

Riley

He got his real estate.

Griffin

He got real good real estate. He proved himself. He was Deputy Chief of Staff at that point, I think. I got buzzed to come right up to the office. I’m walking past and see the family. They’re all excited. I didn’t say anything because I figured I’d be spending a lot of time with them. I ran up there, and they’re debating whether or not to go forward with him. An issue just surfaced regarding some research he was involved with prisoners and VD.

Morrisroe

The performance of abortions?

Griffin

Oh yes, abortions. Yes, and the numbers—that was it. This thing is kind of unraveling and I’m saying, This is incredible. The Vice President, who had joined us, was on the phone with somebody. I can’t remember who it was. Harold, myself, and I don’t remember who else was in the room, but the Vice President really took control of the situation and said, Let’s calm down here and go through this thing. He actually put it back in the box and we obviously went ahead. But that moment—I just couldn’t imagine what that conversation was going to be like. 

Needless to say, that was a very tough process that didn’t work out. John was very helpful with that, but I just kind of moved around. I didn’t spend a lot of time on nominations. I tried not to.

Walcott

You mentioned the Vice President. You haven’t talked much about the Vice President’s office as a group of people you dealt with. Were they active on the Hill? Did you have to work with them?

Griffin

Well, Clinton and Gore were operationally very close, and there was evidence at the time of friendship. What that meant for us was whoever was his Chief of Staff was in all of our meetings in the morning. At first it was Jack Quinn, and then Ron Klain. There was somebody in-between. They were integrated into our decision-making. They clearly were there to protect the Vice President’s agenda, whatever that was, and to get the Vice President’s agenda as high up into the West Wing’s agenda as they could and at the same time to make sure the Vice President got associated with it in that context. They worked very hard to protect him. That was understood, and that’s how it went on a day-to-day basis. 

They had two staff guys. Mike Feldman and [Thurgood, Jr.] Goody Marshall were their alleged guys and they were wonderful. It was part of that whole thing, just bringing them into our group. They were really assets to me and to our team. They would help us on our stuff and we would help them, of course.

Walcott

Were they doing that before you got there or was that something you had worked out?

Griffin

They had that role. They weren’t legislative persons, but the Vice President has that office up off the Senate floor—his own personal office, and an operational office, which we used as our base, but which is technically his office. So he had his people staffing that. It just was a natural. I don’t know how Howard worked it. I don’t recall any tension between him and the Vice President.

Morrisroe

What role did Gore play, as a former Senator, in lobbying efforts?

Griffin

His real contribution from a legislative point of view, and I would imagine in other aspects in the White House, was his ability to help the President close. He had the option to be in every meeting that he wanted to be in the Oval—when we were briefing the President, and I guess in others as well. He was in every Congressional meeting. He was a standard in the official sheets that we sent up in my name. He was always on. Some of that, I didn’t quite understand why he wanted it. It was pretty unnecessary, but he would be there.

In the leadership meetings when we were working through a strategy or trying to come to closure on a strategy, like in the gun thing, he was a big muscle there, but Clinton clearly was dominating on that. We would queue him up. We’d say, We’re trying to accomplish this in this leadership meeting. We need you to kind of one-two-three. He’d lean back to me while we were briefing the President or walking over to the Cabinet room. This is what we want and, boom, he would just one-two-three, do it. He was just excellent at that. 

I am not sure that was what the President really wanted him to do. So it was a great marriage in that regard. He didn’t have a whole slew of friends in the Senate, though. He was not a clubby guy. It was always a little ironic to me that the Clintons picked him. One of the reasons was that he knew the Congress. I never thought that that was the way he identified himself. I think he liked being an idea guy, not really like a Senate person. I didn’t see that as a strength as much as not being afraid to hammer home an ask, if necessary. 

Walcott

That early on did you have any sense of tensions between Clinton and Gore?

Griffin

No. I never understood the dynamic, but it seemed to get them what they want.

Riley

How was their relationship with Bob Byrd? You worked with Byrd, didn’t you?

Griffin

Yes, I feel like I still work for Byrd.

Riley

Is it a lifetime job?

Griffin

Yes, and I wear it proudly.

Riley

What was their relationship with Byrd?

Griffin

It was strained in a way, but Byrd, as I’m sure you know, is such an institutional man, and totally identified with the institution. If the institution was being slighted, he was being slighted. I think at times he acted that. But he acted that with any President. It was never easy. Byrd had gone to the Appropriations Committee so I think there was a little sensitivity there. Byrd, it seemed, wanted some special connection with them, but I think there was a generational thing, and a cultural thing, that never made it comfortable. 

I remember bringing him down one day. To me, he was a huge figure in a lot of ways, and he was still pretty vigorous then. All of a sudden he seemed like a little boy in the White House. It really confirmed this notion of his respect for the institution and just being a piece of this whole play. It was interesting to see. At first I thought it was about Clinton, but I don’t think he was intimated by any personality. I think the office really made him childlike in a wonderful way.

Walcott

That reminds me of something you were getting at before. We’ve heard from a number of people in other administrations that people somehow go into the Oval Office determined to tell the President what’s on their mind and straighten him out, and they wind up kowtowing and saying, Yes, sir. Yes, sir. They turn around, march out: I really told him. Did you get a sense of that?

Griffin

Oh yes. I don’t recall anyone telling off Clinton. Although I thought the three leaders talking to him was on the gun thing impressive—nobody really tells the President off. It is pretty awe-inspiring in that room and you know you’re not just dealing with a personality; you’re dealing with something much larger. So I think it’s good that it’s tempered. People get their point across without being obnoxious—but President Clinton never did that either. I don’t think it was in his nature. We could never get him mad enough to yell at somebody. All we had were carrots, we had no sticks.

I can remember possibly one exception situation with Moynihan—it’s not that he wouldn’t personally say or ask, This guy—what is he doing? Why is this guy not helping? Just out of frustration, sometimes. Moynihan was screwing him on this healthcare thing. We were trying to get him (Clinton) to really put the squeeze on Moynihan, to ask him personally to help him do this thing (health care legislation). We knew the President was just going to turn into mush in the meeting. So George and I—I don’t know if it was planned or just serendipitous—started telling the President, Moynihan said this, and, Moynihan said that, trying to get him ginned up at angry with Moynihan so he would be tough in the meeting. Then I opened the door and let Moynihan in. It was the first time I saw him say, You know, Pat, you know—He was tough for a while and it still kind of fell off. Nevertheless, it was the most tense exchange that I had witnessed. We had schemed about maybe making this a model, to have the guy right outside the door when you—

Riley

That’s fascinating. The President had a temper, although you suggested that the public accounts of it are overblown. But it wasn’t the case that you could creatively use that temper?

Griffin

No. He would express his anger and frustration about this or that. Sometimes it made sense; sometimes it made no sense at all. That’s why Gore was so different—his aggressiveness could be channeled in a way to force an issue, to say, That’s not adequate. We’ve got to do this. It didn’t seem to be Clinton’s nature to do the same. 

Riley

Was that because Gore’s personality and temperament were different, or was it because he’d had more experience on the Hill and maybe had seen these interactions with other Presidents and knew what it took to—

Griffin

I think it was more personality and temperament. Everybody knew we had to get a decision, but Clinton was just not—he was going to persuade you, and then somebody had to be the hammer.

Riley

We’ve talked a good deal about the President’s own time in helping you do your job, but there are all kinds of other things that are available to somebody who’s trying to lobby out of the White House—in your relations with Congress, whether it’s trips on Air Force One, or boxes at the Kennedy Center. Tell us about the arrows in your quiver and the relative usefulness of those things in terms of helping you do the work.

Griffin

The biggest one is helping members get their projects. That’s a big thing, and particularly at those moments when you’re trying to get a vote. That’s your biggest, and winds up often being the most expensive. Sometimes it’s just helping them get something in the pipeline. Sometimes it’s stuff that comes completely out of the blue and they imply, Well, if you want me bad enough. That’s the biggest cookie in the cookie jar.

The smallest is like the tchotchka stuff—sending up things like cuff links, ties, and stuff like that, signed things from Clinton, pictures. Those are not quid pro quos but those are helpful in building relationships. My Chief of Staff was Tim Keating, who was brilliant in many ways. He was like the master sergeant in Stalag 17. He was amazing. He was selling everything, but for the good of the cause. When I left he packaged me up with stuff. I never thought of him that way, but he was very successful. 

State dinners were big deals—ones that they or anyone wanted to get into. You didn’t offer that up. You would kind of build your own capital. Internally that was hard to do. That was really worth a lot because the Mrs. and the President reviewed who’s on that list. The social secretary and the folks over in Mrs. Clinton’s office guarded that. Every constituency had somebody to plug in there. Occasionally, I would send over a handful of names. I knew I’d only get a handful, particularly if there wasn’t a policy reason. That was always a big tension. Then, maybe going yourself was kind of fun, too.

Riley

Did you enjoy those, or did they get to be burdensome after a while?

Griffin

Not the state dinners, no. The state dinners—well, I only went to ones that I wanted to go to. Dinners over there generally—we had to put on black tie and then be out ’til midnight. It just seemed so masochistic. I would rather do anything else than go. 

One that I remember was fascinating. It was when Hussein [King bin Talal] and [Yitzhak] Rabin spoke. It was stunning. These guys—being there in a small room. Queen [Lisa Halaby] Noor was also stunning sitting next to Clinton. But these men, given what they had gone through personally, and in their countries, they were talking about each other as brothers. It was just incredible, an incredible night. 

I was sitting next to Rabin’s Chief of Staff, who had the speech in his pocket that they had written for Rabin. The room was jammed—we put in an extra table or two, because they were so much in demand. He couldn’t get to Rabin to give him his speech. The guy is dying next to me. He’s melting in sweat. He’s saying, You don’t know this man. You don’t know him. He’s going to kill me. He’s just going to kill me. I’ve got twenty hours on the plane. He’s going to kill me. He’s going on and on. I said, Give it to him. I’ll give— No, no. Don’t. He’ll be embarrassed. He’ll kill me more. Rabin gets up and he does the thing without any notes at all. So there was a little side drama in there. 

There were one or two others that you’d want to go to. People liked it because you’re in the press the next day—who was there, and who’d you go with, and all that stuff. State dinners were definitely a big deal. 

Being on Air Force One was probably the biggest deal, I think, either flying someplace or going with the President, landing in your own district. The majesty of that plane, the size. The coolest thing I ever did in the White House was being on Air Force One. It was really fun. 

Riley

Did you travel often on Air Force One with the Clintons?

Griffin

As much as I wanted to. I always found it a relief when he was gone. You can get stuff done. You immediately get control of your own schedule when he’s out of the office. There were Congressional trips I would be delighted to let staff go on. Some things I had to go on and some things I wanted to go on. But I missed a lot of big trips.

Riley

For members this was a big deal?

Griffin

A big deal, a big deal. Going on international trips. Those trips to Ireland. It was like The Love Boat. The whole Irish atmosphere—and when Clinton would go to Ireland, the way he was received—it was just this grand time even though it was serious business, and you’d come back and everybody was all buzzed. I missed two of those. Susan Brophy, who was a real Irish pol—my deputy—she loved to go and I encouraged her in going. 

The international trips were great, but coming into your district or your state was a big deal, or to be able to fly back with him—that was big. You know, just seeing him, or getting a call, getting him to take a call—each one of those things—

Riley

Sure.

Griffin

Then, the extent to which these things became public, so that these guys could get something out of it.

Riley

Clinton didn’t use Camp David all that much, did he? 

Griffin

He didn’t like Camp David. The golf up there wasn’t adequate for him. I think he got to use it a little more in the second term. I only went up there once or twice myself. We kept arguing it was a political tool, but I think he just found it confining.

Riley

Sort of tracking us through on the calendar, we’ve gotten pretty much up to November of ’94. I don’t know that there’s anything else before then that you can think of?

Morrisroe

One thing I was going to mention, and I don’t know if you have any recollections on this or not, but one of the major pieces of legislation that went through early in your tenure was the education—the Goals 2000.

Griffin

Right. Goals 2000. That was a great accomplishment, I thought. Bipartisan. Secretary [Richard] Riley, that’s right. He was a wise guy and pol, very helpful. Clinton respected him. Congress worked well with him. The things I remember are the things that got stuck, that became controversial. Clinton was very proud of that and that was part of our early momentum.

Walcott

Was that an issue on which the departmental legislative people were very active or was that something that came to the White House?

Griffin

The President really had that as part of his campaign agenda, and Riley was influential in helping him shape that, but also, as Governor, it was a real part of what he believed in. One of our major policy premises was investment in the future. It was about education and—

Walcott

I’m thinking in terms of the actual lobbying. Departments have those people, and then there’s always, it seems, a variable relationship between your office and the departmental legislative people.

Griffin

Right, and my lead-up was only to say that this really was important to Clinton, but given that Secretary Riley was a person that he respected, it was easy to, at the highest level, share that. Operationally we worked well together getting it done. That wasn’t the case in a lot of—

Walcott

That’s where I was going to go next. Were there cases, were there were departments, or people, that you had a hard time working with?

Griffin

No. It was a challenging job but people cooperated. It was something—Howard had set up an irregular meeting with the top Cabinet folks, Assistant Secretaries in the top agencies. I then set up something where we met every Friday with every agency, from NASA to Treasury. We had an ongoing deal, which I think was very helpful. These folks didn’t know what we were doing half the time. They wanted to be kept informed. To lobby me, to lobby inside, was part of it, but just sharing information helped us build a good working relationship.

Our dynamic when we were in charge of both houses was that we wanted to push stuff out to the agencies and say, You take responsibility. The President’s agenda was narrow and focused. It was very different when Republicans took control. We didn’t want our agency people up there negotiating with their authorizers or their regulators. We wanted to control what the agenda was, so we pulled everything in. That became a little more challenging at times. While we might not be doing well, a particular Cabinet level Secretary might have been working a good deal. That wasn’t bad, but we wanted to be part of that as well. The way we handled it in the first year helped us manage that second year. I don’t know what they did after that.

Morrisroe

Did you have any control in the staffing of the liaisons in the departments?

Griffin

Yes, I had influence but a lot of them had already been in place. It was a good relationship. I enjoyed working with them. I appreciated what they were doing.

Riley

Let’s go back to the chronology. You had mentioned that one of the most important things for a President and his relation with some members is trips to the district. Based on some of the materials in the briefing book, evidently the President became fairly active just before the midterm election in ’94, in terms of getting out into the districts. Does that comport with your recollection?

Griffin

Yes. You mean in ’94?

Riley

In ’94. Were you encouraging him?

Griffin

No, no. That was purely a political campaign, a political decision.

Riley

Tell us about the run up to the ’94 election. 

Griffin

From my point of view, stuff was pretty much put to bed in September and October. I did not seek to get involved nor was interested in getting involved in how that ’94 election was going to go. It didn’t feel good, and it really wasn’t any way I positioned myself in the White House. I think [Tony] Coelho was giving him advice on this. I recall some resistance, or questioning whether or not the President should get involved, from his own politics, and whether or not it would help. At some point they made a decision that he should do it and it was kind of a frenetic array of activity that clearly didn’t work. I didn’t get involved.

Riley

Were you getting feedback from the members at this time about the advisability of the President investing his time this way?

Griffin

It was bits and pieces, but they had gone. They were home so I wasn’t in the center.

Riley

So when you are out of town you don’t have much interaction with them at that point?

Griffin

Oh, no. On a regular basis I would, but this was to go home for an election. Really, there was nothing to talk about legislatively. We had set up—remember we had the lame duck after that?

Riley

Exactly. Were you surprised at what happened, at the results of the election?

Griffin

Yes. I think we all knew we were in trouble. We didn’t think we’d lose everything. 

Walcott

Describe the atmosphere in the White House right after that.

Griffin

It was horrible. It was like waking up after being on an all-night binge and you slept in your clothes on a park bench. It was just horrible. You just felt that you got run over by a truck, it also felt self-inflicted—I guess everybody managed it differently. The folks who had to talk about it, spin it, the next day—I walked around in a daze for days just not knowing what to say, what the reaction was going to be. The fingers were all pointing at everybody. Congress, the Democrats were blasting Clinton, blaming him for everything, which I don’t think was accurate. We made a lot of mistakes, but I don’t think we singularly caused the loss of control. We contributed in a lot of different ways. The gun thing contributed to a bunch of those seats, but I don’t think that was singularly responsible for losing control. 

Part of it was the Democratic-controlled Congress that did not want to deal with any reform issues. They were still holding on to another world—whether we should have done more on that. The Whitewater stuff—all of it. It was pretty singular in focus in blaming Clinton. He felt horrible. He was very shook up by it and was inclined to take the responsibility. But as you thought about it more and more, it just didn’t make any sense. It was more complicated than that. So you had to get through that. 

We came back and we had to do the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade treaty]. We did GATT for one purpose. Doing lame ducks, particularly if you lose is so—I’ve been there before, working in the Senate, and it’s a horrible feeling. Then trying to figure out, What do you do? I don’t think those guys expected to win. I think they expected to pick up a lot of seats, but nobody expected to win, so they didn’t know what to do. It took a few months.

[BREAK]
Riley

What I was going to ask you about was the adjustment process within the White House. Were there people you felt were really in the lead on the business of trying to make sense of the new environment? If you’re asked the question, Who really managed to come to grips with this quickly in a responsible way? Is there an answer to that, or is everybody pretty much coalescing at the same time around the new environment?

Griffin

Well, there was a real tension at that point between outside influences on the President and inside. The outside influence was Dick Morris and the inside influences, in terms of the overall strategy, were Leon Panetta, who really was a very grounding influence in the transition, Harold Ickes, and George, in terms of the overall strategy and message, in where to go, and what the issues were. There was a lot of tension, a lot of negative tension to it. It did not feel good. There were different meetings going on. Morris also had brought in Mark Penn, and Douglas Schoen actually was more involved.

I was not involved in the day-to-day of that. I was involved in trying to help them sort out what that might mean Congressionally to the overall strategic plan. What I was doing was watching the Congress and seeing what they were going to do. I don’t think they knew, except they had the Contract with America. That became the cornerstone of their action. Dole did not buy into that initially at all. He was still from the old school. It was a hard time. We didn’t have a strategy. It was just a lot of fighting and Morris arguing for these little initiatives.

Riley

Morris was not—I mean, there was an interval there before his presence became known, is that right? A brief period of time—

Griffin

He was starting to show up at the end. He showed up actually before the election, I think. I don’t think anybody knew that. Then he had this surge of influence right after the election and it was still pretty below the radar, and then it emerged. He was referred to as Charlie through the whole thing. I really pressed Leon—Leon did not want him to meet with us and he was going around. I felt it was important to have him in the room. He would have been easier to manage. Leon was hoping that he could contain him in a way. He eventually did come in the room and we had regular meetings and all that. Even what we were arguing about really didn’t matter because the ultimate strategy had very little to do with all the hand-wringing. It was really taking advantage of Republican missteps.

Walcott

Did you have a relationship with Morris beyond attending the same meetings?

Griffin

You mean, did I know him socially?

Walcott

Did the two of you talk strategy, talk politics?

Griffin

He would try to court me but I didn’t seek it out. I didn’t have the investment that Leon did because they were trying to manage a whole process. So I could hear him better in a way than some of the other guys did. Some of it made sense, but there was so much tension about it on an interpersonal level. It was very counterproductive. Our strategy in the long run was defined by what the Republicans did or didn’t do, and being able to take advantage of that. Clinton rising to the occasion for the country after the Murrah building was blown up really was an important turning point.

Riley

Did you have a lot of internal meetings with your staff about making changes in your approach or how you were going to deal with a completely different leadership structure?

Griffin

Eventually we did. We honestly didn’t know what we were going to do. No one had ever done it before under these circumstances. We didn’t know what it was going to look like day to day. I remember talking to the President and others about what our overall approach was. Look for the deals where they exist and pick the big fights. But that was little guidance because once we got started, Newt took off like a bat out of hell with a hundred-day march to doing the Contract, so all the action was immediately there.

When we started working with the committees we found out two things, one is that Newt gave the order, We’re not into compromise. We’ll cooperate but we’re not going to compromise. They had the votes to do everything. They weren’t asking us. It was kind of shocking at first because there was always some kind of back-and-forth with Republicans up until then from our side, maybe not that much in the House. That was the first thing.

The second thing was, even if you wanted to talk to somebody you didn’t need to talk to the committees, because Newt had consolidated everything in the leadership. There was no reason to talk to the chairmen about any issue. In that regard it was actually kind of easy. For the first hundred days or so we just watched. There really was no action.

Riley

What was the temperament of the Democratic survivors on the Hill? Were they willing to be cooperative at this point or were they angry or shell-shocked? Were they still trying to figure out what life was going to be like in the minority?

Griffin

All the above. They were very angry and hostile to us. They were completely—they had a whole identity crisis, particularly in the House. At least the Senate had been in the minority not too long ago. The House guys were very angry. Then they had a real identity crisis in figuring out what to do. These guys were used to setting down a mark and boom, go. 

I remember spending a lot of time talking to some of the old chairmen about the validity of making a point or making an issue, or establishing a record, even though you can’t pass legislation. They didn’t understand the need to do that, because why would you say it just to say it? There was a lot of that. Recognizing what it meant to be in the minority was tough. Those guys had been pretty rough on their minority for the last 40 years, so these guys were a little bit like Bosnia, with their new found power. 

That took a while but it sorted itself out over time. It’s not because there was a grand plan. Time did kind of manage it. It allowed Clinton to be detached or decoupled from the Congress, which was something we were all beginning to realize before the end of the last year—that we got too involved in legislation, had too big an agenda. That was striking to me, not that I had any great perspective on Presidential politics, it just seemed like it was too much to be worrying about. Losing the control, actually, was liberating after you were able to see that in some positive light. 

Then the Murrah building blowing up was just an incredible experience in all respects. Clinton rose—it was kind of his 9/11. There was a bump in approval numbers. I remember Morris saying, This is not a spike. This is something that’s going to be in his base. And it was. He never got below 52 or 53—ever, even through impeachment. Morris had some insights that I thought were valuable.

Riley

Did you go to Oklahoma City with the President?

Griffin

Did I? I don’t remember. Yes, I think I did. What I remember mostly was the day it happened. We got called back—it was Saturday, I believe. It was a recess, so it felt like a Saturday. Wasn’t it April?

Walcott

Around the 19th.

Griffin

It was kind of a laid-back day.

Walcott

That’s my birthday. That’s when everything happens.

Griffin

I remember I was in jeans. The leaders had already gone. I was told to notify Newt and Dole and everybody. I reached everyone. I got hold of Newt in Georgia. He said, What’s the lay of the land? We were on a secure phone. I said, We had just got briefed in Leon’s office and they were targeting some Arab fellow in Chicago. I remember him saying this. That doesn’t sound right. Anybody raise anything about militia? To that day I’d never heard that word raised as an issue in the White House, never heard it as a real threat. 

I went back to Leon and told him what Newt had just said He said, I just got another briefing, or a call from—I forgot the Secret Service guy’s name—and they said they think it might be some militia ties. Neither one of us had really ever paid any attention to that phenomenon at that level. I was stunned. It wasn’t in our initial briefing record, but also it wasn’t in our world view. Newt knew about it and knew the potential danger—not in a critical way, but how it had been so segmented. It was remarkable to me. It just kind of rolled from there. 

Newt was great. I mean, they were all wonderful how they cooperated on all that stuff and—

Riley

But it made a part of their agenda—it complicated a part of their agenda, didn’t it? It clearly was a turning point for the President. Part of the reason it was a turning point for the President was because all of this language about jackbooted thugs became out of balance at that point, right?

Griffin

You mean Newt’s use of that?

Riley

I don’t recall Newt ever having used that term, but there were other—

Griffin

You mean going back to the assault weapon ban and all? 

Riley

Yes. Or a kind of general anti-government—

Griffin

It made government more sympathetic and Clinton knew how to fill that void. He provided a role as a national leader to comfort people. He really had an amazing capacity to do that. That’s a very authentic part of him and it worked in a way that was sustaining. I don’t think it affected their agenda in the near term, except it put the light on Clinton in a sympathetic way. Having been elevated in that way, what he was saying about them became more credible. 

What they (the Republicans) did was they took the wrong page out of our playbook and just tried to drum up an agenda that was aggressive, over-the-top, no predicate laid for it. The Contract with America was something they schemed up the year before. Now they were stuck with implementing it. They started believing it and they thought the country was with them. 

 Clinton gets this little halo over him, turns it around and says, You know, they’re just going too far. And much like the way I think this administration is going now, instead of modifying the tune, they just kept playing it louder and louder and it only worked for us. Then you had little anecdotal things happening where Newt flips out because we asked him to go out the back of the plane coming back from Rabin’s funeral where we frustrated every attempt from him to be alone with the President. We knew why he was angry and we can talk about it, but it made him look eccentric and out of touch.

Walcott

In your view, did a lot of these problems go back to Gingrich? I know he was, in some accounts, he not only believed there was a mandate but took himself to be virtually the prime minister at that point.

Griffin

I loved Newt. He said that the Presidency was irrelevant. At the time he said it we weren’t too sure he was wrong. I said, No, I think we have veto, and— but I wasn’t sure. Everything seemed so topsy-turvy. We didn’t know. I think when nobody challenged him he got way out there—I talked to some of his staff guys. One of his principal guys at that time is a partner of mine in my firm and his chief of staff remains a good friend. They all kind of rolled their eyes went back when they heard him make some of over the top comments.

It seemed like he was building a momentum in his own mind with his newly-elected crowd to believe it. Dole was very leery of that. All the evidence I was getting from him personally and from his chief of staff, Sheila Burke—we had a really good relationship—was that that’s not how it works here.

Riley

The Senate—Newt showing up on the front page of every news magazine for four or five months was the biggest thing in the universe. But the Senate didn’t take too kindly to it.

Griffin

No. It wasn’t Dole’s style. It wasn’t the way he would do it. These weren’t the issues that Dole really cared about. And Dole had said some of those things. In the end they all did wind up over in the Senate and we had to manage them. But the unfunded mandates initiative was the only thing that passed and we supported that right out of the box. It was more about the politics of the Senate.

Riley

I want to dial back and ask you about the period that would have been, I guess, in the transition. I don’t know exactly when Congress formally changed hands. There’s a historically important Presidential activity with respect to Mexico—the peso crisis. The initial thrust is to get Congress to take action on this. Can you tell us about it? I’m getting a knowing look.

Griffin

Oh yes. I’m actually in Rubin’s book on it. He sent me a copy of it. We had just finished our wrap-up in the evening. We were at Leon’s office. The way our day was structured—we started our day there and ended there. You look at the three networks. Imagine that, there were only three networks at the time. If your story was a good story it had moved to the top, or if it was a bad story it was moving down to the third story or nothing. That was a good day. Bad news fell off the top three stories, or good news was up.

When that was done we’d all sit back and hang out. We were just sitting there shooting the bull. Rubin, who was part of our morning meeting as head of the NEC [National Economic Council], was just confirmed that day as Secretary. We all loved him. We had enormous respect for the guy, as decent as he is brilliant. He knocks on the door and he says, We’ve got to speak to the President right now. It’s like nine o’clock, 8:30. I look outside Leon’s office and there’s all these blue suits out there—all these guys from Treasury I didn’t know.

Riley

That’s the uniform over there?

Griffin

Yes.

Riley

You’re in your blue jeans—

Griffin

If you’re in the international side of Treasury. Let me tell you how the President is dressed when we meet with them. Bob says to Leon, We’ve got this peso crisis. We’ve got to act immediately. I’ve got to talk to the President now. He has to sign this. Some authority. I said, Why now? What do you mean, now? 

He said, I’ve got to see him now. I don’t mean 9:30. I said, Is this is the first you’ve heard of this? There’s something off here. He says, No, no, no. Leon gets that Rubin is not going to go anywhere. He calls the President. We all go over to the Oval in about a half-hour. Clinton comes over in a kind of madras shirt and jeans and his cowboy boots, with a Coke. 

The Vice President comes shooting in and these guys are all in suits and I’m sitting there and I’m still watching. What now? There was no memo saying this was happening. It just felt really off. I’m making this face and I’m saying to Leon, up until we got over there, This smells off. They want the President to sign this declaration for something that night and get Congressional authorization. We’re going around this and finally Leon says, Pat, do you have anything to say? 

I said, I think this is ridiculous. I think this is insane. Why now? These Treasury guys started explaining. I said, No, that’s not my point. The President has to make a decision tonight? This is crazy. Well then, what do you suggest? I said, At least let’s bring in the Congressional leaders — and in the course of that, several of us said, Can’t there be an Executive Branch only solution? No, no, no. Absolutely impossible.

We need to submit legislation—that’s right. Just the opposite, I said. We can’t do this alone in the Executive? They respond, No, no, no. We’ve researched this thoroughly. This is absolutely impossible. We need Congressional authorization. The President has to make this announcement immediately. The markets are going to spin—I don’t know—one way or the other. They said, What do you want to do? I said, Let’s at least bring the leaders in and explain this and get a little buy-in on this thing instead of just whacking this thing out tonight 

The President says, All right. Can you get a meeting? I said, I don’t know. I went out and we arranged for an eight o’clock, or nine o’clock meeting the next morning with the four leaders.

Riley

This is the new leaders?

Griffin

The new leaders—Newt, Dole, was it [Thomas] Daschle at that point? Yes, and Gephardt. They came down first thing.

Riley

Would this have been the first meeting with that group of four people?

Griffin

Probably was. They were all there and Rubin lays out the problem—we need legislation. These guys are all—they’re trying to make an assessment here. What’s going on? I feel at least I’ve slowed it down enough to kind of tease it out some. Newt and Dole, who clearly are internationalists, were very sympathetic. They said, Look, we understand what you’re trying to do. Let us go back to our caucuses. We’ll call Pat and let him know what happened.

They went back, they had caucuses that day, and they (Dole and Gingrich) said, Well, we are sympathetic but no way, José, from here. We are not going to do this legislatively, bailing out Mexicans, Then we got into this whole conversation about whether to go inside or outside. There were questions about whether Bob was going to be personally liable if we used some obscure authority they ultimately found. My counterpoint was, I don’t think we can get this done, if we don’t.

We obviously did it without the Congress. It created a very interesting dynamic between Bob and me. He addressed this issue in his book. He had me quoted in some fashion about telling him he would have to leave town and he was somehow screwing the President with his initial strategy..

Riley

You thought that he was screwing the President?

Griffin

Yes, the way they were boxing him that night. He thought it was, in retrospect, a meaningful exchange, but he was sweet about it. That was a big deal.

Riley

Did you just abide by the report that you got back from the leadership?

Griffin

Well, to me it was common sense on the part of the leadership. We were not going to get the Republican majorities to bail this President out and give money to Mexico when we were hating the Mexicans because they were different from us. It didn’t take a lot. 

Riley

I got the point. 

Griffin

But Newt and Dole were consistently more sympathetic on international matters than their caucuses. They could not deliver their caucuses. On Bosnia, on a lot of these issues they were genuinely trying to help but they would go back and say could not—their caucus had changed so dramatically—

Walcott

In Newt’s case it was that he was being pushed by the freshmen, the ideologues. 

Griffin

Absolutely. These guys were passing resolutions of condemnation of the President while we had troops going to Bosnia. Unprecedented. It was so different from the Vandenberg days, the kind of xenophobia that came out after the Wall came down. 

[James] Schlesinger has written that there are these moments when people feel good about the wartime buildup. The way they treat the President post-those times is a function of that. If they didn’t feel good about the previous buildup, the President pays. This President paid because they didn’t feel good about the buildup of the Cold War. The contrast that he makes is to say after World War II where that felt like an appropriate national—not initially but ultimately—the cooperation is a function of that feeling. Some argue that what we were into in the ’90s was trying to reassemble that. 

Riley

We really haven’t talked much about foreign policy and there were a number of crucial developments even in your first year. I guess Haiti—that was in ’94. Then there were some problems with the North Koreans and—

Griffin

And Jimmy Carter.

Riley

Did you have a staff member whose expertise was explicitly foreign affairs-related or were you just basically handling this as a part of your general portfolio?

Griffin

The NSC [National Security Council] had a fellow who was their liaison, who reported to me but worked for Tony Lake, or [Samuel] Sandy Berger—Bill Danvers, who was another one of my partners. Again, we just made it one big team and that worked for me and Tony and Sandy. There was a real complement. We weren’t always in agreement. We always felt that the National Security guys generally were a little politically tone-deaf. They really are. There’s no evidence that that’s changed in this administration either. I had some Defense competency in my shop, but not National Security. 

The North Korea thing—we really didn’t have a Congressional play in that. There was nothing really driving it, legislatively. There were developments in Haiti. In the end, I think Clinton did the right thing. There were politics influencing our strategic relationship with Africa, and the Caribbean—again, that xenophobic mindset that I was just describing also had a racist tone to it. It wasn’t an overlay but there was an echo in there of racism as it related to Africans in the Caribbean. The African origins made focusing on a Congressional strategy a non-starter, notwithstanding the President getting a lot of pressure from the black caucus and from Florida because of the Haitian immigration problems.

I thought there were real concerns about [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide, some of which have manifested themselves, and were being brought to our attention by Jesse Helms. Some of his concerns obviously were legitimate. Ironically, the guy who worked for him then is now the point person on all this. That had a big Congressional play and none of it was positive.

Riley

And that was during the period of time when the Democrats were still in control of Congress.

Griffin

The Democrats weren’t resistant; it was just that there was no cooperation. But the racial aspect of it was palpable at some level.

Walcott

What were you trying to do? I assume some of their complaints about the President went through you and on up.

Griffin

Well, the complaint that I heard was, Let’s not get distracted here. It was not seen as a priority. It was just like this administration did not want to see it as a priority and he’s paid some price for that. Clinton thought it was serious and was convinced that it was a priority and was willing to spend the political capital to address it. Not having addressed it, you can’t prove the negative, but it would have been a lot messier.

Walcott

What was your message to those members who were opposed to what he was doing or thought he shouldn’t have done it?

Griffin

I was carrying the substantive line that this was important in terms of stabilizing the situation in the country itself. We had the three heads of State,—[Raoul] Cedras and his two buddies. There was a potential impact on Florida—I was arguing that we needed to take initiative here to mitigate any adverse impact that might arise in this transition. It would be difficult since there would not necessarily be an immediate payoff. But they were trying to characterize him (Clinton) in some of their pushback that he was just knee-jerking in his response to the African-American community. There was a lot more evidence that this was a very serious situation that would have an impact on our leadership in the region and also on our shores in Florida.

Walcott

Were, for example, the black caucus asking for an opportunity to talk to Clinton?

Griffin

Oh yes. I don’t know if it was the whole caucus but I think it was [Charles] Rangel, among others. I can’t remember who it was. But Clinton, he was there. His focus on these issues was impressive to me. He didn’t have the long history with them but he would pay attention and he would make decisions pretty quickly. In retrospect, at least in the issues I was involved in when I was there, he did a good job. I think we made a couple of big mistakes.

Walcott

One of the standard criticisms of Clinton is he made too many decisions with his finger in the air checking the wind. On an issue like Haiti, was there a political calculus that was influential in what he did, or was he doing it because he thought it was the right thing to do?

Griffin

I don’t have that impression of him in foreign policy at all—that he was doing that. In fact he took some steps that were not in his political interest. He relied heavily on his National Security staff and he would weigh heavily what the chiefs were telling him. I didn’t see the political calculation in foreign policy very much. You can’t escape some aspect of it. The politics around resistance to going to Haiti was there whether we wanted it or not. But I don’t think it determined his decisions. 

Riley

On Mexico the political calculus was exactly the opposite.

Griffin

He wanted to act. He wanted to act, no matter what.

Riley

But it was not a public opinion winner.

Griffin

No. It wasn’t going to happen, and I didn’t want him to act and fail. Well, no one wanted him to act and fail.

Riley

As you begin to adjust to the new environment on Capitol Hill in ’95 with the Republicans in control, are you thinking about becoming proactive again once you’ve adjusted to that new reality by the middle of the year?

Griffin

No, we never did. The whole focus was on their budget and shutting down the government. The only play in town was to have an alternative budget. The President exercised enormous leadership in getting his caucus to recognize that. They resisted at every point, arguing that we didn’t need an alternative. They felt they could beat the opposition since the opposition proposals were pretty extreme relative to other proposals over the years. They were easy to attack but Clinton knew that was not going to be sustainable strategy. That’s when he really realigned the party—at least from Washington, not from the bottom up—moving them to the center around coming up and eventually coming up with a Democratic alternative. 

First we came up with one that balanced the budget in ten years and then ultimately we came up with a seven years one with our priorities. There’s another little story about that, but that’s at the end of the year. That was the total focus. First, they were too far out of step. Once we establish that, he went to the caucus and convinced them we had to have our own. That was the message frame for the rest of the year.

Walcott

Were you involved in the discussions when that strategy—

Griffin

Oh, yes.

Walcott

Were you pushing that point of view? Who was on what side?

Griffin

I felt that he was right. However, these guys were acting understandably from a minority caucus perspective, but it wasn’t in the President’s interest and it wasn’t the way to beat these guys (the Republicans) in the end.

Walcott

Was the White House pretty united on that strategy or were there disagreements there?

Griffin

There were some. George remained a little more sympathetic to the Hill in that. I’m not sure. The question was how far to go. Where I felt Morris was not productive was trying to get Clinton to cut a deal at any price. Leon and I were cinched at the hip in saying if we can come up with a good deal, let’s take it. George, I’m pretty convinced, would have liked to kill the deal. I’m talking about as we’re marching through summer, September, getting close to the shutdowns and all that stuff. We felt that we should negotiate in good faith. It took a long time to get to good faith, and some silliness in between sides of the table and who’s in the room and all that crazy stuff. In the middle of all this, Morris is talking to [Trent] Lott, his former client, and Lott is giving him this information, If Clinton would just say this in the leadership meeting, I think I can sell it. 

I was talking directly to Dole and to Sheila Burke and there was no way these things were doable. Clinton wouldn’t tell me that Morris had told him, but he was coming up with things that I knew Morris was talking about in other places. I’d say, Mr. President, it’s not going to work. Leon knew what was going on. A couple of times Lott would share one of these ideas in a Leadership meeting with the President. Clinton would wait and see if the idea would get any was getting any resonance. Often all of the R’s present would just ignore Lott’s comments. Not sure Clinton would get what was going on. This was a little silly dynamic that was going on through the whole year. 

We’re now at Christmas break and we’re still in a stalemate. We were going seven days a week—not every week, but all you do is one and then a six-day week feels really hard. We’re all gone. I’m in the Bahamas with my family. I have a little house down there. Leon is in California. Harold is the only one back in the White House with the President and we left with the understanding that, Let’s not negotiate against ourselves. We now have a seven year balanced budget on the table with our priorities. Let them come back with something. We’re still stalemated, but the government is now operating. 

I get a call from the White House. Mr. Panetta wants you to come back right away. We all go flying back—I think we were gone three days or something like that. We return into the snowstorms. We had 37 inches of snow and we were all stuck in our house, being driven by government Jeeps to get to work.

Riley

From the Bahamas.

Griffin

We get there and what happens is Harold gets a sense that Morris is making traction with Clinton to pop up with another offer while we’re all out of town. We all got back and we just sat on the President. We wouldn’t let him talk to Newt and it worked. They broke. The week we got back we worked through New Year’s Eve. We were in these big meetings in the White House and then Dole said, I surrender. I’ve got to go run for President. 

We got a brilliant budget that led to an incredible year. Dole leaves. Newt and Lott realize they’re just going down the tubes as a result of the shutdowns and not getting anything done, for which they were getting the lion share of the blame. They began to realize they could lose this whole thing (the majority). Consequently, they begin to cut deals with Clinton on welfare reform, tax cuts for small businesses, minimum wage, a little healthcare bill, and then ultimately the budget. They get reelected with larger margins, and Clinton does, too. The formula that works to win is the one that they then refuse ever to do again with Clinton and are made to swear, by their base, never to cooperate with him again. It was really incredible. 

Walcott

Overall, how would you evaluate Dick Morris’ contribution to Clinton?

Griffin

I think it was a net minus overall. He’s a smart guy. He had some interesting insights. However, the baloney drama that he created in the way he conducted business discounted so much of that contribution. He had his own craziness. He had something to contribute. Had he done it in a more constructive way it would have been a net plus in the end. 

But this silliness about whispering to Clinton and whispering to Trent Lott—not only was it silly, it was so wrong. He did not understand the process or the players to recognize—well, if you were whispering in Bob Dole’s ear, that could have worked. Trent Lott was a marginal two-bit player in this process. Dole hated him and would have done anything to isolate him. To think there was a play there was naïve. There was a big blind spot that I think impaired his effectiveness in the long run. But he had other notions that I thought were helpful.

Walcott

Did Panetta try to rein him in?

Griffin

Oh yes, fiercely in the beginning. That’s what I was saying, I think it was more damaging when he was trying to keep Morris separate from the senior staff. In the end, he rolled him in with the rest of us and the dynamic became more manageable. It was the right thing to do because it diluted the impact. He was getting more power by being this little secret Charlie running around the edges. It empowered him or made him look bigger than he was. Once we got through that dark nuclear winter of those first three months after ’94, and we got traction on where to go and how to manage against the Republicans, it was a much more traditional game.

Riley

I guess what I’m trying to do is to track what you were spending your time on in most of ’95. We have a pretty good sense of the issues and so forth in ’94. Is it the case that the budget was pretty much the item that was occupying most of your time? Were you involved in organizing defense against the Contract? Are there veto threats that you’re trying to gin up and organize?

Griffin

Fair question. In the first three months it was just trying to find our sea legs again. They, the House leadership, had isolated us out of the process. Nothing is going on in the Senate. We’re helping to organize our Democratic allies—trying to get through the who struck John of the election, rebuilding our relationships with our Democratic colleagues in the House, helping them express a voice against the Contract. There were no legislative negotiations going on at all. None. Zero. That’s one activity.

The second activity emerges around the appropriations process and the first rescissions. There was a great battle on the first rescission brewing.—It was the first time they were using supplementals as a vehicle to cut everything. We had submitted a supplemental that they turned into a $21 or $24 billion rescission measure. Leon and I were both involved in that. It was a big deal when we went up there. We said we wanted it drastically reduced. [Robert] Livingston and [Mark] Hatfield were the chairmen at the time. We said, If you don’t do it, we can’t support it. They ignored us. They were going to move ahead. I subsequently delivered the message to Livingston’s chief of staff and Hatfield’s chief of staff that, The President will veto this if you proceed. 

They passed it. Clinton vetoed it, and it just blew their socks off. They could not believe that he did that. Livingston went to the floor and said that Leon and I misled them. I think they had gone to their leadership and said, We can roll Clinton. He’s a wuss. They were still feeling bullish against Clinton. It was a very big turning point legislatively. So you had the Murrah Building speech and then an apparent victory on having the Congress sustain his veto. As a result, Clinton’s numbers slowly turning around. This was as close to a legislative victory as you could imagine or hope for. 

If you remember, I don’t think there was another attempt to override a Clinton veto, and there were many vetoes. I don’t think they did. I don’t think they even made an effort to override, it spooked them so. They never wanted to give Clinton the voice he got back from pushing back on them. It was a big part of their unraveling legislatively. We took that as a big victory and then we were able to move into the budget stuff.

That stopped all the appropriations activity. It wasn’t because of anything we were doing in the committee—they just couldn’t pass their own appropriation bills. Whatever bills they could pass in the House, they couldn’t them through the Senate. All legislative activity stopped as a practical matter. At that point, everything else was seen through the lens of the budget process all the way through the end of the year.

Riley

That’s mostly occupying the fall.

Griffin

Well, I think it started early summer—the back and forth, building a consensus with our own party, working up to our own seven-year or ten-year. That took a lot of effort and then the fall was really full tilt. 

Riley

Within the administration is Panetta—would you say he was a key force in—

Griffin

Yes, Leon was a very important force. But our economic team was good. Bob was now Treasury Secretary. Joe Stiglitz, Alice Rivlin. We had a good team. It was a first-class economic team that worked pretty cooperatively.

Riley

And at this point are you beginning to find that the spirits of the Democrats are rallying a little bit on the Hill? Things aren’t looking quite as bleak as they were in February or March?

Griffin

We don’t know where it’s going but it certainly looks like Clinton is the leader and they’re kind of falling in behind him—begrudgingly, but this is the better way to go. These guys are stumbling (the Republicans). Instead of shifting their strategy, they just screamed it louder and louder. We’re going to shut down. Did you hear we’re going to shut down? We’re really going to shut you down. We’re not even going to pay the debt. Their strategy was stunning to us. We were tracking the polls. They’re just falling off, but Newt is trying to hold them. Then, in the summer, what shifted is that some of the Contract stuff got into the Senate and we started screwing around with malpractice. There were three tort bills. I don’t know what else there was.

Riley

A balanced budget amendment.

Griffin

Yes, we did that, I guess. 

Walcott

Those were items that the House passed the Senate wouldn’t buy. 

Griffin

We spent time on it.

Walcott

You worked a lot of hours, especially in the Senate?

Griffin

Yes, we did that in the old-fashioned way—you’d see whether or not you could improve the bill and then stop cloture or get cloture.

Walcott

Did you work mostly with the Democrats then or were you willing to work with Republicans who might vote your way?

Griffin

We would work with anyone. As I recall, the only one that was truly threatening was product liability and that was because [Jay] Rockefeller had this longstanding history with it and was anxious to try to make it work. [John] Danforth was still in there and he had some interest in it also. They were working in a very traditional way. It was to improve the legislation. On some legislation we wouldn’t even begin to work with them, but if we couldn’t then we’d work on cloture votes.

Riley

Is your memory good enough about some of those meetings around the shutdown for you to tell us a bit about those? You were in the meetings with the leadership and the President when the issues were coming to a head.

Griffin

The one I remember most vividly—we didn’t meet around the shutdown. It was negotiating how to get it back open again. 

Riley

You were essential, I take it? 

Griffin

I was part of passing language back and forth. The one day I remember, we had been shut down for a week, I think, or maybe a few days. We had gone with the seven years and our priorities. It had been sent up there. I got sick on Thursday, a kidney infection or something. I collapsed. I got home and I couldn’t move. Leon calls me and says, Aren’t you coming in? I said, Leon, I can’t. He says, You’re really sick?

I don’t even know how I got to the doctor’s. My wife got me there and he gave me some stuff. I went in Saturday and I’m sweating. The fever broke. We’re all sitting there. I’m sitting in George’s office and Clinton comes in from a run. No, I’m standing outside and he says, Have you gone back to them on this thing? You have to explain this. He has just come in from the cold. There is smoke’s coming off of his running suit. He says, Come on in. We go through George’s office and we go into his little back pantry there and into the Oval. The lights are still out. I can see the main door ajar and the sunlight from where Bettie Currie is. He’s saying something to me and I couldn’t make it out. 

All of a sudden I hear from that door, Pat, Mr. President, they bought it. They bought it. We look and there’s my chief of staff, Tim Keating, coming in the other door. He says, I just got word. They were calling for you. They took the language on the framework of the agreement, a balanced budget in seven years with our priorities. That got things going. We were in pig heaven. All this stuff that Clinton was telling me to do—he was just absolutely delighted, I knew it. I knew it. He was so proud of it. He was always wanting his achievements to be put on these little laminated cards that no one ever got around to doing. He said he wanted this agreement to be laminated and he would hand it out personally. 

I had Tim make 500 laminated copies of the agreement, of the deal. Clinton had them on the back of his desk there and he’d give them out to everybody. I was the only guy who paid attention to that minor thing.

Walcott

I hope you kept some.

Griffin

You know, I wonder if I did. I bet Tim has some. That started a whole new round of negotiations. That was around Thanksgiving, I think.

Riley

Yes, the first one. There were six days around that time.

Griffin

The government remained open, I think, after—

Riley

It came open again for what? About two or three weeks.

Griffin

I think it rolled all the way through from there, didn’t it?

Riley

There was a six-day shutdown and then the Federal government shuts down on the 14th of November and the shutdown lasts through the 20th.

Griffin

Yes, that’s the day.

Riley

Then the federal government shuts down again on the 16th of December and that shutdown lasted until January 5th.

Griffin

Until we made the deal.

Riley

Right. 

Griffin

That’s right. I guess we were all working through the shutdown.

Morrisroe

You made the essential cut, essential to government service.

Griffin

I’m afraid so. Some of my staff didn’t.

Riley

Had you decided before all of this that you were going to leave after two years?

Griffin

Yes. I told the Vice President first and he broke it to the President. And I told Leon around the same time. 

Riley

Before you had your kidney infection?

Griffin

It wasn’t that. It was more personal. I was convinced if ’94 had anything to tell me it was that this was going to turn political again about the campaign, which it absolutely did. Except for missing—some of the deal-cutting would have been fun. I have no regrets about leaving.

Walcott

Do you think in general a couple of years is long enough to serve in the White House?

Griffin

I think in the job that I had. There are a couple of jobs that are just unbelievably demanding and it depends on the culture of the White House, as well. The Press Secretary job. My job. The Chief of Staff. Andy [Card] seems to have done a great job in the way he’s managed himself. I could have made one more year, but I have no real regrets on that. Coming in there I was really fortunate to have such two dramatically different experiences, between being in unified party control and opposition. That was a real opportunity for me to learn and see so much. I benefited from what Howard had to do to start that up from scratch and didn’t have to pay any of the price of the start-up cost, so I really felt pretty grateful for that.

Walcott

Did you and Howard Paster have any interactions after you got there?

Griffin

Yes, I’d call him once or twice. We all talk about it. It’s hard to call your predecessor. It’s hard to call anybody outside. You really have to make a sincere effort to reach out, the thing is so consuming. I’ve talked to Nick since he left and he said it was the same way for him, although they appeared to have a different work ethic. But it seemed pretty rigorous to me.

Riley

You said when Panetta came in and became Chief of Staff that the operation shifted. It was a much more disciplined decision-making process.

Griffin

Yes.

Riley

Did the daily schedule become more predictable and more rational at that point, or was it still all hours of the day and night?

Griffin

Leon was very catholic in his work attitude. He worked very hard, so we all did. It didn’t change in terms of the amount of work, there just seemed some order in it and a little more focus. But the job—there’s nothing that happens that doesn’t have a Congressional play or a press play, so you’re reacting all day long. How you decide to handle those big crises and mini-crises is a function of a very few people, so if Leon is available 24/7, you’re available 24/7. And you wanted to be, too. We were too exhausted all the time. I think that was a mistake. Somebody should have said, Look, you cannot be operating at your best if everyone’s walking around with big circles under their eyes, and that’s what happened. We should have addressed that. If I were to go back ever, I would not permit people to be that tired.

Walcott

Can you think of any particular consequence? A ball getting dropped, a decision in the middle of the night, or was it just a kind of a cumulative thing?

Griffin

Not in particular, but I know you’re not thinking clearly. How you treat your colleagues or how you might slop up an opportunity because you’re short with somebody on the phone about something that has nothing to do with what’s going on—it’s a lot of that. No, I don’t have anything in particular.

Riley

We didn’t talk much about the investigations in the second year. Are those still consuming a lot of your time?

Griffin

Yes, they’ve changed. Now your opposition is investigating you, but we’re organized internally and we have a process to handle it. But you’re anxious. It’s oversight, subpoenas, the money, the attention that it’s drawing, which I think is part of their strategy. I think they always hoped against hope they’d find something on the Clintons on it, but they were delighted to keep us distracted and have some of our best talent worrying about it, and they did. I don’t think it upset Clinton though. I think he knew—their lawyer made them act in a way that made everybody suspect, but he never seemed—he seemed agitated by it, but he never seemed obsessed with it. Mrs. Clinton was a little more affected—it fell closer to her, I guess.

Riley

We were talking before we all convened about one of the benefits of doing oral history, which is that we fill in the spots where the record is silent. At some point in the briefing book you said that you made it a practice of not creating paper trails. Can you tell us a bit about that? Why is it that you were reluctant?

Griffin

Well, I had a pretty long career in Washington already, before I went to the White House. I learned a fair amount from working on Capitol Hill and being secretary to the Democratic caucus under Senator Byrd, and then being in the lobbying business. It just made a lot of sense, given the way information is used and exploited, just to control yourself on paper. A lot of people used paper because they think they’re claiming their own mark in history by having all of this, either in the moment or for some book they’re going to write, and clearly people did do that. I made a choice that that was not why I was going to the White House. I didn’t think we were going to get into the messes that we did get into. Thank god I did do what I did. It just seemed a healthier way.

Really, I think it does come from not trying to—once you get past the obvious—you don’t want to wind up on the front page of the [Washington] Post. If you’re not trying to carve your place in history by all of these documents it’s a lot easier. It’s liberating.

Riley

If your memory’s good anyway. 

Griffin

Yes, and in that context I did really—I remember Harold saying, How do you remember this? I never carried paper. I had a couple of cards, but I never carried any paper. He couldn’t imagine how I could keep all of these legislative things going. The more you did the better you got at it.

Walcott

Did the presence of the prosecutor affect others in the White House that way, in terms of not wanting to write things down, not wanting to be on the record?

Griffin

I don’t think the Watergate stuff spooked anybody that dramatically. My attitude had nothing to do with that. It was just a way of working in town and what I was going to do or not do in the White House. Other people came to the White House thinking this was their time in history and they were going to mark it out. The first series of investigations I don’t think scared anybody. The second series of investigations is when it really became consequential, whether or not you had paper. That has changed White House operations probably forever, or for the foreseeable future.

Whether it’s [Richard] Cheney trying to prove that, You can’t get at me and I’m going to add the credibility back to the White House. He’s not recognizing the cow’s-out-of-the-barn element.

Riley

If you look back on your time there, is there a time that you feel was your greatest accomplishment, something that would be obscure from reading press reports, a place where you really felt you made a difference that maybe others hadn’t realized?

Griffin

I’d like to take some pride in the way I did my business. I can’t imagine an event or an issue that doesn’t have a thousand fathers, particularly if it succeeds. I felt that I went into the job at a time in my life where I saw it for what it was. It was a real opportunity. I wasn’t building my career. I had no intentions of angling it to make something else. That was liberating and it allowed me to work with people and issues in a way that felt very satisfying in the moment and in retrospect. I feel very proud of the way I conducted myself. I don’t know what contribution I made beyond that. I honestly don’t. But I feel like I was on the level in there. 

What I could see happening is that there were a lot of young people, a lot of people trying to build their big move, write the big book, make the big—become Secretary, if not this time the next time. It seemed like a very confining outlook. Whether they thought it or not, from the outside you could see every move through one of those prisms and sometimes it made them look very stupid—bright people looking very stupid. The leaks to the books and to the press. That was so shocking to me.

One of the greatest trips I had with Clinton was when we went over and did Normandy. I went over on Air Force One. I had a slew of members who came over in another plane with some of my staff and I had a handful on Air Force One. It was a big moment for him. The question was whether he could touch these veterans whether he could touch these veterans. 

I hadn’t really been a student of that era any more than I was minimally required to, so it forced me to know more about it and to watch these memories of history be recreate, at Anzio and Normandy with these incredible ceremonies. One of the first opportunities was in Normandy. He gave his first speech to these veterans right in front of this big memorial, looking at the audience and behind them, a gigantic cemetery. Just incredible. All these veterans out there from World War II, all their brothers buried behind them. It was just so powerful, and he did a brilliant job. I’m still kind of new to this, only a couple of months into the culture of the organization but I am knocked out by the whole event. 

We go off to one of the holding rooms inside the actual monument. The galleys of [Bob] Woodward’s first book are somehow available to our folks in Washington. I don’t know if you remember it but it captured quite a few folks on the record talking crazy stuff about Clinton, who struck John of internal decision making and deliberations and Howard Paster talking about Mack’s incompetence. We’re sitting around a table like this with Mrs. Clinton, the President, and a few others. George and others, maybe Dee Dee were on the call from Washington. They’re reading us various excerpts highlighting some of what I thought were outrageous comments and anecdotes. George is saying in response to each of them, Oh, we can work that, that’s not a problem, we can put context to that one, etc.

I’m thinking, Whatever made these people say these things, on the record, no less? People who are in the employ of the President. If you ever pick it up, it’s just stunning read and a case study on how not to work with the press. I never quite got why nobody got fired for it. There was a lot of screaming and yelling but nobody was let go. When I worked for Byrd, if the press called—even if you didn’t take the call, I’d get anxious. 

Riley

For the record, the respondent twitched. [laughter]

Griffin

There was something so professionally immature in that, that was disturbing. But it got better. Again—Panetta helped, along with the natural maturation of the organization. All of this angling and posturing didn’t serve the President well. Had the President been able to fire a person or two around any of these issues, he would have been well served. But he just wasn’t like that. 

Walcott

If you were advising the next President, would you suggest maybe a few less people from the campaign and a few more who’d been around Washington a while?

Griffin

No. I think the tension was healthy. Keeping an eye on balance is probably important. It’s hard to get through all that without a little growing pain of being a campaign and then turning into a governing entity. Nevertheless, you’d need to know the difference between the people who gave you the energy and got you elected and people who were going to govern. I don’t think you can escape it. 

Walcott

That’s another balancing issue, balancing the people whose primary concern is elective politics and the people whose primary concern is policy or something else. How do you feel the Clinton White House did in that respect? 

Griffin

Well, in the first term—I always say I was lucky enough that we were there fighting on issues. We really fought about policy. I think that ’95 was an incredible year and historically will be an important one. We were talking about our view of what America should be, and they were talking about their view. The public, in that moment, chose us. But when we’re debating the issues and Democrats won by most measures. The budgets were the metaphor. The total budget was a metaphor for our world view.

Riley

Can I ask you about Bob Dole’s role in this? You said you worked a lot with Dole during this period of time and you just mentioned that there were these two competing views, but I get the impression that you think Dole was somewhere in between.

Griffin

Oh absolutely. Dole was—he is a good man. He was a good legislator. He had a world view that was clearly different from the Democratic world view, but he also knew how to get things done and that blend was always impressive to me, whether I was working for Senator Byrd or lobbying. I think it would have been different had the Contract with America not been on the table. We would have had a different debate. But that became the impetus to the framework for the budget and he got locked in.

Riley

What is your sense about Bill Clinton’s legacy for the Democratic Party? You’re somebody who comes from a Hill experience, and yet you had a President who was the first re-elected Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt’s time. Have you thought about whether on balance it was a plus or a minus for the Democratic Party?

Griffin

It was definitely a plus. He finally brought the Democrats, to a place where they could stand proudly that was beyond the ’60s. We were stuck in the ’60s, which was generally viewed as adding one social program after another. Clinton was big on programs but he could also talk without program-ese. It was helpful having Democrats talk about values and vision in a way that they were not able to before—they just kept adding up old programs and never added to anything that had a national appeal. He reversed that and made a real contribution as a result.

One of my biggest regrets is that I wasn’t more aggressive on some of the reform stuff he was trying to push, because I think he was right in what the Hill needed. I don’t think we could have pushed harder and won. I just wish I had better understood what he was trying to do.

Riley

What are we not asking you about? Are there things that we’ve omitted that you think would be important for us to have on the record about your time there? We followed the chronology. You may even have some good stories that we haven’t heard.

Griffin

I think the budget thing. That was a big deal. I’ll just work backwards quickly. It really did realign the party, and it also helped Clinton go forward in the context of the troubles that he had. Had he not gotten it right, even if they (the Democrats) were resentful of him pulling them and redefining them, the second term would have gone very differently. You couldn’t imagine much greater challenge from his own Party. 

Riley

What’s the most fun you had while you were there?

Griffin

That battle in ’95 was the most exciting. I really felt I was fighting for something that was important and clear. It was simple. We didn’t have 30 pieces of legislation to push. It was our budget resolution versus their budget resolution. We were all kind of rallying. It was challenging. We knew we were pushing the limits of the Party. But I felt it was right. It was like a big chess game and we were all a part of making it work. So much was at stake, and to have that finish up with a win, that was good. It was a great note upon which to depart for me. It felt like a natural break. All the other stuff seemed to get wound up in the upcoming scandals—even though I wasn’t there, having been brought back into it some —that was hard.

Walcott

Taking all that into account, the good things, the way it ended—on the whole was Clinton’s legacy a positive thing for the Democratic Party for now and for the future? Or do we have to look back and say, What a missed opportunity?

Griffin

I think you can make a fair case on any of those things, but regardless of his personal legacy, he did help the Democratic Party redefine itself as much as one can do from the top down. I don’t think that will ever go away. I don’t think you can take that away from him. Were the scandals a distraction? They were. They were an enormous distraction, unfortunately. Had we not been in that—they (the Republicans) knew how powerful he was. If he had four years to hammer them, now that he had the Party realigned some—it must have been a terrifying prospect for the Republican leadership. Yes, in that regard, there was some forgone opportunities—you can’t do everything equally well. It was unfortunate.

Riley

Were you called back to consult with them during the second term on matters?

Griffin

Yes. I was asked to take over the Fast Track, to be the czar on that, and I turned that down. I just did not believe the world really wanted it and I wasn’t going to pick up in the middle of that. I said to Ron Klain, I don’t want to get in the middle of this with Gore if he doesn’t want to do this. I knew Ron could not say he didn’t want to do it. He said, He’d have no problem with you taking it. I remember Byrd telling me, when he was trying to line up votes, You’ve got to listen real carefully. If they ever say to you, ‘No problem,’ you put them as a ‘No.’ I said, Okay, I get it. I didn’t say that. I just didn’t take it. 

Then, yes, on some of the impeachment stuff.

Riley

You did consult?

Griffin

Yes.

Riley

Can you tell us a little bit about that? Was it basically vote counting? Or, How do we deal with this?

Griffin

It was basically helping them try to understand Senator Byrd a little bit more, which was very difficult. Not that I had any crystal ball, but I think I added some value, some perspective.

Riley

Could you tell us what your take on Senator Byrd was at that time?

Griffin

Senator Byrd was very troubled about Clinton’s behavior, but he was also fiercely angry at the Republicans in the way he thought they were exploiting this. He was very upset with what went on, but he did not think this was appropriate. He saw it for what he thought it was—pure politics to distract the President. He was kind of torn in that.

Riley

I’m trying to remember—he would not have been supportive of censure?

Griffin

We never got to that. Clearly, that could have been an option in the House. If these guys, in my judgment—these guys being Republicans—operated on the level, that would have been the way to go. You probably would have gotten virtually a unanimous vote or close to it for censuring the President for X, Y, Z—whatever they felt they needed to do. They probably would have gotten the Senate as well. That would have been a very different statement in history. 

They continued to undermine their own credibility. They severely incapacitated the President from doing anything aggressively policy-wise, but they didn’t accomplish anything. Well, maybe they accomplished what they wanted, stopping him, but I don’t think they wound up looking very good. They lost seats in the off-year election and they certainly created the deep divisions in the country that I think we’re living with now. And they solidified the Democrats. 

Walcott

During the time you were there, or during the Clinton period, did we lose the center? Are there now too few moderate Republicans, moderate Democrats—people whose vote isn’t predictable and who can talk to each other?

Griffin

There’s still an opportunity in the Senate. I think it shifted. We certainly lost a ton of them in ’94, mostly rural Democrats in the South. There’s still a center if somebody wants to lead from the center. There’s another phenomenon going on here that people are deciding, strategically or otherwise, it’s better to just dig deeper into your base and do retail politics. If you look at certain polling, there’s a wealth of opportunity there. It seems very dangerous to play to that right now. Statistically there’s a smaller center.

But I don’t know what comes first. Are the ways people are acting driving people to Party identification rather than centrist? If somebody stepped in there and tried to do something from the center out I think there would be a great appeal for it. If somebody led from there, then people might act differently in response. 

Everybody thought that [George W.] Bush was going to have, at least in part, a center-out strategy. It’s pretty shocking that, other than some rhetoric around education, he’s never made a play. When he does make a play, it’s a half-hearted play. On the Medicare thing—had he moved enough to take Kennedy into that bill—which he could have done, right? Kennedy supported the bill in the Senate—that would have redefined that whole initiative, where he would not only be neutralizing his opposition on that, he would be riding a real issue into this election. 

But their desire to carve Kennedy out even though he was so close reinforces his desire to— If I can’t make it a Republican victory, it’s not worth any victory at all. He’s paying the price for that. The same thing on immigration. When they fade to the center they don’t do anything to sustain it. I’m not trying to nail Bush. People are making strategic choices. They can’t be that stupid. They’re just saying, I’ll do this minimally, but then I’ve got to get back to my base. It seems like it’s a very deliberate choice. I don’t know whether or not anyone’s going to pick up that centrist mantle, but I think it’s still there. 

Riley

Would you ever go back and work in the White House?

Griffin

I love the thought of it, but I doubt it. 

Riley

Maybe you should explain the premise for that. 

Griffin

It’s a young man’s game, a young woman’s game. I can’t imagine a job in there—

Riley

The charm of the place is still there for you.

Griffin

Like Byrd, I feel humbled by it. I’d love to go back again. The more you know about it, if you could have the energy, you would relish it more deeply and treat it with even more respect. Ironically, I’m leaving my company shortly. Senator Daschle has asked me to come and help him. His team asked me to come up in October to take a particular job and I didn’t want to do it, but I said, If you ever have need for somebody to just come up and help around the edges, I’d be glad to do it. They called me a week-and-a-half ago, and said, We have a slot. Would you come up and do strategy and member relations? So I said okay. It’s causing a lot of consternation with my partners, but I’m going to do it. 

Riley

A schedule on the Hill is a little more forgiving.

Griffin

Relative to the one I had, yes. It’s only to the end of the next year.

Riley

We’re very grateful for the time, Pat. It’s been illuminating as well as a lot of fun for us to hear from you. We know that your time is worth an awful lot, so it’s kind of you to come. This will be a wonderful addition for the archive, and we’ll take you at your word that we will not be interviewing you about a future President unless Mr. Daschle decides to run at some point.