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Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton
In a Rare Joint Interview, the First Couple Reflect on Chelsea, Life in the White House (Movies, Popcorn!) and the Issues That Drive Them
President Bill Clinton will be meeting later with labor leaders to try to heal the wounds caused by NAFTA, but right now he is thinking of the Christmas tree waiting to be delivered to their family quarters. "We can't put it up too soon. It is my allergies. I get puffy," he explains to managing editor Landon Y. Jones and Washington bureau chief Garry Clifford as he prepares for one of the few joint interviews he and Mrs. Clinton have given in the first year of the new Administration. The young First Couple—he's 47, she's 46—then settle down to discuss what has been the most adventurous first year of any Presidency in memory. An aide places a pillow at the small of the President's sore back—a decade-old injury that has interrupted his jogging routine—but first, Clinton's eye is caught by Clifford's large-faced wristwatch, which she calls her "old-age watch" because she can read its numerals without her glasses.
With the hours you keep, Mr. President, you may need one of these watches yourself.
BC: I don't know. My eyes are getting worse. For most of my life I had better than 20/20 vision. But all of a sudden, in the last three or four years, my lenses started flattening, and I can't read, and it's just awful—it really is. My primary manifestation of age, except for getting gray, gray, gray.
We saw pictures in the paper of Chelsea dancing in the Washington Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker. If a critic were to give her a bad review, would you take the Harry Truman approach and punch that reviewer in the nose?
BC: Well, you know she's already had one or two hateful things written or said, gratuitously, in various places. But no, I wouldn't, because she's so used to the kind of criticism that we've gotten, which on occasion has been venomous. I don't think she would be too affected by it. If somebody took a shot at her, I'd be disappointed, but you sign on for that. I think she understands that.
But what we try to do is to protect her by just letting Chelsea be a completely private person. In past years she was just another little girl in The Nutcracker. So this year it may be different. I hope that it is not too much different, because she doesn't want it to be any different.
What do you talk to Chelsea about at mealtimes? Does she ask you questions about policy?
BC: Lots of them. Every morning. We redid the little kitchen upstairs in the White House. And oftentimes, when it's just the three of us, we eat our meals in the kitchen. Hillary and I had dinner there last night. I try to have breakfast with Chelsea. She often will ask me questions about various things that are going on.
Do you find yourself startled by the questions she's asking!
BC: No, not anymore. [Laughter] What is gratifying to me is that it appears that she still thinks she can talk about most things with her mother or with me, and I hope she'll always feel that way. I imagine there are things she says—that are at least kind of amusing or exciting—that she would say to her, oh, to her classmates or to other young women that she knows, that she wouldn't say to me, or maybe even to Hillary.
Do you talk to her about issues like sex and violence on TV?
HRC: Yes, but, you know, we've had this conversation for a very long time, and we've participated in television watching with her. We never let her, until just this year, have a TV in her room. Part of the reason we did that is because of the way the White House is laid out in our private quarters, so she could entertain friends and have a private space to go. But, without being out of step with her peers, she doesn't watch a lot of television, and she shares our opinions of a lot of the shows that engage in violence and sexual activity.
Who is she more like, you or Mrs. Clinton?
BC: I think she's more like Hillary, though in some of her habits she's more like me. She's incredibly energetic. She likes to have large numbers of her friends over. She hates to go to bed, which is just the way I was when I was young—and still sometimes am.
She and I like a lot of the same things. We like action movies, we like sporting events. But down deep, she's a lot like her mother. She has her mother's character, her mother's real strong sense of what's right or not. She has a core about her that's so much like Hillary was the first time I met her, a long time ago.
When you spoke at the Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis in November, you talked about William Julius Wilson's book The Truly Disadvantaged. He writes about getting beyond race in discussing joblessness and crime. Do you feel you've had any success in this area?
BC: I hope so. I might be in a position to do so—not only because I'm President. Because of my background, because I'm a Southerner, because I've had a real commitment to healing between the races and because of my own civil rights record, I might be in a position to do that in a way that others haven't. I read an article today that made me realize what a stranger I am to many people who write about Washington. This article was speculating, "Well, this is a continuation of some strategy he has from the campaign." You know. these are themes I've been talking about for nearly a decade now.
What I want to do is get the country to a point where we realize we have to do some serious things about crime and violence, about putting families back together. But if you want to rebuild these communities, you can't do it in the absence of work. We have to build a kind of national consensus around reconstituting families and welfare reform and doing something about crime and violence that also says you have to be able to work.
When I was growing up, there were more poor people in America than there are now as a percentage of the whole. But then most poor people worked, and their families and communities tended to be more coherent. Not to say there was no dislocation, no crime. There was. But that's what held everything together: family and work and community institutions.
As Bill Wilson so clearly points out in his book, what you had was the disappearance of all three. You had dramatic changes in child rearing and family life, you had the collapse of available jobs, and then you had the collapse of a lot of the institutions that enforced good behavior—constructive behavior—that had helped the kids who didn't have good family lives. A lot of the people who provided these institutions themselves moved out of the inner cities.
How do you react to criticism that you try to do too much at once?
BC: Well, I think what you have to do is recognize that if you're talking about getting a major bill through Congress, you can move two or three bills through Congress if only one of them is profoundly controversial. So, for example, we worked on passing our National Service bill, something that was very important, and the Family Leave bill and the Motor-Voter bill—all while we were fighting about the economic plan.
On the other hand, if you're fighting something that is going to be a pitched battle—the economic plan, NAFTA, health care—you can only do one of those at a time. But, as President, there's a whole other part of my job, which is speaking to America about where we ought to go.
We passed the Brady bill as our last act of this Congress. It's a great way to end. And they will take up the Crime bill probably as our first act of the next Congress. I think there will be enough bipartisan support for our Crime bill and for our Welfare Reform Initiative that we can pursue those while dealing with the budget and building up to health care.
When I spoke in Memphis about crime and violence and family breakdown, if I had not also acknowledged that the absence of work was a big part of their problem, then those ministers would not have taken me so seriously. Because they know; they're the ones who are there. They're holding back the tide of chaos. And they're also smart enough to know that it is not a racial thing. This economic collapse hit the African-American community first, basically in the urban areas, and also in the rural areas. Economic opportunity went away, coupled with changes in child rearing and family behavior and dealing with development of a permanent class on welfare.
But now you see a little over one in five white children born out of wedlock, and that the rate is way over 40 percent for white women who are very poor. On the other hand, for white women who are middle-class or above, it's 6 percent. So what you see here is the economics, to a large extent, either driving or shaping or accelerating social behavior.
What do you say to the white teenage mother who has a baby out of wedlock?
BC: Oh, I would give exactly the same speech without regard to race. But what I would say is, number one, the people who fathered the children should take more responsibility for them. They should be identified, they should contribute to the support of the children, they should participate in raising the children if they're at all responsible, if they're not on drugs.
Number two, we should say to people, "We won't criticize you if you choose to have a child instead of an abortion. That's a life-affirming decision. But it would be better if you were married, if you lived together and there was work in the family and there was an intact family." We have to say these are value judgments we know are basically sound.
A few years ago the Children's Defense Fund did a fascinating study of young women who had babies as teenagers. It was broken into two groups: the girls who had a second child out of wedlock and the girls who didn't. And the single most significant difference between the two groups is that the young women who did not have a second child after their first one was born had gone back to school and acquired a higher level of learning, more self-confidence and with it the ability to imagine a different future for themselves and the child they already had.
You read this stuff and you begin to realize that young people are hampered not only by a lack of good education and good role models, but also they find they don't have the same future our children do. And I think we sometimes don't understand the profound implications of that.
Looking back over the past year, there have been some peaks and valleys...
BC: That's putting it mildly! [Laughter]
Is there any one single high point that you think about? And was there a most difficult moment?
BC: Well, there were a number of high points. You know, the two biggest legislative fights we had—the economic program and NAFTA—were incredibly related even though they had totally different bases of support. If we hadn't passed the economic program and hadn't had declining interest rates and rising employment and an improving economy, we wouldn't have had the security in the Congress to vote for NAFTA, or even the time and opportunity.
On the other hand, to me there were some things that didn't achieve the same level of significance that will [nonetheless] shape the future of this country. The National Service thing 'is going to change the way young people think about their responsibilities to their community and give them an opportunity to do it.
The Family Leave Act makes it possible for people to be successful parents as well as successful at work. The Brady Bill means that we are finally making a beginning attack on crime and violence. Raising the income-tax credit for low-wage workers, as we did in the economic program, means that people will never again be encouraged to be on welfare instead of working and they can properly raise their children. These things will shape the future of the country in a profound way. So they were all big highs for me.
And appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a big deal, not because she is a woman, but because of the kind of person she is.
Now, on the down side, I suppose the toughest ones were probably losing the jobs program early—and not to a majority. I didn't fail to convince a majority; I couldn't get 60 percent to break a filibuster. The other thing that grieved me most personally were the losses we suffered in Somalia. Even though the Rangers succeeded in their mission superbly, it was painful because those young people had made such a great contribution to our national interest. To see that loss was very, very painful.
Mr. President, has crime affected you or your family personally in any way this year?
BC: No, but some of our people here, who are in our political family, have been mugged since they've been here and have sustained losses.
Are these people you work with every day?
BC: Oh, yes, people we work with every day.
So crime has come home to you?
BC: Absolutely. And, you know, one of the young women who works for us thought she was being staked out and stalked at her home. The thing I keep trying to focus the attention of the country and the Congress on—because I think the people are way out in front of the policy-makers—is that a high crime rate affects not only the victims but everybody else.
I mean nearly everybody who lives in any kind of an urban area today and increasingly in medium-size and small towns, feels a significantly higher level of personal insecurity than they did a few years ago. They look over their shoulders more, they worry more about who they speak to on the street. You know, there is just a level of anxiety there that didn't exist, because nearly everybody knows somebody who has been victimized.
Let's leave out your governmental and political duties for a moment. What has been the most fun you had together since you left Little Rock?
HRC: Oh, I think the most fun we've had was our summer vacation.
BC: No question.
HRC: And we had fun everywhere we went. We went to Colorado and had a great time. We spent a couple of days in Arkansas. We got up really early in the morning and went out swimming in this beautiful lake in northwest Arkansas, and it was just a special moment. And then we had a great time on Martha's Vineyard.
BC: We loved it. You know, when we first got married, and before Chelsea was born, before I was an elected official, we would work like crazy and we would try and take two vacations—we would go off for a week one time and a week another time. When we went on vacation this year, I think it was the first time in probably five years that we've been away for more than four days at one time.
HRC: That could be.
BC: But we have a good time here too. We, very often on Friday night, we'll work late at the White House—to 7 or 7:30—and then Hillary and I, and a lot of times Chelsea, we'll all invite friends and go down to the theater and watch a movie and, you know, eat popcorn and drink Cokes.
Is that your best perk?
HRC: Oh, yeah, the movie theater.
BC: Yeah, the theater. No question, being able to have the movies here.
HRC: The movie theater and Camp David. We spent Thanksgiving at Camp David and really loved it.
BC: I like Camp David 'cause there's great bowling alleys there and because there is a driving range.
Not a golf course?
BC: No. President Eisenhower put one little hole there with three tees so you can practice all your short shots. They are the bane of every mediocre golfer who wants to be good. So I got to go out, even in the cold, with my brother-in-law, and we played these short games of golf. It was just fabulous. You know, I like Camp David.
Camp David also has pinball machines. [Mrs. Clinton laughs] You know, young people all use PacMan and all those things, but older guys like me, we still remember pinball machines. There are two pinball machines at Camp David where I can indulge all my teenage fantasies. You ever play those pinball machines? I actually have a lot of fun.
For the first time in my adult life—most weeks, more than half the time—I will find the opportunity to play golf once a week. So we have our share of fun here.
Have you sneaked out to malls and done any shopping?
HRC: I've had the opportunity to go shopping—the President hasn't—but Chelsea and I have.
BC: You know, the only time I've gotten to shop a little bit is—like the other day I went to the women's museum, to an event at night. And they had a shop, and the shop was still open. So no one else was there, and I said: "I'm going to go in." And I went in there and shopped for 30 minutes.
What did you get?
BC: Just various things. For instance, I got Hillary a present.
HRC: He got me two beautiful pins.
When people say it's a co-Presidency, does that irk you?
HRC: Well, it's not true, so it doesn't bother us at all. I mean, we just don't pay any attention to it.
BC: The only thing that bothers me about it is that a lot of the people who talk about it are people who don't agree with my policies. They don't want to take on my policies, so they think they can hurt me politically by acting like Hillary has too much power or too much influence. So it's totally disingenuous. Then when others repeat it as if it were serious, rather than exposing it for what it is, I think it causes a little ripple out there. Because voters, after all, can only vote for one person.
I mean, when we have the first woman President, as we will sometime in the not-too-distant future, I think if that woman is married, people won't want her husband having an undue influence on her job decisions. That has not happened in this Administration.
I'm making decisions pretty much the way I did as governor, and our relationship, our working relationship, has been the same since we've been married.
The Vice President, frankly, spends much more time with me on the issues, other than health care, and today I'm much more likely to rope him into giving me an opinion on something whether he wants to or not. That's why he came over here today. We were having a meeting about a couple of rather dicey issues, and I sent for him, and he said, "This is not a vice-presidential decision." And I said, "Oh, yes, it is. Sit down and tell me what your opinion is." [Laughter] And we were laughing about it, you know, because I value his judgment.
We have a confession to make, which is that we came within a hair of naming the President PEOPLE'S Sexiest Man Alive in 1993. And we didn't do it...
BC: Thanks a lot! [Laughter] You know I'm still too fat.
HRC: You could run a little article: "We would have but..." [Laughter]
Mrs. Clinton, could you give a sense of your own personal high and low moments of the year?
HRC: Well, I think the high moments were the Inauguration, which was an incredible experience, and then the successes of the Administration in the budget and all of the hard work that went into making that happen. And then just getting the family settled in and watching Chelsea feel more and more at home, and that was a real high.
And the worst time was my father dying, and that was terrible, and it was hard on our entire family.
And then losing our friend Vince Foster was a tragedy for everyone, however long they had known him. So those were the worst moments.
You and the President have said you would be signing a living will sometime soon. Could you explain why, and whether you would urge others to do the same?
HRC: Well, one of the things that became very clear to me, both because of the work I did on health care and spending all those days in the hospital with my dad, is that most of us still will not talk about death, will not talk about the process of dying. And so we don't share our feelings with our friends and family, particularly family members, who are often put into the position of having to make very difficult, painful decisions without knowing what their loved one would want. And so part of what I came away from those experiences with was a feeling that we had to do that. We talked about it, but in kind of general terms. I mean, you don't come home and sit around the dinner table and talk about it. You have to plan to talk about it.
When I was in the hospital with my father, a lot of doctors would tell me that someone would be brought in—usually an elderly person, but not always—and the question would be, do we maintain this person on life support? What do we do if they stop breathing? Do we engage in the most extreme forms of respiratory assistance? And the doctors would tell me that often what would happen is that family members would gather, and because they'd never talked about it, they would be divided. And sometimes there would be a family member, maybe a child, who had felt alienated from the rest of the family, and that person would show up and take the opposite point of view And doctors were put in an impossible position. So that's the kind of situation we should try to avoid.
We've heard that you carry a prayer in your pocket. Do you have a special prayer?
HRC: Oh, I...yeah. I have a lot of special prayers, and you know I rely on those in my daily life. I sure do.
I carry a lot of them with me, but it's not something I really talk about. Except I would say this: There is just a real opportunity for people, through regular prayer and contemplation or just taking a few minutes out to think about themselves, to gain strength. And if it becomes a habit, it's always there for you. And I just hope more people, whatever their religious faith or spiritual beliefs might be, would try that. It can provide a great source of strength.
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