William J. Clinton photo

Interview With Ellen Ratner

October 12, 1994

Ms. Ratner. I just want to say, President Clinton, on behalf of all the radio stations I work with and the Talk Radio News Service, it's really a pleasure to have an opportunity to meet with you. And I recently read your interviews in Talkers magazine. I'm delighted and glad that things are better with talk radio.

The President. I like talk radio. I just think that it's like anything else; it depends on how you communicate. What I'm more concerned about is the way communication in America has stopped being communication and started being more not just advocacy but just sort of attack, attack, attack. I think that radio is kind of an intimate medium. People can imagine being there talking with you when they're listening to us. And I think it ought to be used to explore what we have in common as well as what divides us.

Foreign Policy

Ms. Ratner. I would agree with that. And in terms of what we have in common, it's interesting, the last 2 weeks I've been around the White House covering what you've been saying. We've had President Mandela here, Gerry Adams has been in the United States, what's going on in the Mideast, I mean, this has really been an amazing time. What's it feel like?

The President. Well, it has been a truly amazing time just to be here in the last 10 days. You mentioned that. It's a great tribute, in a way, to the United States that we're working for peace and making progress in so many areas.

We had President Mandela. We had President Yeltsin. We had Gerry Adams. We had the Arab boycott lifted by Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries. We had the Chinese Foreign Minister here, and we made some real breakthroughs there on getting their agreement not to sell missiles. We made a new trade agreement with Japan that I think is better than anything we've done with them in a very long time. It's been a very exciting 10 days.

Religion and Politics

Ms. Ratner. You're also a man of faith. I know lately you have been meeting with religious leaders across the country, and they've been coming to the White House. What's going on? What is being accomplished? What are you trying to find out?

The President. Well, ever since I've been here, I have met on a periodic basis with either ministers and rabbis or scholars about a number of questions but mostly relating to the concerns of religion and the concerns of the political sphere and how they overlap and what the role of faith is for citizens today. And we talk about it, because I think that on balance most people who have strong religious convictions are good citizens. Most of them pay their taxes, obey the law, raise their kids well, and show up when their country needs them in war or peace.

And it bothers me that the only way that we think about religious people being active in politics is now under the guise of what's been called the Christian Coalition and involves people sort of signing off on an agenda, a certain agenda of political positions. Whereas I believe that people of faith come in all sizes, shapes, colors, political convictions and ought to be able to bring their concerns and their attempts to do God's will into the public arena. And so I just tried to do what I could both to gain more personal insight for myself but largely for my fellow Americans, to encourage people to get into being good citizens and to be active but also to be tolerant of those who have views that are different from theirs.

President's Inauguration

Ms. Ratner. This has been a question that I've personally wanted to ask you since the Inauguration. You had the song "Simple Gifts" sung at your Inauguration. It's a personal favorite of mine. Why did you select that? What does it mean?

The President. I think most of the great things in life are pretty simple and straightforward. And even though I guess I had a reputation as a policy wonk, which was probably well-deserved, I ran for President to do some fairly simple things. I wanted to restore the dreams of our children that they could be or do whatever they wanted to be or do. And I wanted people to believe that this was a country where we could come together instead of come apart. And that song seemed to capture that, the idea that the great things in life which flow from God are simple, profound, and they may be difficult to achieve, but they're simple and that we need not overcomplicate them to appreciate them and revel in them.

Administration Accomplishments

Ms. Ratner. The print media now has begun slowly, I think, to discuss some of your successes.

The President. Yes, it's amazing, reassessment or something.

Ms. Ratner. The legislative session now is coming to an end. How would you evaluate it?

The President. It's almost like a tale of two Congresses. The first one, Congress was one of the most productive in modern history. And it occurred mostly but not entirely last year, where we adopted a new economic plan which reversed trickle-down economics, brought the deficit down, asked the wealthiest 1.2 percent of our people to pay higher tax rates but lowered taxes on about 15 percent of our working families, 15 million people. We brought the deficit down dramatically 3 years in a row for the first time since Mr. Truman was President because of that economic plan, with $255 billion worth of tax cuts—I mean, spending cuts and cuts in over 300 Government programs.

Last year produced a dramatic expansion of trade with NAFTA and with the GATT agreement we got, which the Congress hasn't passed yet, but they will after the election. They'll come back and pass that.

The third thing we tried to do was to increase investment in people and technology, and the Congress did a good job of that. We put 200,000 more kids in Head Start. We're going to immunize 2 million children under the age of 2 by 1996. We passed a bill called Goals 2000 to have national world-class standards education for our classes, but have more local control of the schools at the same time. We passed a bill to improve apprenticeships in every State, so that more kids could leave high school and go to work and get good jobs if they didn't go to college. Perhaps the most important thing we did was we reformed the student loan program and made 20 million people eligible for lower interest student loans at longer repayment. And we, of course, passed national service, which allows young people to earn college credit by doing community service or earn money to go to college. So that was very, very good.

We passed this crime bill after 6 years of haggling. And it's very tough in terms of "three strikes and you're out" and 100,000 more jail cells and 100,000 more police on the street. But it also has some good prevention programs that give our kids something to say yes to, drug treatment, drug education, job training, wholesome and constructive community-based recreation programs. So that was very good.

With this reinventing Government initiative, it's been astonishing. We're reducing the size of the Federal Government to its smallest point since Kennedy was President. That's something Republican conservatives always said they were for, but we did that.

Ms. Ratner. When I talk about it on talk radio, people say it doesn't happen. I mean, why doesn't this message sink in?

The President. I don't know. I think because—that's why I think talk radio should be important to educate people, because so much of the press that comes out of here is based on conflict, process, the emergency of the moment. So a lot of the big things we do doesn't get a lot of press.

But anyway, we reduce the size of the Federal Government by 272,000 over this budget cycle. Now, we've already reduced it, already, just in 20 months, by more than 70,000. But in the 5-year period, 270,000 will be taken off. That's the smallest Federal Government since Kennedy. We're giving all the money to local communities to fight crime, every cent of it. We adopted a procurement reform bill I'm going to sign in a couple of days, which means the end of the $500 hammer. It says Government gets to buy things at the cheapest, best price, and must do it.

Ms. Ratner. I know. I saw it; it was great.

The President. We just adopted a reform of the Agriculture Department to reduce it by thousands and thousands of people. You can apply for a small business loan now on a onepage form and get an answer in 3 days. These are things that were unheard of before. So that's been very good.

So I would say in the area of the economy, in the area of crime, in the area of reinventing the Government, in the area of education and training, and finally in the area of just making Government work for ordinary people—we adopted the family and medical leave law, the motor voter bill to make it easier to vote, the Brady bill—things that matter, we have done a very good job.

For the cities—a lot of your listeners live in urban areas—we've been trying to bring free enterprise to cities. The other party talked about it all the time, but they never did much. We have passed two major bills, one to create——

Ms. Ratner. Actually, I've seen the results of that in Cleveland, Ohio, recently.

The President. Yes, and it's beginning to work. We passed bills for empowerment zones. We passed bills to reform the way public housing works. We passed initiatives to set up community development banks to make loans to poor people. So all of that's been good.

Now, what's the second part of Congress? What did we fail to do? We didn't pass health care reform; we didn't pass lobby reform; we didn't pass campaign finance reform; we didn't pass a bill to make Congress live under the laws they imposed on private employers. We haven't passed the safe drinking water act; we haven't passed the California desert bill; we haven't passed the Superfund bill, which is supported by everybody from the chemical companies to the Sierra Club.

Why have we not passed those bills? Because there's strong special interest opposition, of course, but also because the leaders—the congressional leaders of the other party decided they wouldn't permit any of those bills to pass. And we've had—there's never been as many filibusters ever as there have been in the last 2 years. There have never been as much delaying tactics. So next year, we're going to have to come back on political reform, health care reform, welfare reform, and keeping the economy going.

Midterm Elections

Ms. Ratner. Do you think if there's that slight possibility that Republicans gain control of the House or the Senate, that you're going to be seen more as a man of the people whose agenda really needs to——

The President. Yes, in a funny—[laughter]— I suppose in a funny way, if people really got a dose of the alternative, they'd like me better, but that's just a part of the process of politics.

But what I want the American people to focus on in this election coming up is the choice for them: not between Democrats or Republicans or Bill Clinton or not, it's what's good for them. The fact is that I set out to do three things: to get the economy going again, to take on the tough problems, and to make the Government work for ordinary people. We have made real progress in all those areas. We have the lowest unemployment rate in 4 years; 4.6 million new jobs; the highest number of high-wage new jobs in this last year, more than in the previous 5 years.

Ms. Ratner. More manufacturing, as I understand it.

The President. Yes. We've got more high-wage jobs in this recovery than in the past 5 years combined. We've got 10 years of manufacturing job growth—10 months, excuse me, of manufacturing job growth in a row for the first time in a decade. So we're moving that way; we're making progress.

Now if you look at what the Republicans have promised, they signed this little contract. They call it a Contract With America. I call it a contract on America.

Ms. Ratner. That's what some people in talk radio are calling it also.

The President. It's amazing. I mean, it's just what they did in the eighties. They promised everybody the Moon. They tell them what they want to hear. It's a good way to get popular and a bad way to wreck the country. I mean, it's a trillion dollars in unfunded promises. So if they give everybody these tax cuts, if they start Star Wars again, if they increase defense again, if they do all the stuff they promised to do, what will happen? The deficit will go up instead of down, Medicare will have to be cut drastically, the crime bill will never be funded, and jobs will be lost.

Now, right now, we've got the deficit going down and the economy going up, a tough assault on crime, and a real attempt to deal with people's problems. Sure, we have not done everything; yes, we have a long way to go. But the answer is to keep going toward the future, not to go back to the eighties. That's what these people want. And I think that—what I want to do in the next month is to have an honest conversation about that. Why should we go back and try what failed before when what we're doing now is working and we need more change, not less?

President's Management Style

Ms. Ratner. In closing, Mr. President, the broadcast media, some of them have been, I would say, almost brutal about your management style, but it's clearly working. I mean, there are some things that are happening. Some other people are saying that your management style actually reflects sort of a new philosophy of management. What is your management philosophy?

The President. I believe in, first of all, delegating to my Cabinet Departments decisions that are made consistent with my policies but which don't need to be made here. I believe in making big policy decisions myself, after you get everybody in with the best possible ideas and let them argue them out. I think the idea that somehow a President should be able to know off the top of his head and be able to make a snap decision on how to reverse 12 years of economic policies, 20 years of stagnant wages, and 30 years of social decline is a naive way of looking at things.

And if you look at people—whatever people want to say about my management style, last year, according to Congressional Quarterly, we got more done with Congress than any administration since World War II, except for President Eisenhower in '53 and President Johnson in '65. We have reduced the Federal Government when the Republicans couldn't. We have increased the performance of the Federal Government. And we got the economy going again. So I think our management style is producing pretty good results. We've got Russian missiles that are no longer pointed at the United States for the first time since World War II.

Ms. Ratner. Some people are saying it's a new model.

The President. We've got a lot of things going. And I just think that part of it is, people think in patterns, and they think with preconceived notions of how decisions should be made. And a lot of our preconceived patterns are rooted in the organization of our thoughts and attitudes and actions that came out of World War II and the cold war. Now we're moving toward the 21st century, when things are changing much more rapidly, when it requires a whole lot of knowledge from different sources to make good decisions, and when you're dealing with problems that developed over a long period of time and therefore may need some period of time to solve. In that sort of environment, a whole different decisionmaking process has to take hold. And you need to deal with different kinds of people and work in different ways to make things happen.

But I think if I get scored based on what we actually did, I'll be satisfied. I just want the American people to know what kind of changes we're trying to effect. And I don't want them to turn back; I want them to keep going with us. Give us 2 more years to make these changes; then they can make a judgment about whether we did what we said we'd do.

Life in Washington, DC

Ms. Ratner. One last question: How's it been living in Washington? You're new to this area; I'm fairly new to the area. I find it a tough place to be sometimes.

The President. Well, you know, Harry Truman said if you want a friend here, you ought to buy a dog. [Laughter] But I must say first, it's a beautiful place; it's a magnificent place.

Ms. Ratner. It certainly is.

The President. Secondly, it is an honor—with all the difficulties, it is still an honor and a joy to come to work in this office every day. Next, my wife and I have a lot of good friends here. And our daughter has done wonderfully well. She's been blessed with a terrific school, a very difficult, challenging, but good school and wonderful friends. So I have no complaints about living here. I've enjoyed it very much, and I'm just trying to get up here every day and do the job the American people hired me to do.

Ms. Ratner. Thank you very much, Mr. President.

The President. Thank you.

NOTE: The interview began at 3:23 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this interview.

William J. Clinton, Interview With Ellen Ratner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/218545

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