Peter Mansbridge interviews former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
CBC News Online | August 6, 2004
Former U.S. presidents tend to step back from the daily cut and thrust of politics when they leave the White House. Not Bill Clinton. His partisan speech at the Democratic Party Convention in July 2004 reminded the world that Clinton may be out of the Oval Office but he remains fully engaged. On Aug. 5, before he began a marathon book-signing at a Toronto bookstore, he sat down with Peter Mansbridge and was candid in his criticism of the current Bush administration. Especially its handling of the war on terror.
Peter Mansbridge: Mr. President, welcome to Canada. Latest stop on the book tour. Is your signing hand getting a little tired yet?
Bill Clinton: Not yet. Every now and then I have to ice it down but it's doing all right.
Peter Mansbridge: They tell me you hand-wrote the book.
Bill Clinton: I did.
Peter Mansbridge: The long-lost art of handwriting is not a problem for Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton: I wrote it in, I think, 21 notebooks, something like that.
Peter Mansbridge: I want to ask you about a couple of things you mention in the book in our time together. I want to start with a story you told about when you were 10 years old, 1956. Your family getting its first television set. And the different things you watched, including the political conventions that summer. And you said, I think the word you use was, you were "transfixed" by watching the political dynamic.
Bill Clinton: I was.
Peter Mansbridge: On television. What I wonder is, now, almost 50 years later, are young Americans, young Canadians for that matter, transfixed by the political process?
Bill Clinton: I don't know. I think that, you know, there is a lot more competition for their interests. They have a lot more sources of information. The press coverage tends to be a lot more critical today. But I would hope that they would be. One of the reasons I wrote this book is to show people that politics is an honourable vocation. That most people, whatever their political views, honestly believe what they say and try to do what they say they're going to do. And that there are significant consequences to the way we live.
I got that, you know, but I grew up after World War II. There was not much cynicism. We believed in the system, we believed in our leaders. The press coverage was less cynical. Everything was different. But I was thrilled as a 10-year-old boy watching those conventions. Both the Republican and the Democratic conventions. And interested in it. One of the reasons I wrote this book and one of the reasons I do interviews and book signings is to try to inspire young people to believe that freedom is a responsibility as well as a gift. And a great opportunity to have a more interesting life. But you have to be aware, you have to know what's going on, you have to participate.
Peter Mansbridge: Why don't you think they seem to be buying into that? Your country has seen a drop in the turnout rate. So has this country. Significant drop.
Bill Clinton: Well, I think part of it is the success of our countries, you know. People think things are going to be all right regardless. And so it doesn't matter as much if they vote. And part of it is in growing cynicism. People think... they believe politicians aren't all that different, may not be straight, and there are no consequences. That is largely a function of changing press coverage. Because at least... all I can tell you is in my country, I think politics is more honest than it was 30 or 40 years ago but people think it is less honest.
Peter Mansbridge: Why is that?
Bill Clinton: Different press coverage. And basically the atomization of the press in America. We don't have three big networks now. We have four big networks and lots of cables. Lots of different competition and when you balkanize the press coverage and cut it up and everybody is trying to get a little angle, a little of this and the other, if you are not careful it becomes more negative because it is necessary to be more sharp to get your segment of the market to listen to your view.
Peter Mansbridge: Is it fair to blame the messenger on this one?
Bill Clinton: No. I'm not blaming... I'm actually not blaming them. I don't think there is any way they can avoid... I think that you know Vietnam and Watergate and all that tended to make the media skeptical of people in power and the prospect of abuse of power. But I think it got overdone in my country. But I think largely I don't mean to blame, I think it largely has been the changing nature of the competition.
I think the segment... the increasing segmentation of the media has led to greater competition and has required a certain sharpness that may be entertaining in the moment, but the cumulative impact of it may be for people to think politicians are either less honest or less committed or less hardworking than they are, or that the work itself is less serious than it is.
And I actually, though, believe it is shifting back. I think the media, for example, since 9/11 in America, has tended to be... it's not that they're never critical anymore, sometimes they're critical of President Bush, sometimes they're critical of things I did as president, but there is a more serious tone to it, a certain gravitas that shows politics matters again and I think there has been a lot of interest among citizens in this campaign in our country.
When I ran in '92, I felt this. It was the only time since the 18-year-olds got to vote in America that a majority of 18- to 21-year-olds voted. I believe in this election, 2004, a majority of young people will vote again. So I'm hopeful that the combined effect of all these events has convinced people politics matters again.
Peter Mansbridge: Let me talk about the election underway in your country now. We just finished one as you know. The ballot question seemed to be, the question people had on their minds when they went in to vote, was who do you trust? Who do you trust to protect the values you see as important to your country? What's the ballot question that is shaping up for this fall in your country?
Bill Clinton: I think there are two questions. One is who would do the best job of leading America in this new era in terms of our challenges at home? I think a majority have already answered that. In Senator Kerry's favour. The second question is, but can we afford to change leadership in the war against terror and in the ongoing management of the issue in Iraq, which are two different things, we now know the 9/11 commission has said that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11.
Peter Mansbridge: How difficult is that second question to answer?
Bill Clinton: Well it... I don't think it is difficult if Senator Kerry and the rest of us who support him can speak with some clarity to it. If people will listen to it. But it is an enormous psychological advantage for the president to just say, well, whether you agree with everything I've done or not, the most important thing we are dealing with is national security and we have these ongoing terrorist threats, so you don't want to change horses in the middle of the stream.
Well, you know, we're gonna have a terrorist threat four years from now. Should we repeal the 22nd Amendment [which limits presidents to two terms]? There is not a single example since World War II of a president who neglected his national security responsibilities and John Kerry has got not only a sterling record as a military officer but also 19 years in the Senate of serious dealing with a lot of our national security issues. So there is really no concern there but I understand how people feel that.
So, I think he has to speak quite clearly to what he would do, he made a good beginning at the convention, he talked about increasing the size of the army, stiffening our efforts against al-Qaeda and bin Laden and involving the world community more in trying to manage the Iraq business. That's a beginning. But it's gonna be a long struggle. It is going to be a close campaign probably till the end. It could break a lot at the end but it's going to be close all the way to the end.
Peter Mansbridge: Are you saying when you say that, not surprisingly, that you support the Kerry-Edwards ticket as you showed in your speech at the convention, are you also saying that George Bush does not deserve another term?
Bill Clinton: No. That's the judgment for the American people. I am saying I disagree with him profoundly. About the role of government in our lives in America. And what our policy should be. And about how we should be relating to the rest of the world. And the American people have to decide whether they agree or not.
What I don't want them to do is to cast the vote without knowing how clear the differences are between what our party believes and what theirs believes. I mean, I disagree with giving me and other very wealthy Americans a tax cut. And running a huge deficit. Borrowing the money to cover the deficit from the Social Security taxes of working people and borrowed money from the Chinese government. I think that's crazy.
I disagree with paying for it by kicking poor children out of their after-school programs and kicking uniformed police officers off the street at a time when they're our first responders in the conflict against terror. I disagree with the idea that he's... we should promote economic growth by weakening our environmental protections on everything from land conservation to clean air. I disagree with that.
Peter Mansbridge: Do you disagree on Iraq? The question some see as a ballot question issue.
Bill Clinton: It is. But I think the real question is what are we going to do now? I disagreed with attacking them before the UN inspectors had finished their jobs.
Peter Mansbridge: That's not to say that you wouldn't have... wouldn't have attacked...
Bill Clinton: If Hans Blix had said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and won't give them up or if Hans Blix, the UN inspector, had said, I will never be able to certify because he won't co-operate, then I would have supported attacking, strongly. So I would have voted for that resolution in the Senate to give him the authority. But the whole idea was, the whole premise for those of us who cared about weapons of mass destruction, was that we didn't know.
Keep in mind I bombed Saddam Hussein four days in '98. I didn't know whether we got rid of all that stuff or not. But I thought there was a serious chance he had weapons of mass destruction. He did in '95 when his sons-in-law defected. They told us what he had. We uncovered huge stashes of this stuff.
Peter Mansbridge: I don't mean to interrupt but what if Hans Blix had said, "I can't see any evidence of weapons of mass destruction?" Would you have believed him over your own intelligence agencies?
Bill Clinton: Yeah, I would have. It's not a question of believing him over the intelligence agencies. But the intelligence was ambiguous on the point, really. The British intelligence had all that business about him having yellow-cake to use to make a nuclear weapons from Niger, but the CIA told the White House it wasn't true. So I would have. Basically, I certainly would have believed it enough to put it off and try to build more support. I mean what was the hurry?
Look where we are now. We just had this big threat in America, right? The big threat to the financial centres of the country. Based on four-year-old information. Now, who is the threat from? Iraq? Saddam Hussein? No. From bin Laden. And al-Qaeda. How do we know about the threat? Because the Pakistanis found this computer whiz and got his computer and gave it to us so it could be analysed.
Why did we put our number 1 security threat in the hands of the Pakistanis with us playing a supporting role and put all of our military resources into Iraq, which was, I think, at best, our number 5 security threat. After the absence of a peace process in the Middle East, after the conflict between India and Pakistan and all the ties they had to Taliban, after North Korea and their nuclear program.
In other words, how did we get to the point where we got 130,000 troops in Iraq and 15,000 in Afghanistan? It's like saying… OK, our big problem is bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We now know from the 9/11 Commission, again, that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with it. Right? We now know that al-Qaeda is an ongoing continuing threat, even though when I was president we took down over 20 of their cells, they still had enough left to do 9/11, and since then, in the Bush years, they've taken down over 20 of their cells. But they're operating with impunity in that mountainous region going back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan and we have only 15,000 troops in that country.
Peter Mansbridge: Is that why bin Laden or others haven't been caught?
Bill Clinton: We don't know. But we know one thing, we would have a better chance of catching them if we had 150,000 troops there rather than 15,000.
Peter Mansbridge: Why is it so hard, not just for America but this country has had a couple of thousand people in Afghanistan in support of that operation, why has it been so hard to find bin Laden?
Bill Clinton: First of all, he is a very smart, well-funded, well-organized man with fanatic followers. He and [top lieutenant] Dr. [Ayman] al-Zawahiri are highly intelligent, highly disciplined with good support systems and they're well organized and well funded. Secondly, Afghanistan is a big, rough, mountainous remote country. Alexander the Great died in Afghanistan. This has been going on for over 2,000 years, a lot of the best laid plans of humanity have been buried in Afghanistan. And so it wouldn't be easy to get him under the best of circumstances.
But the point I'm trying to make is we will never know if we could have gotten him 'cause we didn't make it a priority because our... you know, we basically have said to President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, please help us, he said OK. He has changed sides, in effect. He is no longer ambivalent, he is clearly trying to help us.
Peter Mansbridge: The concern you had about Pakistan, no longer?
Bill Clinton: I think he is plainly on our side. He has risked his life and survived two assassination attempts, but the fact he survived two assassination attempts shows you that there are still Pakistanis who are sympathetic with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But we basically are dependant on him to find bin Laden, to find al-Zawahiri, to break in and find the computer people and give it to us because we got all our resources somewhere else in Iraq.
Now to go back to your question about the election, people may agree with that decision. But if they don't, it's hard to make a case that Senator Kerry couldn't be trusted with the national security. On the other hand, I think Kerry's played this pretty smart and done the right thing by not just harping on Iraq, because we are where we are. And President Bush did two things that we wanted done, we Democrats. He gave the sovereignty back to an Iraqi body. There is a schedule of election planned for the end of this year, the first of next year and another one later on in the year. And he asked the United Nations to pass a resolution to assume responsibility for Iraq's future.
So having said that, it seems to me that Kerry's done the right thing by saying it may be four years before we can have substantial withdrawal of troops, and the whole world has a stake in this enterprise succeeding. That is, if there were an internal disintegration of Iraq it would become a dangerous place and we would, in effect, dishonour the sacrifice of the Americans who have died there and the Iraqis who have died.
If it can be made into a stable representative country, which can be secure, where they can protect themselves, then it's a good thing. Everybody in the world has that, so I think that's why Iraq can't be such a big campaign issue, but it seems to me it is a legitimate issue if you say, well, can John Kerry be trusted to fight the war on terror? Whether as a military proposition it was wise to make all these commitments in Iraq and, in effect, contract our security out to the Pakistanis in Afghanistan, and with bin Laden and al-Qaeda, which is unquestionably what's happened. That's why there are so many military leaders for Kerry, by the way, including a lot of open Republicans who still endorse Kerry.
Peter Mansbridge: I'm out of time but I want to ask one last question. It relates to this and touches back to a story, an anecdote you tell in the book about your early years in Washington when you were working as an aide to Senator [J. William] Fulbright. You talk about moving material back and forth to the Foreign Relations Committee, the envelopes, marked secret and confidential. I want to ask you whether you are allowed to open those, but you did open them and read them.
Bill Clinton: I did. I had security clearance so it was permissible for me to read them. I didn't open them in the middle of transporting but when I loaded them I sometimes read them and I was permitted to do so because I had a clearance.
Peter Mansbridge: The question I have is, they made a great impact on you because what you read was not what the American people were hearing.
Bill Clinton: That's correct.
Peter Mansbridge: About the Vietnam War. At the time of a Democratic government, [Lyndon} Johnson. I'm wondering now how much do the American people really know about 9/11? How much do they really know about what happened in Iraq and what continues to happen in Iraq? And the fight on bin Laden? Is the same situation possible now as was possible, that you saw yourself in, I guess, '68?
Bill Clinton: Well, first of all, what I saw in those classified documents that I carried showed that the war in Vietnam was not going as well as the government was asserting. However, fairly close on the heels of that information, there were American journalists and global journalists in the field in Vietnam saying exactly what the material I saw said. So now I believe if you read the 9/11 Commission report, it appeared to me to be factually accurate about what was going on.
We have had the man who was responsible for a lot of our anti-terror efforts in the first president Bush's administration and my administration and at the beginning of the Bush years, Richard Clarke, write a book. I read his book with some care. As far as I know it is factually accurate. So I do think we know more.
I was disturbed that as recently as a couple of months ago half the American people still believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. That bothered me. But I think that there was a brief period of time after 9/11 when the press coverage went from being super-cynical and negative to super-supportive and uncritical. From that period, in effect, through the early stages of the conflict in Iraq. But I think my own view is that it is completely understandable. I mean our country, in fact the whole free world, was in a period of psychological shock. It was disorienting. We all wanted to be strong, we wanted to be united, we wanted to defend freedom including the freedom of the press.
We wanted to stand against fanaticism and the senseless murder of innocent civilians, including in New York over 200 Muslims, so I think there was a period there where people didn't know. And we just suspended critical judgment. I did, too. We all did. And I'm not ashamed of it, I'm glad we did that.
But we're sort of back to normal now and I think people have kind of got it but I think that the job of politicians in an election, in my opinion, is to present clear choices to people, as honestly as they can. Obviously you want to make the argument so it works for you, but you still don't want to slander your adversary and say we had honest differences, this is the way I see it, you choose. And if that is done in this election I think people will have a feel for where we are in Iraq and a feel for where we are in Afghanistan.
Peter Mansbridge: Mr. President, I appreciate your time. You remain an optimistic person about the future? At a time when...
Bill Clinton: Absolutely.
Peter Mansbridge: When it would be easy to be a pessimist?
Bill Clinton: I can't look you in the eye and say there would never be a big terror attack in Toronto or another one in America, because we have open societies with people from everywhere, our great joy is our greatest vulnerability. But I can tell you that every day, there are people in Canada and the United States working together, notwithstanding all our political differences, there are all these security people, these law enforcement people, they're working together and they're making headway on this.
No terrorist movement has ever toppled a nation, and is capable of toppling freedom in general. It won't happen. So the most important thing is that we keep our heads about us, and we keep going forward. And we don't do anything dumb to compromise the future of our children and the character of our nations as free societies. But I am very optimistic over the long run. What we've got to do is just try to keep big, bad things from happening. We gotta save as many lives as possible and keep building our defences. Eventually we're gonna prevail. I have no doubt about it.
Peter Mansbridge: Mr. President, thank you very much.
Bill Clinton: Thank you.
Aug. 5, 2004:|
The National's Peter Mansbridge speaks with former U.S. president Bill Clinton (Runs 21:44)
The Current's Adrian Harewood interviews Bill Clinton (Runs 18:20)