Bill Clinton's Exit Interviews

The outgoing president enters his final spin cycle.


One of the great, though largely unacknowledged, benefits of Campaign 2000's bizarre, attenuated endgame is that it has soaked up time that would have otherwise been given over to media summations of Bill Clinton's presidential legacy.

Given an ordinary election, the weeks between November 7 and the inauguration would have been filled with mostly nostalgic appraisals of the Man from Hope's tenure as the nation's chief executive. (It is one of the sad truths of American journalism that the press almost inevitably goes soft whenever a major figure, however controversial or reviled, exits the public stage or dies; indeed, we can only await the reverential encomia that Sens. Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms will receive when they finally shuffle off their mortal coils.) Instead, we have had mostly silence on the topic.

Whether the contested election has cancelled or merely pushed this discussion back a few months remains to be seen, but at least one partisan has been doing his best to make sure that the Clinton legacy is understood in its fullest, most nuanced glory. That person is, unsurprisingly, none other than Bill Clinton himself. His early efforts leave something to be desired, especially when it comes to the public humility, however self-evidently phony, that Americans esteem in their leaders. For instance, we've learned recently that Clinton only grudgingly accepted a constitutionally mandated retirement, musing that "maybe they should limit it to two 'consecutive' terms" and that he thinks he would have easily won a third White House race given the opportunity and the current competition. Such braggadocio, even when it's accurate, is not exactly the quickest way to win hearts and minds.

Clinton, a master tactician, realizes that burnishing his reputation will require the sort of permanent campaign he brought to his eight years in the Oval Office. (Luckily for him, as the empty-nest spouse of a freshman senator he'll have plenty of time on his hands. Then again, given the diversions he pursued even while maintaining a full schedule as president, idle hours may be his most serious challenge yet.)

Such understanding may explain his renewed public affection for the sage of San Clemente, Richard Nixon, who Clinton says once counseled him that "a lot of life is just hanging on." Notes Clinton of the man who conducted secret wars and cover-ups, "He…lived what I thought was a fundamentally constructive life….I thought he paid a high price for what he did."

In two recent, high-profile interviews, one in Esquire and one in Rolling Stone, the outgoing president has outlined the general strategy for his final spin cycle. Characteristically, he seems to be relying on equal measures of self-pity and mendacity to secure his place in history. There's no question that Clinton has a number of achievements worth crowing about—he was that rare bird, a candidate elected to two full terms, and he presided over a meaningful reform of welfare policy and a balanced budget. Federal spending in 1999 was 18.7 percent of gross domestic product, the lowest it had been since 1974. (The flip side is that 1999 revenues came in at 20 percent of GDP, the highest peace-time level ever.) However, he seems more interested in taking credit for a largely undocumented sea change in American attitudes toward government.

This comes through in the Esquire interview, which was conducted in late August and appeared just days before the November election. At the time of its release, the interview drew attention less for its content and more for the provocative magazine cover that announced it: Clinton sits splay-legged on a stool, hands on knees, smiling for the adoring camera as if it were Monica Lewinsky carrying a pizza and a tin of Altoids.

But the interview is memorable too, if only for its subject's audacity. "I entered the environment which was unprecedented, where the other party decided that from the moment I took my hand off the Bible, taking the oath of office, they would try to delegitimize me," he says, casting his White House years as a triumphant tale of David vs. Goliath (that the Republicans were in the minority in both houses of Congress in 1993 complicates this more than a little). "I think the connection between what we do in Washington and to how people live is closer than it has ever been because of the way we conducted the business of government," says Clinton, who adds that his administration cut "through a lot of the meanness and antipathy toward the government per se that existed….It's much harder to, at least overtly, practice the politics of division than it was. The president is supposed to be a unifying force, not just in rhetoric but in fact."

These are, to put it mildly, curious claims for perhaps the most divisive politician in recent decades, one whose basic response to any and all perceived adversaries was to attack their moral standing and integrity (just ask Billy Dale, the slandered former head of the White House Travel Office). It's not clear what Clinton is talking about when he calls himself a unifier, given that he failed to win a majority of votes in either of his elections. And, according to the Gallup Poll, the percentage of Americans with "a great deal" and "quite a lot" of confidence in the presidency has not increased during the Clinton years. In March 1993, the figure stood at 43 percent; in June 2000, the most recent date for which Gallup reports, it stood at 42 percent. Over the same time frame, Congress has consistently garnered ratings in the 20s on the same measure. So much for renewing faith in government.

More to the point, such claims obscure one of Clinton's great signature flourishes, which is to undercut his own authority and administration policies depending on the situation and the audience. Clinton is in fine form on this score in the Rolling Stone interview, which was conducted shortly before the election and which appears in the Dec. 28, 2000–Jan. 4, 2001 issue. When asked whether he considered his acquittal in the Senate trial a sign that Americans had grown more comfortable with liberal sexual mores, Clinton responds, "Not really. People strongly disagreed with what I did. I did, too."

The president similarly disowns his "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military as a plot foisted on him by crafty Republicans, especially then–Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. Forget that Clinton had campaigned on the eminently defensible idea that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces and had pledged to issue an executive order allowing it. Here, he casts his own policy, which he once touted as an "honorable compromise" and a sign of his progressive bona fides, as a nefarious plot designed to create a "controversy that would consume the early days of [his] presidency."

Precisely why Clinton never revisited the issue during his tenure is left unexplained, as is his seemingly inconsistent stance on gay marriage. (He's against it, even as he asserts, correctly, that gays should have equal rights.) We are left with a man seemingly as dumbfounded by his own administration's policy as we are.

Then there are these tidbits about marijuana: "I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been de-criminalized in most places and should be. I think that what we really need—one of the things that I ran out of time before I could do [it] is a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment."

Such eminently sensible attitudes are close to earthshaking: a president of the United States openly endorsing the decriminalization of pot and a fundamental restructuring of criminal penalties for drug offenses! We're only left to wonder where Clinton was during the past eight years, as state and federal marijuana arrests continued to climb, as did the number of prisoners doing time for nonviolent drug offenses. Or where the president might have been in 1996, when both Attorney General Janet Reno and drug czar Barry McCaffrey threatened doctors in Arizona and California with license removal and jail if they dared prescribe medical marijuana in accordance with new state laws there. Could this be the same guy who canned Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders in part because she dared suggest that drug legalization was worth studying?

Examples of this sort, in which Clinton responds to his own actions and policies as a puzzled outsider, can be multiplied endlessly. For instance, in the Rolling Stone interview, he implies that it was the Republican Congress that insisted on only "narrowing," rather than eliminating, "unconscionable" disparities between crack and powdered cocaine. In fact, the administration sought the same goal, even proposing to lower the amount of powdered coke necessary to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Let one more instance stand in for the rest: In September, the president expressed shock and disappointment at the way the government denied Los Alamos' Wen Ho Lee due process during the scientist's nine months of solitary confinement. "[The case] should be disturbing to the American people," Clinton told reporters after Lee was released. "We ought not to keep people in jail without bail unless there's some real profound reason."

Indeed, what should be especially disturbing is a chief executive who admitted that he "always had reservations" about denying Lee bail but did nothing about the way his Justice Department pursued the case. More disturbing still: Three weeks after the president made his comments, he headlined a fundraiser in New Mexico for congressional hopeful John Kelly, the lead prosecutor in the Lee case.

This willingness to separate himself from his own administration may in the end be Clinton's truly novel contribution to presidential politics; if this gesture does not exactly originate with Clinton, he is surely its master practitioner. (In the end, even Nixon, in his own fashion, copped to what his plumbers had been up to.) It is a powerful way of both taking and dodging responsibility for any given action or policy. It simultaneously blunts criticism and presumes assent. It casts manifest failings in political nerve as occasions for sympathy. It is, in short, a brilliant Machiavellian ploy.

"Whether I changed the presidency depends upon how other people conduct it," Clinton muses in his Esquire interview. Here's hoping that this is one change the next president shuns.