Other segments from the episode on January 11, 2002
DATE January 11, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Paul Begala discusses his experiences working in the
Clinton White House
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
With just a little more than a week left in the Clinton presidency, we're
going to look back on life in the Clinton White House. Our first guest is
Paul Begala. He and James Carville ran the campaign that got Clinton into
the White House. Begala later served as the president's political adviser.
Begala is now a research professor at Georgetown University and a political
analyst at MSNBC. He's also one of the people interviewed on the ABC
"Nightline" and PBS "Frontline" co-production "The Clinton Years." Begala
says when he met Clinton, he felt a stronger connection than he had with any
other candidate he'd worked with.
Professor PAUL BEGALA (Former Clinton Adviser): It was the political
equivalent of love at first sight. I'd been in the business for a while, and
we had a mutual friend, Zell Miller, who was the governor of Georgia, whose
campaign I had run, who was urging Clinton to hire James Carville and I, my
partner. And we met with Clinton in 1991, and I was swept off my feet. I had
never before had a politician who talked to me like I was a person and a
citizen first and a strategist second. He didn't just say, `Here's how we can
win New Hampshire and then get the nomination.' And he talked about his
ideas. He talked about his daughter. He talked about the kind of country he
wanted. And I was utterly charmed. I was completely swept off my feet.
GROSS: And what did it mean to you that he talked about ideas?
Prof. BEGALA: Most politicians begin with the strategy and then work on the
rationale. They begin by saying, `Well, my wife is from Illinois, and so that
can help us in the Midwest. And I went to school in the Northeast, so that
can help.' And so they work backwards from there. They work through the
`how' first and then they tend to not want to think about the `why.' And he
did it the right way. He did it the more difficult way, the more
intellectually rigorous way. He began by saying, `Why should I be president?
What ideas can I bring?' And he had a very compelling case that the things he
had worked on in Arkansas--education and economic development--were going to
move center stage in a world in which there was no longer this central
organizing principle of the Cold War. And it was very impressive analysis.
GROSS: When you were first working with Clinton as a presidential candidate,
what were some of the qualities you thought were his strongest ones and other
qualities you thought he maybe had to change or hide from view?
Prof. BEGALA: His strongest quality is his empathy. Now I say that even
though he's the smartest person I know. He's an incredibly bright guy, but
there are a lot of bright people in politics. I do think he's the brightest.
But more than that, more impressive is the empathy. There are a lot of
politicians who can sort of turn it on when the cameras are on, but then
otherwise don't really care very much about people as individuals. He had
this incredible ability to connect with people and to care about them. And it
was real. It was right to the depth of his being. And I think that
particularly showed itself in matters of race. He had the best ability to try
to understand the racial divide in America and try to bridge it.
Now in terms of drawbacks--I mean, we all have them. I mean, certainly, he
had had stumbles in his life that he didn't want people to know about. I
found that to be imminently human and quite forgivable. Like a lot of
politicians, he also sometimes wanted to get 100 percent of the vote instead
of just the 51 percent you need to lead. That changed over time. I think by
the time he became president and was working, particularly, with an opposition
Republican Congress, he understood that there were some people that no matter
what he did would never support him, and he reconciled himself to that. But
at the start, I think he'd have been happy if he could have gotten 100
GROSS: Now the empathy which you mention is something that he was both liked
for and also mocked for. So many of the comics did the whole `I feel your
Prof. BEGALA: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...or him biting his bottom lip and...
Prof. BEGALA: Right.
GROSS: ...you know, his sign of thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Do you ever
think the empathy got overplayed for the cameras?
Prof. BEGALA: No. I know that--you're right. He got a lot of criticism for
that. But it was real, and I thought it was wonderful. And I think it's one
of the reasons the American people hung in there with him for so long. That
line `I feel your pain,' he blurted out in a fit of pain. He was in New York.
He was giving a speech, and an AIDS activist stood up and was yelling at him
that the government hadn't done enough about AIDS, that he in Arkansas perhaps
had not done enough about AIDS. And he didn't patronize the man. He engaged
him. He argued with him. And then finally, he just--it just came pouring out
of him. He said, `You know, I feel your pain, and I am trying to do something
about it. And I want to go to Washington to make sure we do more.' Well, you
know, he has. I mean, obviously, we still have AIDS. It's still a terrible,
terrible disease and a crisis, but he's done a lot more for that issue and
that disease than any prior president. Certainly, President Reagan could
never bring himself to even say the word.
So I, to this day, have always loved and admired him for his empathy and his
ability to feel other people's pain. And I think that's probably one of the
most important things a president can have because it's a very isolating
office. It's a place where everybody kisses your ring, where, you know,
you're treated quite well physically. There's very little harm that can come
your way, thank goodness. But I do think it also tends to isolate and kind of
deaden the soul a little bit if you're not someone who's very well-connected
to how real people live.
GROSS: When you took on the Clinton campaign with James Carville, did you
check out his past and see what personal skeletons might be in the closet?
Prof. BEGALA: No, we didn't. You hear rumors about everybody, but this is
what we did for a living was work for politicians. I was more interested in
what he stood for. I was more interested, frankly, in his prospects of
winning. Those are the two things that I checked out. I talked to other
politicians who I respected. And I mentioned before Zell Miller, who was then
the governor of Georgia. He's now a senator from Georgia. I talked to people
like that. But I was not interested in trying to root around to see if he was
somehow, you know, morally fit. I don't like that kind of politics.
GROSS: But those skeletons became your problems.
Prof. BEGALA: Very good.
GROSS: What was your reaction when the Gennifer Flowers story broke?
Prof. BEGALA: You know, I was nauseous. And to this day when I think about
it or hear about it, it kind of turns my stomach for a variety of reasons.
First off, at some level I feel his pain. You know, unfortunately, there's a
whole lot of people in life who have challenges in their marriage. That's
tragically common. What's not common is to have your marriage strip-searched
like that in front of the whole world. And I just can't imagine what it must
be like to have your weakest moments splayed out there for the entire world.
I never did feel like it was anybody's business except his and Hillary's.
And, you know, call me old-fashioned, but I'd pin a medal on the two of them
for holding it together. I mean, he is still married to a gal he met in a
library 25 years ago. They've had their ups and downs, but that's better than
50 percent of the married population in America.
GROSS: Is there anything you learned through the Clinton campaign that
disproved any of your own theories about campaigning?
Prof. BEGALA: Yeah, a lot. One was, you know, everybody believed in this
business, that if--given what happened to Gary Hart--if there were plausible
charges of infidelity that that was the end of it for you. One of the things
Clinton taught me is if you just don't give up, if you just don't give in, you
can survive. He is the most resilient guy I've ever seen. And I think that
that is undervalued in politics. We tend to want these people just to go away
when they're hit with a scandal. And very often, they just want to go away
because they can't take it. And he just has this incredible, incredible
resilience, this ability to carry on without becoming bitter, without
obsessing about it, but instead really trying to put it aside in a box and
move on with the job he's being paid to do. I just didn't think anybody could
possibly just get up in the morning after some of the days that he had, and he
was always ready to. And that proved to me that if, you know, you're willing
to take the punch, people will give you the credit and let you dust yourself
off and move on.
GROSS: Paul Begala is my guest, and he helped run President Clinton's
campaign with James Carville. And he was a political adviser in the Clinton
White House from '97 to '99.
Robert Reich, who was secretary of Labor during the early part of the Clinton
administration, said that when he was given an order, he started asking if the
person that gave the order was under 30. And if they were under 30, he'd
refuse to do it. Was there a generation gap in the White House?
Prof. BEGALA: Yes. And I was always struck that the baby boomers who used
to say, `Don't trust anyone over 30,' all of sudden didn't trust anyone under
30. I thought there was an enormous tension between `the kids'--and I suppose
I was one of the kids...
GROSS: Well, you were 30. You were kind of right in that transition.
Prof. BEGALA: ...and the boomers. I was right there. I was the middle
Prof. BEGALA: I was caught in the middle, but...
GROSS: That in-between age.
Prof. BEGALA: Yeah. I found that odd, but real. I mean, here we had a
president who had been the governor of his state when he was about 31 or 32,
about my age. And yet, sometimes he would look at some of these people
younger than him and say, `Well, my goodness, they're young.' But--you know,
our current vice president-elect, Dick Cheney, was the White House chief of
staff at age 31 or 32. When Bill Moyers and Ted Sorenson had some of the most
senior jobs in the White House for Presidents Johnson and Kennedy, they were
in their very early 30s. So it's always been that way. I think, though, that
with the baby boomers, they were always used to being the youngest person in
the room. And all of a sudden, the president and Bob Reich and some of the
others looked up and said, `Oh, my goodness. They're talking to us like we're
nearing 50.' And they were, and I think it shook out over time and everybody
adjusted to the change.
GROSS: My guest is Paul Begala. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about life in the Clinton White House with Paul Begala,
who was the president's political adviser after co-running the campaign that
got him elected.
There must have been a strange transition that happened in your relationship
with Bill Clinton when he went from being the person who you were advising in
his presidential campaign to actually being Mr. President. Did the
relationship change, and if so, how? Maybe you can give us an example of
how relating to Bill Clinton changed once he became the president.
Prof. BEGALA: You're right, Terry. It changed very quickly and very
dramatically. I traveled with him through the campaign. I sat next to him on
the plane. We had endless, wonderful, wide-ranging conversations about music
and religion a lot. I'm a Catholic. He's a Baptist. I grew up in the Bible
Belt, he went to Catholic schools. And so we each have a real interest in the
other's religious tradition. We talked, obviously, a lot about politics, but
also about family. I was just starting to have children, and he had told me
the whole story of how he and Hillary got to have Chelsea.
So we developed a very intimate relationship. And the morning after the
election, he said to me, `I want you to call me Bill. It's important that you
call me Bill.' And I looked at him and said, `You know, I never called you
Bill when you were just the governor of Arkansas. I can't call you Bill now.
You're the president-elect.' And there was a transition period where he
seemed hesitant, almost uncomfortable with the trappings of power.
And it took us all awhile, I think, to readjust and to become comfortable with
the majesty of the office and that part of the function which President Reagan
understood intuitively because of his experience as an actor. He understood
that there's a role-playing function there. President Clinton, being of a
different generation, I think wanted to demystify the presidency quite a bit,
and I think he did to an extent. But I also think we came to understand the
value and the power of the majesty and the moment of the presidency.
GROSS: Well, as an adviser, as you started to get a better understanding of
the majesty of the office, how did that change, if at all, the advice you gave
Clinton about how he should relate to the public?
Prof. BEGALA: I had to be a lot more careful about what I said to him. The
campaign is obviously a very small group of people. Maybe even--most key
decisions were made by a half a dozen of us or less. And then you move into
the government. And even a meeting with six people in it becomes front-page
news in The New York Times the next day. And so I had to become very careful.
I would--I made it my business in private to be as critical as I could and in
public as praising as I could. That's my definition of loyalty. I think a
loyal aide has to really hammer the president when you're alone and there's
nobody else in the room because they get a whole lot of sugar-coated
How that changes in how you relate to the public--I've always been struck that
the public, at least to me, they always call him Bill. Every time I travel,
people say, `How's old Bill doing? You know, Bill did a good job on that
crime bill. You ought to congratulate him for that.' They feel a sense of
ownership of this guy, I think, because they created him and then they
sustained him. When everybody in Washington wanted to get rid of him, it was
just popular opinion and average--what Clinton calls `walking-around folks'
that sustained him. So I think they always saw him as their guy in
Washington. And even when he became more comfortable with the trappings of
power--and, God, he loves "Hail to the Chief" now, believe me--he never seemed
to leave those kind of `walking-around folks' out.
GROSS: Now you said that you tried to be very critical in private and very
supportive in public. I think we've all seen you being very supportive of
Clinton on television. Maybe you can compare for us an issue in which what
you said in public was different from what you said in private.
Prof. BEGALA: Well--I mean, there are a lot of issues where I would
privately disagree with him. But then once a decision is made, you've got to
get on board. I mean, the most carefully documented one was the whole
economic plan that Clinton put together, where I as his political adviser
said, `Look, if you promise a middle-class tax cut and then begin with a tax
increase'--even a small one on gasoline like we had--`people are going to be
very upset.' It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that would hurt
him politically. He made the decision that it was more important. I was
really proud of that decision. Here was this intensely political animal
knowing full well he was going to take an action that would be very
politically damaging, but he thought it would be good for the economy. He
thought it would be good for the country.
So I publicly defended that economic plan. I helped him to sell it, and I was
happy to do so even though there were a lot of particulars in there that I
didn't much like. My view is that's the price of teamwork, is that you make
your argument, you state your case in the strongest possible terms. And then
once a decision is made--unless it's something that completely runs contrary
to your conscience--you've got to support it.
GROSS: Well, because you were such the public supporter all the time and
often on the TV talk shows speaking out in support of President Clinton--even
early on in the Monica Lewinsky story, you were speaking on his behalf when
very few other people would--did you ever find yourself saying things that
you weren't sure you really believed?
Prof. BEGALA: Well, I had no idea what the truth was. That was a terrible
time. That was really dancing in the dark. You know, like--he never told me
anything different than he told the public at large. He said, `You've got to
believe me. This stuff isn't true.' And to his credit he said, `I can't tell
you anymore or they'll drag you into it. And you'll be in front of the grand
jury and you'll have $100,000 of legal bills. And I don't want that for you.
I'm going to handle this, but you just got to believe, you know, it's not
That's--you know, I know he shouldn't have done that, and I had a very hard
time with that. When I realized finally and he came forward and said that he,
in fact, had an affair, you know, I came very close to resigning, and I would
have resigned but for the fact that they tried to impeach him. And then it
became a question of, `Where do I owe my highest duty?' And it seemed to me I
was paid by the taxpayers to serve the Constitution. And even if I was angry
with my friend the president--and I was furious--I had a higher duty to the
country to try to stop what I felt was an absolutely illegitimate and partisan
impeachment. You know, if they had done with Clinton what the Democrats did
with Reagan over Iran-Contra, which is to say, `We're not going to impeach
you, but we want the whole country to know you lied. You lied to us, Mr.
President. You said we didn't trade arms for hostages and we did'--I don't
know that I could have stayed with him then. But he, in that sense, was saved
by his enemies because they, once again, tried to go so far. And it showed me
that it really wasn't about anybody's sense of morality at all. It was just
about power and politics. And I then felt very comfortable in defending him
because I felt like I was defending the Constitution more than Bill Clinton
GROSS: You had defended Bill Clinton back when he saying that he didn't have
a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Then you learned the truth, and you went
through this period of thinking of maybe you'd resign, as you just described.
When you went back on TV, Ted Koppel asked you this question. He said, `Since
you were sent out on a number of occasions to lie in the president's behalf,
what guarantees do I have, what guarantees do our viewers have, that you
aren't being sent out now to to do the same thing?' Did you feel that your
support of the president early on was seen as a reflection of your credibility
or your lack of credibility? Was it personally upsetting to you that you had
said things that you later found out weren't true?
Prof. BEGALA: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Of course, I had no idea that
they were false. I would have never said them if I'd known that. But it did
damage my credibility, as it has to. It's--and I thought Ted's question,
while brutally tough, was perfectly fair. It was the only honest way to begin
that kind of an interview. When the president came forward and confessed that
he, in fact, had an affair, an affair that he had told me to deny, I went
through, as I said, a very difficult time. And I went for quite some time
refusing all interviews, refusing to defend him in public any longer.
And what changed my mind and sent me back out was watching the videotape of
Clinton being interrogated by the special prosecutors. And they asked him
questions that nobody should be asked; the most tawdry, intimate details of
his worst moments even after he began the session by confessing to having
had an affair. They didn't take that confession, and they just said, `Well,
we're going to try to humiliate you.' And I was so moved by what I thought
was this manifest mistreatment that my friend had received that it actually
helped me to forgive him. It didn't make it all right and it didn't excuse
it. But you know, in my religious tradition, if someone comes to you and
says, `I've done something wrong. I am asking for your forgiveness,' it's not
easy. In fact, it was enormously difficult and maybe I haven't perfectly
achieved it yet. But it's my obligation to forgive or else it becomes my sin.
And so that's what was going on inside of my heart and my head. But I thought
it was perfectly fair for journalists to say, `How can we believe you now when
you told us things that were false in the past?' And it's why, in my comments
from then on, I confined myself to the known and provable public record. And
then six days after he was acquitted by the Senate, I quit.
GROSS: And why did you quit then?
Prof. BEGALA: Well, my work was done. I didn't want to continue on. I had
spent a very, very intense couple of years on the White House staff. And I
felt like defeating this completely illegitimate impeachment had probably
taken the last full measure of what I had to give my country and my president.
It was probably better for him to get a team of fresh horses in there. And I
do think that he needed new people and fresh faces because of the difficulty
and the divisiveness of that fight, and also because of that long period when
he was simply unable--or unwilling, rather--to confess to this affair.
GROSS: Did you or any other consultants in the White House or, you know,
aides in the White House ever give Clinton a `keep-it-in-your-pants' kind of
Prof. BEGALA: I was not his nanny, no. That's not my job. I don't know
whether anybody else did but, you know, he's an adult. And it's not my
business. I'm not in the habit of telling my friends how to live their
private lives, much less my employers.
GROSS: Paul Begala is President Clinton's former political adviser. He'll be
back in the second half of the show.
One correction. In Robert Reich's interview for the "Nightline"-"Frontline"
series, he said he didn't want to take orders from people under 40, not under
30 as I said earlier.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation about the Clinton White House
with Paul Begala. Also, creating a more grown-up environment in the White
House. We'll talk with Leon Panetta about the changes he made when he became
Clinton's second chief of staff.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about life in the
Clinton White House. Let's get back to our interview with Paul Begala. He
and James Carville ran the campaign that got Clinton into the White House.
Begala later served as the president's political adviser.
Bill Clinton spoke of Hillary as his greatest asset during the campaign. And
he used to say, you know, `if you make me president, you're getting two for
the price of one.' Now some of Clinton's advisers complained that Hillary
had, perhaps, too much power in the relationship because nothing that
the aides wanted done would get done, even if Clinton agreed to it, unless
Hillary agreed as well. Do you think that that's an accurate reading of the
relationship and was her say in policy, in your mind, a good thing or did it
interfere, do you think, with things that you were trying to get done?
Prof. BEGALA: Well, every--I've, for 17 years, I guess, have been dealing
with politicians. I no longer do it for a living, but every one I ever worked
for who was married had an influential spouse. And that just goes with the
territory. I mean, you know, I worked for Diane Feinstein for a while. She's
a senator from California. And I used to start every day by calling her
husband, Dick Blum, and seeing what he thought about things. I mean, I think
any smart staffer is going to want to know what the principal's spouse thinks
because that man or woman is always going to have the last word, if they have
any kind of a normal relationship.
I can understand how it's difficult for staff people. But I guess I always
knew that that came with the territory. It was always the same, as I say,
with every senator or every governor I ever worked for. And it's just part of
the human condition. If you're married and you're any kind of a decent
spouse, you're going to listen to your spouse.
GROSS: Do you feel that you understand why people on the right so despise
Hillary and Bill Clinton; why it became so personal?
Prof. BEGALA: No. No. It's a real mystery to me. I understand why they
opposed their ideas. I think some of it--it does drive them crazy. And I
feel for them that way. And I vowed never to let Governor Bush drive me
equally crazy because they seemed odd people to pick as villains. I remember
once Newt Gingrich called them `countercultural McGovernics.' Now these are
people who spend New Year's Eve at a Renaissance weekend talking public policy
and singing "God Bless America" at the stroke of midnight. Not my idea of
countercultural McGovernics, whatever that means.
I've never understood the personal animos--the hatred. And it is raw, Terry.
I got hate mail like you wouldn't believe just from working for him, I mean,
GROSS: Just tell me about some of what you got.
Prof. BEGALA: Oh, volumes and volumes, really. I mean, just stacks and
stacks. When I left the White House, my assistant gave me many volumes of
loose-leaf binders that she'd collected. I found it inspirational. I mean,
a lot of it just hateful and bigoted, but some of it quite inspirational. I
figured if we're making the kooks that angry, we're doing something right.
GROSS: Now I heard that during the Gore-Bush debates that Gore's aides
played him tapes of the "Saturday Night Live" parodies of the debates so he
Prof. BEGALA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...what he was doing wrong or what people perceived that he was doing
wrong. Did you ever play tapes of comics impersonating Bill Clinton to give
him a sense of what people were responding to, for better or worse, about his
mannerisms or his way of speaking?
Prof. BEGALA: No. And, in fact, in fairness to the Gore gang--I was around
for those debate preps because I played Bush for Gore in those mock debates.
They really just played him those tapes for fun. They thought they were
funny sketches. In the campaign, we played Clinton all the "Saturday Night
Life" spoofs on his campaign not to teach him any lesson. We just thought
they were funny. And Clinton's got an enormous ability to laugh at himself.
There were long stretches, of course, where the topics of the jokes,
particularly on the late-night shows, were too painful and too personal. And
he would just tune them out.
He's the first president, I think, in the television era who didn't have a
television in his office. It'll be interesting to see if President-elect Bush
changes that and goes back to--you know, LBJ had three televisions going all
the time, plus the UPI and the AP wires. Clinton had no media in his office.
He didn't have any wires.
Prof. BEGALA: He didn't have any computer. I--you know, I never really asked
GROSS: Especially in the CNN era and now the MSNBC era as well.
Prof. BEGALA: Yeah, he--in fact, he--I think he like being one step removed.
He came into my office once, and I had the TV going, of course, all the time
on these news networks. And it was somebody, you know, screaming and yelling,
you know, about what a horrible man he was. And he put his hand on my
shoulder and he said, `Why do you watch this stuff?' And I said, `Well, sir,
so you don't have to.' And he did. He kind of laughed and said, `OK. Well,
good for you. I couldn't take it.'
I think it's important and it's a learned skill on the part of President
Clinton, who used to devour anything that was about him in the press. It was
a learned skill to step back from that--and a healthy one. And I think that
it probably helped the president to not see the day-to-day news coverage of
that whole thing.
GROSS: I wonder if you're leaving the Clinton era with a sense of optimism or
pessimism about American politics?
Prof. BEGALA: Well, optimism, writ large.
GROSS: Yeah, having lived through the impeachment. Yeah.
Prof. BEGALA: Right. In the big picture, in the big sense of things, very
optimistic. We can get a lot done in this country and the politics matters
and that it can be on the level; that you can go to the country and you can
say, `Look, if you make me president, I'll cut the deficit. I'll revive the
economy. I'll address welfare and crime. I'll do the best that I can to
solve these ancient hatreds in the Middle East and Northern Ireland.' And
then he went and did all those things. I mean, I wrote half of those campaign
speeches and they were not just pie in the sky. They were a whole floating
bakery. And, doggone it, if he didn't do it all. So, in that sense, I leave
I have a lot of friends who work for Governor Bush, because I'm from Texas.
And I worry about them in the small and personal ways that you worry about
your friends. I've seen more friends than I can count financially ruined and
emotionally destroyed by this politics of personal destruction. I do hope
that President Bush has an easier go of it; that his political adversaries
don't mistake him for an enemy and try to take him down by any means necessary
the way the right did against Clinton. I think that's what's been difficult
and disillusioning, is the abuse of the law of prosecutorial apparatus and of
journalism to such a vicious and vindictive end. And I hope--as maybe one of
the faces of the loyal opposition against Governor Bush, I hope just to give
him hell every day, but not to cross that line and try to pretend that just
because I think he's wrong, politically, that somehow we have to put him in
GROSS: Paul Begala, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. BEGALA: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure.
GROSS: Paul Begala is President Clinton's former political adviser.
Coming up, President Clinton's former chief of staff, Leon Panetta. This is
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Interview: Former Clinton Chief of State Leon Panetta talks about
working in the Clinton White House
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're looking back on life in the Clinton White House. My guest, Leon
Panetta, was President Clinton's first director of the Office of Management
and Budget. In Clinton's second year in the White House, he appointed Panetta
chief of staff, replacing Clinton's old friend, Thomas "Mack" McLarty.
Panetta left the White House in '96 after Clinton's re-election. Now he lives
in California and runs the Panetta Institute, a bipartisan study center for
the advancement of public policy. I asked him what he most wanted to change
when he took over as chief of staff.
Mr. LEON PANETTA (Former Clinton Chief of Staff): Well, there were three
things that I think I really had to focus on as chief of staff. One was
establishing a chain of command in the White House. There really was no
organizational chart and people were not responsible to any level of
discipline. So what I first did was, basically, establish a kind of basic
organization chart that had myself, two deputies and the chief of staff's
office responsible to the rest of the staff and in control of the rest of the
Secondly, to establish greater discipline within the White House so that
people understood that they couldn't simply walk into the Oval Office, but
they would have to go through the chief of staff's office in order to do that.
And to improve the method of briefing the president.
And then, thirdly, to establish, as much as possible, a focus for the
president. He seemed to be going after all issues at all times, trying to be
all things to everybody. And, very frankly, that's not a good use of the
bully pulpit. You've got to create a focus. And so we were able to develop a
very tight scheduling approach and to say, you know, these are the priorities.
These are the issues that the administration is going to be about. And the
president, to his credit, accepted that.
GROSS: When you established the chain of command and made it impossible for
people to just walk right into the Oval Office, did some of the people in the
administration see you as creating just a more hierarchical structure and
ruining some of the idealism in the White House?
Mr. PANETTA: Well, there's no question that, you know, particularly those
who kind of came out of the campaign and had become accustomed to dealing with
the president as a candidate, thought that that was the way they ought to deal
with him as president. But the problem with that is that, obviously, for a
president who has to face a number of issues and a number of problems and has
very limited time, it can create virtual chaos. You just can't have everybody
dealing with the president every time they thought they wanted to speak to
him. And so I think the president, himself, recognized the need for
discipline, the need for a stricter organization. And I felt that if I was
going to be successful as chief of staff, but, more importantly, if the
president was going to be successful, that this was the only way to do
GROSS: When you were White House chief of staff, were there many calls you
got at three or four in the morning?
Mr. PANETTA: Oh, yeah. You never--you know, that's one of the things I
don't miss is getting those calls in the middle of the night because it's
usually not good news.
GROSS: Yeah. What were the issues that woke you up at three or four?
Mr. PANETTA: Well, yeah, I can remember soon after I became chief of staff,
I got a call. I think it was about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning from a Secret
Service agent. And he said, `I--you know, I'm sorry to wake you up, but I
have to tell you that a plane just went into the White House.' And I said,
`You've got to be kidding me?' He said, `No, a plane went into the White
House.' I said, `Well, was it a DC-10. Was it a 747?' He said, `No. No, it
was just a light plane and it went up against the White House and we think,
you know, it may have damaged the Jackson magnolia tree, but that's about
it.' I said, `Yeah, but'--I said, `Is it a diversion? Is this an effort to
go after the president? Do we know whether there--you know, this is some kind
of assault against the president? Have you checked out the plane?' And it
tells you a little bit about the state of what's happening these days with
regards to the news, but here is a Secret Service agent. And he says to me,
`You know, according to CNN News, this is--we don't think there's a problem.'
I said, `No, no. I don't care about what CNN News is reporting. I want you
to go out there and find out what's in that plane; if there's dynamite or if
there's explosives.' And that gives you an idea of some of the issues that,
you know, the chief of staff has to deal with.
GROSS: Did you watch CNN a lot to figure out what was going on?
Mr. PANETTA: Well, interestingly enough, in this age of technology and
information that speeds across the country in seconds, the reality is that,
for all of the intelligence agents we have and all of the satellites we have
and all of the information sources we have, nothing is faster than a report
on CNN News or the kind of 24-hour news stations that we have now on
different cables. I mean, that's a reality.
And I'll tell you another story. I went down to the basement of the White
House to look at the Situation Room when I became chief of staff, and asked
to see the information center where all of this information came in. And they
showed me a corner where there were a couple of soldiers sitting there in
uniform. And what they were doing was watching CNN News. So that is the
principal information source that now flows into the White House. They tell
me they've added a few others since then.
GROSS: I think it was in 1994 that Dick Morris became President Clinton's
political adviser. Now I know that there were several people in the Clinton
administration who really didn't like Dick Morris. What made him so unpopular
with part of the administration that was already there?
Mr. PANETTA: Well, Dick Morris is a political consultant. And he is a
political consultant who relies on polls and focuses on winning, like most
political consultants do. And so he doesn't bring, really, a particular
ideology to his profession, or beliefs. He basically operates on doing what
you have to do in order to win. So you introduce a consultant like that into
the White House to a staff that is professional, that is working on issues,
that believes deeply, whether it's in education or health care or foreign
policy efforts by the administration, and, suddenly, someone goes walking in
who says, you know, `This is what the polls show. This is what you should
or shouldn't do,' it creates almost immediate antagonism for that individual.
GROSS: Did Dick Morris ever interfere with your work or did the polling
interfere with your work?
Mr. PANETTA: Well, my view was that, first of all, I mean, there is a role
for consultants to play, but it is a role that they should play on the
political process in a campaign. And so we, early on, established a process
whereby the president would have political meetings and Dick Morris could
present his information at those political meetings. As to any decisions that
were made on policy, that would flow through me, as chief of staff, to the
staff. And we would, again, evaluate those issues to make sure that, from a
policy point of view, they were the right thing to do for the president.
Now I will tell you that, at first, Dick Morris began to walk around the White
House and begin to go in and talk to staff members individually. And as soon
as I had got information that he was doing that, I went straight to Dick
Morris and to the president and made very clear that that could not happen
because you cannot allow a political consultant to assume that he can run the
White House. That just should not happen. And it didn't happen once I went
to the president.
GROSS: My guest is Leon Panetta. We're talking about life in the Clinton
White House. Leon Panetta served as the budget director and as the White
House chief of staff.
Monica Lewinsky was your intern before working with President Clinton. What
was your reaction when you heard that it was alleged that they had had
Mr. PANETTA: Well, I was shocked. I was shocked, first of all, that it had
happened. But, secondly, that it had happened with someone who actually had
not been working in the White House. I had an--my policy, as chief of staff,
was to not have White House interns working in the West Wing itself because I
felt that that would be a dangerous approach, not because there aren't White
House interns who can assume some of those responsibilities, but the reality
is that you don't know everything about the background of a White House intern
and that they are young and that I thought it was dangerous to expose them to,
you know, the kind of sensitive issues that the White House was dealing with.
So, generally, White House interns did not go over to the White House.
What happened at that time was that, because of the government shutdown, we
were required, as every other agency, to, basically, not have our personnel
show up. And to try to replace the personnel that had to be let off as a
result of the shutdown, we did use some of the White House interns to answer
phones. And so she had actually just come over for one day, maybe two or
three days, I guess. And then that was it. We then sent her back to her
normal White House intern responsibilities and then, frankly, I kind of lost
track of her. And then when the story came out, I was back in California.
And then I realized that this had happened, it was, for me, just, again, a
GROSS: Did you believe the story or did you believe the president?
Mr. PANETTA: I--you know, my view was that, for a president as bright and
capable as this president, who loved the office of the presidency so much and
enjoyed the challenges that were part of the office of the presidency and
cared so much about the issues that he was working on, that there was no way
I thought this person would in any way risk that presidency on that kind of
behavior. I mean, I just never believed that he would do something like
that. And that's why, you know, when the story came out, it was a surprise
because--and I think it caught all of the staff by surprise because no one
believed that he would do something that stupid when you're president of the
United States and, particularly, with this president.
GROSS: Did it change your estimation of Bill Clinton as a man or as a
president to know that he really did have an intimate relationship with her?
Mr. PANETTA: I think what bothered me more than anything about what took
place was not so much the fact that it happened, because, you know, when
those things happen, it isn't just the responsibility of one person. There
are two people that are involved. And, you know, I didn't feel I could be a
judge of what actually happened in that relationship. But what concerned me
more than anything was the failure to acknowledge that it had happened and to
be truthful with the American people about what had happened because I think,
ultimately, you know, for all of the great things he did as president, one of
the things that you can't break is the bond of trust between the American
people and the president. And when you do that, it undermines your ability to
lead the nation.
GROSS: You had to testify before Kenneth Starr's grand jury. And I'm
wondering if you were angry during the testimony at all; angry about having to
be put through that? And, if so, whether you were more angry at the president
or at Ken Starr?
Mr. PANETTA: Well, it's never a pleasant experience, I think, for anybody to
go through that kind of proceeding, even though, you know, I had nothing to
hide and, obviously, you know, was not concerned about anything that related
to me. So, you know, it wasn't--and I didn't even hire a lawyer when I did
that because, you know, again, I felt that I had nothing to hide and I would
present and answer all of the questions that were presented to me. So that
wasn't the problem.
But going before them so soon, I guess, after the story had broke and the kind
of circus atmosphere that developed around the grand jury hearings and having
to go through that, I think that concerned and bothered me more than anything.
But--especially for someone like myself who's been in and out of Washington
over the last 30 years, I kind of accepted what was happening as one of those
things you have to go through periodically in Washington.
GROSS: My guest is Leon Panetta, President Clinton's first budget director
and second chief of staff. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Leon Panetta is my guest. We're talking about life inside the Clinton
White House. He served as budget director and White House chief of staff in
the Clinton administration.
A couple of snapshots for us. Can you just give us the moment in which you
were proudest to be in the Clinton White House and the moment in which you
felt most disappointed in the president?
Mr. PANETTA: Well, there's no question. I think the proudest moment, for me,
in the White House is--I mean, one of them was, clearly, the passage of the
economic plan and putting that in place because that made such a tremendous
difference in terms of where our economy ultimately has gone. And I think
that'll always be my proudest moment as director of the Office of Management
But, actually, the moment I remember best was when the president looked at
Newt Gingrich during the government shutdown and, basically, said to him after
a long series of negotiations, `I cannot accept what you want me to do in your
budget. I think it's wrong for the country and it may cost me the election,
but I'm not going to do it.' And it was at kind of that moment that I said,
you know, the president understands what it's all about. He's willing to draw
a line and I guess that was the moment that I was proudest of him because he
was willing to say that in a very tough negotiation and a very tough moment in
terms of the history of this country. I don't think there's any question that
obviously the moment that, you know, I was most disappointed with him was not
really during the time when I was in the White House but after I had left,
with regards to this whole Lewinsky matter because it really concerned me.
And, again, what concerned me was not so much what had happened, it was the
fact that he looked the American people in the eye and didn't tell them the
GROSS: What was it like for you when you had to tell the president something
he didn't want to hear, when you were chief of staff?
Mr. PANETTA: I never had a problem doing that, you know, even though, you
know, the president didn't like to hear it and, you know, he has a temper, and
would sometimes react against it, I felt it was my job as chief of staff,
again, to be very frank with him about what was happening. If something good
was happening, I loved to tell him that, but if something bad was happening,
it was my responsibility as chief of staff to tell him as well. And to his
credit, even though he would be concerned about it or he would be angry about
it, it did not take him very long to get his feet back on the ground and to
return to the job of being president of the United States. He does really
have this capacity to compartmentalize these kinds of problems. He'll put
them aside and if he's dealing with issues that involve the presidency, he
will focus on it 100 percent and do his job, even though these other problems
are developing. So, you know, he's one of a kind. I don't think we're going
to see a Bill Clinton, you know, with all of the qualities that he had, both
good and bad, I don't think we're going to see that kind of president for a
GROSS: How do you think life in the Bush White House will compare to what
life was like in the Clinton White House?
Mr. PANETTA: I have no idea. I have no idea because--and you know what? I
don't even think, you know, that George Bush probably has much idea either
because the reality is, for all of the plans you make and for all the people
you appoint to positions, you don't know what the hell's gonna happen until
you walk into the Oval Office and have to deal with people and have to deal
with the kind of crises and problems that face the president. It's at that
moment that you will find out whether this is a team that can pull together
and be able to deal with issues. I mean, he's got a lot of experience, both
in the Cabinet and in some of the people around him--clearly Dick Cheney has a
lot of experience in those jobs, so he's got a lot of experience to fall back
on and that can be helpful. But at the same time, the ability of that team to
work together, to respond to discipline, to be able to operate in an organized
fashion, to deal with crises, all of that remains to be seen.
GROSS: Leon Panetta, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PANETTA: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Leon Panetta was President Clinton's first budget director and second
chief of staff. He's also one of the people featured in the ABC "Nightline"
and PBS "Frontline" co-production "The Clinton Years."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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