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Different president, same problems: Vladimir Putin, health care reform

In this file photo, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton (R) and then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) decline to answer questions during a photo opportunity in the lobby of the Stamford Hotel in Auckland, New Zealand 12 September 1999.

Last Updated Apr 18, 2014 4:29 PM EDT

The new documents released Friday by former President Bill Clinton's presidential library prove at least one thing: The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Though some are over two decades old, the documents -- the latest in a series of previously-classified papers from the Clinton White House -- show the administration facing problems that would be all-too-familiar to the present occupants of the White House, including questions about how to approach Russian President Vladimir Putin, efforts to rebut conservative conspiracy theories, and concerns about the political impact of health care reform.

The new documents contain no big bombshell, but they do offer some unique insight into issues and anxieties that continue to define American politics roughly 20 years after Mr. Clinton's political and policy teams wrestled with them.

Here are a few of the more interesting revelations:

Clinton, Putin and Ukraine

On June 3, 2000, Mr. Clinton was scheduled to meet for the first time with the new president of Russia, Vladimir Putin. In a memo, several foreign policy advisers advised him on how he should approach the new leader.

"The pictures of your first encounter will be important, and we recommend business attire," wrote then-National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Mr. Clinton's director of scheduling, Stephanie Streett. "We want to convey 'getting down to business' and avoid the inaccurate charge that we're embracing Putin without question."

The next day, Mr. Clinton was scheduled to visit Ukraine, where his advisers told him his key message should focus on "support for implementation of reforms and for integration with Europe."

"This theme will give a moral and political boost to the reform efforts underway," they wrote, "And your presence there will underscore that our policy toward the region is not focused only on Russia."

Roughly 14 years after the memo, the tug of war between Russia and Europe over Ukraine would spark an international crisis. In March 2014, Russia, seeking to prevent Ukraine from aligning more closely with Europe and turning away from the East, effectively wrested the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine's grasp, setting off a fierce and still-ongoing regional firestorm.

Health care reform

The Clinton White House's push for health care reform in 1993 and 1994, spearheaded by then-first lady Hillary Clinton, would ultimately come up short, but some of the concerns expressed by the president and his advisers on the subject have a familiar ring to them.

Strategizing with his advisers in 1994, Mr. Clinton identified two central concerns most people have about how the proposed health care reforms will impact their families.

"A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it," he said, according to a transcript of the meeting. Mr. Clinton also said people would be concerned about the possibility of losing access to their longtime doctors if their provider networks became too restricted.

Those concerns are surely familiar to President Obama, who promised numerous times in 2010 that those who liked their current insurance and their current doctors could keep them under his own proposal.

When that guarantee was later belied by stories of people losing their insurance due to the regulations in Obamacare or losing access to a doctor of their choice, Mr. Obama had to offer a mea culpa to anyone who felt misled by his assurances. Republicans, for their part, continue to cite the Mr. Obama's promises as evidence that Obamacare is too disruptive.

Mr. Clinton's advisers also flagged two lawmakers, among others, who could potentially be persuaded to vote for the president's proposed reforms.

One such lawmaker, then-Rep. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., is "occasionally independent, but don't hold your breath," explained an adviser. Santorum, of course, opposed the reform package, and he later went on to become one of Mr. Clinton's chief antagonists in Congress.

Another lawmaker, then-Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, D-Pa., would also be difficult to persuade, an adviser said. The Clintons couldn't have known it at the time, but roughly two decades later, they would join the wavering congresswoman in anticipating a grandchild. Marc Mezvinsky, her son, married Chelsea Clinton in 2010. And this week, on Thursday, Chelsea Clinton announced that she and her husband are expecting a baby.

Fending off the right wing

Much like Mr. Obama's efforts to stamp out rumors of his foreign birth, his adherence to Islam, and other conspiracy theories, the Clintons were plagued by their own version of the right-wing rumor mill.

Accusations ran the gamut. Conservative antagonists charged the White House with covering up Mr. Clinton's affairs and bouts of sexual harassment, being a party to shady land deals in Arkansas, and even orchestrating the murder of a Vince Foster, a lawyer in the White House counsel's office, and then covering up the death as a suicide.

The White House dubbed conservative media heir Richard Mellon Scaife the "Wizard of Oz behind the Foster conspiracy," giving Scaife's media empire primary credit for publicizing and propagating conspiracy theories about Foster's death.

"Scaife uses the $800 million Mellon fortune which he inherited to fund a virtual empire of right wing newspapers and foundations," explained an overview from the White House that sought to explain how these theories gained credibility. "These newspapers and foundations, in turn, propagate Scaife's extremist views."

The document tracks the media food chain, blaming Scaife and his ilk for starting the stories before they get picked up on the Internet. From there, the stories bounce back to the mainstream media, according to the White House, achieving still-greater visibility.

"Softening" Hillary Clinton's image

A memo from several advisers to Hillary Clinton in 1993 advised the then-first lady on how she could improve her image in the press and among the public at large.

"Your staff and friends know you're an extremely warm, down-to-earth person, but the public doesn't know it," they wrote. "To counter impressions that you're only a tough-talking businesslike lawyer, you can show more flashes of humor and reveal more about yourself, especially when your own experiences mirror the experiences of hard-working Americans."

As a play for empathy, they urged Mrs. Clinton to advertise the fact that she worked summer jobs to get through school and that she took time off when her daughter was born. They also advised her to show herself doing "everyday things" that the public "can relate to." Among their suggestions: "Shopping frantically for Christmas presents, caroling...during the holiday season, working out, making scrambled eggs for Sunday brunch..."

"Finally, Americans must be reminded of your love of children," they concluded. "This can be accomplished by focusing on issues relating to children...and by making sure your interactions with children don't go unnoticed."

An earlier batch of documents from the Clinton White House showed an adviser offering some of the same advice to Mrs. Clinton years later, ahead of her 2000 bid for the U.S. Senate.

"It's important that your tone stay informal and relaxed and therefore not political," the adviser said. "Don't be defensive. Look like you want the questions: the press is obviously watching to see if they can make you uncomfortable or testy. Even on the annoying questions, give relaxed answers."

She advised Clinton to "look for opportunities for humor" because the public often sees her "only in very stern situations."

Secret Service cards African-American lawmaker

According to a memo from Susan Brophy, Mr. Clinton's deputy director of legislative affairs, when then-Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, was headed to the White House for a meeting with the vice president in 1993, he was stopped by Secret Service officers at the Southwest Gate.

"Rep. Stokes was asked for identification, although his white driver was not. Furthermore, before Rep. Stokes was allowed in the gate, a K-9 detail searched his car," the memo explained. "Rep. Stokes is understandably furious and believes the search to be racially motivated."

The White House took steps to ensure "that in the future Members of Congress driving into the White House will be admitted expeditiously and will be treated with respect," according to the memo.