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My Recollection of Hillary Clinton at the 1995 Camp David Meeting

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After spending much of the day doing the sorts of things that normal teacher/scholars do, I returned to the blogosphere to see a raging debate about who said what at the January 1995 meeting convened by the Clintons at Camp David to help them sort through the 1994 election debacle and help him prepare for the 1995 State of the Union Address. I was there (the only female intellectual-scholar invited), and the tenor of the discussion was one of the instances I was referring to last Saturday in my post on TPM (I also attended a late 1993 intellectuals' dinner at the White House, where similar discussions occurred). The early 1995 meeting at Camp David was a many-hours-long seminar featuring about a dozen intellectuals plus a bunch of White House insiders, talking with Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. It was a fascinating window into how the Clintons were coping with the massive health care debacle and Congressional election defeats of late 1994.

Ben Barber later wrote a 2001 book about this and other Clinton salons with intellectuals, and I remember him taking lots of notes at Camp David -- which obviously lay the basis for his 2001 account. In that book, which many of us read when it came out years ago, he gave vivid and accurate renditions of the discussions I heard and participated in, and I have spoken to other attendees at various Clinton salons who agree on Barber's accuracy. Obviously, contemporaneous notes and a book written years ago, long before today's arguments, are the best possible evidence -- especially since Barber is reportedly now a Hillary Clinton supporter. His previously documented reports are much better evidence of what was said in 1995 than instant "recollections" now scrounged up by the HRC and Obama campaigns.

Barber reports in his 2001 book that Hillary Clinton said "Screw 'em" about southern working class whites who did not support Bill Clinton. Two other scholar-particiants, Alan Wolfe and Harry Boyte, agree she said this. Reported demurrals (and not a clear denial) come from Clinton staffers Bruce Reed and Don Baer, not from the independent intellectuals in attendance. But independent witnesses who keep notes trump employees any day.

I have gone back to my 1995 notes to check my recollections of the event. My notes do not have any exact words, so I am not going to try to corroborate a particular phrase from Hillary Clinton or any other speaker.

But what is clear in both in my memory and my notes is that there was extensive, hard-nosed discussion about why masses of voters did not support Clinton or trust government or base their choices on economic as opposed to what people saw as peripheral life-style concerns. Hillary Clinton was among the most cold-blooded analysts in attendance. She spoke of ordinary voters as if they were a species apart, and showed interest only in the political usefulness of their choices -- usefulness to the Clinton administration, that is.

I vividly remember at the time finding it impressive that Bill Clinton (NOT Hillary Clinton) showed real empathy for the ordinary people whose motives and supposedly misguided choices were under analysis. Ironically, just as Barber reported, Bill Clinton was the one who combined analysis and empathy, much as Obama himself did in his full San Francisco remarks.

I think this whole angle of "gotcha" politics about snippets of speech transposed from one context to another is ridiculous and pathological for democracy in America -- and I cannot fathom why the Clintons or George Stephanopoulos are descending to this dirt, not to mention the guilt-by-association crap. It is particularly despicable of them to criticize Obama for the sort of observation/analysis that was routine in and around the 1990s Clinton White House. And I cannot help but feel there is a psychological edge of pure envy in Bill Clinton's attacks: Obama is empathetic and charismatic as well as smart, just like Bill was back then, in those so much better days!

Over and out. I am going to try to find a way to preserve in amber my better memories and feelings about the Clintons, so as not to lose altogether the sense of admiration I once felt, but can no longer.

Related: Sam Stein: Hillary Clinton On Southern Working Class Whites In 1995: "Screw 'Em"