Countdown
updated 9/22/2006 9:50:36 PM ET 2006-09-23T01:50:36

On Friday, "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann caught up with former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, and asked him about everything from his work in the international community to his advice for President Bush to his pick for president in 2008.

You can read the transcript below.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC HOST:  Thank you for some of your time today, sir.  This was an extraordinary success.  This was transcended these last three days, not just monetarily, but the number of people that you reached here, and the convictions and the generosity.  Here’s eight more schools in Kenya from me. 

But my point being ...

BILL CLINTON, FRMR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Oh, thank you.  Oh, thank you.

OLBERMANN:  ...we’ve got all of these people here who are already predisposed to some degree, who already got it, and were just looking for the opportunity.  How do you get everybody else?

CLINTON: Well, I think you get everybody else partly through the good auspices of people like you, that is, the more publicity we get for what was done here, and for the idea that you actually can get a very high rate of return for charitable giving directed toward helping people work themselves out of poverty or overcome health problems or fighting climate change—all these things—I think the more we’ll get people who are interested. 

That’s the thing that struck me, is we have more and more people coming every year who say, I would like to do something but I don’t want to waste my money.  I want to know if I do, it will have an impact.

OLBERMANN:  And?

CLINTON:  And we try to show them how to do it.  I mean, it’s like this.  These villages in Kenya, you know, having schools and water—clean water, or being able to go into these farming plots in Afghanistan and take down the poppy and put up the orchards and the wood lots, and knowing that

these families are going to have a higher income, not a lower one than they would, these are the types of practical things we try to do.

Getting back to thinking
OLBERMANN:  So that’s involvement on a global scale on life and death issues, on the essential quality of life issues.

Here in this country, at the moment, there seem to be a lot of us who think that there are—we are having trouble getting people involved in defending essential ingredients of our country and our heritage.  We’ve heard a lot about anyone who disagrees with the current administration’s policy in Iraq or on the war on terror, or even disputes their facts or questions them, would be suffering from moral or intellectual confusion. 

The president talked about how in the world you could disagree with him.  It’s unacceptable to think that we could ever be doing anything in any interrogation process that might be similar to what the terrorists do.  When those of us worry about the future of the country and the past of the country, worry about our heritage, what we stand for, are we overreacting?  Are we nuts?  Are we exaggerating?  Would you feel this is a threat?

CLINTON:  No, let me say, first of all, you know, on a lot of these issues I’m more close to where you are.  I think what’s the great disservice, though, that’s been done here in the last few years is not that let’s say the administration disagrees with you or me on whether there should be an Abu Ghraib or a Guantanamo or what the economic or social policies of America should be. 

The great disservice is the creation of the idea that if you disagree with the people that are in, you’re somehow, you don’t love your country and you can’t be trusted to defend it.  What we have to do is to get back to a point, to thinking in America and to promoting honest debate and honest diffences, so that like, if you asked, and I would urge you to do this, if you interview somebody in the administration, no matter how much you disagree with them, don’t be snide.  Give them a straight up chance to say how they disagree with you. 

I think that one of the things I’ve tried to do with this Global Initiative is not only to find common ground for disparate people, but also to have people calm down enough to actually air their differences of opinion.  Like you take this interrogation dealing.  We might all say the same thing if, let’s say Osama bin Laden’s number three guy were captured and we knew a big bomb was going off in America in three days. 

It turns out right now there’s an exception for those kind of circumstance in an immediate emergency that’s proven in the military ranks.  But that’s not the same thing as saying we want to abolish the Geneva Convention and practice torture as a matter of course.  All it does is make our soldiers vulnerable to torture.  It makes us more likely to get bad, not good information. 

OLBERMANN:  Right.

CLINTON:  And every time we get some minor victory out of it, we’ll make a hundred more enemies, so I think these things, I really think we need to think through all of this and debate more.  So, no I think it’s wrong for you to be portrayed as not patriotic.  I think that’s wrong, but I think that those of us who are on the, kind of the progressive side of the ledger, we ought to find a way to say what our differences are in a way that even our adversaries can hear. 

I’ve gotten a lot of big crowds this year of people who are unusually quiet.  Because they just want to think.  They’re tired of this labelling and name calling and we’re not patriotic and all that.  They know that’s a whole bunch of bull and they just want to think it through.  That’s why I think the CGI was phenomenally successful this year.  People said, OK, here’s something I can do that is profoundly good and positive.  No one’s going to question my motives and I’ll either succeed or fail based on the results.

OLBERMANN:  And you transcended party lines left and right?

CLINTON:  We did that too.  Mrs. Bush came.  Rupert Murdoch came. I’ve invited lots of other people.  A lot of the business leaders are big Republicans.  In my view is not that, I still think that the legislation, I agree with Al Gore on the legislation on climate change is important.  The legislation, you know, what our tax policy is is important.  How big the deficit is important.  All these things are important, but it is unrealistic to think that there are no areas on which we have common ground.  And when we do things together, it changes the whole way we relate to one another and the level of respect we have for one another.

OLBERMANN:  The Voltaire quote about, essentially translated as, I will disagree with your writing, politics, thought, but I will defend to the death the right to say that.

CLINTON:  Yes.

OLBERMANN:  Is the essence of education in this country true?

CLINTON:  Absolutely.

'The great test of America'
OLBERMANN
:  This is not what we’re supposed to be about and when we talk about rewriting the Geneva Conventions, or when we talk about demonizing dissent, or even putting just a bad face on dissent in this country, are we not getting closer to what the terrorists want us to change any way?

CLINTON:  Well, I think—let me at least put it in positive terms.  I think that the terrorists have an ideology, right?  With an ideology, you know the answer anyway, right?  You have a dictated result, therefore, evidence, argument, old-fashioned standards of fact, all irrelevant.  You know where you want to go, and if somebody disagrees with you, they are less human than you are, and they deserve to be a terrorist target. 

Now, the way we play the game, at our best moments, is that we don’t have an ideology with a predetermined outcome.  We have philosophies.  Dominantly, we have a conservative philosophy and a progressive philosophy, and it sort of tells kind of where we’re likely to be, but we’re all interested in evidence and argument and learning. 

And the great test of America has always been, does it work?  Are people better off if we do it or not?  And we just keep growing and learning in that climate, always with one dominant conservative stream, one dominant progressive.  And the debate and the tension and the learning has been great for us.

So what we don’t want to do is, no matter how scared we get—and it’s OK to be frightened by the prospect of horrible things happening—we don’t want to respond to this terror threat in a way that fundamentally alters the character of our country or compromises the future of our children, because that’s what makes it great being American. 

And the evidence is that a democratic society that is constantly, relentlessly learning and searching is the best antidote to the terrorist model.  These guys are real good at tearing down.  They’re not particularly good at building up, and there’s no reason we should help them by making the case for them by something we do. 

From one president to another
OLBERMANN: Let me throw the craziest, unrealistic political hypothetical to you in our current environment.  The phone rings tomorrow and it’s the current president, and he says things aren’t go as well as they might, either for me or the country.  I need a piece of advice, and I’m asking you sincerely for it, for one thing that I can do tomorrow that will improve things.  You’re the genie now in the political realm again, as you were in this building these last three days.  What would you say to him if that request came through?

CLINTON: I would say that—I would give him, actually, two pieces of advice.  I would say, first of all, I thi Video: President to president nk if you can find some way, consistent with our commitment to Israel’s security, to resume the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and move fairly quickly to a Palestinian state, I think that would do more to change the image of the United States and—than anything else. 

I think there’s so many Arab-Muslim countries that are frightened by this instability and all this violence, and I think you would find that Israel would actually get more credit and a more positive response from other Arab nations by doing this than ever before.  And I think we would have a chance them to stabilize a lot of other problems in the Middle East.  That’s the first thing.

The second thing I’d say is no American president can possibly please people all over the world all the time.  If you have an unusual political, military and economic position, you’re always going to do things that some people won’t like.

But there are two things that are important.  You should look like we prefer cooperation over unilateralism and act alone only when we feel we have to.  And you should let people know that we have no anger or animosity and we wish them the best.

I’ll give you an example.  I think the president did quite a good thing by going to the U.N. and trying to have a personal outreach to the people of Iran and while he plainly disagreed with President Ahmadinejad, he resisted the temptation to overly demonize him.

That’s the kind of thing I think we need to do more of.  People don’t really want to be mad at America.  They get mad when they disagree with our policies, but they also get mad when they think we’re too unilateral, when they think it’s not just Iraq, it’s the test ban treaty and the criminal court and the Kyoto climate change accord and all that.

So I think I see in the last couple months that this administration is trying to rely more on diplomacy and more on multilateralism and I would advise that.  But if I had two pieces of advice, it would be make more friends, tell your people you care about them, make them think you’re pulling for them.

And if we can do it consistent with Israel’s security, let’s get back to work on this Palestinian-Israeli peace process, because that’s half the juice that’s feeding terror all around the world.

President Musharraf's remarks
OLBERMANN: Two last questions, one pertaining to the news of the day.  President Musharraf, who’s here, said something extraordinary, I thought, on Wednesday, that you can’t fight extremism with weapons.  You fight terrorists with weapons, but the extremism must be fought in a battle of hearts and minds.

Video: Clinton on Pakistan And now we have this story quoting him in a book that he was pushed, bullied, threatened, verbally spanked in the days after 9/11 to cooperate or else.  The White House has denied that.  Mr. Armitage has denied that.

Is it possible that we were in a position where we had to verbally coerce people into helping us under those circumstances, do you think?

CLINTON:  Well, for one thing, I think we have to take the White House and Mr. Armitage at their word, especially if President Musharraf is more or less saying the same thing.

There is no question that he was asked in the strongest possible terms to support us after 9/11 or that we needed him.

There is no question that his support for the West in the fight against terror, including what went on in Afghanistan, has cost him dearly with some elements in Pakistan.  He’s, after all, had to survive two assassination attempts.

You do have the Taliban hanging around in Waziristan over the Afghan border and then trying to get back into Afghanistan.  You do have, as far as we know, Mr. Bin Laden and Dr. al-Zawahiri hiding in the caves over there. 

So it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some strong words, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the book hadn’t overwritten them.  But the main thing is I think President Musharraf has now made a choice to help us, but the question is can we find a formula by which we can save Afghanistan, not let the Taliban make these inroads, stop this increase in poppy production, increase the hunt for Bin Laden, all the things that the war on terror needs, and do it in a way that strengthens Musharraf’s hands in Pakistan instead of undermines them.

It’s a difficult thing.  You know, it sounds a little raw, the stuff in that book.  I don’t know.  But I think that we should be glad that he has been with us, more or less, in the war on terror, but we should recognize that it’s much harder for him than it is for us to be uncompromising against the Taliban, uncompromising against Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, and we ought to just keep working for the best until we win.

Hillary in 2008?
OLBERMANN
:  All right, well, there’s one last one.  Two years and six weeks or so from now, we have a presidential election, 2008.  You got anybody in that race, anybody you like, anybody at all?

Video: Hillary in 2008?

CLINTON:  Not yet.  You know, Hillary’s running for reelection and everybody says, “Oh, well, she’s way ahead in the polls,” but in our family, we’ve always followed the rule that you shouldn’t look past the next election or you might not get past it.

And I think if she had decided to do or not to do, I would know, and I don’t, and I really don’t—I’m having a good time.  I went to the New York State Fair with her last week.  They dragged me out as a token redneck in election year.

But I don’t know if she’ll run.  I do believe she would be great in any position of public service, but I have no idea what she’s going to do.  I just want to her to get reelected and have her serve as a Senator from New York, ratified. 

She’s been very unusually effective all over the state in all kinds of ways, in creative economic ways that are totally almost unheard of for a senator, you know, creating these new economic alliances and things she’s done, and speaking out in great detail about climate change, about healthcare, about all these big challenges the country faces, working on the Armed Services Committee.

I’m proud of her, but what she’s going to do, I don’t know and I think I would know.  I think I would.

OLBERMANN:  You probably would have heard by now.

President Clinton, what a pleasure.  Thank you so much, sir.

CLINTON:  Thank you.  It’s good to see you.

OLBERMANN:  My pleasure.

CLINTON:  Thank you.

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