FIRST BITE + EMBARGOED TRANSCRIPT: FMR. PRES. BILL CLINTON ON “NBC NIGHTLY NEWS WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS”

NBC News

CHARLOTTE, NC — September 5, 2012 — Former President Bill Clinton sat down with NBC’s Brian Williams for an exclusive interview hours before delivering tonight’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention.
Below are a video link and transcript for a RELEASED preview; followed by an EMBARGOED transcript of the extended interview.

The extended interview will air tonight on NBC Nightly News (6:30pm ET); video will be available online at www.nbcnightlynews.com.

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* * * RELEASED EXCERPT * * *
VIDEO:
http://nbcnews.to/Q8Ljbi

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Cover of Newsweek, “Why Barack needs Bill.” Why do you think Barack needs Bill? What do you have to offer?

BILL CLINTON: I really don’t know. I’ve always been mystified by that. I was honored when he asked me to nominate him. I hope what I can do, because we did have a good economy, because we did have the longest expansion in history, is explain why I think his approach is right and it’ll pay off if we renew his contract. Explain why the economy he faced was much weaker and different than the one I faced, so that there’s no way any president, no president could have restored it to full health in just four years.

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* * * EMBARGOED UNTIL 6:30PM ET: EXTENDED TRANSCRIPT * * *

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
This is the first speech of the new era for you. You have to go through and cleanse it of ways– that– to take the enemy’s tools away from them, as you put it, to– keep it from being used out of context on the web or on commercials?

BILL CLINTON:
Yeah, you know– it’s a different world now. I mean, there’s just– everything you says– you say can go viral. Anything you say can be excerpted. All these Super PACs, which are anonymous, can take something you say when you’re trying to say it in context to be fair to your opponents, to be fair to the circumstances, and take it out and look it like you’re for you’re– you’re what you’re against and you’re against what you’re for.

So the trick is to try to minimize your vulnerability to that, without just turning the talk into mush, just another hot air, gas bag (LAUGH) rhetoric-filled talk. So I tried to do that. I tried to be very explanatory, very straightforward with the American people in this speech and still not make it vulnerable to being clipped in a way that could undermine the president I support and the ideas I believe in.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
Paul Ryan’s preview of your speech today, quote, “My guess is, we will get a great rendition of how good things were in the 1990s, but we’re not going to hear a lot about the last four years.” How tough are you going to be tonight?

BILL CLINTON:
That’s almost a reverse of what I intend to do. I’m going to say very little about the 1990s and when I was president. People know we had the longest economy– economic expansion in history, they know we produced four surplus budgets, and they know that the incomes rose to an all-time high. They know we moved a lot more people out of poverty than before or after I left.

That’s not what this is about. This is about the choice for the American people. I want them to know what based on my experience, I believe the president has done, where I think we are, and why I think they should support him. And that’s what I’m going to focus on. I’m going to say very little about what happened in the ’90s.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
I know you read everything and I know you see everything. And there’s so much been written and said about your relationship with the president. Ryan Lizza and New Yorker, “No one would argue these guys are good friends, some would argue the opposite.” Maureen Dowd this morning in The New York Times, “It’s not a bromance, it’s a transaction.” How would you describe your relationship with President Obama?

BILL CLINTON:
I think it’s– it’s quite good, actually. It’s candid, it’s open. We haven’t been close friends a long time or anything like that, but he knows that I support him. And I feel more s– you know, I keep reading all this stuff about the enthusiasm gap and all that. I get that. The real world’s hard. It’s harder to do than to talk.

But I’m actually more enthusiastic about it than I was four years ago when I said I thought he was ready to be president, because I’ve seen him dig in the dirt and fight for change, I’ve seen him make things happen, I’ve seen him criticized, demonized, knock down. I’ve seen him deal with the fact that he’s dealing with things for the first time he’s never dealt with before, learn and keep coming.

So– I respect him, I think he should be reelected, and I’m very grateful also just as a person for the way he and Hillary have interreacted. He’s treated her with enormous respect, he’s respected her opinion, he’s—he’s run a national security operation that’s been really good for this country, I think. So I think, you know, I would say our relationship is– is good.

It is, from my point of view, not a transaction or a bromance or any of that sort of stuff. There’s a few people who have been presidents. He’s the first Democrat to serve since I left office. He’s had a very tough hand to play. I think he’s made a good job of a bad situation. People don’t feel it yet, but they’re going to benefit from it if they stay with him. And I believe that.

So I think a lot of the story back-news things, it’s just talk. I like him, I have a lot of respect for him, and I talk to him when I c– need to. But mostly, I wait until he talks– wants to talk to me, because I believe I should respect the fact that you have one president at a time and he’s got a lot more things to do than chew the fat with me.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
It’s like playing in a sport where there’s only a handful of former ballplayers—

BILL CLINTON:
Yeah.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
–alive. And no two of them are going to have the same style. He’s not going to be president the way you were president.

BILL CLINTON:
That’s correct.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
And the history here is complex. He ran against your wife, it got rough, but in politics– those of you in this profession learn to forgive and forget and move on and—

BILL CLINTON:
Yeah, but I always thought he was really talented. I do– in early 2007, I remember saying to Hillary, “You know, if– if you run, I think only you–” and before she decided, “I think only you or Senator Obama could be nominated, one of you will win.” And– and– I said, “Whoever gets nominated is going to be president.”

So I always had a lot of respect for his– raw ability and his appeal. And politics is a contact sport. But when it’s over, you have to ask yourself, “What do you believe in? Who do you agree with? What direction should the country take? Who’s going to be helped most if this person or that person is elected?”

And um– so that didn’t bother me much. I mean, I wasn’t– I wasn’t ever– I was hi– I was more upset about the way you guys covered the campaign than what he said and did or what we said and did. I– I thought it was perfectly predictable. The stakes were high, the place was close.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
Mr. President, what do you make of Mitt Romney and what do you make of Paul Ryan?

BILL CLINTON:
I think that um– Governor Romney showed how dogged and determined he was to win this nomination. And how one after another, these opponents would rise up to be his main opponent of the week. And he must’ve felt like he was playing Whac-A-Mole all during the Republican primary. In the process, he committed himself to a politics that was well to the right of where he had governed as governor.

And well to the right of– any president we’ve had in a long time. But sorta in the wheelhouse of where Paul Ryan has been. Paul Ryan’s a– you know, appealing guy, small town story, smart guy. And a great devotee apparently of Ayn Rand. He said, you know, that we’re in a great contest between individualism and collectivism. But I don’t agree with that.

I think we’re in a great contest between hyper-individualism and what I would call communitarianism. Do you think we’re all in this together or should it be every person for himself? So– I respect how hard they both work and how smart they are and I do believe that as they presented themselves at the convention that they are good family people and they believe in what they say.

But I disagree with them. I think that this rather dramatic turn to the right and turn against the whole idea of compromise that the Republican Party has made, it is a mistake. Now it’s true that Mr. Ryan was willing to compromise his Medicare plan with– with– Congress– Senator Wyden. But that budget, the cuts in that budget and– what it would do not just to poor kids but to middle class families and to Medicare people who are in nursing homes paid for by Medicaid.

The– the– it’s unbelievable to give upper-income people another tax cut as a way of closing a deficit. We got a deficit problem. We don’t– even if they don’t want to raise taxes on higher income people, why are we cutting ‘em more? So I just disagree with him. I– I like them– they’re personally fine. And I’ll always be– grateful that Governor Romney helped me save the AmeriCorps program when I thought it would be eliminated early in the Bush years. But boy I disagree with their approach.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
Is there respect in your trade? He’s a survivor, came through a tough campaign—

BILL CLINTON:
I do respect that.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
–so did you.

BILL CLINTON:
Yeah—

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
You were forced to tack– you could argue less than the case you’re making, about his change in direction.

BILL CLINTON:
Yeah, but when I ran, I also ran for president as a different sort of Democrat. And I said what I thought– where I thought my party would have to change. In order to get nominated, he had to change and renounce his solutions for America, the healthcare plan he put in in Massachusetts, and just go further and further and further to the right.

But I think he’s an honorable man, so I think he’ll keep his word. I think if he gets in, he’ll do exactly what he said he will in this campaign. And I think it would not be good for America. So I– I have no personal animosity at my age, with all the life I’ve lived, and the luck I’ve had, I’m not mad at anybody. But I think we oughta run this thing on our honest disagreements and see who the American people think is right.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
Mr. President, we learned today that as of last month, we have 46.7 million Americans on food stamps. What does that say about America? What does that say about a program that allows 46.7 million people, if looked at differently, to be on food stamps?

BILL CLINTON:
Well, the– the interesting thing is, there are that many people on food stamps, and yet I saw a survey the other day of– of– elementary and middle school teachers and 60% of ‘em said they had children coming to their class every single day who were too hungry to learn. There are four counties in Florida, according to the– one of the segments on your program, where 25% of the families are food insecure.

And I think what it says is we’ve grown more unequal. That even people with jobs, if they have families, are likely to have so little money that they can’t pay their basic bills. On the day before that financial crash back in 2008, the median family income after inflation was $2,000 lower than it was the day I left office.

Now, part of this is changes in the global economy where a lot of those jobs in the middle that could be held by people without many skills, still paid a good middle class income, and wages went up. Part of it is due to our failure to train people for jobs that are there. There are more than three million jobs open in America today.

Michigan alone is looking for 100,000 engineers. So we not only had to bring more jobs to the economy, you have to bring more people to the jobs by preparing them to hold ‘em. But we can’t keep pretending that our society is not much more unequal than others and that our tax policies and our investment policies and our economic policies have something to do with that.

I mean– the good news is, we’ve become much more productive. The bad news is that oftentimes the working people of America, when they become more productive, don’t reap any economic benefits from them. And first we have to get the job growth back. The– the big numbers in food stamps are– were a spark when we were losing all those jobs after the crash and when there was no economic growth.

So I believe it’s picking up now and I believe it’s going to really pick up over the next year or two. I think you’ll see a lot of people drop off food stamps, a lot of people drop off the unemployment payments. The deficit will go down ’cause revenues will go up too. But this food stamp problem should remind us that we are too unequal in America. And there are too many people who are working for a living who are eligible for food stamps.

But I don’t think– that the lesson I draw is not the one that Mr. Ryan has seemed to have drawn. I don’t think it means that these people don’t need help, they can’t pay their bills. There’s a reason they’re eligible for food stamps. And the best way to get ‘em off is to raise income and create more jobs.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
I know you know this, Lyndon Johnson, when he was a student teacher in Cotulla, Texas—

BILL CLINTON:
Yea.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
–was so stunned and saddened that kids were coming to school in the morning, some of them with distended bellies, American kids—

BILL CLINTON:
Yup.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
–too hungry to learn. And he made a note that if he ever had anything to do with it, schools were going to feed kids. Student breakfast, student lunch. So what does that– where have we been if we’re back there? If that same classroom in Cotulla, Texas, what’s this all been about?

BILL CLINTON:
Well– and also don’t forget the food stamp program was cosponsored originally by Senator George McGovern and Senator Bob Dole. This has– before always been a big bipartisan deal, ’cause you gotta feed kids if you want ‘em to be able to learn. You gotta feed their bellies before their brains can absorb information.

And look the– the only period in the last 35 years or so when the bottom 20% of our society had incomes that increased in percentage terms the same as the top 20% was the 1990s. The Council of Economic Advisers did a long report on a few months ago. It’s because the labor markets were tighter, we raised the minimum wage, and we doubled the earned income tax credit.

They– every society today has to understand there’s an education premium to jobs that play high incomes. And you have to have strategies to offset the inequality that is developed all over the world. But a lot of countries have not had the kind of increase and inequality we have, because the government is not demonized. The government is a partner with the private sector, and they get together and figure out how to reduce poverty. That’s what we should do again.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
Before you go back to your speech, cover of Newsweek, “Why Barack needs Bill.” (LAUGH) Why do you think Barack needs Bill? What do you have to offer?

BILL CLINTON:
I really don’t know. I’ve always been mystified by that. I was honored when he asked me to nominate him. I– I hope what I can do, because we did have a good economy, because we did have the longest expansion in history, is explain why I think his approach is right and it’ll pay off if we renew his contract. Explain why the economy he faced was much weaker and different than the one I faced, so that there’s no way any president, no president could have restored it to full health in just four years.

Keep in mind, in the economic quarter that happened at– the four months just– the three months just before he took office, the economy shrank almost 9%. That’s nearly depression level. We lost jobs all throughout 2009. Nobody coulda turned it around by now. So the question is: Do you want to go back to the people and the policies that were in charge before?

Or do you believe that a republic– that– that a recovery that the statistics say are underway but that you can’t feel should be given some more time to spring to life? I think that the best thing I can do is to try to help explain that and to make that argument. It’s a h– that’s the whole election, really. People have to decide whether something they can’t feel is still the right direction for the country because of things that have been done.

So I’m going to explain and support the stimulus bill, the financial regulation bill, the student loan reform bill, the healthcare bill. And try to say why this– these are the building blocks of a new American prosperity. That’s what I’ve got to do. I’ve gotta convince people that even though they don’t feel it, it’s there and it would be a bad mistake to reverse course.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:
There’s a column out there today that says you could help two democrats tonight if you do well, President Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016. (LAUGH)

BILL CLINTON:
You know, she– we’re not kids anymore. I don’t have any idea if she’ll ever run again. She says she won’t. Right now, I want to help him because I think it’ll help my country. Because I believe America is going to do great. If you look at where we are in energy, we’ve got the lowest oil imports in 20 years. We’ve got enormous natural gas production, it’s going to give us cleaner and cheaper electricity.

We have doubled renewable energy. We are back in the leadership and investing in jobs that will be created in clean energy, electric cars, electric batteries, energy efficiency. All stuff that’s only going to grow in the future. We’re younger than China– I mean, excuse me. We’re younger than Europe, we’re younger than Japan, in 20 years we’re going to be younger than China.

This last– decision the president made, letting all these immigrant kids go to college and serve in the military, it’s going to help us to keep talented people coming to our shores and– and doing well with other countries. We’re the most productive work force. And we’ve grown more productive in this terrible economy.

We’ve got all kinds of things going for us. And I believe we’re going to come roaring back. We just gotta get through this rough patch. But we’ve got to make a decision to deal with our short-term problems and our long-term challenges and to stop pretending that the government would mess up the two-car parade.

Every successful economy in the world and every successful community in America has– a public/private cooperation. A strong private sector, effective government, developing human potential, seizing opportunities. That’s what we gotta do in this country. And I think we’re far more likely to do it if the President’s reelected.

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FIRST BITE + EMBARGOED TRANSCRIPT: FMR. PRES. BILL CLINTON ON “NBC NIGHTLY NEWS WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS”