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Clinton documents show 'West Wing' mindset

By Tom Cohen, CNN
March 15, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Newly released papers reveal unvarnished view of the Clinton White House
  • Politics seemed to always play a role in decision-making
  • Don't whine, advisers said after disastrous 1994 mid-term election
  • One adviser urged more personal discipline from Clinton and his team

Washington (CNN) -- Maybe "The West Wing" had it right.

A second batch of previously unreleased papers from the Clinton presidency made public Friday revealed a hard-boiled, politically cynical White House mindset similar to the fictional Josiah Bartlet administration of the popular TV show that ran from 1999-2006.

Read, search the documents

Highlights from the Clinton memos

Every decision appears based at least in part on a political calculus, and some of the unvarnished back-and-forth shows the human side of the President and other officials that almost always remains well-hidden from public view.

Legacy issues

Shortly after Clinton won reelection in 1996, White House aide Gene Sperling drafted a 14-page memo to begin identifying "legacy goals" for the President on major policy issues. For a policy to be considered, Sperling wrote, it must be "Important and Transforming ... Achievable ... Memorable and Identifiable."

Among the legacy issues Sperling suggested were "Reforming education" and "restoring America's Fiscal Integrity."

In a 1993 memo on a planned public hearing with then first lady Hillary Clinton to push her proposed health care reforms, aides Alexis Herman and Mike Lux wrote the event would protect the administration from accusations of being closed to outside opinion.

"As we discussed, the primary goal for this two-day hearing would be to inoculate ourselves from charges that we are refusing to listen to all those groups out there that want input," said the memo by Herman and Lux.

Another part sounded prescient about the continuing health care debate in America almost four years after Obamacare became law.

"Some testifiers should be average people with horror stories, middle-class families worried about the future, and senior citizens," the aides wrote. "These average people should testify during those periods when we believe more people will be watching."

Tough talk

Other documents include details and transcriptions of planning meetings for Clinton's 1999 State of the Union address that put the full personality and vocabulary of the 42nd President on display.

"Can't say an ass-pocket full of money, can you?" Clinton asked when discussing how to describe the 1998 budget surplus in the upcoming speech, according to a memo by speechwriter Michael Waldman.

His staff also could talk tough, as shown by memos responding to a draft text of Clinton's December 15, 1994, speech following disastrous mid-term elections for Democrats.

In seeming unanimity, advisers called the draft too defensive, with one describing it as "mealy-mouthed."

"The President shouldn't whine. He should lead," wrote Elaine Kamarck, while Todd Stern noted that "one of the President's problems right now is that too many people see him as lacking backbone, vacillating, being too eager to please and tell people what they want to hear."

"I think he needs to sound strong and Presidential -- in touch certainly, with what happened on Nov. 8 but not weak," Stern wrote.

The 55 documents totaling more than 4,000 pages released Friday by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library were the second batch of Clinton White House papers made public in recent weeks.

Presidential records and the National Archives

The confidential memos, notes and other papers were part of files that had been requested for public release over the years under the Freedom of Information Act, but were withheld by the National Archives due to their sensitive nature.

While the Presidential Records Act established public ownership of White House documents as far back as the Reagan administration, it specified that documents pertaining to federal appointments as well as confidential correspondence between the president and his advisers could be withheld from the public for 12 years after a president leaves office.

Other documents that can be withheld include classified national security information, confidential business information and trade secrets, and unwarranted invasions of personal privacy.

Those types of documents were not part of Friday's release.

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CNN's Emily Rust, Erin McPike, Mark Preston, Dan Merica, Ashley Killough, Tim McCaughan, Robert Yoon, Steve Brusk and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.

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