Excerpts: Gibson's Interview With Former Presidents Bush and Clinton

Read excerpts of Charlie Gibson's exclusive interview with former presidents.

ByABC News
September 24, 2008, 10:22 AM

Sept. 24, 2008— -- The following excerpts are from an interview by ABC News' Charles Gibson of former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton for ABC News' "World News With Charles Gibson" on Sept. 24, 2008.

GIBSON: So you guys have put the act together for a good cause.

CLINTON: It's his people's, and he called me about it, and I think it's a good thing. I think most Americans, because we didn't have a repeat of Katrina times two, the waves weren't as bad, most Americans haven't absorbed how many people have really been hurt down there.

GIBSON: Well, how bad -- Ike, Gustav -- how bad is it down there?

BUSH: Well, it's bad. It's terrible. I wrote down just a couple of numbers here: $40 billion in Texas alone. That doesn't include the neighboring Louisiana coast. Tens of thousands lost homes. Final numbers are not known yet. They're still going about checking things out. Seven-hundred-and-seventy communities in 22 counties assumed major damage. So it's bad. It's bad, Charlie. Fortunately, there's not that big a loss of human life. There's plenty lost, but it's not as overwhelming as some previous storms.

GIBSON: I'm very struck: The mayor of Galveston is letting people back in today [with] 75 percent of the homes uninhabitable. And when they tell you, if you're coming in, one thing you ought to bring with you is rat poison, that makes you take pause.

BUSH: You've even got some alligators wandering around there, too. So it's serious. It's a big-time disaster.

GIBSON: And water not drinkable.

BUSH: No, no.

CLINTON: A long time. Power is complicating the ability to have clean water. President Bush's own foundation office doesn't even have the electricity back yet.

GIBSON: Well, the headlines in the local Texas papers today, two great big headlines: No power, no water. It's going to be a long time.

BUSH: It's going to be a long time and it's devastating. We take it for granted -- electricity and water and all these things. It's given. But when it's not there, you miss it. I mean, it's bad.

GIBSON: When you think about the idea that 75 percent of the homes are uninhabitable, you think about Katrina and how almost impossible it is for that city to come back to where it was originally. Has this changed the landscape of Texas, or that part of Texas?

BUSH: I don't think it's changed it forever. Certainly, the Galveston area, Bolivar Peninsula, all that is devastated and flattened in Galveston for a lot of it, but it will bounce back. We've got good, spirited people down there, and I think it'll come back. It might look different, but a lot of it will be the same.

It's not as though people are just saying, "We don't want to go there anymore; we don't want to live there anymore because of another hurricane coming up." People have a better spirit than that.

GIBSON: Yes, but when 75 percent of the homes are uninhabitable, that really--

CLINTON: Well, I think what will happen here is what we saw in the Katrina area, and when we did the tsunami. Any time you have this kind of disaster, the toughest part are the homes. That's what takes the longest to redo, to get everybody back in their homes. Then I think it also is an opportunity to try to do it and do it in the right way, make them more storm resistant and all of that.

I predict to you it will be painful, but it can also be exciting if we do it right, now that we've started, gotten the rebuilding going in the New Orleans area. It's coming back. It's kind of interesting, different but interesting. One of the things that I think that the people in the Galveston area will have to do, and that we need to be doing more of even in Louisiana, is what about the barrier islands? What's going to be done with Bolivar, the peninsula? Should we construct more barrier islands? What should we do to make it safer for the next time?

But our focus obviously is just going to be on helping the people that need the help.

GIBSON: So what are you asking for? It's not an easy time to raise money.

BUSH: Well, I know it's not, but we don't have a top figure at all. I'm hoping we'll get quite a few million. I don't think we set a goal, but if we get $30 [million], $40 million, we'll be off to a good start. And I think it'll be a good start, and I hope we will. We raised a lot more than that in Katrina, I think, but that would be a very good start.

GIBSON: Which difficulties of raising money brings us to the current economic situation. Are you both convinced that the $700 billion package to revive the economy is necessary?

CLINTON: I think it is necessary to do some things to restore liquidity and confidence. I personally think it's a time for us to try to make this as nonpartisan as we're trying to do this storm recovery. That is, I think Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke and Mr. Geithner at the New York Federal Reserve have worked their hearts out. I think they are trying to do the right thing.

I think the Congress wants more oversight, wanting to make sure that we take care of the individual homeowners as far as possible and wanting to see that the taxpayers can get their money back when possible. I don't have a bit of problem in the world with that. I just think we need to try to do-- We ought to all just sort of calm down and follow the do-right rule here. We've been through a lot of very great trauma.

There will be plenty of time when this is fixed to engage in retrospective, "Who should have shot John, when?" But this is a great country with a strong -- all these entrepreneurs, people have to be able to borrow money and invest in a reliable way and know they can do it. Keep in mind, more than half of the American people directly or indirectly have a stake in the stock market. So this is not Wall Street versus Main Street. This is, you have to do both and what's the best way to do it?

BUSH: I think there'll be a deal, incidentally. I think to not have a deal would be unconscionable. So I think they'll come together and get something done.

CLINTON: I do, too. And I think, in a funny way, the fact that it's not going to be too caught up in this election; and that our political system, which is so vulnerable to being derailed by politics, is actually capable of dealing with something this big and doing it this close to an election. I think it's pretty commendable.

GIBSON: The thing that's sobering, though: You're talking about this immense amount of money, three-quarters of $1 trillion, and we've got a week.

CLINTON: But Barney Frank pointed out that if we do it right, and he's really smart and he's worked closely with the Treasury Department and White House on this, and he pointed out, he said, look -- he's self-evidently a very ardent Democrat and a good friend of mine. But he said, "Look, this is $700 billion you put up now, but we know we will certainly get, at the least, more than half of it back, as we restore credibility of the system and we move the assets through it." We'll get more than half of it. I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't get it all back.

GIBSON: Well, that's the problem. You talk about this, people keep throwing around $700 billion bailout. It's not at all that. It's money you put up and you don't know...

CLINTON: To stabilize the financial system.

GIBSON: Exactly. Does it take you at all back to the RTC in the old days?

BUSH: Very much, very much.

GIBSON: You had to do the same thing.

BUSH: Very much. We've got the same debate, the same rhetoric.

CLINTON: We had to do it and it left America--

BUSH: Came in, and the thing actually went out of business, so that's an unusual government program, come in, do the job and get out. So I think the same thing can happen here.

GIBSON: And wound up costing the taxpayer far less than the more dire predictions were.

BUSH: I agree.

CLINTON: Well, if you think about it, didn't they have to put up $500 billion? Wasn't that the rough number?

GIBSON: I will defer to the man who--

BUSH: No, that was it, yes.

CLINTON: But my recollection is that in today's dollar values, whatever it was was a bigger number than this.

BUSH: That's right.

CLINTON: I think that's right.

GIBSON: Does the skeptical response of Congress concern you, or is that just something that you think is relatively natural when you get into a situation like this?

CLINTON: No, it's their job to be skeptical, not to want to rush off. And it's interesting. If you look at the bipartisanship, the skepticism tends to be bipartisan, but I think it also tends to increase the further you are away from the facts of the case.

That is, if you look at it. I'll just take the New York senators, Hillary [Clinton] and Senator Schumer. They're here. They're of the opposite party [from President Bush]. They've been not skeptical about the need to do it and very specific about what else they'd need to do, because they're at home with it.

When you get further away, where people have had trouble on Main Street for some time or not, you see conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats skeptical about the enterprise. And so that's why I think the president's right.

As people get up to speed on exactly what they're trying to do, which is to restore liquidity and confidence in the financial system and enable Americans to go about their business and borrow money and invest and grow and go, then they'll be talking not so much about whether to do this, but how to do it, especially when they understand. I'll be surprised if they don't get virtually all the money, the taxpayers.

GIBSON: And systemic reform down the pike, once we deal with the current, immediate problem, there needs to be some kind of reform so that we don't get ourselves back into the situation we're in now. Suggestions?

BUSH: Not from me.

CLINTON: Well, I think some of it is happening anyway. But we had several big investment banks that were standalone investment banks just a few months ago, and now we don't have any, because Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have asked to be reorganized as bank holding companies.

Once they do that, you've got a lot of the reform people said they want it, which is to have some kind of control over these derivatives and high-risk investment opportunity, so that there's more transparency and information available to investors. And some requirement of saving capital, like you do in regular banks, if you have some capital reserves to minimize the risks and leveraging the high-risk loans.

Some of this is going to happen anyway. I think more of it will happen. I think that how to do it, and I think even Hank Paulson said months ago, Secretary Paulson, that he thought it should be done. I think how to do it probably will require more hearings and some time, but I think it's-- Look, a government without accountability becomes oppressive. That's why the founders wrote the Constitution the way they did.

A market with no limits devours itself. That was the lesson of the first Great Depression. So the question is how do we do the sensible thing here without going too far one way or the other, and I think that'll require some debate, but we'll figure it out.

GIBSON: You made an interesting comment. You said it's extraordinary that our political system can absorb this and still go on, but has this in some sense subsumed or totally overshadowed in your mind the presidential election?

CLINTON: I don't think it has for most people outside of New York and Washington and outside the businesses most affected. But everybody knows it's something that has to be dealt with. But is encouraging to me that near the end of the president's term, his treasury secretary works with the head of the Federal Reserve and the head of the New York Fed and they come up with this sweeping proposal after having already dealt with the Bear Sterns problem and the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac problem, which I think they were absolutely right on, to change that. And that you've got Democrats in Congress working with Republicans to try to get to a solution, almost ignoring the political calendar.

I think that shows that America can work and can rise to the challenges. I just wish that we could do it when we're trying to do something good together, and not when we're trying to stave off something bad.

GIBSON: While I've got you, there's one thing that I want to talk to you about, and it's something that I think you can talk about and I know your reluctance about other things. We're two days away from the first presidential debate.

You guys debated each other. Take me into the emotions of a presidential candidate two days before their debate. Are you nervous about it? Are you concerned about command of facts? Are you trying to game the questions? What goes through the mind of somebody two days away from a presidential debate, when we all on the outside think the stakes are so high?

BUSH: I'd say all of the above. I mean, I was nervous. I'm not a very good debater, and having a lot of time being tutored on what to say, if he says this, you say that and if she goes this way, you go that way. I was talking to Geraldine Ferraro the other day about this, and we compared notes and pretty much the same feelings of apprehension.

This guy's very used to that kind of tension and did really well, but I don't like it. I'll be honest about it. I don't like the emphasis on debates, but it's a fact of life now. And so you get prepared, you have good people around you, you do what you think is right in the final analysis.

But when you're sitting right now, if he says this, you've got to come back with that, I mean, it's too much.

GIBSON: You did it twice. Were there butterflies the first time? You did it in two separate election cycles.

BUSH: For me there was. I don't know about Bill.

CLINTON: I was always nervous.

GIBSON: Really?

CLINTON: Yes, both times. The one thing that I really agree with what President Bush said is this. It's OK. You should have to study more issues. It can be a learning opportunity.

There's no way to know what you need to know as president and all the issues you need to understand. That's fine. But what you sit there in mortal terror of is that your campaign will somehow be wrecked because you make a mistake that doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the larger scheme of things and that has no bearing on your fitness to serve and make the decisions that a president makes.

So you spend too much time worrying about the downside. Then, if that's all you're doing, then you look. I was looking for a totally different reason, the films of some of our debates, and I was much more wooden in the first one than I was in the second and third, because I was sitting there thinking, I don't want to step off the mountain, I don't want to step off the mountain.

He's right. People hammer you. Remember to say these three things and don't say those two things. And the one thing I think these candidates did that was commendable was agree to a more free-flowing format and to have conversations with each other.

It can be abused, but the point is I trust the voters. For example, if one of them over talks because it's free flowing or bangs the other one around because you get the last word, I trust the voters. They'll figure that out. If they think one of them abuses this open format, they'll get it, and they'll say this is too serious. Don't do this.

So I think that I'm going to be very interested to see whether their agreement to have more of a Lincoln-Douglas style, more open, back and forth, turns out to give us a less artificial debate.

GIBSON: Two days beforehand, do you remember how you felt for the first debate (ph) with Governor Dukakis?

BUSH: Nervous. Nervous. The Dukakis debate, I felt a little more confident then, I think.

GIBSON: Really?

BUSH: Yes.

GIBSON: More confident against him than against this guy?

BUSH: Yes, definitely.

CLINTON: Well, we also had this thing where you deal with Perot. There were three of us.

BUSH: H. Ross.

CLINTON: And you never knew which one of us he was going to pick on in the debate.

BUSH: That's right.

CLINTON: It was always two on one. You just didn't know which two on one.

GIBSON: Right, right.

BUSH: A wildcard.

GIBSON: Do you remember how many hours you spent getting ready?

BUSH: I don't, really.

GIBSON: Did you spend enough? Did you spend too much?

BUSH: I think so.

GIBSON: Did you think, why am I doing this?

BUSH: Yes, all of that.

GIBSON: All of that.

BUSH: I don't remember the actual hours, but it was rigorous, rigorous preparation, as well it should have been.

GIBSON: When it came to the execution of it, did it go the way you had thought, or do you ever think back, why did you say X or Y?

BUSH: I'm sure. I can't give you an example, but I'm sure I should have said that better, or I wasn't clear. That kind of thing comes up, but for the most part, the briefings were good and just do your best.

CLINTON: Yes, I think basically presidential candidates tend to be quite well prepared for these things by the people who work in the campaign. I think they generally do a really good job. And I always found the most frustrating thing was something I forgot to say, a point I forgot to make, because I was nervous or whatever, thinking about something else.

It's almost impossible to remember all the run through, but the more you prepare, the better you do, I think.

GIBSON: That always drives me nuts, as a viewer, and then as somebody who actually moderated one, when the candidate says, but let me go back to the question before and it interrupts your flow.

So the one piece of advice you'd give Senators McCain and Obama.

BUSH: Know what you're talking about and say it well.

CLINTON: Try to be yourself and imagine that you were sitting in the home of four undecided voters that you like, and talk to them like you trust them to make a good decision.

GIBSON: Thank you.

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