WASHINGTON – President Bill Clinton’s top aides began debating how to build a presidential legacy in the days after he won re-election in 1996, according to documents released Friday by the National Archives.
The 2,500 pages of documents released from the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., ranged from drafts of Clinton’s speeches – with the president’s left-handed cursive offering edits – to memos exploring ways of dealing with climate change, Republican opponents and the media. It was the third batch of records to be released since February, part of roughly 30,000 pages of previously withheld documents expected to be disseminated to the public in the coming weeks.
The records are being closely scrutinized by reporters and others as Clinton’s wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, contemplates a second presidential campaign in 2016.
After Bill Clinton won a sweeping re-election against Republican Bob Dole, the White House started working on ways of cementing the president’s legacy. The Nov. 24, 1996, memo written by Clinton adviser Gene Sperling urged aides to choose topics carefully and said some approaches might be rejected even if the administration had addressed them successfully.
Sperling’s memo said “legacy aspirations” must have “achievable impact.” Sperling, who until recently served as President Barack Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, said the way that administration officials define or emphasize a major issue can be crucial in determining whether it will contribute to a lasting legacy.
He cited Clinton’s first-term effort to overhaul the nation’s health care system, which became a major political defeat when Congress rejected it. “The national debate made people more aware of various health care costs,” Sperling said, even if it fell short of the main goal: a sweeping new law.
“If we had defined our health care aspirations as a means to inform Americans of the importance of cost awareness,” Sperling wrote, “our efforts might now be seen as having been more successful.”
The memo also said: “If we agree on a few specific legacy themes early on in our legacy development process – and commit to them – we can make significant progress through our consistency.”
As the administration entered the summer of 1997, Clinton’s aides expressed hope of building upon his accomplishments. In a strategic plan for the summer, Clinton senior adviser Don Baer wrote the White House had the chance to “achieve major, historic progress” on the economy and other issues.
But he warned that “some opposing forces will do everything possible to divert the public’s focus from these real and pressing issues to other corrosive political concerns.”
Clinton’s hopes for a sterling legacy were hurt in January 1998 when the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted.
One of the documents released Friday notes that when the first lady was invited for a Voice of America interview shortly after the Lewinsky scandal broke, a VOA staffer and Hillary Clinton press aide Julie E. Mason exchanged emails that signaled concern that listeners might call in with questions about the White House intern.
“This would bring HRC right into the story in the U.S.,” wrote U.S. Information Agency official Meg Lynn.
The White House also debated hard-ball strategies to undercut Republicans and garner favorable press coverage. In July 1995, the White House considered enlisting disease victims to help criticize Republican-led budget cuts. Public anger over reductions in meat inspections was “wounding the Republicans,” the memo said.
“This would be an opportunity to once again hit them,” wrote chief speechwriter Michael Waldman. “We could, for example, have an event with E-coli families.”
That same month, as the White House prepared for a fierce budget battle with congressional Republicans, Waldman identified specific reporters who might be granted interviews with the president. “A carefully thought-through leak strategy is needed,” he wrote.
Other documents underscored longstanding policy challenges such as addressing climate change.
A June 1997 “decision memorandum” explored options the administration might consider on addressing global warming but acknowledged major obstacles from business and environmental groups and little hope the Senate would ultimately ratify an international treaty.
One option suggested making significant cuts in emissions in the medium term that mirrored an approach by the European Union. It noted the potential for “very large costs on the U.S. economy” and predicted “business and labor would be very strongly opposed.”
“Without significant changes in the political landscape, the prospects for ratification by the Senate in the next several years would be close to zero,” the memo said.
Another option looked at rejecting emissions limits altogether but it predicted “scathing” criticism from other countries and U.S. environmental groups.
Even middle-ground options predicted some opposition from business or environmental groups and little chance of Senate passage.
Those fears were prescient: The U.S. signed onto the 1997 Kyoto Protocol but the Senate declined to ratify it. The U.S. pulled out of Kyoto entirely after Republican George W. Bush was elected president.
Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Laurie Kellman, Alan Fram and Andrew Taylor in Washington and Kelly Kissel in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.
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