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Released documents reflect strategies, debate within the Bill Clinton White House

President Bill Clinton with Vice President Al Gore and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich at Clinton's State of the Union address in 1995. (AFP/Getty Images)

As the Clinton White House pushed its doomed attempt at health-care reform in the early 1990s, two White House aides candidly described a two-day public hearing on the issue as a political event aimed at inoculating the administration from criticism, according to new documents released Friday.

Alexis Herman and Mike Lux, who worked as public liaisons at the time, wrote in a memo that the “primary goal” of the hearing in March 1993 “would be to inoculate ourselves from charges that we are refusing to listen to all those groups out there that want input.”

“Even though our primary goal is political inoculation, we should not lose the opportunity for some public education,” they wrote. “Some testifiers should be average people with horror stories, middle class families worried about the future, and senior citizens. These average people should testify during those periods when we believe more people will be watching.”

Herman later served as President Bill Clinton’s labor secretary.

The memo was part of about 4,000 pages of internal memos, speech drafts and other documents released Friday by the Clinton Presidential Library, the second batch in a series of secret records being made public for the first time. As many as 33,000 pages of previously withheld records are expected to be released in coming weeks.

Although the documents released so far have not contained major new revelations, they have drawn intense scrutiny given Hillary Rodham Clinton’s possible presidential campaign in 2016. The cache of records released two weeks ago detailed the meticulous and intense efforts by the then-first lady’s aides to manage her political image in the run-up to her 2000 Senate campaign.

The documents released Friday shed light on White House strategy and decisions in areas ranging from health-care policy to national security to the official state visits of foreign dignitaries.

Among the highlights:

●The memos show how Bill Clinton and his advisers disagreed on how to respond politically to the thumping that Democrats took in the 1994 midterm elections, which returned Republicans to power on Capitol Hill.

In a memo to aides drafting Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address, adviser Paul Begala wrote that he didn’t want the president “making fun” of the loss “or suggesting it was because of him we got creamed.”

He noted that adviser James Carville disagreed: “He thinks it’ll be effective self-deprecation; I’m concerned it could look like a white flag of surrender.”

In a January 1996 memo, Begala urged the president to use his upcoming State of the Union address to strongly defend Hillary Clinton from GOP political attacks. “I think it’s imperative that the President defend the honor of the First Lady tonight, with the whole country watching,” he wrote.

●In the heat of Al Gore’s challenge to his loss in the 2000 presidential election, top House aide John Lawrence — who has worked for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) — sent the following to a White House aide:

“Who the hell wrote Gore’s speech last night?! Aaaarrrrgggghhh!”

●As Bill Clinton prepped for his 1999 State of the Union address, he went back and forth with staff about what percent of the surplus should be set aside to keep Medicare solvent and how much would be needed to create a prescription-drug benefit program.

“Can’t say an ass-pocket full of money, can you?” Clinton said, according to a transcript of the discussion. “Even though it’s real money, even here. Even for these turkeys.”

●The documents include an admission by Clinton’s CIA director, George Tenet, that he couldn’t bring himself to oppose a lawsuit aimed at forcing the government to disclose how much it spent on spying because he didn’t believe doing so would cause any harm to American espionage.

In a 1997 document, Tenet said that defending the lawsuit would have required him “to sign a declaration to the court that release of the figure in question could cause serious damage to the national security. I found that, in good conscience, I could not attest to that statement.”

A lawsuit filed by the Federation of American Scientists forced disclosure of the $26.6 billion spent on spying in 1997. But the government reverted to keeping the figure secret in 1999, before resuming the release of annual intelligence budget totals in 2007.

Last week the Director of National Intelligence revealed that the intelligence community had requested $45 billion for the upcoming fiscal year.

●A note released alongside a document about increased security at airports discusses the possibility of finding a “prominent Muslim” to help the administration make its case.

“Send a Muslim!” the note says. “This effort will get us to the real issue of ‘terrorism’ vs. a perceived issue of religion. (Muslims against us and vice versa.) Recommend — tasking State to find a prominent Muslim associate.”

Colby Itkowitz and Greg Miller contributed to this report.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.


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