Clinton Takes On Louis Freeh and Karl Rove

Roundup: Talking About History

From NPR's 'Morning Edition'(June 24 2004):

Former President Bill Clinton is reopening many of the bruising political debates of the last decade as he promotes his best-selling book,"My Life." The memoir is part confessional, part policy seminar and part political payback. Mr. Clinton sat down for an interview in New York this week with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

It's no surprise that the former president is bitter towards prosecutor Kenneth Starr. The independent counsel's investigation of Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky led to the president's impeachment. More surprising is Clinton's harsh take on former FBI Director Louis Freeh. Clinton appointed Freeh, but the president says that when the FBI chief ran into difficulty, Freeh turned on him.

Former President BILL CLINTON: Pure politics. Once he got in trouble with the Olympic bomber, when they lost some assets in a drug bust, they had the problems with the FBI lab and the press was killing him and the Republicans in Congress were killing him and they blamed him. And I really do think he woke up one day and said there's only one sure way I can get the Washington press and the Republicans off my back and that's if I take a hostile position towards the White House, and he did, and sure enough, next day it was gone. They never said a word about any of those problems again.

WILLIAMS: Would you have been able to fire Louis Freeh? Would you have been more involved if it hadn't been for things like travelgate and Monica Lewinsky? Because if you fired him then, people would have said it might have been political retaliation.

Mr. CLINTON: Well, they certainly would have. But, you know, the travelgate thing was a fraud. But long before the Lewinsky incident, Starr had the FBI looking into my private life. The Washington Post ran a big story on it about how many agents they had, and it was unbelievable. They could have been doing something else that might arguably have had more to do with American security.

WILLIAMS: So you couldn't fire Freeh at that point?

Mr. CLINTON: As long as we were getting cooperation at the highest levels of the FBI on a day-to-day basis on the terrorism issues, I thought that it was more trouble than it was worth.

WILLIAMS: Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who's now in the credit card industry, declined to respond to the president's version of events. I then asked the president about the scandal that haunts his legacy.

You said on"60 Minutes" that you regarded the scandal with Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent impeachment and the trial all as, quote,"a badge of honor," but...

Mr. CLINTON: That's not what I said.

WILLIAMS: What did you say?

Mr. CLINTON: I said that I was responsible for what I had done wrong, both as a person and a president, throughout my whole life and I took responsibility for it, but that the impeachment was illegitimate. Every reasonable historian, constitutional authority, lawyer and prosecutor knew that it was illegitimate. So did Newt Gingrich, and he had already told Hillary they would never do it. Then he said they were going to do it because they could. And I specifically point out a column that Bob Healey, Robert Healey had written in the Boston Globe about how Tip O'Neill could have impeached Ronald Reagan because it came out that he knew about and approved Iran-Contra, which was clearly illegal. And Tip O'Neill didn't do that because there's some things we Democrats don't do just because we can. And he didn't want to put the country through it. So the Republican position is if we impeached him, even if our reasons were invalid, no matter how illegitimate it was, it's still a black mark on him. We did it and might makes right. So what I tried to do is to draw a distinction between my personal mistakes, which I very much regretted, and my willingness, indeed eagerness, to fight impeachment, which I am proud of. But I never said that I wore the mistakes I had made as a badge of honor.

WILLIAMS: One of the joys of your presidency was triangulation, your ability to bridge left and right in this country. But one of the legacies of your time in office is a highly polarized electorate. What can the Democrats do now? I mean, you know, after you left the Democrats have lost the Senate, the House, the White House.

Mr. CLINTON: Yeah, but let me say, first of all, we would have made major, major gains in 2002 but for 9/11. We had a 23-point advantage among undecided voters going into the 2002 elections. That's why Karl Rove made the 2002 election a referendum on the homeland security bill, which was, I think, one of the greatest con jobs ever pulled off on the American people. Basically he was against the bill for eight months, then they decided they're for it and they put a couple of poison pills so it can't pass by Election Day. And 24 hours after they changed their position, if you hadn't changed yours, you know, you've threatened the American security. I mean it was a total hot dog deal. But anyway, they wanted to polarize the electorate along any logical lines. One of the reasons that I was so--such a polarizing figure is I won. Because they really thought they had discovered this little formula that would always beat Democrats. You know, we were weak on defense, we never met a tax we didn't like, we never met a program we didn't love, we, you know, couldn't be trusted to take care of the country, all that kind of stuff. So the more our approach worked, the madder they got and the more they had to go after me personally....

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