FLASHBACK: Bill Clinton’s Chaotic, Confused, Failing First Year As President


There once was an American president whose approval rating hovered at 36 percent, who lost a pivotal health care vote although his party controlled Congress, who faced a special counsel investigation, who had an inexperienced and highly partisan White House staff, and who encountered public outrage over a $200 haircut that shut down the Los Angeles International Airport for two hours.

Donald Trump? No. Bill Clinton.

Clinton’s presidency was such a disaster in only four months that Time Magazine devoted a June 1993 cover story to his long string of failures. The cover featured a tiny Bill under the large print title, “The Incredible Shrinking President.” Inside the magazine, the headline asked: “Is Clinton up to the job? Americans are starting to wonder.”

Time Magazine

“Reports of chaos, confusion, and infighting seem to leak out of the West Wing on a daily basis. The president is his own worst enemy, easily distracted, obsessed with minutiae, and uninterested in instilling much order in his administration,” the Atlantic wrote in a look-back earlier this year. “His staffers, many of them young, don’t really know the ropes, and it shows.”

Clinton ran as an outsider with no federal experience and as the governor of a Southern state that ranked 48 among 50 states in poverty. His obvious lack of experience became his downfall in his first year in office, as his presidency became engulfed in scandals and legislative failures.

“If he fails to adjust quickly, he will confirm the widespread belief that the biggest problem with the Clinton presidency is Clinton himself,” Time warned.

Clinton’s first two nominees for attorney general — both women — had to withdraw because of scandals. Lani Guinier withdrew when it was discovered she approved of “race-conscious districting” to guarantee that black lawmakers would win political office.

Next, Zoe Baird removed herself when news broke she failed to pay taxes for illegal immigrants who worked in her home. The Baird “Nannygate” scandal was among the first of many scandals that would plague the Clinton White House for eight years.

“The humiliating disclosure tonight that another presidential choice for attorney general had withdrawn underlined the point: It was ‘absolutely stupefying and deeply worrying,’” The New York Times’ R.W. Apple wrote at the time, citing an unnamed Clinton strategist.

The jockeying among Clinton’s young and inexperienced staff was another problem in his first year. The press office, headed by George Stephanopoulos, was so young, White House reporters nicknamed them the “Kindergarten Kids.”

Time said many Clinton White House aides were “simply in over their heads.” Among them was Clinton’s long-time Arkansas friend Bruce Lindsey, whose lack of organization made the appointments process “a sea of chaos.” Lindsey now serves as chairman of the Clinton Foundation.

Then there was Mack McLarty, Clinton’s chief of staff, described by Time as having “either been unwilling or unable to exert much discipline on the President or his staff.”

Clinton’s legislative strategy also was in ruins within his first six months as chief executive. The Democratic-led Senate refused to pass his $16 billion pork-laden “stimulus” package. The Democratic majority in Congress also rejected Hillarycare, first lady Hillary Clinton’s bungled attempt to reform health care by dramatically increasing the federal regulatory role in it. And when Clinton rolled out his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to allow gays to serve in the military, it was met with opposition, both by those in uniform and by gay political activist groups.

In a bout of hand-wringing similar to the coverage of President Donald Trump’s faltering Obamacare legislative strategy, The New York Times lamented that April that Clinton’s budget director, Leon Panetta, “implored” him to delay health reform until the fall. Panetta told Clinton that “piling a revolution in health care on top of everything else,” such as taxes on energy and Social Security might “invite general legislative carnage,” and “threaten the deficit-reduction strategy” he was counting on.

Clinton scandals seemed to be unending. An early one called “Travelgate” occurred after the first couple fired career employees who ran the White House travel office and replaced them with political cronies, including the president’s third cousin.

Another scandal developed when Clinton decided to “sell the Lincoln bedroom.” He and his chief fundraiser, Terry McAuliffe — now Virginia’s governor — hatched a plan to “rent” the historic lodging and to sell White House breakfasts, lunches or coffee to woo big donors. More than 800 millionaires took him up on the offer.

Next came the $200 haircut, which The New York Times called “the most expensive haircut in history.” Cristophe, a fashionable Beverly Hills hair stylist for the stars, cut the president’s hair on Air Force One while it parked at Los Angeles airport, which was shut down for two hours until the cut was completed and he left.

July 1993, seven months into Clinton’s presidency, was a grim month, as Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster committed suicide in a park outside of Washington, D.C. Some reports suggested Foster took his life because he felt responsibility for the White House disarray and the administration’s high-profile failures.

Conspiracy theorists have claimed ever since that Foster was actually the victim of foul play linked to the Clintons.

Meanwhile, other financial controversies swirled that later became collectively known as the “Whitewater scandal.” Years before they entered the White House, the Clintons created the Whitewater Development Corporation, a failed real estate venture with their Arkansas friends James and Susan McDougal.

James McDougal was caught in a number of fraudulent activities centered on Whitewater and the Madison Guaranty bank, which he owned. The bank failed, costing taxpayers $73 million. McDougal eventually was convicted of 18 felony counts of fraud. More than 40 other people went to jail in Whitewater as well, but neither of the Clintons were ever punished.

Another uproar ensued when the public learned that within hours of Foster’s death, the White House counsel removed documents — including many concerning Whitewater — from Foster’s office and gave them to Hillary’s chief of staff.

There were also missing billing records from Hillary’s time as a Rose Law firm partner, which Justice Department investigators sought in the Whitewater scandal. She claimed an incidental Whitewater role, but when the records mysteriously showed up years later in the White House, they showed she had met with key figures in the scandal.

The news that as Arkansas first lady, Hillary turned a $100,000 profit on a $1,000 investment in cattle futures in 10 months, further fanned public skepticism. Critics said it looked like a bribe.

The scandals forced the naming of a special counsel, Robert Fiske, who issued a grand jury subpoena to both Clintons for all Whitewater-linked documents. The Clintons claimed the documents were missing, but the documents later turned up in the Clintons’ private White House residence.

There was also a Clinton “unmasking” controversy — called “Filegate” — when hundreds of FBI background files on prominent Republicans turned up in the White House.

In what could be a cautionary word for President Trump — during the 1994 mid-term elections, voters elected Republican majorities in both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.

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