“I’M LIKE ONE OF THOSE BABY HUEY DOLLS,” PRESIDENT William Jefferson Clinton told playwright-actress Anna Deavere Smith in November. “You punch ’em, and they come back up.” Hardly a statesmanlike self-assessment for the first Democrat since FDR to be reelected President, but apt nonetheless. In the first year of his second Administration, Clinton, 51, weathered legislative insult, physical injury, empty-nest syndrome and a variety of scandals. Yet he continued to exhibit trademark resilience: A strong economy pushed his approval rating to an impressive 60 percent. He balanced the federal budget and stood prudently firm against Saddam Hussein.
But it was a humbling setback when Clinton failed to drum up support, even among Democrats, for a bill that would have given him “fast track” authority to negotiate trade pacts without congressional approval. And, as always, Clinton’s ethics were under assault. If Whitewater seemed briefly to recede, campaign finance took its place. To the Administration’s relief, Attorney General Janet Reno chose not to appoint a prosecutor to probe White House fund-raising kaffeeklatsches, Lincoln bedroom specials and questionable phone calls. But a more lurid affair still looms: In May the Supreme Court ruled that the sexual harassment suit lodged against the President by ex-Arkansas state worker Paula Jones, who claims that she had a traumatically revealing audience with then-Governor Clinton in 1991, can proceed while he is in office.
Outwardly, at least, the First Family remains unperturbed by all the speculation. The President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who turned 50 in ’97, mirror the aging boomers who helped send them to power. Only child Chelsea, 17, fled the Big White Prison, as she calls the White House, for Stanford University. (To help fill the void, the Clintons adopted a chocolate Lab puppy, inspiring the New York Post to launch a dog-naming contest. One suggestion: 101 Donations.) The Chief Executive was fitted with hearing aids in the fall, partly a consequence of too much loud rock music. He has also begun to spend more time on the golf course. Indeed, some insiders think Clinton has lapsed into cushy lame duckhood, as preoccupied with his putter as with the rudder of state; perhaps it was metaphorical that he was hobbled for months by a knee injury after falling down golfer Greg Norman’s back steps in March. Mindful of history, however, presidential scholar Stephen Hess, for one, opts for the Baby Huey model. “President Clinton has a lot of time,” he says. “He ain’t lame yet!”
The President Looks Forward—And Back
Dec. 12, 1997, was clear and brisk in Washington, and despite a roller-coaster year, Bill Clinton was buoyant. Christmas is his favorite season, and throughout the White House no less than 36 pine trees were festooned with 47,950 white lights, 1,464 burgundy and gold bows and 2,352 ornaments made by volunteers across the U.S. The President was eagerly awaiting two weekend arrivals: that of First Daughter Chelsea, back for the holidays after her first semester at Stanford, and the family’s new chocolate Labrador, named Buddy after much consideration. Shortly after dusk, Clinton met in the Oval Office with PEOPLE managing editor Carol Wallace and Washington bureau chief Garry Clifford. The President appeared trim (he lost 20 pounds this year) and vigorous. Eager to talk about the watershed moments in his private and public life, he held forth on subjects ranging from his second-term accomplishments to his favorite movies.
Are you going to walk the dog?
How many times a day?
It depends on what’s called for. I don’t know. I hope we’ll get to run some together. Tony Harrington [Clinton’s former campaign lawyer], the man who gave me this dog, had it in his training program. So I won’t have to do all the training from scratch. I’ve done that before; I can do it. But I’m pleased that I don’t have to do it.
Can Socks and your new pet peacefully coexist?
It’s going to be my first big challenge, you know. Here I am working on peace in Ireland and the Middle East. Now I have to make it in my own household. We’ll just see if I can work it out. I think I can.
In 1996, Mrs. Clinton told TIME magazine that the two of you might be interested in adopting a child. Is the dog a replacement?
[Laughter] I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ll enjoy it. You know, from the time I was 4 or 5, 1 had a dog. Then I went to college and law school and went away to England, and I didn’t have one. I didn’t get another one until I got elected governor, and from ’79 until ’90 I had a cocker spaniel. Chelsea was so attached to our dog Zeke; he ran with me, and he would run off. He must have been hit by a car three or four times. We lost count of his broken bones and everything, but the dog just kept going—kind of like me [laughter]—the dog was sort of a metaphor for my life, I think.
When our wonderful dog finally died, Chelsea didn’t want another one right then. Not long after, Socks strayed into our life, and we kept him, and I’ve enjoyed the cat immensely.
But a lot of people were suggesting, well, maybe I should get a dog when Chelsea went off to college. Chelsea and Hillary knew how much I loved dogs, and we actually got a book on dogs when we were in Martha’s Vineyard on vacation this August. It showed hundreds of different types of dogs, and I talked to people about whether I should go down to the pound and get a dog, could I find a good dog there and everything. I was just looking, then all of a sudden Tony Harrington called and offered me this dog. Love at first sight, that’s how it happened.
Speaking of new additions, could I ask you to fill in this blank? If my wife had given birth to septuplets 20 years ago, I would have—-
[Long, long pause] I would have done an even better job of sharing the child-rearing activities. [Laughter] That is, if I wanted to keep the family together, I would have.
What advice would you give Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey?
Love those kids and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It takes a village.
If in 10 years Chelsea came to you and Mrs. Clinton and said, “I would like to be a single mother,” what would you tell her?
It would depend on the facts. If she said she wanted to have a child out of wedlock, I would discourage her from doing that. If she said that she was not married and didn’t plan to get married any time soon and would like to adopt a child, I would encourage her, if that’s what she wanted to do. If in 10 years it’s like it is today, there will be enough kids out there who don’t have homes, and placement in a single-parent home, if the parent is self-sufficient and stable and reliable, might be in the best interest of the child.
You know, Hillary and I just spent an enormous amount of time trying to promote adoption and placement of children. Last year we adopted a child tax credit for adoption. This year we reworked the adoption laws, and it was a wonderful time. A lot of members of Congress in both parties were actively involved. These are issues that Hillary was talking to me about 25 years ago.
Many of our readers are baby boomers and, like you and Mrs. Clinton, are experiencing first-time empty nest. How did you feel when you dropped Chelsea off at Stanford?
I felt a mixture of pride and excitement for her, and a sense of pride that her mother and I had done the best we could. And I was enormously interested in trying to learn everything I could about the place, because I wanted to imagine what her life would be like. I felt all those things at once. They were all bouncing around inside.
Do you remember what you said to Mrs. Clinton after you left?
No. I just remember standing in Chelsea’s dorm room the last night before we left and looking out the window, and I was thinking about all the first days of schools 1 took her to and how it would never happen again. But I kept saying to Hillary that this is what people raise their children for. This is about her, not us. That’s just what I kept saying.
How many times a week do you speak to Chelsea?
It varies, but a few times every week.
What’s your favorite form of communicating with her?
I actually like to write her letters late at night.
I most enjoy talking to her on the phone because it’s the most immediate thing, but there’s three hours time difference, so it’s hard. But when we’ve been talking about a subject where there’s something particular that’s on my mind that I want to say to her, I do prefer to write. It’s very old-fashioned, I know.
How has your relationship with Mrs. Clinton changed since Chelsea left for school?
It’s been good, you know. We like each other a lot. We have a good time together. We’ve been really busy this last month, so we haven’t had a lot of time to think about it. But we’re looking forward to having more, just personal, time. At night, if we want to go to dinner now, we can go to dinner. If we want to go down and watch a movie, we can watch a movie. We have time to ourselves, and so on that score we’re doing pretty well.
How do you remember Princess Diana?
I’d met her a couple of times, and I’d had some correspondence from her. Hillary spent more time with her than I had. We had a lot of mutual friends. I liked her very much. I thought she had a lot of guts, and I think she really tried to do right by her kids, which 1 think is still the most important job anybody ever has in life. Anyway, I liked her. I miss her. And I wish she were still around.
Concerning how Diana died, here’s a question from the 7-year-old daughter of our news editor: Do you wear a seat belt?
Well, the truth is, in the backseat of the White House limo, I don’t. I assume that there may be some reason that I haven’t worn one—no one’s said anything to me about it. If I was asked today, I don’t even know if there is a seat belt in the backseat of the limo. Before I became President, I never got into any vehicle without putting a seat belt on. I mean, I was a fanatic. The last time I got to drive, I was out at the Secret Service training facility [in Beltsville, Md.], and they were driving through one of their speed drills; then they let me try it. I got to do this sort of J-turn where you back up and pivot the car around. I certainly had my seat belt on then. It makes a huge difference.
How do you feel about criticism that you are not as involved in your job now as you were during your first term? Is the thrill of being President gone?
[Emphatically] No, the thrill is not gone, and look what we did. In 1997 we got the balanced budget, which was not just a balanced budget; it has the biggest increase in national help—for people to finance college education—since the GI bill, the biggest increase in investment in children’s health since Medicaid in ’65, the biggest increase in public school investment since 1965—this is enormous stuff. These are huge accomplishments.
There’s been adoption reform, NATO expansion, the agreement in Kyoto in which 160 nations committed to reduce greenhouse gases.
So I think it’s been an incredible year, and without a fair amount of energy, I don’t think I could have pulled that off. You know, I had a fair amount of political activity this year. We paid down a lot of the Democratic Party’s debt from the ’96 election, and all the controversy surrounding that, and it’s just been a very good, productive year, and I think next year will be better.
In the State of the Union speech you will see a whole new round of initiatives building on what we’ve done. So the thrill has not gone; neither is the activity gone.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reassessed JFK’s legacy in his controversial book, The Dark Side of Camelot. You are a great admirer of JFK’s. Did you read Hersh’s book?
Do you plan to?
No, but I’ll tell you what I did do. I have read huge chunks of Ernest May and the other gentleman’s books [Philip Zelikow] based on Kennedy’s tapes and the Cuban missile crisis, and it made me feel good about his leadership under very difficult circumstances and feel good about my country as I read that. You know, the other business—I don’t have any interest in reading it.
How has the Paula Jones suit and its relentless coverage in the press affected you and your relationship with your family?
[Abruptly] I don’t know how it’s affected them. It hasn’t affected my relationship with them at all.
How do you deal with it?
I try to deal with it the way I deal with everything else. I deal with it for what it is. We live in a time when there are people who are going to employ whatever means they have available to hurt the Presidency and to weaken the President. And everything has become politics now. There are no limits anymore. I think that’s regrettable, but what I have to do is try to rise above it.
Every day I spend, every minute I spend thinking about it, I give my adversaries a victory because that’s what they want. Every minute I spend thinking about it is a minute I don’t spend thinking about the American people and their future and my job, and so the way I deal with it is this: I do exactly the minimum
I’m required to do by the lawyers in any of these things, and I try to discipline myself not to give one ounce of emotional energy to it so that I’m still free to be President, because you know, in three years and a month or so from now, I won’t be.
There has been widespread speculation on where you’ll live after you get out of the White House. There have been more sightings of you than Elvis.
Where are you going to be, and what would you like to be doing?
I’m going to build my library in Little Rock, so I’ll live at home some. Where else I’ll live depends a lot on what Hillary wants to do, as well as what I do. You know, for 20 years we have lived and worked in a way that’s been, I think, fulfilling for her as well as me, but basically driven by my political
career. So I figure now I owe her 20 years. Then if we get another 20 years after that, we’ll argue about that.
But I just haven’t made a decision. There are lots of places in America I love, and lots of things I love to do, and I’m going to attempt not to think too much about it until I’m not President anymore.
The more I can just live in the present and think about America’s future, instead of living in my own future, the better off I’ll be, and then when this is over, then I’ll have time, if I stay healthy, to do something else, try to be useful and have a good time.