T hings grew worse as September drew to a close. Acting base-ball commissioner Bud Selig announced that the players strike couldnt be resolved and he was canceling the rest of the season, and the World Series, for the first time since 1904. Bruce Lindsey, who had helped to settle the airline strike, tried to resolve the standoff. I even invited the representatives of the players and owners to the White House, but we couldnt settle it. If our national pastime was being canceled, things could not be going in the right direction.
On September 26, George Mitchell formally threw in the towel on health-care reform. Senator Chafee had continued to work with him, but he couldnt bring enough Republicans along to break Senator Doles filibuster. The $300 million that the health insurance and other lobbies had spent to stop health-care reform was well invested. I put out a brief statement saying I would try again next year.
Though I had felt for months that we were beaten, I was still disappointed, and I felt bad that Hillary and Ira Magaziner were taking the rap for the failure. It was unfair for three reasons. First, our proposals were not the big governmentrun nightmare that the health-insurance companies ad campaigns had made them out to be; second, the plan was the best Hillary and Ira could do, given the charge from me: universal coverage without a tax increase; and finally, it wasnt they who had derailed health-care reformSenator Doles decision to kill any meaningful compromise had done that. I tried to cheer up Hillary by telling her that there were bigger mistakes in life than getting caught red-handed trying to provide health insurance to forty million Americans who were without it.
In spite of our defeat, all the work Hillary, Ira Magaziner, and the rest of our people had done would not be in vain. In the years ahead, many of our proposals would find their way into law and practice. Senator Kennedy and Republican senator Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas would pass a bill guaranteeing that workers wouldnt lose their insurance when they changed jobs. And in 1997, we would pass the Childrens Health Insurance Program (CHIP), providing health care to millions of children in the largest expansion of health insurance since Medicaid was enacted in 1965. CHIP would help bring about the first decline in twelve years in the number of Americans without health insurance.
There would be many other health-care victories as well: a bill allowing women to stay in the hospital for more than twenty-four hours after childbirth, ending HMO-ordered drive-by deliveries; increased coverage for mammograms and prostate screenings; a diabetes self-management program called the most important advance since insulin by the American Diabetes Association; large increases in biomedical research and in the care and treatment of HIV/AIDS at home and abroad; childhood immunization rates above 90 percent for the first time; and the application by executive order of a patients bill of rights guaranteeing the choice of a doctor and the right to prompt, adequate treatment for the eighty-five million Americans covered by federally funded plans.
But that was all in the future. For now, we had taken a good shellacking. Thats the image people would take into the elections.
Near the end of the month, Newt Gingrich gathered more than three hundred Republican incumbents and candidates for a rally on the Capitol steps to sign a Contract with America. The details of the contract had been percolating for some time. Newt had put them together to show that the Republicans were more than naysayers; they had a positive agenda. The contract was something new to American politics. Traditionally, midterm elections had been fought seat by seat. National conditions and a Presidents level of popularity could be a boost or a drag, but the conventional wisdom held that local factors were more important. Gingrich was convinced that the conventional wisdom was wrong. He boldly asked the American people to give the Republicans a majority, saying, If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it.
The contract called for a constitutional balanced budget amendment and the line-item veto, which enables the President to delete specific items in appropriations bills without having to veto the entire piece of legislation; stiffer penalties for criminals and repeal of the prevention programs in my crime bill; welfare reform, with a two-year limit on able-bodied recipients; a $500 child tax credit, another $500 credit for the care of a parent or grandparent, and tougher child-support enforcement; repeal of the taxes on upper-income Social Security recipients that were part of the 1993 budget; a 50 percent cut in the capital gains tax, and other tax cuts; an end to unfunded federal mandates on state and local government; a large increase in defense spending; tort reform to limit punitive damages; term limits for senators and representatives; a requirement that Congress, as an employer, follow all laws it has imposed on other employers; a reduction in congressional committee staffs by a third; and a requirement that 60 percent of each house of Congress approve any future tax increase.
I agreed with many of the particulars of the contract. I was already pushing welfare reform and tougher child-support enforcement, and had long supported the line-item veto and ending unfunded mandates. I liked the family tax credits. Though several of the specifics were appealing, the contract was, at its core, a simplistic and hypocritical document. In the twelve years before I became President, the Republicans, with the support of a few Democrats in Congress, had quadrupled the national debt by cutting taxes and increasing spending; now that Democrats were reducing the deficit, they wanted the Constitution to require a balanced budget, even as they recommended large tax cuts and big increases in defense spending without saying what other spending they would cut to pay for them. Just as they had done in the 1980s and would do again in the 2000s, the Republicans were trying to abolish arithmetic. As Yogi Berra said, it was dj vu all over again, but in a nice new package.
Besides giving the Republicans a national platform for the 1994 campaign, Gingrich provided them with a list of words to use in defining their Democratic opponents. His political action committee, GOPAC, published a pamphlet entitled Language: A Key Mechanism of Control. Among the contrasting words Newt suggested for labeling Democrats were: betray, cheat, collapse, corruption, crisis, decay, destruction, failure, hypocrisy, incompetent, insecure, liberal, lie, pathetic, permissive, shallow, sick, traitors. Gingrich was convinced that if he could institutionalize that kind of name-calling, he could define the Democrats into a minority party for a long time.
The Democrats thought the Republicans had made a critical error in announcing the contract, and proceeded to attack it by showing the large cuts in education, health care, and environmental protection that would be necessary to fund the tax cuts, increase defense, and balance the budget. They even renamed Newts plan the Contract on America. They were absolutely right, but it didnt work. Post-election polls would show that the public knew only two things about the contract: that the Republicans had a plan, and that balancing the budget was part of it.
Beyond attacking the Republicans, the Democrats were determined to fight the election the old-fashioned way, state by state, district by district. I had already done a lot of fund-raisers for them, but not a single one for a national campaign to advertise what we had accomplished, or what our future agenda would be in contrast to the Republican contract.
We capped off another productive legislative year on September 30, the last day of the fiscal year, by passing all thirteen appropriation bills on time, something that hadnt happened since 1948. The appropriations represented the first back-to-back years of deficit reduction in two decades, reducing the federal payroll by 272,000, and still increasing investments in education and other important areas. It was an impressive achievement, but nowhere near as attention-grabbing as the balanced budget amendment.
I limped into October with approval ratings of around 40 percent, but good things would happen that month to improve my standing and apparently to increase the Democrats election prospects. The only sad development was the resignation of Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Janet Reno had asked for a court-appointed independent counsel to look into allegations of wrongdoing by Espy involving acceptance of gifts, such as sports tickets and trips. Judge Sentelles panel appointed Donald Smaltz, another Republican activist, to investigate Espy. I was heartsick about it. Mike Espy had supported me through thick and thin in 1992. He had left a safe seat in Congress, where even the white voters of Mississippi supported him, to become the first black agriculture secretary, and he had done an excellent job, including raising the standards for food safety.
The October news was mostly positive. On October 4, Nelson Mandela came to the White House for a state visit. His smile always brightened even the darkest days, and I was glad to see him. We announced a joint commission to promote mutual cooperation, to be headed by Vice President Gore and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, Mandelas likely successor. The joint commission idea was working so well with Russia that we wanted to try it in another country that was important to us, and South Africa certainly was. If Mandelas reconciliation government succeeded, it could lift all of Africa and inspire similar efforts in trouble spots around the world. I also announced assistance for housing, electricity, and health care for South Africas poor, densely populated townships; rural economic initiatives; and an investment fund to be headed by Ron Brown.
While I was meeting with Mandela, the Senate followed the House in passing, with broad bipartisan support, the last important piece of my education agenda from the campaign, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The bill ended the practice of uncritically giving poor children a watered-down curriculum; too often, children from disadvantaged backgrounds were put in special education classes, not because they lacked normal learning capacity, but because they had fallen behind in poor schools and had too little support at home. Dick Riley and I were convinced that, with smaller classes and extra attention from teachers, they could catch up. The bill also contained incentives to increase parental involvement; gave federal support to allow students and parents to choose a public school other than the one to which they were assigned; and funded public charter schools designed to promote innovation and allowed to operate free of school district requirements that can stifle creativity. In just two years, in addition to the ESEA, bipartisan supporters in Congress had enacted Head Start reform; put the National Education Association goals into law; reformed the student loan program; created the national service program; passed the school-to-work program to create apprenticeships for high school graduates who dont go on to college; and dramatically increased our commitment to adult education and lifelong learning.
The education package was one of the most important achievements of my first two years in office. Although it would increase the quality of learning and economic opportunities for millions of Americans, almost no one knew about it. Because education reforms had broad support in both parties, the efforts to pass them generated relatively little controversy, and therefore werent considered particularly newsworthy.
We ended the first week of the month on a high note, when the unemployment rate fell to 5.9 percent, the lowest since 1990 (down from over 7 percent when I took office), with 4.6 million new jobs. Later in the month, economic growth in the third quarter of the year was pegged at 3.4 percent, with inflation at 1.6 percent. NAFTA was making a contribution to the growth. Overall exports to Mexico were up 19 percent in just a year, with car and truck exports up 600 percent.
On October 7, Iraq massed a large number of troops just two and a half miles from the Kuwait border, raising the specter of another Gulf War. With strong international support, I rapidly deployed 36,000 troops to Kuwait, backed up by an aircraft carrier battle group and fighter planes. I also ordered an updated list of targets for our Tomahawk missiles. The British announced they would beef up their forces as well. On the ninth, the Kuwaitis moved most of their 18,000-man army to the border. The next day, the Iraqis, surprised by the strength and speed of our response, announced that they would pull back their forces, and within a month the Iraqi parliament recognized Kuwaits sovereignty, borders, and territorial integrity. A couple of days after the immediate Iraq crisis passed, the Protestant paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland announced that they would join the IRA in observing a complete cease-fire.
The good news spilled over into the third week of October. On the fifteenth, President Aristide returned to Haiti. Three days later I announced that after sixteen months of intense negotiations, we had reached an agreement with North Korea to end the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula. The agreed framework, signed in Geneva on October 21 by our negotiator, Bob Gallucci, and the North Koreans, committed North Korea to freeze all activity at existing nuclear reactors and allow them to be monitored; ship 8,000 unloaded fuel rods out of the country; dismantle its existing nuclear facilities; and ultimately account for the spent fuel it had produced in the past. In return, the United States would organize an international consortium to build light water reactors that didnt produce usable amounts of weapons-grade material; we would guarantee 500,000 tons of heavy oil per year; trade, investment, and diplomatic barriers would be reduced; and the United States would give formal assurances against the use or the threat to use nuclear weapons against North Korea.
Three successive administrations had tried to bring North Koreas nuclear program under control. The pact was a tribute to the hard work of Warren Christopher and Ambassador Bob Gallucci, and to our clear determination not to allow North Korea to become a nuclear power, or a seller of nuclear weapons and materials.
After I left office, the United States learned that in 1998 North Korea had begun to violate the spirit if not the letter of the agreement by producing highly enriched uranium in a laboratoryenough, perhaps, to make one or two bombs. Some people said this development called the validity of our 1994 agreement into question. But the plutonium program we ended was much larger than the later laboratory effort. North Koreas nuclear reactor program, had it proceeded, would have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several nuclear weapons a year.
On October 17, Israel and Jordan announced that they had reached a peace agreement. Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein invited me to witness the signing ceremony on October 26, in the Wadi Araba border crossing in the great Rift Valley. I accepted, in the hope that I could use the trip to push for progress on the other Middle East tracks. I stopped first in Cairo, where President Mubarak and I met with Yasser Arafat. We encouraged him to do more to combat terrorism, especially by Hamas, and pledged to help resolve his differences with the Israelis concerning the delayed turnover of designated areas to Palestinian control.
The next day I witnessed the ceremony and thanked the Israelis and Jordanians for their courage in leading the way to peace. It was a hot and clear day, and the breathtaking backdrop of the Rift Valley was perfect for the grandeur of the occasion, but the sun was so bright bouncing off the desert sand that it almost blinded me. I nearly passed out, and if my alert presidential aide, Andrew Friendly, hadnt come to my rescue with sunglasses, I might have fainted and spoiled the whole occasion.
After the ceremony Hillary and I drove the short distance with King Hussein and Queen Noor to their vacation home in Aqaba. It was Hillarys birthday, and they gave her a cake with trick candles Hillary couldnt blow out, prompting me to kid her that her advancing years had diminished her lung capacity. Both Hussein and Noor were intelligent, gracious, and visionary. Noor, a Princeton graduate, was the daughter of a distinguished Arab-American father and Swedish mother. Hussein was a short but powerfully built man with a winning smile, a dignified manner, and wise eyes. He had survived several assassination attempts in his long reign, and he knew well that taking risks for peace was far more than a fine-sounding phrase. Hussein and Noor became real friends of ours. We laughed a lot together, forgetting our duties whenever we could in favor of stories about our lives, our kids, and our shared interests, including horses and motorcycles. In the years ahead, Noor would join us in vacation sing-alongs in Wyoming; I would go to their home in Maryland for one of Husseins birthday parties; and Hillary and Noor would talk often. They were a blessing in our lives.
Later that day I became the first American President to speak to the Jordanian parliament in Amman. The best-received lines in the speech were directed to the Arab world at large: America refuses to accept that our civilizations must collide. We respect Islam . . . the traditional values of Islam, devotion to faith and good work, to family and society, are in harmony with the best of American ideals. Therefore, we know our people, our faiths, our cultures can live in harmony with each other.
The next morning I flew to Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, to see President Assad. No American President had been there in twenty years because of Syrias support for terrorism and its domination of Lebanon. I wanted Assad to know that I was committed to a Syrian-Israeli peace based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, and that, if an agreement were reached, I would work hard to improve relations with his country. I took some heat for going to Syria because of its support for Hezbollah and other violent anti-Israeli groups, but I knew there would never be security and stability in the region unless Syria and Israel were reconciled. My meeting with Assad produced no big breakthrough, but he did give me some encouraging hints about how we might move forward. It was clear that he wanted to make peace, but when I suggested that he ought to go to Israel, reach out to the Israeli citizens, and make his case in the Knesset as Anwar Sadat had done, I could tell that I was beating a dead horse. Assad was brilliant but literal-minded and extremely cautious. He enjoyed the security of his beautiful marble palace and his daily routine in Damascus, and he couldnt imagine taking the political risk of flying to Tel Aviv. As soon as our meeting and the obligatory press conference were over, I flew to Israel to tell Rabin what Id learned.
In a speech to the Knesset, Israels parliament, I thanked and praised Rabin and assured the Knesset members that as Israel took steps toward peace, the United States would move to enhance its security and economic progress. It was a timely message because Israel had recently suffered yet another deadly terrorist attack. Unlike the Palestinian agreement, which many Israelis opposed, the Jordan peace pact had the support of nearly everyone in the Knesset, including the leader of the Likud opposition, Benjamin Bibi Netanyahu. The Israelis admired and trusted King Hussein; they remained uncertain about Arafat.
On the twenty-eighth, after an emotional visit to Yad Vashem, Israels magnificent Holocaust memorial, Hillary and I said good-bye to Yitzhak and Leah Rabin, and I flew to Kuwait to see the emir and to thank our troops for forcing the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from the Kuwait border through their rapid deployment to the area. After Kuwait, I flew to Saudi Arabia for a few hours to see King Fahd. I had been impressed by Fahds call, in early 1993, asking me to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian Muslims. On this occasion, Fahd received me warmly and thanked me for Americas rapid move to defuse the crisis with Iraq. It had been a successful and encouraging visit, but I had to go home to face the election music.