INSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE—CLINTON
I was in the White House one day in 1993 because President Clinton was reading a book II had written about President John F. Kennedy, the man he says inspired his life in politics. We chatted for a few minutes, the President showing me from which direction the British had come when hey set fire to the White House in 1814.
Soon, my scheduled ten-minute drop-by had stretched into lunch and more than two hours of conversation. The talk, most of it by him, was interrupted only by three polite attempts to break it up by one of his assistants, George Stephanopoulos, whispering that Robert Dole was on the telephone hoping to talk about Haiti and application of the War Power Act.
The President ignored them. On the subject of Jean-Bertrand Aristides the man U.S troops were poised to forcibly reinstate as president of Haiti, Clinton met my questions about his legitimacy and stability with a defining politicians answer: “I know what they say about him, but be got 67 percent of the vote.” Votes are the moral imperative in his business.
A year later, when I came to the White House for an interview on October 18, 1994, it was different. Clinton had given himself over to handlers. Assistants Stephanopoulos and Mark Gearan were sitting on a couch in the Oval Office, placed so that he could see them but I could not. A couple of times, when I bent over my notes, Clinton looked over to them, apparently seeking acknowledgment that he was sticking to his script.
After a half-hour or so, Chief of Staff Leon Panetta came in, an obvious signal that it was time to end. I was asking, “ Why do so many people dislike you so much?”
“The radical right and the Congressional Republicans have demonized me,” he answered. Then he changed direction.
“ You know the story about the guy who falls off the mountain, down into a canyon to certain death, and he sees the little twig, grabs it. And the roots start coming out? He looks down. Hundreds of feet below, and he says: “God, why me? Why me?” And this thunderous voice comes out of the heavens and says: “Son, there’s just something about you I don’t like!”
I asked, “Do you know what that something is?”
“No,” Clinton replied. “All I know is that I work hard at this job.”
A lot of people hated President Roosevelt and his wife, many for the very good reason that he was a great man, changing the assumptions and rules of being American. He changed lives.
Many Americans hate President Clinton and his wife, too, for reasons that are much less clear, He has accomplished more than a few things, but none of them have been life-changing for great numbers.
There is obviously widespread mistrust, which seems to begin with Clinton’s manipulation of whole truth. Mainly, though, millions of Americans hate Clinton not because of great events of his Presidency, but because of the 1960s — the ani-authoritarianism, the attacks on great institutions from government to religion, the overthrow of patriotism and traditional American history.
But Clinton is a professional—the most gifted politician of his generation, self-created and almost Roosevelt-like in his political skills. He will do whatever he has to do in the next two years to survive— and very possibly win re-election.
In fact, Clinton has already found the appropriate maxim. Paraphrasing Lincoln, he told a reporter, “You may take another time, where Lincoln said, ‘I am controlled by events. My policy is to have no policy.’”