January 27th, 2009
09:40 AM ET
4 years ago

Clinton, Bush 41 reflect on regrets


Watch Clinton and Bush 41 name their regrets as president.

(CNN) - Two former presidents reflected on their greatest regrets in office Monday, each looking back to issues that continue to plague the nation years later.

Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton appeared together at a question-and-answer forum before the National Automobile Dealers Association in New Orleans.

Asked his biggest regret after leaving office, Bush said he now wonders whether he should have tried to get Saddam Hussein to leave office at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. He told the gathering, "I've thought a lot about it, but at the end of Desert Storm the question was should we have kind of kept going on that road to death and all this slaughter until Saddam Hussein showed up and laid his sword on the table, surrendered. And the common wisdom was he wouldn't do that."

But he said a conversation with an FBI agent who interrogated Saddam after he was captured has made him reconsider. Bush recalled their talk, "I said, what if we just say he has to come to surrender, would he have done it?

And this guy said, I'm absolutely convinced he would have. My experts tell me he wouldn't have."

Bush said, "We ended it the way we said we would" as a military success, but noted a cleaner ending "would have been perfect."

He added, "If we had tried to get Saddam Hussein to come and literally surrender and put his sword on the table, I think it might have been avoided some of the problems that we did have in the future from him."

On a day that President Barack Obama dispatched George Mitchell to the Middle East as the latest U.S. envoy, Clinton discussed the failure to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He said, "my No. 1 regret is that I was not able to persuade Yasser Arafat to accept the peace plan I offered at the end of my presidency that the Israelis accepted."

He said, "If he had done that ... we had had seven years of progress toward peace. We had one year in 1998, the only year in the history of Israel where not a single soul was killed in a terrorist act. The Palestinians had more control over West Bank then, than they do today. And if he had taken that deal, we would have a Palestinian state and we would have had I think now normal peaceful relations with Israel and all of its Arab neighbors."

Clinton said a deal would have helped the U.S. handle other issues in the region, saying, "We'd be much better positioned to deal with problem of Iran and we would have taken away about half the arguments of terrorists around the world by giving the Palestinians their state and creating a cooperative, positive interdependence in the Middle East, not a negative one. And so, I think that would have done more good to save more lives and help more people, and I wish I had been able to do that. "

Clinton also said he regretted not doing more to "stop the Rwandan genocide," and succeeding on a new health care plan.

He said "presidents should share freely … the mistakes they made" with historians, because it teaches lessons. He said he shared problems during the lunch with Obama and the four living presidents, saying, "You want each new president to make new mistakes, not the same ones."

Clinton added, "all of us know if you make enough decisions, you're going to make a few of them aren't right."

Filed under: Bill Clinton • George H.W. Bush
soundoff (179 Responses)
  1. Proud American

    Republicans stop being Idiots, Bill Clinton private life is none of your or my business. The republican smear job only cost the american people millions, and informed us that republican were just as unfaithful as democrats. Question how many republicans fell or were outed during the impeachment trail? Ha Ha Ha

    January 27, 2009 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  2. Mike

    The wonderful thing about life is that hindsight is almost always 20/20. What many here fail to remember is this: Not one person is perfect and we all make mistakes daily. We crucified the only perfect person so what does that say about us? Presidents will make mistakes, some more than others, bottom line...they are our presidents; we voted for them, some twice, for good or bad.

    January 27, 2009 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  3. Ex-Republican

    @RJ January 27th, 2009 12:58 pm ET
    I'm sure Dems' love how you forget that BUSH was the president when the WTC was attacked and had been TOLD an attack was imminent. They probably love how you are too ignorant to take blame for the deregulation of the market that allows secret crimes to be committed in broad daylight.

    The blame goes both ways (that' BOTH ways, so yes, dems as well...Pelosi/Reid for instance), and until you can take your own portion of the blame (Bush/Cheney for instance), then you will be considered to have nothing of use to offer to the solution. Stubborn, ignorant people belong to one of the parties in this horrid two party system.

    January 27, 2009 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  4. common sense

    I bet Clinton regrets that whole budget surplus thing. Boy, that was terrible for our country wasn't it? It's a good thing he's gone, we might have actually dropped our national debt some more by now. We can't have that.

    And the whole affair thing is so much worse that destroying the world.

    January 27, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  5. ???

    Hey RJ, right on!!!!!

    January 27, 2009 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  6. Garrett

    Regret is a tricky thing. You can't really regret doing/not doing something that was/wasn't available to you at the time. We all – Presidents included – make decisions based on the information we have at the time. It is unfair to suggest that Presidents should regret making a decision based on information they didn't have. You may argue that they should have tried harder to get the right information, but that is a pretty weak argument too. I see a lot of idiotic, emotional comments on this board and they don't help anything...except maybe your egos.

    Why don't we all just say, "Hey, that's great when people admit mistakes. it makes them and us better people." Why do we have to be so immature and insecure?

    January 27, 2009 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  7. HouseDiva

    Bush 41 should regret dropping Bush 43 on his head as an infant.

    January 27, 2009 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  8. cons

    All of them have regrets. Although I think Clinton should have resigned (an honorable choice), I think his indiscretions made him incapable of make correct choices, decisions, and actions – when one head is doing all the thinking it is harder for the other one to fulfil its duties.

    January 27, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  9. ???

    Some of you think that Bill Clinton's wrongs made public don't matter except to him and his wife are wrong, wrong, wrong!!!! If you can't get your own morals right how can you lead a country and keep it's morals right? Yes, it seems as though Clinton did everything right while he was prez.. but when the poop hit the fan, all that really hit went GB's way and it takes longer than 8 years to fix 8 years of wrong and try to do right while your at it.
    Some of those things that Clinton did are now affecting Obama also and he may never get them fixed while he is in office. Will he get blamed, probably not because most of you will be blaming GB. That's okay, nobody, even me, doesn't know exactly what went on and if we did we would all probably die of a heart attack. FYI: Google or Yahoo Clintons body count and yes, GB has one also.

    January 27, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  10. Bobby

    Bush-haters can say what they want, and disagreement over his polcies is one thing (so long as it is informed and not just hateful slander), but the man did not reduce the White House, the symbol of American leadership, to a sleazy motel room for adulterous sex. Clinton's main regret is getting caught.

    January 27, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  11. jb

    I would think that Clinton's biggest regret must be that he didn't do more to get Al Gore elected. The fact that a lot of his screw ups led to W getting into the White House is a travesty.

    January 27, 2009 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  12. Bobby

    Travis and co: it became a matter for the American people when the president went on tv and lied to our faces. Maybe truth isn't so important to lib-dem-fascists, but it is to others.

    January 27, 2009 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  13. Greg Elgin

    Wow, such hatred from the far left groups. Okay.. let's talk policy that failed under Clinton. Let's see, WTC attack (nothing done about that); USS Cole (nothing done about that), Al Qaeda growing ot of control (nothing done about that); Genocides; terrorists growing exponentially.... Gee and I was being nice at first about just labeling him a cheat... I stand corrected... he is a Idiot also... Thanks leftists for showing the true idiot he was in office rather than just a lying cheat. Thanks

    January 27, 2009 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  14. Linda from Prescott AZ

    Not a lot of constructive conversation here from either side.
    Shame on you.

    January 27, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |

    MR. ELGIN;

    January 27, 2009 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  16. Leifer

    The far right and to an extent mainstream conservatives believe that humans cannot solve the problems that we face. We must leave it up to the two most sacred cows – Christianity and the Free Market. They would elect a monkey as president so long as he could be taught to say grace and salute the American Flag. We could have had a monkey in the white house over the last eight years to look the other way at Wall Street, cut taxes for the rich, burden our children's financial future with lies about needing to go to war. Americans are absolutely bizarre – Impeach a president for extra marital sex, and then praise another for killing brown muslim people by the thousands.

    You know you would find conservatives blaming the last Democratic president for all of the countries woes even if the last Democrat president – hypothetically was elected 100 years ago.

    January 27, 2009 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  17. Amber

    RJ, I love that conservatives jump directly from the post-Clinton recession to the pre-Obama depression when you describe the financial mess we're in.

    Way to own up.

    At least liberals admit to Carter stagflation.

    January 27, 2009 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  18. mark

    Did Bill regret Monica? I bet his list stole the entire discussion.

    January 27, 2009 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  19. BeefyDaddy

    You GOPers are so unbelievable! You are so insecure that Clinton was successful and had America's economy cruising that you actually try to convnce yourself that an adulterous affair was the worst thing ever in history. There are literally hundreds of things that both Bushes did that were significantly worse – morally, ethically, spiritually, financially, anyway you look at it.

    Republican greed led to the Enron scandal & the sub-Prime mortgage melt-down; Republican leadership lead to weakened civil liberties and the crumbling of our moral standard; Republican rhetoric and politics led to Clinton not being able to go after Osama. The GOP is to blame for virtually every negative thing in America. Even your savior Rush admitted that he loves Republicans more than America. He would rather see America suffer than admit he was wrong. How is that stubborn pig-headedness a positive thing?!

    Why do Republicans hate America so much?

    January 27, 2009 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  20. csmith

    People focus on Clinton's mistakes of adultery. That's fine. Can they prove that his cheating on his wife was the reason that he was a bad president and affected his decisions to decide what was right and wrong for a country? No. Honestly, it might offend people that as a leader he did something so immorral; but bottom line, can we say this was the reason or one of the reasons that made our country the way it is? No. Our country has practiced adulterly for years before Clinton. This just shows how human he was. We say we want a president who relates to the people... I guess he took that seriously.

    January 27, 2009 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  21. Jim D, IL

    RJ – you are a simple-minded, naive, biased idiot.

    Try thinking for yourself and forming opinions based on fact, rather than being devisive and listening to your moron talking head Rush Limbaugh.

    January 27, 2009 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  22. chuck


    January 27, 2009 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  23. ian minneapolis, mn

    Robert Matheny....you are amazing

    January 27, 2009 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |

    let us separate personal business and country business
    We all had a good run under Clinton, and the adultery business is between him and his wife period.
    how many other Presidents did the same thing? especially 41!!
    The major problem I have these days is having to still hear about Rush insignificant Limbaugh and his hateful rants.
    He should be taken off the air already.
    The other issue is still having to deal with the clown from Alaska ( and i Am giving clowns a bad name here).
    Please please please stay in Alaska and lock yourself in the attic....

    January 27, 2009 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  25. John

    I love how the republicans can screw us over under the guise of 'protecting us from terrorists' and the neocons continue to lap it up. The republi-cants wasted 200 FBI agents time trying to dig up dirt on Bill Clinton instead of investigating why some flight school applicants did not want to learn how to land or take off. Oh, and for the record, dub-yah did not protect us from an attack. The first attack was 1993, eight years later, under dub-yah's watch, attack number 2. Apparently, dub-yah was more interested in kinking back in Crawford than in doing his job.
    No one died when Clinton lied. Bush is responsible for the death of thousands of Americans and innocent Iraq citizens.

    January 27, 2009 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
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