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Sandy Berger Remembered

Sandy Berger being interviewed for POHP in March 2005

Sandy Berger being interviewed for POHP in March 2005

Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, died today. As part of the William J. Clinton Presidential Project, we interviewed Berger in 2005.  Here are some stories and lessons learned.

I’ll fast forward to a very funny Clinton story. We’ll talk about how I got to know Clinton—I’ve known him since 1972. "By the time we got to the White House, sometime in the ’90s, he went down to Arkansas one weekend and came back and said, 'You know, I met a good old boy in the Ozarks who said there’s somebody by the name of Samuel Berger who wrote this book on farmers.' Of course, President Clinton saw me as a foreign policy person by that time. It never occurred to him this could be me.

'That’s me,' I said. 'You wrote a book about farmers? What do you know about farmers?' I gave him a copy of the book. He put the book in the Oval Office along with all the other books written by members of his Cabinet. Not all of them, obviously. Bob Reich would have taken up a whole shelf. But he had a good number of books. At a Cabinet meeting he told this story.

He said, 'I was down in the Ozarks talking to good old boys and they said, ‘Hey, Bill, is that Berger who works for you doing foreign policy the same guy that wrote the book about the Farm Bureau?’" And President Clinton would say, 'Beats me.' So I had new respect I think in the eyes of President Clinton when he realized that I actually knew something about dirt farmers."

Berger actually fought against the campaign promise of cutting 25% of the White House staff. In the end, it is a lesson about can you really cut the bureaucracy in a measured way?:

"President Clinton made a commitment during the campaign. We tend to focus on the statements he made that he did not comply with, but he said he was going to cut the White House staff by 25 percent. That was a statement based upon a memo he received that said that Bush had increased the White House staff by 60 percent. That was wrong. Bush had actually cut the White House staff. The author of that memo—I have my strong suspicions who the author of that memo was. He has obviously kept his head down. It’s almost like Deep Throat. The President refused to budge from that commitment. We went to him on several different occasions and said, Mr. President, this is a big government. You asked it to do a lot of things; we can’t do all these things. People are already working 20 hours a day. 

He said, If we can’t run this government with X number of people in the White House, we ought to be sent home. It reflected his more populist instinct. So we had two constraints on our staff. One was the budget, the other was the 25 percent cut. In my second term, we floated up above the 25 percent cut by a lot of legal devices like Council of Foreign Relations fellows and interns. Clarke alone probably had 20 people working for him. Some of them were in the Commerce Department. The staff probably got to be 150 by the time I left, but it was smaller at the beginning."

In our Clinton project, we discovered that the impeachment process was not such a distraction as outsiders think it was:

"There was a lot of controversy surrounding the attack of the plant in Sudan. That was based upon the intelligence, not so much based upon whether it was a diversion. But I was so walled off from what was going on on the impeachment side that I would drive home at night and call my daughter who worked at CNN and say, What happened today?

She’d say, Oh my God—in the Senate, the impeachment committee voted Articles of Impeachment. I tried to pay as little attention to it as I could. Obviously, I read the newspapers. But I never discussed this with the President. The only time that I had any personal conversation with the President was when he spoke, two times I think, to the Cabinet, one at the beginning of this episode, in which he rallied the Cabinet to stay together. Then once when he finally acknowledged that he was not telling the truth, he convened the Cabinet and there was a very heartfelt apology that he made to the Cabinet. He and I never had a conversation that said we’ve got to wall foreign policy off from all of this, but he understood it and I understood it and we didn’t have to say it to each other."

Presidents and candidates can learn from the reaction of more "boots on the ground" during a crisis:

"I think it got better over time, particularly on use-of-force issues, when you are committing American troops into harm’s way, it’s an awesome responsibility, and you want to be right. You know some of them are not going to come home. That’s what separates those who have sat in the chair and those who have sat across the table from the President. I think the President in the beginning had a tendency to second guess himself until we actually got to the point where we were moving, and then he would be fine."

Here Berger talked about the use of pagers for his staffers. Today, it would be cell phones:

"I was very famous on my staff for a couple of things. Number one, I insisted that everybody wear pagers. We didn’t have cell phones at that point; we had pagers. My view was, if you’re working for the President of the United States, you’re working 24/7. You have no such thing as private time. If there was a crisis in Asia at 2:00 in the morning, I wanted to be able to reach you. So you slept with a pager next to you. You had sex with the pager someplace attached to you. There was no excuse. I’ll tell you a funny story about this.

Since I was working 24/7, I called people 24/7, not gratuitously but if there was a problem. Cohen used to get furious because he’d be traveling in Korea and I would call him. It would be 3:00 in the morning and he’d just gotten off a 12-hour flight and had three or four hours of meetings and finally got to sleep, and suddenly I’m on the phone. One day Bill brings me this watch with two dials. He said, 'I want you to set this one where you are, and I want you to set this one where I am. Unless it’s war and peace, don’t call me in the middle of the night.'

I’ll tell you one last story that I love. The last week, we had a farewell party for the NSC, and a number of skits were roasting me. As one of the final acts, there were about 12 NSC directors. Someone yelled, 'Ten-hut' and they lined up in two lines and marched into the Indian Treaty Room in the Old Executive Office Building in military formation, that ornate room where we were having this party. 'Right face!' They marched that way. 'Left face!' They marched that way. They were all one platoon. 'Present arms.' They all came up to me and one at a time they handed me a pager."

Madeleine Albright brough up an important point when she talked about her friendship with Sandy Berger. The presidency as an institutional is large, so people connections are vital.

"There were days when I tried very hard to dislike Sandy Berger and I couldn’t. So that puts it into the institutional thing, because the institutions do set it up that the staffers on both sides help to create some animosity. I’m convinced of that, on both sides. Some staffer would go and rev their principal up. That’s why Sandy and I—we must have talked 10 times a day, depending on what was going on. We’d say, 'That didn’t really happen.' So that friendship, I think, overlies the institutional."

Read more from Sandy Berger's transcript here.

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

Date edited: 01/21/2016 (12:21PM)


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