The Hillary Tapes: Part Two

Bill Clinton in 1980s: ‘I think I’ve Been Able to Change My Bad Habits’

June 26, 2014


Bill and Hillary Clinton discussed the future president’s compulsive personality, his struggles with the loneliness of public office, his ambitions for the future, and the future first lady’s career and hopes for her daughter Chelsea in a series of interviews with an Arkansas journalist between 1983 and 1987.

The interviews, recorded on more than five hours of audiotape and donated to the University of Arkansas Special Collections archives by the Arkansas reporter Roy Reed, were supposed to make the pages of Esquire.

The story, which would have marked the Clintons’ first major profile in a national magazine, never ran due to space constraints. The recordings were made available to the public for the first time in January of this year.

Obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, those recordings included the former first lady’s cavalier discussion of her legal defense of a child rapist—publication of which prompted the rape victim, now 52, to break her silence in an interview with the Daily Beast.

It also prompted the university to revoke the Free Beacon’s research privileges for failing to ask for permission prior to publication. The dean of libraries at the university is a Clinton donor.

However, the controversy over the new information regarding Clinton’s defense of the child rapist threatens to obscure the other material contained in the Reed interviews, which paint a complex and intimate portrait of the Clinton family during a pivotal moment in its political career.

"I’m a Compulsive Person"

"Almost every major personal and political error I’ve made in my life came at a time when I was totally exhausted," Bill Clinton told Roy Reed.

It was 1983 and the 37-year-old Arkansas governor was preparing for reelection. First elected in 1978 as the youngest governor in the United States, Clinton lost the office in 1980, winning it back in 1982.

Determined to avoid the mistakes of his first term, Clinton was clearly troubled by his tendency to be his own worst enemy.

"I still have to watch it, boy, in election year—I can feel it now," he said. "I’ve gotten to the edge a lot more than I have in the previous 18 months—just because I’m a compulsive person. I’ll always think of something more to do, another phone call that needs to be made, another thing that needs to be read."

Journalists and Clinton biographers have noted his compulsive tendencies throughout his career. And though Clinton does not go into detail about his marriage struggles, his close former aide Betsey Wright told Carl Bernstein in a Woman in Charge that the governor was conducting frequent affairs with women between 1982 and 1987.

"For five years [prior to 1987], Betsey had watched and listened as Bill made arrangements for assignations and slipped out of the office for meetings with various women," wrote Bernstein. "Sometimes the troopers gave her sly heads-ups."

"When a person gets to be a certain age it’s hard to change a lot," Clinton told Reed. "But I think I have been able to change some of my bad habits, and to shore up my weaknesses a little better, set up a system which helps my strengths."

Clinton spoke wistfully about his life before politics and said his marriage had suffered during his first term.

"Those years gave me the chance to spend more time with my wife, who’s the most interesting person I’ve ever known," said Clinton of his years out of office. "I think our relationship had suffered some from the previous term."

When asked what he wanted out of his life, Clinton said he wanted more time to be alone.

"I would like to have my life better organized so that I had more time to myself," he said. "I would like to write, and I’d like to spend more time making sure I had something worth reading if I wrote."

"I wish I had a lot more time, frankly, to spend with people who I like and care about outside politics," Clinton added. "I used to do that a lot before I came to office … having dinner with my friends, or just doing things."

Clinton downplayed introspection, however.

"Anyway, hell who knows," Clinton added. "I never think about these personal questions except too late at night, when I’m too tired to make decisions, or when somebody like you comes out and asks. I probably ought to pay someone to come out once a month and ask me this. I need a couch here."

"As Long as They Speak English"

Both of the Clintons denied that they had great political ambitions, or that they thought much about the future, in the interviews with Reed.

"Hillary and I don’t even talk about it," said Bill Clinton. "I never look past the next election."

Bill Clinton "won’t talk about the future. He’s kind of fatalistic like that … I’ve never heard him say, ‘here’s what I want to do in 5 years’ or ‘here’s what I want to do in 10 years,’" said the first lady of Arkansas.

When Reed asked Hillary Clinton if she ever thought about running for public office, she said, "No. But, I don’t think about the future much."

She attempted to steer the conversation back to the present.

"I’ve never had any great game plan, or [thought] ‘Here’s where I’m gonna be in 5 years, 10 years’," she said. "I’m not motivated that way. So no, I never—I mean, people ask me that all the time."

Reed suggested it might also be impractical for two people from the same family to hold public office.

"I think, yeah—even if I were to entertain any such thoughts they would be futile," replied the future junior senator from New York.

Had there been any discussion about whether it would be she or her husband who would run for public office? Reed asked.

"Never. Never," said Hillary Clinton. "I never thought I was going to run for office. It wasn’t anything I’d thought about. … There was never any question in my mind that [Bill’s] plans were both formed, and also ones that made a lot of sense. I was really excited by what he wanted."

Clinton also expressed reluctance to move to place where there were a large number of non-English speakers.

"I don’t know. I could, as long as they speak English," she said. "I have a terrible ear for foreign language. As long as they speak English, I could be comfortable."

"How would you feel about living in Washington?" asked Reed.

"I don’t know," Hillary Clinton responded. "I like Washington. I think Washington is an interesting city … it’s not a place I’d prefer to live."

"How about if a job opens up there?" Reed asked.

"It would depend on the job," she replied.

"They Very Often Are Nervous About Asking Questions"

Today, Hillary Clinton is known for her rocky relationship with the press—including a recent secret meeting at the D.C. bureau of the New York Times in which her top lieutenants told the paper to back off its coverage.

In the 1980s, however, Clinton said that she wished the media would be more aggressive.

"I have had more experience with the press in the last few years than I ever had in my life," Clinton told Reed. "Television is a different world, they do 30 second time segments, they don’t care about in-depth they want something [quick]."

"Even people who think they’re doing an in-depth interview, or pursuing issues, they very often are nervous about asking questions, or at least come across that way and they don’t follow through," Clinton added. "It’s just kind of funny."

Asked about her hopes for Chelsea Clinton’s future, Clinton said she would like her to be a good person no matter what she does.

"There are character traits and attitudes I want [Chelsea] to have, but if she has those, I don’t care what she does," said Clinton.

"Right now she wants to be like ten different things ranging from firelady to a ballet dancer to a train driver, airplane pilot, doctor, a movie star, there’s a whole gamut of things she wants to be."

Chelsea Clinton earned a $600,000 annual salary from NBC News before switching to a month-to-month contract. That amounts to some $27,000 per minute she appeared on the network, analysts say.

Reed said that he had expected Clinton to say she wanted her daughter to be the first woman president.

"It’s a hard thing to plan for," Clinton answered. "A lot of luck, a lot of other things may enter in."