Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History

by Russell L. Riley

Hardcover, 2016





New York, NY : Oxford University Press, 2016.


"In the decade after Bill Clinton left the White House, scores of his closest aides recorded interviews with the University of Virginia's Presidential Oral History Program. The contents of these interviews are published for the first time in this volume. Based on 400 hours of candid conversations, Inside the Clinton White House adds color and nuance to our understanding of Bill Clinton and his administration"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member 1Randal
Russell Riley, the author of this fine book, is a professor at the University of Virginia's Miler Center. There he is the chairman of the "Presidential Oral History Program". For this book, Riley reviewed over 400 hours of documented conversations with 60 individuals who were involved in the presidency of William J. Clinton.
In this book you will find open and candid conversations with Clinton cabinet members, foreign heads of states, congressional members, and on and on. The topics range from domestic to foreign policy, and from the good to the bad of the administration. There is really no stone left unturned, the reader is left feeling like he was right there as events unfolded.
I was very impressed with the outright admiration expressed by the people who worked for Clinton. And by the very high regard that foreign heads of states held him in. All thought he was an amazing man, intelligent, perceptive, and charming. As a president, they could not have thought higher of him. As a person, some of them had different feelings. Clinton's personal failings affected how they felt about him, but they put those feelings aside in order to do the country's business (I have to say, I think we have all had bosses that we admired for their work, but were not thrilled with their personal lives. However, we had jobs to do, and we also trudged along to the best of our abilities).
I was also amazed at the reports of Clinton's work ethic, and of his mind. It appeared to his people that he never slept, that he would call people at 3 a.m. to say "what about this?". And his ability to multi-task was crazy! Story after story about how Clinton, during meetings, would be reading a newspaper, while also doing a crossword puzzle. You would think he would be completely "blowing you off", however, at the end of the briefing, Clinton would repeat things you said verbatim, and offer suggestions on things that you never thought of.
Along with all the good, there was of course the bad. As one cabinet member said, "well, it is a Clinton pattern to get in trouble when he is doing better". And, "he was a very smart man. But ultimately, he was weak in certain respects". Several people made comments similar to this. It seems that Clinton could not help shooting himself in the foot, repeatedly.
But, despite the bad, these people still were protective of Clinton. For example, "there are two types of Clinton haters. One type is the people who really don't like them because of what they want to accomplish...who don't like their idea of the role of government. And then there are the people who don't like them because they're jealous". Another example, "The Clinton Presidency from the very beginning...was never accepted as legitimate by the Republicans (this theme sounds familar, doesn't it?). It was a strange thing. They couldn't believe it, this '60s hillbilly-a combination of both hillbilly and Rhodes scholar-won this election". And again, "this whole notion of Clinton scandals: this is phony. Lewinsky aside, there are no Clinton scandals. 29 people in the Reagan administration were indicted for various malfeasance. But who in the Clinton administration? Did the White House counsel go to jail? Did the Attorney General go to jail, as John Mitchell did?" (Another side note: during the Reagan era, Lawrence Walsh alone secured 14 indictments (and 11 convictions) in the Iran-Contra affair). And from Judge Abner Mikva, "If I ever write anything, I'm going to write "The Nothing That Was Whitewater". There literally was nothing there, nothing. They had these massive investigations of these two-bit crooks going on it Little Rock. Clinton knew everybody in Arkansas, he knew cows and dogs and horses, and he knew crooks. It was a bad investment. They lost money on it. They took a tax deduction for their loss and that was all there was".
Finally, there is are interviews of how these "insiders" felt about Hillary Clinton. It appears that the general consensus among them is that she is the more intelligent Clinton, the more disciplined one, the more decisive one. It also appears that she also puts up with no nonsense, is all about business. And it appears that she is, for lack of a better word, feared amongst staffers. Either do the job, or get out of the way. But it also appears that they admire her for her work.
I have read many, many books about the Clinton's and their administration (and also of the Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush(s), and Obama's administrations). This one is different. It's not some former staff member trying to make him/herself look good for posterity. It's not a partisan hack job by someone with an axe to grind. What it is is a glimpse into the world of the Clinton administration, by those who lived there. I cannot recommend this book highly enough! Definitely one of my favorite books of the year.
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LibraryThing member maneekuhi
Sub-title: "An Oral History". OK, so what's an oral history? From the preface to "Inside the Clinton White House" (ICWH): "Just over a year after Bill Clinton left the presidency, a stream of his former White House aides and cabinet officers began making quiet, unannounced visits to the University of Virginia to reflect privately into a tape recorder on what they had experienced......they sat around a table talking with scholars affiliated with the university's Miller Center, a nonpartisan research institute with a special focus on the presidency.....The Clinton Project is the largest of these efforts, comprising 134 interviews collected over a ten-year span." This is my first oral history and I thought it was excellent. Informative, behind-the-scenes, and very readable.

Russell Riley is the author and editor; he is an associate professor at UVA and Co-Chair of the Presidential Oral History Program. ICWH has five parts, thirty-four chapters. The first part includes eleven chapters on pre-inauguration years; succeeding chapters include virtually all of the Clinton highlights and low points objectively and fairly comprehensively - 1993 Budget, Nafta, Health Care, Welfare Reform, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Re-election, Scandals and Impeachment, and Al Gore. There are also chapters on Clinton's Intellect and Clinton's Operating Style. Throughout there are frequent examinations of Clinton's strengths and weaknesses, however the reader must constantly remember that most of the interviewees were White House staff, so all of their comments cannot be labeled non-partisan.

I thought the format of the book was especially well done. A question related to the chapter topic would be posed and most often a number of contributors' responses would follow. These were often one or two paragraphs in length, generally to the point. As a consequence the book was very readable, and rarely bogged done in nits nor in subject matter. Later in the Preface, Riley adds: "...our experience has been that people have been remarkably frank in reporting on their successes and their failures....also were remarkably free in assessing the work of their colleagues-and the accomplishments, as well as the flaws and missed opportunities of the president they served." I would generally agree with that and I feel compelled to add that though I often vote Democrat, I am not a Bill Clinton fan; I cannot get past the scandals and their opportunity costs. My point here is that most readers who have an interest in politics and/or the inner workings of the White House, should read this book regardless of their personal feelings toward Clinton.

Some of the people who were interviewed for the program included Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright (each Secretary of State), Leon Panetta and Mack McLarty, chiefs of staff, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and several key members of Congress and foreign leaders. My major disappointment with the book was the people who did not interview: Hillary Clinton, George Stephanopoulos, Rahm Emanuel, Al Gore, Dee Dee Myers, Tony Blair. Yet they were referred to many times and often quoted by the interviewees.
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