Glimpses into behind-the-scenes workings of President Bill Clinton’s White House, as revealed in newly released documents:
For Clinton’s last State of the Union speech in January 2000, aides considered a long list of guests who might be cited in the address and sit near first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Among those discussed: The parents of slain gay victim Matthew Shepard because, an aide wrote, “It gets a hate crime hit.” Nelson Mandela, “since he is retiring.” Irish-American author Frank McCourt, because “with peace in Ireland pending, he might be a good message.” And “possibly someone” from the Columbine High School massacre.
Among those who ended up sitting in the first lady’s box were Atlanta Braves home run record-holder Hank Aaron, former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and Tom Mauser, father of one of the Columbine shooting victims.
During the preparations for the 1999 State of the Union, Clinton told aides he wanted them to focus on realistic proposals on education.
“If we don’t have any money, why are we even talking about this?” Clinton asked aides.
“Do something, because otherwise we’re just whistling Dixie. I couldn’t bear to say those sentences unless we can cite something we’re doing,” he said later.
He also expressed shock that his plan to add 35,000 new teachers was gutted to 1,400. According to a transcript that circulated among aides, he said: “How did that get by and nobody even discussed that with me? I would have had a coronary if I had known that.”
Clinton aides spent substantial energy trying to placate supposedly friendly lawmakers.
A July 1999 memo from deputy assistant Lisa Green warned a colleague about the bruised feelings of Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who was needed to push a White House “new markets” initiative in Congress.
“Apparently, she is very upset about issues which seem to have very little to do with the actual legislation,” said the memo to aide Melissa G. Green. “She is bothered that Gene did not return her call,” it said, apparently referring to top economic adviser Gene Sperling. Also, it said, Velazquez “is upset that the President did not visit New York and that we went to Watts and did not focus on the Hispanic community enough.”
“I think the real problem is that she is looking for a little attention from the White House,” the memo said. “I recommend we have Gene call Velazquez as soon as possible, for the primary purpose of soothing her ruffled feathers.”
Clinton’s unscripted remarks sometimes caused headaches for his staff.
In an August 1999 memo, senior White House adviser Lynn G. Cutler warned a colleague, “You need to be very careful on the Leonard Peltier question.”
Peltier, an activist in the American Indian Movement, was convicted of killing two FBI agents in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Peltier’s defenders sought a pardon, and “unfortunately, the President told the Peltier supporters that he ‘would look into it,’” Cutler said in her memo to Debra D. Alexander. “This is very dicey.”
Clinton did not pardon Peltier.
A previously classified memo to Clinton from Sandy Berger, the president’s national security director, explains why the administration faulted Air Force Brig. Gen. Terry Schwalier for failing to properly secure the Khobar Towers Marine barracks in Saudi Arabia. The outpost was devastated by a truck bombing in June 1996 that killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
In the July 1997 memo, Berger told Clinton that Defense Secretary William Cohen had concluded that Schwalier “failed to proactively support the local commander in protecting his forces.” Berger said Cohen would not files charges against Schwalier “but will recommend that you remove him from the 1995 Major General list.”
By removing Schwalier from the list, Cohen blocked his promotion to major general. Schwalier resigned several days later. But Schwalier disputed the move and in December 2006, the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records sided with him, ordering his retroactive promotion.
In 1993, a longtime black member of Congress was “furious” about the way he was treated by Secret Service officers as he tried to enter the White House for a meeting with the vice president.
Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, “was asked for identification, although his white driver was not,” according to an Oct. 5, 1993, memo from Susan Brophy, who served as Clinton’s deputy director of legislative affairs.
“Furthermore, before Rep. Stokes was allowed in the gate, a K-9 detail searched his car,” the memo said. “Rep. Stokes is understandably furious and believes the search to be racially motivated.”
Stokes, who has a VA medical center named after him in Cleveland, served in Congress for 30 years before retiring in 1998.
At the time of his White House encounter, Stokes was an important Clinton ally on Capitol Hill, serving as chairman of a powerful appropriations subcommittee. Brophy wrote the memo because Stokes was due back at the White House a week later for a photo op with an Ohio mayor. According to the memo, Clinton’s liaison to Congress “spoke at length” about the incident with David Watkins, who was White House director of administration.
“David has taken steps to insure that in the future members of Congress driving into the White House will be admitted expeditiously and will be treated with respect,” the memo says.
The Clinton White House made an aggressive effort to see that the president got credit for an immigration policy that aides believed was tough but fair, and far superior to that of the previous Bush and Reagan administrations.
A document from February 1995 recommended no punches be pulled at a congressional hearing into Clinton’s strategy for patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. Part of the strategy was dubbed Operation Gatekeeper and was being conducted at Imperial Beach in San Diego.
“Describe in graphic, provocative terms the 12-years of neglect and the miserable condition of the federal border enforcement effort upon the arrival of the Clinton administration,” the document says. “Since this is old news, you must employ strong rhetoric to get it in the story.”
The unidentified officials testifying at the hearing were encouraged to use “military metaphors” where appropriate. Recommended phrases included “shut down the free-for-all at Imperial Beach, forced the aliens onto our terrain, using a pincer movement to squeeze them into easily apprehendable patterns.”
In an October 1994 memo, aides Bruce Reed, Michael Waldman and Paul Weinstein offered options for Clinton to consider as he was weeks away from Democrats losing their majority in Congress. Republicans campaigned on a government reform platform and Clinton’s aides wanted Clinton to try to outflank the GOP.
“The president could appoint a kind of bureaucratic bomb squad - an elite group of troubleshooters and investigative journalists who report directly to him,” the aides wrote. “Any time a story breaks about fraud or mismanagement in the bureaucracy, they would move in, get to the bottom of it and report back within days with recommendations.”
An April 1995 memo by the communications director at the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal work force, described the agency’s ability to limit publicity about embarrassing data showing disproportionately high firings of minority workers.
The note by Janice Lachance notes that in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by journalists, the agency released figures showing that in 1992, minority federal workers were discharged at 3.1 times the rate of non-minorities. Those figures got slightly worse in 1993 and 1994, the memo said.
“Because the statistics are not improving, OPM has worked to limit discussion and media coverage of this issue to fiscal year 1992 statistics,” Lachance wrote. “We have been successful to date.”
A Sept. 16, 1993, memo from Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., warned Clinton about what to expect as the president prepared for a speech that evening to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, of which Richardson was a member.
“The dinner will be replete with boring political speeches,” Richardson wrote.
Richardson said Clinton should thank the caucus for the 70 percent support Clinton received in the 1992 election from Hispanics, and discuss the benefits of his proposed health care overhaul to Latinos, who were heavily uninsured.
“Plug it hard,” Richardson advised.
Clinton’s health care plan died in Congress for lack of support.
Letters show Clinton’s team dealing with various concerns related to peacekeeping efforts in Somalia before and after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu that killed 18 U.S. soldiers. On Oct. 5, 1993, a day after the attack ended, the White House suggested getting the secretaries of state and defense to speak with Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd to prevent him from cutting off money for the mission.
A memorandum for the chief of staff later that month notes the widening perception that the Clinton administration “lacks viable foreign and security policies,” citing dissonant statements by officials on Haiti, Bosnia and Somalia. Difficulty in communicating foreign policy objectives “has had a domestic spillover,” the note warns, citing the possibility of a defeat of the North American Free Trade Agreement and attention diverted from health care reform. The free trade agreement would pass; health care wouldn’t.
In an April 1997 memo, national security official Joseph Bouchard warned a White House staffer to “go slow” on the planned promotion of Gen. Wesley Clark to head the U.S. European Command because other NATO officials might oppose him. Bouchard told White House official Robert Bell that Clark had little previous military experience in Europe and warned that a “premature announcement that creates the appearance of slighting the North Atlantic Council could cause a negative reaction in Europe.”
Clark was nominated to the post three months later and went on to lead NATO in its two-year conflict with Yugoslavia in Kosovo.
As Clinton prepared for his 1998 State of the Union address, his advisers clashed on plans to name a commission to review the future of Social Security.
White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who more than a decade later would chair a bipartisan budget review, joined Ron Klain in opposing bipartisan co-chairs of a Social Security commission. They favored involving outside groups such as the Concord Coalition or the Pew Foundation but not veteran lawmakers.
There was quite a bit of politics in choosing leaders. The White House budget office, for instance, said “Sam Nunn might resent your choosing (Warren) Rudman and not him.” Nunn, a Democrat, had served as one of Georgia’s senators for four terms and Rudman, a Republican, as one of New Hampshire’s for two terms.
Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Philip Elliott, Richard Lardner, Stephen Ohlemacher, Alan Fram, Stephen Braun and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.
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