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Oral History: Oklahoma City Bombing

Oklahoma Federal Building weeks after explosion

In response to the FBI stand-off at Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, Timonty McVeigh and Terry Nicols, denonated a truck-bomb at the Oklahoma City Federal Building on April 19,1995. The blast killed 168 people.

As we look into Clinton's Presidential Project, we see a human-side of Clinton, his ability to connect to people.

His speech to the people on April 23 (shown at right) hepled galvanized goodwill for the president in an uncertain political time.

Henry Cisneros (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development):

Dr. Russell Riley: You went down to Oklahoma City, didn’t you?
Cisneros: Yes.
Riley: Did you go with the President?
Cisneros: Yes.
Riley: Can you tell us anything about that trip?
Cisneros: My department lost more people than anyone else. We lost 35 of our colleagues, some
of whom I had seen just the week before. This was very personal. Then I had to deal with the
survivors, went to the hospital. Saw the people who were hurt and the people who were not hurt
but were afraid to go back to work and did not want to go back into a Federal building. So it was
very personal, very poignant.
Riley: But the President—
Cisneros: Did a magnificent job of relating to the widows and children at the ceremony that day.
It was very touching. There are moments when—and I think 9/11 was that for President Bush—
you realize this is not about politics and this is not about momentary victories and this is not
about your own legacy. It’s about the burden you’re carrying for the people. I have said in other
settings that I thought that was a pretty dramatic turning point for him. So by ’95 I think he was
operating on all pistons as President of the United States, for everybody. Then ’96 the results
prove that out in the election. Never a question.

Betty Currie (Personal Secretary Assistant):

Dr. Russell Riley: One of the things that happened in April was Oklahoma City. It’s a tragedy but it’s a tragedy that has a consequence for the President.
Currie: A 9-11 sort of thing.
Riley: Were you in the White House that morning?
Currie: What time was that?
Riley: The bomb went off, it was a weekday morning.
Currie: I think Mike McCurry came in to tell him that. We didn’t know much other than that there had been an explosion. He came in and flipped on CNN and we started getting more. Of
course, each newscast got worse and worse.
Young: At some time there was even speculation in the press about this being a foreign terrorist attack.
Currie: We lost one of the President’s Secret Service agents in that too, one we knew.
Riley: He had just gone down there from the White House detail. Do you remember any of the President’s reactions to this?
Currie: I may have heard one of the few four-letter words. It kept getting grimmer and grimmer the more we heard. We were hoping it was just a small attack, but then—
Riley: Did you make the trip down to Oklahoma City with them?
Currie: No, I didn’t.
Riley: This seems to be a President who is remarkably adept at addressing pain in others.
Currie: I agree.
Riley: Can you help us understand what it is about him that puts him in that position?
Currie: I think he suffered a lot himself, and I think he is just generally heartwarming. I think he really feels for you, for me. I think he likes to be a comforter and he does it very well.

Kris Engskov (Trip Coordinator in White House travel office Assistant Press Secretary; Personal Assistant):

Oklahoma City—I wasn’t the aide then, I was in the travel office, but I remember distinctly that being a really emotionally-charged time, and for him, personally. He was very emotional about these events. He really felt them. I think he probably put himself in those situations deliberately to try to understand the situations. You can see he wears a lot of his emotion on his sleeve. You could see how he was affected by certain events. It was just very clear he was a very emotive

Al From (Domestic Policy Advisor to the Clinton Transition, Founder & CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council):

The other thing that was important in ’95 was Oklahoma City, because every once in a while you need a reminder that maybe the country is going too far one way or the other. I think Oklahoma City was that reminder. That the [Newton] Gingrich, free-wheeling libertarianism— Incidentally, I love Newt Gingrich. I like him very much. I wouldn’t say he’s a friend, but he’s somebody I respect. I think he’s smart. I think he’s wrong a lot. He believes in ideas and I like that very
much about him. I don’t say this out of antipathy to Newt Gingrich, but I think he let his ego get
away from him. But it’s the libertarian nature that you really didn’t need government, that it wasn’t very important. A lot of that anti-government anger dissipated when Oklahoma City happened.
Dr. Russell Riley: That was, I think, the day after somebody, or the  president, had proclaimed his relevance to the political system at a press conference. The following day this happened.
From: That was another big part of it. Because every once in a while, as I said, the country just needs a reminder that we need to keep in balance.

Bill Galston (Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy):

The President was back on his heels in early 1995. Things hit bottom right before the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and sort of rebounded. He found a voice and very cleverly linked that episode with hostility of government run amuck. I think he began to turn the corner perceptually about that point. But mainly what was happening was jousting. Was there a lot of domestic policy going on during that period? Hell, no. How could there have been?

Frank Greer (Media Consultant):

Then the Oklahoma City bombing happened. That was such a disturbing experience. I thought that initially the White House reaction was not that good. So I wrote a memo about what I thought the nation needed, in terms of pulling the nation back together, and also taking on extremists and extremism, and Clinton loved it. I heard, because people called saying, “He just sent me a copy of this memo, we’ve got to talk about this.” I don’t know whether you remember this, but there was a real turning point in his administration, and it was the speech at Oklahoma City.
Dr. Mike Nelson: Yes, I agree.
Greer: I worked on that a good bit and kind of set the tone for that. I thought that from that point forward—there was something else that happened that summer—Clinton found his voice. It came back and he really became a national leader. It was really the first time, I thought, that he had been a national leader...

How were we going to defend affirmative action, southerners, et cetera. Worked with a guy named Chris Edley, who was heading up the affirmative action task force, so got deeply immersed in that and saw the best of Clinton again. Oklahoma City was a great example, handling that issue, “mend it, don’t end it,” was the Clinton I had worked with and knew. He really got his voice back, he got his principles back. And it’s interesting, by the end of that year he was at 56, 58 percent and going up...

What changed the President’s numbers were Oklahoma City, the foreign policy efforts, and the way he dealt with things like affirmative action. That’s what changed the President’s numbers. That to me, long range, is one of the most destructive things that came out of this ’96 campaign. And it was totally unnecessary. Unfortunately, they sold Clinton a bill of goods.

Marcia Hale (Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs):

Dr. Russell Riley: I want to dial back. Again, I’m just sort of thinking through the timeline at various points. I would guess that you must have had some piece of Oklahoma City.
Hale: I’m glad you brought that up. That’s the most satisfying thing I did in the White House of all my time there.
Riley: Can you walk us through?
Hale: I was in the White House doing something and had my TV on, and they started reporting what was happening. Didn’t it happen around eleven o’clock? It’s all tied to April 19th. It was
Riley: There was a time zone difference and it happened right after their day would have started so it would have been around—
Hale: There’s a significance as to why they blew it up at that time. But anyway, we didn’t know what it was.
My best friend from childhood happened to be in town that day with her three little boys, in Washington. I took them to lunch at the White House Mess. At the time that I went to lunch, no
one knew—for all they knew, it was a gas explosion. The only reason I tell you that aside is, by the time lunch was over, it was clear there was a big problem. This is well written, but Clinton really was at his lowest point a month or so before that. His immediate response was, 'We have got to do everything that we can possibly do here.' Obviously there’s the FBI and the intelligence part of it that had to be done, but he quickly went to Oklahoma City. Long story short, there was an Oklahoma City Commission, and I was named the White House representative of it.

I got particularly close to the mayor and one of the city council members and tried to help them as much—in retrospect, I wish I had done more. That’s one case where I wish I had gone to Oklahoma City. James Lee Witt and I worked very closely on a lot—that’s another thing I should talk about. Anytime there was a disaster, James Lee always took the lead because that
was his job, but I tried to be very helpful in dealing with the elected officials. So James Lee and I had been doing a lot on that.

The day I left the White House, the mayor and a the President of the city council of Oklahoma City came to my office at the White House and brought me a small piece of the Murrah Building as a thank-you, not that having a piece of the Murrah Building is a pleasant thought. It’s a real piece of the Murrah Building. I don’t have it here; I have it at home. It’s really quite remarkable for me.

That’s the best the government does. First of all, Clinton did an amazing job of helping people just get through it, but people like James Lee really put a lot of people’s lives back together. Being able to help tangentially in that process is why you ought to be in government. For the mayor and the city council member to come to Washington to thank me—it was a big deal. They
just came to my office to see me and say good-bye. It was really nice but it was also just so painful.

Clinton went back about a month afterwards and I went with him on that trip. You could see in people’s faces what a big difference just being there makes, which is why it drove me nuts when Katrina happened and no one in the White House realized that being there as soon as it happens is what people really need. You have to be careful. We did the earthquake in California in ’94 or ’95, and you can’t get in the way of people doing valuable services for people. But in the case of Oklahoma City, nothing else was happening. It’s not like there was flooding and it’s not like you had to worry about an
aftershock or something. Just being there. Clinton stayed there for hours and shook hands and met everybody.

Riley: You were in the room. Were you in the line with him working?

Hale: Yes. He has a very close friend who happens to be a close friend of mine who lives in Oklahoma City. She took me and introduced me to people like the city council members. She took me around and helped me meet all those people while he was doing that. There were thousands of people there in a big auditorium. This was several weeks afterwards. That’s when you understand the power of the office, and empathy, and having somebody who is as close to Clinton as James Lee was, and being as competent as James Lee. Nobody has ever done for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] what he did. I would bet you there are no major disputes about how Oklahoma City was handled, or the big earthquake in California, or any of those things. For FEMA to have fallen as far as they’ve fallen is just sad.

Thomas McLarty (Chief of Staff):

Also, there was a sense that this was a President who genuinely understood people’s hopes and dreams and fears and anxieties and identified with that. You can maybe chuckle a bit about 'I feel your pain,' but he does have, and did have, great empathy. That showed at Oklahoma City, it showed at the TWA crash, it showed over and over again. And people did feel that he was getting up every day and going to work for them. And most people, even his detractors, except this element we’ve talked about, felt he was reasonably fair-handed about this. I heard that over and over from many of the business leaders that I dealt with. So that was an essential element here.

Leon Panetta (Director of the Office of Management and Budget; Chief of Staff):

So in April suddenly Oklahoma City happens and, a little like September 11th, the country starts thinking, Wait a minute, terrorism is real and this can attack and kill our own people. And as you may recall, there was a whole sense at that time that the people involved with Oklahoma City were Middle East terrorists. That’s what we were looking for on airplanes. The FBI had gone to the airports. As a matter of fact, I think they may have arrested somebody at an airport, thinking it was somebody from the Middle East. And to his credit, in the statement the President made about what had happened in Oklahoma he also made the point that we have to be very careful about not jumping to conclusions. He just seemed to be able to rise above it and do what Presidents are supposed to do in those situations. And he did it very well. We put a task force together in the White House and we charged the task force to track it through, and ultimately we tracked it to these guys and arrested them. It was done pretty fast.

But the President throughout that period was very reassuring to the public, and I think it began to turn things around. The President began to reassert the position of the Presidency at a time of crisis, and he did it very well. He did it in a way that I think the public responded to. Then, you may recall, he did a speech I think in Michigan soon after that in which he talked about rightwing terrorism in this country and the groups that were talking about violence, etc. He tied it to gun control, and he took a bold step on that, but he was stepping out a little more as President. What was beginning to show up on the polls was that people were starting to worry about what Gingrich was doing and what the Republicans were doing. They cared about the environment,they cared about the—Does this all sound familiar? They cared about what was happening, the economy, education, etc. They really were concerned about what was happening, and that was beginning to show up in the polls. We went through a debate on civil rights, and it was very interesting because Morris had basically polled civil rights in a way—to be frank, I never trusted Morris’s poll because I always thought he polled pursuant to what he thought should be done, and you can shape those polls. Get back the answer you want. Well, that was my suspicion. I have no proof on that but there are probably a lot of other people who believe that was true.

Richard Riley (Secretary of Education):

On the other side, I don’t recall ever hearing Bill Clinton say something mean about somebody else. You know, you would think that with Tom Delay and all the people attacking him—he of course didn’t like him, and I’m sure would take opposing views. But I never heard him just make some mean statement about somebody or fighting them on top of the table. There were so many people who were mean to him, but his nature was not that. His nature is more like mine, as you described it. He didn’t like all of that. I remember when we had black churches burned in the South. He called a big meeting and had everybody in there. He was almost in tears. These black leaders could sense that. They were really upset. Things were happening in the South that they didn’t like. He was very concerned about that. Then Oklahoma, and all these other times. He was very sensitive to people suffering, and wanted to be well liked. He was basically a good person in terms of his relationship with people. He had people who would reciprocate. Most did. Some didn’t.

Richard Rubin (Director of NEC: Secretary of Treasury):

Yes. That really gave him a chance to show to the American people that he was a leader who cared about a whole host of matters. A terrible tragedy, but for him, politically, as was written at the time, a very important moment.

Nancy Soderberg (Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; Alternate Representative to the United Nations):

I was in the White House, in my office. In the Situation Room, they bring up papers. One dot means, 'Read it now.' Two dots mean, 'You really have to read it now.' There really are two little red dots on it; it’s goofy. I can’t remember if it was a one or two red-dot one. Initially we thought it was foreign terrorists. But it became pretty clear pretty quickly that it wasn’t. Then there was the whole manhunt to get them. It was a big deal. I went with Clinton to the speech in Oklahoma City, and it was really moving. I’d gone to high school in Oklahoma, so I wanted to go. I was in Tulsa, but still Oklahoma. It was just a sea of families. The Governor or somebody had given them all teddy bears. There were all these sobbing families clutching teddy bears. A lot of people were killed; the numbers were pretty high.
Dr. Bob Strong: Hundred and sixty-five.
Soderberg: That’s a lot. It was quite moving. Clinton is so strong in those moments; he really empathized.
Strong: Is he scripted at those moments? Or are we seeing a more spontaneous speech from him?
Soderberg: His speech was scripted, but very him. He would have spent some time on it. He would rewrite a lot of the big speeches himself. I think it’s very difficult to be a speechwriter for Clinton, because he rewrites so much at the last minute. It was very him. Then he did a lot of unscripted meetings with the families.

Learn more about President Bill Clinton's presidency here.

Bryan Craig is a Senior Researcher for the Presidential Oral History Program

Date edited: 04/21/2016 (3:22PM)


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