WASHINGTON – A new batch of records from former President Bill Clinton’s administration shows the ex-president musing about Republican plans to abolish a federal agency led by a black official, White House concerns about mass killings in Rwanda and political strategizing against former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The National Archives released 2,000 pages of documents from the Clinton White House on Friday, adding to the thousands of pages that have been unsealed this year, even as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton weighs a second presidential campaign. The former first lady’s new book on her State Department years, “Hard Choices,” will be released Tuesday.
The records, being disseminated through the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, offer an unvarnished look at the advice Clinton received from top aides during the 1990s. Here’s a look at some of the records featured in Friday’s release.
During a practice session for the 1996 State of the Union speech, Clinton unloaded on congressional Republicans who wanted to close the Commerce Department, which was led by Ron Brown, a longtime Clinton confidante. Brown, the first African-American to lead the federal department, died in an April 1996 plane crash.
“The reason they want to get rid of the Commerce Department is they are foaming at the mouth that Ron Brown is better than all of those Republican corporate executives who got those cheeky jobs because they gave big money to Republican presidential candidates,” Clinton told aides. “And here is this black guy who is a better secretary of Commerce than anybody since Herbert Hoover, which he was a success at.”
An aide asked Clinton if he wanted to include it in his speech.
“No,” Clinton said, “but I mean, they need a rabies shot.”
Republican leaders said they wanted to abolish Commerce during budget cuts because many of its programs were obsolete. Democrats blocked the proposal.
Emails from 1994 shed light on difficult internal deliberations over Rwanda. The Clinton administration was slow to react to the mass killings and went to great lengths to avoid calling the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu “genocide.” Clinton would later call the U.S. inaction among his biggest regrets.
A May 26, 1994, email by legal adviser Alan Kreczko to Donald Steinberg, who handled the Africa portfolio in Clinton’s National Security Council, advised that concluding that “genocide has occurred/is occurring in Rwanda does not create a legal obligation to take particular action to stop it.”
But Kreczko said, “making such a determination will increase political pressure to do something about it.”
Gays in the military
A handwritten memo from Joe Bouchard, a national security official, revealed the high emotions involved as the Clinton White House dealt with the question of whether openly gay service members should be allowed to stay in the military.
Bouchard told White House official Robert Bell called it “a terrible idea” to return a gay soldier to submarine duty after waging a court battle to stay in the service.
“The morale and cohesion of whatever sub he is put on will be destroyed,” Bouchard wrote. Clinton later endorsed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as a compromise for gay service members.
Countering then-Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich was always a top political consideration. In an August 1994 memo, White House aide David Dreyer suggested ways to undercut plans by Gingrich to take a “class picture” of Republican incumbents and challengers seeking control of Congress in that fall’s elections — which the Republicans did.
Dreyer suggested Democrats hold a House vote on campaign finance reform at the same time as Gingrich’s photo and offered other steps to affect coverage.
After Republicans won sweeping victories and Gingrich was House speaker, Clinton joined him for a New Hampshire town hall meeting in 1995, pledging to create a bipartisan commission on lobbying and campaign reform. But weeks later, the president’s aides were concerned it could backfire.
If the commission failed to come about, speechwriter Michael Waldman said the White House “will not be able to avoid the blame.”
R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for Gingrich, declined to comment Friday.
Money for veterans
A 1993 plea for more money from the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary shows the deep roots of the current complaints about veterans’ medical care.
VA Secretary Jesse Brown told budget director Leon Panetta his agency needed a $1.3 billion increase for 1994, and worried decisions were being made without assessing harm to veterans.
Separately, a letter from Brown to Clinton suggesting that the VA and other agencies be allowed promote modest bills seemed to irk White House policy aide Bill Galston. As an example, Brown cited legislation to improve services for homeless veterans — an issue being pushed today by President Barack Obama’s White House.
“The last thing we need,” Galston fumed in a 1993 internal memo, is “more special interest-oriented freelancing by departments and agencies.”
A memo prepared by Clinton aide Ron Klain during the Supreme Court confirmation of Stephen Breyer offered an unvarnished assessment of key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Current Democratic Chairman Pat Leahy “can be prickly if ignored.” Republican Sens. Charles Grassley and the late Arlen Specter, can both be “difficult and stubborn.”
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, however, was “ready to defend Breyer to the death.” At issue was a controversy over Breyer’s payment of back taxes.
Then-Democratic Sen. Joe Biden was adamant that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty remain independent despite Clinton’s plan to consolidate the nation’s international broadcasting services in 1993.
Clinton administration officials expressed worries that if they didn’t accommodate the current vice president’s concerns, they feared “an unhappy Biden with a long memory” if he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.” Biden took the helm in 2001.