By Steven Brill
"I am in a poor position to complain," President Bill Clinton said,
speaking about press coverage of his life and his presidency. "The
American public has given me pretty good ratings." Indeed, while
friends and aides of the first family unanimously say President
Clinton and his wife share an antipathy toward the press, the
president seems to realize he'd look foolish -- and has looked foolish
-- if he complains too much. He was reflective and gregarious in a
40-minute conversation on December 4, 2000, with Brill's Content
CEO Steven Brill, talking about subjects ranging from coverage of
the Monica Lewinsky scandal to his opinion of The New York
Times's Maureen Dowd.
Speaking in the Oval Office from a chair next to the fireplace and in front of
a desk strewn with old copies of Time, Newsweek, and The Economist,
he sipped a Diet Coke and toyed with an unlit cigar during the interview.
Reflecting on how times have changed since the JFK days, when being a
favorite of the president was in most circles a journalistic badge of honor, the
one question he refused to answer -- until the moment the interview was ending --
was to name who he thought was the best White House reporter. He feared that
doing so would "kill" the reporter's career, he said. The unedited transcript follows below.
MR. BRILL: First question. If you were giving a talk to students or
voters -- just plain citizens -- from your perspective, Mr. President,
what tips would you give them on how to read the news or watch
the news on television? What should they be looking for to be
smarter consumers of news reporting? Smarter consumers of press?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I would say first of all, they should do it,
they should watch the news and read the newspapers and,
because most of the time most of what's said is right. But that if
there's some big story that seems to have an aura of scandal about
it, I would tell them to look at it with a grain of salt, read all the
follow-ups and you know, don't rush to judgment.
MR. BRILL: Do you think you are a little more skeptical and jaded
about that yourself, eight years later?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think that I am more cautious than I was when I got here.
MR. BRILL: Did you come here, you think, in a sense, naive? I mean,
it seemed like in the '92 campaign a lot of the reporters were the
same generation as you, your comrades in arms. And then, arguably
you got burned by some of them. I guess this is my Joe Klein kind of question.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don't know. I think I was naive in some ways and I
think I am wiser in some ways. But I think we had a pretty tough time in
the '92 campaign too. But I think the other thing I would say is that,
because there are so many media outlets, it's sometimes hard to keep
up with all the players. But at least if you, if you are a candidate or if you
are president and somebody gets it wrong, it's up to you to at least try
to get it right. At least, you know, normally you can have a forum for a
MR. BRILL: But what do you do now? What should you do? What should
the White House do if someone gets something wrong? Do you respond or
do you just take it and go on?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: It depends on what it is. But if it's significant, I
think you should respond.
MR. BRILL: Do you think you've been good at that? Do you think the White
House has been good at that?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Better.
MR. BRILL: Better? Getting better?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes, we got better at it.
MR. BRILL: Watching the returns this past election night, what was
your reaction to how the press called Florida, then uncalled Florida
then called Florida again, uncalled. Your whole reaction to the whole coverage?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, when they are very close, it's hard to
know. I remember in '96 I guess, the only case like this I can think
of is, they called the Senate race in New Hampshire for Dick Swett
and then they had to uncall it. And sometimes when they are tied,
it's hard to know.
MR. BRILL: Does it concern you that they are all calling it together
because of the Voter News Service, that there's only one entity out
there gathering information and analyzing it?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well yes, maybe they ought to have a kind of a
rule of thumb that if it's, you know, 4 or 5 points or less, they don't
call it. Because I do think that in a funny way, it may tend to set
things in voters' minds about who's got a legitimate claim or whatever.
MR. BRILL: Do you think that happened this time? Do you think there
was a sense that the Vice President was challenging the results
once it got called for Governor Bush?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes. The truth is, this whole thing should be
looked at as an attempt to find out what happened. Not all the votes have been
counted once yet. And so that's how I think. But I don't think, I don't think that was
the intent of the networks. I don't think anybody was trying to -- I think they were
just all trying to get it right and you know, calling the election has become a
feature of election night coverage.
MR. BRILL: Is it too competitive? Does the press make mistakes by
trying to do something faster sooner? The whole cycle of news too fast?
Something starts out on the Internet and it ends up in the mainstream?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, it's probably inevitable but, what I think
that the serious press outlets, the major networks and the big
newspapers, ought to, you know, if there's cause for a grain of salt,
they ought to say, this is what it looks like but here's the grain of salt.
MR. BRILL: What about their process of sometimes just reporting what others
are reporting? Not of saying, you know we are not reporting this but we are reporting
that others are reporting this.You know, the New York Post today says this,
even if it's The NewYork Times saying it?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well I think it depends, if they don't think it's right,
they think it might not be accurate, then they ought to say, this is what they report,
but others have cautioned, X or Y or, whatever the fact.
MR. BRILL: What do you think Governor Bush's biggest success was
with the press? Do you think he did pretty well with the press in this campaign?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: You know I don't know that I am in a position to
judge that. I think he did pretty well with it. I think they did a good job of setting low
expectations for the debates. Probably. That might have been a big success. And in the
primaries, they spent a lot of time with him. And it worked in the primaries.
MR. BRILL: Which of course leads to my next question. Which of the
two do you think got the better break from the press? The Vice
President or Governor Bush?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, in the debates Bush did, I think, because
he had a lower standard and he did that really well. But you know,
Al was down in the primaries and he came back and it looked like the polls were closed
in New Hampshire then he came back. So, I don't know. I don't know that I followed it
closely enough to have a judgment about that.
MR. BRILL: What about your coverage? Looking back, what does a
piece of press coverage, an episode of press coverage that makes
you the most frustrated or the angriest?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Oh boy, I don't know. That's hard to answer.
The thing that I was most disappointed in, I could tell you, was
that the way Whitewater was covered. There was all these sort of
breathless things that, you know, one thing after another was big.
And the thing that burned me the most was when Hillary was called
before the Grand Jury. It was big headline news all over America,
big on the evening news, you know. And then when that federal
report from the Pillsbury Madison [an outside law firm] came out
saying, not only did she not do anything wrong, but their billing
records confirmed her account of the thing, there were no big headlines.
Some of the papers had no separate stories. There was no big story on the
evening news about it. I do believe if you go out and bang somebody, and it's
a big deal, when they are subsequently exonerated, then you ought to make
the exoneration as big a deal as the bang.
MR. BRILL: Well, one of the issues there is that always happens. If
someone gets sued, if it's a civil suit, it's always big headlines. Then
if the case gets thrown out or dismissed or something else, it goes
away. In England it's a little bit different. First of all, if you sue
someone and you can't win, you are going to pay their legal fees if
you lose. And the publicity surrounding lawsuits is a little different.
You can't publicize a lawsuit while it's pending. What do you think
about that as something for this country?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: It sounds good if you've been on the short end
of all these sticks like that.
MR. BRILL: Tempting to you, isn't it?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Tempting, but I think that, you know, we tend
to resolve every First Amendment question in favor of openness and I think on
balance, we probably come out ahead of the deal, as a country, over time.
MR. BRILL: What about the whole coverage of the impeachment, the
Lewinsky matter and everything related to it? Do you think the
press should have handled it differently as a general matter?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: First of all, it's hard to comment on it as a
general matter. I think there are specific parts of the press that
basically did an excellent job. It was difficult circumstances. There
were one or two that I thought were house organs for Ken Starr.
So, I don't think you can generalize about it. It was a big
sensational story. It had to get covered big time and I think in the
beginning there was sort of a stampede and then it kind of slowed
down and kind of played out the way it did.
MR. BRILL: If I made you the editor of The Washington Post today,
how would you have covered it differently?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don't want to comment on that. I can't do it. I
may comment on it if I write a book.
MR. BRILL: What about writing a book? I read somewhere that you
had already done it.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I haven't written a book. No. But I hope I've got a
couple of good books in me, but what I am most interested in is what we did here.
And I guess one of the things that I wish somehow, is that there were more serious attention
on a consistent basis to a lot of the very serious things we did here.
That's one of the things that was interesting about Joe Klein's New Yorker
piece, you know, he finally
said, well, this guy had a pretty serious administration. So that's one of the things that I think is very
important about newspapers. Because they too have to get caught up in this constant 24-hour
news cycle and competing with what's on the net, what's on the CNN and what's in the tabloids and
all that kind of stuff. But they still have the space in the paper to deal with, the thoughtful and
substantative things. While they may not sell lots of papers, there's a core of Americans who care very
much about that. And I think that's basically the sort of indispensable role of the serious daily
newspapers, to deal with a lot of other things that don't get on the evening news, or if they do,
they are 20 seconds or whatever. I think that's very important.
MR. BRILL: What's your favorite read? What columnist, what paper do you
pick up? Who do you think does that the best?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Press secretary Jake Siewert just told me if I
compliment any columnist I will ruin their career.
MR. BRILL: Try it.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Maybe I should condemn them.
MR. BRILL: Is that what he told you?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes. He's probably right about that.
MR. BRILL: I didn't ask you to knock him.
MR. BRILL: All right. Make some careers. Tell me what you think of
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well you know, I read The New York Whore Times
and the Post and The Wall Street Journal every day. At least I try to read the Los Angeles Times,
Washington edition, which I think is actually quite good. I bet they lose money on it but
I appreciate it.
MR. BRILL: One of the things you and I once had a discussion with at
Renaissance -- the argument culture.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes.
MR. BRILL: When I was first starting this magazine.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes.
MR. BRILL: We talked a little bit about it.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Deborah Tannen wrote a book about it. [The
Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words]
MR. BRILL: Right. Do you think that Crossfire, shows like that and
Hardball, things like that, contribute to the argument culture and if
so, what's the effect on someone like you trying to do your job?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes, I do, I think they do and they are
entertaining but they are not as enlightening as they would be if
people didn't scream at each other and if the participants didn't feel
that they had to always disagree. I mean, you get to feeling that if
Bill Press ever looked at Bob Novak and Mary Matalin and said, you
know, you might be right about that, that old Bill Press would have
to leave his job. You know, and Mary would be run out of the
Republican Party if she said to Bill Press, well you got a good point there.
I mean, I think that what I wish they'd had is, a section where they
argue their points over something they had complete disagreement
with and then I wish they would talk about something that's really
important but they are not quite sure what they think and just bring
their different perspectives to it and have a conversation. I think
that, for me anyway, that's what I'd like to see. Because the truth
is, the country has a lot of big challenges that no one has a
complete answer to. And I think that we even see it in this election
dispute. Where, you know, sometimes you think you are going to
win if you just get enough guys to pound on the other one.
MR. BRILL: Let me just ask you one question about difference in the
presidency and the press today. We all know that President
Kennedy had a regular ongoing relationship with lots of journalists.
He was also able at one point to call up The New York Times and
get them to hold off on a story, I guess it was on the Cuban missile
crisis. Would you be able to do that today? Or, I guess I should ask,
have you ever done that or tried to do it?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don't think so.
MR. BRILL: Would you be able to?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I'm just trying to think. You know, one of the
things I was telling old Terry McAuliffe [chairman of the Democratic
National Committee] today, we were talking about something, I
said, you know, I worry about writing a book because I can't
remember anything. Because everything happened to in such a
compressed time. I don't believe we ever have. I think if it were a
serious national security problem, and I was asking for somebody to
hold something up for 24 hours, and they didn't have any reason to
believe that somebody else was about to break it, maybe. If it were
something that was seriously in the national interest, the consequences
would be dire and it was only for a very limited time, maybe I could.
MR. BRILL: But wouldn't they also have an excuse today that, gee,
it's already in our newsroom and if it's in our newsroom, then we
know that this guy Drudge who can put it out there?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes, yes it would be much harder today. I mean
you know, one thing I really sympathize with a lot of people in the
press about is that there's so much competition coming from
everywhere and a breaking story is a breaking story, even if it
appears on the Internet and 10,000 people know it. It's just as if
100 million people saw it on the evening news, to the people who
are in the press. Because you know, it's sort of out of the box. It
makes for example, the thoughtful pieces on the evening news more
difficult because whatever is breaking that day has probably been
on CNN for four hours and then it's just that much harder if you are
writing for a newspaper the next day, you know, these problems
compound themselves. So I have a lot of sympathy for people, for
some of the challenges, judgment calls that a lot of these folks in
the press have to make.
MR. BRILL: During the worst of times in the administration, when the
press was the roughest, did you still read the stuff, watch it on television?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Depending on what it was. During the
impeachment thing, I read almost nothing and watched nothing on
television, even if people defended me. I just didn't. Because, I just
didn't think that had anything to do with me doing my job for the
American people and I thought it would distract me. That if I'd
gotten mad or angry or something, there just was no point in it. I
didn't do very much watching or reading on that. In the first couple
of years, we had a lot of rough going on policy stuff. I read, I scanned the
papers every day and then if there was a column that was critical subsequently,
I often read that. And I still do. If somebody said, I don't agree with what the
president did on this, that or the other policy, I think they are really wrong
about this, I would read that.
Because I think that, I think you need to know if people are
disagreeing with you in good faith. You ought to know what they
think and why, and you ask yourself if whether they might be right.
MR. BRILL: Do you have a problem with people in the White House
writing memoirs that include conversations they might have had with you,
deliberations, internal deliberations? It's going to happen now, right?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I guess the answer is that it depends;
some of the things that I have read already, I don't think they are quite
accurate but if they are not, you know -- that, again is a judgment call.
MR. BRILL: But if someone has been leaving the office and keeping a
little notebook and not worried about it being subpoenaed, and ends
up writing something that's accurate but if you'd known they were
doing it when you were in the room talking with them, you wouldn't
have said what you've said. Do you have a problem with that?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I wouldn't do that if I were working in the White
House with someone else.
MR. BRILL: So in your memoirs, will you have any conversations with
people where you think it would embarrass them?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I doubt if I'll do that. Unless I think it's
necessary to correct something on the record that those people have put in.
MR. BRILL: Do you think that the press, as a general matter, makes
your job harder than it might have made, let's say President
Kennedy or President Roosevelt's?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes, in some ways it does.
MR. BRILL: Do you think that's good?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Sometimes. I think, in some ways it does. But I
think that, since you always get the sense that situations tend to
run to the contrary, it might make it harder to get things done.
That's why I used to urge our people, for example, after Gingrich
won in Congress and they were saying these terrible things, you
know, about us all the time, I used to urge people not to read that
stuff and not be affected by it.
When you get hired to work for the American people, you are not
supposed to have feelings. Not like that, not personal feelings. You
are supposed to have feelings for people and problems. But if people
are dumping on you, you know, that can't affect how you do your
job every day and if you let it, it would really warp your capacity to
advance the public interest.
MR. BRILL: Do you think the Tim Russert question to the First Lady
during the debate was fair? You know the question I'm talking about?
[Russert asked Mrs. Clinton whether she felt she should apologize to the
American people for "misleading" them about the Lewinsky affair.]
PRESIDENT CLINTON: No. But I think it helped her because she handled it
with dignity and strength. Just like everything that happens in life, most of it is how
you respond. And I think she did a terrific job. I think she came out ahead.
MR. BRILL: Let me ask you one other question. You live in a world
where there's all kinds of balance of powers - three branches of
government, the people balance you out. Who balances the powers
of the press? Is there any mechanism we should have, even if it's a
voluntary complaint process or accountability process, is there any
change from having been on your side of it, for eight years? Is
there anything you think that should be done to balance the power,
or do you think it's just about right? Do you think the press has
done a pretty good job covering your presidency and you are not
frustrated at all? Or do you just think it's about right?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: First of all, I am in a poor position to complain
because the American public has given me pretty good ratings. I think two things.
Number one, I think if a person in public life believes that the press is unfair, then
I think that you do have a microphone, you can put out to your side.
And normally, you'll get your side reported.
MR. BRILL: What about the Whitewater/Pillsbury Madison report?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: In cases like that, I think that's where you come
in. If I ran a big newspaper or I was running a television network, I
would have some sort of ombudsman, somebody to come in and
maybe do very limited terms. I would have them, but I would tell
them, you know, their job was to come and say when they thought
something had been done wrong if they felt strongly enough. We'd
give them an article or give them time on the news to say I disagree
with the way this network is handling it. That's what I would do.
Because I know for example, if I were hired to run a network, I
would try to be fair but I know that I have, you know, I've lived a
lifetime with a certain predisposition toward certain issues and
directions in the country and I wouldn't be, I couldn't be completely
free of bias. But I think that your institution is pretty good.
If I were in the newspaper business, I would be glad that -- and I
am not just pandering to you because I told you this before -- I
would be glad that you are doing this and I would be grateful every
now and then if you popped my outlet whatever it is, a network or
television or newspaper, because nobody can be right all the time.
And since we have a First Amendment that basically has kept fewer
restrictions on the press here, than virtually any place in the world
and since I believe that's right. The more freedom you have in life,
the more responsible you are supposed to be with it. And most of
us have made mistakes if we live long enough, where we didn't
show responsibility where we should have. So it always helps to
have somebody nudging you to be responsible.
MR. BRILL: Do you think the press is by and large more liberal than that?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: No. I think that the, on some issues, I don't
know, maybe reporters tend to be more Democratic than Republican.
But I'm not as sure about that. But I think in some ways, there's a sort of an
institutional bias which favors some kind of conventional wisdom or establishment,
in politics. And of course, you know, most of the people that own these outlets are
Republican. So, I think that it's very hard to make a case that there is a liberal press.
However, there's a big conservative press unabashedly, and for the Democrats,
and even people to the left of the Democratic party, there's almost virtually no outlets
that you can compare with the vast array of conservative press that's out there.
MR. BRILL: The Wen Ho Lee case: you were a little bit critical of how
you thought that was handled by the press, which is what I want
to stick with, not so much the Justice Department. As a general
matter, do you think that the press tends to take more from
prosecutors than they should on faith, especially if it comes as a
leak -- a subject you might also be familiar with it in another context?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don't know about it as a general matter but I
know that in high profile cases, when the stakes seem high, and
you know, you want to get more leaks out of the prosecutor, it's
hard not to play up the leaks you do get. I think it's a lot of pressure.
That's why I think the stories were written -- okay, let me back up
a second. For all the criticism with the Wen Ho Lee case, it is
important to recognize something that even he doesn't dispute,
which is that this was a serious breakdown of security. It was a
serious issue here that deserves to be treated seriously.
What I think is important is, that even if a story is breaking news,
and you have a leak from a prosecutor, the stories need to be
written with a little grain of salt. You can't not expect a reporter to
report something that is a leak, I guess. But it needs to be, when
there is any room, the grain of salt needs to be in there.
MR. BRILL: What do you think ever happened to the Ken Starr leaks investigation?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don't know. I don't know the answer to that.
MR. BRILL: Would you be curious?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: What did happen? You know?
MR. BRILL: I don't know. I'm asking you.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I'm sorry. I don't have an answer to that.
MR. BRILL: Last question. Leaving aside the Whitewater Pillsbury
matters, which you've cited, what else comes to mind as something
where you just thought the balance was wrong and the
accountability wasn't there and the system wasn't working?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don't know. I need to think about that. I'll call
you and give you an answer.
MR. BRILL: Will you?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes. I will. Because we had two or three,
particularly in the first term, where I thought the whole direction of
the story was wrong but I'd like to think about it. Like I said, one of
the things that's not shocking to me is, I used to have such a great
memory and now I can hardly remember anything.
My life has been so compressed over the last eight years. One
other thing I would say that I think is important that, maybe that
you can do is, I think that when other people are critical of sort of
the conventional wisdom, that their views need to have some way
of getting a hearing.
I see even in the placement of book reviews and things like that,
books that don't go along with the conventional wisdom about the
way a given paper handled a subject, they don't get what they
should. And I think that that's the other thing I would say.
Normally, somebody eventually will get the other side out, if there is
another side. But if they do it in a book, the book won't sell unless
people know the book exists. So I think that's important too,
because to say, look, there is this whole other way of setting the
record straight and you know, books don't sell a lot of copies but a
lot of people who shape opinions and think and know and are in a
position to express future opinions, do read quite a lot and I think
that's important as well.
MR. BRILL: Thank you. I would like to be able to follow up with you.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes, I will. Because there were two or three
stories in the first term that I thought were totally, well, I'll give you one example:
I'll give you one example right now. Because I was talking to a guy the other day
who didn't know anything about this.
There was the perception -- but I think I didn't handle this well -- but it
shows that I
would have had to conduct virtually a guerrilla war here to get it right, I think. When I first
came in, there was the perception in the minds of the American people, based on the
reporting, that the first issue I wanted to deal with was gays in the military.
Would you agree with that?
MR. BRILL: Mmm hmm.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Okay. Here are the facts. Number one, I wanted to take
six months, work the military and work through it. Senator Dole brought it up first, not me.
He brought it up and he said, "This is a terrible thing, we are going to do it." First thing out
of the box: resolution in the Senate. Then the Joint Chiefs said, "Oh, we have
to meet about this. So the whole story was that I brought it up.
Then the whole story was that I caved on the gay community. That also wasn't
We knew, everybody knew there were over 300 votes in the House to reverse the policy
if I put it in. The Senate was more open to it. There was a big debate a day in which
Barbara Boxer was leading the side for my position, and the Senate voted 68 to 32,
which meant that both houses had a veto-proof majority against this policy.
It was then and only then that I worked out with Colin Powell the
compromise, don't ask, don't tell. So I wound up with the worst of
both worlds. Number one, people, a lot of people, thought I was
nuts. Even some of my friends in the gay community, "Why would
you bring this up first?" I didn't, Bob Dole did. Number two, then a
lot of people thought I caved on them. When I didn't. The door had
been shut first and I didn't make that clear.
So, I think that's the best example I can think of. But again, I was
very, very green then about the ways this town works and how the
press works with the presidency. So if I had done a better job,
perhaps I could have clarified it. That's one where I think that on
both, I sort of lost on both sides there because of the way the
story was written. And I think that if I had known then what I know
now, I would have come out of it a little better anyway.
MR. BRILL: Do you think Maureen Dowd has been fair to you?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think that she has by and large written what
she believes. I think the only nice column she ever wrote was when
I went to Ireland, which shows that even she is subject to her uh,
[pauses] whatever. Let me say this though. Let me just tell you
what I think of Maureen Dowd. I think she is one of the most
brilliant people writing. I think the writing that she's done on this
election controversy has been good. But if you read it, she hasn't
been as personally mean. She's been more funny and I think she's
been more effective than in some of her earlier columns on me and
others, where the personal venom is so deep that I think it sort of
blocked the impact of what she was saying.
MR. BRILL: If you could direct my 18-year-old daughter to any one
political writer today, who is one journalist who generally gets it
right, explains to you what the issues are, and what's going on in
the country, who would you tell Emily to read?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: God, I'll just kill that person.
MR. BRILL: No, Come on.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: [to Siewert:] Don't you think I would? You
wouldn't want me to answer that, do you? I will kill him, he would
never get the Pulitzer Prize if I did that. But it's Los Angeles Times
political writer Ronald Brownstein.