Backstage at the Finale: RUNNING ON FUMES: Pulling All-Nighters, Bill Clinton Spent His Last Days Obsessing over Details and Pardons. the Inside Story
He'd been up for days. Red-eyed and puffy faced, his voice hoarse with fatigue, Bill Clinton sat in the Oval Office for hours on his last night as president, talking with friends and aides as he sorted through eight years' worth of photographs, books and mementos. At 3:30 a.m., he was still up, tossing things into moving boxes marked Chappaqua, New York and library. Hillary begged her husband to quit talking and go to bed. The White House stewards, scurrying to get the place ready for George W. Bush's arrival in just a few hours, worried that the outgoing president would never box everything in time. But Clinton insisted on packing up the Oval himself.
Animated one minute, melancholy the next, Clinton was beginning to give in to exhaustion. In his last weeks as president, he had largely shunned sleep, working day and night in a frenetic effort to use his power up to the very last minute. All presidents wind up rushing to the finish line, but Clinton, in typical fashion, took it to the extreme. White House aides say Clinton felt a special urgency to leave a lasting body of work that the incoming Republicans couldn't easily erase. He told aides that even though he couldn't have another term, if he stayed awake for the remaining time "it would feel like four more years."
Over the course of those final, frantic days and nights, downing pizza and pastries, Clinton completed a staggering amount of work. He created eight new national monuments, nominated nine federal judges, packed federal commissions with political allies--and, in a final flurry of executive orders and rules, wrote hundreds of new federal regulations filling nearly 4,000 pages.
Clinton had hoped the dramatic flurry of activity would help to define his legacy as a president who took his job seriously to the end. But instead of spending his first few weeks as a civilian basking in the afterglow, he once again found himself at the center of yet another scandal--scrambling to explain his pardon of Marc Rich, the fugitive financier whose ex-wife had donated generously to various Clinton projects. Some close to Clinton say he knew perfectly well that some of the pardons might cause a stir--and went ahead anyway. Others believe that Clinton, up all night day after day, wasn't thinking clearly. Over the years Clinton had tried to convince himself he could get by just fine on a few hours of sleep a night. Time and again, he proved himself wrong. Struggling to extricate himself from a previous scandal, Clinton once told a friend, "Every important mistake I've made in my life, I've made because I was too tired."
Heading into his last week, Clinton descended into a heavy nostalgia trip. By turns ebullient and misty eyed, he would stop to thank White House maintenance workers and low-level staffers and pose for pictures, punctuated by long, soulful handshakes. He cranked out thank-you notes by the dozen, taking care to mention the names of spouses and children. In the evenings Clinton, often clad in a sweat shirt and baseball hat, loaded up visitors with White House jackets, coffee mugs and copies of favorite speeches. Dwelling on the past, Clinton would turn icy whenever anyone asked him about his future. He'd dismiss the question, saying he was "gonna rest for a while." As one close friend put it, "I think he was avoiding thinking about life after Jan. 20 as much as possible. He had this idea--obviously wrong--that he would fade into oblivion."
Always obsessed with policy arcana, he dug in deeper in his last days, reviewing dozens of obscure proposals that had languished in the bureaucracy for years. Cabinet members were barraged with questions from Clinton at all hours of the day and night.
After eight years, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala was used to the president's calling at midnight to chat. But in those final weeks, Shalala says she began sleeping with her briefing books next to the bed for fear that Clinton would call with a substantive question she couldn't immediately answer. …