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- June 27, 1994
- Vol. 41
- No. 24
Bob Woodward Describes a Chaotic Presidency
Though Agenda focuses on Clinton's economic policies, many insiders believe that the problems highlighted by Woodward extend to the President's troubled foreign policy and could also doom his proposed health-care reform bill. Woodward does not identify his sources, but claims to have interviewed more than 250 people, including some of Clinton's closest aides—and speculation is rife in Washington that the President and First Lady may have cooperated. He spoke recently with staff writer David Ellis.
You portray Clinton as indecisive, unwilling to control his staff and prone to daily temper tantrums. How does he compare with his predecessors?
Well, I don't sit in judgment on him. But in terms of operation style, Clinton is simply not in control of the Presidency. He's always being told, by either Hillary Clinton or his top aides, "You don't delegate enough," or, "We aren't organized here." There's an intellectual depth to Clinton, and he clearly loves the details of his job. But he's also a man who, like Hamlet, has the affliction of the doubtful. As a result policies are made up by those who can make the most convincing arguments that day. The constant rumination leads even close advisers like James Carville to ask, "What does he stand for?"
Clinton seems to berate staffers—most notably, special adviser George Stephanopoulos—almost daily. What is the worst example of his temper in your account?
One example is the President yelling, "F—k you!" at Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, who told Clinton that he didn't want to vote for the economic plan. That's definitely not presidential or constructive. We knew he had a temper, but we never before had details of what staffers call his "purple fits." Usually he vents about small things. At one point in the 1992 campaign he was angry at a minor staff screwup. First he wanted the person responsible "dead," then "horsewhipped," then fired. Finally he finds out who it was and says, "I want him to have a good stiff talking-to." His anger probably hurls him, because he gels sheepish about having popped his cork and will avoid fixing what he blew up about.
Having observed six Administrations, what struck you most about this First Couple?
Though this President is fully engaged in his job, she's the more decisive person, a real strategic thinker. Clinton could be the guy at a party sitting in the corner with a beer talking intensely about an issue. Hillary is the one saying, "Well, we've got to get this place cleaned up—you take out the garbage, you do the dishes, you turn out the lights..." I don't think she makes any decisions about policy, so we don't exactly see her hand on the helm. But her hands are on her husband's hands at the helm. My wife serves much the same role in my life, and I think there are spouses throughout America who have similar strong presences.
Exactly how does she wield her influence?
In July of 1993, with her husband's whole Presidency up in the air, Hillary demanded a plan of action to get the Senate to pass the economic program. In an extraordinary White House meeting she told Clinton's advisers, "We need to tell a story to sell our plan that has heroes and villains. You need to demonize things to sell something to people." That's political hardball.
So is Mrs. Clinton the savviest player in this Administration?
Many in Washington think Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, the main point man on the economic plan, is the hero of the book. He's the senior member of the Cabinet—old enough to be Clinton's father—who drove home to the President the importance of winning. In Washington it's more important to win than go over the waterfall in a barrel just to say you were right.
Why do you think so many White House staffers talked to you? Did they want to send a message to the President?
Some of the stories in the book are so detailed and raw that they must reflect certain frustrations. I talked to people at all levels of the Administration. I think they wanted to explain what's going on, warts and all. I think it was brave of them.
Clinton doesn't seem to have punished anyone for cooperating with you.
I don't know what he or Hillary think about the book. I expected him to come out blasting and say, "It ain't so." But to his credit he seems to be confirming it. This is a new-generation White House made up of people raised in the '60s and '70s. They're more responsive; the Reagan and the Bush Administrations tended to be Old World and closed off the press more.
What does Clinton need to put the White House in order?
Bill Clinton needs four things. First, a spouse who's a close comrade—he's got that. Also, a good lawyer—and he now has [White House counsel] Lloyd Cutler giving him sound legal advice on Whitewater and other matters. But he also needs a press secretary who can speak for the Administration with authority and a chief of staff to organize the operation. Delegation is key—getting the right people to make decisions as you would make them, or sometimes even better. Right now Chief of Staff Mack [Thomas] McLarty has a non-role because he doesn't exercise control over the staff. I would say by the end of summer he will be gone.
Is it too late to turn this Presidency around?
I don't speculate. There is a promise in the Clinton Presidency that's not yet been realized: the economic vision he outlined in the campaign, including worker training and broad public investment. The book is a midterm report card.
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