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Politics

Bill Clinton aides strove to build legacy in 2nd term

After Bill Clinton won a sweeping reelection against Republican Bob Dole, the White House started working on ways of cementing the president’s legacy.

AP/File

After Bill Clinton won a sweeping reelection against Republican Bob Dole, the White House started working on ways of cementing the president’s legacy.

WASHINGTON — President Bill Clinton’s top aides began debating how to build a presidential legacy days after he won reelection in 1996, newly released documents show.

The 2,500 pages of documents released Friday from the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., ranged from drafts of Clinton’s speeches to memos exploring ways of dealing with climate change, Republican opponents, and the media.

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It was the third batch of records to be released since February, part of roughly 30,000 pages of previously withheld documents expected to be disseminated to the public through the Clinton library and the National Archives in the coming weeks.

The records are being closely scrutinized by reporters and others as Clinton’s wife, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, contemplates a second presidential campaign in 2016.

After Bill Clinton won a sweeping reelection against Republican Bob Dole, the White House started working on ways of cementing the president’s legacy. The Nov. 24, 1996, memo written by Clinton adviser Gene Sperling urged aides to choose topics carefully and said some approaches might be rejected even if the administration had addressed them successfully.

Clinton aideGene Sperlingsaid the way that administration officials definedor emphasized a major issue could be crucial.

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Sperling’s memo said ‘‘legacy aspirations’’ must have ‘‘achievable impact.’’ Sperling, who until recently served as President Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, said the way that administration officials define or emphasize a major issue can be crucial in determining whether it will contribute to a lasting legacy.

He cited Clinton’s first-term effort to overhaul the nation’s health care system, which became a major political defeat when Congress rejected it. ‘‘The national debate made people more aware of various health care costs,’’ Sperling said, even if it fell short of the main goal: a sweeping new law.

‘‘If we had defined our health care aspirations as a means to inform Americans of the importance of cost awareness,’’ Sperling wrote, ‘‘our efforts might now be seen as having been more successful.’’

The memo also said: ‘‘If we agree on a few specific legacy themes early on in our legacy development process — and commit to them — we can make significant progress through our consistency.’’

Clinton’s hopes for a sterling legacy were hurt in January 1998 when the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted.

One of the documents released Friday notes that when Hillary Clinton was invited for a Voice of America interview shortly after the Lewinsky scandal broke, a VOA staff member and Hillary Clinton press aide Julie E. Mason exchanged e-mails that signaled concern that listeners might call in with questions about the White House intern.

‘‘I was thinking that perhaps we could invite a couple of reporters in just to sit in a studio next door and listen to her do the interview. Caveat: there may be questions from callers around the world on the Monica story. This would bring HRC right into the story in the US,’’ wrote US Information Agency official Meg Lynn.

As the Lewinsky scandal continued in 1998, aides offered advice to Clinton’s speechwriters on how to use the State of the Union address in January to rebuild public confidence in the president.

Minyon Moore, the president’s public liaison, wrote in a memo that Clinton’s supporters “need to be reassured on several fronts.” She also suggested that Clinton invoke God “as the underpinning for his policy and thought process.”

The White House also debated hardball strategies to undercut Republicans and garner favorable press coverage.

In July 1995, the White House considered enlisting disease victims to help criticize Republican-led budget cuts. Public anger over reductions in meat inspections was ‘‘wounding the Republicans,’’ the memo said.

‘‘This would be an opportunity to once again hit them,’’ wrote chief speechwriter Michael Waldman. ‘‘We could, for example, have an event with
E-coli families.’’

That same month, as the White House prepared for a fierce budget battle with congressional Republicans, Waldman identified specific reporters who might be granted interviews with the president. ‘‘A carefully thought-through leak strategy is needed,’’ he wrote.

Other documents underscored longstanding policy challenges such as addressing climate change.

A June 1997 ‘‘decision memorandum’’ explored options the administration might consider on addressing global warming but acknowledged major obstacles from business and environmental groups and little hope the Senate would ultimately ratify an international treaty.

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