WASHINGTON — Sensing a Republican tidal wave, President Bill Clinton worried in the summer of 1994 that Republicans were energized heading into the midterm elections while his Democratic base was deflated. “There’s no organization, there’s no energy, there’s no anything out there,” Clinton said of his own party.
“They’re organized and they’re working,” the president observed of conservative activists, according to an August, 1994 transcript. “And our cultural base. … They walked off.”
Clinton’s concerns turned out to be justified: Republicans swept to power in the fall elections, wresting control of the House and Senate from the president’s party. The transcript was among 4,000 documents released Friday by the National Archives.
They’re just part of the roughly 30,000 pages expected to be released in coming weeks. The documents, which cover Clinton’s two presidential terms, are much anticipated in the political world, partly because then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is considering her own bid for the presidency in 2016.
The documents shed ample light on her husband’s administration, highlighting the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of aides, the stroking of allies and erstwhile opponents and the sting of the first Republican takeover of Congress in 40 years.
Clinton’s aides coped with that debacle by issuing strongly worded but sometimes conflicting advice on the Clinton’s tone — in the 1995 State of the Union speech and other public events.
Adviser Paul Begala said the president should not joke about historic Democratic losses.
“I really don’t like the president making fun of our ass-whipping in November, or suggesting it was because of him we got creamed,” Begala wrote in a memo to speechwriters.
Clinton adviser James Carville disagreed. “He thinks it’ll be effective self-deprecation; I’m concerned it could look like a white flag of surrender,” Begala wrote.
Don’t be too contrite, White House aide Todd Stern warned.
“I think the speech sounds too apologetic and mealy mouthed,” Stern wrote in a 1994 memo to White House adviser Don Baer. “One of the president’s problems right now is that too many people see him as lacking backbone, vacillating, being too eager to please and tell people what they want to hear. I think he needs to sound strong and presidential — in touch, certainly, with what happened on November 8 but not weak.”
Clinton was in touch with the Republican surge more than two months before the November election, the newly released documents show.
“Basically you’ve got Republicans running like a house afire all over the country and running against me, and saying that Washington has too much government and taxes and too little morality. I mean, that’s their message. It ain’t so, but it’s what they’re selling,” Clinton vented to an unnamed aide, according to an Aug. 25, 1994, transcript. “And there’s no organization, there’s no energy, there’s no anything out there. And we’re out of position on this government rhetoric deal.”
By October 1994, Clinton advisers urged the president to put forward a reform agenda “to make government, Congress and the political system work.” As part of it, advisers suggested 14 Cabinet-level agencies could be condensed into seven: Defense, State, Justice, Treasury, Human Resources, Natural Resources and Economic Policy.
Clinton’s advisers also suggested a 25 percent cut in congressional staff, a congressional and presidential pay freeze and a constitutional amendment that would allow states to limit members of Congress to 12 years in office.
Days before the elections, four Clinton advisers wrote that the “public is now more disillusioned, more embittered, than it was in November 1992,” that the “‘mad-as-hell’ atmosphere is not a flash in the pan, but a fireball in the night.”
The documents also provide glimpses into other chapters of Clinton history.
In the aftermath of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed urged his colleagues to be ready to respond if more violence broke out. “Disaster will strike sometime in the Clinton Presidency, even if it doesn’t happen this spring in L.A.,” Reed wrote in March 1993.
Not all the documents are so serious.
Draft remarks for a 1996 Clinton speech in Portland, Ore., included a pronouncer for “macarena,” a dance crazed that was embraced by Gore.
The papers also provide examples of the outsized flattery that sometimes flies in all directions among power brokers.
In March 1993, a researcher told Clinton political director Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago’s mayor, that former House Speaker Tip O’Neill was “deeply touched” by a video tribute that Clinton had recorded for O’Neill’s birthday party. “He said Clinton may turn out to be the best President since FDR,” wrote communications researcher Carter Wilkie.
In a January, 1999 meeting on his State of the Union speech – recorded and transcribed – Clinton suggested a portion of the address that would be “a good place, non-gratuitous way to mention Peter King,” a New York Republican who voted against impeaching Clinton the prior month.
In a memo that same year, White House aide Devorah R. Adler suggests thanking Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for their roles in advancing certain legislation.
“Senator Daschle frequently believes he does not receive the credit he appropriately deserves for his work on this issue,” Adler wrote.
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