The most interesting tidbits from the Clinton document dump (Part 5)


File: Former President Bill Clinton (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The National Archives released the fifth batch of previously unseen documents from the Clinton White House on Friday. The latest 2,000 pages includes transcripts, e-mails and internal memos related to the Supreme Court nominations of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, State of the Union preparations, and other political and policy discussions.

As we've done for previous installments (here are one, two, three, and four) the Post Politics team is sifting through them to find the most interesting insights into the Clinton years.

1. Gore encourages a reluctant Clinton to mention Dole in speech

As President Bill Clinton went over his 1996 State of the Union speech with Vice President Al Gore, senior aide George Stephanopoulos and other top advisers, the team debated whether to throw Sen. Bob Dole a shout out. Clinton was hesitant to give his future opponent the prime time attention, asking, "Why should I single him out?"

Gore and Stephanopoulos argued that acknowledging Dole's military service took away the only thing the Republican had over Clinton.

"I've been watching him closely and he has nothing to say. And all the time he just gets more negative. And if you all year long are going to be able to say, in front of the whole country, 'I saluted your service,' I think it's a great thing to have in your back pocket," Stephanopoulos said.

"When I presided over the Congress 50th commemoration, I really larded it on and said, 'Anybody who knows the story of Bob Dole knows something about the meaning of true courage, and blah, blah, blah," Gore said.

2. Ginsburg or Breyer?

White House vetters delivered elaborate comparisons between then-appeals court judges Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer as Clinton considered which should be his first nominee to the Supreme Court. Obviously, Ginsburg won that contest.

“Judge Ginsburg's work has more of the humanity that the President highly values and fewer of the negative aspects that will cause concern among some constituencies,” Joel Klein wrote to Clinton’s counsel Bernard Nussbaum a week before Clinton nominated Ginsburg in a Rose Garden ceremony.

Klein thought Breyer was “brilliant,” but others were not as impressed.  “Nothing in Judge Breyer’s opinions suggests that he would be a great Supreme Court justice,” wrote Tom Perrilli and Ian Gershengorn, who called him a “rather cold fish.”

Perrilli later served as deputy attorney general in the Obama administration and Gershengorn is currently  Principal Deputy Solicitor General, arguing regularly before the Supreme Court.

Breyer was nominated to the court in 1994.

3. A vote against health care "will not be soon forgotten."

It's well documented that the Clintons don't take too kindly to being crossed. As the Clinton team worked Capitol Hill to shore up support for its health-care reform plan, various players were dispatched to meet with specific members of Congress in August 1994. For each lawmaker, the participants were provided a list of talking points.

President Clinton was to meet with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a primary purpose of the discussion was to, "impress upon her how important this vote is to your Presidency and the Democratic party and to strongly hint that a vote against the President on this issue will not be soon forgotten."

4. Sealed JFK files would reveal U.S. "dated" intelligence gathering methods

The FBI and Secret Service objected to the release of a few documents pertaining to the JFK Assassination and lobbied Clinton to keep them sealed. Thousands of documents were released after Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Record Collection Act of 1992, which established a board to review and release records on Kennedy’s assassination.

One of the reasons the FBI didn’t want to release a small number of documents was because they contained the names of confidential informants and showed how the U.S. cooperated with an unnamed foreign government and could injure their relationship.

Another reason the FBI didn’t want to release the records? They showed how the U.S. gathered intelligence in the 1960s – and despite the major advances in technology, the U.S. still used antiquated methods.

“Notwithstanding technological advances on the part of the industrial nations of the world, many governments are decades behind in the manner in which they transmit funds and data, and communicate with their establishments and agents. We do still rely heavily on transoceanic cable intercepts, look-out logs, telephone intercepts, typewriter comparisons, and a dozen other 'dated' methods of collecting intelligence. The Board should not assume that these methods are antiquated and of little value in today's computer and satellite world just because we employed them as long ago as the 1960's.”

5. Ruining Gingrich’s "class picture"

To illustrate momentum for Republicans heading into the decisive 1994 midterm campaigns, Republican House leader Newt Gingrich (Ga.) planned a “class picture” of GOP incumbents and challengers on the steps of the Capitol.

Clinton White House aides David Dreyer and Michael Waldman wrote a memo to senior officials, including chief of staff Leon Panetta, laying out eight proposals to disrupt Gingrich’s photo opp. Among the suggestions: planning a House vote on campaign finance reform at the same time; planting negative research about Republicans in media and on television ads to run the same day; and getting Common Cause to put picketers on the street to interrupt the Gingrich gathering.

6. Rahm Emanuel warns Clinton not to ‘over-reach’ on gun control

Over the past few years, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) has been one of the most forceful proponents of stricter national gun laws. But in 1996, as a White House political aide, Emanuel wrote a memo to President Clinton warning him not to “over-reach” on gun control.

The memo is dated Nov. 12, 1996, a week after Clinton won reelection. In it, Emanuel outlines domestic policy suggestions for Clinton’s second term. On guns, Emanuel noted that Clinton was endorsed by law enforcement, gun control activists and victims groups and said he must be careful to maintain their political support, as well as that of prosecutors, traditionally a Republican constituency.

“Those who support gun control will interpret the Durbin and Torrecelli elections as a new mandate,” Emanuel wrote, referring to the Senate wins of Democrats Dick Durbin in Illinois and Robert Torrecelli in New Jersey. “Stick with your ban on killer bullets. Do not be taken in by their interest in a one gun a month restriction. Do not over-reach in their area. The NRA will oppose the cop killer bullet legislation and we should welcome that fight. The GOP will divide along ideological and geographic lines and we should foster the split.”

Later in the memo, Emanuel wrote, “This takes me to a side point which is obvious, but needs to be reiterated. The White House is a political operation.”

Emanuel added, “You can not afford a staff that has not been battle tested on the Hill or in the field. It is an honor to work at the White House and the type of people you recruit should reflect the level they will be competing at.”

7. Adviser tells Clinton not to focus on ’98 midterms

One of President Clinton’s top political advisers told Clinton not to focus on the 1998 congressional midterm campaigns and to keep a political distance from then-House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.), but rather to concentrate on helping then-Vice President Al Gore win the presidency in 2000.

In a Jan. 16, 1998, memo to Clinton, adviser Al From wrote, “Remember the key election for you is 2000, not 1998.”

From advised Clinton to “proceed very cautiously about aligning yourself too closely with Dick Gephardt and the House leadership. That alliance has hurt you politically before, and it will hurt you again.”

Heading into the 1998 midterm season, From urged Clinton to “resist what is likely to be enormous pressure to put aside your own political interests and pursue a short-term, sharply partisan, political strategy aimed at winning back the House.”

Instead, From wrote, Clinton should stick to his centrist “New Democrat” political strategy and work over the long term to put Gore in the best position to win the White House two years later.

“Nothing is more important to your legacy and to the long-term success of the Democratic Party – including Congressional Democrats – than having your hand-picked successor win the White House in 2000,” From wrote.

8. ‘A President of the people’

As President Clinton prepared to leave the White House, adviser Paul Begala wrote him a memo saying his farewell address to the nation should focus on one theme: “We, The People.”

Begala wrote, “Your presidency has been a creation of the American people. Not the elite, ersatz aristocracy that has always hated arid feared you, but the people.”

“When the elites in the Democratic Party were swooning over Paul Tsongas [in the 1992 primaries], the people picked you,” he continued. “When the elites in Washington said you'd have a failed presidency in your first hundred days, the people stuck with you. When the elites in the media said you had to go, the American people stepped in and saved your presidency. Perhaps more than any man who has held that office since Andrew Jackson, you have been a President of the people and for the people.”

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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