President Clinton's Online Interview with CNN.com
Blitzer: Thank you very much Lou (Waters), we are in the Oval Office here with President Clinton. Mr. Clinton, thank you so much for doing this historic first-ever online news interview with CNN.com.
Just want to set the scene for you and for our audience. This is not only being put forward on CNN.com and other Internet users but also will be able to be seen simultaneously on CNN and CNN International.
Fifteen minutes after we are completed there will be an online video that people will be able to see whenever, if they missed it. There will also be a transcript. They will be able to stream and see this as it goes on on the Internet, so it's a historic moment for the new technology. I know you've been fascinated by this.
Let's get right at it. We have some e-mail questions, first one from Frank Williams in Tinley Park, Illinois: Mr. President understandably you are supporting the presidential candidacy of Vice President Al Gore, but please share your personal political opinion of Senator John McCain and Governor George W. Bush.
Clinton: I think I should pass on that. I think, I've tried to stay out of this presidential election. I am not a candidate and I don't think that any headlines that I make should interfere with the ability of Senator McCain or Governor Bush to make their point. They are gonna have an election in South Carolina, and they are going to other states. And I think that, at some point, it might become appropriate for me to say something and maybe at the Democratic Convention or something. Or if they make a specific statement about my administration or my record. But I really believe that the American people, this is their year, their time.
And, I am, you know, gonna vote for the vice president, I do support him, because I think he has been the best vice president in our history, by far. And I think he's got a good program for the American people and I know him to be a good man and he'll make good decisions. I just don't think I should get in the middle of this presidential race. It only interferes with the voters' ability to draw their own conclusions, and I trust them, they almost always get it right.
Blitzer: But you do know Senator McCain and Governor Bush, you've met them and you have your own opinions of this?
Clinton: I do, and I follow this campaign closely. I am interested. It's the first time in over 20 years that I've been an onlooker, so, it's been fascinating to me as a citizen. But I don't think I should say anything right now. And I don't mean to dodge the gentleman's question. But, I just think that anything I do would only complicate their lives and they are making their case to the people and they are arguing with each other, as it should be, and that's the way it ought to be done right now.
Blitzer: All right, we have another e-mail question from Peggy Brown. Do you find it difficult, Mr. President, watching, listening to criticism of the first lady as she attempts to capture the Senate seat in New York?
Clinton: Sure, of course I do. I now know how she felt all those years. You know, I love her very much, and I think I know her better than anybody else and I believe she would be a great public official. I hope that the people of New York put her to work. But if she is criticized, particularly if somebody says something I know is flat out wrong, it drives me nuts, I want to be able to say "gosh I wish I could answer that one."
Blitzer: All right, we have a chat room that's going on even as we speak right now. There is a question from one person: are you optimistic, Mr. President, about the future Middle East peace?
Clinton: Yes, I am. We are in a little tough patch right now, because a lot of things are going on in the Middle East, the trouble in Lebanon right now. We are down to the last strokes if you will, we are down to the hard decisions. But I believe it is so clearly in the interests of the long-term security of Israel and the long-term interest of the Palestinians and the Syrians and the Lebanese to have a comprehensive peace.
And I think we are so close on the substance that I am optimistic. It will require courage and it will require courage not just by the leaders; but the people of those countries have to recognize that you cannot make peace unless you are willing to give as well as to get. But, they ought to do it, and they ought to do it sooner rather than later. I think the longer you delay something like this, when you have a moment of opportunity, the more you put it at risk. But I am basically optimistic.
Blitzer: You have invested a lot of personal time and energy in the Israeli-Palestinian and the Israeli- Syrian peace process. Is it time for you, once again, to personally get involved, and bring the parties together, do something to make sure this opportunity is not lost?
Clinton: Well, I am personally involved, even when I'm not in the public way. I am always on the phone, always working this issue. But, I think there will have to be some forward progress here in the next few weeks, and I'll do whatever I can to facilitate it in whatever way I can. But, beyond that, I don't want to say anything else right now. We are working it and the parties are working it.
Blitzer: O.K. Let's take another question from ane-mail that we've recieved. Do you think, Mr. President, the federal government can do more for Internet security? I know you have a big conference, a big meeting coming up, here in the White House, tomorrow to deal with this sensitive issue, especially given the hacker problem that we saw in the last few weeks.
Clinton: Well, the short answer to that is, we probably can. I am bringing a group of people to meet with me tomorrow. A lot of people from the high-tech community and from all our government agencies. These denial of service atttacks are obviously very disturbing. And I think there is a way we can clearly promote security.
I think it's important the American people not overreact to this. That is, we are into a whole new world with the Internet, and whenever we sort of cross another plateau in our development, there are those who seek to take advantage of it. This is a replay of things that have happened throughout our history and we'll figure out how to do it and go forward. But I think, on balance, no one can dispute what a great thing the Internet has been for our country and for the world. There are now over 200-million people that use it every day, about half of them here in the U.S., and we just need to keep pushing it.
Blitzer: We are using it right now. Let's take another question from our chat room, from our CNN.com chat room. Mr. President, how will you advise Vice President Gore to keep this economy growing?
Clinton: Well, I think he's got a pretty good idea because he's been here with us, and has been a part of the decisions that have been made in the last seven years. But if you look at where we are, the question is, we've had the longest economic expansion in history, how do we keep it going?
I think we need to remember the fundamentals. We need the keep the debt being paid down because that allows people in the private sector to borrow money, not only to invest in new businesses or in their existing businesses, but also to purchase things. So the continuing of debt repayment is important. Keeping our markets open to make us competitive and keep inflation down is important.
Investing in science and technology and research and in education and training. Closing the digital divide to make sure the access to the Internet is available to all Americans. Those are the kind of things that will keep this economy going.
Especially, I would say, we have both a moral obligation and economic opportunity by increasing investment in the areas which have been not so helped by the economic recovery. In the Indian reservations, the inner city communities, the rural communities where there haven't been a lot of new jobs. If you get growth there, it is by definition non-inflationary because they haven't had much. So you can lower the unemployment there and you create new businesses, new employees, and new consumers at the same time.
Blitzer: Mr. President, there is another e-mail question that we have. How would you respond to arguments that you personally have had very little to do with the economic boom that the country has experienced during your administration?
Clinton: Well, I would respond by asking them to remember what it was like before we announced and implemented our deficit reduction plan and remember what a direct impact that had on interest rates, on investments, and on the stock market.
The American people deserve the lion's share of the credit. The high-tech community, we are part of it today, they deserve a lot of the credit. High-technology companies employ only 8 percent of our people, they are responsible for 30 percent of our growth.
The companies that restructured in the '80's deserve a lot of credit. Everybody who has kept our markets open guaranteeing low inflation and more competition, they deserve a lot credit. But, nonetheless, we had a completely jobless recovery, what some people called a "triple-dip economy," til we finally said we're going to do something about this deficit. And, when we did it, it was like breaking a dam and all the interest rates came down. People were able to start getting money and starting to invest it in unprecedented rate, and the stock market started its upward march.
So I think the critical things we did, we had a good fiscal policy, we had a good policy on the market, and we had a good policy on investing in technology and in people, education and training. And I don't' think there is any question had we not taken that first big bite out of the deficit than the growth would have been much slower than it has been.
Blitzer: I guess the person asking this question is also suggesting that the Republicans in Congress, Alan Greenspan, and the Internet economy, all of that combined to help you.
Clinton: And I agree with that. I agree. I think Chairman Greenspan did a good job. The main thing that he's done that I think he deserves a lot of credit for, is that he's been able to look at the evidence of the new economy and act on the evidence instead of what you might call the old theology. Otherwise he could have killed this recovery by raising interest rates too much too frequently in the past.
I think the Republicans in Congress, not one of them voted for the economic plan in '93, but we did have a bipartisan majority in both houses in '97 for the Balanced Budget Act which continued what we're doing and they deserve credit for that. And I have never, I try never to deny anybody credit. This is an American achievement not just mine, but if we hadn't taken that first big bite out of the deficit I don't think we'd be where we are today.
Blitzer: All right Mr. President, we have another question from Mohamad Ayadi, an e-mail question: why are the Western nations, why have they not done enough for Chechnya like they did for Kosovo?
Clinton: Well, first of all, I don't' think the situations are parallel. I think the Western nations have spoken out against the excesses. We believe, I think I speak for all the Western leaders, I certainly speak for myself, that Russia had a right to take on the paramilitary forces who were practicing terrorist tactics, but that it was a mistake to adopt a position that in effect ruled out negotiations with the elected officials in Kosovo who were not part of the terrorism and to adapt tactics that caused a lot of civilian losses without any kind of corresponding gain.
So, I think we've been pretty clear about that. That is different from what happened in Kosovo where Milosovic basically ran the whole country out based on their ethnic origin and had no intention of letting them come back until he had crushed anybody's ability to say anything. So I don't think that the situations are parallel, but I think we have spoken out against the excesses in Chechnya and tried to get humanitarian aid in there and will continue to try to help the people of Chechnya and the legitimate political forces there. That's very different from what the paramilitary forces did. They have to bear their share of responsibility for what happened, as well. I think some of them actually wanted the Chechen civilian attacked because it would help improve their political position.
Blitzer: OK, we have a follow-up question from our chat room. Let me read it to you as it's coming in. How can Americans know that America is really at peace with Russia?
Clinton: Because we are neither fighting with them nor on the edge of fighting. We de-targeted nuclear weapons against each other. We are working to secure the nuclear weapons in Russia, to help them destroy nuclear weapons, to help safeguard the materials that remain, and I hope, very much, that after the next Russian election we'll be able to make further progress on reducing the nuclear weapons that we both hold.
Blitzer: And Vladimir Putin, the acting president, is he somebody that you can deal with?
Clinton: Based on what I have seen so far, I think that the U.S. can do business with this man. I think he is obviously highly intelligent, he's highly motivated. He has strong views, we don't agree with him on everything, but what I have seen of him so far indicates to me that he is capable of being a very strong and effective and straightforward leader.
Blitzer: All right, let's go back to another issue involving the Internet. This is a question, Mr. President, what role will you play in the debate on taxing Internet commerce?
Clinton: Well, we've played some role already. I signed a bill last year, to have a three-year moratorium on any kind of discriminatory, or transactional tax, if you will, on the commerce, on the Internet. I don't think there should be any access or any other kind of discriminatory taxes, from my point of view, ever on the Internet.
The tough question is, the whole question of, what happens to sales that if they were not on the Internet would be subject to state and local sales tax? And the governors are trying to work through that. I know (Utah) Governor (Mike) Leavitt is taking a particular interest in that.
I think that's something that we have to work through, because we need their whole questions about the need of states to simplify their tax structures and there are other questions there that have to be resolved, and I think that's going to take some time to resolve. But I don't think we should have access taxes on the Internet or any other kind of discriminatory taxes because this is an important part of our economy and we want it to grow. I think that for the states and the localities they are going to have to keep working til they work through what the operational problems are.
Blitzer: Doesn't that discriminate against though stores, bookstores, for example, that you have to pay tax then, but if you go to Amazon.com you don't have to pay tax?
Clinton: Absolutely. It does, and that is the argument the governors are making, and that is the argument that a lot of the merchants are making.
Blitzer: Where is your vision of that?
Clinton: Well, what I'm trying to do is get them together. There are also, the Internet people point out, that there a lot of complications in the way that states' taxes are, and they have on their side the weight of Supreme Court law which basically was made for mail-order sales. The same argument was made against mail-order sales.
The prevailing legal position is that if you don't have enough connections to a state you don't have the obligations to collect, and omit the sales tax. Keep in mind that the sales tax is due, it's just that the seller does not have to collect and omit it. So most people I know, who have Internet businesses, are concerned about trying to make sure they get a simplified system and they know what the drill is.
Their main concern, however, is not having access to the Internet itself taxed, and you know I'm with them on that, and I'm trying to support the process that now exists to resolve the issue of how states' taxes, the sales taxes, can best be collected in a way that is now to burdensome on the Internet. You don't want to burden the Internet, but you don't want to put people who aren't making sales on it out of business, and we've got to find that right balance and that's what we're working on.
Blitzer: We have another question from our chat room, an international question involving the political situation in Austria given the fact that Joerg Haider is now, his party is part of the Austrian Government, let me read to you the question: what does the U.S. plan do to make sure that Austria knows that Nazi sympathy will not be accepted?
Clinton: Well I think we've made it quite clear that we do not support any expression of either sympathy with the Nazis in the past, or ultra-nationalists race-based politics, anti-immigrant politics in the future. That, I think, is equally important here.
We've also tried to stay pretty close to where the European Union has been because, after all, Austria is a part of Europe and they've been very tough in condemning what the Austrians have done here. So, I think we're on the right track. There is a delicate balance however. Austria is a democracy, this man's party got a certain percentage of the vote. He did it based on appeals that went beyond the narrow race based appeal. And, we don't want to say or do anything that builds his support even further, but I think it ought to be clear to every Austrian citizen that we in the U.S. do not approve of his political program or his excessive rhetoric.
Blitzer: All right, let's stay overseas, we have another e-mail question about U.S.-Iranian relations: I'd like to know, Mr. President, your view on the recent developments of Iranian-American relations as we the Iranian youth are really anxiously following political developments between the two countries and no doubt willing to finally see a healthy and mutually respectful relationship between the two.
Clinton: Well, that's what I want. You know, I said several weeks ago now, maybe a few months ago, that the United States had not been entirely blameless in the past in our relationships with Iran, but that we wanted a good relationship with Iran. That we did not support and did not condone anyone who would support terrorist actions, and that we had some difficulties with Iran, but we were viewing with interest the affairs within Iran, we wanted the Iranian people to have a good democracy.
We like to see these elections, and we want to be supportive of better relationships, if we can work them out on ways that are mutually agreeable. I think that one of the best things we can do for the long-term peace and health of the Middle East and indeed much of the rest of the world is to have a constructive partnership with Iran.
I'm still hoping that can materialize. A lot of that is now in the hands of the Iranian people, their elections and also the leaders of Iran. Some of them don't want that. But I think some of them may want that. And I think it's important that the genuine reformers not be, in effect, weakened because of their willingness to at least talk to us, because I think the United States should always remain open to a constructive dialogue with people of goodwill. And I think that the estrangement between these two countries is not a good thing. I think it'd be better if we could have a relationship.
Blitzer: As you know, Mr. President, in this regard 13 Iranian Jews were accused of spying and they're being held. Is this an irritant in this? What do you want the Iranian government to do on that front?
Clinton: Well, I have been assured by the Israelis that they were not spies, and I've done quite a bit of work on it. I'm very, very concerned about this, because people cannot -- it is an irritant. The American Jewish community is very, very concerned about it, and we've done a lot of work on it, and I'm hopeful that the justice will be done there, and that no one will be punished for being a spy who isn't.
That's not a good thing to do, and that obviously is a real... it's one of the sticking points. But I think that there are other people of goodwill who are ... who the Iranians recognize are their friends who want better relationships with them, who've also talked with them about this, and I'm hoping that it will be worked out in a satisfactory manner.
Blitzer: OK, Mr. President, I think we have another question from our chat room. Let's see what it is.
"How can we keep the media giants from squashing the little guy?" I guess they might be referring to the recent merger of our own CNN, Time Warner, AOL. What's your answer to that?
Clinton: Well, I think the main thing to me are there are two sets of "little guys" I guess. The one thing is you don't -- and Steve Case has talked about this for many years himself...
Blitzer: He's the chairman of AOL.
Clinton: The chairman of AOL -- that it's important not to have access choked off. We want that all of these mergers go through; we want them to lead to greater access to greater options to consumers, at more affordable prices.
Then the second thing is, you want other competitors to be able to get into the game. That's what all the big controversy was over the anti-trust suit involving Microsoft. That's handled in the justice department, strictly away from the White House. We had no role in that one way or the other.
And without expressing an opinion on that case one way or the other, I think what I favor is an American economy where people who have good ideas and new messages they want to get out ought to have some way to do that, if they can generate a following. So, that's what needs to be monitored here. Some of this amalgamation I think is inevitable, given the possible synergy that could exist, for example between a company like AOL and Time Warner, with all of its myriad publications and programs and networks.
But you've got to have -- there has to be some room for people who want to compete, and then there has to be a guarantee that consumers will not be choked off and their prices hiked, and in fact they'll have more access to more programs at more affordable prices. And I think those are the touchstones that ought to guide government policy.
Blitzer: All right, lets take another question from our chatroom; CNN.com chat room.
"What will the current and future administrations do to keep small business alive? " Sort of related to the last question.
Clinton: One of the things that I'm very proud of about this economy, and again I don't take total credit for this. this is part of our prosperity, but, in every year I've been president we've set a record for starting small businesses, every single year.
I think that the small business administration has an important role to play. I think that we have dramatically increased the number of small business loans that we finance and we've concentrated on women and minorities and others who have been traditionally denied credit. We have promoted aggressively for the first time what we call community development financial institutions where we put federal money into banks to try to help them make small loans to people who never could have gotten credit before. Just as we do around the world, we're now doing that here. And that's helping.
We tried to continue to minimize the burden of government regulations on small business. And I think that's important, to keep an entrepreneurial environment in America so people can get access to venture capital if they have an idea and get started on it. So I think having the right conditions and then having specific access to capital and technical support through the small business administration and the community financial institutions, that's the best thing we can do for small business.
Blitzer: We have another question about the future from our chat room. What will the history books say about the Clinton presidency?
Clinton: Well I'm not sure, because that's for the historians to decide. But I think they will say, among other things, that we came into office with a different approach that was tuned better to the changes that were going on in the economy, the society and in the world. And that we helped America get through this enormous period of change and transition and the metaphor I use, to build our bridge to the 21st century. And that our country was stronger when we finished than it was when we began. I hope that's what they will say and I believe they will.
Blitzer: We have a follow-up question from the chat room. Let's take a look at that one.
"Mr. President, what are you going to do when you leave office?" Which is now less than a year away, are you counting the days?
Clinton: No, not in a negative way, I'm not eager for it to be over. In fact one of the problems I have is I want to work even harder now to try to get as much done as I can. When I leave I'm going to establish a library and public policy center.
Blitzer: And that will be in Little Rock.
Clinton: That will take a couple of years to do. And I'm going to try to maintain a high level of activity in the areas that I'm particularly interested in. I've spent a lot of my life working on reconciliation of people across racial, religious and other lines. I'm very interested in using the power of technology, like what we're doing now, to help poor countries and poor areas overcome what would ordinarily take years in economic development and education.
I'm very interested in continuing my work to try to convince Americans and the rest of the world, that we can beat global warming without shutting down the economy. That it's no longer necessary to use more greenhouse gases to grow economically. I'm very interested in promoting the concept of public service among young people and try to get more young Americans to take some time off to serve in our national government and state and local government. Those are four things I'll do.
Basically, I want to try to be a good citizen. America's given me a lot, more than I could have ever dreamed of. I've loved being president and I feel that I've acquired a certain level of experience and knowledge that I owe back to my country. And along the way I hope to write a few books and have a little fun, too. And, I hope I'll be a member of the Senate's spouse's club. I'm going to do my best to support my wife in every way I can. But I just want to be a citizen, I want to try to put what I've learned in a lifetime to use in a way that benefits the people in America and others around the world that I care about.
Blitzer: You'll commute between Chappaqua, New York and Little Rock?
Clinton: Yes, I'll spend some time in Little Rock the next couple years, like I said, getting the facility up. And I'll spend some time with Hillary as much as I possibly can in New York. I'll probably travel some, and I hope we'll be able to travel some together, it just depends on what happens in the next year.
But I'm really looking forward to it. I love this job. I don't know if I'll ever do anything again that I love the work as much as I love this. John Kennedy described it well, basically it challenges all of your abilities. It challenges your mind, your emotions, your physical strength. I think that I can do a lot of things that will help other people when I leave here, and I'm going to do my best to do that.
Blitzer: Mr. President, if you take a look at our chat room, there are huge numbers of people participating in the CNN.com chat room. Let's take another question, this one from e-mail, from a person named Seth. "Mr. President, I have heard that you are an avid Web surfer and online shopper. What are your favorite Web sites?"
Clinton: Well I wouldn't say I'm avid. I did do some Christmas shopping for the first time online this year, though. And I bought some things from the native American crafts people up in South Dakota at Pine Ridge, which was really interesting to me. But I love books, so like Amazon.com, and I'm fascinated by eBay because I like to swap and trade and it reminds me of the old farmers' markets and town markets I use to visit when I started out in politics in Arkansas so many years ago. I think the whole concept of people being able to get online and trade with each other and almost barter is utterly fascinating to me.
Blitzer: We have another question Mr. President, we only have a little time left, let's take this from the chat room. "Mr. President, what is the biggest issue facing Americans in the new millennium?"
Clinton: Well I think the most important thing we have to do is make up our minds that we are actually going to build a more united country out of our diversity and out of our groundbreaking technology and advances in science and technology. That is, I think that if you look around the world today the biggest problems seem to be rooted in racial-ethnic-religious strife.
If you look at America and how well we fit with a positive vision of the 21st century world, and you look at the continuing problems we've had here, with these hate crimes for example, the most important thing we can do is get our minds right and our spirits right and realize that we have to learn to live with people who are different from us. We have to learn to keep our conflicts with them within proper bounds so that our common goals override the differences between us.
If we can build one America, that's the most important thing. American people are so innovative, so creative, and we're so well positioned for the future that everything else will work out. But if we allow ourselves to fall into these deep divisions, including political ones, differences of opinions are healthy, demonization is destructive and self-indulgent. And that's basically what we've got to work on. If we can keep working together enough in creative tension then everything else will work out, I'm confident of it.
Blitzer: All right Mr. President, we have time for one final question. It's from Wolf in Washington D.C., that would be me. My prerogative as the moderator of this discussion, of this online interview we are having. You know the Republicans today in the House of Representatives are pushing legislation that would remove the limits, ease the limits, on Social Security recipients as far as their earnings after they reach 65, until 70. A very sensitive subject, affects a lot of people watching right now, how much money they could earn and still be eligible for Social Security. Will you work with Republicans, support them in eliminating those caps on earnings?
Clinton: Absolutely. I'm thrilled by this. I hope this is the beginning of a signal from them that they are willing to work on this whole Social Security area. I think we should lift the earnings limit for two reasons. One is, I don't really think it's fair for people. If you're 65 today in America, your life expectancy is 83. You want to be alert and physically strong. We know as people stay more active, they are going to live better, not just longer.
So I don't think we should penalize them. Secondly, I think as the baby boomers retire, it's going to be important to have a higher percentage of people over 65, if they want to, working. So it will be good for our society. I'm strongly in favor it. If they will send me a bill, what we call in Washington-speak, a clean bill, that is doesn't have a lot of other things unrelated to it littered to it, I will be happy to sign it.
The second thing I'd like to urge them to do is to think about my proposal to dedicate the interest savings that we get from paying down the debt because of the surplus and the Social Security tax to the Social Security trust fund to do two things: number one, put the life of the trust fund out to 2050, that will take care of most of the baby boom generation.
And number two, do something about single women's poverty on Social Security. Married women's poverty on Social Security is about 5 percent. Overall seniors over 65 is under 10 percent now, single women on Social Security tend to live longer, tend to have less money, their poverty rate is somewhere between 18-20 percent. So I like getting rid of the earnings limitation. It's the right thing to do. Let's just do it. But then let's lengthen the life of the trust fund and do something about the poverty rate among women who retire.
Blitzer: Mr. President, thank you so much for joining us from the Oval Office, always of course, great to be in the Oval Office and one day when you're not in office you'll probably be excited to coming back here as well.
Clinton: I will be. I'll always be excited to come here, and maybe I'll even get to do a Web chat with you afterward.
Blitzer: We'll do it. Thank you so much for joining us. Also want to thank our viewers, those participating on CNN.com and other Internet users who are joining us. Remember in 15 minutes you'll be able to see a video on CNN.com of this entire online interview, the first news interview online that a sitting president has ever given in this new age of the Internet.
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