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Interview With Bill Clinton


(Note: the following is a rush transcript of an interview with Bill Clinton that will air this weekend on Political Capital with Al Hunt on Bloomberg Television.)

MR. HUNT: We know where you stand on the Democratic race for president, but handicap the Republican race now that you see --

PRES. CLINTON: I can't tell. I think that they wanted to vote for Thompson because they saw in him someone whose culture was conservative and who was, kind of, had a great manner and that macho stuff you know they love, and was vague enough so that you could read whatever you wanted to in him and maybe he could sop up some of the moderate vote; that's what they had with President Reagan in 1980, that's what they had with President Bush in 2000 -- that brilliant, compassionate conservative slogan.

But then he minimized the threat of Osama bin Laden and said he didn't know where he stood on the Schiavo case and I think on a case like that, being for it or against it, anything is better than not knowing.

So, you've got this curious situation where Romney is leading in a pretty strong position apparently in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's the better cultural fit for Iowa than Mayor Giuliani, and he's closer to New Hampshire being the former governor of Massachusetts than Mayor Giuliani. But he is running fourth or third in all the national polls.

I also think Giuliani so far has proved more durable than I thought he would.

And you have McCain, I think, making a comeback with almost no money. I've never seen a man more abused by his support staff than McCain was; they wasted too much money and it's scandalous because his deserves to be a major candidate in this race. He's an admirable human being. I disagree with him on Iraq, but I'm proud that he's challenged the Republicans to embrace campaign finance reform and climate change and any number of other issues.

And then you've got, I think, their only wild card really right now is the governor - former governor of Arkansas, Huckabee, he finished second in the Iowa polls.

MR. HUNT: From Hope, Ark?

PRES. CLINTON: Yeah, from my hometown and he's the best speaker they got. So I think he's got sort of an outside chance. I don't know what's going to happen, but I think the real question is, you'll be able to tell, number one, can Romney maintain his lead in Iowa, New Hampshire until New Years Day. If he does, but he doesn't move to second in the national polls, then the whole thing is going to be determined, in my opinion, by whether Iowa and New Hampshire voters stick with him from New Years Day through voting.

MR. HUNT: You mentioned Mayor Giuliani. When he was mayor and you were president, you all apparently had a very good relationship. On the campaign trail, he's said some pretty tough things about your administration. He said that Khobar Towers, USS Cole, first World Trade Center - that you did not adequately respond. Bin Laden, and I'm quoting him, "declared war on the U.S. because the Clinton administration did not sufficiently respond."

PRES. CLINTON: Well, I, you know, first I have the 9/11 Commission Report, which disputes that. But if you look at the Khobar Towers, I mean, if you look at the first World Trade Center, nobody knew anything about al Qaeda being an operational arm, nobody. We got every single person that was involved in that. They were put on trial, convicted, and jailed. We even extradited somebody from Pakistan for that, number one. Number two, on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis captured and killed all the people they said were responsible for it. Number three, with regard to the Cole, I definitely would have, after the African embassy bombing, I tried to kill bin Laden. I had the only actionable intelligence I ever had and we bombed the place where we thought he
was. On the USS Cole, that happened in October one month before the election.

MR. HUNT: So Rudy is just unfair.

PRES. CLINTON: Yeah, but let's talk about the Cole. I wanted to go in. But the CIA and the FBI did not jointly agree formally on the FBI's responsibility. As you remember, when President Bush went into Afghanistan, we needed basing rights around there to set it up and to go. We could not have gotten basing rights without a U.N. resolution, which I couldn't get until there was a clear official declaration of his responsibility.

But Mayor Giuliani - it's the political season. I worked with him when he was mayor on housing issues, and especially on law enforcement issues. I had a very cordial relationship with him. But he's not accurate what he's saying about what we did on terror.

MR. HUNT: Let me ask you one question about the Democrats. I'm not going to pull an ambush blind quote with you. This is from Hillary Clinton's autobiography. She's writing about you, circa 1992. And I quote, "he was initially dismissed as an outsider - handsome, and articulate - but at the age of 46, too young and inexperienced for the job," end quote. Sounds a bit like the critique of Barack Obama today, doesn't it?

PRES. CLINTON: Yes, but there is a difference. I was the senior governor in America. I had been head of any number of national organizations that were related to the major issue of the day, which is how to restore America's economic strength. And the issue abroad, except for Bosnia, which was the terrible problem at the time, was how to build a post-Cold War world, how to put things together? We didn't have the terror threat. We didn't have the troops in Iraq. We didn't have the Afghan issue hanging fire.

And so, by the time I ran, I was - in terms of experience - was closer to Senator Obama, I suppose, in 1988 when I came within a day of announcing, because most of the governors were for me and I had been a governor for six years. And I really didn't think I knew enough, and had served enough and done enough to run.

That doesn't mean that he shouldn't. That's his decision. But I think in terms of the experience relevant to that moment, I had more experience than anybody else running that year, including President Bush on the experience relevant to the American people then, which was how are we going to solve our domestic problems and get the country moving again.

And that's why I finally concluded that I could do it, and that I was interested enough in foreign affairs and committed enough to do it that I could learn what I needed to learn. In this election, I think it is more relevant that Hillary is on the Armed Service Committee, the only New York senator ever to serve there, the only senator of either party asked by the Pentagon to be on their commission to reorganize the military for the 21st century, and has responsibilities for helping to deal with the holes in our domestic homeland defense after 9/11 in New York, plus, all the invaluable experience of healthcare and education and all the domestic issues.

So I think what America needs in a president changes from time to time. And I think now, when we need to immediately restore our standing in the world, when we need to build alliance very quickly, but we have to understand what has to be done to rebuild the American military and to disengage in Iraq and rebuild our efforts in Afghanistan without making it worse than it is, and do all these domestic things, her experience is more relevant and more compelling.

MR. HUNT: Mr. President, thank you very much for being with us, and for letting us come to the Clinton Global Initiative. And we'll be back in just a minute.

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