[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book II)]
[November 2, 1998]
[Pages 1966-1972]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Interview With Tavis Smiley of Black Entertainment Television
November 2, 1998

    Mr. Smiley. Mr. President, it's nice to see you. Thanks again for 
sitting down, talking to us.
    The President. Glad to be here.

1998 Elections

    Mr. Smiley. Glad to have you. I have had the pleasure, as you know, 
to sit down with you one-on-one a few times in the past, and so I know 
that asking you to make a prediction is like wasting my time. So I'm not 
going to ask you to predict anything about tomorrow's elections, but let 
me ask you, on a scale of 1 to 10, if I can, 10 being confident, 1 being 
apprehensive, how do you feel about tomorrow on this election eve?
    The President. I feel both confident and apprehensive. And I'll tell 
you why. If you look at it, first of all, in the House of 
Representatives, there are probably 36 elections that could go either 
way. And in my opinion, it will depend overwhelmingly on the turnout. 
Then there are in the Senate seven, perhaps eight, elections that could 
go either way, depending on the turnout. Then in the Governorships, 
there are a huge number of Governorships--there are 36 up, but there are 
probably 10 of them still very much in play. So I think that it is 
really impossible to know.
    It's clear to me that our message has resonated with the American 
people, though we have been at an enormous, enormous financial 
disadvantage, the largest in my lifetime. The Republican committees--the 
Senate committee, the House committee, and the national committee raised 
over $100 million more than their Democratic counterparts in these last 
2 years. And there's been a breathtaking amount of money spent against 
some of our congressional candidates. So I just don't know. I feel good 
about it, but it depends upon who votes.
    Mr. Smiley. You mentioned just a moment ago that this may be the 
election where the imbalance has been greatest with regard to 
fundraising in your lifetime, Republican and

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Democrat, that you've been involved in. Speaking of your lifetime, let 
me ask you whether or not it would be fair for me or anyone else to 
suggest that this election is not just important to the country, it is 
not just important to African-Americans, but it is, in fact, quite 
important to William Jefferson Clinton. Would I be wrong in my 
assessment that this may be the most important election day of your 
entire political career?
    The President. No, I don't agree with that. It's not the most----
    Mr. Smiley. Not that much riding on it?
    The President. No, no, it's not the most important election in my 
career. But it's very important to me because it will determine how much 
I can do for the American people in the next 2 years. We did very well 
here in this budget this year. We got a downpayment on our 100,000 
teachers; we got programs for hundreds of thousands of kids after 
school; we fended off a Republican attempt to raid the surplus before we 
fixed Social Security.
    But there was so much we did not do. And there is so much we still 
have to do that if we got a few more Democrats here, we could pass this 
Patients' Bill of Rights; we could have modernized schools and 100,000 
more teachers; we could raise the minimum wage; we could secure Social 
Security; we could reform Medicare in the right way; we could do 
something for child care; we could do more for the areas of our country 
which still haven't felt the economic recovery.
    And so the last 2 years of my Presidency, I think, would be far more 
focused on progress, as opposed to this Washington partisan politics. So 
I would like it very much. It's terribly important to me. But the most 
important elections were the election and reelection in '92 and '96.
    Mr. Smiley. Let me follow up on that, and again I ask this 
respectfully, and I'll move on. I promise. The reason I asked that 
question in the first place is because you and I both know what you 
personally have at stake, what personally is riding on this election 
tomorrow. And you mentioned that the two most important elections were 
the one when you were elected in '92 and, of course, reelected in '96. 
And I would expect you to say that. But the reason why I asked whether 
or not you felt there was more riding on tomorrow is precisely because 
this election, depending on the outcome, could be the beginning of the 
undoing, the unraveling of what those two elections were all about.
    The President. Well, that depends upon who votes and what the 
message is. And I hope that the American people will turn out, and I 
hope that the electorate tomorrow will reflect what we know the 
electorate as a whole feels. The American people as a whole want us to 
put this partisanship behind us, want us to get back to their business. 
They think altogether too much time is spent in Washington on the 
considerations of the politics of Washington and altogether too little 
time spent on the real problems and the real opportunities of people out 
there in the country. So I agree with that, and I think that they can do 
a lot tomorrow to reduce partisanship and to increase progress if they 
all show up.
    It's really a function of whether the people who show up tomorrow 
are fairly reflective of what all the research and all our instincts, 
mine and everybody else's, tell us where the American people as a whole 

First Family

    Mr. Smiley. We'll move on and ask a couple of questions that I admit 
at the outset I'm somewhat apprehensive in asking, but I ask them 
because they're things that you have spoken about in the past, and I 
want to give you a chance to expound and extrapolate, if you will. 
You've talked in the past a great deal about atonement, leading up to 
this election day tomorrow. It seems to me that you've talked about 
atonement in two regards: one, atoning as President, and secondly, 
atoning as a husband and a father.
    With regard as atoning as President, you promised to work harder to 
be a better President. I don't know that anyone, Republican or 
Democrat--even your critics agree that you've been on a roll of late: 
the budget deal with Congress; the historic peace agreement between 
Israel and Palestine; I note last Friday the G-7 nations agreed on your 
proposal to put money into markets that are jittery at the moment. 
You're on a roll, domestically and internationally, with regard to that 
atonement issue and your being President.
    What you've not talked about much lately--and I want to give you a 
chance to respond if you so choose--is how the atonement process is 
coming along with regard to your being a

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husband and a father. What's your assessment of how that atonement 
process is coming along?
    The President. I haven't talked about it deliberately, because I 
think that it ought to be a private matter between me and my family. All 
I can tell you is I'm working at it very hard, and I think it's terribly 
important. It's more important than anything else in the world to me--
more important than anything else in the world. But I think the less I 
say about it, the better.
    I think one of the things that I hope will come out of the 
reassessment of this whole business is a conviction again, which I 
believe the American people already have, that even people in public 
life deserve some measure of private space within which to have their 
family lives and to deal with their--both the joys and the trials of 
their personal lives. So I don't think I should say more about it except 
that I'm working at it.


    Mr. Smiley. I respect that.
    As you know, there was not a single reference--not a single 
reference--to Whitewater, as your White House staff and the entire 
Clinton administration reminds us every day--not a single reference to 
Whitewater in the Starr report. On the eve of this election day, though, 
it occurs to me that you still, though, have not been, despite that 
reality, you still have not been officially exonerated with regard to 
the Whitewater matter. I'm wondering whether or not that frustrates you 
in any way, whether you're bothered by the fact that there wasn't 
anything in the report but you still have not been officially 
    The President. Well, I think the American people should draw some 
comfort from the fact that after 4 years and $40 million, reviewing all 
my checks, contributions, and the pressure--the extraordinary pressure a 
lot of people were put under to say things damaging, that nothing has 
come out. That's because neither my wife or I did anything wrong. And 
eventually that will become clear to the American people. I hope it will 
become clear sooner rather than later, but I know that. I knew that in 
the beginning. I knew it from the start. And so I'm at peace about that, 
and I'll just have to let what others do be a matter for them to decide.

Rightwing Conspiracy

    Mr. Smiley. ``A vast rightwing conspiracy''--I'm sure you've heard 
those words somewhere before--``a vast rightwing conspiracy,'' of 
course, uttered by your wife on the ``Today'' show a few months ago. 
Since she uttered those words, three things have happened: Number one, 
as I just suggested, the Starr report has come out with embarrassing, 
lurid, salacious details, and no mention of Whitewater; we have since 
had a straight party-line partisan vote in the House to move forward 
with this impeachment inquiry; thirdly, the Washington Post tells us 
last week that the Speaker of the House, Mr. Gingrich himself, was 
behind these personal attack ads against you.
    I'm wondering, in light of that, and a number of other things I'm 
sure you could list, but those are three things that come to my mind--
I'm wondering whether now we can reassess the First Lady's comments and 
ask whether or not Hillary Rodham Clinton was right when she suggested 
that there is, in fact, a vast rightwing conspiracy.
    The President. Well, I think the facts speak for themselves, and as 
more facts come out, they will speak for themselves. The only thing I 
would say is there's a sort of a permanent political class in Washington 
that tends to thrive on such matters because they're not affected by 
what I came here to do.
    In other words, most of these people, it doesn't matter to them 
whether there's a Patients' Bill of Rights or not, to make sure doctors, 
instead of accountants, make health care decisions. It certainly doesn't 
matter to them whether there's a minimum wage increase. It doesn't 
matter to them whether we have 100,000 more teachers and modernized 
schools. It doesn't matter to them whether we save Social Security for 
the 21st century.
    So there is a group in America where the acquisition of political 
power is more important than the purpose for which it's used. To me, I 
never came here to be part of that permanent political class. I didn't 
come--I'm not a Washington person, in that sense. I don't expect to be 
when I'm not President anymore. My whole goal was to use these precious 
years the American people have given me to deal with the challenges 
facing our country. I've done my best to do it, to move our country 
forward and to bring our country together.

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    And I have to say, I think I haven't really succeeded in reconciling 
the political parties in Washington. There is still too much 
partisanship here. But to me, that's what's going on here. This is a 
question of whether you've got politics or people as your top goal.

Politics of Hate

    Mr. Smiley. That phrase, ``a vast rightwing conspiracy,'' would seem 
to suggest on some level that there is a visceral hatred, if you will, 
of Bill and Hillary Clinton in this city by some folk. You buy that? Let 
me ask you, first of all, if you buy that, Mr. President. And number 
two, if you buy that, let me just ask you in a very point-blank and 
direct way--and I'm not so sure I've ever heard you asked this question 
before, so maybe I'm a revolutionary here, I don't know, maybe I'm not--
why do they hate you so much?
    The President. Again, I think that people whose whole life is 
whether or not they are in or out of power, rather than what they do 
with power when they get it, don't like it when they're out. And a lot 
of these people really never thought there would be another Democratic 
President in our lifetimes. They really didn't think so. And all the 
things they said about Democrats--that we couldn't run the economy, that 
we couldn't balance the budget, that we couldn't deal responsibly with 
welfare, that we couldn't be tough and smart on crime, that we couldn't 
be strong on foreign policy--all those things that they told the 
American people about Democrats generally over decades turned out not to 
be true. And we now have 6 years of evidence that it's not true.
    So there are some, again, whose life is solely--they evaluate 
themselves solely on whether they're in or out, who are very angry about 
that. And I'm sorry for them. I'm not even angry at them anymore. I'm 
just sorry, because I believe that there are people in the Republican 
Party who are good people, who have honest differences of opinion with 
me, that I can work with, and we could have these debates and work 
through to have a good, positive result.
    I think--but the ones that are consumed with personal animosity 
toward me or toward Hillary, I think, are just angry because they 
thought they and their crowd would always be able to drive up to the 
West Wing to work every day. To me, I just never thought of it that way. 
To me, every hour I serve here is an honor and a gift. But I never 
thought of myself as someone whose whole life was evaluated based on 
whether you were in or out. I think it's what you do when you're in that 

Politics of Race

    Mr. Smiley. Speaking of what you do while you're in that counts, 
there are a significant number of African-Americans who feel that part 
of the reason why this hatred exists, part of the reason why this 
animosity exists, part of the reason why this friction exists between 
you and them is because you have been not just friendly to black folk 
and people of color--a lot of folk are friendly to black folk, and they 
speak and pat you on the back and stop by your fundraiser and your 
dinner--it's not just that you're friendly to black folk, it's that you 
appear downright comfortable with black folk and other people of color, 
and women, for that matter.
    I'm wondering whether or not, with regard to the issues, you think 
that the reason why this hatred exists is because you have been so 
comfortable, so open, so accepting of diversity. Toni Morrison, as I'm 
sure you know, recently in the New Yorker magazine wrote that you are 
the first--Bill Clinton is the first black President. There are lot of 
black folk who feel that way about you. I'm wondering whether or not you 
    The President. [Laughter] I love that.
    Mr. Smiley. ----might that be part of the reason why people don't 
like you, because you're just so friendly and so open to this concept of 
    The President. Well, it might be. I don't know. I honestly don't 
know the answer to that. I can tell you that I have watched over time, 
since I was a little boy, and we had all the racial troubles in the 
South when I was a kid--from that day to the present moment, where I'm 
trying to stop a disaster in Kosovo from occurring, and then we've dealt 
with Northern Ireland and the Middle East and tribal warfare in Africa 
and all these things--there are many different kinds of people in the 
world, but there are certainly two different kinds. There are those 
which draw their strength and identity from what they aren't and who 
they aren't, and they feel more secure when they know they're in a more 
dominant position over others. And then there are people who believe 
that they're more secure and stronger when they're unified

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with others, when they're connecting with people, when they're reaching 
across the lines that divide, and they don't feel threatened by the 
success of people who are totally different from them. And I was raised 
by my mother and by my grandparents to be in that latter group. And I 
don't claim any credit for it. That's just the way I am.
    And this racial issue, to me, it goes way back before I was ever in 
politics. It's been a passion of a lifetime. I think my life is more 
interesting, more fun, more fulfilled because I have been able to reach 
out and have friends of different races and different backgrounds. And I 
just thank God that I was put in a position of political influence for a 
period of time where I could help more people to come into that 
mainstream of American life. I think this country is better off, and I 
think people individually are better off when they are connecting with 
people who are different from them. To me, that's one of the things that 
makes life interesting.
    So it may be that that's a source of anger and animosity toward me. 
But if it is, I've gotten a lot more from this than I've paid for it. I 
can't imagine any more important job for the President right now than 
trying to unify this country across racial lines.

African-Americans and the Democratic Party

    Mr. Smiley. As you know, the black community does not think or act 
monolithically. And while you have enjoyed a great deal of support--
overwhelming, in fact--in the African-American community, there are some 
black folk who think that you have not been liberal enough. You are not 
the most liberal President, let's face it, that we've ever had. There 
are some folk who think that the black community still is taken for 
granted by the Democratic Party; that we are blindly loyal to the 
Democratic Party; that the Democratic Party wants black votes, but they 
don't put the resources they ought to put to secure those black votes, 
and then the weekend before election day everybody comes running to the 
black community begging for support.
    What do you say to folk who think--black folk, particularly--who 
think that they're being taken advantage of, being taken for granted by 
the Democratic Party, and that too many of us, quite frankly, are 
blindly loyal, as black folk, to the Democratic Party?
    The President. I would say a couple of things. First of all, I don't 
think the evidence supports that in my case. I mean, in these 6 years, 
whether you measure it by Cabinet members, by 54 Federal judges, by any 
other standard, I have tried to make black Americans an integral part of 
our national life and my administration.
    Secondly, if you look at the record here--there are those who say 
I'm not liberal enough. Let's talk about that in two different ways. 
What is the standard? This economic policy I have pursued and the 
special efforts that we've made through empowerment zones and community 
development banks and other initiatives--housing initiatives in the 
inner city--has given us the highest homeownership in history, the 
highest African-American small-business ownership in history, the lowest 
African-American poverty ever recorded, more access to college than ever 
before. So I think that if you just look at that, I think the evidence 
is clear.
    Now, there are those who say that I was wrong to sign the welfare 
bill that I signed. But I vetoed the welfare bills that would have taken 
food and medical guarantees away from poor children and families. The 
bill I signed simply says that every State has to make an effort to get 
able-bodied people in the workplace, and if able-bodied people can go 
into the workplace, they shouldn't be able to draw public assistance 
after a certain period of time. I think I was right about that.
    The crime bill I signed puts 100,000 more police on the street, but 
it also gives young people programs and ways to stay off the street. 
Now--so I believe that.
    Then there are some African-Americans who say that I'm not 
conservative enough because they favor--and they say they favor the 
Republicans on business grounds. It would be hard to argue that. We've 
done more to promote economic activity in the inner city and for 
African-Americans than anybody ever has.
    So I actually would like it, believe it or not, someday if we could 
restore some balance in the party's appeal to the races. But as long as 
the Republicans follow the policies they're following, and if Democrats 
will follow the policies I've followed, I think that African-Americans 
are simply making the right decision based on what's right for their 
families and children.
    I think most white Americans ought to be voting for us. Look at the 
economy. Look at the crime rate. Look at the welfare rolls. Look

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at the position of our country in the world. The truth is, I think you 
could make a compelling case that a lot of the non-African-Americans who 
vote for the Republicans are doing the irrational thing. They're voting 
against their self-interest and what's best for our country and what's 
good and strong for our country.
    If you listen to what I say--the speech I gave in that Baltimore 
church yesterday, I could have made that speech in a white church. I 
could have made that speech to a white civic club. I believe that what 
I'm trying to do is to unify America, not divide it.
    Mr. Smiley. I know that you are tight on time, and I appreciate your 
sitting down with me, and I'm getting some time cues here, so if I can 
squeeze out a couple of quick questions.
    The President. Sure.

Apology for Slavery

    Mr. Smiley. Far be it for me to rush the President off. I'd talk to 
you for another hour and a half. Let me squeeze out a couple more if I 
    When we last sat down--speaking of black folk--when we last sat down 
one-on-one, just a few months ago, you granted me an exclusive interview 
in Capetown, South Africa, as you recall. I thank you again for that. 
One of the questions I was pressing you on that particular day, as you 
were about to make a trip to Goree Island--I pressed you that day on 
whether or not when you got to Goree Island you were going to offer an 
apology for slavery. You made some rather provocative statements, but 
you didn't quite, in the minds of many, offer that apology for slavery. 
Your race commission, subsequently, has punted, if I could use that 
phrase, the question of the slavery apology. I'm wondering whether or 
not, since no one seems to want to apologize for slavery, whether or not 
in your mind that means that this country, America, is unapologetic 
about slavery.
    The President. No, no. First of all, I think Dr. John Hope Franklin, 
who is the Chairman of my race commission, has enormous credibility with 
all African-Americans.
    Mr. Smiley. Indeed he does--indeed.
    The President. And I think what he decided was that he did not 
want--that, in effect, the country had been apologizing for it for over 
100 years in the sense that it was abolished after the Civil War by, 
first, the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, and then by 
the passage of the constitutional amendment, the 13th amendment, and 
then that we had been on this long struggle, that it was self-evident 
that what we had done was wrong, and that we had been struggling to 
overcome it, and that all of us--at least virtually all thinking 
Americans and feeling Americans--were deeply sorry for what had happened 
and that we were still struggling to overcome it.
    But I think that Dr. Franklin and the race commission concluded that 
it might be a diversion from our present task, which is to look at the 
problems we have today and to figure out how to overcome them, and to 
recognize, too, that the race issue in America is today and going 
forward even more complicated because it's not just about black and 
white Americans; it's about Hispanic-Americans; it's about Asian-
Americans; it's about people from South Asia, people from the Middle 
    I gave a speech Saturday--a little talk--on my school modernization 
initiative over in Virginia at an elementary school, where there were 
children in just this elementary school from 23 different countries. And 
they said they were very sorry that they could not have simultaneous 
translation of my remarks in Spanish and Arabic.
    So what I think the race commission wanted to do was to say, ``Hey, 
the overwhelming majority of white Americans regret the whole episode of 
slavery, have been trying in various ways with fits and starts to 
overcome it for 100 years, have to continue to try to overcome it, but 
we should focus now on where we are and where we're going.''

1998 Elections

    Mr. Smiley. Last question. I asked you earlier how important you 
thought this election day was for you. I've tried in the few moments 
that I've had to ask you how important you think it is for black 
America, specifically. Let me close by asking you how important you 
think this election is for the entire country tomorrow.
    The President. Well, that's the most important issue. And I think 
it's really a question of what the country wants us to do here. Do they 
want more of the last 8 months of partisanship, or would they like more 
progress? Do they want us to have more Washington politics as usual, or 
would they like the people of America to be the center of our focus?
    When I say--we've got a mission here. We want to continue to prepare 
America for the

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new century. We want to finish the agenda that was unfinished in this 
last year. We want the Patients' Bill of Rights. We want modernized 
schools. We want an increase in the minimum wage. We want to save Social 
Security. We want to do more for child care for working people. We want 
to do more to spread economic opportunity where it hasn't been spread 
and to keep this economy going. We have a mission, an agenda. It's not 
about politics; it's about people.
    And I can just tell you that this election will be determined by two 
groups of people: those who vote and those who don't. And if I were 
sitting out there in America, I'd say, I believe I'll be among those who 
    Mr. Smiley. Mr. President, as always, a pleasure to sit down and 
talk to you, and I thank you for taking the time doing it and address us 
    The President. Thank you.
    Mr. Smiley. Thank you, sir.
    The President. Good to see you.

Note: The interview began at 11:13 a.m. in the Cabinet Room at the White 
House. The transcript was embargoed for release until 11:30 p.m. In his 
remarks, the President referred to Dr. John Hope Franklin, Chairman, 
President's Advisory Board on Race. A tape was not available for 
verification of the content of this interview.