THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release December 7, 2000
INTERVIEW OF THE PRESIDENT
BY ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE
The Solarium, The White House
October 10, 2000
3:10 P.M. EDT
Q Last time I sat down with you here in the White House and a had a
long conversation it was just right after Wye, and you were feeling real
good and real happy and really accomplished. And, today, considerably
different. How are you feeling? You must be exhausted.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, one night about three -- when did I stay up all
MR. SIEWERT: It was Friday night.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, Friday night, I was up all night talking to them.
That's not quite true, I slept an hour, and then maybe I slept another 30
or 40 minutes in different snippets; I'd just fall asleep. But I've been
working this hard now.
Today I feel pretty good, because the violence has gone down
considerably. Prime Minister Barak had a Cabinet meeting that lasted
almost all night last night -- it did last all night, it broke up about
5:00 a.m. this morning. And in the middle of it he came out and announced
that the Israelis would suspend their ultimatum, because they had some
encouragement and there was so much effort being made by the world
Q What are you doing from here, in Washington, at your desk talking
on the phone with these guys? I mean, how are you able to effect this and
what do you see your role as now?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I've spent so much time with both of them and I
know quite a bit about what makes them tick and I think I understand the
pressures they're both under and I believe I understand what happened here,
how they both came to see themselves and their people as victims in this.
So I've tried to do what I could to help.
I think that they both became concerned about 24 hours ago, maybe a
little more, that this thing could really slide into a much deeper
conflict. So at least today we've pulled back from the precipice. Kofi
Annan is out there and I think he's doing some good work there. And of
course there are any number of other people out there trying to make
diplomatic efforts to kind of end the violence.
So I feel good today, as compared with yesterday. And I'm sorry that
the peace process has been temporarily derailed. Although, if we can end
the violence and if we can get agreement between the two sides on some sort
of fact-finding commission to figure out how this happened and how to keep
it from happening again -- which was the thing that the U.N. resolution
called for, that, in fact, Barak and Arafat had agreed to in Paris,
although they hadn't agreed to the composition of the commission, they had
agreed that it ought to be done -- if we can do that, the next big step is
to begin the negotiations, the peace negotiations as immediately as
possible. Because otherwise the sort of public pressures, both within the
Middle East and beyond, will get worse.
Q Were you shocked by what happened? Were you surprised?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, a little bit. I was surprised it spread as
quickly as it did. I was surprised that the feelings on both sides could
be stripped to the core as quickly as they did. Because they've made so
much progress, and they got so close.
But in a funny way, I think that from the Israeli point of view, Camp
David made them feel even more vulnerable because Barak at Camp David and
since went further, by far, than any Israeli Prime Minister had gone
before. And I think the Palestinians, number one, really thought it wasn't
enough to make a peace agreement, but also have a different strategy since
basically the physical concessions have to be made by Israel -- except for
what the Palestinians have to agree on security, in terms of joint security
presence in what would become a Palestinian area in the West Bank. They
have to make agreements on the West Bank territory, on the right of return
language in the U.N. resolutions, who gets to come back and, if they don't
come back, what is their compensation. They have to resolve Jerusalem and
they have to deal with security.
Interestingly enough, because it was the most concrete with the fewest
number of unpredictable consequences in the future, they made more progress
at Camp David on security than anything else. They also had a habit of
working together on security and getting along. But I think that the
Israelis sort of felt aggrieved that they didn't get more done, because
they offered so much. Then the Palestinians felt provoked by what happened
on the Temple Mount with --
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q Let's not get too far into this --
THE PRESIDENT: We don't have to get into the weeds, but the point is
that then a whole series of events happened where each side began -- with
each successive event it seemed that each side misunderstood the other
Q Does any of it tend to piss you off about the relationships that
you formed with -- you formed a very strong relationship with Arafat and
also Barak. Did it change your mind any, when you get into this --
goddammit, Yasser -- you have the same interpreter, right, that you used to
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q So you've got a close relationship. Doesn't that --
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it's frustrating.
Q This will all be settled by the time this comes out, so just
speak your mind. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: It will all be settled or it won't, by the time this
The whole thing is frustrating, but you've got to realize we're
dealing with fundamental questions of identity. What Jack Lew was saying
at Rosh Hashanah, though, the Jews go back and read the story of Abraham
and Sarah giving birth to Isaac. I was thinking it's interesting how the
circumstances under which the sons of Abraham were born and became
separated. And it sounds like sort of epic family tragedy, and they just
sort of keep replaying it down through the years.
That's the thing that bothers me. I just hope that somehow, you know,
at this moment, however long it takes, we'll get beyond that. To the
outsider who cares about them both, it seems so self-evident that the only
acceptable answer is for them to find a way to live together in peace.
Q Changing the subject a little bit. When you're out of office,
what are the three or four issues you think you're going to want to most
focus on and be most concerned with?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I haven't quite figured out what
to do and how to do it, because I'm so into what I've doing. I've laid the
basic plans for my library and policy center. And I know I'm going to have
an office in New York, because I'll be there, as well. And I've talked to
a lot of people in general terms about it.
But I decided that I would try to be effective in this job right up
until the end. And in order to do it, I can't be spending vast amounts of
time kind of planning out my next step. I also think I probably need a
couple months to kind of just rest, relax, sleep -- rest, get a little
I've thought a lot about ex-presidencies. There have been two really
great ones in history: John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. And they were
very different. Quincy Adams went back to the House of Representatives and
became the leading spokesman against abolition.
You see the Washington Monument right behind us that actually, in his
last term in Congress was Abraham Lincoln's only term in the House, and
they stood together on that mound when the Washington Monument was
But Jimmy Carter used the Carter Center to do very specific things.
He works on human rights, election monitoring, getting rid of river
blindness in Africa, agricultural self-sufficiency. From time to time he's
engaged in various peace issues, primarily in Africa. And he works here at
home on Habitat for Humanity, which is now, by the way, the third biggest
home builder in America. Stunning thing. And also involved all over the
world. I've been to Habitat sites in Africa. Or one in Africa, but there
are more than one. There are lots of them over there.
So the challenge is to trade power and authority broadly spread for
influence and impact tightly concentrated. That's basically the challenge.
And I'm sure I'll be interested, I'll try to do a lot on the areas that
I've always been involved in -- this whole area of racial and religious
reconciliation at home and around the world; economic empowerment of poor
people, something I'm very interested in here and around the world.
As we speak, I still don't know for sure whether the New Markets
Initiative that the Speaker of the House and I have built such a broad
bipartisan coalition for will pass. We've got 300-some votes for it in the
House. It's really got a chance to be one of the signature achievements of
this Congress and it is something that Republicans ought to like, because
it basically involves getting private capital into poor areas in America.
And then I've got a big initiative to relieve the debt of the world's
poorest countries that will put the money into education, health care and
development back home, if they get the debt relief. So that's something
that I've always been very interested in. We make 2 million microcredit
loans a year around the world, under AID in my administration. We set up
Q The Grameen Bank model.
THE PRESIDENT: The what?
Q The model of the Grameen Bank.
THE PRESIDENT: Grameen Bank -- Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. And in
America, the South Shore Bank. We set up a community development financial
institution program here in America and we fund those here in America, as
So we've done a lot of work on that. And I'm very interested in this
whole idea of the relationship of energy to economic growth and the
challenge of global warming, which I believe is real. And I believe we can
break the iron link between how nations get rich and how they deal with the
environment. I don't think -- I think the energy realities of the world
have changed drastically in the last 10 years, and they're about to really
change with the development of fuel cell engines, alternative fuels. And
there's also -- we've funded a lot of research on biofuels -- not just
ethanol from corn, but you can make biofuels out of grass. You can cut the
grass out here and make fuel out of it.
But the conversion is not good. It takes about seven gallons of
gasoline to make about eight gallons of biofuel. But they're working on
research which would lead to one gallon of gasoline making eight gallons.
So I'm interested in all that.
I'm interested in the breakdown of public health systems around the
world. AIDS, TB and malaria kills one in every four people that die every
year now, those three diseases.
Q So you would set up something like -- you're very mindful of the
Carter Center --
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know. I don't know how I'm going to do it.
I'm thinking about it. I've explored a lot of ideas, but I'm going to take
some time when I get out to think about it. I also want to make sure that
whatever I do, I give the next President time to be President; and whatever
I do, I don't get in the way of the next President. Because a country can
only have one President at a time, and I want to be supportive of that.
Q Well, you must have obviously thought a lot about Teddy
Roosevelt. I mean, you are -- or he -- are the youngest -- you're the
youngest President since Teddy Roosevelt, to come out of a successful
presidency, and be in your mid-50s, because of your powers, really, and
energy. Do you compare yourself much to him? Have you thought much about
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the time in which I served was very much
like the time in which he served. And I think the job I had to do was
quite a lot like -- there are some interesting historical parallels with
the job he had to do, because he basically was -- his job was to manage the
transition of America from an agricultural to an industrial power; and from
essentially an isolationist to an international nation.
In my time, we were managing the transition from an industrial to an
information age, and from a Cold War world to a multipolar, more
interdependent world. And so I've always thought these periods had a lot
But when Teddy Roosevelt left, he served almost eight full years,
because McKinley was killed in 1901, shortly after he was inaugurated. But
he thought he really should observe the two-term tradition that George
Washington had established -- that his cousin would later break in the war.
Before, the election was right before the war. But World War II was
already going on when Franklin Roosevelt was -- but anyway, Roosevelt, when
he got out, then he felt Taft had betrayed his progressive legacy. So he
spent a lot of the rest of his life, he built a whole third party new
political movement, and promoted what he called the "new nationalism"
around America. And he was a very important political force.
But I think in some ways the impact he might have had was a little
tempered by his evident disappointment at not being President anymore. And
I think -- that's not an option for me, because I can't run again, because
now there's the 22nd amendment. Roosevelt didn't have the 22nd amendment.
So it's not a real issue for me. So I've got to try to use whatever
influence and networks and friendships and support I've built up around the
world and here at home just to have a positive impact, to be an effective
citizen. And I think I'll find a way to do it.
Q If there wasn't the 22nd amendment, would you run again?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I probably would have run again.
Q Do you think you would have won?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. I do.
MR. SIEWERT: That was an "if." (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: But it's hard to say because it's entirely academic.
It's such a --
Q On the other hand, you've got the advantages of the incumbency,
you've got the highest popularity rating of any President, the economy is
doing good. It looks like you would have won in a walk. Do you think the
22nd amendment is such a good idea? Is it really consistent with
democracy, to have this kind of term limit on a President?
THE PRESIDENT: I think the arguments for executive term limits are
better than the arguments for --
THE PRESIDENT: -- all legislative term limits. I've never supported
legislative term limits. I don't think they're good ideas. But I think
the arguments for executive term limits, on balance, are pretty compelling.
I mean, I have an extra amount of energy and I love this job and I love the
nature of this work. But maybe it's better to leave when you're in pretty
good shape, too. Better to leave when you're in good shape.
I think maybe they should -- maybe they should put "consecutive"
there. Maybe they should limit it to two consecutive terms. Because now
what's going to happen is -- see, Teddy Roosevelt was young, but not so
young for his time. He was the youngest person to have been President, but
he died at 61. Now anybody that lives to be 65 has a life expectancy of
82. So you're going to see people who -- most people mature, politically
-- and it's like all different activities have -- gymnasts are tops at 14
or 15, basketball players at 25 or 28.
THE PRESIDENT: Presidents normally about 50, 51. Roosevelt was 51
when he was elected. Lincoln was 51 when he was elected. In their early
50s, most Presidents do their best.
Q Retirement is functionally the early 50s.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. And now you're going to have more and more
people, particularly that come after me, living much longer lives. So we
might decide --
Q Is that enough time to repeal the 22nd amendment, get that
THE PRESIDENT: No. This is not really about me, because my time is
up. But I think that if -- you can't predict all the challenges the
country will face in the future, and whether someone uniquely suited to a
given moment will be there. So maybe they should -- but I'm just saying,
you may have people operating at a very high level of efficiency, in
politics, from age 50 to age 80 in the future, because of the changes in
the human life cycle that are going to come about as a result of the human
genome and pharmaceutical developments and all kind of other things we're
learning. We may be able to reverse Parkinson's, we may be able to reverse
Alzheimer's. So there's going to be a lot of things that are different
about aging in the future. We're going to have to totally rethink it in
ways we can't imagine.
And if it seems appropriate, then I think some future Congress may
give the states a chance to at least limit the President to two consecutive
terms, and then if the people need a person, a man or a woman to come back
in the future, they can bring them back. That might happen. It may take
decades, but it wouldn't surprise me if it happened simply because of the
lifestyle, the length of life we're looking at.
Q Not to drag this out -- people say that you love campaigning. I
mean, that you don't stop campaigning in all aspects. I mean, how are you
going to sort of withdraw from that in the next couple of years? How do
you stop campaigning?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know. I do like politics. But I like
governance, too. I like policy. I liked it all. That's one of the
reasons why I've been so fortunate in my life; I got to do something that
was basically about politics and policy and governing, and in executive
positions -- being a governor for a dozen years and President for eight. I
got to deal with politics, policy and governing, the three things that I
really loved. And I think I got better at it all as I went along.
I'm very interested, I think I'll spend a lot of time helping other
people. I'm thrilled about Hillary running, as we do this interview. I
believe she will win -- I hope she will, and I believe she will. I have
worked very hard with Tony Blair to try to build this network around the
world of kind of like-minded political leaders, and if I can be helpful to
them, I want to be. So I'm sure that, from time to time, I'll get a chance
to do a little politics after I leave here.
But I'm also looking forward to a different chapter in my life. I
mean, this is an interesting challenge. I'm still young enough to learn
how to do new and different things. And it's exciting to me. There's
never been a period in my life that I didn't enjoy and find challenging and
rewarding. And so I just need a little time to get my bearings, and hope
I'm not too old to change.
Q Going back to the beginning, one of the first things you did in
your earlier term was trying to overthrow the military ban on gay people.
Why did this backfire and what did you learn from that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it backfired partly because the people
that were against it were clever enough to force it, force the pace of it.
I tried to slow it down, but the first week I was President, Senator Dole,
who saw it as, I think, an opportunity, pushed a vote in the Senate
disapproving of it. And I tried to put it off for six months, and the
Joint Chiefs came down and raised hell about it. And I wanted to do it the
way Harry Truman -- Harry Truman issued an order saying, integrate the
military, come back in three years or two years, whatever, and tell me how
you're going to do it. And a lot of the gay groups wanted it done right
away and had no earthly idea of what kind of -- I think they were shocked
by the amount of congressional opposition.
So a lot of people think I just sort of compromised with the military
because they asked me to. That's not what happened. A lot of people have
forgotten that. We knew that there were -- at least 75 percent of the
House would vote against my policy. So if I were going to sustain a
different policy and have it withstand congressional action, I had to have
a veto-proof minority in one House or another. But what happened was the
Senate voted 68-32 against my policy, which meant that I could not sustain
my policy in either House, which meant they were going to enact it over my
-- they we're going to, in a sense, ratify the status quo in law.
And it was only at that time that I worked out with Colin Powell this
"don't ask, don't tell" thing, went to the War College and explained what
the policy was going to be based on what we had agreed -- the agreement we
had reached together. And then they wrote that into law. And then we had
several years of problems where it was not being implemented in any way
consistent with my speech at the War College, which General Powell agreed
with every word of, which we'd worked out.
So Bill Cohen has now changed the training and a lot of the other
elements that contributed to the fact that this policy continued to have a
lot of abuse in it, and I think it's better now. But I still don't think
it's the right policy. I think the policy I implemented originally, that I
wanted to implement was the right policy.
Q Would you do it any differently? Do you wish you could have done
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know. I think that what I would like to do,
what I wish I had been able to do, is to get an agreement on the part of
everybody involved to take this out of politics and look at it.
But the Republicans decided that they didn't want me to have a
honeymoon, that they wanted to make me the first President without one,
that we were living in a 24-hour news cycle and that the press would
happily go along with my not getting a honeymoon, and that they would make
this the opening salvo.
And they understood -- and I didn't understand exactly what I know now
about how what we do here plays out in the country. Because they've added
up, first, but because it was one of my campaign commitments and I refused
to back off of it, the message out in the country was, we elected this guy
to turn the economy around, and his top priority is gays in the military.
That's not true; it was Bob Dole's top priority.
Bob Dole's top priority was making this the controversy that would
consume the early days of my presidency, and it was a brilliant political
move by him, because at the time I was not experienced enough in the ways
of Washington to know how to explain to the American people what was going
on. If it happened to me again, I would say, why is this the Republicans'
top priority? I don't want to deal with this now. This is their top
priority. We can deal with this in six months when the study is done;
let's take care of the American people now.
And if it happened now, all the gay groups, who are now much more
sophisticated about dealing in Washington than they were then, would come
in and say, that's absolutely right -- why is he doing this? We don't want
this dealt with now, we want to deal with -- and we would put it back on
them, they would be in the hot box, and we could win it.
But the country has come a long way on gay rights issues since '93.
Because keep in mind, we did drop the ban on gays in security positions,
national security positions. We had done a whole lot of other things to
advance a lot of the causes that the gay rights community wanted. So we
have made a lot of progress there -- plus all the people I've appointed.
And I think the country has moved on that issue. The country is
overwhelmingly for hate crimes legislation. The country supports
employment nondiscrimination legislation. The only reason that we can't
get those through the Congress is that the leadership of the Republican
Party is way to the right of the country.
Q You know, historically, politicians have never, ever done much
for gay rights. But gay issues are in the mainstream -- certainly, for
instance, Reagan, who was very funny with gay people and had lots of
experience in Hollywood. Why did you take it upon yourself, particularly
in light of the political heat, to advance the causes of gay people?
THE PRESIDENT: I believed in it. It's not very complicated. I just
said, from the time I was a kid, I had known people who were gay and I
believed that their lives were hard enough without having to be hassled
about it. I saw it as a civil rights issue.
I also didn't buy the kind of conservative attack on them, that this
was sort of a conscious choice to have a depraved lifestyle. I had had
enough gay friends since I was a young man to know that -- to believe at
least that that's not the case. So I saw it as a civil rights issue. I
believed in it.
I also thought that as a white southern Protestant, who could
obviously talk to a lot of the so-called "Reagan Democrats," the people we
had lost that came back, that I was in a unique position to do it. And Al
Gore, I must say, reinforced that, because he felt it at least as strongly
as I did.
And he wanted to do something about it. And we thought that we could
do that for the same reason we thought we ought to take on the NRA. You
know, that if we couldn't do it, coming from where we came from with our
backgrounds, and kind of out of the culture we came from and understanding
that opposing elements, who could do it? When would it ever get done? And
so we did.
Q Congratulations. The climate is a thousand percent different
than it was.
THE PRESIDENT: You know, if that whole gays in the military thing
came up today, I don't think it would be handled in the same way. It might
not be that we could win it today, but today we would get a civilized
response, and we'd have a long study, there would be hearings, people would
handle this straight. It wouldn't just be a -- it would be handled in a
whole different way today. The climate has changed, I think, rather
Q What about what's going on with the Boy Scouts? Were you
disappointed with the Supreme Court decision, and what do you think you, as
President, can do about that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I can't do anything as President about the
Supreme Court decision.
Q Were you disappointed with it -- not about the decision, but
about the Boy Scouts?
THE PRESIDENT: I think the Boy Scouts were wrong. I think what the
Boy Scouts were reacting to was one of these stereotypes for which there is
no evidence whatever, which is that adult -- gay adults are more likely to
abuse children than straight adults, sexually. I think that's what was
going on. It's a stereotype, it's not true, there is no evidence to
support it. But I think that -- I think that's what was behind that. The
Scouts were scared. Now, apparently, the Girl Scouts have no such
prohibitions and have had no known problems.
Q Well, there are less gay girls than there are gay guys -- Girl
THE PRESIDENT: I'm not sure about that.
Q I don't know, I'm just bull-shitting. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: I doubt that. (Laughter.)
Q You're smart. You are smart, Mr. President. (Laughter.)
Is there something -- doesn't the President have an official capacity
with the Boy Scouts as, like, an honorary chairperson or something like
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes. And the gay groups asked me -- not the gay
groups, the press asked me if I would -- whether I should resign from that.
The President is always the honorary chairman of the Boy Scouts. And it's
going to be interesting when we have our first woman president, if they
make her the honorary chair of the Girl Scouts, or she gets to be the
honorary chair of the Boy Scouts. (Laughter.) That will be a kick.
Anyway, and I decided I shouldn't, and I think that's right. Because
I think that -- first, I think the Scouts do a world of good, and in our
time they have begun to be more active in the cities, which I think is
really important, to go into a lot of these places where the kids don't
have a lot of family or community support. And I think that it's near the
end of my term, so it would just be like a symbolic thing that would, in my
view, probably cause more harm than good.
And I think it's better for me to say I disagree with the position
they took and try to persuade them to change their position, which I hope
they will do, because I think --
Q It seems like there are so many states and communities that are
moving to pressure them.
THE PRESIDENT: To change?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I think there should be a lot of grass-roots
pressure on them to change. But that's where they will change.
Q That's a surprise.
THE PRESIDENT: That's where they'll change. They'll change at the
grass-roots level. But what's happening is -- look, the overwhelming thing
which changes people's attitudes on these issues is personal contact,
I'll tell you a little story. When we did the gays in the military
thing, I got -- not my pollster, another guy that I knew sent me a poll he
had done saying this is a political disaster for you, and here's why -- but
that's not the reason, the point I'm telling you. The polls showed by 48
to 45 people agreed with my position, in 1993.
But when asked, do you strongly -- so I won it, 48-45. But among
those who felt intensely, I lost it 36-18 or 15 -- 36-15.
Q Not a single-cause vote at all.
THE PRESIDENT: No, but for the antis, it was a single issue vote.
For the pros, it was, you know, I'm broad-minded, I've got a lot of other
things on my mind.
MR. SIEWERT: They're still mad at Cheney for what he said the other
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. What did Cheney say?
MR. SIEWERT: He wasn't hard over against -- he wasn't hard enough
over against gay marriage, or civil unions.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me make the larger point. But in this poll,
interestingly enough -- now, again, this was '93 -- there was not a huge
gender gap, there was not even a huge regional gap, as you might expect
with the south being way bigger than anyplace else. There were only two
big gaps: people who identified themselves as evangelical Christians were
72-22 against my position. People who said yes to the question -- have you
personally known a gay person -- were 66-33 for my position.
So this is a matter of personal experience, and the country will come
to this. They will come to the right place on this. Most gay people kept
their sexual preference secret for a long time. A lot of venerable
institutions in society that worry about their respectability and impact --
and the Boy Scouts is such a venerable institution -- what they're really
dealing with is people coming out much more than affirmative prejudice.
It's like, hey, let's go back to the way it used to be where people
didn't say and I didn't have to deal with this. That's what I believe,
anyway. Because I remember -- I grew up in a southern town. One of my
teachers was gay, there was a gay doctor in my hometown that some people
knew and didn't talk about.
So we're dealing with a huge kind of -- and this goes to the core of
how people think about themselves and how you work through all this. We'll
get there. We'll get there. But it's a matter of personal contact.
Q In your first year in office, you regularly talked with Richard
Nixon. What did you two talk about, and what were your impressions?
THE PRESIDENT: He came up here. Do you remember that?
THE PRESIDENT: He came to the White House. I had Nixon back at the
White House. I've got a letter that I treasure that Nixon wrote me about
Russia a month to the day before he died. And it was -- how old was he
then, 80, 81?
THE PRESIDENT: It was really a lucid, eloquent letter. Have you ever
seen that letter, Jake?
MR. SIEWERT: No.
THE PRESIDENT: You know, it was sort of his take on where Russia was
and -- the early part of my presidency.
MR. SIEWERT: He went to Russia right before he died.
THE PRESIDENT: That's correct. He went there, he came back, he wrote
me a letter about where he thought things were, and a month later he was
Well, I had him back here. I just thought that I ought to do it. He
lived kind of in the -- he had lived what I thought was a fundamentally
constructive life in his years out of the White House, he had written all
these books. He tried to -- and he tried to be a constructive force in
world affairs. And I thought that he had paid quite a high price for what
he did, and I just thought it would be a good thing for the country to
invite him back.
Q So when he came up, what was it like when he came here? Was that
the first time you had met him, in a way that -- spend any time?
THE PRESIDENT: Actually it's funny, because I had had two other
chances in my life to meet him. We were somewhere in 1969 we were at a
dinner. I was working here in the summer -- 1970 -- and there was a dinner
where he was and I didn't go shake hands with him, because I was young and
mad about the Vietnam war.
And then in the 1980s sometime we were in the same hotel in Hong Kong.
We were staying in the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. I was there on a
trade mission, and I was supposed to meet him and somehow or another it got
messed up. I can't remember what happened.
Q But when he came here, what was that like? What was he like? He
was kind of a stiff guy, right?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. He met my daughter, who was then going to
Sidwell, and his mother was a Quaker and I think his children went there,
or at least had some association with Quaker schools. So he had this long
talk with Chelsea about -- who was then 13 -- about Sidwell and Quaker
schools. But it was rather touching, because he seemed still after all
this time somewhat ill at ease in personal conversations with people he
didn't know. But it was obvious to me that he had thought about what he
would say when he met my daughter.
Q How was he like to you? I mean, did he treat you like the young
man or was he nervous?
THE PRESIDENT: He sort of identified -- it's interesting, he told me
he identified with me because he thought the press had been too hard on me
in '92 and that I had refused to die and he liked that. He said a lot of
life was just hanging on. So we had a good talk about that. (Laughter.)
But I found it interesting -- I always thought that he could have been
-- he did some good things, and I always thought he could have been a great
President if he had been more, somehow, trusting of the American people,
you know. I thought that somewhere way back there, his -- something
happened in terms of his ability to just feel at home, at ease with the ebb
and flow of human life and popular opinion.
And I think also, some of his weaknesses were reinforced by the way he
rose to national prominence, because he got elected to Congress by
convincing people -- Jerry Voorhees was soft on communism; and he got
elected to the Senate by convincing people that Helen Gahagan Douglas was
soft on communism; then he busted Alger Hiss and got to be Vice President
when he was, I don't know, 38 years old, 37, he was just a kid. Because he
was only -- Kennedy was 43 and Nixon was 46, I think.
Nixon was my age. Nixon would have been, had he won in '60, would
have been as young as I was when he got elected.
So I think all of a sudden, boom, one term in the Congress, a couple
years as a Senator, boom, you're Vice President, eight years as Vice
President and how did you do this? You did this by sort of whipping
popular opinion up into this frenzy by demonizing your opponent as being a
And I think that kind of reinforced some of his weaknesses. Whereas,
if he had had to run like I did, in a little state, where you had to go to
every country crossroads, people expect you to run the governor's office
like a country store, and you were used to brutal campaigns and used to
trusting people to sort of see through them, if you fought them out hard
enough, I think it might have rounded him in a different way. I think it
might have prepared him a little.
Q By all accounts, he was a nicer guy before the Jerry Voorhees
campaign -- and that there is something in that. And it wasn't even an
idea he liked.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, when he ran for President, he got 35
percent of the black vote. If he had a good record on civil rights -- and
for a Republican he had a good record in the House and the Senate. And,
you know, there is no -- when he got to be President he signed the EPA and
OSHA and a lot of other stuff. The guy had some -- and he had a very
fertile policy mind, he could get out of his ideological box. Remember, it
was Nixon that imposed wage and price controls in 1971.
Q And effectively.
THE PRESIDENT: He understood that. He understood that only a
Republican could go to China.
Q Which Presidents do you feel the most affinity for, in terms of
the way -- the problems they faced and the way they've handled them? We
spoke a little bit about the similarity with Teddy Roosevelt. Are there
any others that you feel a particular kinship to?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think Roosevelt and Wilson -- except I didn't
have a war, thank God. But Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had the same --
during that whole period, they were dealing with the kinds of challenges
that I have dealt with, both at home and around the world. And so I
identified with them a lot.
There are a lot of others that I like, but I think Harry Truman, in a
funny way -- even though most of the ideas, like the U.N. and the
international institutions, a lot of them were hatched and germinated when
Roosevelt was still alive -- Truman also had to create a new era, had to
organize a world where our commitment to the world was not an option after
the second world war. But we had to create a set of international
institutions where we could be leaders, but in which we were also
inter-dependent. And that's what not only the U.N., but also NATO, the
Marshall Plan and the Bretton Woods institutions that have been -- that
we've tried so hard to modify in my time.
And Truman -- I liked Truman a lot. I'm from Arkansas and we border
Missouri, I was raised on Harry Truman.
Q The McCulloch book made him look just great.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, it did. David McCulloch did a great job on that
book. But I think he was pretty great. If you real Merle Miller's "Plain
Speaking," it's a much earlier book, it also made him look pretty good and
he was an old man when he did a lot of that talking. But he was pretty
Q -- across the street from his house, in the Hay Adams Hotel, walk
across the street and come to work.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q I mean, those are the -- the modern Presidents. And you just
gave a speech about, sort of identifying a progressive tradition of which
you feel that you are a part of and trying to sort of consciously come to
terms with the idea of --
THE PRESIDENT: Have you read -- Wilson and FDR, and it ends in
Johnson. I can't remember if he put Truman or Kennedy in it, or not. But
this whole sort of tradition of progressivism, of using government as an
instrument of social justice and economic progress. And so they were --
Princeton, where obviously where Woodrow Wilson was President, did a
seminar, or a two-day symposium, excuse me, on the Progressive Era, on the
presidencies of Roosevelt and Wilson. So they asked me to come and speak
about that and about the relevance of that for the work I had done. So I
talked about that. But I also said that they were part of a larger
tradition, that I also felt that this time was a part of, which was
defining the Union, defining what America was.
In the beginning of this country, there was a big debate. When we
started the -- after we ratified the Constitution, there was a huge debate
early on between George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall on
the one hand, and Thomas Jefferson and all his allies on the other, about
whether we would have a strong nation, and what did that mean. And, you
know, John Marshall subsequently became Chief Justice, and wrote all the
great nation building decisions of the first 20 years of the 19th century.
But even before that, and Alexander Hamilton you remember, wanted to
build a great, strong national financial system. George Washington
supported him. That's what the Federalists were. They wanted a federal
government that was strong. The Republicans wanted more than the Articles
of Confederation, but not all that much more. Now, as I said, when Thomas
Jefferson got elected President, he was glad the other side won, because he
used that to buy Louisiana and send Lewis and Clark out, which are two of
the most important things in the first half of the 19th century that were
And Louisiana cost only $15 million, but that was one year's federal
budget at that time. Can you imagine what the Congress would say, if I
said, hey, I've got a deal for you, and it just costs $1.9 trillion. Let's
go do this. So that was the first battle.
The second battle was the battle to define the Union in terms of who
was part of it. That's what Abraham Lincoln, you know, lived and died for.
Gary Wills has argued brilliantly that he, in effect, re-wrote the
Constitution, the common meaning of the Constitution, for the Gettysburg
Address, and brought it closer to the natural meaning of the words -- the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. So that was the second
Then the third time we had to redefine the Union was under Woodrow
Wilson -- Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, whom we had -- one, we moved
into an industrial era, and we had this huge wave of immigrants coming into
our cities, into our factories. And we had to define, number one, what the
role of the nation was in incorporating all these people, and defining the
conditions of civilized life -- child labor, minimum work week, all that
And, number two, what the role of the government was in mediating
between the industrial society and the civil society, which was the
anti-trust laws, in an economic sense, and in a larger sense, all that land
Teddy Roosevelt set aside, when people first began to worry about pollution
and using natural resources and all that. Teddy Roosevelt partly was able
to be our first great conservation President, because people could see that
growth in pollution could take away some of our natural resources.
And then, of course, Wilson built on that with a social agenda, and
then defining our responsibilities in the world in terms of World War I and
his argument for the League of Nations, which ultimately prevailed, even
though he lost it. So that was the second great time.
And then the third great time was Roosevelt in the Depression and in
World War II, and afterward, Roosevelt and Truman had this -- excuse, me
the fourth time. You had the beginning, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and
Woodrow Wilson. Then you had the fourth great period was this period,
because what they were doing is, they had first to essentially bring the
government into the heart of the management of the economy. That's what
the Federal Reserve and all that had been created. But we didn't really
manage the economy until the Depression. Then there was this whole idea
that the responsibility of the government to help build and sustain a
middle class society, everything from Social Security to the G.I. Bill.
Then, after the war, what they had to do was create the conditions of
permanent involvement of America in the world. Because Teddy Roosevelt and
Woodrow Wilson got us involved in the world in a leadership way, and then
we just walked away from it, and paid the consequences. So the Cold War
was on us after the war, so basically Roosevelt and Harry Truman built the
structures within which America could lead and operate in an interdependent
And I would argue that this period is the fifth great period of
nation-defining. Because we have to define what the role of government is
in an information global society, both in terms of empowering people to
make the most of their own lives, dealing with a far greater array of
racial and religious and social diversity than we've ever had before, and
dealing with a world that is very different than the world of the Cold War,
or the world before that that we used to move in and out of.
So we had to have the permanence of involvement that we had in the
Cold War, with a greater degree of interdependence than we had in the Cold
War, because it's not a bipolar world. So we have a different set of
challenges. And my election spawned a reaction in the Gingrich revolution,
or the Gingrich counterrevolution -- where if you go back and look at all
their arguments for weakening the federal government, for toughening stands
against immigrants, for turning away from the civil rights claims of gays,
for refusing to strictly enforce the civil rights laws, and strengthen laws
protecting women, the whole social and economic agenda they had --and
government is bad, the private sector is good. Basically, they were trying
to rewrite the Progressive Era that we built up over this time, and we, I
think, essentially defeated them in three stages.
One was when they shut the government down and we beat their budget
back. Then we went on to get a bipartisan welfare reform and Balanced
Budget Act, and the biggest expansion in child health -- under the Gingrich
Congress, the biggest expansion in child health since Medicaid. Two, was
impeachment. And three was when, after Gingrich was gone, I vetoed their
big tax cut last year, and the public stuck with me.
Now, I don't know if you saw it, but earlier this week, Al Hunt had a
piece on Rick Santorum saying, where have all the conservatives gone, in
pointing out that all these guys with these right wing records were out
there running away from what they did, running as the new moderates. And
in a way, that's a form of flattery.
But the point is, every forward progress in this country has always
sparked a reaction. And they won some of their reactions. I didn't
prevail on health care, I didn't prevail on gays in the military. I
haven't won every fight I've been in. But the big things that would have
taken us down, and taken the country in a different direction -- the budget
and government shutdown, impeachment and the big tax cut, those three
things were the seminal battles, and we prevailed.
And if you look at it, if you look at the arguments that we're having,
you can go all the way back to the beginning, and it's the same sort of
thing that you saw in the fight that Washington and Marshall and Hamilton
had with Jefferson and his crowd; that Lincoln had with the people that
were against him, and you know, divided the country; that Teddy Roosevelt
and Woodrow Wilson had with the people against them; that FDR and Truman
had with the people against them.
Interestingly enough, little piece of anecdotal evidence, there was a
fabulous article in a paper the other day about all the people, Republicans
all over America giving money to this Rick Lazio, running against Hillary.
And there's a story about him going to -- did I tell you this? In the New
York Times, in the story about it, about how everybody that hates me or
hates her or hates us both, this is their big deal, so they want to give
money to Lazio.
So he's at a fundraiser in Alabama -- Alabama. And there's a guy that
says, I just can't stand him. He says, she's a carpetbagger -- and he
didn't mean to New York, he meant to Arkansas -- and he is a scallywag.
Now, the scalawags were the Southerners, who supported the Union in the
Civil War. And after the Civil War, all the southerners who fought for the
Confederacy, were disenfranchised. So the only people that could vote were
the scalawags, the carpetbaggers, and the blacks.
So that guy was actually Exhibit A of my argument that I'm making. He
was absolutely right. If I'd been there then, that's exactly what I would
And one of the reasons they dislike me so intensely, that crowd, is
they think I betrayed -- they worked very hard, under the cover of Reagan,
being quite nice, to basically have the old, conservative, white southern
male culture dominate the political life of America. And they see me as an
apostate, which I welcome. I mean, we have this -- so when I take on the
NRA or do something for gay rights, to them it's worse if I do it. It's
like a Catholic being pro-choice. That's sort of that deal.
So when he said I was a scallywag, the guy knew exactly what he was
saying, and he did -- for anybody that read it, did a great service,
because he was absolutely accurate. I have no quarrel with what he said.
That's basically the great fault line we've been fighting through.
Q Like Roosevelt, you're a traitor to your class?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q Like FDR?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. A traitor to my caste. (Laughter.) But it's
very interesting, when you see sometime -- when an adversary of yours says
something that you a hundred percent agree with, the guy is absolutely
right. That's why he's against me, and that's what I've tried to be in my
whole life. I mean, I had a grandfather with a 4th grade education, 5th
grade education, who was for integration of the schools. I mean, that's
who we are.
And we were still having the Lincoln fight in the south, when I was a
boy in school.
Q They're trying to drag you out of here.
THE PRESIDENT: I know, we'll finish.
Q We've got two and a half pages done. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: It's good, though. Just set up another time, I owe it
to him. We'll do one more. I just love Rolling Stone. They've been so
good to me.
Q I'd just like the long view and your philosophy about where we're
going, what you've seen, and what you think about America. I want to ask
you questions about, you know, what have you learned about the American
people. You've had a unique exposure to them that nobody else has ever
THE PRESIDENT: I'll tell you this. When I leave office, on January
20th, I will leave even more idealistic than I was the day I took the oath
of office, eight years earlier.
THE PRESIDENT: Because the American people almost -- they are
fundamentally good, and they almost always get it right, if they have
enough time and enough information. Now, they've got to have enough
information, they've got to have enough time. They have to have a way to
But the biggest problem we have in public discourse today is, there's
plenty of information out there, but you don't know what's true and what's
not, and it's hard to access it. It's all kind of flying at you at once.
It's hard to have time to digest it. But if people have the information,
they have time to digest it, they nearly always get it right. And if that
weren't the case, we wouldn't be around here after 226 years.
I'm glad to see you.
END 4:10 P.M. EDT