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Clinton Discusses Personal Pain, Political Grief and His Enemies

The former president, ahead of his memoir, also faults Bush over U.N. arms hunt in Iraq.

June 21, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — President Bush erred in not allowing U.N. inspectors to finish their search for weapons of mass destruction before attacking Iraq, but he was on the right track in attempting to stabilize the country, former President Clinton said Sunday in an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes."

"In terms of launching the war, I believe we made an error in not allowing the United Nations to complete the inspections process," Clinton said. "The most important thing now is for all of us to support a stable, peaceful and pluralistic Iraq. And it looks to me like the administration's moving in that direction."

Clinton's hourlong appearance -- his lengthiest such interview since leaving the White House -- was timed to promote the release Tuesday of his autobiography, "My Life."

The former president got a record $10-million advance for the book, and will soon begin a two-month national tour to promote it. Early customer orders already have placed the 957-page book at the top of several bestseller lists.

During the interview, Clinton spoke at length about his personal failings during the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, and described his emotionally painful struggle to regain the respect of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea.

He said that the morning he told his wife the truth about the Lewinsky scandal was the single worst day of his presidency, and that there was a period immediately after when he said his wife had to decide if she wanted to stay married to him.

"I had to acknowledge to the people I loved most in the world that I had failed," Clinton told interviewer Dan Rather during segments that were taped at Clinton's home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and in his hometown Little Rock, Ark. "I had done something bad. And I hadn't felt I could tell them about it before."

Pressed to explain his actions, especially since he had experienced political grief and personal pain over earlier transgressions, Clinton said: "I think I did something for the worst possible reason. Just because I could. And I think that's the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything."

Clinton also used the occasion to lash out at his enemies, especially former special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr, whom he accused of mounting a $70-million witch hunt that was allegedly designed to drive Clinton from office.

"There was nothing left [at the end] but my personal failing," Clinton said. "That's what people got for over $70 million.... It was nothing but a big political operation designed to bring down the presidency."

On other subjects, the former president blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for torpedoing a Clinton-sponsored Middle East peace deal in the waning days of his second White House term, calling it "an error of historic proportions."

Clinton also rebuffed suggestions that his administration did not pursue Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden strongly enough, and categorically denied a report that he had turned down an offer by the Sudanese government to turn the terrorist leader over to the Americans.

"We not only attacked his [Bin Laden's] training camp in '98 and tried to get him," Clinton said, "I signed several authorizations to use lethal force against Bin Laden and his top lieutenants. We broke up about 20 Al Qaeda cells.... We prevented several terrorist incidents, including attempts to blow up planes flying into Los Angeles, to blow up the airport" during millennium celebrations.

Clinton seemed most introspective when he recalled moments from his childhood and spoke about his personality, which he conceded some people love and others hate.

Asked why he inspired such invective, Clinton said: "I've always tried to change things. And people who try to be change agents are going to make people mad against the changes you're trying to make. I think, secondly, that I puzzled a lot of people and confused them."

Clinton grinned when he recalled the nicknames that others have given him, such as The Comeback Kid, Bubba and Elvis. But he said the one nickname he didn't like was Slick Willy, noting testily: "No one could fairly look at my political life and say I didn't believe in anything."

Clinton said he was looking forward to completing the construction of his presidential library in Little Rock, and would continue his work to fight AIDS in Africa along with other projects.

Burnishing his legacy is uppermost in his mind, and he had a quick retort to the suggestion that, no matter what he did, the first paragraph of his obituary would make a reference to the failed effort to impeach him.

"I will always regret the personal mistake I made," he said. "But I will always be proud that when they moved on impeachment, I didn't quit. I never thought of resigning, and I stood up to it and beat it back.

"To me, the whole battle was a badge of honor," he said. "I don't see it as a great stain. Because it was illegitimate."

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