Clinton Assails Culture of ‘Payback’ in Capital


In a sweeping indictment of the political culture that surrounds him, President Clinton on Thursday decried a “toxic atmosphere of cynicism” that he said once hardened his own heart and has left many politicians and journalists “in a deep hole” of self-righteousness and hypocrisy.

“We’re in a world of hurt. We need help. We are in the breach. We are in the hole here,” Clinton said during a national prayer breakfast at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

The president delivered his sermon-like remarks inside a ballroom packed with 3,000 leading members of the very culture he was assailing, including the national media and such frequent antagonists as House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).

To a highly receptive crowd, the president recalled his own introduction to a culture of “payback” and his personal struggle to control feelings of revenge after he got entangled in heated partisan battles.


One day in his first term, after Republicans had been “real mean to me over something,” as Clinton recalled, a White House official explained that the GOP was “paying him back” for grief that Democrats had caused GOP presidents in the past.

“I said: ‘I didn’t even live here then, why are they paying me back?’ They [the official] said, ‘Oh, you don’t understand. You’ve just got to pay back.’ So then pretty soon I was behaving that way. I’d wake up in the morning and my heart was getting a little harder. ‘Now who can I get even with?’ ” Clinton remembered.

Such sentiments, he cautioned, lead down a path where sometimes “you just go find somebody else because you’ve got to get even with somebody. Pretty soon, everybody’s involved in this great act.”

But the president counseled that payback is not a satisfying way to live: “I have concluded a few things in my life and one of them is that you don’t ever get even. The harder you try, the more frustrated you’re going to be because nobody ever gets even. And when you do, you’re not really happy. You don’t feel fulfilled.”


In recent weeks, the president has infused speeches with themes designed to demonstrate moral leadership, particularly those of reconciliation and national unity. As he did in his inaugural address and this week’s State of the Union speech, Clinton on Thursday again quoted from the Book of Isaiah, which speaks of repairing “the breach.”

The repeated citations of the prophet Isaiah, the president said, got him to thinking. “If we repaired the breach, who would we be lifting out of the hole?” he asked aloud.

The answer, he decided, must include the poor, notably youthful have-nots, as well as people suffering in other parts of the world, such as Bosnia. But Clinton concluded that there was a drastically different category as well: “The third people who are in the breach and are in a deep hole and need to be lifted up are the politicians,” he said, prompting applause. “And we need your help. We need your help. And some members of the press, they’re in that breach with us too, and they need your help. . . .

“This town is gripped with people who are self-righteous, sanctimonious and hypocritical,” he said. “All of us are that way sometimes. I plead guilty from time to time.”

Cynicism, Clinton said, “is just sort of a cheap excuse for not doing your best with your life. And it’s not a very pleasant way to live, frankly, not even any fun.”