Thousands of Bill Clinton White House papers released

Peter Baker and Amy Chozick

She wooed Republicans in Congress while bristling at the national news media. She aspired to be a pioneer of women's rights around the world while running a full-blown war room on health care at home. She was, in her staff's view, often too defensive, too removed in public.

But perhaps more than anything, the roughly 3,500 pages of documents made public by the National Archives on Friday underscored what a pivotal force Hillary Rodham Clinton was in her husband's White House, intimately involved in the policy, politics and legislative strategy decisions that shaped Washington in the 1990s.

If the release of the previously withheld memos, transcripts and other papers from the Clinton White House did not fundamentally alter the understanding of Mrs. Clinton's role at the time, they still offered a rare and more detailed look at the machinations from an era that are now of acute interest not just to the history of one presidency but to the prospects of another.

The pages document Mrs. Clinton's struggles to overhaul health care and define her political identity in the years before she became a senator, presidential candidate and secretary of state. As she prepares for a possible second campaign for the presidency in 2016, friends and foes alike will flyspeck the files for information that may yield fodder for the coming debate.

Many of the documents from her failed drive to remake the health care system in 1993 foreshadow the current political polarization over President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

"I'm not going to underestimate the political battle that will ensue because of this," Mrs. Clinton told Democratic leaders in a September 1993 meeting on Capitol Hill, according to a transcript.

In fielding lawmaker concerns, she recognized the political risks.

More from The New York Times:
Clinton Papers, Part 1
Clinton Papers, Part 2
Highlights from the Clinton documents

"If we don't get this done by the close of business next year, if this isn't signed, sealed and delivered by Election Day 1994, I think we can forget about us doing very well in the election," one lawmaker said. Mrs. Clinton said her hope was to "move as quickly as possible." The concern was legitimate; the legislation did not pass and Democrats went on to lose those midterm elections, echoing the anxiety many in her party have about this year's congressional contests.

The memos make clear what a concerted effort she made. They outlined a methodical courting of Congress run out of a war room, including meetings, telephone calls, dinners and briefings by her and President Bill Clinton. The two wooed not just Democrats but crucial Republicans as well; as their health care adviser, Chris Jennings, put it in a memo, "cultivating a close working relationship with the Republicans" on an important committee "is absolutely critical."

While opting to require businesses to provide health care coverage, Mrs. Clinton eschewed a mandate requiring that individuals obtain insurance, the approach that Mr. Obama would later adopt; she called that "politically and substantively a much harder sell than the one we've got."

Mr. Jennings advised her to "please try to avoid the word MANDATE" at all. They also worried that the Congressional Budget Office "is going to screw us" on its assessment of the plan and that abortion could be "a big problem," similarly previewing events in the current administration.

At the time, Democrats came to doubt that the Clintons really understood Congress. Representative John D. Dingell, a powerful Michigan Democrat, thought the White House effort was in "disarray," White House aides recorded. An unsigned memo warned: "We need strategic agreement among ourselves and between us and the Hill on timing and process. This can work, but it will come apart if we don't get these pieces right."

Mr. Jennings would later go on to work in Mr. Obama's White House, and he is not the only one who appears in the documents. Among the Clinton aides mentioned in the memos are Rahm Emanuel, Gene B. Sperling, Steve Ricchetti, Bruce Reed and Victoria Nuland, all of whom served or still serve Mr. Obama.

The documents were posted online on Friday by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., which is part of the federal government's National Archives and Records Administration. They were the first batch of a broader set of 33,000 pages that could be made public over the next few weeks, documents that had been withheld despite past requests under legal exceptions that expired in January 2013.

The papers were processed by professional archivists, but then both Mr. Obama's White House and Mr. Clinton's office had to sign off before they were released. The papers were posted just days after Politico reported this week on the delay in disclosing them. A Clinton aide said his office approved releasing them within an hour of being told that Mr. Obama had.

The picture the papers present is a familiar one to students of the era but with an unusual afterlife, given the residual currency of the Clintons in modern politics. The memos reflect internal fights over direction and tense decisions. The president's top environmental adviser argued for inclusion of her priorities in the State of the Union address. His counterterrorism adviser argued against the president commenting on the arrest of the "Unabomber." An economic aide worried about "smarmy comments" that might result from a line in a draft housing speech, given "that the president hasn't owned a home of his own in years (ever?)."

There were also blunt assessments of different political actors. Gov. Fob James of Alabama, a Republican, was "a retrograde governor" with "no common sense or compassion," Mr. Reed wrote. Representative Pete Stark, Democrat of California, was "probably one of the more disliked members of Congress," Mr. Jennings wrote. Speaker Newt Gingrich, the president's Republican bête noire for many years, was seeing his popularity fall, Paul Begala, another adviser, wrote. "At this pace he'll pass baseball owners in the race to the bottom," he added gleefully.

But most attention will focus on Mrs. Clinton, whose efforts at shaping and protecting an image come through even as they persist today.

She had a contentious relationship with the White House press corps, and her spokeswoman, Lisa Caputo, argued for focusing on regional reporters "to counter the tone of the national media." Ms. Caputo likewise suggested an appearance on the television comedy "Home Improvement," interviews with lifestyles magazines and "a big party" and "a wonderful photo spread to People magazine" for the Clintons' 20th wedding anniversary. "Hillary should own the women's media," Ms. Caputo wrote.

By 1999, as Mrs. Clinton was gearing up for a race for the Senate, her adviser Mandy Grunwald offered her own advice for managing the media. "It's important that your tone stay informal and relaxed and therefore not political," she wrote. "Don't be defensive. Look like you want the questions."

Ms. Grunwald went on: "The press is obviously watching to see if they can make you uncomfortable or testy. Even on the annoying questions, give relaxed answers." Look for opportunities for humor, she added. "Be careful to 'be real.' "