Clinton Book Weighs Failures and Successes
Memoir Contradicts Testimony on Lewinsky
By John F. Harris and Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 22, 2004; Page A04
Former president Bill Clinton concluded that President Bush was a "formidable politician" the first time he saw him speak on television, but predicts that the high court ruling that ended the 2000 election deadlock will "go down in history as one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court ever made."
Clinton's memoirs, "My Life," which went on sale at midnight, are filled with rueful commentary on the 2000 election, Bush's success and what Clinton believes was Democrat Al Gore's failure to effectively run on the administration's record or enlist his help. Clinton said he could have helped Gore win Arkansas, which would have been enough to give Gore victory, and compared the high court's decision ending the Florida recount to the Dred Scott slavery case as similarly motivated by a politicized and "reactionary" court.
Clinton's own legal battle with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr accounts for one of the book's more peculiar revelations. In his August 1998 grand jury testimony, Clinton said he began an inappropriate sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky in "early 1996." His testimony, as was widely noted at the time, was in conflict with Lewinsky's story: She testified the relationship began on Nov. 15, 1995, in the midst of a government shutdown.
Starr's prosecutors, in their report to Congress, accused Clinton of lying about the date of their relationship in order to avoid admitting that he had sexual relations with an intern, as Lewinsky still was in the fall of 1995 before being hired for a paying job in the winter.
Without explanation, in his memoir Clinton departs from his grand jury testimony and corroborates her version: "During the government shutdown in late 1995, when very few people were allowed to come to work in the White House, and those who were there were working late, I'd had an inappropriate encounter with Monica Lewinsky and would do so again on other occasions between November and April, when she left the White House for the Pentagon."
Clinton aides yesterday said they could not explain the discrepancy, and his attorney, David Kendall, was traveling and did not return a call.
In a long, sometimes diary-like review of his presidency, Clinton issues his own verdict on the successes and failures of his presidency. Among the former, he credits his signing of an overhaul of welfare in 1996, and his success in ending the chronic budget deficits and lagging economic growth he inherited upon taking office in 1993.
Clinton's setbacks, however, supply some of the narrative's most arresting passages. These include his account of negotiations he moderated between Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000. Days of talks at Camp David that summer came tantalizingly close to a breakthrough but stalled due to Arafat's reluctance to embrace a deal, Clinton wrote.
A few months later, with weeks left in his presidency, Clinton believed all the most difficult practical issues between the two sides had been solved, but that Arafat "seemed confused, not wholly in command of the facts," and that he ultimately "couldn't make the final jump from revolutionary to statesman" -- what Clinton calls "an error of historic proportions."
He recounts his frustration that Osama bin Laden was not killed despite what Clinton calls persistent efforts to find him. He also acknowledges that his failure to take action in 1994 to stop genocide in Rwanda "became one of the greatest regrets of my presidency."
One of the book's recurrent themes is what he calls an orchestrated right-wing campaign to destroy him personally as punishment for his success politically. Clinton recounts a conversation with an aide to former president George H.W. Bush in July 1991, as Clinton was weighing a race for president the next year.
According to Clinton, Bush domestic policy adviser Roger Porter -- with whom he has worked on education issues -- told him that Clinton was the most threatening potential candidate to Republicans, and that Bush operatives had assigned Porter to send a message: "Here's how Washington works. The press has to have somebody in every election, and we're going to give them you. . . . We'll spend whatever we have to spend to get whoever we have to get to say whatever they have to say to take you out. And we'll do it early."
Porter, now on the faculty at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, did not return telephone message and e-mail messages yesterday seeking comment.
In another revelation, Clinton said that current Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- who in 1993 served as chairman of Clinton's Joint Chiefs of Staff -- told him recently that he would never have approved a manhunt for Somali warlord Mohamed Aideed if he had known the raid would be conducted in daylight. A firefight in Mogadishu killed 18 Army Rangers, one of whom was dragged through the street by a jeering mob, and was a searing national security debacle for a new administration.
One of his era's most skilled politicians does not shed much light into his political operations. Dick Morris, the consultant for Clinton's 1996 reelection, whose influence and poll-obsessed tactics have figured prominently in Clinton-era memoirs by former senior adviser George Stephanopoulos and former labor secretary Robert Reich, gets only a few mildly worded references for his White House role. Pollster Mark Penn, a top adviser both to Clinton in his second term and, later, to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), gets two references.
Clinton is as popular with Americans today as he was when he left office three years ago, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. More than six in 10 Americans -- 62 percent -- said they approved of the way Clinton handled his job as president -- 15 points higher than his successor's current approval rating and roughly equal to Clinton's standing when he left office in January of 2001. But Clinton still divides the country sharply along partisan lines. Nearly nine in 10 Democrats -- 85 percent -- approved, but barely a third of Republicans were similarly positive.
The story of Bill Clinton's winding life -- full of successes and surprises -- begins in Chapter One with a winding sentence: "Early on the morning of August 19, 1946, I was born under a clear sky after a violent summer storm to a widowed mother in the Julia Chester Hospital in Hope, a town of about six thousand in southwest Arkansas, thirty-three miles east of the Texas border at Texarkana."
The book's initial pages are full of familial anecdotes. Clinton tells how his father, William Jefferson Blythe Jr., the son of a poor Texas farmer, met his mother, Virginia, when she was working as a nurse. Blythe was dating a woman who had a medical emergency. Virginia caught his eye, and he dropped the other woman. Blythe married Virginia, then Blythe went off to World War II. After the war, the couple moved to Chicago. Virginia returned to Hope while pregnant with Bill. One night, while he was driving from Illinois to Arkansas, Blythe went off the road in Missouri. He drowned in a ditch.
Clinton writes of learning, in a 1993 Washington Post story, that his mother was probably Blythe's fourth wife. And Blythe was the father of two other children that Clinton had known nothing about.
His boyhood home in Hope, he writes, "is the place I associate with awakening to life -- to the smells of country food; to buttermilk churns, ice-cream makers, washboards, and clotheslines; to my 'Dick and Jane' readers, my first toys, including a simple length of chain I prized above them all; to strange voices talking over our 'party line' telephone; to my first friends, and the work my grandparents did."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Bill Clinton writes in "My Life" that he had an "inappropriate encounter" with Monica S. Lewinsky earlier than the date he gave in grand jury testimony.
(David Duprey -- AP)
Live, 12 Noon ET: The Post's John F. Harris, White House correspondent during the Clinton presidency, will discuss the former president's new memoir.