Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House - Carol Felsenthal (2008)

Chapter 1. OH, FOR JUST ONE MORE TERM

HOURS BEFORE HE WOULD HAND OVER THE WHITE House to George W. Bush, Bill Clinton was pulling an all-nighter. He was known for sleeping only a few hours a night even during the calmest of times, but this evening, he was outdoing himself.

He would most certainly have run for the presidency again—if it weren’t for the constitutional ban on third terms—and even after the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the humiliating impeachment, he would have won.1 He had survived scandal after scandal since late 1991 when he launched his improbable run at the White House, and yet, when his second term ended on January 20, 2001, his approval ratings hit 66 percent.2 Even Republicans who wondered how such a brilliant, empathetic man could be so lacking in basic morality understood that, as president, William Jefferson Clinton had shown just how good he could be. As president, he had eliminated the deficit, coaxed through welfare reform, and presided over years of peace and prosperity.

Jim Guy Tucker, who had competed with Clinton in Arkansas politics (usually landing on the losing side), succeeded him as governor of the state but ended up in prison, tangled in the Clinton-era Whitewater scandal. Nonetheless, Tucker recognizes that Clinton tops the pyramid of ultragifted politicians. He compares him to all-pro NFL Hall of Famer Lance Allworth, who had played for the University of Arkansas. “These really talented athletes have skills that you and I don’t even think about,” says Tucker. “Their instincts…are just different and I happen to think that there are politicians who have those same unique qualities.” Clinton is one of them.3

Mark Buell, a wealthy San Francisco businessman and generous supporter of Democrats in general and Bill and Hillary Clinton in particular, remembers the president, then in his second term, giving him and his wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, a Sunday-morning tour of the Oval Office. “I love being president,” Clinton said. “I could be president twenty-nine more years.”4

In 1999, Bill Clinton grew wistful at the prospect of moving on: “I confess that I love the job, even on the worst days.” By then, more than a year after the Lewinsky scandal turned the president of the United States into a dirty joke on late-night television, there were plenty of bad days.5

“It was very hard for him to let go,” says Melanne Verveer, First Lady Hillary Clinton’s last chief of staff. “He loved being president. He loved the house. He loved his relationship with the American people. He did not leave easily.”6

Clinton needed to savor the remaining hours, pride mixed with regret mixed with brooding over the beating his reputation had taken after he admitted that, yes, he did have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky, and not only that, he had it just steps from the Oval Office.7 He was obsessed with framing the historic impeachment that followed as a badge of honor—the right-wingers tried to force him out of office and he had held his ground and would serve until the last minute of the last day of his last term.

As happens at the close of every administration—Clinton being Clinton it was happening closer to the close of his—he was wrestling with the question of pardons and who should get them.

That afternoon of January 19, Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson was in Washington for the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting. Anderson was pushing for a commutation of a fifteen-and-a-half-year prison term for Cory Stringfellow of Salt Lake City. A first-time offender convicted of a nonviolent crime—he sold LSD—Stringfellow had served six years and earned a master’s degree while in prison. He was a victim, his parents argued tirelessly, of mandatory minimum sentences.8

President Clinton met with the mayors, and, during the photo op, as Anderson and Clinton were shaking hands, a hundred mayors behind him waiting for their photograph with the president, “I took that opportunity,” Anderson recalls, “to remind President Clinton that we had put in for this pardon and really appreciated his personal attention to it.” Anderson knew this was Stringfellow’s last chance.9

The pardon power, granted to the president in Article II of the Constitution, is subject to no one’s review, not the Congress, not the courts. Clinton could have pardoned—or commuted the sentence of—a serial killer if he so chose. The framers recognized that there would be political repercussions for a chief executive who granted pardons that offended public opinion.

Anderson wasn’t the only one trying to catch Clinton’s attention that last day in the White House.10 His friend Jack Quinn—until 1997, he was Clinton’s White House counsel; before that he was Al Gore’s chief of staff—telephoned him to push a pardon for one of his clients, commodities trader Marc Rich, a billionaire fugitive-from-American-justice.11 Rich had fled to Switzerland in 1983, living there on loot he accumulated by trading arms to Iran. He remained there rather than face charges—brought by then U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani—of tax evasion, racketeering, and trading with the enemy, the latter also covering illegal oil deals with Iraq.12

This was not the first time Jack Quinn had lobbied Clinton. During Clinton’s last weeks in office, the lawyer/lobbyist plied the president with entreaties and documents. Recognizing that the window of opportunity was closing, Quinn wrote Clinton a letter dated January 5, 2001.13 In a final push, Quinn sent two more letters on January 18 and January 19, and, according to Bill and Hillary biographer Sally Bedell Smith, Quinn had a twenty-minute meeting with Clinton early that evening.14

Rich had other advocates who were contacting the president, including Clinton’s friend, then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who, says Quinn, “had appealed to him on not less than three occasions, probably four, to do this.”15 Clinton also received a plea on Rich’s behalf from Ehud Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, now prime minister.16 (Not only did Marc Rich give money to the Israeli government, but at the behest of that government, he gave money to the Palestinians. One friend of Clinton’s says that the Israelis asked for a pardon for Jonathan Pollard, a navy analyst convicted of spying for Israel, “many times, a hundred times.” According to this man’s analysis, Clinton couldn’t give them Pollard, so he listened to their pleas for Rich.)17

The press had been promised the pardon list, but its release time was repeatedly delayed, beyond the last announced time of 9:15 P.M.18

Earlier that last night, at an event in the Indian Treaty Room commemorating all of Clinton’s health-care achievements, Senator Ted Kennedy gave the president a hand-autographed first edition of Profiles in Courage, by Kennedy’s brother and Clinton’s hero, John Kennedy. Ted Kennedy “broke down and cried,” recalls Chris Jennings, a senior health adviser in the Clinton White House.19

The president watched with Hillary part of a David Mamet movie, State and Main; he talked to friends on the telephone; he asked one of them, his master money raiser and hand-holder, Terry McAuliffe, to come over for a final White House visit. McAuliffe ended up spending the night, the two talking as Clinton packed his books to be shipped to Chappaqua, his new home in suburban New York. Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, who with his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, helped the president stage his response to the Lewinsky scandal, also slept over.20

With only hours remaining before his administration ended, the list of 140 pardons and commutations was finally released. On it was a pardon for his younger half brother, Roger, who had pleaded guilty in 1985 to conspiring to distribute cocaine.21

The president, friends say, was teary eyed that night, by turns anticipating his new life—Hillary would be taking her place as the junior senator from New York and Bill would be moving to Chappaqua—and dreading it. He was, in those final hours, replaying the highs and lows of his tenure, believing one moment that he had been a great president and would be so recognized by historians, but in darker moments understanding that impeachment would always mar his standing.

BILL CLINTON is a hedonist, a risk taker who does not worry much about consequences; one of his friends calls him, with sadness in his voice, “narcissistic and reckless.”22 But as he faced the waning hours of the dream of living in the White House, Clinton, that night, could not get out of his exhausted head the price he and the country were paying for his behavior. He knew that even those who insisted that the Supreme Court had stolen the 2000 election from Al Gore, who won the popular vote—and, they argued, would have won the electoral vote had the counting in Florida been allowed to continue—also blamed Bill Clinton. They knew, as he knew, that had their president made the last three years of his second term—the Lewinsky scandal broke on January 21, 1998—about something more elevated than a semen stain on a blue dress and about whether oral sex is sex, Gore would easily have vanquished the inexperienced, inarticulate George W. Bush, whose drunken driving arrest was revealed a week before the election.23

The nightmare was amplified because the relationship between the baby-boomer southerners, Clinton and Gore, had been so complementary. Before Dick Cheney, says Melanne Verveer, “Al Gore had more power and more to do as vice president than any of his predecessors.”24 Gore, who cared about the tiniest details of such issues as the environment and foreign policy, was unusually analytic and Clinton was unusually instinctive; Gore was more intellectual, but Clinton had the interpersonal skills that Gore lacked, and Gore had relationships with people in the Congress—he had served in both the House and the Senate.25 Clinton was famously indecisive, phoning friends for their views and sometimes seeming to go with the opinion of whomever he last woke up. The vice president would put his wingtip down and force Clinton to decide. During the endless meetings over welfare reform, says one man close to Clinton, the president “asked everybody to leave except for Gore and he said, ‘What do you think?’ and Gore said, ‘I think you should sign it.’”26

After Lewinsky, Gore went through the motions of being vice president, but he shifted his attention to running for president, barely mentioning Clinton as he campaigned, and, with very few exceptions, sidelining Clinton.27 Clinton found Gore’s strategy self-defeating and hurtful. Mark Buell remembers an Elton John event for Hillary’s run for the Senate about three weeks before the 2000 election. Clinton was there and people at the event started screaming, “Bill, get out there and start speaking for Gore. He needs you.” Buell was seated with Clinton and recalls him saying, “Well, we haven’t been asked.”28

So long as Tony Coelho, a close Clinton friend, headed Gore’s campaign—Clinton’s Commerce secretary, Bill Daley, replaced Coelho in June 2000—he and Clinton, behind the scenes, talked strategy, two or three times a week, sometimes in the White House. Some in the Gore camp, Coelho says, believed Clinton was a saboteur who secretly wanted Bush to win and to serve eight years. Cheney was too unhealthy to run for president; Hillary would win the Senate seat, run for reelection to prove herself, and then run for president in 2008. When Gore lost, Coelho says, these people felt that outcome was Clinton’s wish all along. In an interview with Tim Russert, Sally Bedell Smith, author of a book on Bill and Hillary’s relationship in the White House, mentioned that early in Bill’s first term, the new president mused about eight years of Hillary following his eight years; i.e., he was playing with the notion of Hillary, not Al, as his successor.29

With Coelho’s exit, those strategy sessions stopped. And they did not restart once Bill Daley took over. That, says Jake Siewert, Clinton’s last press secretary, was a mistake. If Clinton on the stump would have turned off swing voters, as Gore’s people argued, he could have been used as Coelho used him, as one of the world’s greatest political strategists.30 Clinton held Gore’s victory in his hands, says Leon Panetta, Clinton’s former chief of staff, if only Gore had let the master campaign in Tennessee, Arkansas, West Virginia, Florida, and New Mexico.31 Former Democratic National Committee chief Don Fowler calls Gore’s benching of Clinton “the worst self-inflicted political wound I can name.” He calls Gore “self-righteous” and “the biggest Boy Scout I have ever run into in big-time politics.”32

“I think there’s a morality to Al Gore,” says historian and presidential biographer Douglas Brinkley, “and I think that he actually believed in Bill Clinton.” Clinton told Gore that nothing had happened between him and Lewinsky, and Gore believed him. “At that point the Gores became disillusioned that this guy wasn’t honest, that he had a deep character flaw and that they were all now suffering because of it.”33 Also, says Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political scientist and writer, there were “other relationships…that the Gores knew about and…whatever you think of the Gores, they’re a faithful couple and this was not the image they wanted to project.”34

Gore’s ostracizing Clinton left an enormous hole in Clinton’s schedule and his confidence. Clinton was born to campaign, and, says Lynn Cutler, who was Clinton’s deputy assistant for intergovernmental affairs, he was “chomping at the bit” to get out on the hustings.35

By election day 2000, Clinton had higher approval numbers than either Gore or Bush. Clinton was reduced to comforting himself with that and with the knowledge that Gore, whose father, a U.S. senator from Tennessee, had groomed him from birth to be president, had run a comically inept campaign.

Gore, who appeared wooden, programmed down to the color of his shirt, needed Clinton to make the sale. While crowds of people energized Clinton, they depleted Gore, who would have made a great college professor. “I’ll meet Al Gore again for the first time,” jokes Howard Tullman, a Clinton friend who gives generously to the Democrats.36 A top official of the DNC in the Midwest was taking Gore from one campaign event to the next. At the end of the day, Gore tipped him—$2.37

Then came the nightmare of the recount, and Clinton’s belief that he should have been a key player in Gore’s campaign was confirmed; but the recount, which Clinton considered incompetently handled, was painful because nearly everyone in the media raised the “what if”—as in, what if Bill Clinton hadn’t had sex with a twenty-one-year-old intern in the White House.

On December 13, 2000, Gore conceded to Bush. Eight days later, the president and vice president met, at Gore’s request, in the Oval Office. “I’ve heard they had a heated discussion about the campaign and got it off their chests,” says Tony Coelho.38 “A screaming match…filled with profanity” is how Larry Sabato has heard it described.39 Gore blamed Clinton for saddling him with a sex scandal and Clinton blamed Gore for not running on their record.40

Gore’s defeat robbed Clinton of what he wanted most—a “home-run exit,” in the words of Chris Jennings, who worked for Clinton for eight years in the White House.41 Not even Hillary’s clear victory for the Senate could make up for it, even though her win “really was quite difficult,” says Jake Siewert. She had “to convince New Yorkers that she really was on some level a…New Yorker and to take an image that was pretty tarnished in the minds of a lot of swing voters and turn it on its head to become sort of an asset.”42 (A Chicagoan by birth and an Arkansan for most of her adult life, she defined the word carpetbagger.)

Contemplating Hillary’s victory in her first run for any office made Clinton both happy and sad. Hillary was striding toward the spotlight and the gifted Bill Clinton was, by no desire of his own, moving away from it. “She was really gearing up to take the front stage,” says Jake Siewert, “and he was trying to sort out what he would do with his life.”43

Tony Coelho had faced his own problems in public office; a former House majority whip, he resigned from Congress in 1989 in the wake of controversy over profits from a junk bond deal.44 Coelho would tell the president in his waning White House days, “You’ve got to believe in yourself and your abilities…. The country will move on and you’ve got to move on.”45

The advice was good and the president was poised to take it, but move on to what? Among the suggestions he had fielded had been the presidency of Harvard, but, after Lewinsky, feelers put out for Clinton to become a mere visiting lecturer at the school had not been encouraged. (Clinton’s Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, the youngest tenured professor in Harvard history, on the short list to become Harvard’s president, was said to be one of those making inquiries.)46

There was much talk that Clinton would go to Los Angeles to head a Hollywood studio. Leon Panetta recalls not just studio head jobs being dangled, but also opportunities for Clinton to host radio and television talk shows. Both possibilities were on the table. Panetta says that Clinton did not dismiss them out of hand.47 But even such a movie and movie-star fan as Clinton—a “star fucker,” one important Democrat called him—knew such work was not appropriate.48

Others suggested he run to be mayor of New York, a ludicrous idea, even though he once said that the job was the second most important in the world. “I think for a few seconds he considered it,” says John Catsimatidis, chief executive of the food and oil conglomerate Red Apple Group and a major financial backer of the Clintons. Catsimatidis stopped by the White House in December 2000 to make the suggestion. “He didn’t rule it out as foolish the minute it was mentioned.”49

AS HE packed the mementos of his presidency, this normally most optimistic of men knew how difficult it would be to figure out what to do next, and to settle on something that would match the good works of another former president, Jimmy Carter. Aside from raising money for his library—in 1998, he had put that task in the always open hands of Terry McAuliffe—and earning money to pay his legal bills and support his family, Clinton had only the most hazy notion of his future. He knew that it had to be something worthy, something serious, that his natural bent toward good times and late nights would have to be curbed.

Friends say that Clinton, that last night in the White House, was full of regret both for the shrunken expectations of where he would go next and for missed opportunities. He had proceeded full force on a Middle East peace plan, meeting with Yasser Arafat in the Oval Office on January 2, publicly endorsing a Palestinian state in a speech in New York on January 7, but, in the end, he could not close the deal. (Letters he wrote urging each side to continue to push to peace were published in Israeli and Palestinian newspapers on his last day in office.)50

That night and into his last morning, Clinton was busy issuing executive actions; releasing funds to help cities, towns, and suburbs hire more police officers; giving Governor’s Island off Manhattan national monument status; protecting from logging millions of acres of national forests; regulating ingredients in hot dogs, arsenic in drinking water, and lead in paint; and so on.51 “We were doing quite a bit on environmental initiatives that could be done by executive order,” says Jake Siewert. “There was a whole…effort around trying to use the executive order process to cement the legacy.”52 Many of these orders, Clinton predicted correctly, would be undone by Bush as soon as he took office; that, of course, would not have been the case had Al Gore been elected.53

ONCE IT was obvious that Al Gore wanted Bill Clinton out of his campaign and out of his life, Clinton had plenty of free time. For the last year or so, the man whose nightly sleep was about the length of most people’s afternoon naps had hours to fill. He seemed almost lonely. Sometimes the most powerful man in the world needed a playdate. When Bill Daley was still secretary of commerce late in Clinton’s second term, Daley would sometimes receive a call from the president asking him, in effect, to come over and play—to watch a movie or play golf. Daley would have to decline because he was too busy at the office.54

Bill Clinton watched himself become almost an afterthought, a onetime powerhouse of serious policy reduced to spending increasing time on ceremonial or social activities. On March 7, 2000, he received in the Oval Office the Clinton chapter of the American Political Items Collectors. The members had been promised fifteen minutes, but Clinton gave them forty-five. “He took us inch by inch through the Oval Office,” says Phil Ross, the group’s president, “explaining everything there was to explain.”55

Around the same time, former senator and presidential candidate George McGovern and his wife, Eleanor, were spending the night at the White House. The president organized an after-dinner game of “Oh, Hell.” When one of the other guests, Steven Spielberg, boarded his jet to go home, everyone else went to bed except the McGoverns and the president, who escorted the couple to the Lincoln Bedroom. For the next two and a half hours, Clinton told them the history of the room, the people who had slept in it.56

Mike Medavoy, a Hollywood producer and studio head, also spent the night at the White House with his new wife, Irena, and their toddler son. With them was another Hollywood couple, Bud Yorkin—he had executive-produced All in the Family—his wife, Cynthia, and their two children. The president got down on his hands and knees and, says Bud Yorkin, “spent the whole night” playing with the children.57

In September 2000, Clinton invited Chicago supporters Lou Weisbach and his wife to stay in the Queen’s Bedroom. The president kept them up talking until three in the morning. “We had to push him to bed…. We said, ‘You must be so tired. We could talk all night but we’re sure you have something to do tomorrow.’”58

Shortly before Clinton left office, he headlined a fund-raiser at Stefani’s, Chicago restaurateur Phil Stefani’s first restaurant. (Since 1994 Stefani, the son of a baker, had become a close friend of Clinton’s: “He has never left one of our locations without taking a picture with every single individual who works here…. A dishwasher gets a picture with the president and gets to mail it back to Mexico.”) At eleven in the morning, on the day of the fund-raiser, Stefani was summoned to meet the president in his suite at the O’Hare Hilton. Clinton wanted company. As the time approached for the drive into the city, Stefani headed for his car. A presidential aide interceded: “No, he wants you to drive down with him in his car.”59

Two weeks before his term ended, Clinton invited Stefani and his wife for their first Lincoln Bedroom sleepover. They played a Scrabble-like game called Upwords. Hillary was “in the building,” says Stefani, but not playing games. The president got his guests going—Stefani says he’s not much of a game player himself but of course would not have refused, and he listened as the president instructed him on the rules. Clinton then announced, “I have to go and call Arafat and I’ll be back.” At around eleven, he returned. “Oh, you guys are playing this game?” as if it had been their idea. He mentioned that the next morning he had to be out by five to fly to Nebraska, the only state he had not visited during his two terms. “I’d love to play with you, but I’ve got to go to Nebraska tomorrow morning at five, but, you know, I’ll play for a little while.” They played until 2:30 in the morning.60

On January 9, 2001, en route to Chicago for a speech at an elementary school, he was riding in Marine One with Eric Holder, then acting attorney general. Holder recalls the president as “just kind of musing about the fact that he had not been used as much in the campaign as he thought he should have been…. He seemed more hurt…by that and almost struggling to figure out why it had happened.”61

After that speech, he delivered a stem-winder at the Palmer House Hotel. He described the accomplishments of his terms and his desire to be remembered as the “champion of the ‘little people.’”62 He basked in the adoration of what veteran newsman Paul McGrath described as “the great unwashed,” crowds of mostly poor people who had been ushered out of the bitter cold into the opulent, rococo lobby of the historic Loop hotel.63

“I wanted to come here to say goodbye and say thank you,” Clinton said, as some in the crowd booed: “Look, I’ve got a senator to support. I’m not really saying goodbye. I’m just saying goodbye as president.”64

From there, he met some two hundred of his friends and supporters at 437, another Stefani restaurant. Big political names—Jesse Jackson, Mayor Daley, Rahm Emanuel, Dick Durbin, Bill Daley, fresh off the Gore fiasco—were waiting. Diet Coke in hand, Clinton, who would never run for anything again, “worked this room as effectively as I’ve ever seen any politician work anything,” said Chicago Tribune reporter Rick Kogan.65

Clinton talked longest to Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Richard Roeper, who later wrote about it. “It just seems like the pacing of these movies is too slow,” Clinton told Roeper. “I like a lot of the films from these young directors, but I think they should exercise more discipline when they’re editing.” He told Roeper that they screened Chocolat at the White House and in attendance were the film’s director and star. “And I really liked it, but even that could have used a quicker pace.”66

One week before George W. Bush’s inauguration, Bill Clinton greeted friends at Camp David for a final good-bye. Robert Torricelli, then U.S. senator from New Jersey, nicknamed “The Torch” and famous for having dated Bianca Jagger, was among them. “It was a little melancholy,” he recalls, “lots of meals, movies.”67 Also there were Terry McAuliffe and his wife, Dorothy; former studio chief Frank Biondi and his wife, Carol; along with Clinton’s hugely wealthy LA supporters grocery magnate Ron Burkle and Haim Saban, producer of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Saban’s wife, Cheryl.68

McAuliffe, Hillary, and Bill excused themselves to talk to Clinton’s personal attorney David Kendall, about a settlement that would remove the threat, however unlikely, that Clinton’s next home could be a jail cell.

The following Friday, January 19, Clinton’s last day in the White House, his lawyers and aides reached a resolution with Robert Ray, the successor to despised Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr who had pursued the sex charges against the president with what Clinton and his friends saw as a manic, loony, partisan intensity. Until hours before he left office, Clinton had reason to fear that he could be indicted for perjury, for “misleading statements” about Monica Lewinsky in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. (A clerk working for the state of Arkansas, Jones claimed that Clinton, then governor, summoned her to his hotel room, exposed himself, invited her to “kiss it,” and touched her inappropriately. Clinton denied every detail and stated that he did not remember ever meeting her.)

Aides worked overtime to pack the president’s and first lady’s papers in acid-free boxes, destined for storage in Little Rock until the Clinton Library opened. As Clinton sorted through his books and mementos, stopping to tell stories about almost all of the latter,69 reporters had been asking the incoming president, George W. Bush, if he might issue a pardon for Bill Clinton.

The deal struck with the new prosecutor was a relief, but it was also a monumental embarrassment. He had to admit, and admit it while still in office, and with no twisting of the English language that he gave “false testimony under oath.” In another deal, this one with authorities in Arkansas—where he was building his library—also made just under the wire, he kept his law license, but agreed to a humiliating five-year suspension and a $25,000 fine. “I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but I now recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal and that certain of my responses to questions about Ms. Lewinsky were false.”70

THE NIGHT of January 19, 2001, the president took a couple of catnaps but never went to sleep.

The centerpiece of the next morning—the Clintons and Gores hosting the Bushes and Cheneys for coffee—was, Clinton knew, going to be difficult. Clinton could have been posing for triumphant photos with his successor, his vice president, the man whose ascension to the Oval Office was to be Bill Clinton’s legacy, his redemption, a validation of his service. Instead he would have to endure the bitterness of Al and Tipper Gore and turn over the executive branch to the Republicans.