Clinton on Clinton

After undergoing heart-bypass surgery last year, the former President reveals to Diane Salvatore how the experience not only changed his life - but also his relationships with those closest to him
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The Independent Online

Clinton: I feel great. As far as I know, I'm fine now. As you might know, I had a complication where I had fluid build-up, so I had to do a second surgery. So now I have more scars than a guy who's been in a fight with a tiger, but at my age it doesn't really matter, which is kind of nice.

Salvatore: Are you back on cholesterol medication?

Clinton: I am, and I intend to stay on it for the rest of my life. My cholesterol is quite low. But it's fine, and I monitor it closely. I primarily eat low fat foods, and I don't eat as much as I used to.

Salvatore: Has the experience of the surgery somehow changed the texture of your relationships, particularly with Senator Clinton and Chelsea?

Clinton: I don't know that it's changed it so much. But it's made me more grateful for every day. And I think I'm a little more sensitive to other people in general.

I take a huge amount of pleasure in being able to do things that are helpful to Hillary. I don't ever intend to run for office again, and I'm proud that she is. It's a lot of fun for me. I went to an event for her the other day when she asked me to, because the Senate was kept in session. So I went down to Chinatown [New York City], and I did the event for her, and I just loved it.

Salvatore: In your book, My Life, you wrote very movingly about wanting to save your marriage. Mr President, what insights and modifications have you felt that you have wanted to focus on to keep your marriage now healthy and strong?

Clinton: I think the most important thing, particularly for us, because Hillary has to go to Washington every week, is to maintain the communication. To me, the most important thing is for people, particularly when their children are grown, to stay involved in each other's lives. You have to continue to be each other's best friend.

That's what we really work on. Sometimes we're better at it than other times. But we've built a whole life together. It's always easy to bag it. It's harder to stay. But you know, after a certain point it seems like a lot of trouble to start again, too. There's something to be said for sticking.

Salvatore: You've talked about how your daughter, Chelsea, works for the consulting firm McKinsey in Britain with the British Health Service. She's so accomplished and impressive. In what ways is she most like you and in what ways is she most like Senator Clinton?

Clinton: She has her mother's character. She's an intensely ethical person. She's very strong-willed without being priggish or intolerant. And she has her mother's intelligence. She's got my energy level, although Hillary's amazed me with her energy in the Senate.

But I've always been known as the one who's sort of hyperkinetic, and Chelsea's got that, too. I worry about her some, because most of the major mistakes I made in my life, I made when I was too tired to know what I was doing - both personally and professionally. But I think she got the best of both of us.

Salvatore: Do you worry about your daughter being in London after the bombings?

Clinton: Oh, I think parents always worry. I worry about her and young people generally being in a world of unpredictable violence, and that's basically what the terrorist world is. But I think she's a sensible person who takes reasonable precautions. It's part of life, and I would never want my daughter not to be fully alive. I never want her to be cowed by fear.

Salvatore: Is there one thing that we're not doing to combat terrorism that you want to comment on?

Clinton: First, let me say one thing that we are doing that receives almost no attention.

There are hundreds of Americans that work on this every day that the rest of us don't know about, working with their counterparts all over the world. When we fight with the British and Germans, say, over Iraq, we're still working with them on intelligence and law enforcement and following the money. They have really done a pretty good job, I think. We cut down 20 al-Qa'ida cells and prevented several attacks before September 11 when I was president. Since September 11, I think they've taken down 30 more. So however horrible these things are, we have no idea how many things they've prevented.

Now, is there one thing I think we should do a better job of? I think we have made a serious error in not checking more of the cargo containers coming into the United States. Because there are hundreds of thousands of them that come in.

If everybody who might put a chemical or biological or small nuclear device on a cargo ship knew that there was a reasonable chance of it being found before the detonation occurred, and then being traced back, they'd look at least to some other way to do damage.

Salvatore: Is it apt to compare the Vietnam War and the Iraq war?

Clinton: Well, in the sense that it looks like a quagmire, yes. But it's not Vietnam.

The reason this is not Vietnam is that 58 per cent of the eligible voters showed up and voted in Iraq. The South Vietnamese never had what you could call a full, fair and free election. Also, the Iraqis are fighting alongside us. They are dying in greater numbers.

Now, there are two factors that can keep Iraq from becoming a Vietnam. One is, if the constitutional process can be successfully concluded so that the Sunni minority that dominated the country under Saddam, and now can't dominate anymore, is not itself dominated by an alliance between the Shi'ites and the Kurds. If a substantial percentage of Sunnis feel that they can participate in this government, that, in effect, they have sort of a federal system where they have a limited amount of self-government, as far as various regions, that they have a coherent national policy, that the oil money be distributed fairly, that will be very important.

The second thing is the level of our success in training the security and military forces of Iraq. There were terrible problems in the beginning, but they have really increased their professionalism and capacity. If they get to the point where they can defend themselves against their own insurgency, then they've got more than half the battle won. When that point is reached, they'll want us to go. They won't want us to hang around and tell them how to run their country.

Having said that, it could go wrong. Since the end of World War II, the only major foreign power that succeeded in putting down an insurgency was the British putting down the Malay insurgency, but the British stayed 15 years. So you can say for historical reasons, the odds are not great of our prevailing [in Iraq]. Whether it will succeed or not depends upon whether those two things happen before Americans feel tired of American young people dying over there.

Salvatore: Mr President, you are a spiritual man, even a prayerful man. How do you feel about the push for religiosity in law, in the courts, in the schools? Are you concerned about that trend?

Clinton: Yes, to the extent that people believe their religious convictions give them the possession of the absolute truth, which they can then turn into a political agenda and, therefore, believe their opponents are somehow almost less than human because they don't share that truth.

That leads to demonisation and polarisation in politics, and it's inconsistent with a democratic society, the essence of which is compromise.

On the other hand, when you're making compromises, you can't live with them unless you think they're principled consequences. So no religious person can leave his or her religion at the door. But you also have to respect other people's faith.

So I think people should carry their faith and values into politics, but there needs to be enough humility to know that you are not in possession of the absolute truth. As Saint Paul said, you see through a glass darkly. That means that you might be wrong. It's the single most important lesson for democratic societies in a time of resurgent religiosity.

Once you accept that, all else is possible. Then you can take your values to work and do the best you can.