Unexpected Lessons from President Clinton
New York Life was the sole sponsor of the PBS series on the U.S. presidents that premiered on public television in 2000. My leadership position at New York Life at the time gave me the opportunity to meet many of the past presidents as well as the incumbent president, Bill Clinton.
To launch the series, the White House hosted a small event; in addition to some of the actors, actresses, and producers of the series, five or six top New York Life executives and directors were invited. I had been to other White House events over the years, so this was not a new experience for me, but it was the first time I anticipated the opportunity of speaking directly to an incumbent president.
The series launched only months after President Clinton’s impeachment hearings following his admitted sexual relationship with twenty-two-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Like many Americans, I found Clinton’s behavior upsetting and was particularly troubled by the message his behavior sent to the youth of America about moral values. A fifty-two-year-old married man having sex with a twenty-two-year-old girl was objectionable enough, but it was inexcusable to me for the leader of the modern world to become such a negative role model for the youth of the nation. Nonetheless, I sensed there was something for me to learn about the mystery of human behavior through interaction with a highly successful and brilliant man who had allowed himself to succumb to such temptation.
My intuition was correct; I learned much and benefitted greatly from that evening at the White House. The evening’s first unexpected lesson was one I especially needed to hear at a point in my life when my working around the clock was beginning to take a toll on my family and me. And the lesson didn’t take place in a White House reception room, but on a putting green.
(Pt. 2 of 5)
After passing through the tight security of the White House, we walked up a long stairway lined with large portraits of former presidents; a small uniformed military band at the top of the stairs provided music. From there we walked into a large ballroom positioned between the East and West wings where we were served drinks and hors d’oeuvres as we awaited the arrival of the president.
About ten minutes before the president was due to arrive, I moved to the back of the room, where I could get an expansive view of the back lawn. There, on the putting green behind the White House, was President Clinton, dressed in a jogging suit, a golf putter in hand. He walked among dozens of golf balls strewn across the green, stopping at each one and putting it toward the single cup in the center of the green.
At the time I was climbing the corporate ladder and was often working more than fourteen hours a day. I got very little exercise and usually slept only four or five hours a night. I was not only neglecting my family but also neglecting my own physical and mental health. I almost never even took time to read the newspaper or anything other than insurance industry trade journals.
I rarely spent any quality time with my kids or my wife other than annual vacations. Even on those vacations I usually got up at 4 A.M. to review and answer email messages and to delegate assignments to my staff. I was in a very high-level corporate role with significant responsibilities and I had a great deal on my mind.
Watching President Clinton wandering around on that putting green, most certainly clearing his mind of a huge number of pressing issues and difficult pending decisions, spoke very loudly to me. Here was the most powerful man in the world—a man who had recently gone through some very embarrassing and highly public hearings, investigations, and interviews—taking time to clear his mind by putting golf balls while dozens of guests awaited his arrival.
I was moved. At that moment, I realized that if the president of the United States could take quiet private time to relax and refresh, why couldn’t I? Why was I neglecting my family and my personal health for a far less demanding job than his? I looked out the window again in time to see one of the president’s assistants walk onto the green, evidently to tell him it was time to come in and get ready for the evening’s event. The president took two or three parting putts before he exited the green and walked through a back entrance.
Unbeknownst to him, the president had given me my first lesson of the evening. But it was not to be the last. As I thought about my own position in comparison to his, I began to see how this would indeed be a meaningful and memorable evening for me.
(Pt. 3 of 5)
Twenty minutes later we were escorted into the West Wing, where a hundred or more folding chairs were set up in front of a presidential podium, behind which a projection screen had been set up. President Clinton arrived shortly and shook a few hands as he sat down in the front row. A White House official introduced the New York Life chairman, Sy Sternberg, who made brief remarks about New York Life’s sponsorship of the series, introduced a few short video clips, and then introduced the president.
President Clinton delivered a very informative thirty-minute presentation (with no notes) about interesting historical events that had occurred in the White House and about many notable decisions that had been made in the very rooms we had visited that evening. Like most Americans, I had heard the president speak many times in televised news coverage, but to sit a few feet from him and observe the ease with which he articulated his remarks was to watch a true master at work. I was very impressed with his knowledge of prior presidencies and the key events that had shaped our history as a nation.
Following the president’s remarks, our small group was invited to a reception in the East Room in which an elaborate buffet was set up with enough food to feed twice as many people. As we mingled, President Clinton walked around the room, stopping to speak with all of the guests either in small groups or in one-on-one conversations. He stopped and spoke to me and my wife, Sue, for nearly fifteen minutes.
Prior to this memorable evening at the White House, I had been told by many that President Clinton was an incredible conversationalist. We now knew that to be true. He focused intently on our conversation and made us feel as though we were the only people in the room. He was charming, charismatic, and remarkably attentive and responsive to everything we said. In fact, we were enjoying ourselves so much and feeling so comfortable in his presence that we both had nearly forgotten about the Lewinsky scandal and his most recent travails.
We exchanged greetings and talked briefly about New York Life, its key business strategies, and one of the officers at New York Life, whom we had hired away from her White House position to assist us in expanding our international operations.
The president jokingly pointed his finger at me and said, “So you’re the guy who stole Sandy Kristoff from me.” He then went on to talk about Sandy, whom he had considered one of his most trusted employees because she always told him what he needed to know instead of what he wanted to hear.
That second valuable lesson stuck with me for the remainder of my career. Sometimes those in positions of power discourage subordinates from communicating difficult information for fear of the potentially negative reaction. I realized then we should always seek the unaltered and unvarnished truth and encourage others to tell it.
I knew the president didn’t realize he had given me a wonderful personal lesson on the putting green—and that now, just as casually and perhaps just as unconsciously, he had provided me with an important leadership lesson. But there were more lessons for me that night, and the next one came as we pondered an area halfway around the world.
(Pt. 4 of 5)
We then proceeded to discuss the emerging New York Life business in India. It became instantly clear that President Clinton felt great passion for India—both for its people and for their circumstances, including poverty, poor infrastructure, and poor water quality. He spoke highly of India’s potential for economic growth, the industriousness and ambition of its people, and the potential for him to be personally involved with them following his term in office.
We found that our disdain for President Clinton’s immoral behavior diminished as we heard him speak of his compassion for the underprivileged in India. This man had a good heart and was very interested in serving and helping others.
At that time my involvement in India had been very limited, but in the four or five years following this discussion, I would travel to India fifteen times as the ranking member of the New York Life team for our Indian joint-venture company, Max New York Life. On those visits, I too came to love the country and its people and was able to confirm everything the president had said. I also observed that through his philanthropic work following his term in office, President Clinton indeed devoted much energy to improving conditions in India.
The third lesson of the day was that a man as busy as the president of the United States demonstrated compassion for the underprivileged and that his compassion had caused him to develop his post-retirement plans early. Pondering that discussion caused me to search my soul for those areas of passion that I would pursue in my own retirement years. After all, if the president of the United States could plan ahead to follow his passions after retirement, why couldn’t I?
My experience that night had already been richly imbued with lessons that would serve me well for the rest of my life. But the last lesson of the evening was perhaps the most important and included a powerful message from God.
(Pt. 5 of 5)
In our last couple of minutes with President Clinton, I mentioned how impressed I was with his earlier presentation. He told me he had taken a strong personal interest in history and that he was particularly interested in determining why each president was the right man for the job at that particular moment in history. It almost sounded as if he felt God had ordained each presidency.
In light of his comments, my last question of him was an obvious one: “Mr. President, how do you view your presidency in that regard?”
His answer surprised me: ”I was the right man for the job at this particular time because who else could tolerate what they’ve put me through?”
I inwardly chafed at his reference to the extensive negative press coverage of a number of scandals during his presidency, culminating in the most recent Lewinsky situation. But out of deference for the office of the president, I bit my tongue and didn’t ask the question that was instantly on my mind: What do you mean what THEY put YOU through? I felt he should have taken full responsibility for his precipitous behavior with a twenty-two-year-old White House intern instead of considering himself the victim.
But even in that low moment, I had a strong, positive feeling, and it was perhaps the most important lesson of all. We all possess the God-given free will to behave as we choose. God also has given all of us the wonder and beauty of the physical pleasures we enjoy in a committed relationship. Those physical desires can easily be channeled in an inappropriate way, and the associated temptations are no respecter of class, rank, or economic status. Vocation, fame, and fortune simply don’t matter. In fact, the opportunities for such behaviors are most certainly far greater for individuals with power and they may be even more tempting for those living intensely stressful lives.
Sue and I had been privileged to have had several minutes alone with the president, and it had given us a better appreciation for his dedicated service to our country and his compassion for his fellow man. We left feeling that he had a good heart and we were impressed that he was already considering how he would spend his time following his presidency in helping others in need.
His sexual transgression had generated extensive public criticism and had disgraced his wife and family, but I could now see his humanity and felt compassion for him. I now knew that he was as fallible as the rest of us, a reminder to me of the importance of always being on guard against life’s inappropriate temptations. For the very first time, I was able to forgive Bill Clinton, and I felt grateful for the profound lessons he had taught me that day.