Joe Klein

He loved him, he hated him. Now Bill Clinton's foremost chronicler concludes that Clinton's presidency rose above the political -- and personal -- demons that beset it and will be remembered for its historic accomplishments.


Joan Walsh
April 9, 2002 6:24AM (UTC)

Two years before President Clinton's 1998 summer of shame, when he was forced to admit to his family, the nation, impeachment-crazed Republicans and the media the details of his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky -- a relationship he had denied for months -- Clinton chronicler Joe Klein had his own 15 minutes of shame. After months of insisting he hadn't written "Primary Colors," the bestselling, barely fictionalized account of President Clinton's, er, Gov. Jack Stanton's scandal-plagued pursuit of the White House (and women), Klein was outed by the Washington Post as "Anonymous," and forced to come clean.

Journalists and politicians howled. After all, the sharp-tongued Newsweek columnist had denied being "Anonymous" with increasing stridency. "For God's sake," he declared during the New Hampshire primary, "definitely, I didn't write it." He bitterly attacked the journalists who tried to expose him. (But it was hard not to think envy and schadenfreude motivated some of the journalistic piling on; "Primary Colors" was a surprisingly good novel, and also made Klein a pile of money.) Former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers was brutal. "In the end he traded his journalistic credibility for 30 pieces of silver," she told reporters. Time columnist Margaret Carlson seemed to enjoy the many ironies of Klein's plight. "The political columnist who specializes in exposing the self-indulgent moral relativism of fellow baby boomers badly lost his way," she wrote in July 1996. Klein, she noted, had attacked the Clintons' "lawyering, fudging, misdirection, obfuscation and generally slouchy behavior" whenever they faced tough questions. "The intensity of their denials is fascinating ..." he had written once. "They defend their virtue against all reason; they never inhale."

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The parallels with Clinton's ultimate self-humiliation still two years away would turn out to be even more fascinating. But the links between the two men already were remarkable. Klein gave his heart to Clinton early, seeing in him a New Democrat whose political odyssey matched his own. Both were Democrats who'd become disillusioned with big government, and with the pieties of liberalism on questions of race, welfare, education and economic development. Klein was the Arkansas governor's biggest media booster during the 1992 presidential race. But he fell out of love fairly quickly, because of Clinton's lack of discipline in developing an agenda in his chaotic early White House years, because he entrusted healthcare reform to his more liberal wife, whose proposal turned out to be a big-government debacle, and finally, it seemed, because he couldn't stay clear of sexual scandal. As the Paula Jones story gained journalistic steam in 1994, a disgusted Klein wrote a memorable Newsweek column, "The Politics of Promiscuity," which was widely quoted because it gave a justification for delving into the president's seamy personal life: Clinton's lack of personal discipline slid over into his sloppy policymaking, Klein argued, and the nation was suffering as a result.

Klein's most devastating portrait of Clinton's politics of promiscuity, of course, came in "Primary Colors." And yet while many read it as an attack on the president, it was in some ways a sort of love letter. I still think my own emotional appreciation for our needy, brilliant, hugely flawed president came from the lovingly wrought portrait of Jack Stanton that was so real, you had to remind yourself that it was fiction. The president, however, didn't read it as a love letter. Thanks to Klein's relentlessly critical Newsweek columns, the two men's relations already were strained. "Primary Colors" seemed as if it would sever their bond permanently.

Who knows if Klein's own moment in the media star chamber made him more sympathetic to the president he'd savaged. Whatever the reason, Klein came to appreciate the sadder, wiser Clinton who emerged from the 1994 Republican rout of Congress. The triangulation and incrementalism hated by liberals impressed Klein as a slow, strategic stock-taking, a way to smoke out House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his clumsy revolutionaries -- and ultimately, unbelievably prevail. Klein would even eventually recant his "politics of promiscuity" argument, finding that after those frustrating first two years, Clinton would go on to have "a serious, disciplined, responsible presidency."

Klein made the case for that judgment in an October 2000 New Yorker profile, in which he sat down with his old pal, the president, for a series of candid conversations on everything from Gingrich to Lewinsky, healthcare to Hillary. He expanded the article into "The Natural," the book released this spring, at a time when Clinton's old enemies were finding new ways to savage his presidency, blaming him for Sept. 11 as well as the Middle East debacle, and the president needed his old defender.

The Clinton presidency was indeed more remarkable than even some defenders give it credit for. In his two terms he erased budget deficits and built up a surplus, and helped create the conditions for one of the longest economic booms in history; he reformed welfare, passed NAFTA, bailed out the Mexican peso and brought some stability to the bloody Balkans. And while liberals and others insist Clinton never pushed through big programs that would leave him with a legacy, Klein disagrees. The college tax credit bill he passed in 1997 was larger than the G.I. Bill of Rights bill, for instance. In fact the Clinton White House presided over an incredible expansion of programs and support for the lower middle class and the working poor: The 1997 budget alone provided $70 billion, over the next five years, to families with incomes under $30,000. And recent Census figures showed that the Clinton boom lifted 4.1 million children out of poverty, while the Reagan-era boom lifted only 50,000 kids.

But "The Natural" is not without criticism. Klein still savages Clinton's self-pity and self-indulgence, which gave "a sword to those who hated what he stood for." The Lewinsky mess, and his lies about it, were one example, the ugly late-night Marc Rich pardon another. His tone, in the end, is elegiac. The larger-than-life Clinton "had the misfortune to serve at a time when greatness wasn't required," and you get the sense Klein feels -- though he insists he won't psychoanalyze Clinton -- that his many scandals and scrapes with political death were a self-created substitute for the real-life tests and challenges his peacetime presidency was denied.

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Salon talked to Klein just as Clinton returned to the news, telling Klein's former Newsweek colleague Jonathan Alter that he now regrets the Marc Rich pardon -- but only because of its political fallout. At points in the interview with Alter, Clinton seems to be refuting his old ally Klein, insisting that he doesn't feel he missed the leadership challenge of his generation, the one his successor is presiding over in the Middle East and Afghanistan. He diminishes the current crisis as being "not like World War II at all" -- a defensive Boomer assertion in itself -- and won't admit to regretting that he isn't president to deal with it. "The Natural" makes it hard to believe Clinton about that.

Reading "The Natural," I was reminded that one of the things I liked about "Primary Colors" was the way it made me really appreciate Bill Clinton, this needy, talented, larger-than-life guy. Between the two books, I'd have to say you've captured him better than anyone else. There's also a palpable sense of affection for him in both books, as well as disappointment in his flaws. How do you feel about him personally?

I don't know how I feel about him personally. I know how I feel about him professionally, though. "Primary Colors" is an interesting place to start. What do you do in a novel? You take recognizable characters from your own life, and you fantasize about what they're really like.

Well, he obviously provokes you on some level. He gets under your skin and I think you get under his.

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He's the most talented politician I've ever covered, and I love politics. And I love politicians. I really do. You don't do this for 33 years and want to see them all fuck up. The reason I still do it is I root for the moments when they do something courageous, when they transcend. With Clinton, I mean, the guy was just so damn good at it, so much larger than life. I'm glad you got that out of "Primary Colors," because a lot of people saw it as an attack. The reason I sold the rights to Mike Nichols is that he said it was a book without a villain, and that's the way I saw it.

What you can't do in fiction is a sober assessment of the substance of a presidency. It seemed important to me, once he was out of there, to sum it all up. It had been an important part of my life and the country's life for about 12 years, and I had a personal need to do it. But I also think the impression of Bill Clinton now is a distorted one. It's been really, really interesting going around for the past month since the book was published. The right wing is more vitriolic than ever about Clinton. James Carville said to me, the first week the book was out: [drawls] "Klein, you'll see. You write one nice sentence about Bill Clinton and they'll call you an apologist." And that's what I've been getting from the right. It's interesting because in the '70s and the '80s, I thought the right was far more interesting and subtle and sophisticated than the left. And now they've slipped back to ad hominem attacks. They need to assault Clinton in order to, ooh, here's a line: They need to assault Clinton in order to exalt Bush.

In fact Sept. 11 created a new industry for Clinton bashers, because all these same folks who hated him all along were able to say, Oh, Clinton caused Sept. 11, which I think your book shows isn't true. Yes, he could have done more about terror than he did, but you show the barriers he had to mounting a sustained campaign against Osama bin Laden -- a lack of urgency about it in the American public, the military's squeamishness about casualties. But if Clinton had a galvanizing moment like Sept. 11, don't you think he'd have done as well as Bush or better?

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I honestly don't know. There are a couple of things you need to think about here. First of all, when you're looking back on it, I make the argument that it would have been hard to rouse the public, as you say. But on the other hand, he was the president, and the president with the greatest political instincts and communication skills. So if he'd stood up and said in 1998, "We've got to send some troops into Afghanistan before they cause any more damage," it would have been tough because of Lewinsky, but he might have been able to do it. The other thing that would have made it tough: Look, the Lewinsky scandal never should have happened, because there never should have been a Whitewater prosecutor. But when it did happen, it had a profound effect on the country, because it prevented him from doing a number of things, and first and foremost was firing Louis Freeh, which a lot of people in his administration wanted to do. Because the FBI was and probably still remains a total mess

With a lot of responsibility for not detecting what led up to Sept. 11 ...

Right. But he couldn't fire Freeh, because it would then seem a Saturday night massacre, that he was doing it just because of the investigation of the Lewinsky scandal. The other problem, though, when you say he could have done it just as well as Bush, I'm not sure about that for one basic and terrible reason that is at the heart of this book: The Republicans never would have let him.

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That was my next question: Would Republicans have ever given him the kind of support that Bush has gotten from Democrats?

No! Of course not! On Sept. 13 Republicans would have been howling, "What are you going to do, Mr. President? Are you gonna chicken out on this like you chickened out in Vietnam?" He would have never had the more than three weeks that Bush got to respond. There would have been calls for re-impeachment and howling all over the place. That would have been true of Gore, by the way; they wouldn't have given him any time either. And it speaks to something really terrible that has happened. An argument could be made that over the last 10 years, the extreme right wing of the Republican party has behaved in a way that approaches a lack of patriotism. They've really done serious damage to democracy. When Bob Dole tells me, as he did in the book, that there was a part of his party that never accepted Clinton's legitimacy as president ...

Well, Dole helped that along himself. You quoted him, after the '96 election, saying he said he would be the president for the 57 percent of the people who hadn't voted for Clinton -- his voters and Ross Perot's. Can you imagine what would have happened if Al Gore said that after Florida? "I'm president of the majority who actually voted for me but got disenfranchised by the Supreme Court?" You let Dole play the statesman in your book, but you capture that amazing assertion, which I think was part of the problem.

I believe he really was a statesman, and he made occasionally really stupid comments when his ambition rather than his common sense was talking. I prefer to judge Dole on the substance of his years in office.

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So you want to consider that a symptom of the times, rather than a cause of it?

Yeah, clearly he always had to play to those guys, which was dreadful. What right did they have not to consider Clinton the legitimate president of the United States? You had two elections, and he clearly won both of them. It wasn't even like 2000. But even then, Democrats acted patriotically: They said Bush was the president, and after Sept. 11, they got behind the president.

Yes, look at what happened after the Supreme Court decision in December 2000. I think a lot of liberals and Democrats felt like our system was at risk because of what the court did and because of that, they rushed to defend the system, and even defend Bush, in some cases even the Court, rather than going for the jugular. I mean, the New York Times editorial page had been incredibly pro-Gore during the Florida recount. But after the Supreme Court decision there was a change to the tenor of editorials and a sense that we had to support the outcome and the Supreme Court decision, no matter that we didn't like it. Liberal institutions and politicians would not go to the mat at that point; they pulled back, at a time when if the roles were reversed, the right-wing machine would have been in full throttle.

Yeah, I think that there's a lot to that.

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Well, that's interesting, because in the book and elsewhere, you disparage the notion of a "vast right wing conspiracy." It seems like you're ambivalent about it. Clearly you know there was a right-wing movement to get Clinton, you document it, but it seems like you try to have it both ways, and downplay it, and I want to nail you down on that point.

I'm happy to respond to that, because this is really a crucially important point. I have no dispute about the facts here, about the involvement of Richard Mellon Scaife and all those other folks who acted unpatriotically in the '90s, who were vicious and relentless. I do have a problem with calling it a vast right-wing conspiracy, though, because first of all, it wasn't all that vast. Second of all, terms like that feed the devolution of public discourse, which is the most important thing that happened in the '80s and '90s. The ultimate result of this kind of feeding of extreme rhetoric to the public is dangerous for the future of democracy. It feeds the notion that all politicians are corrupt or phony, and that's manifestly not true. It's also creating an atmosphere that makes no one want to run for office.

So I think that to the extent that the left wing uses extreme rhetoric, too -- the civil rights movement runs their smear campaign calling Clarence Thomas a handkerchief head and other such excrescences -- it only feeds the terrible temper of the time. It's been really interesting, the reaction to this book: People say I'm ambivalent as you just did -- when I present both sides. It seems that you have to come "from the left" or "from the right," in which all political discourse becomes "Crossfire," and "Crossfire" is a burlesque of politics.

No, I'm not saying that at all. I was wondering what you made of the final Ray report on Whitewater, as well as those defensive New York Times and Washington Post editorials about them? They just cannot leave Clinton alone. I thought the Times did a wonderful thing in "clarifying" -- essentially apologizing for -- their Wen Ho Lee coverage, and I never expected them to do anything like that to Clinton. He was the president, he was fair game, in a sense. But the editorial essentially defending their campaign was beyond me.

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They were pretty extreme throughout. It's very difficult when you've killed vast forests in the service of a nonstory to say you were wrong. All I can say on the Ray report is that, first of all, it is outrageous that he said he could have indicted Clinton and that he would have been convicted. This was not the report of a special prosecutor, it was the report of a candidate for Senate from New Jersey.

This era will be bounded very neatly by the imposition of the special prosecutor law, and its leaving from the end of Watergate through the end of Clinton. The Dems used it ridiculously in the '80s, the Republicans used it in the '90s. Public faith in government was destroyed. I had this moment with Bob Dornan on an escalator in Iowa when he was running for president. I said, "How's it going, Congressman," and he said, "Can we go off the record for a minute?" I said, "Sure." He said, "Boy, people out there really hate politicians!" And I said, "What have you been saying about politicians for the last 30 years?" So for me, a really radical position for journalism to take is to stop being cynical. Cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre.

But just when you want to blame all of Clinton's trouble on the right, he's back in the news, telling Jonathan Alter he regrets the Marc Rich pardon, not because it was wrong, but because of the political fallout.

And I thought that was disgraceful. He really let out a part of himself that is ugly and it's obviously there. Those pardons were disgraceful. Too often he did that. I'm not a shrink, and I can't tell you why, but I do suspect that at the heart of his problems was that neediness that everybody who knows him senses immediately -- the utter need for approval. I once said to him, "I always know when you're going to screw up." And he looked at me and got that glare in his eye he got when he was angry. And he said "How?" And I said, "As long as you keep the American people in your mind as your audience, you do pretty well. But as long as you're trying to please the people who are immediately in front of you (and I don't care if it's democratic leaders in Congress in his first term, or Newt Gingrich, or fundraisers or the Riady family) whenever the audience shifts to your immediate need to win someone over and away from the interests of the American people, you get into trouble." And that case was a totally flagrant example: He allowed Denise Rich and Beth Dozoretz, these fawning courtiers, to get the better of him.

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Yes, and in the book you link them with Monica Lewinsky. You get to say things like that, because you're Jewish, but I was thinking about that at the time: What was it about these Jewish women and his being powerless to stay out of trouble around them?

Never, never underestimate the power of the exotic, over all of us. The exotic is different to different people.

So black people aren't exotic to Clinton, but Jews are?

Well. [pause] Don't know. [laughs]

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OK, I'll ask him.

But your book does make clear that despite his self-inflicted wounds, Clinton was never given credit for what he accomplished, and that's the fault of the right and the media.

Look, there's a kind of fashionable talking-head center that responds to my book by saying, "Well, Klein is trying to defend Clinton, but you really can't, because he offended all of us with Monica Lewinsky." But he didn't. They seem to forget that the guy had a 70 percent approval rating when he left office. The highest sustained approval ratings of any president since Kennedy. I'm gonna rant a little bit here. Jonathan Yardley reviewed my book in the Washington Post, and said Clinton had an empty presidency. Well it wasn't so empty if you're one of the 10 million Americans taking advantage of Hope scholarships to go to college last year.

I talked to James Carville recently and he brought up that Yardley review. He talked about how certain liberal pundits are so "disappointed" by Clinton, but they ignore what he did for the working poor. That quiet transfer of money to the working poor has never been appreciated.

And there was a serious philosophical basis for that. He went through this process that a lot of us went through in the '80s, which was to really think about the information revolution, and how you dealt with government services as a result. People were going to have a lot more information, and that should be acknowledged: They should be allowed to make choices about where their kids go to school, where they get their health coverage, what to do with their own money. The model was the G.I. Bill of Rights, which was a voucher program, and that was a far better way to go about government activism -- dare I call it liberalism? -- in the information age than merely providing the same old bureaucracies filled with public employee union members who are more concerned with how much overtime they're going to get than whether they're helping poor people. That was a huge thing that he did, he really acted on it.

And he upset a lot of liberals. I was at the Rockefeller Foundation with Marian Wright Edelman the day he signed the welfare reform bill, and she was so furious, and honestly so was I. But I've come around to think he basically did the right thing. The system was so broken ...

I was on the same side as Marian at that point. I wrote a column at the time ... something we still don't know is how many people are incapable of working, for whatever reason, lack of intelligence, emotional stability. They set the figure at 20 percent, but that's an arbitrary figure. Might be 18 percent; might be 23 percent. We're going to find out. But yes, he had courage. One problem he had, though, was on foreign policy, and it was partly because of the baggage of avoiding the draft and Vietnam. Now, I happen to think that was a moral position. The way he went about it was a little scoundrelly -- but that war was wrong. Yet you never heard him say that.

Well, I think that's the problem a lot of people have with so-called New Democrats: There is often a failure to take bold and maybe even unpopular stands, to say something like, "The Vietnam war was wrong, and we're not going to be revisionist about that," if it would cost them politically.

I think the Democratic Leadership Council is doing the same thing now on gun control. On the war, major DLC people -- the smart ones like Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck and Bruce Reed, maybe not Will Marshall -- I'm sure would all say if you asked them, the war was wrong. They all believe it. I think the way the DLC really pulled the Democrats out of the wilderness was on the question of how do you deliver government service to the poor. I think what's going on right now is far less honorable. The tendency since the 2000 election to backslide on gun control is reprehensible, and the DLC is doing that.

I feel the same way about the death penalty, and people like Clinton changed their position on that because the New Democrat way was to say, You'll never get elected opposing the death penalty, so I'm going to support it.

Well, I oppose the death penalty too. But then I'm also against late-term abortion.

But don't you think that's a problem, that you have all these Democrats running for office now, rejecting principled positions because they think they can't get elected?

Well, that really wasn't as important as the rethinking of government activism, though, and that's what the DLC did. I mean, the left was totally brain-dead on these issues, and it still is. There wasn't an interesting idea that came out of the left in the last 30 years.

Your book is extremely negative about Ralph Nader, and his role in the liberal politics of personal destruction that we saw in the '80s, starting with the Robert Bork Supreme Court confirmation. You quote him salivating over Bork as an opportunity for "constituency building," and quote an ally saying Nader taught him how to demonize the opposition. I watched the way he demonized Clinton and Gore when he ran for president, insisting they were no better for poor people than Bush, which clearly isn't true.

Ralph brought a really important thing to the table, and that was the questioning of corporate products and corporate power. That was real important. But he went way overboard with it. Had he ever been elected president, you'd have seen the billion people in the world living better because of the global economy slide right back into poverty. How many villages in the Third World has he been to? The ones I've been to you've seen a major improvement in the lives of people. For the first time children can go to school, instead of work in the fields. I think you start off with sweatshops and you move up the food chain. This dilettante notion that the global economy is evil because big corporate leaders make too much money ... they do make too much money, but the only way we've figured out how to generate wealth in this world is through the market economy.

There are important social values that you have to adhere to. You have to provide education, and you have to provide healthcare. You've got to provide a safety net, and you've got to provide opportunity. But for the rest of it, the market economy isn't a bad tool for moving people up.

Your bottom-line critique of Clinton is that he failed to deliver on his promise to develop a new social safety net for the information age. I'm still amazed that despite the surplus, we didn't find a way to do more to provide child care, for instance, that it's still an individual family responsibility. Democrats really didn't put together a constituency behind the roster of things people need in an economy where they're going to change jobs frequently, where you don't have a parent at home with the kids ...

Well, you do it with tax credits, and the irony is that the guy who did so much with tax credits in public life, when it came to healthcare, he goes with a ridiculous employer mandate plan. That was silly. There's another aspect that's crucial, and here Lewinsky intervened as well. The biggest problem we're going to face is the impact of the baby boom generation on our children. Not only have we been self-centered and self-indulgent and generally obnoxious, now we're gonna be an economic weight as well. Clinton had the opportunity, he had the budget surplus, to deal with Social Security and Medicare, and he didn't do it. And he didn't do it in part because of Lewinsky and in part because Democrats wanted to be able to demagogue on both those issues.

Well, now you have a president who spent all that money on tax cuts.

Totally obscene tax cuts.

One of the ideas I was intrigued by in "The Natural" is the way you think Clinton was used as the classic mythological, psychological "scapegoat" -- that we used him to exorcise all our social demons over what the '60s had wrought in terms of sex, drugs, gender, marriage, by sacrificing him, for his excesses, some of which were also our own. He was made to pay. But you say it didn't work, that he wasn't sacrificed. But I'd say that he was: For all those things he accomplished, that you lay out so well, his presidency is still judged a disappointment. The Lewinsky mess is his legacy.

No, we can't get so wrapped up in our little world of the media. In our world he's considered a failure. There are all these people, including liberals, who say because of Lewinsky, because of the pardons, he really was an immoral guy. But the public was with him all the way. You take the Lewinsky year, when all of my colleagues were so upset about him: Nothing happened to him that year. He started at 60 percent in the polls, he ended at 60 percent. Republicans meanwhile drifted down in the polls, but journalists were the lowest -- we were lower than lawyers, for god's sakes.

The public is never going to be able to determine the difference between Al Gore's Medicare plan and George Bush's, but they do sense important things about character. They knew in 1992, that Clinton messed around, that he lied about things, but they also sensed that he really cared about them. And that opinion never changed, and he never violated it. We in the press defined character as sex, in the stupidest possible way. I'm actually pro-peccadillo. I think that politicians with an interesting sexual life have a better track record in the presidency. But there are other tests of character as well. The biggest is, are you willing to go up against your strongest supporters, for the greater good, and Clinton did that time after time.

In the book, you actually criticize yourself for a Newsweek column you wrote, "The Politics of Promiscuity," which suggested that his lax personal and sexual standards slipped over into his governing, when in fact that really wasn't true.

Right.

People said, "If he'd lie to his wife he'd lie to the country" ...

John Kennedy brought a date to the inauguration. Franklin Roosevelt ran a free-love commune in the White House during World War II, and he sicced the IRS on his enemies. There was a kind of alienated Puritanism among the fashionable press in the 1990s. People were just so, so, so upset about Clinton's sex life. And Puritans are bad enough when they believe in something, but to have a bunch of Puritans who don't even believe in anything ...

Cynical Puritans ...

Cynical Puritans! It's just ridiculous. And I think that we did real damage.

You thought Salon did the wrong thing in printing the Henry Hyde story.

Yeah ... No ... Well, actually ... I think it was going to get out there sooner or later. The public is going to find out, and be titillated and so on, and we're all going to sell more newspapers. What went wrong was not so much Salon doing the Hyde story, although I think that crossed a boundary, but ... look, the biggest change in the press is that everybody's so damn well educated. When I started in the press there were really ink-stained wretches. Not everybody went to college. Now, everybody at the New York Times and the Washington Post and Salon and Slate, most of them have Ivy League educations ...

Not me ...

So these folks can't just lap up a sex story and report it gleefully, like the public wants you to do, there has to be some deeper meaning, about morality or legality or whatever. And it has to last 18 months or 12 months or whatever, and play right into the hands of the most extreme elements of the opposition, so you wind up with impeachment, rather than a two-week story, which is all it was ever worth.

Obviously Salon didn't do the Henry Hyde story because of the morality of Hyde's extramarital affairs ...

It was because of the hypocrisy.

Yes, and Henry Hyde was going to stand in judgment of the president, and pretend this was about lying under oath, not about sex, when we knew and the American people knew it was really just about sex.

I think there was a fair amount of justice to that point. But I have really tried to keep my eyes on a larger point, which is the more this happens, the more public discourse is degraded. I took as my goal in the 2000 presidential election to be accused of being in the tank to as many presidential candidates as I could. I succeeded in the case of three out of four major candidates I was considered in the tank for George W. Bush, Bill Bradley and John McCain. I wasn't considered in the tank for Al Gore, and I consider that a major failing.

In the book you capture Gore frighteningly well, as having "a genius for subservience," as "a natural number two" but you don't seem to like him.

I think his positions on the environment were terrific. I just wish he'd taken them during the campaign. I wish he hadn't chickened out on gun control during those debates. The point is this: The negative story about a politician is the easiest one to sell an editor these days. When you write something positive about a politician, you're accused of being in the tank for him. All I had to do was point out that Bush talked more about poor people during the campaign than many Democrats, and I was in the tank for him.

I know, I was attacked for giving him credit for his work on education in Texas.

Well, he really cared about that. Would that he cared about a few more things.

So why isn't the media as hard on Bush as on Clinton?

I don't know. If I were writing a column now, I'd have been hitting him on a whole bunch of things. The tax cut: ridiculous. His environmental policies: atrocious. The fact that any day since Sept. 11 he could have gone on the air and asked sacrifice from the American people in terms of energy conservation, and they would have gladly given it to him, but he didn't. In fact, he killed the deal on hybrid vehicles that Clinton and Gore made in Detroit, and then appeared on the White House lawn with hybrid vehicles two weeks after he killed it. He exed out a lot of the funds for education that were in his deal with Ted Kennedy. And if Clinton had gone back on free trade as president, as Bush did with the steel imports, you can imagine what the right wing would have done to him. I respect George Will for going after [Bush] on that issue, but where is the Weekly Standard? Where is the rest of the right?

And what about the Middle East? I was appalled when Ari Fleischer blamed Clinton for the current mess a few weeks back, and even though he recanted, I'm sure that's what this administration thinks.

Well, I kind of agree with Ari on this one, and I'll tell you why. Because a guy who is as good at reading people, the best I ever saw, and getting the deal, willfully did not understand that Yasser Arafat was not going to make the deal.

Willfully did not understand? How can you say that?

Because if he'd stepped back from it, he'd have seen, no matter what Arafat was saying to him, it would never happen. Arafat has defined himself as a revolutionary. At one point, afterward, I said to Clinton: "You know, Arafat has a great life as a revolutionary, he flies to the salons of Europe, the Saudis give him money, he doesn't have to do anything. What made you think he'd wanna give that up?" Clinton said, "I said to him, 'Yasser, if this deal goes through, you're gonna have to buy yourself a desk.'" And if Clinton understood that, why didn't he understand that Arafat would never want to be behind a desk? So I think he should have been far more cautious. He was playing with fire there.

I've been going over there for 25 years, covering wars and peace, and the best five years I ever had were the five years after Oslo. I think the answer there was the appearance, rather than the reality, of a peace process. You give up a town here, a town there, a new generation of kids are growing up, you're giving them an education and allowing businesses to thrive in Gaza and the West Bank. Maybe 15 to 20 years down the road, you have a shot at peace. Maybe you don't, but you didn't have a real shot right then. It just seemed to me he was pushing too hard for a legacy. He humiliated Arafat publicly at the end of the process, and I don't know what's in those documents the Israelis seized in his headquarters, but I wouldn't be surprised if they said that as soon as Sharon gave him an excuse he said, "Start the Intifada."


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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