Why Clinton came to breakfast

The reviews I've read of Bill Clinton's "My Life" all indicate there's little new and enlightening in the book, despite its blockbuster sales. But when Mr. Clinton writes in his book about how he decided to make his first run for president in 1991, I find something that he has never divulged before: He tells how he decided to come to a Monitor breakfast and answer questions about his "personal problems."

"On September 16, at Mickey Kantor's and Frank Greer's urging, Hillary and I appeared at the Sperling Breakfast, a regular meeting of Washington journalists to answer press questions," he writes. "I don't know if it was the right thing to do, but Mickey was persuasive. He argued that I had said before that I hadn't been perfect, people knew it, and 'you might as well tell them and try to take the sting out of what may or may not happen later in the campaign.' "

Journalists who've written about that breakfast have, for the most part, come up with this explanation: That it was Hillary Clinton, feeling that Bill might be carrying too much baggage to be a successful presidential candidate, who persuaded her husband to test out his vulnerability on the problem. We now know from Clinton that the persuasion came from two aides. He doesn't mention Hillary. But she obviously bought the idea, no doubt with enthusiasm.

In "My Life," Clinton takes us right into the breakfast and what happened there: "When a reporter asked the question ['What about those rumors about you?'] I said that, like a lot of couples, we'd had problems, but we were committed to each other and our marriage was strong. Hillary backed me up. As far as I know I was the only candidate who had ever said as much."

Shortly before the Democratic convention the following summer, Clinton again met with the Monitor breakfast group. I walked out with Clinton after that get-together and, in our brief conversation, he asked how I thought he had "done" at the earlier breakfast. I told him I thought the explanation he'd given for his "problems" had gone over well with the reporters. I said that I'd written that to hear a husband and wife had worked out these problems was good enough for me. (Hillary had been nodding her head all the time Bill had talked about how they dealt with his infidelity.) I told him that I'd written "I believe in healing."

But, he observes in his book that his explanation "satisfied some of the reporters and columnists; for others, my candor simply confirmed that I was a good target." Here, he gives us his first sense of how he felt about that 1991 breakfast: "I'm still not sure I did the right thing in going to the breakfast, or in getting on the slippery slope of answering personal questions. Character is important in a president, but as the contrasting examples of FDR and Richard Nixon show, marital perfection is not necessarily a good measure of presidential character."

Clinton says he felt unfairly judged on his "women problems." He points out that "in 1992, if you had violated your marriage vows, gotten divorced, and remarried, the infidelity wasn't considered disqualifying or even newsworthy, while couples who stayed married were fair game, as if divorce was always the more authentic choice. Given the complexity of people's lives, and the importance of both parents in raising children, that's probably not the right standard."

Clinton concludes his examination of the breakfast with the assessment: "Notwithstanding the personal questions, I got more than my fair share of favorable press coverage in the early days from thoughtful journalists who were interested in my ideas and policies and in what I had done as governor."

As I look back on that 1991 breakfast, I conclude: How beneficial it would have been - for both the country and his presidency - if Clinton had really put his "personal problems" behind him and not created a new one while in the White House.

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