Bill Clinton's Very Personal Reflections

In '60 Minutes' Interview, Ex-President Calls Affair 'Terrible Moral Error'

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2004; Page C01

Bill Clinton says his affair with Monica Lewinsky was "a terrible moral error" but that he regards his battle against the impeachment that followed as "a badge of honor."

In excerpts from a "60 Minutes" interview with Dan Rather airing Sunday, the former president says the disclosure of his relationship with Lewinsky put him "in the doghouse" with his wife, Hillary -- who, he says, needed time to decide whether to stay married to him -- and threatened to alienate his daughter Chelsea.

Bill Clinton, talking with CBS's Dan Rather about his memoir, called his battle against impeachment "a badge of honor." (David M. Russell -- CBS)

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But Clinton called the Republican attempt to drive him from office "an abuse of power," saying: "I didn't quit, I never thought of resigning and I stood up to it and beat it back. The whole battle was a badge of honor. I don't see it as a stain, because it was illegitimate."

In a tone of sadness and self-reproach, Clinton said of the affair: "I think I did something for the worst possible reason -- just because I could. I think that's just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything. There are lots of sophisticated explanations, more complicated psychological explanations, but none of them are an excuse." Those comments were aired on last night's "CBS Evening News."

Rather said in an interview yesterday that Clinton also ripped into former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who investigated whether Clinton had falsely testified about his sexual relationship with the former White House intern. "He says Starr was unethical if not illegal" and suggested that Starr "did something illegal," Rather said. Clinton argued that the former prosecutor "threatened and put in jail Clinton supporters who wouldn't tell what he called 'lies,' and went easy on other people who could have been prosecuted," according to Rather.

Did Clinton, who is publicizing his forthcoming memoir, appear angry while discussing Starr? "Yes. Very," the CBS anchor said. "It's one thing to read it, another to see him say it."

Clinton was "uncomfortable" discussing his relationship with Lewinsky and the reaction of his wife, Rather said, but "sat through it all. He didn't brush aside any question. He took every question, every follow-up. I would have preferred not to ask any of these questions, but he wrote about them in his book. . . . Was I uncomfortable doing it? Yeah."

Asked how he overcame the damage to his marriage, Clinton said: "We'd take a day a week, and we did -- a whole day a week every week for a year, maybe a little more -- and did counseling." In her own book last year, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said she started crying when her husband told her the truth and that "I wanted to wring Bill's neck."

Clinton was asked about Starr last night at the New York premiere of the Harry Thomason film "The Hunting of the President." He described Starr and his prosecutors as "the instruments of a grand design," and said that after his wife was "hooted and derided" for blaming the investigations on a "vast right-wing conspiracy," he told her: "The only thing I'm not sure about is the word conspiracy. This is right out in the open."

He added that "the mainstream press was basically in the tank with Starr until the issuing of the Starr report" detailing the Lewinsky investigation, but that he had no complaint about the coverage after the report, which he appeared to view as a turning point.

Clinton's book, titled "My Life," hits bookstores Tuesday, and the excerpts released by CBS also deal with policy issues during his eight-year tenure.

Clinton's greatest accomplishment, in his opinion, was the creation of 22 million jobs. "I kept score, how many people's lives were better off," he said.

The former president also cited the 1999 war in the Balkans that toppled Slobodan Milosevic. "The day that Kosovar war ended and I knew Milosevic's days were numbered was a great day. I had a lot of great days," he said.

The interview also covered the war in Iraq, which was not mentioned in yesterday's excerpts. Rather said Clinton was "supportive" of President Bush on Iraq and that "it will surprise some people."

Clinton took sharp exception to criticism that he had not done enough to combat terrorism while in office, Rather recalled. "On the accusation that he had opportunities to get Osama bin Laden, had opportunities to have him delivered by the Sudanese, he said, 'absolutely, flatly untrue,' describing it as 'bull.' "

Rather described Clinton as "remarkably candid," both in the book and in several hours of interviews in Arkansas and Chappaqua, N.Y. "For someone to publicly be this introspective, reflective and critical of himself is pretty remarkable and rare," he said. "I don't think I could do it."

Aside from his emotional remarks about Starr, Clinton "seemed to be going to great lengths not to be playing 'get even,' " Rather said.

The "60 Minutes" interview, which will take up the full hour, is the kickoff to a multimedia campaign designed to hawk Clinton's $35 book. Clinton will be interviewed next week by Oprah Winfrey, "Today" and "Good Morning America," and all radio stations owned by Viacom, CBS's parent, will carry a Clinton town hall meeting that will include questions from America Online subscribers. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf has ordered an initial printing of 1.5 million copies.

Staff writer Michael Powell in New York contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company