'Life Is Fleeting, Man'

Former president Clinton works out of a building on 125th Street in Harlem whose other tenants include housing, Social Security and welfare services. His 14th-floor office--lined with historic photographs and political mementos dating back to the 18th century--has a nice 10-window view looking south toward Central Park. Clinton sat down with NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Alter for his first interview about life after the presidency. Excerpts:

ALTER: What was the hardest adjustment?

CLINTON: For 27 years, my life was always organized around politics and public service. Most of those years I was in office. And the two times I was defeated, I was quickly running again. So the thing I missed most was the work.

I loved going to Camp David and all the trappings of the presidency, but I was happy to give them up because I never thought I was entitled to them for life.

And frankly, I was glad to get my life back a little. It was quite interesting to me to do things I hadn't done in a long time. I could go downtown [in Chappaqua] and shop. I could go to a bookstore and buy books. I could go to my local deli and get to know people there. I hung 200 pictures in our house in Chappaqua.

I used to sit there the last year in the White House thinking, "Am I going to wake up every day for the rest of my life when I leave here feeling utterly worthless or feeling that there's nothing to do? Or will I enjoy this?" And so far, I've had quite a grand time.

How low did you go in the months just after you left?

I was just angry that after I worked so hard and after all that money had been spent proving that I never did anything wrong for money, that I'd get mugged one more time on the way out the door. People are free to say that they disagreed with this or that part of the decisions I made, but there wasn't a shred of evidence that it had been done for any improper motive. In fact, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. I thought there was a little bit of a double standard in the way I was treated, to put it mildly. And I still do.

If you had to do it all over again, would you pardon Marc Rich?

Probably not, just for the politics. It was terrible politics. It wasn't worth the damage to my reputation. But that doesn't mean the attacks were true. The fact that his ex-wife--I didn't think they got along--was for it and had contributed to my library had nothing to do with it.

I did it for three reasons. Number one, the Justice Department said they were no longer opposed and they were really for it. Had I not granted it, it would have been the only one they wanted publicly that they didn't grant. Number two, he waived his statute-of-limitations defenses so we can get lots of money from him [in a civil suit, if Rich returns to the United States]. Justice Ginsburg's husband--the tax expert--said he wasn't guilty. And the Justice Department under President Reagan said he was wrongly indicted in the first place. [A claim former Reagan officials deny.] The third thing is, I received a request from the government of Israel. They wanted him and [Jonathan] Pollard, and I considered Pollard an unrepentant spy and I didn't think I could pardon him. And I wanted to do something to support the peace process. Furthermore, [Rich's] main lawyer was Vice President Cheney's chief of staff [Lewis Libby] and they [conservative critics] tried to hide that.

Do you think you were a little more open to the argument, from personal experience, that prosecutors are not infallible?

Absolutely, I do. I do think that I was more vulnerable--look, I don't know Marc Rich and wouldn't know him if he walked in the door there. I was very sensitive to prosecutorial abuse because I had seen it. I don't know that anyone is 100 percent aware of his motives. I don't think that's all bad for a president to be sensitive to any kind of abuse of power.

But Rich was a fugitive...

Look, I'm not justifying the fugitive status. But if we can get a couple of hundred million dollars, whatever it is he allegedly owes, is it in the interests of the United States to recover from him the way we recovered from other people who violated these oil-pricing schemes?

Your brother and brother-in-law were basically selling access to you.

I still don't know what the facts are, except that the evidence is I didn't grant anything [my brother] asked me to grant. I had no idea that [my brother-in-law] was involved in those two cases. Had I known it, I would have turned them down. I was just surprised and disappointed.

It wasn't a great [year] for you, was it?

Well, Buddy dying was by far the worst thing. I've had dogs all my life [he names them from childhood] but I was never so attached to one. Hillary got Buddy for me when she said, Chelsea's going to finish high school and I want you to have a dog. I always went back to Chappaqua and Buddy was there. And you know, he slept on the pad right next to me. We went to bed together, we got up together. I walked him a lot and I jogged with him. I finally got him up to where he could run for two or three miles without stopping.

I'm going to get another one, out of a litter sired by one of his nephews. But [the breeder] is going to train him and housebreak a little bit because I'm gone so much. [The chocolate Labrador, due to arrive in Chappaqua next month, is still unnamed.]

The other stuff was just politics, you know, and one of the things I've learned about this is that the American people have moved on to other things. September 11 was a wake-up call for a lot of people in the press who thought politics was about personal destruction instead of real issues.

I even had a guy in your profession call me and say, "You know, you were talking about a lot of this stuff, the terrorism and stuff, for years and we never paid any attention. We were more interested in other stuff." And he said, "I guess we should pay attention to it now."

The country wouldn't have been as unified after September 11 if you had been president, right?

Oh, I don't know. I think the country would have been unified. I guess the implication of your question is that the far right would never support me or any other Democrat. One of my friends called me the other day and said, if we had a Democrat in there, they would have had a "bin Laden watch" every day. They would have been up there for the last three months just marking off the days [when he hadn't yet been caught].

I don't know that that's true. I'm proud of my party for supporting the president in the fight against terrorism. And I'm proud that we have not tried to take any cheap-shot actions to divide the country.

Through historical fate, you missed the leadership challenge of your generation. It has to be something you've mused about.

I have a totally different view of that. I think 30 years from now when people will look back on it, that the things that we did to deal with the domestic and foreign issues we dealt with--with Russia, with China, with NATO, with NAFTA, in the Balkans, what we did in getting rid of the horrible fiscal problems of the country and a lot of the domestic things we did--I think that it will be just fine. I do not believe this will be viewed 30, 40, 50 years from now in the same light as World War II. And we did a lot of work on terrorism and we've been working on it for years.

That's not to say I don't think this was very important. This is something we'll have to deal with from now on. But if we can keep them from getting weapons of mass destruction, I think we will prevail.

Is there one thing you didn't do that you really wish you had on terrorism?

There is one thing I wish I had been able to do. [In fall 2000] I had two options, OK? We knew more or less where [bin Laden] would spend the night. But keep in mind, we were told he was going to be at that training site [in August 1998] and he left a couple of hours before [the missiles hit]. So what did I have? A 40 percent chance of knowing we could have hit it. But there were a very large number of women and children in that compound and it's almost like he was daring me to kill them. And we know at the same time he was training people to kill me. Which was fair enough--I was trying to get him. I felt it would hurt America's interests if we killed a lot of Afghani women and children and didn't even get him.

The other option is, we train commandos to go in and go after him. But the closest we could get was about 900 miles away on a boat, since we didn't have any basing rights then, and we didn't have anything like the international support that existed after September 11 for overthrowing the Taliban.

President Bush is talking about using the "George Mitchell plan" as the basis for peace in the Mideast. That's basically the Clinton plan, isn't it?

In fairness, there aren't that many options. I think if there's a final settlement it will look pretty much like where we were at Taba [Egypt, in December 2000].

There's a lot of good things going on underneath the radar screen. I still think there's a chance they can get a pretty good interim agreement that will buy us a couple of years of peace. I really believe that. And I think it's really good that [Anthony] Zinni went back.

As you write your memoirs, are the days that you "talk out" your book easier?

I think so. I want this book to be accessible to people, but I also want it to contain the serious ideas that were at the core of my whole public life and especially my presidency. But I don't want it to be too policy wonky. I may even do a series of shorter books when I finish focused on the policies and the ideas and throwing them into the future a little bit. Then I'll take a look at writing a textbook on government with John Kenneth Galbraith, who [is in his 90s but] has great mental acuity.

Mrs. Clinton's book is coming out first. Are you going to read each other's chapters before publication?

We haven't yet. I hope she'll let me read it. But I think both of us feel we shouldn't do it. We're both real busy besides writing a book. And I don't think we want to unduly impact each other's books.

What does that mean?

Well, I don't know. I've always been very influenced by the way she saw the world and the way she thinks and I think she has been with me. We talk a lot but we don't talk much about what we're saying in these books and how we're saying it. I think we kind of want to get through a first draft and then we'll probably let each other read it, although we haven't discussed it. If we didn't, it would be the first time we'd done anything really significant since we met each other that we didn't let each other see.

Why do you think the right wing was so obsessed with you?

I think because I won. I think the people in the permanent right-wing establishment just thought they were entitled to rule. That's why they were so traumatized when I got elected. A bunch of these guys never thought there would be another Democratic president. They thought they'd found a sort of formula to beat us.

[David] Brock [the ex-conservative hit man] says they knew all along that there was nothing to Whitewater and nothing to the Jones case. I think it was just a matter of power. I feel bad for them because I'm going on with my life and they should go on with theirs. Maybe it would be good for the new generation of leaders in our party if they [the right-wingers] stayed focused on me and they miss them, and then [we'd] win a lot of elections.

Why do they still beat up on you when you're not in power anymore?

You know my favorite joke about the guy that falls off the edge of the Grand Canyon? He's falling and he sees this little twig on the edge of the canyon and he grabs it. And the roots start coming out and he realizes he's going to fall again, and he says, "God, why me? I am a good man. I work hard, I pay my taxes, I take care of my family. I'm a good citizen, why me?" This thunderous voice says, "Son, there's just something about you I don't like."

You know, I'm having a really good time, so if they're still concerned about me, I feel bad for them because I think they're wasting a lot of time. Life is short. This is fleeting, man. I'm 55 years old and it seems like yesterday when I was 20.

Do you feel old?

No, I don't feel old, but I realize how quickly all this passed. It seems like just yesterday that I was getting in my pickup, driving in the mountains, in the Ozarks all alone for 12, 14, 16 hours a day, hunting votes, running for Congress in 1974.

It just doesn't take long to live a life. And every day is such a precious opportunity that to waste a day trying to hurt somebody else just doesn't seem to me worth doing.

What have you learned about yourself in the last year?

I'm very much at ease with the life I've had. I made some mistakes I wish I hadn't made. So have most other people. Mine were more publicized than most but maybe that was a blessing in disguise, maybe that will help keep me humble and strengthen me for the rest of my life.

One of the things I've learned that I didn't know before is that I think I can have a happy and full life here not being president. I've learned now that my elective life is basically over, that I'm very glad I did it. I loved it. I loved it. But because I did it full bore, and I gave myself to it and I left it all on the floor, as the basketball players say, I don't have any lingering regrets about that. And I feel very, very much at peace.