Former President Bill Clinton got on the phone in New York early Tuesday morning to talk to Times editor Max Brantley about the fifth anniversary of the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center. (See the To Do section in this week's Times for planned activities.)
Clinton talked about the library, current politics and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton's work as secretary of state. The interview has been edited and condensed.
What did you hope to accomplish by placing the library in Little Rock? Has it lived up to your expectations?
I wanted to put it there for the obvious reason — I never would have become president in the first place if it hadn't been for the people of Arkansas. I knew it would be an important, maybe defining destination for people from all over the world and that's pretty much what has happened — 1.6 million people have visited since we opened.
Clearly, it increased the number of people coming to Little Rock, it increased the attractiveness of Little Rock as a convention and meeting place and it's become another interesting place where people can meet.
I thought it was important that a presidential library be in the middle of the country, in the heartland, and fairly easily accessible to people who might never go to Washington or New York in their lives even once. We've done everything we can to make it accessible to all people, beginning with very young kids.
I want to complete that bridge. [This is a reference to the former Rock Island railroad bridge over the Arkansas River between the library and North Little Rock. It has been envisioned as a pedestrian/bike connector, but work has been delayed by lack of funds.]
Will fund-raising for the bridge be completed soon?
I think so. We've all been working really hard on it. We set aside our money years ago, but it was supposed to cost $4 million and now it's over $10 million. I hope we'll have an announcement on it pretty soon.
Next week, during anniversary ceremonies?
I don't know. I have to talk to our guys down there. But it's really important to me. If we do it right, it can be a defining physical feature of the area and dramatically increase the library's attractiveness. It will be physically arresting in a very positive way.
Speaking of design: what do you think of the critics who still speak harshly of the rectangular library's design — trailer-like many have said?
The people who say that often have preconceptions about me and Arkansas. I like the building a lot. When people are in it, they see how well constructed it is and they see how it gives you a feeling of the library, and the exhibits and of being in Arkansas, on that river. You get the feeling of being outside and inside at the same time. I just don't agree with people who don't like it.
We know the library was the first LEED-certified building in the state for its environmentally friendly features. Tell me about the roof garden.
It's great. First of all, it absorbs lots of light and heat and water, which reduces runoff. It has more than 10,000 native plants from the state on it, counting all the different grasses. It's really quite beautiful.
I still hope to have better technology. I'd eventually like to generate virtually all the energy we need there on site.
What else is planned?
One day, I hope to get a presidential helicopter there, which should increase the number of people coming. The programming is coming along quite well, but we need to review the exhibits, upgrade and modernize them and make them more interesting.
It might be that we should have some more of the library devoted to exhibits that are relevant to current debate. I wish for the last four months we'd had more space devoted to the health care debate — how it compared with the debate during my administration. The same for the coming energy debate.
The lecture series [sponsored by the Clinton School of Public Service] has contributed. It has been a great service.
Anything surprise you?
I would have thought the motorcycle exhibit [Art of the Chopper] would have been a big draw. It was popular, but didn't draw as many as I thought. The space exhibit has been the most popular. It really captured people's imagination.
Now politics. Is President Obama heading for a 2010 akin to 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress by capitalizing on your policy initiatives?
No, at least not because of health care. For one thing, I think it's going to pass. Look, it's a complicated thing that consumes almost 17 percent of our economy. Like all complicated issues, it's easy to misrepresent. It's a deeply personal issue and like all deeply personal issues it's easy to stoke fear. The differences between now and 1994 are really important. The most important change occurred in 2006 when Democrats won a majority in Congress and in 2008 when they enhanced it. We have the votes.
Not from the congressman from Arkansas's Fourth District, Rep. Mike Ross.
We have enough votes to spare a lot of the rural guys with worries about hospital funding. And you're always going to lose a few. That vote [220-215 in the House] shows you how hard it was. Look at how much more modern this Congress is than the one we had; how far the country has come, and how dire economic circumstances are. We still won by just five.
The most important change is the Senate, where Republicans don't have an automatic filibuster. Another big difference is between Max Baucus [the current Finance Committee chair] and Daniel Patrick Moynihan [chair in Clinton's run at health legislation.] Many thought Moynihan was a more sophisticated committee chairman, but he was in total denial about the health care problem.
It's like daylight and dark. The most important thing is to pass a bill that gets us moving in the right direction.
There are things in it people don't like. I tell them that it is probably going to take three to four years to get it right. That's just the nature of things.
But will the legislation be a positive for Democrats politically?
Yes. When all the horrible things said at those tea parties don't come to pass, the fact that we did it and the process is going on and there's more good than harm, there will be a net benefit. The numbers, because Americans are inherently optimistic, will go up once the president signs the bill. But I don't want to be naïve. It won't do as much good as some people hope because it will take several years to be fully operative. But we should see some changes in the coming year in the insurance market.
We may have an even tougher time on energy legislation. It's important because I believe global warming is real. It's also our ticket out of a recession to a much more stable long-term growth pattern.
Your wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, drew criticism for tough talk in Pakistan about that country's need to move aggressively against terrorists using the country as a base. Your thoughts?
Her trip was really successful. Given the stakes there, we need to clear out some of the underbrush of misunderstanding. I think having an honest, candid relationship is good. I didn't mind them jumping on her, telling her exactly how they felt. I don't think the American taxpayers were offended seeing the secretary of state defending us in an area where we have spent and are prepared to spend a great deal of money.