Bill Clinton. (photo: Getty)
19 September 15
Among political figures, only President Kennedy has appeared more often on this magazine’s covers. Even as Hillary takes over the stage, Bill remains a powerful and enlivening public force. And is likely to remain so, even into the administration of his third successor. We spoke with him again recently.
n July 2, 1964, when Lyndon Johnson turned to his aide Bill Moyers after signing the Civil Rights Act and said, “I’ve just handed the South to the Republicans for a generation,” Bill Clinton was seventeen and had already decided to run for public office, as a civil-rights Democrat. It was as a Southerner whose moral imagination had been awakened by the racism all around him that Clinton would shape his political career—in a canny, treacherous, and open rebellion against the values that prevailed in the place that created him. And so it would be that Clinton—the greatest political talent of his generation, the one his opponents feared most and most ardently sought to destroy—not only would learn to survive but would become the embodiment of American potential in the late twentieth century. He would take those survival skills with him onto the world stage, which meant that he would have fixed principles but everything else would be negotiable. This approach often vexed both his opposition and his allies as he led the world during the first chaotic decade after the fall of global Communism and faced the rise of global jihadism, genocide in the hearts of Europe and Africa, economic globalization, the realignment of Congress, the birth of the Internet, and his own political mortality. But by the end of his second term, when he appeared on the December 2000 cover of Esquire, he had the highest approval rating of any departing president in history. We recently sat down with the former president to talk about how the world has changed in the fifteen years since he left office.
ESQUIRE: Mr. President, the world became a very different place after your presidency. Was 9/11 the pivotal point for the time in which we live now? What in your mind has been its effect, and how long will the effects of that day play out?
Well, let me just say a few words about the time I served and then the impact of 9/11. Because of the economic growth we had and because it was the only period where prosperity was broadly shared through every sector of the American economy, America was in a very strong position to try to take the end of the cold war and build new partnerships of all kinds, which I tried to do. We did have terrorist threats, many of which we defused and prevented from getting worse, sometimes through skill, sometimes through luck. You gotta get lucky in this business, ’cause it ain’t like baseball; you don’t get credit for saves. You’re supposed to win 100 percent of the time, and it’s difficult to do. So when 9/11 happened, it was such a shock to us that there were a lot of short- and long-term consequences.
We tended to believe that the right thing to do had to be something big, because what happened to us was big. So I personally have always believed insufficient attention was paid to fixing little things. Like, there were two FBI agents, in Arizona and Minnesota, who did call the FBI office and say, “We’ve got all these guys up here flying airplanes and they’re not practicing taking off or landing; there’s something wrong here.” And it apparently just went into a file, and nobody did anything about it in the central office. I always thought more should have been done about immediate information sharing.
And when I went before the 9/11 Commission, I remember telling them, “Look, I’m gonna save you some time. I’m not interested in covering my backside. If you find something I did wrong, by all means tell it and let’s figure out what to do about it.” I’ll give you an example: After Oklahoma City, I issued an executive order that required greater cooperation between the FBI and the CIA, and I asked them to put a senior officer in each place doing that job. But because there had been a history going back to Watergate of the president taking a hands-off attitude toward the FBI, I didn’t micromanage [that effort] the way I otherwise would have, and they basically didn’t do very much with it. So as the 9/11 Commission reported, the CIA knew some things, the FBI knew others. The hijackers were in this country a long time before this happened. Several months, anyway. So I think that one of the things that I worried about after 9/11 was that we were gonna try to find big, potentially bureaucratic, and maybe overly intrusive ways of dealing with this instead of identifying the cracks in a more nimble system.
The president’s first national-security responsibility is to prevent big, bad things from happening. This is a big, bad thing. And it’s worth a lot of effort to do that, but at all costs you have to try to do it without compromising the future of our children and the character of country, which is a free place. So we’ve been debating that ever since. I think that debate is healthy, just like I think the debate’s healthy about moving away from “three strikes and you’re out” and other erosions of judicial discretion, and ending the distinction between sentencing laws for crack cocaine and cocaine. I think all that’s good. So I think we may have overreacted a little bit after 9/11, but we were trying to keep big, bad things from happening. And thank God no big, bad thing has happened again.
But it’s an ongoing battle. Because the things that benefit us about globalization also burden us with great responsibilities. So I see this thing going on in some form or fashion for another twenty or thirty years. And the reason that I believe on balance the Iranian nuclear agreement is good for the country is not because I think that Iran is gonna turn into, you know, a “Kumbaya” partner, but because there are at least four other Arab states that have the capacity to become nuclear powers. And it costs a lot of money, and it’s difficult to develop, maintain, and secure a nuclear arsenal, and you always have a lot of loose nuclear fuel, which can be sold, stolen, or given away and turned into suitcase bombs. I felt much better when [secretary of energy] Ernie Moniz went over there and became part of the deal, because he had been part of my administration and we had worked a lot on that. I’ll never forget it, he came to see me—he wasn’t yet secretary of energy, but he was in an executive position, and I knew him and trusted him; he is a brilliant man—and he said, “Look, what we have to worry about is somebody putting a Girl Scout cookie’s worth of fissile material in Timothy McVeigh’s fertilizer bomb.” And so we tried to identify every country in the world that had that much, which is a lot because of biomedical research, and then go and tell those countries what he had found with his simulations and work out arrangements with each country about what to do, because nobody wanted that to happen.
I consider it a major—I don’t know if achievement is the right word—but I think it’s a major development, given the penetration of the Pakistani military and security forces by people that we knew were sympathetic to the Taliban and then became sympathetic to Al Qaeda, that to the best of our knowledge, none of their fissile material has ever been given away, sold, or stolen. And I just didn’t want five more headaches, and I didn’t think it was good for the people in the Middle East. So now, if this deal is approved, then the ball is in Iran’s court. We’ll have to see what they continue to do, and we’ll have to continue to respond to it. But buying ten years without an Iranian nuclear weapon is a lifetime-plus in global affairs. I understand why the Arab states are worried. I understand why Israel is worried, and they’re absolutely right. But I just don’t think there’s any way Israel would be more secure if there were four or five nuclear powers in the Middle East and you had all that fissile material floating around that anybody could get a hold of.
The real dilemma for all of us over the next twenty years is going to be that the future is going to have way more positive possibilities because of our interdependence, but also continued opportunities for hacking, for cybersecurity problems, and for the spread of deadly technologies, with a lot of confused, undereducated, and unemployed young people in the world, and with a global shortage of jobs for young people, opportunities to do destructive things. Young people are more vulnerable to the siren songs of fundamentalism and the social media. And if they get up thinking tomorrow is going to be like yesterday, that’s a very bad thing. This is why I think it’s so important that the nation-states that are functioning work harder on shared prosperity, shared opportunities, and shared security, because that’s the great battle here.
You can’t make all this stuff happen without technology, without relatively open borders and without other people being able to use the same technology for more selfish and more lethal ends. And that’s basically where we are.
On balance, I feel good about it because we can’t turn back the clock. We’re moving toward an integrated, global society. And I think you see the rapid progress in America on the gay-rights issue, and the less rapid but in a way equally moving progress made after the terrible killings in Charleston, South Carolina, thanks to a blistering four-minute speech by a direct descendant of Jefferson Davis. That’s moving history in the right direction. It’s coming together instead of tearing apart. I’m for the coming together. I’m against the tearing apart.
When I say “the people who have defined our time,” who or what comes to mind?
Well, for me, as a baby boomer, it’s the people who led the great movements to try to make America a more just place, a better place. The civil-rights movement, the women’s-rights movement, the gay-rights movement, and the environmental movement. The idea that the world is going to have to become more accepting of diversity—and the people who don’t agree, ISIS. The world is becoming more interdependent, and national borders look more like nets than walls. The nation-state will continue to be very important, but there will be more and more and more unique, previously unforeseeable partnerships required. Alliances by issues, hard choices. How can you make a deal with Iran on nuclear capacity if they’re still gonna sponsor Hamas and Hezbollah? How can you break down barriers between government, business, and NGOs when you should and keep the barriers when you shouldn’t? All these questions are going to present problems, and the nongovernmental movement is going to be filled with good actors that some nations are increasingly trying to control—China and Russia, for example—and also bad actors that can be very successful. You could argue that ISIS is the most successful NGO—it’s like the Gates Foundation versus ISIS, you know? They’re a nongovernmental organization.
There are still lots of big ideas revolutionizing the modern world in very good ways. The intersection of science and technology, for example, shows that we should now treat cancers based on what’s in our genome rather than where they are in our bodies. A big National Institute of Cancer lateral research project has just been announced on that. That’s what’s being done at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and MD Anderson Cancer Center. One of the pioneers is a South African-born American doctor of Chinese descent, Patrick Soon-Shiong, in southern California. He’s the first person that ever talked to me about this, and he was treating people with late stage cancers with a program he developed. Once a person’s genome was properly sequenced, Soon-Shiong could use an analytic program that would in forty-seven seconds tell you of all the available chemotherapies—not just for a lung cancer or a colon cancer or a pancreatic cancer, but of all of them, one through five—which ones would most likely work on this person. And now he’s working on identifying in every tumor a protein he says is unique to you and me. If we both had, let’s say, colon cancer, our genomes are not only different, but we’d have an identifying protein, and he’s trying to develop a killer cell that can go in and take out that protein and collapse the tumor. He says if it can be done to scale, it could raise all cancer survival rates above 85 percent. That, along with the work Ray Kurzweil is doing at Singularity University in California, signals a very exciting time to be alive. And if we can continue the trend toward rapidly driving down the cost of medicine as we did with AIDS drugs, I think that will be an idea that shapes our time.
So in the modern world, the ideas that will shape our time will be the intersection of science and technology, medicine and health and technology; the ability to eradicate poverty—we’ve already exceeded the poverty goals in the first Millennium Development Goals; the ability to identify and lend dignity and importance to every life, because there will be fewer people that need to live and die anonymously in the world; and the ability to find ways to cooperate against the forces that are using the same exact technologies and mobility and porous borders to try to gain a very different future. Boko Haram, Al Shabab, Ansar Dine, ISIS, et al. And underneath it all, in the twenty-first century we will be called upon, I think and I hope, to resolve the oldest dilemma of human society, which is “What does it mean to be a human being?” Our identity crisis. Which is more important, our differences or our common humanity?
What do you consider to be the world-historic effects of the Internet, both good and bad?
Well, the good news, first of all—an eight-year-old can get on the Internet and learn things in thirty seconds that I had to go to college to learn. And we’re only beginning to tap its potential to universalize and raise the quality of education and training and knowledge generally. The social media can be used to do wonderful things. Haiti is the first international disaster dealt with in America through cell phone contributions. We gave a billion dollars in private funds to Haiti after the earthquake. The median contribution was twenty-six dollars, because you could text “$10” in America and “$5” in Canada on your cell phone. Just a few years earlier, in the [Indian Ocean] tsunami, we gave a billion dollars, with a median contribution of fifty-six dollars, because it was the first one ever done over the Internet. Secondly, because we kept it relatively open and free, there’s a bunch of junk on the Internet. Not only hate speech, but just plain crazy theories. I remember when I was arguing with President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa about AIDS. He’s a highly intelligent man and the most gifted leader in Africa at the time on economic policy, but the exploding AIDS epidemic caused a lot of emigration into South Africa, and wrecked a lot of what Mbeki wanted to do at home. He was under a lot of pressure not to take it seriously and not to do things, but Mbeki found two articles on the Internet and, oh God, that was all I heard about. It’s a mixed blessing, but there’s no question that the power of the Internet to do crowdfunding, to provide information, is staggering.
After the tsunami, when I was the UN [Special envoy for relief efforts], we put all those fishing families back in boats. We gave them cell phones in a lot of places and their average incomes went up 30 percent, just because they could find out what the real price of fish was up and down the coast. So on balance it’s a blessing, but every technology is democratizing in ways that can be good and bad. It also permits ISIS to send out propaganda that got two blonde-haired, blue-eyed Austrian teenage girls to try to go and join the Jihad, you know? But underneath it’s a very old struggle. We’ve had dramatic reductions in poverty, dramatic reductions in child and infant mortality. We have found more and more economically affordable ways to change how we produce and consume energy, food, and water, which will be critical to dealing with not only climate change but rising global populations as well. Increasingly the people we want to serve in government will need the talent to figure out how to minimize hacking while maximizing the freedom of the internet; how to win these social media battles and identify people who may be troubled to the point of instability and doing something terrible by what they read. It will make delivery systems of all kinds even more important. I’ll just give you one example. There’s been an explosion of deaths of younger single women and college kids from opiates that are in medicine, like Oxycontin. Two young men I knew that died within weeks of each other a few years ago got me interested in this, including one who had worked for me and worked for Hillary and had a brilliant future. He was not a drug addict; went out with his girlfriend and drank four or five beers. She gave him an Oxycontin and said, “This will give you a buzz,” and it did. But nobody to speak of understood the biochemistry that if you mix the two, it deadens the part of your brain that tells your body to keep breathing when you are asleep, so he never woke up. If it had happened at noon he would still be with us. He could have been revived. So we’re trying to distribute Oxycontin in a spray form—a usable form on college campuses all over America. That’s the sort of thing that there will be a huge premium on—the understanding of how to multiply fixes that can only be applied in individual and small group contexts and therefore require very good supply chains. It’s one of the reasons that it’s important that Coca-Cola partnered with Dean Kamen to deliver his water machine, which will take the most fetid water and turn it into drinkable form, because Coca-Cola has a great supply chain. Kamen never got it off the ground because nobody could afford it, but Coca-Cola can afford them, and the point is that once you get a certain number of them, they’ll become cheap.
The budget was balanced at the end of your presidency and we were in surplus. Now, though, it seems that we are in an age of austerity, or something close to austerity. How long do you think this retrenchment will go on, and will we ever invest boldly again?
Well, I believe a lot of decisions have been made both by leaders and voters based on a laudable determination that we have accumulated in the past too many debts and we have guaranteed too much in terms of accumulated liabilities. And our projected future growth won’t support them. There have been too many governments that were both profligate and riddled with corruption, making promises to people we couldn’t pay for and allowing usually the wealthiest people in the country not to really pay taxes, so there was this impulse to retrench. The problem is that the impulse took hold at a time when, because of the financial crash, we were more at risk of deflation than high interest rates from big debt. What happens if you’ve got too much debt? Your interest rates go through the roof and there’s nothing left for the present or the future. And so you can’t explain that in ten seconds. You’ve gotta say, “Look, your impulse for the long run is right. We should be living within our means.” Everybody’s forgotten John Maynard Keynes’s conservative side. He said that when interest rates are higher than inflation and growth is normal, government should run balanced budgets or surplus. But when you’re in a period of deflation—when interest rates are lower than inflation—more austerity just puts you in a deeper hole. When Greece gave its first honest budget under [Prime Minister] George Papandreou in 2009, which destroyed his party because he agreed to do it, but at least it was the beginning, their debt was about 125 percent of GDP. Today it’s almost 180 percent of GDP. So they made all these bond payments and where have they gotten? Deeper in the hole. There’s nothing wrong with Greece, the people, the vast natural resources, its potential for clean energy development, which has done better than most people know. They’ve been saddled with a government that made promises it couldn’t keep and elites that don’t pay taxes. So the answer, which was to impose greater austerity on ordinary Greeks and cream the small business sector; to never miss a payment to the bankers; to not allow any haircut on the debt or a very long stretching out, has only made their problems worse. There was literally no opportunity Greece could have done anything with their debt relief, because there was no money tied to investment. And these are the kinds of things that we have to work out in an interdependent world.
When [British Prime Minister] David Cameron was re-elected in the United Kingdom, he could say, “See, we proved austerity worked.” And I’ve always been grateful to him, because the one thing he refused to be austere about was his foreign assistance. He kept helping poor people around the world. But it’s not that simple. They didn’t have austerity; they just had inflationary policies through the Central Bank rather than the government. He could have government austerity because he had the European counterpart of Ben Bernanke at the Central Bank, a man who had been head of the Central Bank of Canada and has done a fabulous job. But Greece has no Central Bank, in effect, so since the European Central Bank couldn’t do that for Greece, [Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund], Christine Lagarde, tried to and it was insufficiently funded. I’m hopeful that this new agreement will allow at least a stretching out of the debt and the money they set aside to develop Greece will be put in immediately. And if you have proper oversight to eliminate both corruption and basically sending the money off into things that won’t work, you may be able to put together that package. But in America and in Europe, everywhere else, that’s really the issue. China’s stock market crashed, but that’s just because they’re in a different stage of development. They had growth all the way through and they had a bubble they didn’t know how to regulate. There’s still too much of the economy state-controlled, so they’ll work that out.
Let me tell you what I feel good about. I feel good about India being under a leader who understands that their biggest problem is that they have great entrepreneurs and great tech centers, but 100 percent of the gains have gone to 35 percent of the people, because the country is really not connected in virtual or real infrastructure or investment patterns. So [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is determined to do that, and he’s the first guy in a long time to have enough votes in the Indian Parliament to actually do it. So I feel good about that, as long as they don’t get too nationalistic and really punish non-Hindu minorities and discriminate against them. He’s got a chance to really be successful. I feel good about Shinzo Abe, [Prime Minister] of Japan. As long as he doesn’t get too nationalistic, I think it’s a good thing for Japan to want to participate in regional trade and regional defense initiatives. And Abe has concluded that at this stage in their development, they’re not ready to take large numbers of immigrants. Therefore, the only thing you can do is get the oldest population in the world to work longer and get a lot more women in the workforce. The president of China is a very able man. I feel good about the internal reforms he’s trying to make to develop an economy that generates more growth out of their own consumption. And I feel disturbed about the compromises he’s made with the military, or maybe he agrees in building huge platforms out on those little islands in the China Sea to try to resolve unilaterally things that ought to be resolved in a multi-national forum. So it’s an open question, but we still have to follow what I think has proved to be the right policy with China, which is always work for the best and prepare for the worst.
Since your presidency, it seems there’s been a fight between those who would starve government and those who believe in more robust investment in human capital and in infrastructure. How about here, Mr. President, and the impulse for austerity?
Well, I believe it was an error not to invest more in infrastructure during these past few years when interest rates were low. They were lower than inflation, and the return on investment is great. The American people support investments in roads and bridges and universal broadband and free Wi-Fi and all that stuff. They are for that. They understand viscerally that our broadband access is not the best, and it’s more costly than other countries. South Korea’s download speeds are average four times ours, and its access is cheaper because the government financed the infrastructure. So they never had a debate about net neutrality. The debate about net neutrality is really a debate about two competing rights. That is, net neutrality is a good principle, but the people that invested in the infrastructure—because we did it privately—have to be able to recover their investment. And they can say—partly because we have an inadequate infrastructure—that’s fine for net neutrality, but do you really believe that an emergency communication should take a backseat to a guy downloading his fifth movie of the day? Don’t tell me about political talk and all that. All that happened because we didn’t do what we should have done in infrastructure. I think we should separate in our minds our future budget and our investments in things that would affect our future, including science and technology, with our budget for past obligations. Separate our accumulated pensions, for example, and other unpaid debts, and our budget to maintain current operations. And I think we ought to look at a lot of these future investments, in terms of the return on investment, and begin to budget in a different way. Now, any macroeconomist will tell you, “Bill Clinton’s nuts.” Because if you run a national economy, you print the money and it’s all six in one and a half dozen in the other. Macroeconomically it’s true; psychologically it’s false. And the psychology of Americans—to not have government too big and not to run uncharted debts—they’re right about it. I had three surpluses and submitted a surplus budget on the way out the door, which I was legally required to do. But that’s where I think we are.
We still haven’t sorted that out in our minds.
Two things the president has done that I really like are this Precision Medicine Initiative and the brain research. He put one hundred fifty million dollars in each one. It took us three billion dollars to sequence the human genome, and it took a long time. And now that it’s sequenced, we can do a lot of these other things quicker, but it requires more money. The estimates on the return we’ve gotten on the three billion dollars rank anywhere between seven hundred billion and a trillion dollars now. The best investment we ever made. I think that we never convinced the American people that investment decisions when interest rates are lower than inflation are functionally zero—therefore negative—are different than investment decisions when you have to worry about crowding out the private sector and their ability to get capital because you’re going to drive interest rates through the roof. It also kills the government budget because then you have to put more of it into paying interest on their accumulated debt. So what you want is more borrowing when interest rates are lower than inflation generally. And because that didn’t happen, Bernanke kept us going. But I believe this also will be a great decision facing the next twenty years.
I just went back to Bosnia for the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica [massacre], which led to the Dayton Agreement that has kept the peace for twenty years. All the publicity was about the Serbian Prime Minister being hissed and booed and having things thrown at him, but it’s much more complicated than that. That happened because the official ceremony was inside the battery plant where a lot of those kids were slaughtered. I thanked him for coming, and I said everybody else should thank him too. The mayor invited him. The mayor is a thirty-six-year-old guy who called himself “the accidental survivor.” His father and his brother were killed; every single male sixteen-year-old classmate he had was killed, and they never found them in the woods. He went outside in ninety-five degree temperature for the Muslim ceremony commemorating the dead, because they bury more people every year that they identify through DNA. I walked through that crowd, and they like America because they think we saved them, and they knew we tried for two years to get Europe involved before we did it. So all these old Muslim women were hugging me, you know, with their headscarves, and the men were shaking hands and everything. The young men who were either not alive twenty years ago or were not cognizant of what was going on were much more mixed, decidedly less cool. Not hostile, but skeptical, much less eager to shake hands with me. Why? Because all their tomorrows have been like their yesterdays. Because even though we preserved the peace, we don’t have a growing economy. We don’t have growing opportunities for them. That is the challenge everywhere. And the big idea of the next twenty years is going to be shared opportunities and shared prosperities against exclusive but fundamentally negative visions of the future like ISIS.
One of the problems is longer form journalism has become economically more challenging. We’re all on Twitter, and I like to practice saying things in one hundred and forty characters, but some things have to be discussed and understood. It caused us a fundamental problem that no one ever made the distinction between economic policies in deflationary periods and economic policies in inflationary periods. And somebody needs to draw a distinction between trying to claw your way through the misconduct of the past and the potential of the country and the resources and the people right there before your very eyes. I’ve lived with it for years as I saw the press under more and more and more economic pressure. There’s more and more and more pressure to develop a story line that just has a good guy, bad guy, A or B, and I’m very sympathetic because of the resource problem. You’ve got to pay the people you hire, you’ve got to earn a profit, you’ve got to figure out how to do it, and everybody just wants to read tomorrow’s newspaper on the internet tonight. Digest what you want to digest and go on.
I always rag on George Bush, telling him, “You said once, famously, you don’t do nuance.” But I say, “Somebody needs to do nuance. I do nuance for you. I tell everybody that I disagree with you on a lot of things, but, you know, PEPFAR was a great thing.” That’s nuance. How do you get that in your head? You’re supposed to disagree with the guy 90 percent of the time. We’ve got to explain how these things work. It is so important that people have some better understanding about the connection between all these unemployed young people and having the wrong economic policy for the moment.?