Clinton (continued): There have always been a conservative and a liberal party, and we've fought like the devil. Eisenhower despised Joe McCarthy. We've had all this political fighting, but there was a consensus that minimized the politics of personal destruction. Toward the end of the seventies, that began unraveling. You had the rise of the religious Right, the rise of the militant antitax amendment in California. Reagan was basically the first post–industrial age president because he argued that we have a new economy and that government is the problem. We tried it their way for 12 years; we tried it my way for eight years. People agreed with my way; we had a 50-50 election [in 2000], and they didn't win by enough to stay out of the Supreme Court. This next election might well create a new consensus.
Oprah: You think?
Clinton: It could. If it does, we'll look back and say, "This was a 24-year fight." History will judge me and everybody else in larger historical terms. Did we expand the definition of a union? Did we deepen the meaning of freedom? That's the way it works.
Oprah: Will we get beyond partisanship for partisanship's sake?
Oprah: You write eloquently about a lot of things, but particularly about leaving the White House.
Clinton: I loved the job. If there hadn't been a two-term limit, I'd probably make the people throw me out! In the curious way that history twists and turns— because of the circumstances of my upbringing, my exposure to black people, my sympathy for poor people, my understanding of the plight of working people, my personal problems, my growing up in a violent home—I think I was well suited psychologically to serve at the moment in history when I did.
The extent to which I can do things because I was president—concentrated in areas that I think matter—is still pretty significant. Though I'm interested in the White House, I don't sit around and miss it.
Oprah: But isn't it a big comedown to leave—psychologically, emotionally?
Clinton: Oh, yes. I was disoriented for a month or two after I left office 'cause nobody played a song when I entered the room. I now wait on the runways and sit in New York City traffic. That's when you know you don't matter anymore!
Oprah: What's been the hardest adjustment?
Clinton: I never lost my thrill at the honor of living in the White House. I never lost my belief in the possibility of the American people to meet any challenge. I can honestly tell you that I was more idealistic and more optimistic about the possibilities of our country on the day I left than I was the day I arrived. For me, it wasn't a comedown as it might have been for some people, because look where my life was before. I've enjoyed every part of my life. The first two years I was out of office, I was millions of dollars in debt because of my legal bills and because we had to get homes here [in New York] and in Washington. I worked like crazy. I went to 24 countries my first year out of office, 33 countries my second year. I set up this foundation [the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation]. And along the way, I got to read more books, play more golf, have dinner with my friends.