Clinton: "Factually True That We Were Several Million Dollars in Debt"

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DAVID GREGORY: Is it harder to be a political figure who harnesses the benefit of government and can work with the private industry when there is such scrutiny, even about politicians of means, politicians' salaries, wealth, and whether they're credible on some of these questions?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: No. You just have to be transparent. Tell people, "Look, truth." You know, the great thing, reason I like the Chipotle example, I don't think most Americans resent somebody else doing well. They resent it if they're not getting a fair deal.

And I think that they know that if you want to reduce inequality, you don't want to just tear off the top; you could reduce inequality by going to 100% poverty. Nobody wants that. They want the bottom to grow. They want the middle to grow. They want a different set of employment and education and other options available to people.

DAVID GREGORY: Do you understand some people who have been critical of Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Clinton, who initially had to explain talking about being dead broke coming out of the White House, or said in an interview that you all--

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: David, I might understand it differently than you do now.

DAVID GREGORY: Let me just--

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Look, you're in politics. One of the things that's a challenge for us is that somebody's always trying to change the subject. And the subject is how can we get this economy going? How can it work? And one of the things that we forget is-- she was joking about it the other day. Half the time somebody asking a question couldn't even vote when I was president.

And so you have to live in the moment, not with memory. It is factually true that we were several million dollars in debt. Everybody now assumes that what happened in the intervening years was automatic; I'm shocked that it's happened. I'm shocked that people still want me to come give talks. And so I'm grateful.

DAVID GREGORY: But when you say you pay ordinary taxes, as Secretary Clinton did, unlike other people who are really well off who pay taxes maybe just off capital gains, can you understand as a political matter that that could strike people as being out of touch?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Yes, but she's not out of touch. And she advocated and worked as a senator for things that were good for ordinary people. And before that, all her life. And the people asking her questions should put this into some sort of context.

I remember when we were in law school, she was out trying to get legal assistance for poor people. I remember she was working on believing in paid leave for pregnant mothers in the 1970s. So I think if you don't give the most in-depth answer to a question because you immediately remember what you felt like the day we left as opposed to what it looks like to everybody else now who's having trouble, you can say, "Okay, I've got to clean that up," which she did.

DAVID GREGORY: Right. The reaction you think, bottom line, before I move on, has been unfair?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: No. I don't want to-- you get to decide what's fair. You get to decide, because we've got the First Amendment. What I'm saying is the debate's the wrong debate. You need to be able to show, by their policies and their statements about current conditions, how candidates of both parties across the spectrum feel about the central challenge of our time, which is the demise of the American dream. And the loss of our leadership as the most successful middle-class country in the world.

And the idea that now, after-- I think I had the lowest net worth of any American president in the 20th century when I took office. But I still could have been tone deaf. And, you know, now I don't, and we've got a good life, and I'm grateful for it. But we go to our local grocery store on the weekend. We talk to people in our town. We know what's going on. The real issue is if you've been fortunate enough to be successful, are you now out of touch and insensitive to the agonizing struggles other people are facing? That's the real issue.

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