TODAY   |  December 20, 2011

Clinton: Gingrich can’t take credit for ‘90s surplus

The former president looks back at his time in office and reveals his thoughts on former speaker Newt Gingrich, who recently took credit for a balanced budget and surplus in the late ‘90s.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we're back now at 8:35 with more of our conversation with former president bill clinton . mr. president, thank you for sticking around and talking about your love of books . before we get to some other topics, i want to ask you about your number one pick, which is the book "jerusalem" which is just out, you say. after all of the years you spent focusing on the middle east , you think this is spectacular, why?

>> because it's truly a biography of the city. so many books about jerusalem have been written from the perspective of judaism or christianity or islam and there's plenty to go around there. but he really tries to tell you what the life of the city has been like from the temples of david and solomon through bethlehem, you know, is right next door, how important it was to christians, how it was the great scene of fighting in the crusades and why the dome of the rock from which the muslims believe muhammed ascended into heaven, why it means so much to everybody and why it's so spectacular. you fall in love with the city and it breaks your heart that people can't make peace over it because it's a treasure. it's a wonderful book.

>> a biography of the city, you make it so impossible not to pick that up. but i want to also ask you about something that you said in september. you said when everyone else counted gingrich out, you did not.

>> no.

>> you said don't count him out. you also, having worked with him, i'm wanting to know putting aside politics, do you see newt gingrich as a man who has the temperament, the leadership qualities to be president of the united states ?

>> that's what the presidential election is for. you really never -- you find out a lot about people in the crucible of battle and they're all turning on him now and running all these negative ads. it's funny, they're basically doing to each other in a serial way what they did to the democrats in 2010 . and then they fight back and one rises and one falls. it's going to be interesting, because it appears that right now he or governor romney have the edge. the one with the greatest resilience, with the ability to come back from adversity will probably prevail. perhaps one of the others will rise. but i think that will be the test. that's what these elections are for. they tell you a lot about people. and when you're just getting the living daylights pounded out of you and people count you out and you were down, gosh, i was pronounced dead more times than a cat has lives in '92, that's when you find the something people want in a president.

>> so as we move forward, then, do you believe that gingrich deserved the credit that he's taking for balancing the budget when you were president?

>> not really. but i think he did work with me to pass some good budgets. we had the balanced budget act in 1996 and we, unlike some since then, we got our work done on time and i had a decent working relationship with him. but the vast lion's share of balancing the budget was done by the budget in 1993 that he led the opposition to. 90% of the budget was balanced before the balanced budget act was ever passed. so i noticed the other day one of the republicans was saying from '96 on the government's tax cuts and investments actually added $10 billion to the debt. that's true, but the reason is it didn't stop us from balancing the budget and running four surpluses because of what we did in '93. but if i were in his position, i would be saying that because it is true that we worked in a bipartisan fashion to pass five budgets and they worked out pretty well for the american people .

>> i hope you don't mind another left turn because i'm going back to the books and i want to ask you about a book about a president, about abraham lincoln , and that's one of your recommendations. i'm wondering, because so many books have been written about this great man why you chose this one written by david herbert donald .

>> well, first of all, he was a magnificent historian who died in his late 80s a couple of years ago. i knew him and admired him. but i've read just about all the lincoln biographies. and i thought his was special in its fidelity to the facts, his understanding of lincoln's political significance and his understanding of his fundamental humanity. it has everything. it's not a book that's single faceted. this is a book you could read if you wanted to read a novel. this is a book that you could read if you were a serious historian. this is a book you could read if you wanted to understand war and how it's conducted. it's an astonishing book. and it came along near the end of donald's career and he was filled full of juice. and he just -- he painted a magnificent portrait of president lincoln .

>> the way of the world which is a story of humanity, which is a very interesting topic in itself. what does that mean exactly?

>> well, this is a book i read several years ago but i always recommended to people. if you read it, it's like a one-volume short history of civilization, progress and setbacks and progress and how the world goes forward. i always tell people to read that and the book i recommended for years, "nonzero" by robert wright which explains how we avoid destroying ourselves at the last minute. but fromkin's book is fascinating. if you want to understand big historical events and how they shape the world we live in today, it's the best one volume that i know.

>> do you remember who it was who first made you see books as a ticket to a life?

>> oh, yeah. my grandparents, neither of them had a great deal of education, had me reading little dick and jane readers when i was 3 and 4 years old. by the time i was in grade school , i had two or three friends and we would race each other to see how many books we could read. then i went to the local library and a friend of mine's mother was always there volunteering and she would tell me things to read. and i had a whole period when i was 8 or 9 when i read every biography of every indian chief that america ever produced and i tried to learn about the native americans . and it always stayed with me. i love it. i've always got two or three books i'm reading. i'm trying to finish now the truly magnificent biography of george washington , which i think anybody who wants to understand how we got started, should read.

>> it seems like a lot of what you read are biographies. you want to read about the lives of people.

>> i do.

>> do they 55 ygive you a road map or what that makes you so interested?

>> because you get to see the history and the personal side of it at the same time, the interplay, i like it. i also read a lot of crime novels .

>> do you really?

>> yeah.

>> are you a james patterson reader?

>> i do. i like the alex cross series. i've read all of sue graftin's novels. i've read all of daniel silva 's novels. the hero is my favorite character in children. i've read all of lee childs ' novels. i just devour them, i've got one with me all the time.

>> you may not have heard there's a man al roker who writes crime fiction actually now. he's on the second book. i'll send you a copy.

>> i'll read it. they're my adrenaline junky books .

>> all right. i promise i will put it in the mail to you. former president bill clinton , thank you so much for your perspective on so many of these great topics. and for parents now who are trying to get their kids to read, you're obviously an example of why we should do it.

>> now you've got the kindle and the facebook and the nook and the kindle and the ipad and the nook. people can read even if they don't have a lot of space in their house. you can buy the books for less money. and it ought to lead to an explosion of learning and literacy in our country. it will be good for us.

>> well said. bill clinton , thank