The scene: the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner, April 2000.
Cuing up is the now famous "The Final Days" video detailing how President Clinton is spending his time in the waning days of office.
Cut to press secretary Joe Lockhart, who says, "With the vice president and the first lady out on the campaign trail, things aren't as exciting as they used to be around here. In fact, it's really starting to wind down."
Cut to Clinton standing at the podium in the White House pressroom:
"There's bipartisan support for it in Congress...and at least the principles I set out in my State of the Union. If they send me the bill in its present form, I will sign it. Okay, any questions? Helen? [Then a little desperately] Helen?"
Camera pans over to me sitting in my chair, my head back. I wake up, lift my head, and see the president standing there: "Are you still here?"
A dejected Clinton leaves the podium and the camera follows him out and in the background you hear Frank Sinatra crooning "One More for the Road."
Well, I'm still here. And, in a matter of speaking, so is Bill Clinton. But only one of us is still working at the White House.
And here it is 2001: I've covered eight chief executives so far, and now I'm breaking in a new one. For a while, Clinton was going to be the last, when I decided to hang up my daily news spurs with UPI in May 2000. But hey, someone has to show these people the ropes, and when Charles J. Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers, came calling with an offer to be a columnist, I gratefully said, Why not? After all those years of telling it like it is, now I can tell it how I want it to be. To put another point on it, I get to wake up every morning and say, "Who am I mad at today?"
I also got a call from Lisa Drew at Scribner, who made my book Front Row at the White House happen. She suggested I try another, this time a lighter look at all those presidents who have known me. When a friend of mine heard about the project, she said, "Gee, Helen, do you think these are very funny guys?"
"Well," I said, "I told Lisa it might be a pretty thin book."
Not only did I discover that on the whole, "these guys," their families, and their staffs are indeed a pretty funny lot, but given that they were funny while they were in office, I think it could be described as its own genus of humor: humorata presidentis maybe that's what George W. Bush would call it. There also have been the poignant, the touching, and the sad moments in their lives, the kind that have given the public a human touchstone. Some things that have happened could just as well have happened to a member of your family, a neighbor, a coworker; we should remember that presidents are people, too. They just get to live rent-free for four or eight years, travel in their own aircraft, and have someone else pick up the dry cleaning.
Each president I've covered has also displayed his own kind of humor, from Kennedy's wit to George W. Bush's Middle English. Johnson had the down-home story and the stem-winder; Ford had dry observation and a pratfall or two; Reagan had the impeccable anecdote; Bush senior had his own way of "plain speaking" and a dislike for broccoli; Clinton had great timing and was smart enough to joke about how smart he is; Carter had his comebacks; and Nixon well, I did say it was going to be a pretty thin book.
Humor is a saving grace in the White House. And if a president has a sense of humor even better, wit it goes a long way to lighten the atmosphere and to bring people together for a good laugh.
Of the presidents I covered in the White House, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were the best at deflecting the sometimes bitter acrimony associated with hard-driving politics and at easing the tension. Neither of these two presidents hesitated to use the weapon at their command that gave them an aura of being good-natured and still confident. They had on their side that the public liked and sometimes adored them.
But that didn't mean they didn't cuss out their tormentors and have a few choice profane words for those who crossed them. Even Kennedy had to admit at a news conference that he had said, "My father always used to say that businessmen were SOBs." He said that after Roger Blough, president of U.S. Steel, had gone back on a promise not to raise steel prices.
For choice words that are not spoken in public, listen to the tapes of private conversations of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Self-deprecating humor has come into style in recent years with presidents. It is a surefire winner, especially before press audiences such as at the Gridiron Club, the White House Correspondents Association, and the Radio-Television Correspondents Association dinners. If the joke is on the president, all to the good.
It disarms his usual detractors and conveys a sense of good sportsmanship. In other words, anything for a laugh. But, hey, it works and warms up the crowd with a heavy dose of bonhomie.
How does the saying go? Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone. In the years I covered the White House, there have probably been more somber, grim times to recall. But the humor has always been appreciated. We in the press have not been immune. We have often been the butt of a joke, probably not repeatable. Some, such as LBJ and Nixon, have called us names. President George W. Bush tags reporters with nicknames.
In his wonderful book Humor and the Presidency, Gerald Ford noted there are two ways to become an authority on humor: "The first way is to become one of the perpetrators. You know them: comedians, satirists, cartoonists, and impersonators. The second way to gain such credentials is to be the victim of their merciless talents. As such a victim, I take a back seat to no one as far as humor is concerned."
In the foreword to Humor and the Presidency, Edward Bennett Williams wrote: "Humor is indispensable to democracy. It is the ingredient lacking in all the dictatorships in what seems to be an increasingly authoritarian world. It is the element that permits us to laugh at ourselves and with each other, whether we be political friends or foes."
I couldn't agree more.
When I started to look back, remember, and check my files for this book, I was struck by the sheer number of remembrances, anecdotes, news conferences, press briefings, and by the other millions or so words uttered by presidents, first ladies, aides and the accompanying media accounts which made for some lively reading. I was also prompted to include events that touched the nation, made us shed a tear, left us breathless or just bewildered. I also recalled events that reminded me of the awesome power and responsibility of the presidency and the personal strength and public travails of some chief executives.
As for September 11, 2001 we look back on September 10 as the end of the good old days, when we were carefree and confident, and we thought we were going to live happily ever after. But our world, and everyone else's, has changed, and we may never return to the America we once knew with our essential liberties intact.
I hope we encounter this brave new world with courage and a fierce intention to keep our freedoms and not lose them all in the name of national security. Benjamin Franklin said if we give up our essential freedoms for some security, we are in danger of losing both.
And when all is said and done, let's hope there will be happy times again, more smiles and more laughter in the twenty-first century.
Helping me put it together was a great network of ex-colleagues at United Press International who shared coverage duties with me at the White House and across the country. They all combed their files and their memories (some didn't have to worry about their hair) and sent me a number of stories for inclusion. I thank them all for their generosity and I've named names. I hope I've done right by them.
So, let's settle back and enjoy. After all, as Samuel Butler remarked, "Man is the only animal with a sense of humor and a state legislature."
I am often told how lucky I have been to see history in the making in the White House and to observe our leaders in their triumphs and defeats. All I can say is "Thanks for the memories, Mr. President."
Copyright © 2002 by Helen Thomas
Chapter 8: Bill Clinton
He ran for so many class and club offices that his high school principal had to bar him from campaigning for any more. As the nation's first postwar baby-boom-generation president, he brought a new kind of attitude to the White House, for better or for worse.
He had them rolling in the aisles at the annual Gridiron and White House Correspondents Association dinners. He had the help of writer Mark Katz and others, and occasionally his young, irreverent staffers threw in their nickel's worth.
He was sharp, but Kennedy and Reagan had a better sense of when to dig in with a one-liner. He learned, though, and he showed up courageously, I thought at the dinners when he knew he was going to be lampooned unmercifully at the time of revelations about the Monica Lewinsky affair and of the impeachment proceedings.
Somehow, he was able to take it and give it back. When radio personality Don Imus took crude aim at him at a Radio-Television Correspondents dinner, Clinton didn't flinch.
A tough skin, an inner confidence, and a faith that "this too shall pass" somehow sustained him and his sense of humor. And when he turned self-deprecating, audiences loved it.
His last appearance at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in April 2000 was, to many, the gold standard of such appearances. His "The Final Days" video, depicting him as a powerless lame duck roaming the empty halls of the White House, looking for something to do, chasing after his Senate-campaigning wife with her lunch bag, washing the presidential limousine, clipping hedges, answering telephones, and then hitting on the right combination of how to spend his last days a golf ball ticking the hood of Representative Dan Burton's car among others garnered no less than a standing ovation and his own Oscar. It was a worthy performance.
On his first presidential campaign, Clinton responded to Vice President Dan Quayle's remark that he would be a "pit bull" in helping the Republicans retain the White House: "That's got every fire hydrant in America worried."
Coping with laryngitis, Clinton said, "My doctor ordered me to shut up, which will make every American happy."
Clinton was introduced at a debate as the smartest of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. "Isn't that like calling Moe the most intelligent of the Three Stooges?" he asked.
Ironies never cease at the White House. When Clinton was elected to his first term in 1992, the Washington Post ran a story that former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell would be named Secretary of State.
In December, I was invited to a Christmas party at Sam Donaldson's home and spotted Powell among the guests. In my usual shy way, I marched up to him and said, "General, are you going to be the next Secretary of State?"
Powell looked at me, then turned to another guest and said, "Isn't there some war we can send her to?"
Well, now he is Secretary of State in George W. Bush's cabinet, and after his confirmation I got a note from him: "I'm still looking for that war."
Who could resist? I wrote back, "Hell no, I won't go."
Much has been written about the chaos in the White House when President Clinton took office in 1993. This was reflected in the way the press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, and communications director, George Stephanopoulos, were treating the White House press corps. David Rosso remembered a letter I sent to UPI's Washington bureau chief Frank Csongos trying to make the point that the Clinton White House, to put it charitably, was going through terrible growing pains:
"Dear Frank: I think a letter of complaint should be written to press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who called our office at 12:30 A.M. saying an announcement was forthcoming by fax. She did not disclose the subject and the fax never arrived. At around 2:30 A.M. the desk scrambled and received from audio the announcement which audio had obtained from Fox Television. Furthermore, when the desk called the White House there was no press duty officer, and the switchboard would not put us through to Dee Dee. This is a helluva way to run a railroad and has frightening prospects for the future if they continue to do business that way. Thomas-WHU."
What was the fax all about? Here's the story:
Baird withdrawal announced by fax
WASHINGTON (UPI) President Clinton Friday announced by fax to wire services and the television networks the fact that he had accepted Zoe Baird's request to withdraw her nomination as attorney general.
Then there was this story I filed on February 3, 1993:
Will he or won't he?
WASHINGTON (UPI) President Clinton left the Clinton watchers in the cold again Wednesday.
The press pool gathered outside the White House before dawn, ready to report on whether the chief executive went for his predawn jog through the streets of the nation's capital.
They sat and waited. Inside a van. For two hours.
They saw the dawn of a new day, but not The Man.
They saw Socks, the first cat, being led around the White House grounds on a long leash.
They saw Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, dressed in blue jeans, leave the White House and get into a black car with her female Secret Service agent to go to school.
But they did not see the president of the United States run.
Perhaps it was Wednesday morning's below-freezing temperatures.
On Tuesday, when Clinton prepared to hit the road running, the temperature in downtown Washington was fourteen degrees with a windchill index of about eleven degrees below zero.
Clinton opted to skip his morning jog Tuesday and, instead, walked from the White House to the gym in the Executive Office Building next door to work out.
I was president of the Gridiron Club when Clinton attended his first dinner in March 1993. Senator Bob Dole of Kansas made much of the dress I'd chosen that night, noting that it came from "the J. Edgar Hoover collection."
At that dinner, we got an inkling of what Clinton's humor would be like for the next eight years (give or take a few, with a scandal here and there).
"What a thrill it is to be at my first Gridlock dinner," he told us. "Preeminent among you is my great dinner companion, the first lady of White House journalism, Helen Thomas....She hurt my feelings when she said she didn't want to see me in my bathrobe....I've always been curious about your body. As dean of the White House press corps, she's been keeping presidents honest for thirty years. She's spent more time in the White House than anybody here tonight. Still, it hurt my feelings when she demanded a security deposit when we moved in. Helen's been in Washington so long, she remembers when the Electoral College was a high school."
Here we go again with those souvenir pens: In May 1993, Clinton's troubles with Congress were hitting their stride, and one Republican lawmaker had been more than peeved for almost four months. Republican Representative Marge Roukema of New Jersey, who had supported the Family and Medical Leave Act, was a little annoyed she had never got a commemorative pen from the bill signing in February. "I was really stunned that they weren't organized at the White House for what is a rather pro forma procedure with landmark legislation," she said. Roukema had gone as far as to formally request her souvenir, but without success. "How many contortions does a member of Congress who's put in blood, sweat, and tears and even gone against her [party] have to go through?" she said. "One can understand that initially it was a lack of experience, but...there's no excuse for not understanding the significance."
It turned out that Clinton had given away all the pens he used at the ceremony. Roukema eventually received her own personally signed copy of the bill.
Les Aspin, a former Indiana congressman and Clinton's first Defense Secretary, had us all wondering when he was discussing the Pentagon budget before Congress early in the administration:
"It's not just a defense budget by subtraction. A lot of things will be cut, but other things will be increased. There will be a series of increases and decreases. The net result of the increases and decreases will be a net cut, but it certainly is not going to be as big as the gross cut from adding up the cuts."
April 13, 1993, press briefing with Dee Dee Myers:
Myers: Good morning. The only two events on the president's schedule today are the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson at noon at the Jefferson Memorial, which is open to the press. And at 8:30 P.M. he will participate in a satellite town meeting with Chamber of Commerce around the country at the Chamber of Commerce Building. And that will be thirty minutes.
Q: What's his speech? Will it be strictly devoted to the Declaration of Independence and so forth?
Myers: He'll talk about Jefferson but I think he will tie it to current events.
Q: Like the [economic] stimulus package?
Q: Jefferson would have passed the stimulus package?
Q: Jefferson would have voted for stimulus, is that it?
Myers: All things are connected in our world. Someone pointed out yesterday the Louisiana Purchase was the largest stimulus package in the history of the country. I don't think that's in the speech, though.
At his first White House Correspondents Association dinner in May 1993, Clinton responded to all the criticism and attacks on the early days of his term. "I'm not doing so bad," he said. "At this point in his administration, William Henry Harrison had been dead sixty-eight days!" Clinton also made much of the "report card" the press was prone to use on him and recalled how when he was in law school, his mother used to keep "my grades posted on her refrigerator...of course, Hillary's were higher."
On June 2, 1993, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appeared on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and was asked about his comment that "it's nonsense to suggest that Clinton's presidency 'is broken.'" His response: "Well, I referred to what can only be described as a quaint American custom, where you elect a president for four years and then you decide after one hundred days whether he's dead or alive. This is pretty silly stuff. Nobody can resolve the problems that confront a great nation in one hundred days, and I understand the tradition from Roosevelt and so on, and everybody appears to be measured by this standard, but it's not a helpful thing to do.
"The problems of the United States, and the problems of Canada, the U.K., and others, are problems so complex and intractable that they require mature judgment and strong leadership over an extended period of time. Give the guy a break. He just started. Let him see what he can do over a period of time, and the beauty of a democracy is you throw us in or you throw us out after a period of time. That's four years, or five years, depending on the British parliamentary system, not one hundred days. I think it's kind of unhelpful to anyone, including to the United States, to pass these kinds of definitive and quite vitriolic judgments about a president who has just received the confidence of the American people and say after ninety days or one hundred days, 'By the way, you're through. Let's turn our attention to somebody else.'"
David Rosso filed this Clinton quote to UPI bureaus on June 12, 1993, under the heading "How not to answer the question that isn't the question you wanted to answer." It was from Clinton's Earth Summit news conference in Washington and had something to do with reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the United States and what the level would be at the end of his administration.
"Well," said Clinton, "that's not the right way to ask the question. The question I can answer is 'Would I have signed a treaty in 1992 which would have said by the year 2000, which is the end of the second term, that we would get back to 1990 levels of emission?' The answer to that is, yes, I would have been glad to sign that treaty, and I believe that would have created jobs in America and not cost jobs in America."
On August 4, 1993, one of the stranger news briefings with White House aide Mark Gearan took place. We couldn't quite get a handle on the president's schedule for the next week after Gearan said, "This weekend he'll be here, most likely."
Q: And he travels Monday, and then he's here Tuesday and Wednesday and then he goes out Thursday?
Q: Doesn't he go out Wednesday? He doesn't go out Wednesday?
Gearan: Possibly out this is just for guidance purposes. Possibly out Wednesday night.
Q: For Denver?
Q: In other words, could we leave early?
Gearan: You can all leave anytime you want. The bus leaves at 2 P.M., be under it.
He closed the session saying, "I've been informed that today is Helen Thomas's birthday. And in our continuing effort to embarrass members of the press, we invite you to join with Dee Dee Myers in singing 'Happy Birthday' to "
Helen: Please don't.
Gearan: For those of you in the back of the room, Helen said
At which point people started shouting "Speech!" and Gearan further noted, "The gift is wrapped in UPI paper," and told me to open it.
"I don't dare," I said, which prompted more calls of "We want you to open it! We dare you to open it!"
Gearan: Helen, could you say "thank you" so we can get out of here?
Midway through Clinton's first term, I made an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. He asked me, "So, who do you like as a candidate in the next election?"
"Do I have to like any of them?" I replied.
Vice President and Mrs. Gore threw some unforgettable children's Halloween parties at their residence, and one was particularly unforgettable for me. I was there with my nieces Judy Jenkins and Terri DeLeon and their children. Al Gore had dressed up as Frankenstein's monster, complete with green makeup and a bolt in his neck, and Tipper was decked out as the bride of Frankenstein.
White House aide Mark Gearan came in and told me that "someone had shot up the White House."
"Oh, my God," I said. "Is this some kind of joke?"
I called the copy desk and was told that, yes, a man had fired a semiautomatic rifle through the White House gates and hit a few windows in the pressroom, but the Secret Service and police had subdued him.
A few days later I ran into Gearan and we started talking about the incident. I told him about the terror I'd felt, wondering whether the president had been shot.
"You know," said Gearan, "all I could think about was Al Gore being sworn in as president dressed up like Frankenstein."
There have been all kinds of White House pets. The Clintons' cat, Socks, was probably one of the few I got along with because I hardly ever saw him, and when I did, he was on a leash. Socks was a popular figure, though, and even had about five thousand people who had enrolled in the fan club run by Jay Jacob Wind of Arlington, Virginia, who also marketed all kinds of Socks memorabilia. Wind did get to meet the first feline, who appeared with Hillary Rodham Clinton during the holiday season at Children's Hospital in Washington. Wind got to hold Socks briefly before the cat got restless.
"I've waited so long for this moment. I've done so much for you," Wind said he told Socks, who, he noted later, "didn't seem to pay any attention."
Press briefing with Dee Dee Myers, October 22, 1993:
Helen: Do you know the general topic for tomorrow's radio address?
Myers: Tomorrow's radio address will be on crime.
Helen: Pro or con?
Myers: The president's weighing his options on that.
In June 1994, the Clintons hosted a White House dinner, and guest Whoopi Goldberg was more interested in watching basketball than the scheduled entertainment.
Vice President Gore told her, "I think I can take care of that," and got her a TV set from the car. During the postdinner recital, Goldberg gazed at the small screen, rooting for the New York Knicks over the Houston Rockets.
A few minutes later, Clinton joined her for a bit. Someone asked Clinton which team he was rooting for.
"I've made enough decisions for one day!" he said.
At her last briefing in December 1994, press secretary Dee Dee Myers delivered her version of a "Top 10 List" so popular on Late Show with David Letterman, outlining what she would not miss about the job:
10. Helen Thomas.
9. Air Force One food.
8. Twenty-four-hour-a-day paging, late-night phone calls, and those early-morning baggage calls.
7. The soft, quiet, reflective questioning of Sarah McClendon.
6. The fact that my busy social calendar has made it often difficult to get back to the president and to all of you busy returning those phone calls.
5. Bureau chiefs, editors, and especially headline writers.
4. The ongoing and breathtaking attention span of certain network correspondents, who can simultaneously question and do crossword puzzles.
3. That daily crush to make it to my briefing on time so as not to miss the opening.
2. Did I mention Helen Thomas?
Finally, the number one thing that I will not miss: All of this...That's only half-true.
In 1995, Clinton traveled to New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly and had arranged for a private dinner with several heads of state. The "pool report" compiled by a designated White House reporter traveling with the president and then disseminated to other media outlets had a certain "woof" quality. National Security Council chief Tony Lake was briefing reporters on those who were not invited to the dinner and was asked how the White House justified keeping some off the guest list.
"Well, it's kind of like 'the dog ate the invitations,' you know?" said Lake.
"Dog invitations?" asked someone, and Lake then made a barking sound.
The pool report filed later stated, "About 140 chiefs of missions and heads of state are invited. The official said that only the 'dog nations' were not invited to the president's reception."
On August 4, 1995, the White House staff threw me a surprise party on my seventy-fifth birthday. I had been in the Oval Office interviewing Clinton my "gift" was fifteen minutes one-on-one, but Vice President Gore broke up the session a little beforehand, and the two of them escorted me back to the pressroom.
I'd left my tape recorder on the president's desk, but he had nimbly picked it up on the way out. He turned it on and shoved it in my face:
"Miss Thomas," he said, "all these years, listening to all these presidents, listening to all the double-talk, all the confusion, catching people in lies, the deceit...how have you stood it for so long?"
"My sentiments, exactly," I replied.
Daily briefing with press secretary Mike McCurry, January 2, 1996 (the government had been shut down a second time as Clinton vetoed the budget from Congress):
McCurry: Happy New Year to all of you, and here is the first White House briefing of 1996. Let's make it a short one.
Helen: Let's make it real.
McCurry: Make it real. Okay, let's make it real, Helen. Go.
Helen: Okay. How long is the president going to tolerate this club over his head and over the nation in terms of shutting down the government?
McCurry: Well, if the president could take that club and throw it into the fireplace and burn it and get this government open again, he would do so on his own. But we have a constitutional system here that has branches of government, and the other branch of government has not sent to the president a sufficient measure to open the government.
A daily briefing with Mike McCurry, February 13, 1996:
McCurry: What would you all like to talk about today?
Q: What is the message you take out of Iowa?
McCurry: That the Democratic Party is united and enthusiastic behind our president. The Iowa caucuses were, for the president, very gratifying. I'm sure you all saw the Des Moines Register headline, "Clinton Visit Inspires Democrats to Turn Out." Over fifty thousand did, even though the president, of course, was unopposed. The president did pretty well squeak by, got 99.8 percent of the vote and all of the delegates. He was very encouraged by
HT: Just like in the Soviet Union.
At the 1997 Gridiron, most of the talk was about Al Gore and what had to be one of the funniest speeches he ever gave, and of President Clinton, who was recovering from a fall he took at golfer Greg Norman's house in Florida. Clinton, via video from Bethesda Naval Hospital, spoke of the advantages of cloning himself and quipped, "I'm in no condition to do a stand-up routine. I feel my pain."
Gore, who was pinch-hitting for Clinton, poked fun at himself and the latest rash of bad publicity. He said that when he asked the president if he was looking forward to the Gridiron dinner, Clinton replied he'd rather fall down a flight of stairs. Gore reported that Clinton required only local anesthesia for his knee surgery, not the general anesthesia Gore had received before his most recent news conference, in which he had defended his fund-raising calls yet vowed to call no more. (Gore also was taking heat for a visit to a Buddhist monastery where he made an alleged pitch for campaign funds.)
The biggest laugh came when he said the Democrats had upped their standards and issued a challenge to congressional Republicans: "And so I say to you Senator Lott: up yours." (Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, by the way, was not there.)
Comedian and author Al Franken, who was a guest, told a member that at one point during the evening the Secret Service had pulled him away from his table to ask if he thought the "up yours" joke would succeed. He had said he thought it was humorous, but he'd provided Gore a backup remark just in case it bombed, something to the effect of "Well, the Zen master thought it was funny."
In the hit number of the 1997 Gridiron, a limited member portrayed Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been getting some press about her "conversations" with Eleanor Roosevelt. Randall Brooks, as Eva Peron, sang:
Don't cry for me, Mrs. Roosevelt,
Don't worry about indictment.
My former law firm, Rose is the name,
By any other
Would smell the same.
To the strains of "The Macarena," journalists dressed as Buddhist monks sang:
Welcome, Mr. Gore, to our money-raising temple.
You'll find that our ethics are very, very simple.
Furthermore we're exempt from a Kenneth Starr subpoena
Press secretary Mike McCurry avoided all questions pertaining to Monica Lewinsky even when the press corps persisted in asking them.
One day in January 1998, yet another Monica question came up and he responded, "I'll refer you to my transcript yesterday, which referred to my transcript the day before."
By March 1998, the Monica Lewinsky situation was heating up precipitously and Clinton was being battered from all sides. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was expanding his investigation to include the Lewinsky allegations, and on January 17, Clinton had been deposed in the Paula Jones lawsuit.
At that year's Gridiron, he opened his remarks with "So, how was your week? For one hundred thirteen years, the Gridiron Club has honored its one defining rule: 'Gridiron humor singes but never burns.' And I've got the singe marks to prove it. But tonight, given Washington's current political climate, I'd like to request that the people in this room honor a second rule, and that is: kindly withhold your subpoenas until all the jokes have been told.
"This is an unusual time in Washington. Our version of 'March Madness.' So my preparation for this Gridiron speech was a little different than in years past. In fact, I wasn't even sure if I was going to come tonight. My political team told me I had to. My legal team advised me not to. My national security team suggested I hold a Gridiron town meeting. So I went to my trusted press secretary, Mike McCurry, for his advice. And here's the speech he helped me write:
"'Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the Gridiron. I have nothing further for you on that. Thank you and good night, and, no, Helen, I will not parse "good evening" for you.'"
Still, Clinton made the most of legalese humor by describing some material the counsel's office had sent over that it deemed funny: "A lawyer and his client walk into a bar. The client turns to his lawyer and says no, wait. That's privileged. And here's my favorite: 'Knock, knock.' 'Don't answer that!' Lawyers whose names I can mention: Daniel Webster, Clarence Darrow, Ally McBeal. Independent prosecutors whose names I can mention: Lawrence Walsh. People named Starr I can mention: Brenda, Bart, Ringo. The lawyers also told me that this year, I can tell as many Lincoln Bedroom jokes as I want and I just did. What a difference a year makes. Last year I threw myself down a flight of stairs to avoid coming to the Gridiron. This year, it's worse. I've come to the Gridiron to avoid going to the movies."
December 1998: The country is in the throes of the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton; the House of Representatives began its debate on December 18, but aides depicted Clinton as too busy with other matters to pay attention. At a news briefing, press aide Joe Lockhart said Clinton had done "very little" in the last day to stave off his impeachment, which became nearly a mathematical certainty, as every Republican pledged to vote against him. Lockhart said he had just dropped by to see the president and described his mood as very good, citing a good night's sleep, the safe return of U.S. pilots from their raids on Iraq, and the holiday season.
I had only one question: "Is he out of his mind?"
By March 1999 the Comeback Kid had come back all over again. The impeachment trial was over, and to the assembled Gridiron guests, Clinton noted, "On the way over here, my press secretary, Joe Lockhart, reminded me of his pledge that the White House would be a gloat-free zone. Hey, Joe, this is not the White House."
Clinton did note, though, "I won't kid you. This was an awful year. It was a year I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. No, I take that back. In these past thirteen months, I've learned valuable political lessons. Important personal lessons. And more than I ever cared to know about the presidency of Andrew Johnson. But that year is behind us. Yesterday I even saw fit to hold a press conference. And you know, it wasn't so bad. I enjoyed it so much, I just scheduled another for next year."
On that long-awaited news conference, Joe Lockhart had joked with reporters that Clinton had planned it "because he's been watching some of my daily briefings and he sees how much trouble you give me on a daily basis, and he said, 'I really ought to hold a news conference.'"
Lockhart also said the plan was to hold a news conference a month, much to the shock of the assembled, and then quickly rebounded, "That may be a little ambitious, but we can certainly try."
April 2, 1999, the White House Correspondents Association dinner. After a year in which he had endured an impeachment trial in the Senate and seen his life's most intimate moments spelled out to the public, it would seem the last place President Clinton would want to be would be in a large room filled with reporters. But he showed up late enough to miss the presentation of an award to Newsweek magazine writer Michael Isikoff, who had dedicated the last year to unearthing the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton managed to joke about the press, telling the crowd of two thousand that "veteran reporter Helen Thomas was upset at a proposal to move the briefing room because she remembered the last time it moved when the capital changed from Philadelphia to Washington."
"I like the job," he said to me in an interview in 1999. "The bad days are part of it. I didn't run to have a pleasant time, I ran to have the chance to change the country, and if the bad days come with it that's part of life and it's humbling and educational. It keeps you in your place."
By July 1999 the president seemed positively relaxed. In the East Room, one of the reporters complained it was difficult to see him because of the bright arc lights behind his head. "I have waited a long time for a halo," joked Clinton, and the room broke up with laughter.
October 4, 1999: A year ago, when Joe Lockhart replaced Mike McCurry as White House press secretary, a lot of reporters hoped he would emulate his predecessor, considered the gold standard of modern press secretaries. But he's been winning ovations for doing things his way. He also benefited from the waning scandal coverage and perhaps from his boss's mellowing out from that famous temper of his. "It's the best job I ever had and I can't wait until it's over," he said.
Clinton press conference, February 16, 2000:
Helen: Mr. President, you don't seem to have any good news on the Northern Ireland and Middle Eastern front, so I thought I'd ask you a home-front question. How do you like being targeted in the Republican presidential campaign? Texas Governor I have to quote this Texas Governor Bush told Senator McCain, "Whatever you do, don't equate my integrity and trustworthiness with Bill Clinton. That's about as low as you can get in the Republican primary." And McCain said he resented being called "Clinton" or "Clinton-like" and a few other things. What do you say?
Clinton: Well, I have a couple of observations. One is, you know they're playing to the electorate, most of whom did not vote for me. And secondly, I have a lot of sympathy with Governor Bush and Senator McCain. I mean, it's hard for them to figure out what to run on. They can't run against the longest economic expansion in history; or the lowest crime rate in thirty years; or the lowest welfare rolls in thirty years; or
the progress America has made in promoting peace around the world; or that fact that our party overrode theirs and passed the family leave, and it's benefited 20 million people and it hasn't hurt the economy. So they've got a tough job, and I have a lot of sympathy for them. And I don't want to complicate their problems by saying any more about them.
Q: You say you're not running this year, but you are casting a shadow over the debate on the campaign trail.
Clinton: I'd like to think I'm casting a little sunshine over it. I keep trying to build these fellows up, you know, I'm being nice and generous and all that.
Q: All of the candidates are running against your behavior and your conduct not just the Republicans, as Helen mentioned, but all of the candidates.
Clinton: Well, if I were running, I'd do that.
First daughter Chelsea Clinton accompanied her father on a trip to South Asia in early 2000. Caught in a parental moment, Clinton said he was thrilled Chelsea had come along with him. "You know, when your child grows up I think any parent with a grown child can identify with this you're always sort of pleasantly surprised when they still want to hang around with you a little," Clinton said at a press conference. My former UPI White House colleague Ken Bazinet, now with the New York Daily News, had first caught wind the previous December that Chelsea would be filling in for her New York Senate candidate mom. He reported that Clinton added, "Anytime I can be with her, I want to be with her." Chelsea, that is.
When good cars go bad and how press secretaries deal with it:
In April 2000, Clinton traveled to Nevada and later played a round of golf. Thanks to a spare limo, Clinton made his tee time. The motorcade carrying the first duffer was forced to halt briefly when his limousine started billowing smoke on Interstate 15 along Las Vegas's fabled Strip. Clinton hopped into the extra limousine that accompanies him in the motorcade and was on the road again within minutes.
"It went a lot smoother than most of my breakdowns go," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert.
The stories of Clinton's congenital inability to get anywhere on time are legion. However, even he pushed the envelope when he kept his mother-in-law, Dorothy Rodham, cooling her heels in the presidential helicopter, Marine One, for ninety minutes before they headed to the Clintons' new home in New York.
But Mrs. Rodham might have cut him some slack this time. Clinton got caught up in a conversation with former President Jimmy Carter, who was paying a visit to his onetime home.
In April 2000, the White House incurred the wrath of the press corps when actor Leonardo DiCaprio, star of the blockbuster movie Titanic, was granted an interview with Clinton for an Earth Day special on ABC.
Was the sit-down interview a spur-of-the-moment thing as the network insisted or did it result from lengthy negotiations, as the White House contended? And just what role was DiCaprio performing for ABC News when he interviewed Clinton journalist or viewer-drawing celeb?
ABC had insisted that DiCaprio's assigned role was to take a walking tour with Clinton to spotlight environmental changes made to the White House. Then at the last minute, a spokeswoman noted that the walk-through was canceled for an impromptu sit-down interview.
ABC staffers were outraged that the network had given the plum assignment to a movie actor. ABC News chief David Westin sent a staff memo saying "no one is that stupid" as to send DiCaprio to conduct a presidential interview for ABC News. But DiCaprio spokesman Ken Sunshine said the actor arrived at the White House expecting to interview Clinton "walking or sitting" and came prepared with cards bearing questions.
And when asked at a news briefing to characterize the session, Joe Lockhart expressed his certainty that "it was an interview. If there is another term...for that, I'm not aware of it."
At the Radio-Television Correspondents annual dinner after all of the "Leo imbroglio," President Clinton rose to speak and the theme song for Titanic boomed out over the sound system.
He joked that ABC had been waffling. The network didn't know if DiCaprio had done an "interview, a walk-through, or a drive-by," he quipped.
"Don't you newspeople ever learn?" Clinton asked the audience. "It isn't the mistake that kills you. It's the cover-up."
In his last appearance at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in late April 2000, President Clinton was given an A for attending all eight dinners during his administration. Not a bad feat, considering the slings and arrows that punctuated them. And he made the most of reflecting on those eight turbulent years in his speech, saying, "The record on that count is clear: in good days and bad, in times of great confidence or great controversy, I have actually shown up here for eight straight years. Looking back, that was probably a mistake. In just eight years I've given you enough material for twenty years."
He also noted that Congress would probably be sorry to see him go: "You know, the clock is running down on the Republicans in Congress, too. I feel for them. I really do. They've only got seven more months to investigate me. That's a lot of pressure. So little time, so many unanswered questions.
"Now, some of you might think I've been busy writing my memoirs. I'm not concerned about my memoirs, I'm concerned about my résumé. Here's what I've got so far:
"'Career objective: to stay president.' But being realistic, I would consider an executive position with another country. Of course, I'd prefer to stay within the G-8.
"I'm working hard on this résumé deal. I've been getting a lot of tips on how to write it, mostly from my staff. They really seem to be up on this stuff. They tell me I have to use the active voice for the résumé. You know, things like 'commanded U.S. armed forces,' 'ordered air strikes,' 'served three terms as president.' Hey, everybody embellishes a little. 'Designed, built, and painted Bridge to the Twenty-first Century.' 'Supervised vice president's invention of the Internet.' 'Generated, attracted, heightened, and maintained controversy.'
"Now, I know lately I haven't done a very good job at creating controversy, and I'm sorry for that. You all have so much less to report.
"But let me say to all of you, I have loved these eight years. You know, I read in the history books how other presidents say the White House is like a penitentiary and every motive they have is suspect. Even George Washington complained he was treated like a common thief. I don't know what the heck they're talking about.
"I've had a wonderful time. It's been an honor to serve and fun to laugh. I only wish that we had laughed more these last eight years. Because power is not the most important thing in life, and it only counts for what you use it. I thank you for what you do every day, thank you for all the fun times Hillary and I have had. Keep at it. It's a great country and it deserves our best. Thank you and God bless you."
After the White House Correspondents Association dinner, cast members of The West Wing spent part of their day at the White House watching their real-life counterparts. Joe Lockhart even turned over the reins of the daily briefing to his TV counterpart, Allison Janney.
Harking back to that hilarious video that had opened the dinner, in which Lockhart tried to get an answer from The West Wing crew to the question "Why are there so many people running down the hallways?" the assembled reporters decided it was time to get the definitive answer.
"I have not spoken to the president about that, but I will get back to you on that," said Janney.
"Is he up yet?" I asked her.
"I believe he is up, Helen, yes."
"Is he doing any work?"
"'Is he doing any work?' I have no comment."
"Or is he wandering through the halls?"
"He's taking care of the hallway situation."
Reports had surfaced in April 2000 that Joe Lockhart had given up $10 million in stock options of Internet behemoth America Online. When asked about it on April 20, Lockhart responded, "I am not in a position to confirm the numbers because as I worked on my abacus last night, it made me cry. I turned it down for a much more important opportunity to spend each and every afternoon with you all here. And I think I need to readjust my medication."
Clinton may have fudged on a lot of events in his administration, but his golf scorecard? Good grief. In the spring of 2000 he played with fourth-ranked NCAA golfer Bryce Molder, a twenty-one-year-old junior from Georgia Tech.
The two played a round at the Chenal Country Club in Little Rock. Afterward, Molder said playing with the president was "weird. He shot a ninety. At the end of the game, his scorecard said eighty-four."
Molder, by the way, shot ten birdies and an eagle for a career-low score of sixty.
In an interview with the New York Daily News published April 7, 2000, Hillary Rodham Clinton noted that she was getting political advice from a master politician: her husband. "When I was getting ready to make my [campaign] announcement, he said, 'I can't believe how nervous I am, and I'm not even doing it myself.' And I said, 'Now you know how I have felt all these years.'"
At the White House briefing on June 12, 2000, press secretary Joe Lockhart confirmed that Clinton planned to visit Nebraska the only state he had not visited in his eight years in office before the end of his term. "In the greatest American spirit of saving the best for last, he intends to go to Nebraska before his term ends."
Lockhart dodged the next two questions Why had it taken so long? And did Clinton have something against Nebraska?
"I'm sticking with 'saving the best for last,'" Lockhart said.
In June 2000, Clinton was on a short trip to Philadelphia and ended up giving an impromptu history lecture. Standing in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed, he upstaged his appointed tour guide and began spouting off dates and important events in what became a twenty-minute lecture on American history. Finally, his guide offered him a job.
"Mr. Clinton, we're always looking for volunteers," said Martha Aikens, the Park Service employee who was supposed to be showing Clinton around Independence Hall but was instead standing by and listening to him.
Clinton laughed and continued on with a detailed explanation of how the presidency had changed over time, citing actions from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson, for example, made the Louisiana Purchase for a sum that equaled the entire federal budget at the time.
"Can you imagine what Congress would say if I said I want to buy a little land but it will only cost $1.8 trillion?" he asked, referring to the current size of the budget. He also gave detailed examples of other changes to the presidency from the time of the Founding Fathers, who had, he said, wanted to ensure a balance of power in the country.
"I think a lot about this," he said after the history lesson.
In late July 2000, Joe Lockhart was questioned early and often on when the Middle East peace talks would end. The long summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had been going on for several weeks, and the Republican National Convention was about to begin in Philadelphia. And on another media radar, talk show hostess Kathie Lee Gifford was ending her fifteen-year association with Regis Philbin on their popular TV show Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.
As rumors circulated through the press headquarters that President Clinton would wrap up the summit in a few days, Lockhart offered another date:
"There is an informal deadline. All parties want to be available to watch Kathie Lee Gifford's last show on Friday."
While the saga over six-year-old Cuban refugee Elián González played out, an idea was floated that Congress might vote to grant the youngster citizenship. The question at one of the daily White House briefings was whether President Clinton would sign such a document. Little did I know my book Front Row at the White House would figure into such an interchange with Joe Lockhart:
Q: Might he sign a bill and say, "I'll sign this but I'll let the courts make the ultimate decision"?
Lockhart: I wouldn't get into a "might" or an "if" here. I was just...to tell you the truth, I was just reading a very interesting segment of Helen's book yesterday while I was going through, and it has a section in there where my predecessor [Mike McCurry] talked about "only fools answer hypotheticals," so I will not be foolish today.
Helen: Well, I have a hypothetical....
Lockhart: Helen, what is the name of your publisher again?
As the first couple made their move to their new home in Chappaqua, New York, Mrs. Clinton noted that the president handles moving the furniture "and I tell him where to move it."
And like most husbands, he also put himself in charge of the TV remote.
"I think that's also genetic, the male DNA," she said. "I think when we finally map the human genome, we're going to find these tiny little strands that say 'moving,' 'never ask for directions,' and 'the remote' all on the man."
When the first lady decided to run for the Senate seat in New York, President Clinton spoke in early September 2000 at a fund-raiser and noted, "For apart from this extraordinary personal feeling about this race, the reason I'm going around the country now the first time in twenty-six years when I haven't been on the ballot during an election is because I've worked as hard as I could to turn our country around and move it in the right direction.
"But I honestly believe all the best things are still out there. And I think this is the first time in my lifetime that our nation has had a chance to shed its baggage, to shed its racial baggage, to shed its homophobic baggage, to shed all of its divisive baggage. My party has shed a lot of that baggage that basically was rooted in our fear of change and has embraced change."
Much was made of Al Gore's choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut to be his running mate, and even Clinton weighed in at a reception for Representative Dennis Moore of Kansas in October: "Actually, I was thinking that I kind of resented that Al Gore has gotten all this credit for naming Joe Lieberman to the ticket. I mean, I know it's a big deal to have the first Jewish vice presidential nominee.
"But I mean, come on now, look at American history that is nothing compared to the first Jewish Agriculture Secretary [Dan Glickman]. I mean, just with a decision I destroyed one of the great stereotypes in American life nobody thinks Jewish farmer is an oxymoron anymore."
On September 29, 2000, Joe Lockhart became the fourth press secretary to leave the Clinton White House. His last briefing was hilarious, touching, and nostalgic. And of course, his staff was not above inserting a few practical jokes. At one point, Lockhart took a sip of water from a glass underneath the podium:
Lockhart: Who did this? Okay, I'm not moving, I'm not touching anything.
Q: Vodka or gin?
Lockhart: Vodka, I believe. (Laughter) Yes?
Q: Can you take that?
Lockhart: I don't even remember what the question was.
A short time later, chief of staff John Podesta and President Clinton entered the pressroom, and Podesta demanded, "We want the podium."
"Oh, you want the podium?" Lockhart responded, then saw Clinton standing behind Podesta. "Oh."
Podesta: You know, here in the White House, we're obviously sorry to see Joe leave us. But I have to tell you all that the same ain't true for the Republicans. Just this morning, in [House Majority Whip] Tom DeLay's favorite newspaper, Joe is described as the "fiercely partisan White House press secretary." (Laughter) Let me tell you, they want him out of here. (Laughter) It's not just that Joe is better at driving the Republicans crazy than just about anybody. It's that Joe gets results for the American people. Just yesterday Joe was here whacking them for failing to get their work done. And you know what? It worked. They're so tired of hearing Joe label them a "do-nothing Congress" that last night the Senate finally passed twenty-four bills. Now, it's true, they still haven't raised the minimum wage or passed a patients' bill of rights, but Joe finally kicked them into gear. Last night they passed the FHA Down Payment Simplification Extension Act of 2000. I know there are a lot of people who aren't usually in these briefings here, so for those of you who don't know what that is, that's simply an extension of the FHA Down Payment Simplification Act of 2000. So we still don't have a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, but thanks to Joe's bully pulpit, we have S893, a bill to amend Title 46, United States Code, to provide equitable treatment with respect to certain individuals who perform duties on vessels. Thank you, Joe.
One reporter noted, "That's good. You ought to keep him on and see what else he can do."
"That's a really bad idea," Lockhart responded.
Podesta went on to note that Congress had also passed "one measure of some significance yesterday that had nothing to do with pressure from Joe. They passed HR4931, the Presidential Transition Act of 2000. Of course, the only reason the Republicans passed that was because it authorizes funds to move the president out of the White House. [Laughter] I think it's fair to say, for those of us on the White House staff, that if we got to vote a bill to keep Joe in the White House, that vote would have passed by unanimous consent. He's been tough, he's been funny, he's always been straight. I think I said to the staff this morning, I think you can't count on one hand the times that Joe has made a mistake here, despite the fact that you guys throw him fastballs on a day-in-and-day-out basis."
Podesta then introduced Clinton, who began, "Most people think Joe's leaving for purely selfish, monetary reasons. But the truth is, he told me that I was no longer in enough trouble to make it interesting for him. That getting up every day and going to work and making policy and helping the Democrats, you know, it's boring him to tears. And he said he couldn't stand to be alone in his office crying anymore, and so he had to leave. So I have one little gift to him, a memorial of our one and only day playing golf together. It happened a couple of weeks ago."
Clinton then gave Lockhart a picture with the caption "Joe's typical day as presidential press secretary, lost in the weeds. Unlike the press corps, I'll give you a mulligan."
The president ended his remarks: "Let me say seriously, I know what a difficult job this is, and I know it takes a toll on everyone, and I know Joe's spent a lot of time away from his wonderful wife and beautiful daughter, who are here. I remember when I appointed him, there was all this yapping about whether he was heavy enough to do the job. He leaves with gravitas and gravy toss. And a lot of gratitude. I know that I have a different perspective than the members of the press corps, but I've been following this business a long time, a long time before I showed up. I don't believe I've ever seen anybody do this job better. I admire you. I'm grateful to you. I'll miss you and I'll try to keep you bored. Thank you, friend."
Lockhart's response to his boss: "You don't have to hang around for this part. You don't really want to talk to them. I'm still on the clock."
"You want us to go?" said Clinton. "Well, wait, I've got to do one thing. I have a gift for your successor, Jake [Siewert]." Clinton produced a helmet with Jake's name on it. "They're going to try to get even with you, and they're also going to try to get even for everything they couldn't get away with with Joe, so I thought you ought to have this. I hope you'll wear it to your first briefing."
And the new press secretary replied, "I worked enough on the Dukakis campaign not to put this on."
Lockhart: No, I won't put it on.
After Clinton left, Lockhart was peppered with questions about what he would be doing to earn a living, and someone recalled his appearance in the video at the White House Correspondents dinner, in which Lockhart spoke to The West Wing cast members on the set, asking each of them why the series always showed "so many people walking around the hallways."
Q: Joe, is it true, now that you're gone, you're going to have a recurring role on The West Wing?
Lockhart: They have enough hapless people already, they don't need me.
Q: Have they asked you?
Lockhart: No, they have not. I have enormous respect for what they do, I like their program. They even sent me something nice as a going-away present.
Lockhart: A director's chair, with my name on it. It's very nice.
Then there was the question we all wanted to ask:
Q: Joe, how really did the press treat you, and how did you like the press?
Lockhart: Do you want an honest answer?
Lockhart: No, we won't do that. No, that's a good question. Let me take an opportunity to try to answer it.
I remember on my first day when I came in, Helen Thomas grabbed me and, with a knowing smile, said, "You're feeling pretty good about this today, aren't you?" And I said, "Well, I think so. I've wanted to do this for some time. I'm going to get to do it. I'm a little nervous, but I think it will be okay." She said, "Enjoy these briefings. You're going to come to hate them. Every press secretary does. It's an albatross. You're going to hate it."
And for once, I think I've been able to prove Helen wrong, and that's enough for my career. I have never stopped enjoying coming down here. I've lost some of my desire for all the preparation it takes to come down here and talk to you all, but I've never not enjoyed coming down and facing this back-and-forth. It has been fun, it has been a pleasure to work with each and every one of you. I think I hope we have demonstrated a commitment and demonstrated that we understand what you do and we value what you do. And I leave probably having had cross words with everyone in the room, but we have had very positive conversations. And I thank all of you for that.
Then, rather than giving the press corps the usual "week ahead" the White House releases a tentative presidential schedule on Friday of the next week's events Lockhart gave us his own personal "week ahead" for his first days off the job:
"I just looked down at this and realized that, in addition to the drink under here, they've [the staff] also had some fun with the week ahead. So, here goes. It turns out that this is not the week ahead for the schedule of the president, it is the week ahead for the schedule for me.
"Saturday, September 30, down until 2 P.M. No public schedule, but there is a photo release. It is Joe Lockhart shaking hands with Rick Lazio [Hillary Rodham Clinton's opposition in the race for the New York Senate seat]. Who knew they could find that?
"Sunday, October 1, attend confession, ask forgiveness for all that lying to [AP White House correspondent] Terry Hunt.
"Monday, October 2, arrive at Elizabeth Arden Salon for deep-tissue massage, seaweed wrap, salt glow, and pedicure. Five P.M., meet the mole at the private residence at the Watergate Hotel.
"Tuesday, October 3, 9 A.M., interview candidates for my own personal Tae Bo trainer. Afternoon, attend first meeting of Spinners Anonymous.
"Wednesday, October 4, shave.
"Thursday, October 5, 10 A.M., speech to Dallas oilmen's club. Two P.M., speech to Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. Five P.M., speech to the National Association of HMOs. Eight P.M., pick up new Ferrari at dealership.
"Friday, seminar at the Brookings Institution, entitled 'Art of the Apology in the Modern Political World.' I will be representing the president. Other guests include Howell Raines and Jeff Gerth.
"And finally, Saturday, I'm going to Disney World. And I'm done. Thank you very much."
At the opening ceremonies of the 2000 President's Cup in October at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course in Lake Manassas, Virginia, Clinton told those assembled, "As a gesture of goodwill, I left my clubs home today. Actually, I offered to play on the American team, but when I had to confess I have never broken eighty on this course even on the white tees I was immediately rejected, showing how much the world has changed since President Johnson said, 'There's one lesson you better learn if you want to be in politics: never go out on a golf course and beat the president.' I keep passing that out, even to strangers, and no one takes it seriously anymore.
"Now, as honorary chairman, my first order of business is to declare this tournament officially open. Secondly, I have been informed much against my better instincts to declare this a no-mulligan zone."
In November 2000, the popular Los Angeles deejay Jay Thomas and Bill Clinton posed for a picture during a fund-raiser. Thomas said to Clinton, "I already have two shots of me standing next to a cardboard cutout of you."
Clinton responded, "After this one, tell me which one is livelier."
At a "Get Out the Vote" rally in New York in early November, Clinton gave the crowd his take on the "fuzzy math" phrase that was peppering the Gore-Bush presidential race: "Now look, here's the problem. You all clapped for me when I said the economy was better. But people ask me all the time, what great new idea did you bring to Washington to turn the economy around? You know what I answer? Arithmetic. We brought arithmetic back to Washington."
November 9, 2000, was one of Washington's most historic nights at the White House, and I was honored to be among those attending the dinner celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the White House.
Even with all the campaign brouhaha swirling around, President and Mrs. Clinton staged a memorable dinner with a few guests I'd also been acquainted with: Lady Bird Johnson, Gerald and Betty Ford, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and George and Barbara Bush. Clinton's toast that night:
"It has been said that an invitation to the White House to dinner is one of the highest compliments a president can bestow on anyone. Tonight Hillary and I would amend that to say that an even higher compliment has been bestowed on us by your distinguished presence this evening. In the entire two hundred years of the White House history, never before have this many former presidents and first ladies gathered in this great room.
"Hillary and I are grateful beyond words to have served as temporary stewards of the People's House these last eight years, an honor exceeded only by the privilege of service that comes with the key to the front door.
"In the short span of two hundred years, those whom the wings of history have brought to this place have shaped not only their own times, but have also left behind a living legacy for our own. In ways both large and small, each and every one of you has cast your light upon this house and left it and our country brighter for it. For that, Hillary and I and all Americans owe you a great debt of gratitude.
"I salute you and all those yet to grace these halls with the words of the very first occupant of the White House, John Adams, who said, 'I pray to heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but the honest and wise rule under this roof.'
"Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to join me in a toast to Mrs. Johnson, President and Mrs. Ford, President and Mrs. Carter, President and Mrs. Bush, for their honest and wise service to the people while they inhabited this house."
Clinton also didn't miss the opportunity to remark that all the presidents who attended the two hundredth anniversary dinner "have been around for half as much as Helen Thomas."
In a column she later wrote about the evening, Hillary Rodham Clinton remarked that it "would have been an extraordinary evening even under ordinary circumstances. But given these times, these four presidents Democrats and Republicans alike reminded us of the power of our democracy to endure and thrive."
Each president that evening was invited to deliver remarks. Gerald Ford was the first to speak. "Once again," he said, "the world's oldest republic has demonstrated the youthful vitality of its institutions and the ability and the necessity to come together after a hard-fought campaign. The clash of partisan political ideas does remain just that to be quickly followed by a peaceful transfer of authority."
Ford also talked about how it was impossible to walk the halls of the White House without being touched by the lives of all who had come before and how he was "humbled by the inescapable presence of my predecessors Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Truman and Eisenhower, and so many others who live in our imagination and our idealism."
Jimmy Carter said, "The White House epitomizes for all Americans the stability and the greatness of peace and freedom and democracy and human rights not only for all Americans, but for all people in the world. And my dream is that the epitome of the high ideals of humankind expressed in physical terms in the White House will continue for another hundred or even a thousand years."
Carter and Ford both noted that during their hard-fought 1976 campaign, neither could have predicted the close relationship that they enjoy today. In fact, at a press conference earlier in the day, Carter was asked whether he found it strange that he and Clinton would be attending an event with Gerald Ford and George Bush. "I think that's a vivid demonstration of what the White House and service in it means to all of us," he replied.
When it came time for George Bush to speak, he referred to the still unsettled presidential election and the timeless quality of the house: "For two hundred years and eight days, this old house had been buffeted by the winds of change and battered by the troubled waters of war. We've been favored by calm seas, too. But history tells us a democracy thrives when the gusts and gales of challenge and adversity fill its sails and compel it into action. And through it all, through trial and tribulation, as well as triumph, the White House has served as our nation's anchor to windward, a vision of constancy, a fortress of freedom, the repository of a billion American dreams. Age and the elements occasionally wear her down, but this house is forever renewed by the ageless fidelity of its founders, and the boundless promise of its future heirs."
In his last days in office, Clinton was featured in a film giving a White House tour, part of a documentary that will be shown at his presidential library.
The director was none other than Wes Craven, the man behind such slasher films as Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street. That of course had people wondering what the title of the Clinton film would be: Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue?
"I was thinking, 'Here I am. I've made some of the most horrific films, and now I'm in the White House,'" Craven said. "Someone said I should have brought a Scream mask and have someone jump out in it, but that would have been the last time we would have been invited over."
When Clinton was preparing to leave office in January 2001, the White House staff decided to come up with yet another "week ahead" schedule that rivaled the one they had put together for Joe Lockhart.
Jake Siewert got to do the honors of describing the president's final few days in office at a regular briefing:
Q: Jake, how is the president going to spend the last night in the White House?
Siewert: I think he's going to be packing, seeing his family. He's got a little work to do this afternoon. He may make some calls just to thank people around the world for the work that they've done together.
Q: He's not finished packing?
Siewert: He has not finished packing. I have, almost. But I keep getting mail, though.
Q: Jake, can you give us a sense of the chronology tomorrow [Inauguration Day], what the president is going to be doing before noontime?
Siewert: President and Mrs. Clinton will meet with the president-elect and Mrs. Bush here in the morning around ten-twenty, at the White House. They'll have coffee, an informal coffee, I think in the Blue Room. They'll then proceed via motorcade together to the Capitol, where he will witness the inaugural ceremony. At that point, he will leave and head to Andrews, where he has a ceremony approximately one-thirty or so at Andrews. He'll fly to New York after that. Then there's an event planned in New York around three for his arrival there to welcome him home. At that point, he'll fly on helicopter up to Chappaqua and spend the night with his family.
Q: Will he be saying good-bye? Will there be any sort of ceremony where he says good-bye to White House staff?
Siewert: The staff are all invited to Andrews. And you're also welcome, as well it's open press if you don't have anything else to do.
After more questions about the president's plans, Siewert launched into a long thank-you to the many staff members "who day in and day out work to help you cover the president. It's been a long and arduous eight years," and he then thanked the press corps "for making our time here memorable."
I then thanked him for "standing in the hottest spot in the world," but he wasn't quite done. After mentioning more names, Siewert noted, "And I have a week ahead," detailing the ex-president's schedule, and gave us a rundown of Clinton's activities:
Sunday, January 21, 1 P.M.: set up new E-mail account, email@example.com. That will be closed to the press.
Monday, January 22, from 9 A.M. to 4 P.M.: The president will be awaiting the arrival of the Westchester County cable guy. That is also closed to the press.
Tuesday, January 23, from 9 A.M. to 4 P.M.: He will be awaiting the arrival of the Westchester cable guy.
On Wednesday, January 24, the president is going to pitch DreamWorks guys on movie treatment: Lithuanian terrorists capture Air Force One, president ends hostage situation by negotiating $3.2 billion debt-forgiveness package and microcredit loan guarantees for Lithuania.
Saturday, January 27, 11 A.M.: Depart for Mount Kisco Pep Boys to purchase timing belt and spark plugs for 1968 Mustang. Pool press hopefully. If anyone still cares then.
And also on Saturday, January 27, the president will deliver 10:10 A.M. will deliver the Democratic response to President Bush's radio address.
At a regular briefing shortly before Clinton left office, Siewert was also asked whether Clinton appointees will have to be swept out of their offices by the new administration. "We'll leave," he said. "They don't need to clear us out, we're happy to go."
Joe Lockhart also showed up that day to make a cameo appearance. Siewert noted that Lockhart "offered to brief, but I told him it wasn't necessary. He's gone through enough suffering up here."
More brouhahas were brewing for the first couple after the president left office. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton signed an $8 million deal with Simon & Schuster to write her memoirs, and then there was that pesky financial disclosure form that showed an estimated $190,000 worth of gifts received the previous year. The report ran seven pages, detailing furniture to china to flatware to a set of boxing gloves from actor Sylvester Stallone to a copy of President Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union speech worth $9,683 from insurance magnate Walter Kaye who had lobbied to get Monica Lewinsky her White House internship.
Yet another congressional panel was convened to examine the largess. Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's White House press secretary who knew her way around home-furnishing flaps, given Nancy's bad press when she was first lady said she had never heard of anything like it: "These are not the kind of gifts you take with you. It's usually a silver bowl with your name on it."
In all of the frenzy about the Clintons' "raiding" the White House to furnish their two homes, little did I know how prophetic one of my questions was. I remembered something he said to me on one of his last trips to Lansing, Michigan. Everyone had been clamoring for an end-of-administration interview, and since I'm well acquainted with the time it takes to fly from Washington to Michigan, I asked for a few minutes of his time on that trip. When I finally got admitted to his quarters, we had a pretty run-of-the-mill session about his legacy, what his hopes were for the country, that kind of thing.
Then I asked him, "Mr. President, if there was one thing you could take with you from the White House that belongs to the American people, what would it be?"
He said it would be the moon rock that Neil Armstrong had brought back when men walked on the moon in 1969. He said the rock, which was kept on a table in the Oval Office, helped to put everything in perspective.
"When everybody was running around or got upset about something," he said, he would tell them to "remember the rock. It's 3.6 billion years old. We're all just passing through, and we need to chill out here and make the most of the moment."
A first-rate item from the New York Daily News, February 1, 2001: "Bill Clinton is finding out just how blasé New Yorkers can be about him. After the former president took in the St. John's-UConn game on Tuesday, he went to Babbo for dinner with former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and four others. As two other people were leaving the West Village restaurant, one turned to the other and said, 'That poor guy, looking so much like Bill Clinton. His life must be hell.'"
Do some things turn out for the best? After the big flap about the former president considering renting high-priced office space in the Carnegie Towers on West Fifty-seventh Street, it turned out that if he had, Clinton and a former White House intern would have been answering to the same landlord. Carnegie Towers landlord Rockrose is also the management company of record at the Greenwich Village apartment house where Monica Lewinsky lives.
Reports in March 2001 indicated that Bartlett's Familiar Quotations would be adding three entries courtesy of ex-President Clinton. They are:
"I experimented with marijuana a time or two. And I didn't like it, and didn't inhale and I never tried it again." New York Times, March 31, 1992.
"I am going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Televised speech, January 26, 1998.
"It depends on what the meaning of is is. If the if he if is means and never has been that is not that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement." Grand jury testimony, August 17, 1998.
As the New York Daily News aptly described it, "It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidor." In late March 2001 the former president was honored at the Italian embassy for his administration's work to help victims of brain injuries. As a token of appreciation, Clinton was presented with a humidor. Harking back to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and stories of cigars as sex toys, the room got uncomfortably quiet. However, Clinton must have taken it all in stride. He reportedly walked into a cigar shop at London's Heathrow Airport several days later and bought a Cuban cigar. "He has been given humidors and cigars before," said his spokeswoman, Julia Payne. "I realize the double entendre, but this is not something his friends have stopped giving him."
At his last White House Correspondents Association dinner, Clinton remarked that he would likely come down with a condition common to former presidents: AGDD Attention Getting Deficit Disorder.
It's not likely that will occur anytime soon, but on a trip to Ireland in late May 2001, he was greeted with boos from protesters. But he didn't mind. He said it was a sign of a healthy democracy that "people have a right to be wrong and loudly wrong." Besides, he added, "Nobody demonstrates against me anymore. This is fun. You guys better be careful. I might think I was still president."
President Clinton gave his first speech in Washington since leaving office on June 28, 2001, at an event sponsored by the John F. Kennedy School of Government, on the role of race and the press.
"I am, I think, glad to be back," the ex-president told an audience of more than two hundred members of the media, academics, and policymakers.
He spotted me in the audience and noted, "Helen, you can ask me a question when it's over. I can say that because nobody cares what my answer is anymore."
Clinton was back in Washington in the late fall of 2001 as the first speaker in the Nation's Capital Distinguished Speaker series, sponsored by the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives.
It was a packed house that night, with every one of the 2,200 seats filled at the Kennedy Center, where the event took place. I had the pleasure of introducing the former president and noted that President Bush was fortunate to have the surplus that the Clinton administration had left behind, so he could pay some bills the nation would be facing since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
I went on to say that each person in the audience probably was looking forward to Clinton's memoirs and further noted a habit among readers in Washington that we especially looked forward to the index to see whether our names were included.
Clinton walked onto the stage and in his opening remarks leaned my way and said not to worry. "Your name will be listed in the index several times."
Then he faced the audience and said that while he enjoyed listening to my introduction, something else had been on his mind: "All I could think was 'I hope she doesn't ask me a question.'"
Copyright © 2002 by Helen Thomas