In 1999, William Jefferson Clinton, 53, emerged from one of the most tumultuous rides any President has endured. He had entered the history books as only the second U.S. Chief Executive to be impeached. Then, like other lame-duck Presidents, he watched in frustration as much of his legislative agenda (Medicare reform, gun control, the Patients’ Bill of Rights and a nuclear test ban treaty) was thwarted by Congress. He also stood by as people close to him—namely his wife, Hillary, 52, and Vice President Al Gore, 51—distanced themselves to advance their own political careers. The President did score some buoyant victories: He was acquitted of perjury and obstruction of justice charges by the Senate, and the economy continued its dizzying bull run. Overseas, he intervened decisively in Kosovo and helped broker peace in both the Middle East and Northern Ireland.
Still, after the klieg lights of TV illuminated the all-too-tawdry details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he held only five press conferences in ’99, down from the high of 18 he gave in ’94. Says author and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward: “Clinton became increasingly isolated. He wasn’t confiding in staff, family, lawyers and I advisers.” And though his popularity rating as a leader remained high, at 56 percent, his personal approval rating was only 35 percent, according to an October CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. In the third-floor living quarters of the White House, which the Clintons have substantially redecorated, another change is under way. While political adviser James Carville waves off speculation that the First Couple’s 24-year marriage is rocky—”They’ll never quit each other”—Hillary is packing to leave Washington for their new $1.7 million Chappaqua, N.Y., house, which will serve as home base for her anticipated Senate campaign. “We’ll have to be apart more than I wish we were,” Clinton said at a Dec. 8 press conference. With a commuter marriage, and with daughter Chelsea, 19, away in her junior year at Stanford University, the President will soon be knocking around the White House with only First Dog Buddy, the family’s rambunctious chocolate Labrador, by his side. The quiet may give him more opportunity than he would like to contemplate life after January 2001. “He once called [the Presidency] ‘the crown jewel of the American penal system,’ ” says Clinton biographer David Maraniss. “But what he’ll miss most is being in the middle of the action. The coming year is the difficult transition into being rendered a figure from the past.” For now, though, Clinton remains at center stage. As recently as Dec. 1, during the violent demonstrations in Seattle, he chided the World Trade Organization for the secrecy of its operations, a concern shared by environmental groups and labor unions. “He began to turn around in terms of his willingness to do things that he had stopped doing once the name Monica Lewinsky surfaced,” observes CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer of Clinton’s year. “He became slowly but surely more self-confident.”
At 6:30 p.m. on a fine and warm Dec. 3, Bill Clinton was relaxed and upbeat in the Oval Office with PEOPLE managing editor Carol Wallace, news director Kristen Kelch and Washington bureau chief Sarah Skolnik. With a year to go in office, the President seemed at times to be wistfully savoring his surroundings and his position. However, knowing his days are numbered, he seems ready for post-1600 Pennsylvania Avenue life. For a reality check, he was asked to name the price of some common consumer items. He was razor sharp on the cost of a gallon of gas but had lost track of the price of a Big Mac. “I haven’t been to McDonald’s in a long time,” he said with a laugh. Near the end of the interview, Buddy bounded into the room and jumped on his master. “Buddy’s my baby,” Clinton responded, nuzzling the dog’s head. In this time of transition—both personal and political—the President spoke about his family, his legacy and what he’ll miss most.
PEOPLE: When you were in Kosovo during your pre-Thanksgiving visit to the soldiers there, Chelsea got a great reaction from the troops. Would you encourage her to go into politics?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Oh, I certainly would if she wanted to. Only if she wanted to. You know, you’ve got to want it, because it’s a high-pain-threshold business. But it has been a wonderful life and immensely rewarding. She knows what the ups and the downs are. I have no idea that she would ever want to do such a thing. But if she did want to do it, I would be as supportive as I could.
Let’s talk about some of the downs. Sometimes it takes a crisis to find out who your friends are. Do you have the same friends you had two years ago?
By and large, I do. I was really quite moved. And I have some friends that are even stronger now than I had two years ago. And the interesting thing is that I became President because of my friends. I mean, I came from a small state. I wasn’t well-known. I didn’t come from a family with wealth or position or history in politics. I was, in large measure, carried through the difficulties of the ’91 and ’92 campaign by my friends. So it means a lot to me that virtually every one of them stayed with me. Not uncritically, I might add. (Laughter.) But they did stay with me—which is what friendship is all about.
The American people were quite exasperated with your behavior in the year leading up to your impeachment. How do you feel when people say, “Good President, not so great a man”?
They have to make that judgment for themselves. But if they really think that, they should say if that’s true, then why are his friends still with him; and is that really the only way to measure character? I think I made a terrible mistake; I paid a very high price for it. And I’ve done my best to atone for it. So people’s judgment about me personally is something for them to make. But there’s nothing I can do except try to be a good person and be grateful for the people who don’t think I’m a bad guy.
I understand that the entire Cabinet has been told to stay in Washington over New Year’s, which is very unusual. Are you expecting Y2K trouble?
No, I am not expecting any Y2K trouble. I believe that we are actually in pretty good shape. You know, the United States started working on this in a more systematic and thorough way before anyone else. I remember three or four years ago, Al Gore and I were talking about this in one of our weekly lunches. And I said, “Now, explain to me exactly what this Y2K is.” (Laughter.) We went through it all. A lot of things were being done in America anyway with the big banks, the big utilities, the big finance houses and all that. So we worked very hard, we drove the government very hard, and most all of our systems are compliant now.
What we can’t know for sure is that every small business and every governmental entity, local governmental entity, everybody in America is compliant. So there may be some glitches. But I think, basically, the big systems in America will work. If I were you, I wouldn’t hoard any gold or go out in the country and hide or do any of that.
Let’s talk briefly about Mrs. Clinton’s run for the Senate in New York. When Bryant Gumbel asked you recently what role you would play in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, you said you would do “what I’m asked to do.” What have you been asked to do?
Give advice, so far.
What kind of advice?
Oh, we just talk about it. We’ve always talked about everything. It’s just funny, it’s sort of reversing roles now. I’m very excited for her. I think it’s a very brave thing to do.
There seems to be an insatiable appetite for information about your marriage. There’s Gail Sheehy’s new book Hillary’s Choice, and even today there’s a headline in the National Enquirer, “Hillary Demands Divorce”…
I think the people that write about it may think it’s commercially viable. There has been a lot of interest in us, which has not been unhealthy, it hasn’t all been bad. But a lot of what has been said is not true, including the headline in the Enquirer.
The last time I was here, in 1997, you were just learning how to send e-mail. How are you doing now? Do you surf the Net? Do you have favorite sites? Have you bought anything on eBay?
I haven’t. But this year for the first time I’m going to buy something for Christmas on the Net. I’m determined that, by the time I leave here, I will be as computer-efficient as my daughter. That’s my big goal. She whizzes through it all. But she doesn’t want me to e-mail her. It’s very funny, you know. She does her e-mail and all this other stuff. But she likes me to call her. It’s really neat. It’s wonderful.
What perk will you miss most about the White House?
All my friends who travel say I’ll miss Air Force One the most. They say, “Wait until you get out there.”…(Laughter.) They say it will be a nightmare.
But what perk inside the White House will you miss?
Probably the movie theater. I’m a great movie fan.
Name something you won’t miss about being President.
That’s pretty hard. I won’t miss being told I can’t go out and run when I want to run, wherever I want to run.
Are you still running?
After the guy shot up the White House with the assault weapon [in October 1994]—he took a dim view of me banning assault weapons and came up here and splattered the press room—they [the Secret Service] asked me to start going to Fort McNair [on the Potomac River], which I did for some time. But it’s about a 15-minute drive, and it can be more in the morning traffic. So that’s when I started doing StairMaster. I never did it before in my life, though you can burn more calories in less time. But it’s not as much fun, to me, as running.
How long do you go at a time?
Usually 20 minutes.
As leader of the free world, you’re privy to more information than most of us. Can you name three scientific discoveries or breakthroughs that you think will occur in the next century?
Okay, I’ll tell you three that I think will happen. I believe that there will be biomedical discoveries which will enable people with spinal cord injuries to walk again. There will either be nerve transplants, or we will do it with digital technology.
In other words, they will be able to take a picture of the spinal cord and figure out exactly how it’s severed and what functions have been interrupted and design a chip that can be inserted and that will replicate the nervous reactions. That’s one thing.
I believe there will be a complete revolution in energy technology, which will enable us to turn around global warming. I just hope it happens in time to avoid melting the polar ice cap, or some other disastrous thing. And I think we will find out what’s in the black holes in the universe. I think those three things will happen.
Do you see a cure for cancer?
I think we will learn a great deal about all the various kinds of cancers, and I think first of all we’ll know more about how to avoid a lot of them. Second, I think there will be cures for more and more. I think the survival rate for almost every kind of cancer will go way, way up.
When the Human Genome Project [decoding all of human DNA] is completed, which I think will be within a few years, a young mother will take a baby home from the hospital with a genetic map, and it will be scary in some ways. It will say, your daughter carries one of the two genes which gives a high propensity for breast cancer between the ages of 35 and 45. Now, that will be the bad news. And the good news will be, if you follow the following regime and take the following medicine, you will cut the danger from 50 percent to 5 percent. So I believe that children born sometime early in the next century in advanced countries will have a life expectancy right at 100 years.
On another topic in the news, should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame?
Let me just say this. He’s a very great baseball player. And I believe—who am I, of all people, to say—I think just about everybody ought to get a second chance. I know there is this big dispute about whether, yes, we’ll forget it—yes, we’ll give him a second chance; yes, we’ll let him back into baseball if he’ll acknowledge that he gambled. And he says, I won’t acknowledge that I gambled. But I’d like to see it worked out, because he brought a lot of joy to the game, and he gave a lot of joy to people, and he’s paid a price—God knows, he’s paid a price. And I’d like to see what he did right and what he did well somehow accepted. And I’d like it if it happened while he was still alive.
What’s your best remembrance of JFK Jr.?
When I took him upstairs to my office with his wife last year, and I showed him some of the old pictures I have of his father. And we talked about that. Then I sent him the pictures of himself and his wife, and then he sent me back a picture, which I now have in my office upstairs, of his father campaigning, which was his favorite picture of his father, and he inscribed it to me. It’s wonderful. He was a terrific young man, I liked him so much.
On a lighter note, what do you watch on TV?
CNN or ESPN or old movies. (Laughter.) That’s about the extent of my TV watching. I don’t even know what series are on now.
Have you ever watched Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
No, but I hear it’s a rave deal. As a matter of fact, my whole family was talking about it over Thanksgiving; my brothers-in-law, their wives, my brother, his wife, they’ve all watched it, and they all had a little different take on why it was so successful. It was really interesting.
So if I say, “Is that your final answer?” you won’t know what I mean?
No, I won’t, I won’t. (Laughter.)