In new release of Clinton documents, familiar themes emerge

Bill Clinton assured a dinner crowd that he honestly did not know what his wife would decide about her political future.

And that was in a speech he made 15 years ago.

With intense speculation surrounding Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plans for 2016, documents released Friday by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library are a reminder that among political observers, a sense of deja vu is common.

Drafts of the then-president’s 1999 address to the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in Washington included several jokes about whether the first lady would run for the U.S. Senate in New York.

Clinton omitted some of the lines proposed by his speechwriters, including one that he hoped Hillary would make up her mind soon because the prospect of her running was a distraction.

But this stayed almost verbatim:

“And of course, I am expecting a question regarding the future political career of the first lady. I honestly don’t know what she will decide, but I can tell you this: Yesterday at breakfast, she was complaining that it’s impossible to get a decent bagel here in Washington. By the way, what’s a ‘shmeer?’ ”

The early drafts of that speech were included in the third installment of about 3,000 pages of Clinton administration records that have been made public. With all the Clinton presidential buzz, the internal memos offer new insights into how she was perceived and handled during her years in the White House.

In 1998, at the peak of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the first lady’s deputy press secretary, Julie Mason, fretted over how to shield Clinton from questions about Lewinsky during a Voice of America interview.

“Can press in the US call in to the VOA show during the interview to ask questions?” Mason wrote to Mary Ellen Glynn of the U.S. Information Agency. “If not, why by having press sitting in the studio next door (they won’t have contact with her, right?) will HRC be more apt to get questions on Monica, etc.?”

Glynn suggested inviting just a few reporters to the studio to cover the interview, but warned that Hillary could still get questions from “callers around the world on the Monica story.”

Also at that time, the president was preparing a speech to honor his wife as she received the Ford’s Theater’s Lincoln Medal. Speechwriters suggested strengthening language complimenting the first lady. Rather than say she followed in the footsteps of “Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush,” a speechwriter suggested that Clinton lavish more praise on his wife and say, “I know how hard she’s working to support the arts across the country as we approach the new millennium.”

Among other highlights from the newly released documents:

●New York University professor Susan Andersen urged President Clinton, in his farewell address to the country, to acknowledge the 2000 presidential election recount and the emotional toll it took on the nation. But Clinton opted for straightforward language supporting incoming president George W. Bush.

●When David Axelrod, who would one day become President Obama’s top campaign strategist, was a consultant in Chicago, he sent a detailed memo to Clinton’s team after Robert J. Dole’s speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. He advised Clinton to stay positive in his own acceptance speech.

Acknowledging that the team likely had “more cooks hovering around the broth than you need,” Axelrod suggested that the president “magnanimously stipulate his admiration for Dole’s years of service” to counter the Republicans’ negative campaign against Clinton.

●On May 4, 1996, Al Franken was the featured comedian at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner. Clinton’s speechwriters crossed out a joke comparing his party’s drubbing in the 1994 midterm elections to a Franken movie that came out the same year. But the joke made it into the Clinton’s speech, as did one about Franken’s book, “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” — although Clinton did not name Limbaugh, instead calling him an “inflammatory public figure.”

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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