Interview With Don Imus of WFAN Radio, New York City
Mr. Imus. Here now, on the "Imus in the Morning" program, the President of the United States, Bill Clinton. Good morning, Mr. President.
Health Care Reform
The President. Good morning, Don, how are you?
Mr. Imus. Well, I'm not that great, because your wife was here in New York 2 or 3 months ago to do that "Sesame Street," and it is broadcast from the same studio complex we are. So she sent down the Secret Service to get me. And of course, when they showed I didn't know what they were here for. It made me kind of nervous.
But anyway, I was talking to her, and I told her that since I had last talked to you I had had major lung surgery, and I have health insurance. And out of my pocket, though, even with health insurance, it cost me $20,000. So I'm for any health care plan—[laughter]—including yours.
The President. Well, that's good. I hope the surgery worked well. Your lungs seem to be in good order as nearly as I can tell. [Laughter]
Mr. Imus. Well, I feel pretty good. She was astonished that it cost that much. I explained that I was in a private room and stuff like that. But still, there was a lot of expense. And I— just curious to me how ordinary people, the median wage in this country being around $19,000 a year, how they could pay for that stuff.
The President. Well, it's really tough. She was in Maine last week and talking to a woman that broke her wrist and was charged $40 for sitting on a cot in a hospital in an emergency room for 30 minutes, charged for an Ace bandage she didn't use and things like that. There are a lot of problems in the health care system, mostly related to the way we finance it. The health care of this country—the delivery system, the doctors, the nurses, the medical research, all of that—it's very, very good. But the delivery system is messed up by the way it's financed. This is the only country in the world that has 1,500 separate health insurance companies writing thousands and thousands of different policies. You've got to read the fine print to figure out what's the copay, what's the deductible, how much cash do you have to put up if you have something like the operation you had. It's a really tough deal.
Mr. Imus. Well, you know, one of the ways, Mr. President, you could settle all this is for you and the First Lady to take on Harry and Louise from those insurance company commercials in like a segment of "American Gladiators." [Laughter]
The President. Yes, you know, I wouldn't mind that actually. The first I heard about them, I thought they were Thelma and Louise, you know. [Laughter] I tried to take them on a little bit yesterday in New Jersey. The problem is that they don't reflect real people, but they can scare real people because when we hear something about health care, we always want to calculate it, as we should, in terms of, well, how is this going to affect me and my family and our policy.
But real people out there are in trouble. I mean, I was at a little delicatessen in Columbus, Ohio, the day before yesterday talking to the woman who ran it, and she insured her 20 full-time employees even though a lot of her competitors didn't. She told me the stories about what had happened to their premiums when she got sick, how much she resented the fact that she did it and others didn't. I mean, if you really go out there and talk to real people about how the system really works, it's very different than what these ads say. And the ads are designed to mislead people about our plan so that we can keep the same financing system we've got. That's why the health insurance industry's running them.
But as a result of the way they do things, some people pay much more for insurance than others because they're older. Some people pay more just because they're in small businesses. Some people cannot get any insurance or can never change jobs because they've got a preexisting condition. No other country in the world does this.
But one thing we do have more than anybody else in the world is clerical workers, in hospitals, in doctors' offices, insurance offices, keeping up with all these forms that are required so we can see who doesn't get what coverage and make sure you pay all that $20,000. I mean, that's the way the financing system works. That's what needs to be reworked.
Mr. Imus. When you and the First Lady lobbied the Business Council, and they voted two-to-one against the plan, were you surprised about that or——
The President. No, they've never—you know, mostly they've not been for any of this. I was surprised that we have as much big business support as we do. What I wanted them to do, although it's largely ideological, most of them are paying premiums which are too high now. I thought we might get them for the first time to go along with the requirement for universal coverage or guaranteed private health insurance, because every other country has it. That's what their competitors provide. And all their competitors have lower health costs than these guys do.
But I was very disappointed that they didn't do it. Now, the Chamber of Commerce came out for universal coverage yesterday, which was encouraging. But the big business group I still think supports universal coverage. There were some other—they've got some members who don't support some parts of our plan. And the group that came to see me said that, "Well, we really are not for this other plan. We think it's better strategy to say, ‘Well, we ought to start with that."'
But the truth is, you know, I didn't expect them to be in the vanguard of health care reform. But a lot of these big companies actually are paying more than they should because of all the cost-shifting. That's another big problem in our system. A lot of people who don't have health insurance ultimately get health care, but they get it when it's too late and too expensive. They show up at the emergency room, and then the hospitals have to pass those costs on to the people who do have insurance, which really runs the cost up of companies that have good health policies.
Mr. Imus. A lot of these mainstream news friends of mine who appear frequently on this program, like Tim Russert and folks like that, they think that I hang out with you, you know, and like set policy. [Laughter]
The President. Don't disabuse them, you know. Is Russert—is that mainstream? I don't know. [Laughter]
Mr. Imus. I try to explain to them, I've talked to you five or six times on the phone, and I'm not one of those people who claims to have access that doesn't exist. However——
The President. I've still got my Imus doll in here, though, in the White House.
Mr. Imus. Oh, you do?
The President. You bet I do. I watch that head bob up and down all the time. [Laughter]
Mr. Imus. You know, by the way, thanks for the pictures you sent me. I was doing an interview with the Washington Post the day those arrived. And this woman begged me to give her one of them so she could put it in the paper. And I said I didn't think the President would be interested in doing that.
But one of the things I tell people is that having talked to you four or five times during the campaign and now twice since you've been President, I said I thought that probably I had changed more in my approach in that, you know, you are the President, and I'm not going to ask you goofy questions. And my question to you is, do you think you've changed?
The President. Oh, I think it changes you some. What you have to guard against is getting the bad changes with the good. I mean, I think anyone who assumes this office who really wants to make a difference here instead of just to occupy the White House changes. I think, you know, I am much more focused every day than I have ever been in my public life on the work at hand and what I can do. I think that the responsibilities are so great it requires much more concentration. And you just have to kind of filter out a whole lot of things that once might have occupied your time and attention.
On the other hand, you have to guard against becoming more isolated, because it is so easy to get isolated here. I mean, you've got to— because of the security concerns, the Secret Service is always here and you're always—you travel in an armored limousine and you travel on Air Force One and you're always—it's just easy to get isolated from the people. So what I have to do is to try to make sure that I'm growing in the job all the time and continuing to deepen my ability just to focus on the big issues that really affect the lives of the American people without getting isolated from them.
Mr. Imus. Somebody said the White House is the crown jewel in our penal system. [Laughter]
The President. Yes, that was one of my better lines, did you think?
Mr. Imus. Oh, that was yours. Oh, okay.
The President. Yes. I said I couldn't figure out whether it was America's most beautiful public housing or the crown jewel of the penal system. [Laughter]
Mr. Imus. Of course, I guess I could ask you, the bed in that old El Camino wasn't large enough to play football on, so, Mr. President, what was that Astroturf for? [Laughter]
The President. You're old enough to remember what it was like with a pickup truck, nothing but metal in the back, right?
Mr. Imus. Absolutely.
The President. If you wanted to put—that's the only car I had then. I carried my luggage back there. It wasn't for what everybody thought it was for when I made the comment, I'll tell you that. I'm guilty of a lot of things, but I didn't ever do that. [Laughter] But I don't think I should disclaim it, really, just leave it out there.
Mr. Imus. I mean, it's like saying you didn't inhale, Mr. President. I mean, come on here. [Laughter] Anyway, by the way, congratulations on that Saudi——
The President. No, it's just that I didn't inhale in the back of the pickup. [Laughter]
Aircraft Contract With Saudi Arabia
Mr. Imus. Congratulations on the Saudi aircraft deal. Mickey Kantor's doing a terrific job, isn't he?
The President. He is doing a great job. I mean, he's really been very, very good. You know, he's hammered out these major trade agreements, the NAFTA agreement and the GATT world trade round. And he's worked so hard to expand our trade operations. On this Saudi deal, we had three Cabinet members actually go to Saudi Arabia working on it: the Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, whose major job it is to sell American products abroad, once Mickey Kantor gets us a fair framework; the Transportation Secretary, because it was airlines, Federico Pena; and the Secretary of State because it affected our foreign policy. They all went through Saudi Arabia and made an effort to help sell it. And you know, this is going to have a positive impact on about 60,000 jobs, which is an amazing thing.
Mr. Imus. And this may be a simple-minded trade question, Mr. President, but people like me wonder about this. How come we can't say to the Japanese, "Look, you guys can't send your junk over here until you let us send our stuff over there, and that policy starts tomorrow"?
The President. Well, you can do some of that. That's what we're trying to do with this telephone issue. I guess you saw the facts—when you mentioned Mickey, you must have seen him doing his interview on the cellular telephone——
Mr. Imus. Yes, I did.
The President. ——business, where he pointed out in the part of Japan where we have equal access, Motorola has 50 percent of the market. And in the Tokyo and Nagoya area, same products, where there's not equal access to take advantage of the whole system, the Japanese have 780,000 or something units, and Motorola has 12,000, less than 2 percent of the market.
So we've now concluded that case. We've established the facts, and we have to develop a response. But what you want to do is to do something that will succeed in opening their market without denying American consumers access to products they want to buy or without hurting American investments in Japan. We have increased exports to Japan dramatically, but exports from Japan to America have increased dramatically. And their markets are still the most closed of any advanced country in the world.
So in the past, America for 10 years tried 30 different trade agreements, the main focus of which was to change the processes by which they dealt with, instead of to, you know, achieve specific concrete results. And nothing ever happened. I mean, the trade deficit just got bigger and bigger. So we're going to try to pursue a much more aggressive policy now which will actually open markets.
And I might say there's a lot of people in Japan who agree with us. This is a problem for them, too, because as rich as that country is, the average Japanese pays almost 40 percent more for consumer products than the average American because their market's so closed.
So it isn't good for them either. They simply cannot continue to pursue the policy that they pursued when they were a poor country growing rich. They're now a rich country, and they can't export to the rest of the world and keep their own markets closed. And I think they know that. And we're going to work hard and try some different things to push that market open. But there are a lot of people in Japan who agree with us.
Mr. Imus. Of course, he was really aggressive, obviously, as you know, I mean, suggesting that they'd lied and broken that '88 agreement. I mean, he was pretty brutal there——
The President. Well, they didn't do what they said they'd do in '88. And last summer they said that we would have a trade agreement which would deal with autos and electronics and a lot of other issues—telecommunications—that would measure the results of our progress in qualitative and quantitative terms, which is a jargon phrase which means we'll see whether we're reducing the trade deficit or not. And they didn't want to do that here.
So there's a big fight going on in Japan now. The permanent government agencies there that have dominated policy for years and years, for decades, the trade and finance agencies, think the system they've had has worked. It's given them low unemployment and high savings rates, big exports and no imports, and they want to keep it. There are a lot of other people that want Japan to become a fully modern state with fair and open trade. And I think in a way we're helping the cause of the reformers by being tougher than America has been in the past on this issue in trying to get these markets open for our people.
Mr. Imus. When the word got out around, particularly here in New York, yesterday that you were going to be on, all my friends at the networks called me and they said, "Ask him this, and ask him that." And I'd tell them, I'd say, "You ask him," because I'm not presumptuous enough to think I'm Ted Koppel or Tim Russert. I mean, our agenda here is to make you laugh, which we've done.
The President. But are they presumptuous enough to think they're you, that's——
Mr. Imus. No, they're not. [Laughter] Let me try to get some information, and the next time you have a gig at the White House we want to get you to book Delbert McClinton, because he's great. [Laughter] Do you know who Delbert is?
The President. Who is Delbert?
Mr. Imus. Oh, he's great. Man, you'd love him. If you love Elvis, you'll love Delbert McClinton. Sings that Texas blues.
The President. I like that Texas blues.
Mr. Imus. Oh, you'd love him. I'm going to send you a CD. I'll send it to my new best friend, Mark Gearan. I'll send it to him. He can give it to you.
The President. Are you hard up for a best friend? [Laughter] If you looked at Mark Gearan, if you can just look at him, he never— I don't believe he ever saw a country and western singer, much less heard one.
Mr. Imus. Well, maybe I'll send it to Paul Begala then.
The President. He's got a 1950's haircut. [Laughter]
Whitewater Development Corp.
Mr. Imus. I do have a math question, though. It's sort of like one of those, if Bill leaves L.A. traveling 55 miles an hour, and Bob leaves New York traveling 60 miles an hour, when will they each reach Sioux City, Iowa? So here's the question, Mr. President: You're the Governor of Arkansas making $35,000 a year, and Mrs. Clinton's over at the law firm making around $55,000. And out of what looks like a gross to me of around $90,000, how did you guys manage to lose $69,000 in that goofy Whitewater land deal? [Laughter]
The President. Oh, because we lost it over a long period of time.
Mr. Imus. Oh, okay.
The President. Most of it, the loss, was when we paid the bank loans back with interest, and we never got any money on the interest. So it happened over a long period of time.
Mr. Imus. Is that something that you think is going to—everybody I have on I ask this, and I've wanted to ask you. In your mind, is that something—I mean, are you guys sitting around there thinking this is going to turn into Watergate?
The President. No.
Mr. Imus. No.
The President. No, it's an investment I made 15 years ago that lost money instead of made money, because the property market turned around at home. It's a simple, straightforward thing, and it'll be shown to be. I mean, I'm absolutely comfortable with that. I mean, I'm amazed by all the twists and turns of interpretation that's been given. But that's about what happened.
Mr. Imus. Because I've had a bad run of luck here, Mr. President: I endorsed David Dinkins; I endorsed Jim Florio; I was supporting Barry Diller in his takeover for Paramount, so I don't need anything to happen to you now. [Laughter]
The President. Well, there are a lot of folks that come after us on a regular basis. I wish they'd fight with us on the issues instead of what they do, but that's part of it. Apparently that's part of being President in the latter half of the 20th century in a highly competitive environment. All I know is I get up every day, show up for work, work as hard as I can, try to help people improve their lives, and that's what I'm going to keep doing. And the ones that want to keep attacking me, I'm going to let them do it and just do the very best I can with it. And I'll try to make your gamble good. I don't want you to be disappointed, but— [laughter]—keep in mind, sometimes if you make choices, sometimes you're going to lose. All your politicians can't win. It's like going to the horse races.
Mr. Imus. Of course, you notice how I've turned this into how it's going to affect me as opposed to your Presidency and the future of this country and the free world. [Laughter]
The President. That's probably, you know——
Mr. Imus. Let me say this: I don't mean to be disrespectful, but that vacation, that model home, that looked like someplace where Tonya Harding's bodyguards were holed up—[laughter]—no wonder you guys couldn't sell them. [Laughter]
The President. Well, you know, it was a little place where a lot of working people without much money were looking for a place to retire and own some property in a beautiful place. And by the way, north Arkansas is full of folks like that. They're good people, even if they're not rich. I know that now that you've hit the big time, it's not worthy of you, but if you— [laughter]—maybe if you could guarantee me a profit I could go build a house on a piece of land down there, and I could let you retire in Arkansas.
Mr. Imus. Actually, the guy I've worked with for 22 years, Charles McCord, has a house right on the shore there of Bull Shoals Lake, right there in Lead Hill, Arkansas.
The President. In Lead Hill, which is near Zinc.
Charles McCord. Exactly, 10 miles from Zinc, yes, sir.
The President. You've been there?
Mr. McCord. I built a vacation home there, Mr. President.
The President. Oh, there you are. It's beautiful, isn't it?
Mr. McCord. It is one of the most gorgeous parts of this country, period, and absolutely, northeastern Arkansas, the Buffalo River country, all of that, absolutely.
Mr. Imus. Mr. President, the United States— I just wanted to ask you briefly about Bosnia— the United States has always, in my mind, at least, set the agenda for NATO. But in the case of Bosnia, it seems that we are acquiescing to them. As the lone superpower in the world, aren't they really, bottom line, looking to us to do what we've always done?
The President. Well, that's what we were able to do in getting the resolution through last summer, authorizing the use of air power if Sarajevo was strangled. And then we and the French and then eventually the Germans and the British and all the others, agreed after this last terrible incident in the market in Sarajevo to strengthen that resolution and say that there ought to be basically an artillery-free zone around Sarajevo, which is what we're in the business of implementing now.
The difference is this—I know it's confusing—but basically the United Nations is on the ground in Bosnia. And the United Nations includes troops on the ground, includes troops from NATO countries. There are British troops on the ground; there are French troops on the ground; there are Canadian troops on the ground; there are Spanish troops on the ground; there are about to be some Dutch troops on the ground. A lot of these countries did not want NATO to use air power to protect Sarajevo or do anything else because they were afraid that their troops on the ground would be attacked and killed, and we didn't have any troops on the ground. And when I said I thought that the arms embargo ought to be lifted, a lot of those countries said, "Well, you may be right, but we're afraid for our troops on the ground who are there fulfilling the U.N. mission trying to keep people alive and deliver food and medicine, and keep the roads open." So to be fair to them, they were in a different position.
Now I think that the United States has finally succeeded in—and I told the allies at the NATO meeting in January we could not have an empty threat. So the Serbs now, I think, must know that if they don't comply, NATO will take action. And the United States has been pushing this for a long time. And I think we finally succeeded in bringing our allies around. I think a lot of them finally figured out that their troops on the ground were at greater risk by doing nothing than they were by taking action. But to be fair to the NATO allies, the United States has not put ground troops in Bosnia. I did not think we should. But because they had them there fulfilling the U.N. mandate, they were reluctant to have NATO bomb, because they were afraid of retaliation against their soldiers.
Now I think, we've sent a clear message to the Serbs. And I think everybody will hold tight. And we've got a chance. We've got a chance to really not only protect Sarajevo but to get a peace agreement that is decent and fair. And that's what we're going to be working for.
Mr. Imus. A final question, Mr. President, your cholesterol is around 204, right?
The President. No, no, it's down now, I think.
Mr. Imus. Oh, it is?
The President. Well, I don't know, I think it's—what was it? Is that what it was?
Mr. Imus. Yes.
The President. Yes, I lost 15 pounds, but my cholesterol is still too high.
Mr. Imus. Yes, but the other day I read about the Clinton burger and that pastrami sandwich and that apple fritter the size of a baby's head. [Laughter]
The President. Hey, hey, the apple fritter— I had one bite of apple fritter.
Mr. Imus. Oh, okay. [Laughter]
The President. That's right, I did get off my diet that day. But I was transported. I mean, I was out there in a place I felt at home in. I was in a little town in Ohio, you know, and I spoke to all those police officers, and I stopped at this little deli with this guy who had been a butcher's assistant when he was 13 years old and had finally saved enough money to open his own deli 3 years ago. And he built it with his hands, and he made this Clinton burger, And I thought, well, I'm going to eat it. He did it. And then I went to this restaurant in downtown Columbus and talked to those folks about health care. And I asked them what they thought I ought to have, and they said I ought to try the corned beef on pumpernickel. So that's what I did. They said that's what was good, so I tried it. Every now and then I lose my discipline. But I lost 15 pounds last year, and I'm going to try to lose 10 or 15 more this year. I like it better. I don't like to diet, but I like the way I feel when I'm a little bit lighter.
Mr. Imus. Mr. President, you were terrific. It's always great to have you on. Thank you very much.
The President. Well, thank you. Don't lose your sense of humor now just because I'm President.
Mr. Imus. No, I won't.
The President. Just give my adversaries equal time, that's all I ask. [Laughter]
Mr. Imus. Thanks.
The President. Have a good day.
Mr. Imus. All right, the President, Bill Clinton, here on the "Imus in the Morning" program.
The President. See you in Lead Hill.
NOTE: The telephone interview began at 8:03 a.m. The President spoke from the Oval Office at the White House.
William J. Clinton, Interview With Don Imus of WFAN Radio, New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/218512