Mack McLarty, 68, President Bill Clinton's first chief of staff, was the guest speaker at Sunday's Adult Forum at St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, in Washington.
The man who served Clinton for about 18 months, one of four Clinton chiefs of staff, said all the right things and related popular Clinton history in the almost hour-long session moderated by St. John's member Clark Ervin and attended by about 125 persons.
Before September 11, the White House was judged "at the end of the day by peace and prosperity," the "real measures of success," and "under those criteria, the Clinton presidency was pretty successful," McLarty said.
When Ervin asked McLarty if al-Qaeda had been on "the radar screen" then, McLarty said "we were very aware of potent and dramatic" events, and "what we now define as 'terrorism.'"
At a 1996 campaign town hall meeting with Republican candidate Bob Dole and Clinton, McLarty said only one question was asked about foreign policy during the 90-minute session.
Bill Clinton was president during the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the "very dramatic" and "tragic" Waco siege the same year. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, President Clinton went to Oklahoma where he was not a popular figure, McLarty said, but the president was welcomed "respectfully."
The fellow Arkansans and lifelong friends had some experience with neo-Nazis in their home state. (Both were born in Hope, Arkansas and attended school together.)
"The security and protection of the American people is [the president's] most solemn and sacred responsibility," McLarty said.
The Clinton years saw 22 million new jobs created and working with Congress, "moved over five million people" from welfare to work and worked to achieve "not only a balanced budget but a surplus."
Today the "country today seems pretty divided....I easily can get on a soapbox about this because....I have very strong feelings about it because it's [gridlock] not serving our country well...gridlock has moved to disfunctionality." He blamed the 24/7 news cycle and campaign financing for the discord.
"We are paying our elected officials to get the job done."
McLarty said 99 percent of Congressional members are "decent, hardworking, dedicated, smart people," and about 90 (with half from each party) have joined him in a group working to restore Capitol Hill productivity. "I think there's some hope," he said.
About the 2016 presidential race, McLarty he has known said Hillary Clinton since before she got married, and she is "by far the favorite candidate on the Democratic side" who "would make an outstanding president."
Meanwhile, the Republican race "looks to me like a donnybrook."
A governor has a head start in the race, McLarty believes, since he or she has worked with a legislature and is "a little bit closer to the people," economically speaking.
He praised President George H.W. Bush several times during his talk, including Bush's attempts to help with the Mid-East peace talks which Bill Clinton worked very hard to accomplish. To attempt "a major peace initiative" for any president or secretary of state is a risk since lack of success will be broadcast, and the president must account for it.
The period between church services left little time for questions from the audience, but St. John's rector, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, a native of Cuba, got in the first one, and asked why the Clinton administration didn't move to begin relations with Cuba which had been promised at a White House clergy breakfast.
McLarty said "it was not a high priority" then, but small steps were taken to make some progress until a plane was shot down over Cuba which "sealed off" any dialogue with that country. With 85 percent of members supporting legislation, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 which continued the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
He called President Barack Obama's action to open the gates between the U.S. and Cuba "a very bold step," and for the first time, Cuba will be invited to Panama this spring to participate in the 2015 Summit of the Americas which President Obama will attend, too, McLarty said.
He was asked how presidents maintain balance between all the "yes" people who surround the office and who refrain from telling the president what he or she does not want to hear. McLarty said Clinton "knew there was a presidential bubble," but is quite curious anyway, and often invited those with differing views to the White House since he wanted to hear what they had to say.
McLarty is president of McLarty Associates, a Washington-based consulting group, and the chief executive officer of McLarty Companies.