'A Much Fuller Understanding'

Of all the current candidates for president—or, for that matter, just about anyone who's ever made the race—Hillary Clinton is most intimately acquainted with the powers and pressures of the office. She is, after all, the first First Lady to try to follow in her husband's footsteps. How would her unique experiences, both during the Clinton administration and afterward during her time in the Senate, inform a possible Clinton presidency? Senator Clinton spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Darman about mistakes she's made, lessons she's learned—and how she would lead. Excerpts:

DARMAN: As someone who's watched a president up close, what do you understand that the rest of us can't know?
CLINTON:
I can only tell you both my perspective and my experience. It is very important for a president to seek out information from a wide variety of sources. I seek out people who are not only able to come with some expertise or relevant experience, but are willing to debate and discuss differences of opinion. Sometimes it surprises people to see how seriously I seek out that kind of debate. Obviously, I can't know every nook and cranny of what a decision might mean. I want people to try to reach a consensus, but if a consensus is not easily available, I want to know all sides of the issue. And finally, at the end of the day, I have to make decisions. I feel very comfortable, once I have decided, taking responsibility for that decision. It's not anybody else's decision once I've made it. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong.

You say that to effect change, you have to work within the system. Did you and President Clinton fully grasp that when you first came to Washington, or was it something you learned over time?
It certainly is something I had to learn. I have a much fuller understanding of the dynamic between the White House and the Congress, no matter who's the president or who's the leadership. I would be the first to tell you I was not as aware of that and as understanding 15 years ago. I think, also, there is a learning process that goes on with respect to both substance and presentation of difficult decisions that I feel much more familiar with and, you know, in command of than I was before.

Everyone says how they're going to do a better job than Bush of reaching out to the opposition and the Congress. Who are some of the Republicans you can pick up the phone and talk to?
It would depend on the issue. If I were concerned about defense or foreign policy, I would talk to Republicans [such as] John Warner and John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins. I don't always agree with their perspective, but I find it very important to hear and try to factor in my thinking. On health and human-services kinds of issues, Mike Enzi's been a partner. Again, we don't always agree, but I believe he's trying to do what he thinks is right. If it's on environmental issues, it could be as unusual [a] pairing as Jim Inhofe [or] George Voinovich, whom I've worked with trying to cut diesel emissions. Obviously, I have a great deal of respect for Dick Lugar and Gordon Smith. I am more than willing [to work with them].

Is it easier for you to trust Republicans and empathize with them since you've been a senator than it was beforehand?
I think that goes both ways. Trent Lott famously said that after I was elected, lightning would strike. [But] he and I worked together. I backed him for what he was trying to do after Katrina because I thought it was the right thing to do, and it was reminiscent painfully of what we have gone through trying to help New York after 9/11. If you had said to me eight or nine years ago that I'd be working with Trent or Lindsey or a lot of these folks, I would think you're probably a little cross-eyed.

What goes through your head right before you have to fire someone?
I'm sorry it didn't work out. I wish the person well because I think I can say 99.9 percent of the people I've had to deal with that unfortunate action are good people, hard-working people. It just wasn't a good fit.

Do you feel bad afterward?
I feel bad. We obviously try to find a better opportunity for anyone we have to let go.

For the past 15 years, your critics have accused you of being ambitious and power-hungry. Do you think people would have an easier time with you once you're president and your power is indisputable?
I don't take that seriously. I don't know anyone in the U.S. Senate who hasn't been motivated. You're not sitting around eating bonbons and you get a call saying, "You're starting on January 3rd."

What mistakes have you made as a senator?
I think there's always room for improvement. It's hard to get used to what has become the pattern of the administration, which is that they basically mislead people. When I negotiated with the White House over an expert panel to figure out what we needed to do to protect the health of residents and workers downtown after 9/11, I held up the nomination of Mike Leavitt, because, in the minority, we had very few levers to pull. And they said, "Look, we'll put together this panel and we'll work on it." So we did, and it met and it made recommendations—all of which were ignored. I want to deal with people in an upfront, forthright way. If I tell you I'm going to set up an expert panel that is going to look at serious health and environmental-health issues, we may not agree on what comes out of it. But once I say I'm going to do it, I will do it. In-your-face contempt on both sides of the aisle for the process has been very destructive for our government. I believe in checks and balances and separation of powers. We are stronger when we're looking for ways to make progress together. I believe in evidence-based decision making, not ideological bases.

Do you think, like President Bush, that operating in a post-9/11 world enhances the president's authority?
I think that a president does have enhanced authority at such a time. We have one president and one commander in chief at a time. But it's almost as though [President Bush], particularly pushed by the vice president, had this model in mind of unaccountable power. And I don't think that's within the framework envisioned by the Founders.

So you can't imagine any scenario in which a Hillary Clinton presidency says the global terror threat is justification for denying congressional oversight?
This is something you can't answer in a hypothetical. You can operate to protect the security of our country within a constitutional framework with appropriate oversight. It may not, for security reasons, always be open and public. But it should certainly be organized and regularized.

What's the biggest difference between your thinking on the use of American force now and 15 years ago?
I have always believed that American force was there as the strongest tool in our toolbox for leading the world and pursuing American national interest. I supported the first gulf war, not that anybody really cared about my opinion. I supported my husband going into Bosnia and Kosovo. But I think that the combination of the threat of military force backing up coercive diplomacy is a very strong position for the United States to be in, and it has been unfortunately undermined by the president's actions in Iraq. There are a lot of lessons of what not to do, following this president. [There are] more lessons to be learned looking at his father and the coalition he put together in the first gulf war, and looking at what my husband did putting together the NATO coalition to deal with [Slobodan] Milosevic and Europe.

What about the biggest difference between Hillary Clinton, the decision maker of today, and Hillary Clinton, the decision maker of 15 years ago?
I have a much deeper understanding of what American leadership at home and abroad has to mean for the 21st century. I am much more experienced in dealing with my own government and understanding both its potential and its limitations. I believe that my commitment to issues that I care deeply about is just as strong as it was not only 15 years ago, but 35 years ago. My commitment and understanding of the process that has to be pursued in order to make change in America is just much greater than it would have been in the past.