During a recent interview with former President Bill Clinton, I had to ask the big question that many other journalists have been asking him all year: Does he know if Hillary Clinton is running for president in 2016? His response, of course, was the same one he has given before: “No, I don’t.”
But Clinton is not a man of few words, and he elaborated on all the frenzied — and premature — speculation in the media about his wife’s political future. “She believes, and I believe, that the four-year campaign mania is a big mistake,” he told me. “We should work on the business at hand … We need to focus — the American people have economic and other challenges. And our region and world have challenges. We should be focused on those things. And that’s what Hillary thinks too.”
Still, if Hillary Clinton was not going to run for president, she could just put an end to all the constant conjecture by simply saying that she’s not interested, which she has not done — yet. She is also putting the finishing touches on a book; and if the former secretary of state were to run, she would join the likes of Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy, who also released books to bolster their later presidential campaigns.
But neither she nor her husband are commenting on the future, preferring to focus on the present. “This country needs to be about the business of dealing with our challenges today,” Bill Clinton said during our talk. “And we’ll have plenty of time for a campaign later. And I just think it’s way too soon.”
On the morning I spoke with Bill Clinton at his home in New York, I found him to be quite talkative and in a good mood. The bags that developed under his eyes during his two terms in the White House are gone, and the benefits of his becoming a vegetarian a few years ago are apparent: He has lost some weight and is more energetic.
During our discussion, we also talked about the plans that his foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, has for Latin America, including anti-poverty and development strategies. The foundation’s annual meeting is being held this month in Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff recently joined other world leaders in complaining about the National Security Agency’s spying on her telephone conversations. I asked Clinton about the NSA scandal, which erupted earlier this year after leaked documents showed that the U.S. government is gathering massive amounts of data and conducting widespread spying around the world. “I do think that the stories about the data collection have had a damaging effect,” he said. “And not just in Latin America, but in Europe and Asia … I have serious reservations about that.”
I also asked Clinton about another issue that is on the minds of policy makers in Latin America: whether drug policies should be reformed. I asked what he thought of the push in Uruguay to legalize the sale and consumption of marijuana, and whether legalization of pot should be pursued in other countries. Clinton is skeptical. “I just think it’s too complicated to say that if you legalize it, you wouldn’t have any of these armed gangs trying to exercise a stranglehold over whole communities and lives,” he said.
Years ago, Clinton famously declared that he “didn’t inhale” after being asked if he had ever tried marijuana. Since we were talking about drugs, I asked him if he would answer that question differently now, since marijuana usage seems to be more acceptable, not only in Latin America, but in the United States. After all, even President Obama has talked about experimenting with marijuana and cocaine in his youth. “Well, that – like many things in the press, that whole thing has been totally twisted to try to make something untrue,” he told me. “I never denied that I used marijuana. I told the truth. And the only journalist who was there said I told the truth. So everyone else had to cover that up, because that’s not the story they wanted to tell.”
He continued: “The serious thing is that the drug issue should be decided by people in each country, based on what they think is right,” he said. “We have a process in America for doing it that’s being revisited state by state. And Latin America is free to do the same thing.”
What came to mind as we were talking was that if a president and a former president of the United States publicly admit to having used drugs in the past, it provides more evidence that drug use is deeply rooted in American culture. So can the current war on illicit drugs really be won? As long as millions of Americans (and even their leaders) are using, or experimenting, with illicit substances, trafficking will continue, as will the violence that is claiming so many lives in Latin America as a consequence of the fighting among cartels.
After my 20 minutes were up, Clinton wanted to keep talking. The cameras stopped rolling, but the former president was already on the next topic: immigration reform, and why Republicans refuse to pass any legislation. But that topic will have to wait.
Before I left, I shot a “selfie” of myself with Clinton and uploaded it to Twitter. I wondered: What if Bill Clinton were president today?
By Jorge Ramos Avalos.
(December 11, 2013)