American Experience

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Chapter 1 | Clinton, Part 2

Preview the second half of the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, who veered between sordid scandal and grand achievement.

AIRED: July 28, 2020 | 0:10:21
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(helicopter blades whirring)

(sirens wailing)

BILL CLINTON: Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, my fellow Americans.

Again, we are here in the sanctuary of democracy,

and once again, our democracy has spoken.

NARRATOR: On January 24, 1995, President Bill Clinton

addressed Congress and the American people.

Two years into his presidency, and just months after suffering

the worst midterm election defeat in modern history,

he was chastened and humble.

And now all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike,

must say, "We hear you.

We will work together to earn the jobs you have given us."

(audience applauding)

MARK PENN: After the midterms, the president, I think, felt

that he was almost a hostage in his own White House.

He was unhappy with the White House staff,

he was unhappy with the policy direction,

and so he actually began a very quiet operation

to begin to change his administration.

NARRATOR: Beginning in early 1995,

White House staffers began to notice

a change in the president.

His speeches contained

unfamiliar language and cadences.

In meetings, he'd get up abruptly and leave the room.

Many aides felt he was no longer listening to them.

ROBERT REICH: I recall a meeting

that the president's economic advisers

and political advisers were having

about how he was going to spend the next three weeks,

what themes he was going to emphasize.

And I remember somebody from the back of the room,

I think it was Erskine Bowles,

then the president's chief of staff,

saying, "This is all irrelevant."

Irrelevant?

We're the staff.

We are the people who help the president.

Why are we irrelevant?

And he didn't exactly say.

He said there was some other force in the White House.

And again and again, there seemed to be instances--

it was almost like in astronomy,

there's a black hole, and you can only tell it's there

because planets begin moving into its gravitational orbit.

But you look and there's nothing there.

That was Dick Morris.

Dick Morris was the black hole.

NARRATOR: Dick Morris,

an abrasive political consultant from New York,

had a history with the Clintons

that went all the way back to Arkansas.

HARRIS: Other than Hillary Clinton,

he was the most important political adviser

that Bill Clinton had had over the course of his career.

He was there for the very first election to governor in 1978

and had been with Bill Clinton

for most of the Arkansas gubernatorial years.

NARRATOR: Morris set up shop in the White House

and began to chair weekly strategy meetings

that were attended by most of the president's senior staff.

HAROLD ICKES: Clinton typically dominates

any group or discussion that he's in.

In the meetings on the second floor of the residence,

which we had every week,

Clinton would literally sit there for an hour sometimes,

hardly saying a word, listening to Morris.

MORRIS: When I first started to work for Clinton in the White House,

he had two big negatives:

a third of the country thought he was immoral

and a third of the country thought he was weak,

and I basically went to him and I said,

"I can't do much about the immoral,

but we sure can solve the weak."

And therefore we embarked on a conscious strategy

of making sure people saw Clinton as strong.

NARRATOR: The heart of Morris's operation was his polling,

which he used to diagnose where Clinton's weaknesses lay

and how he could correct them.

HARRIS: Polling became absolutely central.

How do we present ourselves as an alternative to Newt Gingrich?

How are people seeing the president?

What sort of policies would make them feel better

about Bill Clinton?

JOE KLEIN: They polled everything.

They polled every last word that came out of his mouth.

They polled where he should go on vacation.

Instead of going to Martha's Vineyard,

that elite island off the coast of Massachusetts,

they had him riding a horse in Wyoming.

I think Bill Clinton's allergic to horses.

But that's what the focus groups said would be

more, a more acceptable vacation.

MORRIS: One of the big problems

was the relationship between Bill and Hillary.

Voters thought that it was a zero-sum game,

that for Hillary to be strong, Bill would have to be weak.

And as a result, the perception of Hillary's strength

became a perception of Bill's weakness.

The polling made me understand that,

and when I came back to work for Clinton,

one of the first things I did was to tell Hillary,

"You can be as influential as you want to be,

"but do it in private.

"Don't sit in on the strategy meetings,

"don't make the appointments,

"don't make everybody be cleared with you.

"At the bedroom at night, tell him what to do,

but don't let it be seen in public."

NARRATOR: Morris's advice hit home.

After the stunning defeat in the midterm elections,

Hillary had received a large share of the blame.

ICKES: She was outspoken, she was smart, she was hard-driving,

and some people resented her.

Remember, during the campaign,

there was two for the price of one?

Well, people aren't electing two for the price of one.

They're electing the president.

GAIL SHEEHY: She had been caught out trying to be a co-president.

That just wasn't gonna fly,

and that's when she had to begin to really re-examine,

again, as she did as governor's wife,

"What does the public want from me in this role?"

And to take on gradually

a little bit more of the traditional role of first lady.

Well, welcome to the White House

and to the beginning of the Christmas season here.

NARRATOR: Unsatisfied by her ceremonial role as first lady,

Hillary began working on issues important to her,

but not alarming to the public.

She began writing a book about children

and traveled abroad with Chelsea to advocate for women's rights.

She wrote a weekly syndicated column,

and even consulted a psychic in the White House.

But it wasn't enough.

SHEEHY: She felt, for one of the rare times in her life,

completely depressed.

She said everything that she was doing wasn't working.

She just didn't know what to do anymore,

because she really wanted to be in there

right at Bill Clinton's side,

fighting all the political battles that he was doing.

The president wants to defend Washington bureaucracy,

Washington red tape, and Washington spending,

and higher taxes to pay for less out of Washington.

NARRATOR: While the Clintons struggled to find their way back

from the political wilderness,

their rival, Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich,

was dominating politics in Washington.

TRENT LOTT: I think Newt felt like he had

led a great revolution and led the House--

and, and the Senate, for that matter-- to victory,

and that he could... we could be the, you know,

the driving force in this city, and that he was, in effect,

comparable or equal to the president.

NARRATOR: Gingrich and his newly elected army

of Republican representatives

quickly passed bill after bill

from their "Contract with America."

Sensing his strength, Gingrich was intent on drawing Clinton

into a political showdown

that would determine, once and for all, who was in charge.

In the spring of 1995, Gingrich picked his battleground.

I think the central issue

that we challenged the Clinton administration on

was on the budget.

We wanted to balance the budget.

We thought that was the most important domestic policy issue

that existed in the country,

and it was gonna be ugly, as all deficit fights inevitably are.

What you currently have is

a system designed to be a centralized bureaucracy.

NARRATOR: In May, Gingrich unveiled a plan

to eliminate the federal budget deficit in seven years

through huge cuts in government spending.

Most of the cuts would be concentrated

in two government health insurance programs:

Medicare and Medicaid.

(cameras clicking)

Gingrich had managed

to shift the focus of power and media attention

from Clinton to himself.

CHRIS JENNINGS: Washington and the media is all about

the new flavor of the month.

And the new flavor of the month

was not the Clinton administration.

You had Newt Gingrich.

I mean, he was a powerful, charismatic figure

who had an answer to every question.

There are three themes that define where we are right now.

JENNINGS: And he not only

wasn't afraid to talk, he longed to talk.

His problem was, over time, he talked too much. NARRATOR: With Gingrich in the spotlight,

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