Oprah Talks to Bill Clinton
Oprah: You write that whether you're a good man will be up to God to judge. But if you had to answer that question for yourself today, what would you say?
Clinton: I'm not as good as my biggest fans believe nor nearly as bad as my enemies suspect. I think I have a good heart. And I mean well. I'm just trying to get better.
Oprah: When I watched Sidney Poitier accept the Academy Award in 1963, I thought, "If a colored man can do that, I wonder what I can do?" I read your passage about hearing Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech and weeping. What did you feel in that moment?
Clinton: I was overwhelmed by the picture Dr. King painted: Someday on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I thought, "That's what America, communities, the world ought to be like." I still remember the chair I sat in—an old-fashioned white leather reclining chair. I sat there by myself in the den and just wept. In that speech, Dr. King painted a picture of [what he called] the beloved community. That's what I wanted to do—to put things together, make it better for people.
Oprah: You write that it's one thing to know of the presidency, another to be president. When were you able to wrap your brain around the fullness and depth of the idea: I am president of the United States?
Clinton: For me, it happened in stages. I first came to grips with it after the election, when I began making decisions during the transition. The second stage came when I was given the military codes. I realized that in a couple of hours, I'd actually have this authority. After I was inaugurated, there were a few days when I didn't feel comfortable with everybody tending to my every need. That was stage three. The fourth stage was when I realized that I had the job, and I had a high level of confidence in my decisions. I also realized I'd be required to make decisions I couldn't know whether were right or wrong until we saw the consequences.
Oprah: When do you trust your own judgment versus that of the people around you?
Clinton: Your gut has to kick in. I'll never forget what Al Gore once told me—that becoming president requires decisions at a whole different level of difficulty and complexity. I had to be prepared to go ahead and make mistakes, then put them behind me. And in the end, if you make your mistakes in good faith, and you make more good choices than bad ones, it comes out all right. In writing the book, I wanted people to understand what it feels like to be president—and how it all happens at once.
Oprah: I got it—and I wouldn't want it. There isn't enough money in the world to pay me to do that job!
Clinton: I loved it. Even on the worst days, there was always something you could do that would make a difference. I had a big, ambitious agenda—big enough to choke a horse. Every president comes in with commitments. Contrary to what many think, virtually every president has tried to do what he said he would do when he got elected. You pursue the agenda, then other things intervene. I didn't run on Somalia. I didn't run on natural disasters. Things happen that you have no control over. George Bush ran on getting rid of Saddam Hussein, not on 9/11. You have to deal with the world as it unfolds, without giving up your vision of where you want to be at the end of your term. One measure of success is the extent to which you continue to pursue your agenda while dealing with the incoming fire.