Approximately 7,500 pages of documents from President Bill Clinton’s administration were released on Friday by The National Archives, shedding light on a number of issues important during the time including the crises in Rwanda and Somalia, ”don’t ask, don’t tell,” the minimum wage debate, health care reform, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and transitioning to the Bush administration.
The document dump is part of approximately 33,000 pages of presidential records that were released under the Presidential Records Act, which made them eligible for publication once 12 years passed since the end of the Clinton presidency.
The records have generated a big buzz particularly surrounding then-first lady Hillary Clinton, who is considered a clear favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, should she decide to run. This is the fourth round of documents that have been made public, totaling approximately 19,000 pages worth of material.
As we comb through the documents, here are some takeaways:
1. Hillary throws a wrench in “don’t ask don’t tell”: Strategists once warned that the first lady “raised the stakes” on “don’t ask don’t tell.”
The Clinton administration instituted the policy in 1993, banning gays and lesbians from serving in the military. But six years later, nearing the end of President Clinton’s time in office, Hillary Clinton spoke out against the administration’s policy during an event organized by gay supporters.
”Gays and lesbians already serve with distinction in our nation’s armed forces and should not face discrimination,” Clinton said at the time, according to The New York Times. “Fitness to serve should be based on an individual’s conduct, not their sexual orientation.”
One day later, on Dec. 9, 1999, strategist Bob Witeck laid out how journalist Tim Russert would likely try to dig for more daylight between the administration and two men seeking the 2000 presidential nomination for Democrats – Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley.
“It is painfully clear Tim Russert must ask both Gore and Bradley about Hilary (sic) Clinton’s bold departure from the administration’s policy on “‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” he wrote. “She has just raised the stakes, and there’s no turning back.”
2. Inside the 1998 minimum wage debate: In 1998, when the minimum wage was $5.15 (or $7.47 in 2014 dollars), the White House considered whether it should call on Congress to pass a wage hike. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., had already proposed increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 by 2002, or about $9.50 in today’s dollars. None of Clinton’s economic advisers supported the Kennedy proposal, and instead suggested smaller increases.
Sixteen years later, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 and President Obama is proposing an increase to $10.10 (via Sam Stein).
3. Janet Yellen called for more regulation to prevent “systemic risk” in financial markets: In 1999, Janet Yellen—then the chairperson of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, but now the chair of the Federal Reserve—was a vocal proponent of more financial regulation. A March 1999 memorandum from Council of Economic Advisers senior economist Doug Elmendorf (who is now the director of the Congressional Budget Office) said Yellen “believes systemic risk is a serious problem to which unfettered private markets would give insufficient weight.”
Those words turned out to be rather prescient. As Yellen advocated for greater financial regulation, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was aggressively working towards deregulation of financial markets. His reforms are widely believed to have contributed to the background conditions which enabled the 2008 financial crisis.
In notes from a meeting with other administration economic advisers—including Rubin, then-Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, and Deputy Treasury Secretary Larry Summers—Yellen also raised concerns about “too big to fail” financial institutions.
4. The Don Imus roast: A 1999 memo written by humorist speechwriter Mark Katz lays into radio host Don Imus. Katz cracks that “Don Imus is the thinking man’s Grease Man,” and pans his show, Imus in the Morning.
Katz jokes to Clinton speechwriters: “Why do pols [and] wonks line up to go on Imus in the Morning. They’ve listen[ed] to it carefully and figured out that when compared to Imus, anyone can be funny! What I want to know, where does he find these lackeys … [to] … laugh at his alleged witticism?”
Katz also includes a colorful rejection letter, never sent, denying Imus’s invitation for the president to appear on his show.
5. Scathing remarks about Richard Mellon Scaife: The American billionaire who bankrolls many conservative causes was described in an overview of the right wing conspiracy industry operation as the “Wizard of Oz” behind its plans, especially surrounding the 1993 suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster. Foster’s death was ruled a suicide, but right-wing political groups maintained there was more to the death and that Bill and Hillary Clinton were trying to cover it up.
The overview calls Scaife a “little-known recluse” who promotes his views by financing fringe, right-wing publications.
6. The Internet 101: Ah, the ’90s. Included in the same overview of the right-wing conspiracy industry is a paragraph on the Internet’s influence. Of course, at the time, its use was growing rapidly. The memo describes the Internet as “one of the major and most dynamic modes of communication. The Internet can link people, groups and organizations together instantly.” The memo warns, however, that the “right wing has seized upon the Internet as a means of communicating its ideas to people. Moreover, evidence exists that Republican staffers surf the Internet, interacting with extremists in order to exchange ideas and information.”
7. Parallels to Obamacare: In 1993, the Clinton Administration wrestled with similar health care reform issues as the Obama administration would later confront. In a health reform briefing dated March 17, 1993, the president asked for two models for health care reform: “one that sets out the ideal system” and another that “sets out the minimum we need to do to make this effort worth doing.”
Clinton, as first reported by NBC News, also raised concerns that Americans could lose their current health insurance. Obama, of course, apologized last year for failing to make good on assurances that all Americans could keep their existing health plans and acknowledged loopholes in the law. Clinton in 1993 “noted that [the] first concern of American people is losing health insurance and second is losing choice of physicians.” Clinton also expressed concern on how to address undocumented people. “Need to save for another day,” a memo says.
8. A target list for health care votes: In 1993, The Clinton Administration came up with a list of priority Democratic targets they needed to help pass health care reform. On the list was Rep. Marjorie Marolies-Mezvinsky, who would become daughter Chelsea Clinton’s future mother-in-law. On a list of Republicans who are “occasionally independent but don’t hold your breath” was Rick Santorum, then serving in the House of Representatives. Santorum would, of course, later go on to become a senator and presidential candidate known for his strict social conservatism.
9. Strategy to pass health care reform: The Clinton administration laid out its strategy on health care in several memos around 1993. Among the advice, first reported by NBC News, was this: “We must speak with one voice. A small group in the White House must coordinate,” “we must signal a willingness to be flexible in general (though not on basic principles) but we must hold our position as long as possible. Premature signals of specific compromise could doom us,” and “We should not attack Republican members with the exception of the far right members like Senator Gramm, but we should attack their principles and not supporters.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Doug Elmendorf as a former member of the Council of Economic Advisers.