Clinton no open book on healthcare

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton presents herself as the candidate best able to give the nation better healthcare at lower prices, thanks in part to the searing experience she gained in trying to overhaul the healthcare system during her husband’s presidency.

Anyone wanting to examine her record, she has said, is able to do so.

“Now, all of the records, as far as I know, about what we did with healthcare, those are already available,” Clinton said at a Democratic debate last month.


But a big part of that history is being concealed. Hundreds of pages of memos and correspondence involving the healthcare plan of the early 1990s have been withheld, leaving a gap in a historic period when Clinton undertook one of the most ambitious domestic policy forays ever attempted.

Some of the records kept from public view are memos from the early 1990s that White House aides wrote to Clinton about members of Congress, some of whom are still serving.

Federal government archivists working at the Bill Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., deemed the material confidential. The archivists withheld it under a federal law that allows them to restrict several types of material, including private communications between presidential advisors.

A three-page memo written to Hillary Clinton in 1993, for example, is titled “Positioning ourselves on healthcare.” It is not available to the public. A notice in the files says that archivists are withholding it on the grounds that its release would reveal confidential advice.

An undated 38-page memo that is also being withheld is titled “General targeting strategy” -- an apparent reference to the Clinton administration’s targeting of members of Congress whose votes would have been needed to pass the plan.

In interviews, some people who were the focus of such memos said they were baffled as to why the records were being held back.

Two 1993 memos kept private involve meetings between Hillary Clinton and then-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), an influential politician who at the time opposed her healthcare plan.

“It’s hard to make the case that a meeting with Bob Kerrey in 1993 ought to be redacted, other than for political reasons,” Kerrey said.

“If these documents were negative to [Clinton campaign rivals] Barack Obama, John Edwards or Rudy Giuliani, they would be out yesterday,” said Kerrey, who has not endorsed a candidate in the presidential campaign.

A three-page memo written to Clinton in 1993 involved an upcoming meeting with Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who was promoting an alternative to Clinton’s healthcare plan. That memo is also being withheld on the grounds that its release would disclose confidential advice.

“I’m for open government and I’m curious as to what’s in it,” Cooper said in an interview. “Good, bad or indifferent, I want it out in the public. These paper records are probably good evidence of what was going on.”

A White House aide wrote a 130-page memo to Hillary Clinton in May 1993, regarding a meeting with Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), who was later appointed secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Cabinet. That memo is being withheld.

At the time, Glickman and Kassebaum were pushing an alternative healthcare proposal. Glickman, in an interview, said he vaguely remembered the meeting. Hillary Clinton was in “listening mode,” he said.

Glickman, who has not endorsed a candidate in the presidential race, voiced no objection to the memo being publicly released, saying, “My life is pretty much an open book.”

He added: “I don’t think there was anything in the proposal that Sen. Kassebaum and I had that was particularly secret. It was not anything that I would call of national import.”

As they review records for release, federal archives staff rely on the Presidential Records Act, which says material may be withheld from the public on several grounds, including matters of national security and privacy.

A Clinton campaign spokesman said there was nothing she or Bill Clinton could do to alter the decisions of the National Archives and Records Administration on how quickly to release documents.

Federal archivists move at their own pace and make their own decisions on what should be withheld based on their reading of the law, said Jay Carson, a Clinton press aide.

The ex-president’s involvement is limited, he added. When archivists are ready to release a batch of material, they notify a Bill Clinton representative -- longtime confidant Bruce Lindsey -- who reviews it and decides whether to hold anything back. Lindsey has not suppressed anything, Carson said.

“President Clinton would like the [National] Archives to go as swiftly as possible in releasing the records in his administration, because he’s proud of his record, and Sen. Clinton is proud of her role in his administration,” Carson said. “However, it is an archives-controlled process, and we could not make the archives go faster or slower. So the point is moot.”

The National Archives staff, however, describes a more collaborative process when it comes to deciding which memos to keep secret. Before such decisions are made, staff members may consult with the former president’s representatives.

One National Archives official, speaking about the legal restriction governing memos between White House advisors, said: “How those restrictions are eased and whether they are applied is up to the former president. . . . There is consultation.” The official asked to speak on background because she is not the agency’s formal spokeswoman.

Bill Clinton has given the National Archives guidelines on how to approach the task.

In a letter sent in 2002, Clinton said that archivists should feel free to open up material that could legally be concealed on the grounds that it involved federal appointments or communication between advisors.

But he then listed some exceptions, which carry the potential to conceal many documents that could open a window into Hillary Clinton’s role in the healthcare battle. He said he did not want material released if it contained “negative” or “derogatory” information; if it centered on a “sensitive policy, personal or political matter”; or if it involved “communications directly between the president and the first lady.”

With the Democratic primary entering a combative new phase, the status of Hillary Clinton’s White House records has become a campaign issue. She was questioned about the material during the Democratic debate in Philadelphia on Oct. 30.

Large batches of records from her White House years are under lock and key at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.

Apart from the healthcare records, the library possesses 2 million pages of material from the former first lady’s office, none of which has been released. In January, archivists will finish processing 10,000 pages related to her daily schedule.

Archivists have described their workload as being so great that they don’t expect the bulk of Hillary Clinton’s records to be made public before the 2008 election. According to an National Archives spokeswoman, six archivists are wading through 78 million pages of records and 20 million e-mails accumulated during Clinton’s eight-year presidency.

Less than 1% of that material has been released. Archivists are responding to public records requests on a first-come, first-served basis, and are releasing material as quickly as they can, staff members have said.

Rival campaigns and others are not satisfied with the progress. A nonprofit group called Judicial Watch has filed two lawsuits against the National Archives in hopes of speeding the release of diaries, phone logs, healthcare records and calendars kept when Clinton was first lady.

Obama, Clinton’s top rival for the Democratic nomination, said it would be naive to think that neither she nor her husband could shake loose the material.

After the debate in Philadelphia, Obama said in one interview that voters “understand that if Sen. Clinton urges former President Clinton to release those papers, then they’ll be released.”

Kerrey also said he thought the Clintons could quicken the pace if they desired. But he said they would be smart not to do it, given that political opponents would inevitably mine the material for damaging revelations.

“They’re perfectly within their rights to say, ‘We’re running for president and these have become political documents now,’ ” Kerrey said.