Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Searching For Rahm, Axelrod, and Other Chicagoans In Bill Clinton’s Withheld Documents

In the 33,000 pages of the former president’s papers, appearances by locals show how power works behind the scenes.

Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

The  Presidential Records Act allows our nation’s chief executives 12 years to release White House documents. They can keep from the public eye documents that might compromise national security, that might constitute confidential advice, or that contain information about candidates for federal office—or that might simply embarrass them. 

As the most politically active post president in modern history, Bill Clinton must be extra careful; he certainly doesn’t want to hurt Hillary’s chances—and his own—to move back into the White House on January 20, 2017.

Bill Clinton left the White House on January 20, 2001, so he’s a little past the grace period in releasing 33,000 pages of records of his presidency that he withheld after leaving office. (Then again, punctuality was never one of his strong suits.) He has released three batches so far—some 2500 pages—with the remainder to go on line, presumably, some time soon. 

The latest document dump includes faxes (remember, Clinton was president in the ‘90s), emails, letters, drafts of speeches, etc. I spent more hours than I like to acknowledge slogging through PDF files, some of which took so long to load I felt as if I were back in dial-up internet purgatory. 

Here’s the search site—aptly titled “formerly withheld documents”—at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.  

Bill Clinton was a hands-on president in more ways that one, but I refer here to his impressive role in shaping the speeches, policy memos, etc. produced by his staff. Clinton’s illegibly scrawled notes are almost always revealing—in one the beleaguered President who had been impeached by the House the December before writes “Rodney D[angerfield]. I know how he feels”—and a window into the psyche of a man who felt he was never sufficiently appreciated or understood. 

Next to a laugh line in a speech—the speechwriter quipped that UPI’s Washington bureau chief Helen Thomas wouldn’t be pleased that the White House briefing room was being moved outside the West Wing. ”She’s still miffed about the last time the White House briefing room was moved—when the capital relocated to Washington from Philadelphia, ” “That’s funny,” Clinton scrawled. “That’ll piss her off.”

Clinton also liked to doodle and there are many doodles for the person who has the time to look for them.

When I first read about the release of the “withheld” papers my fingers started typing the name Rahm Emanuel. I imagined a feast of goodies about our Mayor, who had served in Clinton’s campaign and both terms. What I got was earnest faxes and memos that showed Rahm working hard to polish the image of his boss. 

As the first of three names on a 1994 memo, for example, Emanuel and his colleagues write that the head of the NEH has been asked “to prepare… different topics for a Presidential lecture series…. One reason we are arranging these meetings is as a way of courting the historians who currently write on your Presidency.” Any program, they add, must pass the “Leon Panetta [soon-to-be Clinton’s COS] Test.” Getting on the President’s schedule requires that an event “rais[e] the stature of the President… [and] further… the President’s image as a reformer.”  Emanuel et al also insisted that events be held at a “community-based organization… that would show the President as trying to directly understand the very real concern that many Americans have with crime and violence…. A university, we fear, may be viewed as detached and aloof.” 

Once Rahm left the White House to use his White House contacts to make his $18 million fortune, he was invited back to a “working dinner” in July 1999 for Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak. By then Rahm was identified as “managing director Wassserstein Perella and Company.” Rahm’s date for the evening was his father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel.

David Axelrod worked for Bill and then jilted Hillary to become Obama’s message guru.  Despite some highhanded treatment by Obama, Axelrod, now at the University of Chicago,  remains a true believer. Eighteen years ago, in 1996, just after the GOP convention that nominated Bob Dole as the republican nominee, Axelrod wrote a memo to Clinton’s top aides (Leon Panetta and Harold Ickes) advising that they push back against Dole’s ridicule, in his convention speech, of Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village.” Axelrod titled his memo, “It does take a village. Just ask Bob Dole! “

The Dole story, Alexrod, suggested, should be told as follows:

“It was the story of a young soldier, mortally wounded in battle who returned home to his small town. And though he had a strong and loving family, they didn’t have the money it would cost to finance the medical care he needed.

So, without prompting, the people of his little town put their nickels and dimes together so this son of their community could get the surgery he needed to make himself whole again. Friends and neighbors, rallying to the side of a young man in need. And because of their generosity and sense of community, the medical assistance the government provided, and his own fortitude, that young man made a miraculous recovery. And today, he is a candidate for President of the United States. That’s Bob Dole’s story. So he, more than anyone, should know that it often takes a village.”

Sidney Blumenthal, who grew up in West Rogers Park, went on to write for the Washington Post and the New Yorker, and then to a controversial stint in the Clinton White House. He became a fierce defender of Hillary’s and would have joined her, during Obama’s first term, at the State Department except for the objection of Rahm Emanuel, then Obama’s COS.  (Expect to Blumenthal to return in a significant position should Hillary take the White House.)  

One of Blumenthal’s appearances in the “withheld docs” comes in a draft of Clinton’s speech to the White House Correspondents Dinner at the Washington Hilton on May 1, 1999. “Last year, Sid Blumenthal swore he could get me in to the Vanity Fair party. And this year, I’m taking him up on it. Let’s go, Sid.” (“Mr. President—the Vanity Fair party is the most coveted party invitation; it is hosted by Christopher Hitchens,” an unidentified aide notes on the draft.) Clinton’s handwritten note next to the bracketed info is, “I’ve been looking forward to it all yr.”

Minyon Moore, the former Chicagoan and Jesse Jackson Sr. protégé who became a top aide to Bill (public liaison) and remains a top aide to Hillary, gave advice to the President’s speechwriter Michael Waldman and his aide Sidney Blumenthal, about the upcoming State of the Union address. Her memo is dated the day after the Washington Post broke the Monica Lewinsky story on January 21, 1998. “I thought it would be important in the State of the Union, that the President was somehow able to articulate in his speech a tone that reflected restoring people’s faith and trust in him and the Presidency… I have come to understand this in my own humble way as an oblique message of hope rooted in scripture, poetry and vision.”

She also suggested that the President credit “God” as being “the underpinning for his policy and thought process.” 

The hours I spent surfing, or more often stumbling, through the Clinton papers reminded me of long afternoons in the 1980s in the  Library of Congress’s Manuscript Room while writing a biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Library aides rolled to my table in shopping carts original documents from the presidential papers of Theodore Roosevelt. The thrill of turning the pages of Alice’s White House diaries and seeing smudged ink as she described in fountain pen her unhappiness at life in the White House with Edith, the stepmother with whom she shared a relationship of mutual disdain. I imagined the ink smudges were caused by Alice’s tears landing on the pages as she wrote. Today, originals would never pass into the hands of a writer—and that’s all for the good. 

This online research also reminds me that it doesn’t matter much for academics, journalists or scholars where Obama puts his library.  Most of us will view his documents on our laptops and smart phones. It does matter, I think, for younger people who might be inspired by an interactive exhibition or a replica of the cabinet room—it’s there in the Clinton Little Rock library—and an invitation to take a seat around the table.

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