I spent the first two and a half weeks of April meeting with world leaders. Prime Minister John Major, President Hosni Mubarak, and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Prime Minister Tansu Ciller of Turkey, two intelligent, very modern women leaders of Muslim countries, came to see me.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich gave a speech on his first hundred days as Speaker. To hear him tell it, you would think the Republicans had revolutionized America overnight, and in the process changed our form of government to a parliamentary system under which he, as prime minister, set the course for domestic policy, while I, as President, was restricted to handling foreign affairs.
For the moment, the Republicans were dominating the news, based on the novelty of their control of Congress and their assertions that they were making big changes. Actually, they had enacted only three relatively minor parts of their contract, all of which I supported. The hard decisions were still ahead of them.
In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, I spelled out the parts of the contract I agreed with, on which I would seek compromise, and those I opposed and would veto. On April 14, four days after Senator Dole announced his candidacy for President, I quietly filed for reelection. On the eighteenth, I held a press conference and was asked more than twenty questions about a wide variety of topics, foreign and domestic. The next day they would all be forgotten and there would be only two words on the lips of every American: Oklahoma City.
In late morning I learned that a truck bomb had exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, leaving the building a rubble and killing an unknown number of people. I immediately declared a state of emergency and sent an investigative team to the site. When the magnitude of the recovery effort became apparent, firefighters and other emergency workers came from all over the country to help Oklahoma City dig through the rubble in a desperate attempt to find any survivors.
America was riveted and heartbroken by the tragedy; it claimed the lives of 168 people, including nineteen children who were in the buildings day-care center when the bomb exploded. Most of the dead were federal employees who worked for the several agencies that had offices in the Murrah Building. Many people assumed that Islamic militants were responsible, but I cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the perpetrators identity.
Soon after the bombing, Oklahoma lawmen arrested Timothy McVeigh, an alienated military veteran who had come to hate the federal government. By the twenty-first, McVeigh was in FBI custody and had been arraigned. He had chosen April 19 to bomb the federal building because it was the anniversary of the FBI raid on the Branch Davidians at Waco, an event that, to right-wing extremists, represented the ultimate exercise of arbitrary, abusive government power. Anti-government paranoia had been building in America for years, as more and more people took the historical skepticism of Americans toward government to a level of outright hatred. This animus led to the rise of armed militia groups that rejected the legitimacy of federal authority and asserted the right to be a law unto themselves.
The atmosphere of hostility was intensified by right-wing radio talk-show hosts, whose venomous rhetoric pervaded the airwaves daily, and by Web sites encouraging people to rise up against the government and offering practical assistance, including easy-to-follow instructions on how to make bombs.
In the wake of Oklahoma City, I tried to comfort and encourage those who had lost their loved ones, and the country at large, and to step up our efforts to protect Americans from terrorism. In the more than two years since the World Trade Center bombing, I had increased counterterrorism resources for the FBI and CIA and instructed them to work together more closely. Our law-enforcement efforts had succeeded in returning several terrorists to the United States for trial after they fled to foreign countries and in preventing terrorist attacks on the United Nations, on the Holland and Lincoln tunnels in New York City, and on planes flying out of the Philippines to Americas West Coast.
Two months before Oklahoma City, I had sent anti-terrorism legislation to Congress asking, among other things, for one thousand more law-enforcement officials to fight terrorism; a new counterterrorism center under the direction of the FBI to coordinate our efforts; and approval to use military experts, normally prohibited from involvement in domestic law enforcement, to help with terrorist threats and incidents within the country involving chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.
After Oklahoma City, I asked the congressional leaders for expedited consideration of the legislation and, on May 3, proposed amendments to strengthen it: greater law-enforcement access to financial records; authority to conduct electronic surveillance on suspected terrorists when they move from place to place, without having to go back to court for a new order to tap each specific site; increased penalties for knowingly providing firearms or explosives for terrorist acts against current or former federal employees and their families; and a requirement that markers, called taggants, be put into all explosive materials so that they could be traced. Some of these measures were bound to be controversial, but, as I said to a reporter on May 4, terrorism is the major threat to the security of Americans. I wish I had been wrong.
On Sunday, Hillary and I flew to Oklahoma City for a memorial service at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. The service had been organized by Cathy Keating, the wife of Governor Frank Keating, whom I had first met more than thirty years earlier when we were students at Georgetown. Frank and Cathy were obviously still in a lot of pain, but they and the mayor of Oklahoma City, Ron Norick, had risen to the challenge of the search-and-recovery operation and of meeting Oklahomans need for grieving. At the service, the Reverend Billy Graham got a standing ovation when he said, The spirit of this city and of this nation will not be defeated. In moving remarks, the governor said that if anyone thought Americans had lost the capacity for love and caring and courage, they should come to Oklahoma.
I tried to speak for the nation in saying, You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes. I shared a letter I had received from a young widow and mother of three whose husband had been killed by the terrorist downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. She asked those who had lost loved ones not to turn their hurt into hate, but instead to do the things their loved ones had left undone, thus ensuring they did not die in vain. After Hillary and I met with some of the victims families, I needed to remember those wise words too. One of the Secret Service agents killed was Al Whicher, who had served on my detail before going to Oklahoma; his wife and three children were among the families there.
So often referred to by the demeaning term federal bureaucrats, the slain employees had been killed because they served us, helping the elderly and disabled, supporting farmers and veterans, enforcing our laws. They were family members, friends, neighbors, PTA members, and workers in their communities. Somehow they had been morphed into heartless parasites of tax dollars and abusers of power, not only in the twisted minds of Timothy McVeigh and his sympathizers but also by too many others who bashed them for power and profit. I promised myself that I would never use the thoughtless term federal bureaucrat again, and that I would do all I could to change the atmosphere of bitterness and bigotry out of which this madness had come.
Whitewater World didnt stop for Oklahoma City. The day before Hillary and I left for the memorial service, Ken Starr and three aides came to the White House to question us. I was accompanied to the session in the Treaty Room by Ab Mikva and Jane Sherburne of the White House counsels office, and my private attorneys, David Kendall and his partner Nicole Seligman. The interview was uneventful, and when it concluded, I asked Jane Sherburne to show Starr and his deputies the Lincoln Bedroom, with its furniture brought to the White House by Mary Todd Lincoln and a copy of the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln had written in his own hand after the fact so that it could be auctioned to raise money for war veterans. Hillary thought I was being too nice to them, but I was just behaving as Id been raised to do, and I hadnt yet given up all my illusions that the inquiry would, in the end, follow a legitimate course.
During the same week my longtime friend Senator David Pryor announced that he would not seek reelection in 1996. We had known each other for nearly thirty years. David Pryor and Dale Bumpers were far more than just my home-state senators; we had served consecutively as governor, and together we had helped to keep Arkansas a progressive Democratic state as most of the South moved into the Republican fold. Pryor and Bumpers had been invaluable to my work and my peace of mind, not only because they had supported me on tough issues but because they were my friends, men who had known me a long time. They could make me listen and laugh, and reminded their colleagues that I wasnt the person they kept reading about. After David retired, I would have to get him on the golf course to obtain the advice and perspective that were near at hand as long as he was in the Senate.
At the White House correspondents dinner on April 29, my remarks were brief, and except for a line or two, I didnt try to be funny. Instead, I thanked the assembled press for their powerful and poignant coverage of the Oklahoma City tragedy and the herculean recovery effort, assured them that we are going to get through this, and when we do, well be even stronger, and closed with W. H. Audens words:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start.
On May 5, at the Michigan State University commencement, I spoke not only to the graduates but also to the armed militia groups, many of which were active in remote areas of rural Michigan. I said that I knew that most militia members, while they dressed up on weekends in fatigues and conducted military exercises, had not broken any laws, and I expressed appreciation for those who had condemned the bombing. Then I attacked those who had gone beyond harsh words to advocating violence against law-enforcement officers and other government employees, while comparing themselves to the colonial militias, who fought for the democracy you now rail against.
For the next few weeks, in addition to hammering away at those who condoned violence, I asked all Americans, including radio talk-show hosts, to weigh their words more carefully, to make sure that they did not encourage violence in the minds of people less stable than themselves.
Oklahoma City prompted millions of Americans to reassess their own words and attitudes toward government and toward people whose views differed from their own. In so doing, it began a slow but inexorable moving away from the kind of uncritical condemnation that had become all too prevalent in our political life. The haters and extremists didnt go away, but they were on the defensive and, for the rest of my term, would never quite regain the position they had enjoyed before Timothy McVeigh took the demonization of government beyond the limits of humanity.
In the second week of May, I boarded Air Force One to fly to Moscow to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Even though Helmut Kohl, Franois Mitterrand, John Major, Jiang Zemin, and other leaders were scheduled to be there, my decision was controversial because Russia was involved in a bloody battle against separatists in the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya, civilian casualties were mounting, and most outside observers thought that Russia had used excessive force and insufficient diplomacy.
I made the trip because our nations were allies in World War II, which had claimed the lives of one in eight Soviet citizens: twenty-seven million of them died in battle or from disease, starvation, and freezing. Also, we were allies once again, and our partnership was essential to Russias economic and political progress, to our cooperation in securing and destroying nuclear weapons, to the orderly expansion of NATO and the Partnership for Peace, and to our fight against terrorism and organized crime. Finally, Yeltsin and I had two thorny issues to resolve: the problem of Russias cooperation with Irans nuclear program and the question of how to handle NATO expansion in a way that would bring Russia into the Partnership for Peace and wouldnt cost Yeltsin the election in 1996.
On May 9, I stood with Jiang Zemin and several other leaders in Red Square as we watched a military parade featuring old veterans marching shoulder to shoulder, often holding hands and leaning against one another to steady themselves as they paraded one last time for Mother Russia. The next day, after the commemorative ceremonies, Yeltsin and I met in St. Catherines Hall in the Kremlin. I started the meeting with Iran, telling Yeltsin that we had worked together to get all the nuclear weapons out of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; now we had to make sure that we didnt allow states that could harm us both, like Iran, to become nuclear powers. Yeltsin was prepared for this; he immediately said no centrifuges would be sold and suggested we refer the question of the reactors, which Iran claimed it wanted for peaceful purposes only, to the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission. I agreed, provided Yeltsin would publicly commit to Russias not giving Iran nuclear technology that could be used for military purposes. Boris said okay and we shook hands on it. We also agreed to begin visits to Russias biological weapons plants in August, as part of a broader effort to reduce the threat of biological and chemical weapons proliferation.
On the question of NATO enlargement, after I told Yeltsin indirectly that we wouldnt push it before his election in 1996, he finally agreed to join the Partnership for Peace. Although he didnt agree to announce his decision publicly, for fear of being seen as conceding too much, he promised that Russia would sign the documents by May 25, and that was good enough for me. The trip had been a success.
On the way home, I stopped in Ukraine for another World War II ceremony, a speech to university students, and a moving visit to Babi Yar, the hauntingly beautiful wooded ravine where, almost fifty-four years earlier, the Nazis had slaughtered more than 100,000 Jews and several thousand Ukrainian nationalists, Soviet prisoners of war, and Gypsies. Just the day before, the United Nations had voted to permanently extend the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which had been the bedrock of our efforts to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons for more than twenty-five years. Since several nations were still trying to obtain them, the extension of NPT was one of my most important nonproliferation objectives. Babi Yar and Oklahoma City were sober reminders of the human capacity for evil and destruction; they reinforced the importance of the NPT and the agreement I had made restricting Russian nuclear sales to Iran.
By the time I got back to Washington, the Republicans had begun to move on their proposals, and I spent most of the rest of the month trying to beat them back, threatening to veto their rescission package, their attempts to weaken our clean water program, and the large cuts they had proposed in education, health care, and foreign aid.
In the third week of May, I announced that, for the first time since the beginning of the Republic, the two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue that front the White House would be closed to vehicular traffic. I agreed to this decision reluctantly, after a panel of experts from the Secret Service, Treasury, and past Republican and Democratic administrations told me that it was necessary to secure the White House from a bomb. In the aftermath of Oklahoma City and the Japanese subway attack, I felt I had to go along with the recommendation, but I didnt like it.
By the end of the month, Bosnia was back in the news. The Serbs tightened their blockade around Sarajevo, and their snipers began firing on innocent children again. On May 25, NATO conducted air strikes on the Serb stronghold of Pale, and the Serbs, in retaliation, seized UN peacekeepers and chained them to ammunition dumps in Pale as hostages against further strikes; they also killed two UN soldiers from France in the seizure of a UN outpost.
Our airpower had been used extensively in Bosnia to conduct the longest-lasting humanitarian mission in history; to enforce the no-fly zone, which kept the Serbs from bombing Bosnian Muslims; and to maintain a fire-free zone around Sarajevo and other populated areas. Along with the UN peacekeepers and the embargo, our pilots had made a real difference: casualties had dropped from 130,000 in 1992 to under 3,000 in 1994. Nonetheless, the war was still raging, and more would have to be done to bring it to an end.
The other main foreign policy developments in June occurred around the G-7 summit hosted by Jean Chrtien in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jacques Chirac, who had just been elected president of France, stopped by to see me on his way to Canada. Chirac had warm feelings for America. As a young man, he had spent time in our country, including a brief period working in a Howard Johnsons restaurant in Boston. He had an insatiable curiosity about a wide variety of issues. I liked him a lot, and liked the fact that his wife was also in politics, with a career of her own.
Despite the good chemistry between us, our relationship had been somewhat strained by his decision to resume testing Frances nuclear weapons while I was trying to get worldwide support for a comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty, a goal of every American President since Eisenhower. After Chirac assured me that when the tests were completed he would support the treaty, we moved on to Bosnia, where he was inclined to be tougher on the Serbs than Mitterrand had been. He and John Major were supporting the creation of a rapid reaction force to respond to attacks on UN peacekeepers, and I pledged U.S. military support to help them and the other UN forces get into and out of Bosnia if they and the regular peacekeepers had to be withdrawn. But I also told Chirac that if the force didnt work and the UN troops were forced out of Bosnia, we would have to lift the arms embargo.
At the G-7, I had three objectives: to secure greater cooperation among the allies on terrorism, organized crime, and narco-trafficking; to identify major financial crises quickly and handle them better, with more timely and accurate information and with investments in developing nations to reduce poverty and promote environmentally responsible growth; and to resolve a serious trade dispute with Japan.
The first two were easily achieved; the third was a real problem. In two and a half years, we had made progress with Japan, completing fifteen separate trade agreements. However, in the two years since Japan had pledged to open its markets to U.S. automobiles and auto parts, the sector that accounted for more than half our total bilateral trade deficit, we had made almost no headway at all. Eighty percent of American dealerships sold Japanese cars; only 7 percent of Japanese dealerships sold cars from any other country, and rigid government regulation kept our parts out of Japans repair market. Mickey Kantor had reached the limits of his patience and had recommended putting a 100 percent tariff on Japanese luxury cars. In a meeting with Prime Minister Murayama, I told him that because of our security relationship and the sluggish Japanese economy, the United States would continue to negotiate with Japan, but we had to have action soon. By the end of the month we had it. Japan agreed that two hundred dealerships would offer U.S. cars immediately, and a thousand would do so within five years; that the regulations keeping our parts out would be changed; and that Japanese automakers would increase their production in the United States and use more American-made parts.
During the entire month of June, I was also embroiled in the unfolding battle with the Republicans over the budget. On the first day of the month, I went to a farm in Billings, Montana, to highlight the differences between my approach to agriculture and that of the Republicans in Congress. The agricultural aid program had to be reauthorized in 1995, and therefore was part of the budget debate. I told the farm families that while I favored a modest reduction in overall agricultural spending, the Republican plan cut assistance too sharply and did too little for family farmers. For several years, Republicans had done better than Democrats in rural America because they were more culturally conservative, but when push came to shove, the Republicans cared more about large agribusiness than family farmers.
I also went horseback riding, mostly because I liked to ride and loved the broad sweep of the Montana landscape, but also because I wanted to show that I wasnt a cultural alien rural Americans couldnt support. After the farm event, my advance man, Mort Engleberg, had asked one of our hosts what he thought of me. The farmer replied, Hes all right. And he aint anything like they make him out to be. I heard that a lot in 1995, and just hoped I wouldnt have to bring perception into line with reality one voter at a time.
Our ride got interesting when one of my Secret Service agents fell off his horse; the agent was unhurt, but the horse took off like a rocket across the open range. To the amazement of the press and the Montanans watching, my deputy chief of staff, Harold Ickes, rode off after the runaway steed at a blistering pace, chased him down, and returned him to his owner. Harolds exploit seemed totally at odds with his image as a high-strung, urban, liberal activist. As a young man, he had worked on ranches out west, and he hadnt forgotten how to ride.
On June 5, Henry Cisneros and I unveiled a National Homeownership Strategy of one hundred things we were going to do to increase home ownership to two-thirds of the population. The big decline in the deficit had kept mortgage rates low even as the economy picked up, and in a couple of years, we would reach Henrys goal for the first time in American history.
At the end of the first week of June, I vetoed my first bill, the $16 billion GOP rescission package, because it cut too much out of education, national service, and the environment, while leaving untouched unnecessary highway demonstration projects, courthouses, and other federal buildings that were pet projects of Republican members. They may have hated government in general, but, like most incumbents, they still wanted to spend themselves to reelection. I offered to work with the Republicans to cut even more spending, but said it would have to come out of pork-barrel projects and other nonessential spending, not investments in our children and our future. A couple of days later, I had another reason to fight for those investments, as Hillarys brother Tony and his wife, Nicole, gave us a new nephewZachary Boxer Rodham.
I was still trying to find the right balance between confrontation and accommodation when I went to Claremont, New Hampshire, for a town meeting with Speaker Gingrich. I had said I thought it would be good for Newt to talk to people in New Hampshire as I had in 1992, and he took me up on it. We both made positive opening comments about the need for honest debate and cooperation rather than the kind of name-calling sound bites that make the evening news. Gingrich even joked that he had followed my campaign example by stopping at a Dunkin Donuts shop on the way to the meeting.
In the course of answering questions from citizens, we agreed to work together for campaign finance reform, even shaking hands on it; talked about other areas where we saw eye to eye; had an interesting, civilized disagreement about health care; and disagreed about the utility of the United Nations and whether Congress should fund AmeriCorps.
The discussion with Gingrich was well received in a country weary of partisan warfare. Two of my Secret Service agents, who almost never said anything to me about politics, told me how glad they were to see the two of us in a positive discussion. The next day, at the White House Conference on Small Business, several Republicans said the same thing. If we could have continued in the same vein, I believe the Speaker and I could have resolved most of our differences in a way that would have been good for America. At his best, Newt Gingrich was creative, flexible, and brimming over with new ideas. But that wasnt what had made him Speaker; his searing attacks on the Democrats had done that. Its hard to restrain the source of your power, as Newt was reminded the next day when he was criticized by Rush Limbaugh and the conservative Manchester Union Leader for being too pleasant to me. It was a mistake he wouldnt often repeat in the future, at least not in public.
After the meeting I went to Boston for a fund-raiser for Senator John Kerry, who was up for reelection and would likely face a tough opponent in Governor Bill Weld. I had a good relationship with Weld, perhaps the most progressive of all the Republican governors, but I didnt want to lose Kerry in the Senate. He was one of the Senates leading authorities on the environment and high technology. He had also devoted an extraordinary amount of time to the problem of youth violence, an issue he had cared about since his days as a prosecutor. Caring about an issue in which there are no votes today but which will have a big impact on the future is a very good quality in a politician.
On June 13, in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office, I offered a plan to balance the budget in ten years. The Republicans had proposed to do it in seven, with big spending cuts in education, health care, and the environment, and large tax cuts. By contrast, my plan had no cuts in education, health services for the elderly, the family supports necessary to make welfare reform work, or essential environmental protections. It restricted tax cuts to middle-income people, with an emphasis on helping Americans pay for the rapidly rising costs of a college education. Also, by taking ten years instead of seven to get to balance, my plans annual contractionary impact would be less, reducing the risk of slowing economic growth.
The timing and substance of the speech were opposed by many congressional Democrats and some members of my cabinet and staff, who thought it was too early to get into the budget debate with the Republicans; their public support was dropping now that they were making decisions instead of just saying no to me, and a lot of Democrats thought it was foolish to get in their way with a plan of my own before it was absolutely necessary to put one out. After the beating wed taken during my first two years, they thought the Republicans should have to endure at least a year of their own medicine.
It was a persuasive argument. On the other hand, I was the President; I was supposed to lead, and we had already cut the deficit by a third with no Republican support. If I later had to veto Republican budget bills, I wanted to do so after demonstrating a good-faith effort to make honorable compromises. Besides, in New Hampshire, the Speaker and I had pledged to try to work together. I wanted to hold up my end of the bargain.
My budget decision was supported by Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles, most of the economic team, the Democratic deficit hawks in Congress, and Dick Morris, who had been advising me since the 94 elections. Most of the staff didnt like Dick because he was difficult to deal with, liked to go around established White House procedures, and had worked for Republicans. He also had some off-the-wall ideas from time to time and wanted to politicize foreign policy too much, but I had worked with him long enough to know when to accept, and when to reject, his advice.
Dicks main advice was that I had to practice the politics of triangulation, bridging the divide between Republicans and Democrats and taking the best ideas of both. To many liberals and some in the press corps, triangulation was compromise without conviction, a cynical ploy to win reelection. Actually, it was just another way of articulating what I had advocated as governor, with the DLC, and in 1992 during the campaign.
I had always tried to synthesize new ideas and traditional values, and to change government policies as conditions changed. I wasnt splitting the difference between liberals and conservatives; instead, I was trying to build a new consensus. And, as the coming showdown with the Republicans over the budget would show, my approach was far from lacking in conviction. Eventually, Dicks role would become known to the public and he would become a regular part of our weekly strategy sessions, which were normally held every Wednesday night. He also brought in Mark Penn and his partner, Doug Schoen, to do polling for us. Penn and Schoen were a good team who shared my New Democrat philosophy and would remain with me for the rest of my presidency. Soon we would also be joined by veteran media consultant Bob Squier and his partner, Bill Knapp, who understood and cared about policy as well as promotion.
On June 29, I finally reached an agreement with the Republicans on the rescission bill, once they restored more than $700 million for education, AmeriCorps, and our safe drinking water program. Senator Mark Hatfield, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and an old-fashioned progressive Republican, had worked closely with the White House to make the compromise possible.
The next day in Chicago, with police officers and citizens who had been wounded by assault weapons, I defended the assault weapons ban and asked Congress to support Senator Paul Simons legislation to close a big loophole in the law banning cop-killer bullets. The policeman who introduced me said he had survived severe combat in Vietnam without a mark, but had nearly been killed by a criminal who used an assault weapon to riddle his body with bullets. Current law already banned the bullets that pierced protective vests worn by police officers, but the banned ammunition was defined not by its armor-piercing capability, but by what the ammunition was made of; ingenious entrepreneurs had discovered other elements, not mentioned in the law, that could also be made into bullets that pierced vests and killed cops.
The National Rifle Association was sure to fight the bill, but they were down a little from their high-water mark in 1994. After their executive director had referred to federal law-enforcement officers as jackbooted thugs, former President Bush had resigned from the organization in protest. A few months earlier, at an event in California, the comedian Robin Williams had lampooned the NRAs opposition to banning cop-killer bullets with a good line: Of course we cant ban them. Hunters need them. Somewhere out there in the woods, theres a deer wearing a Kevlar vest! As we headed into the second half of 1995, I hoped Robins joke and President Bushs protest were harbingers of a larger trend toward common sense on the gun issue.
In July, the partisan fights abated a little. On the twelfth, at James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, I continued efforts to bring the American people together, this time on the subject of religious liberty.
There was a lot of controversy about how much religious expression could be allowed in public schools. Some school officials and teachers believed that the Constitution prohibited any of it. That was incorrect. Students were free to pray individually or together; religious clubs were entitled to be treated like any other extracurricular organizations; in their free time, students were free to read religious texts; they could include their religious views in their homework as long as they were relevant to the assignment; and they could wear T-shirts promoting their religion if they were allowed to wear those that promoted other causes.
I asked Secretary Riley and Attorney General Reno to prepare a detailed explanation of the range of religious expression permitted in schools and to provide copies to every school district in America before the start of the next school year. When the booklet was issued, it substantially reduced conflict and lawsuits, and in so doing won support across the religious and political spectrum.
I had long been working on the issue, having established a White House liaison to faith communities, and signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Near the end of my second term, Professor Rodney Smith, an expert on the First Amendment, said my administration had done more to protect and advance religious liberty than any since James Madisons. I dont know if thats accurate, but I tried.
A week after the religious liberty event, I was faced with the biggest current challenge to building a more united American community: affirmative action. The term refers to preferences given to racial minorities or women by governmental entities in employment, contracts for products and services, access to small-business loans, and admissions to universities. The purpose of affirmative action programs is to reduce the impact of long-term systemic exclusion of people based on race or gender from opportunities open to others in our society. The policy began under Kennedy and Johnson and was expanded under the Nixon administration, with strong bipartisan support, out of recognition that the impact of past discrimination could not be overcome by simply outlawing discrimination from now on, coupled with a desire to avoid requiring strict quotas, which could lead to benefits going to unqualified people and reverse discrimination against white males.
By the early 1990s, opposition to affirmative action had built up: from conservatives who said that any race-based preferences amounted to reverse discrimination and therefore were unconstitutional; from whites who had lost out on contracts or university admissions to blacks or other minorities; and from those who believed that affirmative action programs, while well intentioned, were too often abused or had achieved their purpose and outlived their usefulness. There were also some progressives who were uncomfortable with race-based preferences and who urged that the criteria for preferential treatment be redefined in terms of economic and social disadvantage.
The debate intensified when the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994; many of them had promised to end affirmative action, and after twenty years of stagnant middle-class incomes, their position appealed to working-class whites and small-business people, as well as to white students and their parents who were disappointed when they were rejected by the college or university of their choice.
Matters came to a head in June 1995, when the Supreme Court decided the case of Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pea, in which a white contractor sued the secretary of transportation to invalidate a contract awarded to a minority bidder under an affirmative action program. The Court ruled that the government could continue to act against the lingering effects of racial discrimination, but that, from now on, race-based programs would be subject to the high standard of review called strict scrutiny, which required the government to show that it had a compelling interest in solving a problem and that the problem could not be addressed effectively by a narrower non-race-based remedy. The Supreme Court decision required us to revisit federal affirmative action programs. Civil rights leaders wanted to keep them strong and comprehensive, while many Republicans were urging that they be abandoned altogether.
On July 19, after intense consultations with both proponents and critics of the policy, I offered my response to the Adarand decision, and to those who wanted to abolish affirmative action altogether, in a speech at the National Archives. In preparation, I had ordered a comprehensive review of our affirmative action programs, which concluded that affirmative action for women and minorities had given us the finest, most integrated military in the world, with 260,000 new positions made available to women in the last two and a half years alone; the Small Business Administration had dramatically increased loans to women and minorities without reducing loans to white males or giving loans to unqualified applicants; large private corporations with affirmative action programs reported that increasing the diversity of their workforces had increased their productivity and competitiveness in the global marketplace; government procurement policies had helped to build women- and minority-owned firms, but had on occasion been misused and abused; and there was still a need for affirmative action because of continuing racial and gender disparities in employment, income, and business ownership.
Based on these findings, I proposed to crack down on fraud and abuse in the procurement programs and do a better job of moving firms out of them once they could compete; to comply with the Adarand decision by focusing set-aside programs on areas where both the problem and the need for affirmative action were provable; and to do more to help distressed communities and disadvantaged people, no matter what their race or gender. We would retain the principle of affirmative action but reform its practices to ensure that there were no quotas, no preferences for unqualified persons or companies, no reverse discrimination against whites, and no continuation of programs after their equal opportunity purpose had been achieved. In a phrase, my policy was Mend it, but dont end it.
The speech was well received by the civil rights, corporate, and military communities, but it didnt persuade everyone. Eight days later Senator Dole and Congressman Charles Canady of Florida introduced bills to repeal all federal affirmative action laws. Newt Gingrich had a more positive response, saying he didnt want to get rid of affirmative action until he came up with something to replace it that still gave a helping hand.
While I was searching for common ground, the Republicans spent much of July moving their budget proposals through the Congress. They proposed big cuts in education and training. The Medicare and Medicaid cuts were so large that they increased substantially the out-of-pocket costs for seniors, who, because of medical inflation, were already paying a higher percentage of their income for health care than they had before the programs were created in the 1960s. The Environmental Protection Agency cuts were so severe that they would effectively end enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. They voted to abolish AmeriCorps and cut assistance for the nations homeless population in half. They effectively ended the family planning program that previously had been supported by Democrats and Republicans alike as a way to help prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions. They wanted to slash the foreign aid budget, already only 1.3 percent of total federal spending, weakening our ability to fight terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons, open new markets for American exports, and support the forces of peace, democracy, and human rights around the world.
Unbelievably, just five years after President Bush had signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which had passed with large bipartisan majorities, the Republicans even proposed to cut the services and supports necessary for disabled people to exercise their rights under the law. After the disability cuts were made public, I got a call one night from Tom Campbell, my roommate for four years at Georgetown. Tom was an airline pilot who made a comfortable living but was by no means wealthy. In an agitated voice, he said he was concerned about the proposed budget cuts for the disabled. His daughter Ciara had cerebral palsy. So did her best friend, who was being raised by a single mother working at a minimum-wage job to which she traveled one hour each way every day by bus. Tom asked some questions about the budget cuts and I answered them. Then he said, So let me get this straight. Theyre going to give me a tax cut and cut the aid Ciaras friend and her mother get to cover the costs of the childs wheelchair and the four or five pairs of expensive special shoes she has to have every year and the transportation assistance the mother gets to travel to and from her minimum-wage job? Thats right, I said. He replied, Bill, thats immoral. Youve got to stop it.
Tom Campbell was a devout Catholic and an ex-marine who had been raised in a conservative Republican home. If the New Right Republicans had gone too far for Americans like him, I knew I could beat them back. On the last day of the month, Alice Rivlin announced that the improving economy had led to a lower deficit than we had expected, and that we could now balance the budget in nine years without the harsh GOP cuts. I was closing in on them.