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Documents detail Clintons’ policy concerns

Need seen to soften Hillary’s image

Hillary Rodham Clinton had the president’s ear during a White House event on child care proposals back in 1998.

Chuck Kennedy/KRT

Hillary Rodham Clinton had the president’s ear during a White House event on child care proposals back in 1998.

WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton’s aides revealed concern early in his presidency about the health care overhaul effort led by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and later about what they saw as a need to soften her image, according to documents released Friday. Hillary Clinton now is a potential 2016 presidential contender.

The National Archives released about 4,000 pages of previously confidential documents involving the former president’s administration, providing a glimpse into the ultimately unsuccessful struggles of his health care task force, led by his wife, and other Clinton priorities such as the US economy and a major trade agreement.

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Hillary Clinton’s potential White House campaign has increased interest in Clinton Presidential Library documents from her husband’s administration during the 1990s and her own decades in public service. A former secretary of state and New York senator, Hillary Clinton is the leading Democratic contender to succeed President Obama, though she has not said whether she will run.

Friday’s documents included memos related to the former president’s ill-fated health care reform proposal in 1993 and 1994, a plan that failed to win support in Congress and turned into a rallying cry for Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections. As first lady, Hillary Clinton chaired her husband’s health care task force, largely meeting in secret to develop a plan to provide universal health insurance coverage.

White House aides expressed initial optimism about her ability to help craft and enact a major overhaul of US health care.

Hillary Clinton had an ‘aversion to the national Washington media.’

A Clinton aide, in 1995  
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‘‘The first lady’s months of meetings with the Congress has produced a significant amount of trust and confidence by the members in her ability to help produce a viable health reform legislative product with the president,’’ said an undated and unsigned document, which was cataloged with others from April 1993. The document urged quick action, warning that enthusiasm for health reform ‘‘will fade over time.’’

But the documents also showed the growing concerns among Clinton’s fellow Democrats in Congress. Lawmakers, it said, ‘‘going to their home districts for the August break are petrified about having difficult health care reform issues/questions thrown at them.’’

Administration officials also wanted to distance Hillary Clinton from a staff meeting on the touchy subject of making health care cost projections appear reasonable. Top aides wrote an April 1993 memo saying pessimistic cost-savings projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office were ‘‘petrifying an already scared Congress.’’

‘‘CBO has the very real potential to sink an already leaking health reform ship,’’ said the memo, signed by Clinton aides Chris Jennings and Steve Ricchetti, the latter now a top aide to Vice President Joe Biden. A White House and congressional meeting meant to ‘‘align budget assumptions with CBO’’ would be ‘‘all staff,’’ the memo said, so ‘‘we do not believe it appropriate that Mrs. Clinton attend.’’

The documents also include detailed media strategy memos written as aides tried to soften Hillary Clinton’s image.

Her press secretary, Lisa Caputo, encouraged the Clintons to capitalize on their 20th wedding anniversary as ‘‘a wonderful opportunity for Hillary’’ and also suggested she spend more time doing White House events celebrating first ladies of the past.

Placing Hillary Clinton in a historical context ‘‘may help to round out her image and make what she is doing seem less extreme or different in the eyes of the media,’’ Caputo wrote in a lengthy August 1995 memo about courting better press coverage as the president looked toward reelection. It noted the first lady had an ‘‘aversion to the national Washington media.’’

Caputo also proposed the ‘‘wild idea’’ of having Hillary Clinton do a guest appearance on a popular sitcom of the day, ‘‘Home Improvement.’’

As the first lady began her bid for a Senate seat from New York in July 1999, adviser Mandy Grunwald coached her with ‘‘style pointers’’ and tips for handling ‘‘annoying questions’’ from the media without appearing testy. Grunwald said she was sure to be asked about her husband’s Senate impeachment trial earlier that year.

The advice: ‘‘Be real’’ and acknowledge ‘‘that of course last year was rough.’’

As for Bill Clinton himself, by the end of his presidency he showed frustration with his proposed farewell speech to the nation.

He told aides that he didn’t think the drafts included enough of his administration’s accomplishments. ‘‘Doesn’t anybody care about me?’’ he asked aides during his final days in office.

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