Bill Clinton is finding it hard to be an above-it-all ex-president when he is also a chief political adviser to his wife, who herself is angling for the White House.
At the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier this summer, William Jefferson Clinton, as he is now introduced, held court under a tent one evening, basking in his post-presidency celebrity, dispensing political insight, and enjoying the adoration of a mostly liberal audience.
As is often the case, two Clintons were present. Not Hillary; two different sides of Bill Clinton. There was Bill Clinton the serious world statesman, who works on tsunami relief with the Republican president he defeated in 1992, and who lends his name to the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding effort at the bequest of the Republican president who succeeded him in office. Also present was Bill Clinton the domestic political operative, who has never met a Republican he didn't want to help defeat, and whose wife harbors presidential ambitions of her own.
"American politicians regularly seek to mix oil and vinegar," presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton University notes. "But few do so as egregiously as Bill Clinton."
Both Bill Clintons were in evidence this July evening in Colorado. The first spoke in measured terms about the crisis in Darfur. He was careful to avoid criticizing President Bush, outlining how the administration could approach the U.N. Security Council in a way that would make the United States look like a leader, without having to send troops.
Asked which policy issues look different to him now than when he was in the Oval Office, Clinton named global warming and AIDS, with special emphasis on the latter. "I don't think I remotely understood what was involved," Clinton said. "It's not just a money problem. I get that in a way I didn't as president."
But when Clinton was queried on the political question swirling around the conference -- how the Democrats might recapture Congress in 2006 -- the dignified statesman seamlessly transformed into a slashing partisan.
"I don't think we ought to play the treason card on 'em," Clinton said, as if anyone had asked him to. He then applied that very word -- "treason" -- to Bush political adviser Karl Rove over the issue of leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
There is no particular template for how ex-presidents organize themselves. We're talking about only 33 people here -- not counting Grover Cleveland who had the job twice; George W. Bush who is still in office; and eight who died in office.
"It's unusual to have an ex-president as young as he is and as popular as he is," presidential scholar Alan Brinkley said of Clinton, who was 54 when his presidency ended. "Most are too old or too discredited -- Richard Nixon, for example -- to play a major role in politics."
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson retired, gratefully, to their Virginia plantations. John Quincy Adams took a seat in Congress, where he led the abolitionist voices in the House. Ulysses S. Grant wrote an acclaimed memoir of his military days. In the 20th century, the three ex-presidents who most closely mirror Clinton's situation are Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter. Clinton was two years younger than Carter when he left office, and the youngest ex-president since TR.
When he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter was widely considered, by historians and the American electorate, an ineffectual president. Not so as an ex-president. Carter has helped put the housing group Habitat for Humanity on the map; founded with his wife the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which has done charitable work in some 65 nations; negotiated on behalf of the U.S. in political hot spots from Haiti to North Korea; monitored elections in emerging democracies in the developing world; authored several books; and won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Hoover campaigned in 1936 for Alf Landon's futile effort against FDR; went to Europe in 1938 where he dressed down Adolf Hitler; traveled to Europe at the behest of President Truman to oversee food distribution efforts credited with preventing widespread famine after World War II; headed the Hoover Commission in 1947 that helped reorganize the executive branch; and launched a think tank at Stanford University that carries his name.
Carter and Clinton were not close when Clinton was president, but the Nobel that Carter received certainly got Clinton's attention. Late in his presidency, Clinton told a National Journal reporter that he had been studying John Quincy Adams's post-presidency career in the House. To others, he mentioned William Howard Taft, who was appointed by President Harding as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and who loved the job so much that he once wrote, "I don't remember that I was ever president."
Bill Clinton remembers, however, and when asked in early 2003 what ex-president he aspired to emulate, he cited Carter. "I had to sort of reconceive my life when I got out," Clinton said at that time. "I didn't want to go back to elective office. I didn't want to be a judge. And I wanted to be more active than Hoover. That's why I mainly thought, Carter."
Actually, Hoover was plenty active; there just isn't any way to get a Democrat to say they want to emulate him. Teddy Roosevelt is a different story. TR also possessed Clinton's combination of relative youth, political skill, vigor, and popularity -- and he missed the presidency so much, he broke apart the Republican Party trying to regain it. The 22nd Amendment prohibits Clinton from attempting to replicate TR's quest. It says nothing, of course, about spouses.
The mere prospect of a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential candidacy complicates Bill Clinton's transition to ex-president, but it's not the only factor.
"He is, in effect, the senior Democrat in the United States," Brinkley says. For this, Clinton can partially thank George W. Bush, who prevented Al Gore from assuming Clinton's mantle in 2000, bested John Kerry in 2004, and then -- at least in Democrats' eyes -- made such a hash of his job that people find themselves pining for Clinton.Will this popularity transfer to Mrs. Clinton? And will operating as her chief political adviser tarnish the good thing he has going?"
Clinton is caught in the same trap that eventually destroyed Tom Daschle," Republican consultant Frank Luntz says. "If he wants to be loved, he has to be statesmanlike, but that undermines his partisan appeal. You can't be all things to all people."
Those are risks, but many Democrats say that if anyone can do it, Clinton can.
"Where's the rub? So long as he only dabbles in each of these worthy desires and doesn't obsess on any of them, I say he can do it all," says Steve Rabinowitz, a former White House communications aide for Clinton, who remembers the damage Clinton caused himself when he thought he could also juggle a relationship with a certain White House intern. "Unfortunately, I've never really seen him 'dabble' that much in anything. And I fear the one desire with which he's most obsessed is the one everyone I know wishes he'd spend the least time on. Now, that'll be tension!"
Paul Glastris, another former White House aide, recalls that as president, Clinton always wanted to fit more into his schedule than the hours in the day allowed. "But he could manage that load -- and the tensions that go along with it," Glastris said. "You always expect him to fall off the high wire he's on. He never does."
There was that one time he fell, of course, but Democrats -- and much of the country -- have moved on. In fact, impeachment and the scandal that caused it are often invoked as proof of Clinton's preternatural political talent.
"Remember, this is the man who overcame a sordid personal scandal and became a respected world leader," says Democratic political consultant Brad Bannon. "After pulling that off, anything is possible. Being his wife's de facto campaign manager runs the risk of tarnishing the former president's image as a statesman, but Senator Clinton is positioning herself as the 'Third Way' presidential candidate who is above partisanship and who can work with people of both parties to move America in a different direction."
That may be wishful thinking -- Republicans hardly consider Hillary bipartisan -- and it ignores a drawback of the current dynamic: namely, that Bill Clinton is constrained from saying what he really thinks about important issues, including the most important issue to Democrats right now, the war in Iraq.
So far, however, the Clintons are massaging the issues in ways that preserve Hillary's centrist credentials without getting her crosswise with the party's liberal base. When embattled Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman asked for Hillary's hand in the Connecticut primary, she demurred, but sent Bill. Even before Lieberman lost, Mrs. Clinton had said she'd support insurgent winner Ned Lamont if he won the primary. To some it was reminiscent of her long-ago promise to women who wanted her to run in her own right: "If you vote for Bill, you get me, too."
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