source url: http://www.newsweek.com/nw-srv/printed/us/na/na0411_1.htm
[From Newsweek 1999-Mar-15]
Days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke in January 1998, I had a dream about President Clinton: I had returned to the White House after a year away, and I was sitting in my usual chair just next to the president's desk in the Oval Office, prepping him for an interview with CBS News. Seems like old times, I thought; it's good to be back. But moments before the interview was scheduled to start, we got word of some vague but terrible tragedy. The whole country would soon know about it, and the president would need to respond. I pulled out my notepad and struggled to scratch out appropriate words of consolation and hope. Nothing came, but it didn't matter. Clinton did what he always seemed to do so well at times like this, saying exactly the right thing, in exactly the right way. He's still got it-best politician I've ever seen. Then I walked across the Oval, opened a door and found myself in a pocket-size room-windowless and bare, except for nude pinups of Monica pasted on its walls.
I was struggling in my dream with the Clinton I loved and the Clinton I feared, the president I served and the man I didn't want to see. From the day I met him in 1991 to the day I left the White House in December 1996, he was the dominant figure in my life. The Clinton I know is a complicated man responding to the pressures and pleasures of public life in ways I found both awesome and appalling. I have come to see how his shamelessness is a key to his political success, how his capacity for denial is tied to the optimism that is his greatest political strength. For every reckless and expedient act, there are others of leadership and vision. Theodore White once wrote that "closeness to power heightens the dignity of all men." I now know that's not always true.
Bulky and butter-cheeked, Bill Clinton looked like an overgrown boy. But he had the gait of a man used to being obeyed, admired, courted and loved. Slow but not stately, almost lazy but loaded with self-confidence. Clinton held my eye with a smile while he shook my hand. His was soft, and the grip was surprisingly light for a politician. It was September 1991, at pollster Stan Greenberg's office, and I was interviewing for a job. For the next half hour, I joined Clinton on the first of countless stream-of- consciousness tours across the political landscape of his mind. By the time he closed with the prediction that the nomination would be decided on the day of the Illinois primary, I was blown away. He walked out with a wave and a promise to call.
I was moved by more than what he stood for or how much he knew. It was how I felt around him: uniquely known and needed. Clinton spoke to the me yearning to be singled out for a special job-the boy who had been his father's acolyte in the Greek Orthodox Church. The day before Clinton announced, I came on board as deputy campaign manager.
Two weeks later, I landed in Little Rock and went straight to the governor's mansion. The heavy autumn haze had left Clinton with a swollen head and a red nose. But that didn't stop him from picking up our conversation right where we had left off in Washington. "I feel good about it, but we're behind ... Got a lot to do ... Need to set up a network to get me ideas from my friends ... Decide what to do about the Florida straw poll."
He kept on talking as I followed him to the bedroom, where he started to change out of his jeans for a downtown lunch, then stopped to hand me an article from a pile on one of the night tables. There were two of them-one for him, one for her-both loaded down with novels, magazines, issue papers and spiritual books. I hadn't yet met Hillary, but seeing the night tables made me picture the two of them propped up late at night, passing their reading back and forth, arguing, laughing, educating each other, sharing a passion for ideas.
Then she appeared in the bedroom door. Hillary was prettier than her pictures, with a dimpled smile that didn't match her high- powered reputation and a tailored suit that did. Walking over in his briefs, Clinton smacked a sloppy kiss on her cheek and introduced us. "I've heard so much about you," she said, her Midwestern accent slowed just a touch by her years in the South.
Nice start. Warm. But it was one thing to be working with the boss while he changed; with his wife there, I just wanted to excuse myself. Hillary insisted I stay and stepped right into the conversation, asking questions, analyzing the upcoming primaries and reminding me of all the work we had to do. This was exactly what I wanted to be doing: building a presidential campaign-and exactly where I wanted to be: in its inner sanctum. Page 1 of 10
Soon we were in New Hampshire-and in trouble. There were questions about Gennifer Flowers, and Clinton's draft record. My better side cared about the substance of the campaign, but the competitive warrior in me was more engaged by the street fighting. I told myself that if this allegation, or the next one, or the one after that metastasized, the campaign would die-and nobody would ever hear or remember or benefit from anything we proposed on health care or education or the economy.
The Flowers piece in the Star tabloid alleging a "12-year affair" with Clinton hit on Jan. 23. Reading the story, Clinton seized on any detail he knew was wrong. I was happy to make a list of the details that were false, but I didn't press Clinton to say which ones were true. I wanted to see him as he saw himself-the target of unscrupulous enemies who would try to destroy him personally because they opposed his policies. And I needed Clinton to see me as his defender, not his interrogator, which made me, of course, an enabler.
Then came the Flowers tapes-scratchy but apparently authentic recordings of Clinton and Gennifer talking in intimate tones about their personal relationship and the presidential race. When I heard them, I was hit by a wave of nausea, doubt, embarrassment and anger. Mostly anger.
He lied. Even if he didn't, what's he doing talking to her in the middle of the campaign? Still, as the night passed, my campaign colleagues and I were back to fighting for him even more fiercely. A dynamic had already started that would repeat itself many times in the years ahead-one explained well by Reinhold Niebuhr: "Frantic orthodoxy," he wrote, "is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure." I now had doubts about Clinton, had seen his flaws up close, which caused me to focus even more intently on his strengths and believe even more fervently in his ideas. His enemies would stop at nothing to defeat him, so nothing would stop me from defending him. Now I was a true believer.
When we got to the White House in January 1993, after defeating President Bush, hopes were high: we were supposed to focus "like a laser beam" on the economy, but we were quickly sidetracked by failed nominations, nanny problems, gays in the military and our own arrogance. It started on Day One.
S---. I can't cover it up. I was staring at the mirror of the single- stall washroom by the press secretary's office in the West Wing of the White House. In a few minutes, I would call my first official press briefing as communications director, and I had a problem. My beard. With all the craziness of the Inauguration, I hadn't had the chance to buy new razor blades, and the powder I was pasting on my cheeks gave me the pallor of a corpse with a 5 o'clock shadow. I was about to face the world from the White House podium looking like an adolescent Richard Nixon.
This was the big leagues. I stood behind the wooden door to the press room with a stomach full of pleasant butterflies. The sound of the door sliding open set off dozens of camera shutters. I walked to the podium, adjusted the glasses I had started wearing again in a vain attempt to look older and took in the scene with a deep breath.
What the reporters-and the world-soon saw, however, was a White House press secretary fall flat on his face.
Q: "How about all of these stories on the lifting of the ban on homosexuals in the military?"
How about you guys give it a rest and report decisions we've actually made? I know, it's too good to let go: sex, a fight with the military, gays feeling betrayed, a crisis right out of the box. If you reporters weren't pumping it so much, maybe real people wouldn't think it's the only promise we're trying to keep. But we can't get [Senate Armed Services Chairman] Sam Nunn and the Joint Chiefs to give us a break yet, so I have nothing to say.
Mr. Stephanopoulos: "I think the president intends to end discrimination against homosexuals in the military ... and it would be very soon-probably within the next week, but not today."
Q: "George, would the president like Zo=EB Baird to offer to withdraw her nomination?"
Well, duh. Of course he would, wouldn't you? We're sucking wind on our first day with a candidate for attorney general who broke the law [by not paying Social Security taxes for household help]. But she says she told Warren Christopher about it before Clinton chose her, so it's our fault-and she doesn't want to quit without clearing her name. We're stuck.
Mr. Stephanopoulos: "No, he thinks she'll make an excellent attorney general ..."
Q: "If Mrs. Baird decides to withdraw her name, would the president accept it?"
In a heartbeat. I wish that's what I was announcing right now.
Q: "Did Mr. Clinton understand fully before naming her as his nominee for attorney general that she had employed illegal aliens for this long period of time?"
Bingo. The $64,000 question. Wish I knew the answer. He says no. Christopher says yes. Christopher probably mentioned it, but who knows exactly what he said or how Clinton heard it? All I know is that Zo=EB is saying publicly that she told us, so we're screwed either way. If we didn't know, we're incompetent hacks. If we did and appointed her anyway, we're unethical elitists. Some choice: I can't blame it all on Zo=EB; the president's not ready to accept responsibility and move on; but if I dump it in Christopher's lap, it will hurt his credibility as secretary of State. Gotta punt.
Mr. Stephanopoulos: "Again, I don't know the exact nature of his discussions on this ..."
Nice try. But they were just getting warmed up. I did know that I was dying out there-a fact confirmed by the flop sweat pouring out from under my arms and across my chest. A trickle started to stream down the side of my face, but I was afraid to wipe it away, certain the image would be flash-frozen into a metaphor of the new administration under siege.
My untenable position on Zo=EB was made worse by the fact that I wasn't prepared with simple facts and a few anecdotes to fill the reporters' first-day columns. Better preparation wouldn't have stopped the bad stories, but it would have helped soften the blow: talk about how the president and the First Lady feel on their first day; throw in a little color on the president's first night in the Residence and first morning in the Oval Office; bring Tony Lake, the national-security adviser, into the briefing room for a backgrounder on the ongoing confrontation in Iraq. But no, I wanted to do it all by myself, and I wasn't ready. When a reporter saved me from myself by saying thank you after 27 minutes of pounding, the UPI's Helen Thomas shouted, "Welcome to the big leagues," and I hustled out of there with my head down like a rookie knocked from the mound in the first inning of his first game.
Our way wasn't working, yet we resisted change, convinced that it was a kind of surrender. At first, we staff wouldn't always stand when the president entered a room, a throwback to the informal, insurgent style of the campaign. The same with the jogging shorts; only a series of bare-legged photos on the evening news persuaded the president to wear a warm-up suit. We started playing "Hail to the Chief" at all public ceremonies. Clinton's military salute took longer to fix. The tips of his fingers would furtively touch his slightly bowed head, as if he were being caught at something he wasn't supposed to do. The snickering got so bad that the message had to be delivered, and in private, but who was the right messenger? Not me; I was too young, and not a veteran. The vice president was out; too much competitive tension in their relationship for something so personal. It had to be Tony Lake; Clinton's salute came under the heading of national security. After their talk, it grew crisper.
My colleague Gene Sperling and I were standing over my speakerphone, but for all Mario Cuomo knew we were on our knees. It was March 1993, and the two of us were begging the fabled New York governor to take a seat on the Supreme Court. He seemed to be loving every minute of it. So was I: the possibility of having Clinton in the White House and Cuomo on the court was too good to be true. But Cuomo was ducking the president. Clinton finally reached him on April 1 from Air Force One, and Cuomo told the president that he was leaning against being considered but would think about it. Although Clinton's patience was threadbare, he let the matter rest. By the next week, however, various versions of their pas de deux started to leak. On April 7 I called Andrew Cuomo, the governor's son and an assistant HUD secretary. "We have to pull the trigger one way or another," I told him.
Andrew called his father, and he told me later that they spoke for two-and-a-half hours. Mario finally told Andrew: "If you want me to, I'll call Clinton and take it." But an hour later, the governor faxed the president a letter saying that his duty to New York outweighed his desire to be on the Supreme Court. Another chapter in the saga of Clinton and Cuomo had drawn to a close.
The president still had to fill a vacancy on the court. We brainstormed "outside the box" by tossing around the idea of appointing a political philosopher instead of an attorney. The wildest fantasy hit closest to home: Wouldn't Hillary look great in a black robe?
Of course, that couldn't happen, but the president wanted a "big, bold" choice. April and May passed without a decision. We weighed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Judge Stephen Breyer. Ruth Ginsburg, a women's rights pioneer on the federal bench, finally emerged. She was invited for a meeting in the White House Residence.
Then Cuomo called. Andrew, that is, although it was hard to tell the difference over the phone. I couldn't believe it. Andrew was trying to put his father back in the race! What I should have done was tell him right then that Ginsburg had it, even though that wasn't yet true. But I still wanted to see Cuomo on the court, and now there was a new inducement: if Andrew's call to me somehow led to his father's appointment, I would be the go-between who made it happen, an agent of history. Stay cool. Hear him out.
"Did you see Mario on 'Evans and Novak'?" Andrew continued. "They asked him what he would do if the president called, and he said, 'I would not say no to the president'."
I hadn't seen the show and didn't know that Cuomo had been more equivocal than Andrew led me to believe. But I had been burned enough before to be skittish. "Are you sure your father will accept if the president calls?" I asked. "We can't go down this road again. Before the president even thinks about picking up the phone, we have to be absolutely sure that the answer will be nothing but yes."
He put me on hold. Seconds later: "I just asked him. The answer is yes."
Well, it's out of my hands now. The Democratic governor of the state of New York has an important message for the president of the United States. Who am I not to pass it on?
I walked over to the Residence, where Clinton was changing into one of the Day-Glo polos he wore for golf. Instead of rejecting the idea out of hand, Clinton rolled his tongue behind his lower lip like a pitcher adjusting his chaw-a sign to me that he was listening, intrigued. "Let me think about it."
That meant he wanted to talk to Hillary. I returned to my office. A few minutes later Hillary called. "George, we need to talk about this," she said. "Can you come back up with David Gergen and Mack?" (Mack McLarty was our first chief of staff; Gergen, a veteran of Republican administrations, had been brought in to shore us up after our rough start.)
Clinton and Hillary seemed to be on my side. He was getting positively lyrical about the prospect: "Mario will sing the song of America. It'll be like watching Pavarotti at Christmastime." He told me to tell Andrew that "the president was interested in his proposal."
That was all Andrew needed to hear. I reached him at his sister's wedding. "Mario will do it because the president wants him to ..." What came next should have made me pull the plug. "But the president really has to put it to him. Unless he puts it to him, he won't do it. He needs to use strong language, has to tell Mario that he has to do it."
Here we go again. Andrew and I were caught up in the world's oldest courtship ritual. He was telling Cuomo that Clinton really wanted him; I was assuring Clinton that Cuomo really wanted him. Andrew worked his father over all through the wedding, asking him four times if he was sure.
At 11:30 that night, Andrew called me one more time. Mario was on board. I relayed the message to the president at 9:30 the next morning, just before his meeting with Ginsburg. After that, Clinton told me to call Andrew again and to let him know that Cuomo should expect a call around 6 p.m.
At 5:45, Mario Cuomo was on the line-for me. My stomach sank to my knees. This couldn't be good news. Cuomo knew that Clinton was scheduled to call at 6. Cuomo started a soliloquy. "George, Andrew's been trying very hard to bring me to change my view, but I feel that I would be doing a disservice to the president. I feel that I would not be able to do what we all need, including supporting the president politically. I surrender so many opportunities of service if I take the court. I don't want the president to think that I might say yes," Cuomo finished. "The president shouldn't call me."
While I was listening to Cuomo in disbelief, Andrew called. "This is a 180-degree turn from yesterday," he said. "I'm sorry."
I was, too. The game was over. I was the master of another disaster. My colleagues would revel in my loss, and Clinton would have a hard time trusting me again on a matter like this. On that late Sunday afternoon, however, he took it in stride, shaking his head with a slightly bemused smile that said this was what he had expected and was probably for the best.
It was June 23, and summer light was still filtering into the parlor by the Lincoln Bedroom. Two months earlier, Kuwaiti authorities had arrested 14 men for planning to place a car bomb in the path of former president Bush as he received an award in Kuwait City. The CIA and FBI had established a link between the bombing suspects and the Iraqi Intelligence Service. Our job that night was to help Clinton decide how to retaliate. All of the top guns were there, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell. We didn't sit until the president sat; our early informality was gone now, overtaken by the task at hand. This would be Commander in Chief Clinton's first military strike.
We were determined to send an unambiguous, unapologetic message to Saddam-but with weapons, not words. Even the new members of our team were acutely aware of the president's tendency to overexplain himself in streams of sentences. "Don't oversell and don't undersell," advised Powell.
Wise counsel. But that night, President Clinton didn't need to be coached. He wasn't ill informed, insecure or itching for a fight. As he reviewed the evidence and asked for an outline of the military options, Clinton jotted notes on a small pad. His questions revealed a man determined to make his decisions for the right reasons: "Are we sure the evidence is compelling?" "Is this a truly proportionate response?" "How can we minimize harm to innocent civilians?" The president polled the room. One by one, each of the principals voted for a cruise-missile strike. I was honored to be there, but I didn't want any attention called to my presence. Something about my age and my ignorance of war made me feel as if I didn't quite belong. The president asked me what I thought. OK, George, don't blow it. Keep it simple. No one ever got in trouble for something they didn't say. "I don't think there's a choice, Mr. President." It was unanimous.
Soon cruise missiles were launched toward Baghdad. Simultaneously, President Clinton sat in the Oval and began to consult with his counterparts. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was first on the line. I heard only Clinton's end of the conversations, but the calls were short and to the point. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, true to form, was indisposed; his people couldn't find him. Yitzhak Rabin was already the foreign leader Clinton most admired: "He's a tough son of a bitch!" Clinton said after putting down the phone. The Kuwaitis and Saudis were enthusiastic, and British Prime Minister John Major offered his full support.
Ironically, the president who seemed most reluctant was the one whose life and honor Clinton was defending. I can only imagine what President Bush was thinking when Clinton gave him the news: "It's clear it was directed against you. I've ordered a cruise- missile attack." Clinton closed the conversation by assuring Bush that he had done everything he could to minimize the loss of life. When Clinton put down the phone, he seemed to be convincing himself that Bush was behind him, instead of the other way around. "I think he thinks we did the right thing," he told me. "Thought it was a tough call."
Clinton wanted and needed Bush's approval as much as Bush needed-although he may not have wanted-Clinton's protection. Bush may have been the only man in the country, with the possible exception of Colin Powell, who could have singlehandedly stopped the attack. All it would take was a well- placed leak to the press, or a sotto voce call from Brent Scowcroft to Tony Lake. But that wasn't Bush's style. Whatever made him diffident at the prospect of having a military strike ordered in his defense, he kept it to himself. Presidents, especially gentlemen presidents, didn't do that to each other.
By the fall of 1993, the Clinton white house had found its footing. We held the Middle East peace ceremony, passed NAFTA and the Brady bill, got our economic plan through and had proposed the centerpiece of our domestic agenda: health-care reform.
But if a genie offered me the chance to turn back time and undo a single decision from my White House tenure, I'd head straight to the Oval Office dining room on Saturday morning, Dec. 11, 1993. The night before, White House counsel Bernie Nussbaum, David Kendall (Clinton's private attorney) and Hillary had persuaded the president to stonewall The Washington Post, which was asking for documents relating to the Clintons' Whitewater investment. The possibility that the Clintons would be implicated in wrongdoing by any investigation of Madison Guaranty was extremely low, but the lawyers were taking nothing for granted. They all underestimated, however, the media reality that reporters want most what they're told they can't have and the cultural reality that the country probably wouldn't care about the ins and outs of an old land deal as long as it didn't look as if the Clintons had something to hide.
On Saturday morning, McLarty gave Gergen and me one last chance to convince Clinton the only way to kill the story was to cooperate with the Post. The president seemed to agree. "I don't have a big problem with giving them what we have," he said, almost apologetically, his mind elsewhere. "But Hillary ..."
Saying her name flipped a switch in his head. Suddenly, his eyes lit up, and two years' worth of venom spewed out of his mouth. You could usually tell when Clinton was making Hillary's argument: even if he was yelling, his voice had a flat quality, as if he were a high-school debater speeding through a series of memorized facts. "No, you're wrong," he said. "The questions won't stop. They'll always want more. No president has ever been treated like I've been treated." On the Whitewater issue, Clinton wasn't commander in chief, just a husband beholden to his wife. Hillary was always the first to defend him on bimbo eruptions; now he had to do the same for her. The decision: don't cooperate.
Hillary's strategy, however, wasn't working. By early January 1994, there was growing pressure from both Republicans and Democrats for a special prosecutor, and we were holding a rolling Whitewater meeting in Mack's office. I was arguing that we had to request a special counsel before it was forced on us. After the first couple of hours, we reached consensus; Joel Klein, Bernie Nussbaum's deputy, was dispatched to broach the matter with Hillary, but she shut him down. Two hours later, Harold Ickes and Mack tried again. The answer was still no.
When they returned with the news, about a dozen of us were scattered around Mack's office; I was folded over the wingback chair by Mack's desk, griping openly about the magnitude of our mistake. Then she walked in. The whole room dropped dead silent.
"Well," said Hillary crisply, taking a seat on the couch by the door. "I think this is a meeting I ought to be at."
Because I had been talking, I felt as if everyone was looking at me. I prided myself on not being afraid to make a tough argument to the principals, and I'd look like a wimp now if I didn't continue.
"Well, I might as well go on with what I was saying," I said. Sitting up straight and staring right at Hillary, I made my case: "Assuming we did nothing wrong, the best thing is to have a special counsel say so. There's an air of inevitability to this. If we don't ask for one from the attorney general, we're going to get an independent prosecutor. Congress will keep the drumbeat going; they'll pass the Independent Counsel Act, and the appeals court will appoint one. I know we didn't do anything wrong, but it looks like we did because we're not being forthcoming. More important than anything else, this is going to kill health care if we don't get it under control. This debate will sap us for the next 30, 60, 90 days-as long as we keep up the fight. If you want us to fight, Hillary, we will. We can beat this back. But it will take all our time, all our staff resources and, most important, all our political capital, which we need every bit of to pass health care."
I thought the final argument was the coup de gr=E2ce-the killer point that she couldn't counter. Instead it struck at her deepest fear-that after all of her hard work, after all her sacrifice, after all the indignities of the campaign and the frustrations of the first year, the project that would make it all worthwhile would be crippled by scandal. Cornered, she struck back: "What do you mean, the Congress won't stop? You told me that if we gave everything to the Justice Department that would end it. It didn't end it. Now the Congress wants them? If we were as tough as the Republicans, we'd band together and beat them back."
I tried to stay calm, answering point by point. "The Democrats are still holding firm, but I can't promise that they'll be with us in a month. It's beyond the Congress now: it's in the editorial pages; it's everywhere. We don't get the benefit of the doubt because we're not being forthcoming, and we are being defensive."
Whatever I said was exactly wrong. Tears stung the corners of her eyes, and I imagined Hillary's fear-induced fury-at the Republicans for trying to destroy health care by destroying her, at the press for its small-minded, obsessive scrupulousness when issues affecting real people were at stake, at her husband for getting her into this stupid land deal with his shady friends in the first place and then expecting her to clean it up, at her best friend, Vince Foster, for killing himself, at herself for letting the situation spiral out of control. All of that fury, for a moment, was directed at me.
"You never believed in us. In New Hampshire, it was just me and Susan [Thomases] and Harold who believed in us. If we wouldn't have fought, we would never have won. You gave up on us..."
She paused, her voice fell, and Hillary started to cry. "We were out there alone, and I'm feeling very lonely right now. Nobody is fighting for me."
We all seemed stuck to our chairs, not knowing whether to be unnerved, afraid or consoling. I was too stunned to respond. Harold Ickes, who had been explicitly absolved from the accusation of disloyalty, tried to rescue me with one final plea for reconsideration.
"I don't want to hear anything more," Hillary snapped, back in control. "I want us to fight. I want a campaign now." Looking back at me, she took one last shot: "If you don't believe in us, you should just leave." Then she walked out the door.
A dead moment passed. I fixed a crinkly smile on my face. I walked the few steps to my office, closed the door behind me and broke down.
"You gave up on us." How could she say that? Nobody's fought harder for them. I'm the most loyal staffer they've ever had. I went out there every day. On Gennifer. And the draft. And Whitewater. Sacrificed my credibility. I went out there on faith, without the facts, and would get killed, just humiliated. No matter what I thought inside, I went before the whole country like a crazy person, even said I believed he never had sex with Gennifer. People would laugh at what I would say. Then to get attacked-not for being wrong but for being disloyal, for abandoning them. F--- her. I'm arguing for what's best-for her, for him, for all of us and everything we're fighting for. F--- her.
But I also knew why Hillary's words wounded me so deeply. They were true. I never showed it to the world, but during the dark days of New Hampshire, I did give up. Remembering that made me feel sorry for Hillary. She'd had to gulp hard on prime-time television when Sam Donaldson read back her husband's farewell to Gennifer: "Good-bye, baby." She'd had to pull it all together every single day-for him, for Chelsea-and she never really knew what was coming next, either. And all for what? Not just to be First Lady, but to do big things. Now her integrity was being questioned; everything she'd worked for was imperiled, and no one was there for her.
By the end of that month, Janet Reno had appointed Robert Fiske to be the Whitewater special counsel; he was ultimately succeeded by Kenneth Starr. That morning's New York Times poll found that President Clinton had a higher approval rating than either Reagan or Carter on their first anniversaries in office and that the public had more confidence in the economy than at any time since 1990. The pattern of the Clinton presidency was set. A month later, Paula Jones would hold her first press conference.
In November 1994, the voters paid us back for our tax increase, the failed health-care initiative and our assorted early missteps by handing Congress to Newt Gingrich and the Republicans. Clinton brought in Dick Morris, his old adviser, to try to fix things, and I was on the outs. To make matters worse, I had been in the doghouse with both Clintons since June 1994, when Bob Woodward published "The Agenda," his account of our chaotic White House. I had tried to handle Woodward as he wrote the book, and the Clintons still hadn't forgiven me for what followed. The sum effect: I was no longer the ultimate authority on what the president would do. As 1995 unfolded, Clinton recovered politically by stealing some of the GOP agenda and fighting the rest of it, culminating in his veto of the GOP budget and the government shutdown.
In the fall of '95, however, the American public was preoccupied with a drama far from Washington. In the White House, we calculated what the O. J. Simpson verdict would mean for Clinton and the country-and got ready for the worst.
On Monday, Oct. 2, Gene Sperling and I were in my office when CNN's "Breaking News" logo lit up the television that was always on. Caught off guard by the fact that the jury's deliberations had taken less than four hours, chief of staff Leon Panetta hastily called a meeting in his office. The president would need a statement responding to the verdict, which would come the next day, and the Justice Department was preparing for possible riots in Los Angeles.
Naturally, we began speculating on the verdict. Leon, a former prosecutor and strict disciplinarian, went straight to guilty. Dick Morris went straight to the polls: "Eighty percent of the blacks in the country think O.J.'s been framed or that there was police misconduct. He's innocent." My own conclusion was more a wish than a prediction. "Guilty," I said. The president refused to play, saying only that he was surprised at how quickly the verdict had been reached. Morris had an answer for that too: "That kind of impetuousness is characteristic of blacks."
The next morning, we met with Justice Department officials to review their contingency plans. Their Community Services Task Force reported that African-Americans in Los Angeles were on tenterhooks and focused on Mark Fuhrman. They feared a guilty verdict would set off riots in the streets, and were coordinating with the LAPD and community leaders to keep the situation under control. Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick told us that once the verdict was announced, the Justice Department would pursue a civil-rights complaint against Mark Fuhrman and investigate allegations of misconduct against the police-a move that would be especially crucial if O.J. was found guilty. We all agreed that the president's statement should be as neutral as possible.
When we went to get the president's approval, he opened the meeting with a wan stab at humor: "So, Jamie, are we going to have black or white riots today?" I flashed back to a moment shortly after Simpson's arrest. Clinton was in his dining room, recalling the time he'd played golf with O.J. and reflecting on the anxieties that eat away at a middle-aged man whose greatest achievements are behind him. But now the president was more focused on politics than psychology. The prospect of acquittal made Clinton anxious. He feared it would fuel white resentment and feed the prejudiced notion that "blacks can't be trusted with the criminal-justice system." An acquittal would deepen racial divisions; and while Clinton didn't say it then, he knew it could also mean more "angry white males" voting Republican in 1996.
The verdict was set for 1 p.m. Eastern time. Several of us watched in Betty Currie's office, which had the largest television in the Oval Office suite. Clinton pulled a chair up to the console facing Betty's desk. He was uncharacteristically quiet and didn't look up from the crossword puzzle he was working on. The members of the jury took their seats. Their decision: not guilty.
Clinton stared at the screen; we stared at Clinton. For us, the suspense wasn't over yet. No one said a word, as if we were waiting for official guidance on what to think. After all, at some level, Clinton's reaction would become our reaction; that came with the territory. The president knew that, too. A year or two earlier, he would have said everything on his mind. But by this point in his presidency, he was more aware of being watched and better understood the weight of his words-even the private ones. He struggled to remain silent, but a single disgusted syllable slipped out: "S---."
That was all we needed. As the TV played scenes of crowds cheering in South-Central L.A., our small room became a babel of anger and invective. Clinton didn't move from his chair, just silently redrafted his public reaction, a single sentence expressing respect for the jury's decision and sadness for "Ron and Nicole." Mike McCurry asked if he had any other thoughts. "Not that I want to say," he replied. Still sitting, he slowly doubled over, lowering his head into the palms of his hands, grinding them into his eyes as if to keep all those thoughts from escaping.
Everyone returned to work, and Clinton retreated to the relative solitude of the Oval, leaving the office to Betty-the only African- American in the room. We had first worked together in the Dukakis campaign, then the War Room, now the White House. She was a serene presence. As I returned to my office, I wondered about her. Boy, it must have been painful for her to watch that scene, even if she loves the president, even if she's friends with us. Ashamed of my insensitivity, I went back to talk with her about it and asked if she could explain the cheers.
"You mean, what do they think in the 'hood?" she asked, with just enough of an edge to let me know that my outraged reaction to the verdict had been noted. "Most people feel vindicated by the verdict. It sends the message that the police can't screw around with black people."
But Betty, what kind of a message does it send to let a murderer go free? The look on my face gave me away. So Betty brought up a talk we'd had shortly after O.J. was arrested. "Remember, George, when this started, I thought he was guilty and you didn't believe it." It was a gentle reproach, a reminder to be humble in my judgments.
The pressures of the White House and living on the Clinton roller coaster were overwhelming. Since Vince Foster's suicide, I had been seeing a therapist. Although I wasn't ashamed of seeking treatment, I had instinctively calculated the political fallout. When I told Clinton, he responded perfectly-with a shrug of his shoulders that said it was no big deal for him and a look in his eye that said he was concerned about me.
The therapy helped, but there were always worries at work: legislative failures, anxieties about my place in Clinton's world, and even a troubled young woman who stalked me. Health-care reform's slow death in 1994 was particularly disheartening. We fought hard, but were losing. Hillary tried to keep our spirits up. Seeing that I was fluey from fatigue, she sent me a carton of homeopathic cures one day accompanied by a note: "We need you healthy for health care! H." But her echinacea and goldenseal wouldn't cure the case of insomnia I had developed. Ten to 12 times a night, I'd wake up to check the clock. Phew, it's only 2. My eyes were red, and the underside of my skin felt like it had been scrubbed with steel wool. My problems weren't physical: I descended into a real depression.
Much of the darkness had lifted by mid-1995, but my nerves were shot, and it had started to show. During June battles on the budget and affirmative action, hives had erupted across my chin. I grew a beard. The rash subsided after an August vacation, but my most pernicious symptom persisted unseen. It was a sound: of fingernails screeching across slate or the tines of a fork scraping a bone-china plate. Several times a day, for up to an hour straight, it would loop around my brain and reverberate through my torso like feedback from an overamplified guitar. My therapist suggested and recommended a specialist in neurology and psychiatry. I resisted. The spartan in me said, "Suck it up"; the spin doctor saw future headlines.
But by December I couldn't take it anymore. I sat on the edge of the sofa as the psychiatrist told me what I already knew: I was burned out. A serotonin re-uptake inhibitor like Zoloft, he then explained, would help stop my nerves from flooding my brain with the chemical fueling my compulsive symptoms. Soon I slept four hours straight, then I was up to six. I no longer woke up waiting for the sound to start. The feedback cleared, and I could breathe deeply again. Testing myself, I would see fingernails on a blackboard, hear the soundtrack, then switch it off.
The medication stripped away layers of worry, allowing me to remember what it was like to be me-a melancholy nail biter, sure, but not someone consumed by anxiety, not someone who measured himself by his proximity to a president or convinced himself that his words and deeds would make or break a presidency. I still worked hard, but I worried less. I cared about what we could do, but I didn't obsess. Calmer, more detached, I prepared to leave.
I still wanted one more win, and the 1996 campaign gave me that chance. But even as I got better, I wasn't tempted by thoughts of working in a second term. It would be competent but complacent, encapsulated by the slogan "The era of big government is over." Getting Clinton elected, however, was a priority. The Republicans nominated Bob Dole, but after the government shutdown they never had a chance. In October, two nights before Clinton's final presidential debate against Dole, a group of us were in the bar of the Albuquerque Holiday Inn reviewing the day's prep session. Around midnight, an advance man found me to say the president was on the phone.
"Can you come up for a minute?"
The encounter I'd been dreading. that morning, The New Yorker had published David Remnick's profile of me, in which I openly discussed moving on before the start of the second term. I had been candid with Remnick, in part because I wanted to lock myself into leaving. I had wanted to put off a conversation with the president as long as I could. Now Clinton was calling me on it.
When I entered the suite, he was sprawled on the bed in T shirt and jeans, with the contents of his saddlebag briefcase-folders, briefing books, a couple of paperback mysteries and a new hardcover by Gary Hart-spilled on the bedspread around him.
"So, how's this Remnick article?"
"It's not too bad," I replied. But searching for more comfortable ground, I quickly changed the subject. "The prep went well today," I said. "We're ahead of schedule. If you have a solid night Wednesday, the election is over." This was what I knew how to do with Clinton-relate through work, a candidate and his staff. But after a few minutes, Clinton stopped me.
"Now let's talk about you," he said. "Do you really want to leave? Nobody around here can do what you do."
Although I was grateful to Clinton for the chances he had given me and the things he had taught me-and for coming through on the big issues-his personal magnetism had less power over me now. Watching it work on others still gave me a kind of clinical thrill, but I liked to think that I had become more a student of his seductive powers than their subject. He foiled that defense by tapping into my need to feel indispensable and saying exactly the right thing: "Nobody around here can do what you do." After I told him about being treated for burnout, he suggested that I take a six-month sabbatical and then come back to work. Thoughtful, but that wasn't how the White House worked. We both knew this was good-bye.
On election night Hillary was in the back bedroom of the president's suite, helping Chelsea get dressed. I knocked on her door. She peeked out: "Just a minute," then came into the hall. Only the two of us were there. This was our private good-bye. She gave me a hug, then held me at arm's length for an extra second, a hand on each of my shoulders, her eyes shining.
We smiled through the silence. Victory was vindication-even sweeter for her than for her husband. She had paid a higher price, taken harder hits, achieved fewer dreams. Now she'd have a second chance, and I wished her luck. She did the same for me. All the stresses and threats, all the suspicions and resentments, all the times the two of us had clashed because I blamed her for being too rigid and she blamed me for not being as "tough as Kennedy's men"-all that was behind us now. We had survived. We had won. All would be well.
"I love you, George Stephanopoulos."
"I love you too."
Staff no more, I walked out the door.
I moved to New York for a new career as a writer, teacher and television commentator. I learned how to better balance my life; over time, I stopped taking antidepressant medication. But habit dies hard. After a presidential press conference, I'd leave a congratulatory message with Betty Currie, hoping Clinton would call. When I defended him publicly, Clinton would return the favor by tracking me down.
Then, on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 1998, the worst of the old days were back. A big story was breaking with allegations about the president and a former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. They'd had sex. Clinton might have told her to lie. There were tapes. Starr was investigating.
A moment from a Sunday morning in late 1996 recurred to me. Monica had approached me as I walked from my apartment to the Starbucks next door. I hadn't seen her in nearly a year, but I vaguely remembered her as a pretty, busty, flirty intern I'd pass in the halls or see hanging out at Starbucks on weekends. A few times at work, she had tried to surprise me with a double-tall latte, but my assistant Laura Capps would stop her at the door. That morning, Monica had a question for me: "Does your president tell the truth?" I thought her phrasing was peculiar, but people stopped me on the street to say strange things all the time. After mumbling some answer like "He does his best," I bought my coffee and didn't think about it again.
Now, as the scandal broke, I knew in my gut that Clinton was lying. But I still wondered what I would do if I were back inside. It wasn't hard to imagine the slide from skepticism to certainty, from conscientious objector to kamikaze warrior. I couldn't really know what I would do because I wasn't there-in the Oval, as the president of the United States looked me in the eye and put his hand on mine and begged me to believe him just one more time.
I don't think Hillary knew about Monica until Clinton came home from the Jones deposition. That night, they canceled plans to have dinner with Erskine and Crandall Bowles, and Hillary later said, cryptically, that they had spent much of the weekend "cleaning out closets." But Clinton probably didn't come clean then, either. I imagine he told Hillary that he slipped up but didn't stray-that he had befriended a troubled girlfriend of Betty Currie's, but it got a little out of hand because the girl was insecure, infatuated and slightly crazy. She came on to him, began to imagine an affair. It got so bad she started to stalk him and repeated her fantasy to friends. Somehow the Jones lawyers heard about her. He stupidly tried to fix the situation himself: talked to her on the phone, met with her when she came to see Betty, asked Vernon Jordan to help her get a job and get her out of town. But he never had sex with her and never told her to lie.
How could Hillary buy that? How could she not? Every marriage is a mystery, but it seemed to me that their bond had been strengthened by the intensity of their White House experience, that Hillary had fallen in love all over again with the boy from Arkansas who had become the president she dreamed he could be. By the time I left the White House, there was less whispering about screaming bouts on the second floor. Hillary hinted that she and Bill had talked about adopting a second child, an unexpected revelation I would have dismissed if I hadn't also heard West Wing gossip about their trying to have a baby of their own. The last time I'd seen them together was in October 1997 at Hillary's 50th-birthday party. The Ritz-Carlton ballroom was filled with their friends of a lifetime and Washington's power elite. Chelsea had flown home from Stanford to surprise her mom. As Hillary swirled around the dance floor in her husband's arms, she seemed as happy as I'd ever seen her.
Hillary had to believe him. She had to believe that as he'd grown in office he'd outgrown his past. She had to do what she had always done before: swallow her doubts, stand by her man and savage his enemies. But I didn't believe Clinton, and I couldn't buy the party line - which meant I was the enemy now. That's the way it was with the Clintons: you were either for them or against them. I knew what being under siege was like, so I really couldn't blame them for feeling the way they did. I heard that as far as Clinton was concerned, I was now a nonperson - my name was not to be mentioned in his presence.
The charges of disloyalty were the most painful. I didn't think Clinton had "created" me, or that loyalty demanded defending behavior I found abhorrent. But Clinton had given me the opportunity of a lifetime, and I did owe him some benefit of the doubt. I didn't think I was a hypocrite, because my defense of Clinton against past bimbo eruptions had been predicated on my belief that he wouldn't create new ones, but maybe I was complicit because when I worked for Clinton I had been willing to suspend my disbelief about some of his more suspect denials. I realized that the intensity of my anger toward him was both irrational and uncharitable, but I couldn't help it: for several years, I had served as Clinton's character witness. Now I felt like a dupe. The ultimate rationale for doing what it took to win was not just the thrill of the fight or my need to be on top, but also my belief that progressive ideals would be better protected as long as Clinton was president. He didn't have a right to put those policies at risk. He didn't have a right to compromise my compromises, to make me question whether helping him get elected was the best thing I ever did - or the worst.
As 1998 wore on, my anger at Clinton was matched by my fury at Ken Starr and the GOP. Clinton had dishonored his office, but he didn't deserve to be impeached. By January 1999, he delivered a masterful State of the Union address; it was his best defense in the trial that was unfolding across the Capitol. As I watched, sitting across town in what had become my usual chair at ABC, I delighted in the political virtuosity of Clinton's performance. America was doing fine - better than fine, better than I ever could have imagined six years ago. Now I watched from far away, wondering what might have been - if only this good president had been a better man.