Bill Clinton photo

Interview with Larry King of CNN

September 24, 2008

KING: And now Bill Clinton. He's got a lot of experience with tumultuous political times.

I interviewed him yesterday and we began. And I asked him if he has answer for this financial mess.


CLINTON: First of all, we should all be here. No one knows for sure what all the answers are. No one knows for sure what is going to work. No one knows for sure whether any of us who were in positions of responsibilities in the past could have done something we didn't do to change the outcome of this.

But I will tell you what I think.

First of all, I think we do have to do something to rescue the financial system. And it's not Wall Street versus Main Street now. More than half the American people have a direct or indirect stake in the stock market. So we need the basic -- and we need -- all of us want steady money market firms -- funds and stable bank accounts and the availability of credit.

So this is about saving the very financial system.

So, in general, I would give marks to Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke for getting out here and fighting all this political heat and when people are mad, frustrated and disoriented and trying to figure out what to do.

Secondly, I do believe the bill they have presented is not detailed enough in terms of the citizens of the country. Over a year ago, Hillary tried to get a moratorium on home mortgage foreclosures and then a mechanism in place to do individual mortgage workouts, because you save money by losing less if you rewrite a mortgage down a little bit and keep a person in their home than if you have to foreclose on the house. That costs the economy a quarter million dollars.

So I think what she has said, using this Depression-era mechanism isn't always a good thing. And we're already doing it on a smaller with a few banks.

The third thing is, there should be Congressional oversight so we can keep asking questions.

And the fourth thing I would say is it would be a good thing -- I think there's a fair chance, if this is done right, the taxpayers will get all their money back, maybe even run a profit. Keep in mind, when I loaned Mexico money, you remember that? KING: Yes, I do.

CLINTON: We got paid back three years early and made $600 million. When we bailed out Chrysler, we made money. And in the Depression, when we saved a million homeowners, we made money. Because America will come back.

So I think it has to be done, but it ought to be done in the right way.


KING: More of my interview with Bill Clinton coming up.

He's ticked off some Democrats by praising John McCain. Wait until you hear his opinions on Sarah Palin.

Stay with us.


LARRY KING, HOST: A great pleasure to welcome to LARRY KING LIVE -- it always is. I feel like calling him an old friend, we go back so many years already.

Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, who established the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation after leaving the White House.

He also launched the Clinton Global Initiative back in 2005. And he's is hosting the fourth CGI annual meeting here in New York. And we'll talk about that in a little while.

What do you make of this race?

I mean, we've never had anything like it -- a black running, a woman running.

But the reality TV, the ads -- what's your read on this?

CLINTON: Well, I -- first of all, it's been an exciting and unprecedented race. And in the Democratic primary, the two people that basically split the popular vote -- our first serious African-American candidate, our first -- with a chance to win, you know -- and our first woman candidate with a chance to win.

And Senator McCain emerged when everybody had written him off for dead. He was the only Republican with a chance to win. I think we all -- at least most of us who are Democrats think that.

And then you had just this rolling series of events -- the health care crisis that we started off with, and then gasoline went to $4 a gallon, and underlying it all is the frustration of Americans without a plan to terminate the Iraq War. And then all of a sudden, boom, the financial system blows up.

So -- and all of this shows the kind of up and down nature of the 21st century world and the difficult challenges America faces.

KING: Is that...

CLINTON: So I think it's amazing, but it offers us a sober responsibility as Americans.

The American people really need to think through here what is the right thing to do for themselves and their families and for our country.

KING: Does it make nothing predictable?

CLINTON: Well, I think sometimes -- I told somebody when Katrina hit and when I was working in the tsunami area that I was raised in my church as a child to believe that it is arrogance to think we are fully in control of our own lives. And these natural events remind us of that. And it may be that when we get brought low a little bit by being too clever by half with the financial system and other things, it reminds us of that in the same way.

But it means that we can be in greater control and we can certainly affect the events that will shape our lives for the better if we do the right things. We just need to learn from the current circumstances and do the right thing.

KING: You said you think that Obama will win.


KING: Shouldn't he be, by all logic, way ahead -- Iraq, the financial situation, the unpopularity of the Bush administration.

Why isn't this over already?

CLINTON: Well, I think, first of all, presidential elections -- a lot of voting is cultural and identity-based. If you go back through the whole 20th century, we've only had one landslide election, Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, where both candidates didn't get at least 39 or 40 percent of the vote.

That is, the typical race was 40-40. Twenty percent could go either way.

Then you got to the 1968 election and all of those upheavals 40 years ago. And after that, the Republican base got to be about 45 percent, ours was about 40.

That's why it was so hard for Democrats to win the White House for a long time.

Some time in my second term, it started evening up. And then we had a couple of races where the bases were about 45 and 45.

If you go into a race where you're going to get 45 percent of the vote, then those races are going to look close until the end. But what I think -- and what I've always thought would happen here is that because of the condition of the economy, because of the demographics of America growing more diverse, younger, more open to the diversity of the Democratic Party, and because Senator Obama is, I think, not only charismatic, but really smart and a very disciplined candidate who has handled himself, I think, by and large, really remarkably well. I've always thought that in the end he would come out ahead.

And he's running in a year when what John McCain sought to parlay against him, the experience issue, at least in the Democratic primary, was virtually irrelevant to people. And I think it came because at least the Democrats were disillusioned with the current administration.

So they...

KING: Took it out on him.

CLINTON: Well, they began to think, well, you know, maybe prior public service and hard effort, making hard decisions, maybe doesn't amount to anything. And now, because of the way of the tickets have shaken out, the Republicans can't really use it against him and we can't use it against them.

So we're going to have to make this election about something real.

Who's on your side, who's for your future, who would be best for America and for the world?

Who is going to bring back the American dream and define it in 21st century terms so that it's really achievable for people?

And who's going to restore our standing in the world?

KING: And you're going to vigorously campaign -- is that a correct word, vigorous?

CLINTON: Yes, I think that's fair. I wanted to get, first to after Hillary concluded her campaign, except for the convention. I needed to go back to work for my foundation. You know, we had this Global Initiative coming up and I have projects all over the world.

I just got back from my annual trip to Africa. And so I needed to go back to work. And I wanted to really deal with the Global Initiative in the context of all of these economic challenges, to try to make it non-political.

I invited Senator McCain and Senator Obama to both come. They are both making appearances there.

And I've done everything I could to try to get everybody there without regard to party or philosophy to think about what we should all be doing in America and around the world.

But when this is over, and after the Jewish holidays, which follow close on it, I intend to go to Florida, to Ohio, to Northeast Pennsylvania and to Nevada, at a minimum. I may do events in Arkansas, depending on what the Democratic Party does down there. And I have some fundraising for them in California and New York.

KING: Do they ask you, go here, go there?


KING: All right. (INAUDIBLE). Why are you -- are you kind of feeling Jewish, that you're waiting until after the Jewish holidays?

CLINTON: No. But I think it would be -- if we're trying to win in Florida, it may be that -- you know, they think that because of who I am and where my politic base has traditionally been, they may want me to go sort of hustle up what Lawton Chiles used to call the cracker vote there.

But Senator Obama also has a big stake in doing well in the Jewish community in Florida, where Hillary did very well, and where I did very well. And I just think respecting the holidays is a good thing to do.

KING: I was just having a little fun.

CLINTON: I know.

KING: We'll be right back with Bill Clinton.

Don't go away.


KING: We're back with President Bill Clinton. Some people, particularly hard core Obama backers, think that you're not strong enough for him, that you're sort of quasi for him, and also that you praise McCain too much. How do you respond to that?

CLINTON: Well, if you look at the speech I gave in Denver and the speech Hillary gave, I think it would be hard to question the depth of our feeling and the fact that we gave good reasons for why we were supporting Senator Obama and Senator Biden.

You know, I also would like to say that if you look at what Hillary has done, she has already done more for him, notwithstanding the unusual circumstances of this primary, than any runner up has in a nominating process in 40 years.

I think you can argue that she has done more than all other runner-ups have in the Democratic Party in 40 years. We have been quite clear on this. We're not party-wreckers, and we believe that the country needs to take a different course.

Now some of them, as we all know, are so enthralled, as all of our strongest supporters are, that they don't think you're for them unless you're dumping on somebody else. I personally think that is not a good strategy to win this election.

That is, everybody wants Hillary or me or, for that matter, Senator Obama or Senator Biden just to say bad things about Senator McCain or Governor Palin. Those people are already for us.

We've got to go get some votes here of people who voted for Hillary in the primary and are undecided, or people who didn't vote in the primary. By and large these people are not political junkies. They are having a hard time paying their bills. They want a change. And they are listening very, very careful.

I saw an amazing special on television on the home mortgage foreclosure crisis. And they were just interviewing middle class people in neighborhoods where there are a lot of houses that have been foreclosed on. And it was amazing what they said.

They said, I don't want to see the attack ads, I don't want to hear that you're on my side, I don't want to -- I want to know what you're going to do.

So my position here is that what I'm trying to do is to help him win, because I do believe that he would be better to restore the American dream and he has got better economic and energy and health care policies, and I think he would be better for America and the world.

KING: Why?

CLINTON: And I just don't believe that, you know, getting up here and hyperventilating about Governor Palin or Senator McCain, for that matter, is a product use of a former president's time, and is not a vote-getter.

KING: You genuinely like Senator McCain, though, right?

CLINTON: I do. I admire him. I like him and I admire him. And you know, he helped me normalize relations with Vietnam. He has been out front sticking up for the little folks in Georgia, for the whipping they've taken over there and trying to stand up for them.

He has got a lot of -- he helped me stand up against ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. But I think that I disagree with him about Iraq. And I really disagree with him about the economic policies of the last few years.

I think -- and strong disagreements on health care, Senator Obama's plan is much closer to what I believe should be done and what Hillary has advocated. And I think his energy plan is better.

And I think energy is the key to national security through energy independence to fighting global warming, and most important of all to the people that are listening to this, to more jobs and higher incomes.

So I'm for Obama and would I say that if I -- just because I'm a Democrat? Yes. But I also really believe this. I give the reasons that I think are relevant to the American people. That is far more important than having one more guy sitting at the television with a lot of bad mouthing the other person.

We should be able to like, admire, respect the contributions of people and still vote in another way.

KING: What about Governor Palin? By the way, do you know her?

CLINTON: Never met her.

KING: Were you shocked at the selection?

CLINTON: I was surprised. I just -- you know, apparently some people who were following it more closely than I were not surprised. But look, I get the down side that the people who criticize her give her, but I can only judge how I think this is going down in a state like Arkansas where I am from, where we have half the people live in communities of less than 2,500 and there are people who are pro-choice and pro-life and more than half the people have a hunting or fishing license. But they like families that hang together, that deal with adversity, that are proud of all their members, that don't let off from life's vicissitudes.

So I think that she and her husband and their kids come across gutsy, spirited and real. I have significant disagreements with her about any number of social and economic issues but I find her an appealing person and I think that it's best to say that Senator McCain looks like he knew what he was doing. He picked somebody who gave him a lot of energy, a lot of support.

And by the way, she also helps Senator Obama. That is when the Obama supporters, the Democrats found out she lit a fire under the right and got McCain more money and more volunteers, then in turn, there was a reaction and Senator Obama started raising more money and getting more volunteers. So it turned up the heat and the energy but to me, maybe it's just the point where I am in life, I want to know what we're going to do to turn this economy around, make it work for ordinary people deal with this horrible health care mess and get where people can pay their bills and then get the soldiers home from Iraq and rebuild the military and restore our standing in the world.

If you ask me who is going to do a better job of that, I'd say on the overwhelming number of those issues I think Obama and Biden would be better.

KING: Right.

CLINTON: And I think that's what we should all do. We should all focus on how this election is going to affect the American people and our common future.

KING: We'll be right back with Bill Clinton, right after this.


KING: I want to ask about the financial crisis. I want to move to CGI. A couple things on Sarah Palin. She has invoked your wife's name. You think she's there to get that vote? Your wife's vote?

CLINTON: I think that Senator McCain nominated her partially because she hoped she would excite women who thought a woman who ought to be on a national ticket and on a national stage. But they disagree on an awful lot of things.

I think she also is there because she excited the conservative base of the Republican Party. He's always been a little more iconoclastic, even though he's been pro-life as a matter of conviction his whole career, he's never really thrilled the right wing of the Republican Party. So she lit a fire under them and now they have more volunteers and they're closing the enthusiasm gap.

So I think there were mixed reasons. And I think he tells the truth. I think he liked her because he thought she represented the kind of reform that he represents which is different from the kind of reform that Senator Obama and Senator Biden and Hillary and I and most of our crowd think we need.

We think we need to make the economy work for ordinary people.

KING: Here's Sarah Palin at the convention. Let's watch.


GOV. SARAH PALIN, (R) VICE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION: I think as well today of two other women who came before me in national elections and I can't begin this great effort without honoring the achievements of Geraldine Ferraro back in 1984, and, of course, Senator Hillary Clinton, who did so, determination and grace in her presidential campaign.


KING: How did that make your wife feel?

CLINTON: I don't know. I thought it was a smart move for her to do that. I thought she has good political instincts and I think a lot of women identified with and liked Hillary more at the end than at the beginning because she wouldn't quit.

KING: Right.

CLINTON: And when so many people were telling her to quit and the longer she stayed, the better she did, I think that was good. But I would say once the smoke clears, can you get beyond the emotional appeal of that, I think you - I would hope that her supporters, Hillary supporters, would think about what she said about the convention and what she says every day she's out there campaigning for the Obama-Biden ticket. And for Senator Obama in particular that this is not about me or my feelings or you or your feelings. This is about who is in it for the American people and their future.

And that's the question you ought to ask. You may draw a different conclusion than Hillary and me. You may decide that we're not right. But at least that's the question. The question shouldn't be, how do you feel about this? Or do you wish this, that, or the other thing had happened to Hillary? It's not about us.

We're going to be fine. You and I, Larry, we're going to be fine whoever wins this election. We're going to be all right. And even if we're not all right, we've had such good long lives it won't amount to anything.

But this election is about all those people who desperately need to make the right decision for president and that's where Hillary and I are and why we're doing what we're doing in this election.

KING: And we'll talk about the Global Initiative right after this.


KING: On a personal note, I've attended the Clinton Global Initiative each year, the panels, the get-togethers, the whole idea.

Do you think that this might be a greater part of your legacy? Or the greatest part of your legacy?

CLINTON: I think it'll be an important part. People ask me all the time, do you think you would do more good as a former president than you did as president. And I try to give an honest answer which is, in order for that to happen I'll have to live a long time. Because I think a lot of people were better off when I quit than when I started as president.

But I think that I may have a significant role to play in changing the way people think about citizenship in this 21st century interdependent world. That is, what I've tried to do is first go get all these people with money not to spend it on one more voter, one more car, but put it into the needs of America and the rest of the world, to build a world of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities.

Secondly I tried to give ways to highlight what people of much more modest means are doing now, giving their time, their money, their skills, their new ideas. Thirdly, I tried to match money with ideas so that we could get more of this stuff done and finally, and last year we started web-casting the CGI and letting people who saw it on the Internet make a commitment as small as five or 10 dollars over a Web site, But in the end I'm not only trying to do what we're doing this year which is affecting 200 million lives in 150 countries with all these commitments.

I want people to change the definition of citizenship in the 21st century.

KING: From what to what?

CLINTON: Well, if you ask somebody, what do you think - somebody our age -- someone around your age or my age. What constitutes a good citizen? They would probably say, well, you have to obey the law, you have to pay your taxes, you should be a responsible parent and worker. And you should register and vote and you should be an informed voter.

KING: True.

CLINTON: OK. Then that's what you do. This is program is a lot about that, helping people make better decisions. I want something added to that. I want people to say, and in addition to that, you have to try to advance the public interest as a private citizen, either through your religious congregation or civic club or a non-governmental organization or over the Internet, at any number of these Web sites where you can give modest amounts of money and do good.

But the truth is we live in an interdependent world where your fate and mine are bound up with people half a world away and also just down in Harlem and Brooklyn and the Bronx.

And the government can never solve all these problems because they won't be able to raise enough money to deal with all of them and the market, as we have seen all over again this week, no matter how well it functions and how much money it makes for some people, it won't solve all of these problems.

So that's where people come in as private citizens, the so-called non-governmental civil society sector. I want, when my work here is finished at the Global Initiative. I would -- what I would love is if you gave a civics test to kids in every school in America, and you'd say, define all of the things you're supposed to do to be a good citizen. If an overwhelming majority of those children could say, "and I have to give something back to my community, my country, or the world, no matter how young I am or old, no matter how rich or poor, no matter what I know or don't."

That's really -- now that could have a lasting impact, because then we would become our brothers' and sisters' keepers in a fundamental way.

KING: What does this economic tumult do to CGI?

CLINTON: Well, we don't know yet. I think -- I will be very surprised if it doesn't lead to a cutback in the spending of either individuals or companies that have been particularly adversely hit here.

On the other hand, keep in mind, a lot of our money comes out of family and public foundations. That is, people have already given their charitable contributions, put it in the foundation, and they have to give away a certain amount of that money every year.

A lot of these companies that are working with us in these non- governmental groups have been working on this stuff for years. This is part of a multi-year commitment.

So I think while we may have some cutbacks, they won't be significant as far as I know. And I believe a lot of the business people, particularly, are already saying, well, if the government has to come up with 700 billion dollars on this financial bailout, they may not even be able to spend the money they intended to spend on some of these programs at home and abroad, the politicians.

And they may not be able to, because they have no control over these circumstances. And if that's true, then what the rest of us do is -- for public good as private citizens, is more important than ever.

That is, it wouldn't surprise me if we didn't get some extra commitments in this time of economic adversity because they know that whether Senator Obama or Senator McCain wins this next election, that they may be constrained in fulfilling all of their commitments in the first year or two because of this big whack we're taking out of the federal government's potential to raise money.

KING: We'll have our remaining moment and more on the Clinton Global Initiative with President Bill Clinton right after this.


KING: We're back with President Clinton. You launched the Global Initiative back in 2005. What's the most important lesson you learned from it?

CLINTON: That you can make a difference, because intelligence and effort and dreams are even -- are equally distributed throughout the world. But systems investment and opportunity aren't, and that people who are given the chance to make something of their lives and to rebuild their countries and communities will more often please you than disappoint you if they have a system where there is a predictable connection between the effort they make and the result they get.

In other words, this stuff works, that's the most important thing I learned. The second most important thing I learned is that almost all of us are happier giving this kind of help than just living to please ourselves with one more material possession.

KING: How much money do you raise?

CLINTON: Well, we think in -- if you count the private investments in clear energy, which is a lot of money, we have over the last -- the first three years of this, we have raised 30 billion dollars in commitments to unfold over a 10-year period. From -- and over a thousand commitments affecting over 200 million people in 150 countries. Everything from small loans to start businesses to medical clinics in the treatment of HPV and malaria, and maternal and child health, to dramatically new and cost-effective education programs, to fascinating new ways to reduce global warming and create jobs and clean energy, and just an amazing array of things.

KING: Anything about it disappoint you?

CLINTON: Well, no, I've not been disappointed. I would that the more success we have, the more impatient I get. We've had just a very few people not keep the commitments they've made.

And of the thousand-plus commitments that have been made, 239 or 240 have already been completely finished. A lot of them were multi- year. And when you come this time, you look at what happened in the open public areas, we got reports of what actually happened.

This is what they promised to do, they did it, here are the results. And the only thing that frustrates me is I wish were even better organized and could do more and more quickly and get more people the chance to serve.

Because I do think that this is infinitely expandable. And I think that in the years ahead you're going to have more partnerships with governments like this. I mean, I can -- I worked with the Bush administration, believe it or not, on the -- AIDS and other things. And we can do things faster, less expensively because we're not a government agency.

KING: The diversity of people involved is extraordinary --

CLINTON: Yes. You've got everybody from people who think they are conservative Republicans to people who think they're liberal Democrats, and it turns out when it comes to saving a kid in Africa or giving a kid in Latin America an education or making a loan to a woman in a poor country in Southeast Asia, there is not much politics there.

People can see that we all have a common interest in allowing people to live their dreams.

KING: It is always great to see you.

CLINTON: Thank you. I'm glad to see you.

KING: Thank you, Bill.

William J. Clinton, Interview with Larry King of CNN Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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