WASHINGTON — Thousands of pages of internal documents from Bill Clinton’s White House made public Friday open a rare window into the political and policy machinations from an era that is now of acute interest not just to the history of one presidency but to the prospects of another.
The papers underscore how intent then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was in wooing key Republicans as well as fellow Democrats in Congress during her ultimately failed effort to overhaul health care. They show a White House intensely aware of critical news media coverage and seeking message discipline. And they provide glimpses of how the president and his team pivoted to respond once Republicans took control of both houses of Congress.
The documents reflect internal fights over direction and include sometimes-blunt assessments of different political actors: One state leader is “a retrograde governor” with no “common sense or compassion.” A key congressman is “not well liked” by state officials. A House Democrat “could be a problem” unless he is made to feel consulted. Another’s “appetite for meetings can never be satiated,” and he “may be mad” unless he is called. Still another requires “stroking” that “will pay dividends” later.
Although incomplete reviews of the documents turned up no explosive revelations, collectively they detail the inner workings of a White House during a tumultuous time and reinforce the signal role played by Hillary Clinton, particularly in her early years before she became a senator and later secretary of state.
The documents are the first batch of a larger set of papers withheld until now under exceptions to public disclosure requirements in federal law, exceptions that expired a year ago. As Hillary Clinton prepares for a possible second campaign for the presidency in 2016, friends and foes alike will pore over the documents for information that may yield fodder for the coming debate.
The papers concern much-discussed areas like Hillary Clinton’s health care task force, her speech on women’s rights in Beijing and the genocide in Rwanda. There are also topics that rarely excite partisans, like the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Information Agency and Hillary Clinton’s efforts as first lady to encourage microcredit investment in third world countries.
They include many names that would be familiar to those following today’s White House under President Obama. Among the Clinton aides mentioned in the memos are Rahm Emanuel, Christopher Jennings, Gene B. Sperling, Steven Ricchetti and Bruce Reed, all of whom served or still serve Obama.
Many of the documents from the health care debates of 1993 echo the current political polarization over Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“I’m not going to underestimate the political battle that will ensue because of this,” Hillary Clinton said in a September 1993 meeting on Capitol Hill with Democratic leaders.
She fielded lawmakers’ concerns over her proposed health care overhaul and recognized that it needed to be done before the midterm elections. “If we don’t get this done by the close of business next year, if this isn’t signed, sealed and delivered by Election Day 1994, I think we can forget about us doing very well in the election,” Hillary Clinton said. The remarks almost foreshadow the challenges Democrats face in midterm elections over the Obama administration’s unpopular overhaul.
The new papers, posted online by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., are part of a broader set of 33,000 pages that could be made public over the next two weeks.
The announcement that the first installment would be released came after Politico reported this week on the delay in putting them out.