In his first television interview since Election Day, President Clinton talks with CBS News Anchor Dan Rather about the latest turn of events in the courts, his opinion of Presdident-elect Bush, his future and his legacy.
Dan Rather: (in progress) see it as a bittersweet time?
President Bill Clinton: Well, (unintel) very happy - very much at peace. Very grateful that (unintel), especially that the country's in such good shape as I leave office. But I think for all of us, it may be bittersweet in the sense that, people - virtually everybody that works here, likes the work.
And we tried to never forget that it was a job. And that we were privileged to do it. But, everything comes to an end. You have to do something else. And I think we've had our time here. And, you know, I'm just focused on doing everything I can in the days that remain. Helping President-elect Bush have a successful transition. And kind of savoring and being grateful for the good things that have happened.
Rather: The country's still in the midst of an almost eight-year boom. The country's at peace. You've had by many measurements, if not most, perhaps even all measurements, at least that you've - at least, reasonably successful Presidency. Why are we having a Republican President come in behind you?
Mr. Clinton: Well, I think that - I think (unintel, laughter) probably because of the prosperity. I think that the - the - they both - debated how to use the prosperity. And the country was evenly divided. One candidate won the popular vote.
And the Supreme Court decided the electoral vote.
You know, people will be analyzing that for years to come. Maybe I'll have a chance to analyze it, too, after some time. But I - I can't - I don't know that I have anything to add than what's been said by others.
Rather: Maybe we'll come back to that later. But if you - through most of the eight years of your presidency, you and your vice president seemed to all the world to be joined at the hip. There were historians who were writing that Vice President Gore had been given as much, or more responsibility than by any vice president in the history of the country.
Mr. Clinton: Oh, more. There's no question about that.
Rather: Or more. And that he was - he did a - a very good job as vice president.
Mr. Clinton: And he did. I think - I think that when the period of this history will - is written. And people who care about American government look at how we organized and ran the administration - they will say a number of things, including the fact that we came here with a well thought out set of ideas and policies. And we basically did what we said we'd do in '92 and then again in '96.
And that we had a - a real team operation in the White House. And that the vice president had more responsibility in more areas, than any vice president n history. And carried them out very well. I don't think there's any question that, in the job of vice president, he's the most effective person that (unintel) that job. And had more responsibility than anyone who's ever had it.
Rather: That being the case, Mr. President, when he in effect, ran away from you during the campaign, you had to be disappointed at that.
Mr. Clinton: Well, I think - first of all, everybody's got to run their own race. And it's a difficult thing, running as vice president. It's no - there's no accident that only two vice presidents in the history of the country have ever been directly elected president. If you get to be vice president, you got an excellent chance of getting to be president, cause something could happen to the president. (laughter)
And you've got a terrific chance of being the nominee for president of your party. But to be directly elected, it's only happened twice. And once, when Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson, we were still virtually a one party country. And the only other time it happened, was in 1988 when basically there was an enormously contentious and negative campaign, which succeeded in painting the democratic nominee Governor Dukakis as virtually un-American.
So - it - it - it - you know, this was basically a pretty positive campaign. They had a debate about what to do. They - they talked about the various issues. And - the people split. (laughter)
Rather: Back to the question. Had to feel disappointed.
Mr. Clinton: I thought - I really believe every person has to decide what's best for them. And I thought that it was - let me just say I - I thought that it was the right thing for me not to be out there very much, until the end. (The) last week or ten days, I did most of what I could do early, by going to the scores of events for our house of Senate candidates.
And for the Democratic Party, which helped the vice president. Of course, directly the Democratic Party worked it. And I think - each - and when a vice president becomes president, he tries to figure out some way to establish his own identity. And to get the benefits of the good things that have happened but still to be an independent person. And - I don't think that anybody else could second-guess that. I think once your party has a nominee, then the rest of us should be on the team.
I think politics is a team sport. It's about addition, not subtraction. And - I don't believe the rest of us should second-guess the leader of the team, including me.
Rather: Do you agree or disagree, that some of your failures, policy as well as personal failures, in the White House had an impact on Al Gore's losing?
Mr. Clinton: Yes, to the first. No, to the second. To say that people would hold him responsible for any personal mistake I made is an insult to the American people. I mean, you know, people just aren't that unfir.
They're just - the people of this country are basically good people. And - more over, there are a lot of surveys along toward the end of the campaign that - that showed that if I could have run again, I'd a done fine. So I just don't think there's any evidence of that.
On the policies, however, there were - you know, I don't know if the fact that we drew the short straw, and had that terrible miss with the - the Elian Gonzales case, cost him a lot of votes in Florida. But it could have. And if it did, I feel very badly about it, cause this wasn't anything anybody dreamed up.
I don't think there's any question that a number of - in - in West Virginia some people voted against him. in the northern part of the state, because they blamed us. I think - I don't think they're right about it. But they did blame us for the closing the steel mill there, that occurred more or less at the same time at the (unintel) in financial crisis. They thought we should have moved more quickly than we did to stop the inflow of cheap steel. I don't think there is - I don't know if you would call this a policy failure.
But I don't think there's any doubt that in at least five states I can think of the NRA had a decisive influence. Because they disagree with our attempts to close the gun fill loophole, and have child trigger locks, safety locks. And ban large-scale ammunition clips. And - you know, presumably - some people voted for him because we were for those things. But one of the sad things about all gun safety legislation is that people tend to vote for the issues.
But - but when they're voting for candidates, the - the negative - the anti's tend to be more intense than the pro's. I mean, if you look at - Colorado, which is basically a Republican state now, the vice-president lost there. But - guns - closing the gun fill loophole passed 70 to 30. In Oregon, because of the Nader candidacy, he only won a narrow victory, but the gun-fill loophole closing carried two to one. So, I think you have to give the - you know, so - so the policy issues that we fought out, I don't think there's any question they cost him some votes.
I think that on balance - I believe he - he - he gained more because of the economic success of the administration, because we had eight years in a row of declining crime, because the welfare roles were cut in half, because of - the millions of people that were benefited (sic) by family leave.
And - because of the things we did. So I think on balance, it was more of a plus than a minus, by a good long way. Two-thirds of the people thought the country was going in the right direction. But in a race like this, that's so close, you know, you think about some of the issues we had in West Virginia or on that steel mill or the - or the Gonzales case, and you wonder. I mean, it - President Kennedy once said that victory has a thousand fathers, and defeat is an orphan.
In this case, where the vic president won the popular vote, and by decision of the Supreme Court lost the Electoral College, defeat may have a thousand fathers, too. (laughter) You know? We'll all be chewing over this for - heck, people'll be writing about this 100 years from now.
Rather: I have so much ground I want to travel with you, about your legacy, and about the future. And I don't intend to spend the rest of our time talking about the election that just finished. But anyone's who's ever been around a court house knows that judges high and low frequently engage in raw politics, while we all hope they deal with the law. Now you mentioned earlier the Supreme Court. For those who are absolutely convinced that the Supreme Court - they - had a Republican majority and wanted a Republican president and voted in politics and not the law. As an attorney, and as our President, you say what?
Mr. Clinton: I say when I get out and start teaching countries and law again I'll tell you exactly what I think about it. But I think (laughter, unintel). The - the case was - the important note there, the five to four vote, there are actually three separate opinions. But the - but the five to four vote, was a vote to stop the vote count.
Rather: That was the clincher.
Mr. Clinton: Six days before, six days in advance of the Electoral College meeting. And the American people will just have to make their own decisions about it. But I - I think that it will be viewed in history as a momentous decision.
And I think - I think that it'll be debated a long time. But it's very interesting - you know, there's a lot of stuff already been written about it. I noticed there were three articles in this week's Economist, about it - basically critical. Even though the Economist endorsed President-elect Bush.
And there's gonna be a lot of stuff written about it. But I - I think that from my point of view, that as long as I'm President, what I should be focused on doing is telling the country that we should accept it because the principal of judicial review has served us well. And though all of us believe, looking back in history, that there were periods when the Supreme Court made serious mistakes - but when they did, they normally were corrected over time.
And so I think the vice president spoke for all of us when he said he strongly disagreed with the decision, but he accepted it. And right now we need to focus on pulling the country together, giving President-elect Bush to get off to a good start, and to hit the ground running, dealing with all these issues that are out there. And there'll be lots of time for me and others to say exactly what the elements of the Supreme Court decision were. But I - I just don't think I can say more than that now.
Rather: We're gonna move on and talk about the economy. Before doing so, as one who taught law, as an attorney, were you surprised that this Supree Court ever took the case? I ask this in a backdrop of - many attorneys I talked to, of all persuasions and all (unintel), said they were surprised, some say stunned, that this court would have even taken the ca - the case.
Mr. Clinton: Well, let me say, I think most lawyers - or a lot of them were surprised they took the case. Even those that were surprised they took the case were shocked when the vote count was stopped on the Friday.
Rather: Were you?
Mr. Clinton: No. No, not after eight years in Washington, I wasn't. But - but I had - I - I hadn't found a single lawyer who believes that there's a precedent any time in American history for it. I mean, I've asked probably 50, 60. But I wasn't surprised, no. And they had the power to do it and they did it and it's done. And we should accept it, because the country has to go on.
We can't reverse the principle of judicial review. And we shouldn't. And we should try to help the president-elect get off to a good start - give him a chance to govern the country. I hope he'll be given a - a - a decent honeymoon. I know what it's like not to have one. And I hope he will get one.
And - and I think we should - we ought to just right now, we - everybody can think what they think about it. But, you know, for me, I believe I owe my country. The people of this country have been good to me. And I've had a chance to serve in this job. It's hard enough under the best circumstances.
And - (unintel) the president elect has won the Electoral College. And he deserves the chance to have a good start. And that's what I'm gonna focus on. I'm gonna try to give it to him.
Rather: Let's talk about the economy. I think by any reasonable analysis, that the incoming Bush administration is trying to position the economic fixture, in the following way: The economy has started downward, maybe towards a recession. And therefore, they're positioning themselves to be able to say, "What ever happens on the downside, (unintel) have a recession, don't forget, it's the Clinton, Gore administration, not this new, incoming administration."
Mr. Clinton: Well, they do that. You know, people - you - you know, you can't blame 'em for trying to buy low, and sell high. I mean, they - (laughter) they want to try to do that. But I - I personally believe that no one knows how long we can keep this recovery going.
But the overwhelming majority of the experts believe that we're gonna have a pretty good year next year. Now, it's already the longest economic expanse in history. We have over 22 million new jobs. I don't think you can totally repeal the - the business cycle. But it's certain that it's changed.
And what has changed it? First of all, you have to give the American people a lot of credit here. You have - this explosion of entrepreneurial energy, not only among small businesses, and dot-com companies. Bt people - integrated technology and productivity into big 'ole traditional firms. There's no question that technology has enabled productivity to grow much more rapidly than in the past. And that keeps these recoveries going.
And we've kept interest rates down. And we've continued to invest in the education and training of the American people. And we continue to open new markets around the world, and at home. Those are the things that I think are important for the government to do.
Now, for the last couple of years, we were growing at a blistering pace. In other words, we've been growing ever since I got here. But we - we've been growing at a blistering pace. No one believed we could continue to grow at five percent at year. Most people believe the next year, growth will be around three percent. And I believe that the important thing is to just keep following a solid economic policy.
And I - and I think we can have a tax cut. I've always said that. But I think it needs to be modest enough so that there's no question that we're going to pay down the debt and pay it off within a decade or so, at least twelve years.
I think there - that'll keep interest rates down. That's a - that's a big tax cut to ordinary people, and to business people and to investors 'cause it keeps the market up. And it keeps inflation down. Then I think it's important to save back enough money to invest what we have to invest, in education, and our other responsibilities, including national security.
I think it is important to save back enough money to deal with the - the long-term challenges to Medicare and Social Security. You've got the baby boomer generation about to retire. And depending on what you decide to do with it, it costs more or less money to do it. But I - I think that there's no question that we can. I believe we should have a tax cut. The question is how big should it be and whether you can meet your other obligations. But the most important thing people want is to keep this economy going. And I think, you know, it's - it's got quite a little life left in it, I think.
Rather: Quite a little life - quite a bit of life left in it, you say. Mr. President, with respect, you know as I know that in politics a lot of it is trying to pin the tail on somebody else. This economy goes down even a little - fairly clear, that the tail is going to - at least gonna try to pin the tail on you.
Mr. Clinton: Well, they'll have the microphone of course. But I think that - that what the American people (unintel) not so much to place blame, as to produce. And over the long run that's how we're all judged, I think. And - I - I don't think any - that at least no economist thought we could continue to grow at five percent a year, indefinitely.
Rather: Are you in favor of interest rates staying low, or you think they need to be raised some? Or lowered some?
Mr. Clinton: Oh, no. I thin - well, no, no, no. I think you know, I like low interest rates, which is why we - we've been paying the debt down. Now, if the Federal Reserve believes that the economy is slowing too much, they might want to cut short-term rates again and try to get a little more investment going.
And I think that that's something that they have under consideration. I have found that basically Chairman Greenspun - had a - span, has had a - a pro-growth policy. He's tried to see this economy grow as much as it could without inflation.
On - on a couple of occasions over the last eight years, he may have made a call that differed than I would have made it. But on the whole, I think he's managed this thing in a responsible way. And I've tried to manage my part of it in a responsible way. And that's enabled us to have the longest expansion in history with low inflation.
And you know, I just like to - when I took office the - the deficit of this country - the debt had quadrupled. And the deficit was $295 billion. This year, we're going to pay off. We will have paid off, in the last three years, $360 billion of the national debt. And I just learned about 30 minutes before we started this interview, that with the budget we finished last weekend, we're gonna pay off another $200 billion of the national debt.
So we will have paid down $560 billion of the national debt over four years. Now that's a huge impact to keep interest rates low and growth high. So I still think they can - you know, if this thing's managed properly, I think they'll have some more growth here. Now, like I said, I - I don't know, no one knows how much you can compine, combine, the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, the explosion of technology and productivity growth, and proper government policies.
And how long you can keep this going? No one knows the answer to that. But I think they can - I think we can keep it going quite awhile longer.
Rather: I want to move on. Are you in favor, or not in favor of a cut in interest rates now?
Mr. Clinton: I have - for eight years, I have refused to second-guess the Fed publicly and I don't think I can change as I'm going out the door.
The - the - the press indicates that they have that under advisement - that they're thinking about it. And it's something I think they ought to think about. It depends upon what the data shows about how much they think the economy's slowing. Everyone they wanted the (unintel) raise interest rates, you remember. They - they knew it had to slow some. If you - we kept growing at five percent a year, it was too big a risk. We'd have an explosion of inflation, or an explosion of interest rates, or both.
But then we had the - the increased fuel prices which slowed things down some and a few other developments. And some corrections in some of the high tech stocks. So I think they've got it under consideration. I think that if they do it, I think ou know, it'll certainly be an understandable decision.
But my - my point is, the thing that keeps interest rates really low, is the fact that we're paying the debt off. That'll keep interest rates low, inflation low. And if we keep investing in education, investing in technology, investing in scientific research, staying on the cutting edge of change, and opening new markets around the world - something I think that this incoming administration and I agree on - I - I think that we've got quite a bit of life left in the economy.
I'd be - the American people are still working hard. And they're very innovative. So I expect them to have a good year next year.
Rather: Let's have some fun. If you could recommend one book that the incoming president, George Bush read, what would it be?
Mr. Clinton: (laughter) That's hard. But if it were only one book, I'd probably tell him to read David Herbert Donald's biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Rather: If you could recommend he see one movie, that you think might help him in his years here, however long they would be, what would that be?
Mr. Clinton: High Noon, 'cause Gary Cooper does the right thing, even when people leave him. And even though he's scared, he doesn't pretend to be macho. He's scared to death and he does the right thing anyway.
Rather: You're not going to believe this, but when I went over my staff what your answer would be, I told them, High Noon. I want you to check it later.
(laughter) But let's move it along. When you look back over your eight years, what's the one thing now, that you wish you had known eight years ago?
Mr. Clinton: Oh, boy that's hard to answer. There's so many things I wish I had known eight years ago. But I wish I had understood better, eight years ago, exactly how what I do here, and if both - is seen by and reacted to by Congress and by the American people, better than I do - better than I did then. I could give you lots of examples. But I mean, I - I think if I had done that, I - I think a lot of the - some of the early conflicts that I had would have been different.
I also wish I had understood better than I did when I came here, the different views generally held by the two parties on the nature of political power and it's uses in Washington - ways that I just didn't understand it.
Rather: - your finest hour as President?
Mr. Clinton: That's very, very hard to say. I had a lot of great times, and I'm - which I'm grateful. But I think when we prevailed in both houses by one vote on the economic plan in '93, that's what really turned the economy around and made possible so much else that happened.
If - if we hadn't had a functioning economy I don't believe the welfare reform efforts would have worked as well as they have. I don't think the family leave law would have benefited 25 million people. I - I doubt if the crime rate wuld have gone down for eight years in a row, even though we had a good crime policy.
And I'm not sure I would have had the support from the American people, to - in the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and Kosovo, or the - involved as I was in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, a lot of other places. We might have had too much trouble here at home, for me to do that. So I'm - I - it probably - the fact that we had that lonely and battle that only succeeded by one vote, probably made so much else possible.
Rather: Your darkest hour?
Mr. Clinton: (sigh, laughter) I had more than one of them, too. But certainly one of them was when those 18 American soldiers were killed in Somalia. It was awful because of the circumstances, which I hope to be able to talk about in some detail someday. But to lose them all, in what was a humanitarian mission, because they were asked to try to arrest the person who had been responsible for killing our Pakistani comrades, who were there also on humanitarian mission. And then who, wind up with all those Somali dead, and losing 18 of our people, it was - it was - it was the dark day.
Rather:(unintel) a dark day.
Mr. Clinton: Well, no, by the - by the time they got around to voting, I knew what was gonna happen. And - I didn't - no, my darkest day came long before that, when I had to come to terms with the fact that I'm - you know, I did - I made a terrible, personal mistake, which I tried to correct in private. Which then got dragged into public.
That was dark for me. By the time they got around to voting on impeachment, I knew what it was. And it didn't have any - you know, I felt that - to me, if we could defeat impeachment, it was like the second big battle of the Gingrich revolution. The first was when they shut the government down. And that was the second one.
That doesn't mean that I didn't make a terrible mistake. But there were 800 people, including a lot of Republicans who - who were legal and constitutional scholars, who wrote a letter saying this hadn't - was not an impeachable offense. And shouldn't even be considered. And - and - they all knew that, too.
They knew this was - that was a political battle we were involved in and I didn't seek it. I didn't want to fight it. But I was only to happy to take it up because I - I believe the real purpose of it was to try to weaken me and our side and what we believed in and to strengthen their side, and what they believed in.
Rather: In that, they succeeded.
Mr. Clinton: Well, I'm not sure they did. In 1998 we were (unintel) in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1822, in the sixth year of a President's term. So I'm not sure they did. It may be that after the fact, that what they did will acquire some historical legitimacy.
But what I regret about that, was what I did wrong, not the fact that they impeached me because that was wrong, to. I agreed with Joe Lieberman, as I said at the time. (laughter) He - I agree with what he said - that what I did was wrong. And what they did was wrong. And that's what I think. And I think that's the way history will record it.