On a typical hot summer day in in Washington. D.C, in late July, 1998, I was in the Oval Office by myself, when in walked President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton. He said to me, “I hear you want to be my next press secretary.” And I said, “Yes sir, I think I do.”
There were some warning signs for me about taking the job. Some were obvious, like the Lewinsky investigation.
But a couple were not so obvious. The first was, the guy who I was replacing, Mike McCurry, started smiling as soon as he heard I got the job. And for weeks the smile didn’t come off his face. The second was that I was the only one in America who seemed to want the job. I was the only applicant; there was no interview process.
But I had this thing about challenging myself personally, and I thought, You know, I can do this, so I’m gonna try to do it.
And it happened.
I didn’t have to wait long for the challenge. My first day, at the very moment I was walking out to the podium in the White House Press Room, the House Judiciary Committee was gathering for the third impeachment hearings in the history of the country.
And then, shortly after, the President and staff went on a trip to Russia, followed by Ireland, for critical meetings in both countries, because we also had to focus on governing. The day we were set to leave Russia, I slept through the Air Force One flight, and was left in Moscow, without a passport or any Russian language skills.
When I finally caught up with the traveling party, I was immediately surrounded by reporters who said, “How do you feel about being the first White House Press Secretary to ever miss Air Force One on a foreign trip?” And a strange phrase caught in my head, and I couldn’t lose it. About a week earlier, the President had been at a prayer breakfast, talking about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and he said, “I’m really sorry for what I did. And I’m working very hard to make up for it, particularly to those I’ve hurt the most.”
When I got the question, I said, “I’m really sorry for what I did. And I’m working very hard to make up for it, particularly to those I’ve hurt the most.”
I managed to keep the news from the President until Bono, of all people, busted me later that day in Ireland by telling me, in front of the President, that anyone who could stay out all night and still deal with Clinton was his kind of lad.
After that inauspicious start, things started going pretty well. We reached a historic budget deal, and I got to talk about that. We made peace in the Middle East temporarily, and I got to talk about that.
But still looming above everything was the unresolved Monica Lewinsky investigation and the impending decision on whether to launch a military attack on Iraq because Saddam Hussein had refused to let UN inspectors in.
One flight back from the Middle East after a peace negotiation, as we were nearing the impeachment vote, we huddled and tried to count votes. It struck me almost as a game of Bingo, because people were calling members of Congress from the plane and kept shouting out, “Congressman Quinn, we lost him!” And people would write down – Quinn, yes on impeachment.
Simultaneously, in the front of the plane, where the President has his office, there was a meeting going on with the national security team about plans for launching an attack on Iraq. I was the only one going between the two meetings, and in both I looked up and said, “Think things are going bad in this meeting? You should see what’s going on in the other meeting.”
When we landed that night at Andrews Air Force Base, I realized three things. First, the President was going to be impeached, and soon. Second, we were going to start a war with Iraq, and soon. And third, I was the one who was going to convince the public that the two decisions had nothing to with each other. They didn’t, but I knew that would be a hard sell.
About 10 days later the President of the United States was facing an impeachment vote. We’d developed a pretty simple strategy for dealing with this: saying it was all about partisan politics and that the President was going to stay focused on the people’s business instead. People seemed to believe it – our favorability ratings went up, according to Gallup.
But at about 11:30, the would-be speaker of the House, Bob Livingston, who had recently admitted an affair, went to the floor and said Clinton must resign, and that “I can only challenge you in such fashion: if I am willing to heed my own words.” And he resigned on the floor, during the impeachment debate.
All of a sudden, our opponent had a message that was even simpler than ours: do something wrong, get caught, resign.
I figured we had about 15 minutes before a drumbeat of TV pundits would start saying the President should resign. So I ran down to the Oval Office. The President was there with the Chief of Staff, John Podesta, waiting for a couple of people to arrive to figure out what to do. I said to the President, “What do you think? How do you feel about this?” And he started talking, and I realized that what he was saying made sense and we didn’t need to have a meeting: we could just use his own words.
And as some of you may remember, the President said that it was a real shame that the Congressman was resigning. That the cycle of politics of personal destruction had to end and should end today. And that he was going to call Livingston and say, “Don’t resign.”
And oddly, the fever that I was worried about, about the President being forced to resign, broke in that very moment. I went to a meeting where we were writing the State of the Union and thought, You know, we’re sitting here discussing health care and education – this is why we’re going to survive this. We’re actually doing the people’s business.
Unfortunately, the peace was short-lived: my deputy called me back to my office, where some members of the President’s national security team had gathered. They had been meeting, unbeknownst to me, talking about a bombing campaign in Iraq – Operation Desert Fox – that had been going on now for several days. They said they wanted the President to call an end to the military action and announce victory.
And I looked at them and said, “A week ago, you had me go out and say, ‘we found out today we’re gonna be impeached, and we’re launching a war,’ and today you want me to go out and say, ‘yeah we got impeached, but guess what? We won the war!’”
They said yes.
I said, “Well, isn’t there anything we can hit again? Can we go back and hit some buildings a second time?” I was making a bad joke, and the national security official didn’t think that was very funny.
I then had what we call in the business a “communications challenge,” because I had two things that we had to announce at the same time. We tried to figure out what to do, and eventually I realized worrying wasn’t going to help and we just had to go out and make the announcements.
We gathered 150 members of Congress – all Democrats – down on the South Lawn to stand with the President and repeat our simple message: This impeachment was all partisan; it’s all politics.
It went well. But then we had to talk about the war.
So we went inside and only hours apart – using the same podium, in a different room – Clinton told the press that there were no Republicans in this country, there were no Democrats, there were just Americans, and that we had won the military operation.
Then the President left, leaving me to explain to 50 waiting reporters how the two announcements fit together. And I think it was so audacious that we took the breath away from even the press, and they seemed to let us get away with it.
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At the end of this long day, one of my closest friends in the White House, a top aide of the President, saw me come into my office. He went over to the little bar in the corner, and he got two beers and opened them up, sat down, and put his feet up.
I’ll never forget what he said to me: “You know, except for getting impeached, we had a pretty good day.”
This article was adapted from a speech the author gave at the Moth Radio Hour.