President Clinton: "It was in the best interest of the country"
(TIME, April 13) -- President Clinton's office on Air Force One has a small desk, a couch, magazines scattered about and, these days, a new boom box. As he flew home from Africa Thursday night, he listened to Charlie Parker and Wynton Marsalis. Like the music, his mood was a complex mix of mellowness and energy in the aftermath of the dismissal of the Paula Jones suit. Although the feeling inside the White House is that he has been the victim of a protracted personal assault funded by right-wing money, Clinton is wary about speaking out publicly, because he and his advisers feel that his success in the polls has come from his ability to convey to the American people that he is more concerned about their problems than his own. Shuffling the CDs on his desk and drinking coffee, he spent more than an hour with managing editor Walter Isaacson discussing the Jones case, his Africa trip and his future agenda.
TIME: Do you really think the dismissal of the Jones case vindicates you?
Clinton: Well, I'm pleased about it, because the judge ruled as a matter of law the case had no merit. And that exposed the raw political nature of this whole situation.
TIME: Is there a part of you that regrets not being able to go to court to try to prove your version of events?
Clinton: If I were just a private citizen, Joe Six-Pack, I would have mixed feelings about not getting a chance to disprove these allegations in court. After having been through what I've been through, I would have wanted to put all my evidence before 12 of my fellow citizens. But I don't have mixed feelings as President, because having the case dismissed and putting this behind us is plainly in the best interest of the country. Every President since George Washington has talked about how the country deserves the President to free himself of his own personal concerns and become totally obsessed with the public interest. It's been a test. But I've tried to do that.
TIME: Is there any truth to Paula Jones' allegations?
Clinton: The charges are not true. I want to reaffirm my position. I absolutely deny them. It's in the nature of summary judgment that it doesn't give me the chance to convince 12 people that the factual allegations are not true. But I feel there's enough evidence that's come out that would raise serious questions about the charges against me.
TIME: Many others have come forth, such as Kathleen Willey...
Clinton: I think the evidence there is also compelling that her story isn't true. I feel comfortable. But I'm not going to talk about it.
TIME: But with all these people coming forward, don't you have some regrets about putting yourself in situations that are compromising or seem reckless?
Clinton: I have no further comment on these things.
TIME: Was the Supreme Court right to let the Jones case proceed?
Clinton: The court said this case would have no impact on the presidency except that I would play a little less golf or something. I've done my best to make that come true, to think about it as little as I could. I tried as hard as I could to put this and Whitewater in the smallest possible box and to let it be handled by others and to respond only when required. But now we see why for over 200 years no one had any idea the President should be subject to a civil suit and believed that the chances were that if one was filed, it would have an overwhelming political aspect to it.
TIME: Independent counsel Ken Starr will continue to pursue whether you committed perjury or obstructed justice. Do you think the dismissal of this case should cause him to steer clear of your personal life?
Clinton: I won't depart from my policy of not commenting on Mr. Starr. That's a question others have to ask and answer.
TIME: What is the legal justification for invoking Executive privilege not only for yourself but also for your wife? It will delay the Starr investigation.
Clinton: I think you have to ask my counsel's office, because the first time I learn about a a lot of these legal arguments is when I see them in the papers.
TIME: How can that be?
Clinton: I'm just not going to talk about that.
TIME: What did you feel Wednesday evening when you got the news about the Jones case?
Clinton: Bruce Lindsey came to me in the hotel in Dakar and told me to call Bob Bennett, who gave me the news. I asked if it was an April Fools' joke. And he said it wasn't and explained it to me. I thanked him and his team for their good work, then went and told Hillary. Then we got with some friends at the hotel and had dinner, talked about Africa and how pleased we were with our trip.
TIME: How has the dismissal of this case affected your credibility and ability to be President?
Clinton: I feel now that I'm freer to keep doing what I'm supposed to be doing. It removes whatever obstacle this case would have been to my giving everything to this job for the next two years. Every hour, every minute I spend diverted on these questions is disserving the American people. I'm going to be focused now on tobacco legislation, education, Social Security.
TIME: How do you feel about Senator McCain's tobacco compromise?
Clinton: While it doesn't go as far as we'd like in some areas, it's a huge step in the right direction. Speaker Gingrich said he wasn't going to let me get to the left of him on tobacco. I guess that means he's prone to do something, and that's good news. I think we can build on this momentum and that the issue is rocking along pretty well.
Clinton: I don't feel as good about that. I want to push some of our initiatives more quickly. I am quite concerned about a series of votes in the Congress--on the Senate budget resolution and in the House education committee--[whose] net impact could be to weaken our commitment to education.
TIME: On Social Security, might it speed up and actually come to a resolution this year?
Clinton: The debate has accelerated so quickly with new ideas coming in--I saw Senator Moynihan on TV--that it's conceivable the Congress might decide to act this year. I've just been amazed at the juice this issue has. People are really focusing and trying to bring their best ideas. So I think there's some chance that both the people and the Congress will be ready for action in the latter part of this year. But I think the more likely thing is we'll stay on our timetable and act next year as scheduled. The important thing is that I'm more and more convinced some solution is going to happen in the next year or two, that it will actually happen.
TIME: In Rwanda you used the loaded phrase "never again" to promise that the U.S. would never be shy in the face of evidence about genocide. Is that just rhetoric, or are you developing a new U.S. policy to intervene for humanitarian reasons when genocide occurs somewhere?
Clinton: It's not so much a new policy as an attempt to have a mechanism in place to deal with potential genocidal situations when they erupt. There may not be simple answers, but the African Crisis Response Initiative [an American-supported, African-led effort to enhance the African peacekeeping capacity] is a good example of what we're trying to do. One of the things we've never been able to get a consensus on is whether every nation might contribute to a permanent U.N. reaction force that could short-circuit genocides. Going back to 1992, that's something I've said I could support. I had been thinking about this for years, and I was thinking about it when I said "never again."