Saturday, January 26, 2008
Unfortunately, I’ve seen it all before.
That picture of the seething, red-faced former president of the United States shaking his finger at members of the press who dare to question his wife’s slimy campaign tactics, is all too familiar to those who have worked closely with him in the past.
Like Janus, the two-faced Roman god, there are always been two distinct personalities in Bill Clinton. That charming, smiling gentleman seen in public is too often eclipsed in private by his negative twin evidenced in the eruption of a furious, unexpected, and uncontrollable rage, often accompanied by loud cursing and occasionally, even physical violence. It’s not a pretty picture.
I’ve been at the other end of that anger too many times and I was always amazed at the suddenness and intensity of his fury.
Early one Sunday morning, he woke me up at my Connecticut home screaming into the phone, “have you seen the Washington Post?” Blearily, I said no that I wasn’t in Washington (it was in the pre-Internet days). Apparently, the paper’s lead article had our poll and focus group questions about his character and image.
“Who did you tell?” “Who did you tell?” he shrieked. I assured him that I never spoke to the press.
“Well, who DID you speak to?” he screeched.
“I only spoke to George [Stephanopopous] and Rahm [Emmanuel],” (his two closest aides).
That set him off even more. He yelled even louder: “You ONLY told George and Rahm! You ONLY told George and Rahm! Why didn’t you just send out a f-ing press release. Don’t you understand that you can’t tell those two anything that you don’t want to see on the front page of the Washington Post? They leak everything!
He kept screaming about how he couldn’t keep anything confidential because everyone who worked for him leaked. Then he slammed the phone down.
I was shaken.
The phone conversation recalled an even more difficult encounter with his temper.
Many years earlier, in 1990, he seriously overstepped his boundaries with me during one of his blind rages and permanently changed our relationship.
It was during his last gubernatorial race and he was falling behind in the polls. When we met at the governor’s mansion, it was close to midnight. Hillary and Gloria Cabe, his campaign manager at the time, were at the meeting with Bill and me. I had left Connecticut after oral surgery that morning to arrive in time for a 6 p.m. meeting. My mouth was killing me, but I avoided taking any pain killers to be alert for the strategy session. The meeting was changed several times because Bill had decided to do the Nightline Show. He finally arrived back to the mansion in a foul mood. Even though he was a teetotaler, I wondered if he had been drinking.
When he learned of his decline in the polls, he immediately blamed me, accusing me of spending too much time with other clients. Yelling and screaming, he escalated his charges, refusing to listen to me tell him that his latest ad had not been on television yet when the poll was completed. He kept ranting.
Finally, I had enough. I stood up and said I was leaving, quitting the campaign. I grabbed my coat and headed out of the mansion. As I crossed the foyer, I suddenly fell to the ground, tackled by Bill Clinton. I saw his large fist coming at me. Hillary was trying to get between us, yelling “Bill, Bill, stop it. Think about what you are doing. Bill, stop it!”
Bill got up and I walked out the door. Hillary ran after me. She tried to calm me and asked me to walk around the grounds of the Mansion with her. “He only does this to people he loves,” she told me. (I’ll leave that one for the psychologists.)
When the story appeared in the media in 1992 , probably leaked by a fellow political consultant I had confided in that night, I called Hillary to warn her that the press was on to the fight. Her advice: Deny that it ever happened. I never did that, but I refused to comment.
Years later, when I was writing my book, Behind the Oval Office, I sent the galleys to Bill. He marked up a few areas where he had questions or comments. Then he called me and said “I never did actually hit you.” He asked me to change the text and tone down the story.
At the request of the president of the United States, I did.
After that Sunday morning phone conversation about the Washington Post story, I wrote the president a letter telling him how upsetting I found his tantrums and saying that I couldn’t work with him any longer if that’s the way it was going to be. He seemed shocked that his volcanic outbursts caused personal pain. But he knew that I was serious and wrote me a nice note apologizing and the outbursts ceased.
Until, during the 1996 Republican convention, I called him in Wyoming, where he was on vacation. That was never his happiest time, and apparently, he was upset because his favorite golf driver, given him by the King of Morocco, had broken. (He once told me it took seven strokes off his game). He started screaming at me that he was on vacation and did not want to talk about the convention. Again, he was so loud that Eileen heard him across the room.
I hung up on him and went to sleep. A half hour later, Eileen answered a midnight call. A voice told her that the president of the United States was calling for Dick Morris. She told the caller that I was sleeping. Two minutes later, the phone rang again. “Miss, this is a call from the president of the United States.” Again, she told the caller that I was asleep. “The president wants to speak to Mr. Morris right now, please.” “I’m sorry, tell the president that he’s not available right now.” When the phone rang again a few minutes later, it woke me up. It was the president, calling to apologize and to talk about the convention.
Most of Bill’s tantrums were behind closed doors. But during Hillary’s presidential campaign, we’ve seen the real Bill boiling with rage.
But don’t think that he can’t stage blowing his top when he thinks it will be strategically useful. If you have any doubts, just remember another red-faced finger-pointing performance when he said “I want to say something to the American people. I want you to listen. I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”
Bill’s tantrums are causing the press to focus on him and not Hillary. That’s what he wants. No more questions about her experience, her ethics, her flip-flops. Now it's all about Bill.
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