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Clinton documents: Much has changed, but much still the same

By Robert Yoon and Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 10:19 PM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Newly released Clinton papers detail health care battle of 1990s
  • Public gets a new look at inner workings of the Clinton White House
  • Several thousand pages of documents released in a first batch
  • Hillary Clinton is now a potential presidential contender in 2016

(CNN) -- More than 3,500 pages of previously secret Clinton White House documents made public Friday showed that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Highlights from the Clinton documents

Do your own review with the CNN document reader

Some of the confidential memos, notes and other papers released by the National Archives referred to technological advances of the times, such as the 1995 memo that suggested then first lady Hillary Clinton use the Internet to speak to young women because it "has become very popular."

Others detailed political battles over health care reform that sounded like today's headlines.

"The Republican alternative, as it appears now to be shaping up, at least among the moderate Republicans in the Senate, is an individual mandate, we have looked at that in every way we know how to," said Hillary Clinton's notes from a 1993 meeting with Democratic leaders in Congress. "That is politically and substantively a much harder sell than the one we've got -- a much harder sell."

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We now know that the Clinton plan for employers to provide health coverage for workers failed to pass back then, and the individual mandate -- requiring people to obtain health insurance -- is the foundation of the 2010 Obamacare reforms passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress with zero Republican votes.

From the same meeting with congressional Democrats, Clinton wrote that "it may be an unpleasant fact for some of us Democrats to face, but the argument is not going to (be) won on bringing in the uninsured."

President Barack Obama and Democrats now face relentless criticism from Republicans over changes in policies and costs forced on some consumers by the 2010 reforms, rather than the requirement that the previously uninsured get coverage. Clinton's words from two decades ago now sound prescient.

"The argument is going to be won," she wrote, on keeping coverage "for everybody, including those who are insured, but may not be next year or the year after."

In another memo from 1994, an aide to President Bill Clinton warned against using a line in the upcoming State of the Union address about his administration's health care proposal that said: "You'll pick the health plan and the doctor of your choice."

"This sounds great and I know that it's just what people want to hear, but can we get away with it?" wrote White House Staff Secretary Todd Stern.

Noting that the thrust of the Clinton reforms was to steer people toward "cheaper, HMO-style providers," Stern added that he worried about "getting skewered for overpromising here on something we know full well we won't deliver."

Today, Obama gets skewered for similar claims he made during the health care debate 15 years later that turned out to be exaggerated or plain wrong, such as his "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it" statement that earned him "Lie of the Year" by the fact-checking website PolitiFact.

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Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, faces no apparent bombshells from the 3,546 pages of archival documents made public Friday.

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It was the first batch of more than 30,000 pages eligible for release after a 12-year waiting period under the Presidential Records Act, with more to be made public in March.

First digital age presidential candidate

"So far, and underlining so far because we're still going through the documents, absolutely nothing" amounting to a game-changer for Clinton, said CNN Chief National Correspondent John King. At the same time, he noted Clinton would be the first presidential candidate of the digital age with still unpublicized documentation dating back to her eight years in the White House as first lady.

"There's never been a candidate that we think we know so well, but yet there's this huge resource of information where we still might learn things," King said.

The new documents showed a first lady pushed by her aides to be more open and accessible to the public.

In the 1995 memo by Press Secretary Lisa Caputo, suggestions included a guest appearance on the ABC TV show "Home Improvement" and using the then-young Internet to connect to young women, noting that "Internet has become a very popular mode of communication."

Four years later, adviser Mandy Grunwald offered "style pointers" in a memo for listening tour Clinton did after creating an exploratory committee for her Senate campaign in New York.

"Don't be defensive. Look like you want the questions. The press is obviously watching to see if they can make you uncomfortable or testy. Even on the annoying questions, give relaxed answers," Grunwald wrote.

She also added that Clinton should "look for opportunities for humor" because "it's important that people see more sides of you, and they often see you only in very stern situations."

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Grunwald also advised Clinton to avoid laying claim on the record of her husband's administration, saying "this trip is about you, and you are not an incumbent."

One more tip from Grunwald: be prepared to be asked if she ever used drugs.

With the potential for politically volatile details in the documents, groups trying to bolster or harm Clinton's possible presidential ambitions made clear they would be having a look.

America Rising, a pro-Republican opposition research shop, told CNN that "we'll be poring through them," with a person on ground in Arkansas for that purpose.

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Correct the Record, a pro-Democratic group with deep ties to the Clinton family, also told CNN it would have a team going over the new information.

Dem groups already at work for 2016

Heavy demand appeared to disable the website of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library for some users in the first minutes after the documents were released on Friday afternoon.

In total, approximately 25,000 pages of new documents, including confidential communications between President Bill Clinton and his top advisers, will be released over the next two weeks. Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, they became eligible for release in January 2013, 12 years after Clinton's presidency ended.

"When those restrictions expired, (the National Archives and Records Administration) then provided notification of our intent to disclose these Presidential records to the representatives of President Obama and former President Clinton in accordance with Executive Order 13489, so that they may conduct a privilege review of the records," the National Archives said in a written statement. "As they complete their review, NARA is able to make the records available."

More documents coming

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The doodling of then-White House speechwriter Jeff Shesol was unearthed in the Clinton administration documents released on February 28. Shesol's comic strip "Thatch" was nationally syndicated from 1994 to 1998. He also authored "Supreme Power: Frankin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court." The Clinton-era speechwriter doodled during White House meetings. This image by Shesol was created during a May 19, 1998, meeting about an MIT commencement address. Click through to see more Shesol's doodles. The doodling of then-White House speechwriter Jeff Shesol was unearthed in the Clinton administration documents released on February 28. Shesol's comic strip "Thatch" was nationally syndicated from 1994 to 1998. He also authored "Supreme Power: Frankin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court." The Clinton-era speechwriter doodled during White House meetings. This image by Shesol was created during a May 19, 1998, meeting about an MIT commencement address. Click through to see more Shesol's doodles.
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An additional 8,000 pages are undergoing a further month-long review per a directive from the White House and will not be available for release prior to March 26.

The documents in question were part of files that had been requested for public release over the years under the Freedom of Information Act, but were withheld due to their sensitive nature.

While the Presidential Records Act established public ownership of White House documents as far back as the Reagan Administration, it defined six categories of records that could be withheld for the 12-year period. They include classified national security information, confidential business information and trade secrets, and unwarranted invasions of personal privacy.

Documents pertaining to federal appointments and confidential communications, so-called "P2" and "P5" exemptions, also fall under the 12-year protection of the act.

After the 12-year mark from the end of a presidential administration, the records are subject to the same restrictions as spelled out in the Freedom of Information Act, with one key exception. Congress excluded presidential records from exemptions based on executive privilege.

However, since the passage of the law, Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have each issued executive orders clarifying the process under which an incumbent president or former president could assert executive privilege to prevent the release of documents.

The new releases will not be the first from the Clinton archives. The library routinely releases records in response to FOIA requests, although a sizable backlog exists.

Freedom of Information Act requests

Records were also released during the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan, who worked as a White House lawyer during the Clinton administration, and also as a result of ongoing legal action from the conservative group Judicial Watch.

Interest in the often unglamorous world of archival research has spiked due to the possible presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state in Obama's first term.

Earlier this month, CNN reviewed papers from a former confidante of the Clintons, Diane Blair, that offered some revealing personal glimpses of Hillary Clinton during her years as first lady.

Blair was counselor, friend for Hillary Clinton

CNN document reader: Read from the Blair papers

CNN's Erin McPike,Todd Sperry, Bill Mears, Rachel Streitfeld, Zachary Wolff, Emily Rust, Dan Merica and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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