Combative and restless, Bill Clinton would have inordinate influence behind the scenes—but with no accountability

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE February 18 2008


Combative and restless, Bill Clinton would have inordinate influence behind the scenes—but with no accountability

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE February 18 2008



Combative and restless, Bill Clinton would have inordinate influence behind the scenes—but with no accountability


When Hillary Rodham Clinton premiered her husband at his first official appearance in her presidential campaign, it was a strictly choreographed affair, designed to cast the former two-term president in the traditional role of supporting spouse and to contain his political lustre lest it overshadow hers. That was on a summer day at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, and Bill Clinton stood behind his wife, his hands resting supportively on her shoulders. Back then, the main concern about Bill was that once he opened his mouth, he might make Hillary sound a bit too wooden, a bit too Al Gore to Bill Clinton’s Bill Clinton.

Yet no one doubted that Bill would be an asset to her campaign, drawing huge crowds to her events. And Hillary relished reminding her audiences about the good ol’ days of her husband’s administration in the 1990s, when deficits were surpluses, and Americans enjoyed good relations with their allies. “It did take a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush,” she liked to quip. “And I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush.”

For a time it looked like Bill might be for Hillary what Dick Cheney was for candidate George W. Bush—a white-haired, reassuring presence, one that, in the case of the Clintons, said, “she might be the first woman president but she’ll have a steady hand in the storm.” But it seems that trusting the old guy in the corner didn’t work any better for Hillary than

it did for George W. Both steady hands have led them straight into hot water.

What started out as a few ill-tempered comments on the campaign trail in South Carolina now has more and more Americans asking what precisely Bill Clinton’s role would be in Hillary’s potential White House—and whether she’d be able to control him. Much has been made of the novelty of the first “first gentleman.” But the more serious question concerns the unprecedented scenario of a former president—a politically talented and famously irrepressible former presidentreturning to the White House in a country whose constitution forbids a third term. It’s a question that had not figured in the campaign until Bill Clinton himself caused it to be raised—and now Hillary Clinton is having trouble putting it to rest.

The irony is that, until her husband’s racially tinged comments in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton had done a masterful job as senator for New York, building her own persona. She would even take aim at some of his policies, for example, criticizing NAFTA, a key accomplishment of his presidency. But Bill Clinton managed to undo that. “This latest series of questions is a completely self-inflicted wound on Bill Clinton’s part,” says Gil Troy, a McGill University historian who has authored books on the Clintons and other U.S. presidential couples. “What is his vision for his role? What is motivating him beyond undying love for this woman he treated so beautifully over the years? It’s a fascinating question.”

Whether by instinct or by design, Bill Clin-

ton abandoned the high-mindedness he’d previously cultivated, and took to the attackdog role with disturbing gusto. He began attacking Barack Obama’s lack of experience, calling a potential Obama presidency a “roll

of the dice.” He referred to the Illinois senator as a “kid”—even as others in the Clinton campaign were trying to label Obama the “black candidate.” With the race issue stirring, South Carolina turned against Hillary in

numbers greater than polls had predicted.

Things boiled over after that loss, with Bill Clinton comparing Obama to former black candidate Jesse Jackson. It was seen as belittling. “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in

’84 and ’88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.” The implication? Obama was just another black candidate in a state where African-Americans make up more than half the Democratic primary voters—a put-down to a man who was running not as a black candidate in the mould of Jackson, but as the “post-racial” son of a black father and white mother who had scored a decisive victory in Iowa, where the black population was less than three per cent.

Clinton was immediately denounced. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson called him a “cold-blooded political hit man.” The most powerful African-American in Congress, Jim Clyburn, told Clinton to “just chill.” Donna Brazile, a former adviser to Clinton and former campaign manager for Al Gore, told CNN she was insulted: “For him to go after Obama using ‘fairy tale,’ calling him a ‘kid’... it’s an insult. As an African-American, I find his words and tone to be very depressing.”

Not only did Clinton’s sour grapes remind people of the Clintons’ combativeness in the 1990s, it also cast the woman who aspired to be the first female president in a rather unfeminist damsel-in-distress scenario. Perhaps, for Bill Clinton, it was personal. Obama had remarked at one point that Ronald Reagan was a more transformational president than him, saying Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Whatever the reason, Bill’s efforts hurt his wife. CNN exit polls showed that 60 per cent of voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary said his campaigning was important in shaping their decision, and the majority of them voted against Hillary—48 per cent for Obama, 14 per cent for Edwards, and 37 per cent for Hillary.

But the Bill Clinton effect has far outlasted South Carolina, and promises to become a major campaign issue if Hillary does become the Democratic nominee. A Pew poll taken shortly before Super Tuesday showed that voters around the country were suddenly souring on the idea of the former president re-entering the White House. The number of people saying they “dislike” the idea jumped by seven points between October and January, from 34 per cent to 41 per cent.

Until now, Republicans had treated Bill Clinton’s future as a laugh line. But the issue has become more serious—and not just among the GOP candidates. Greg Craig, a law-school friend of Hillary’s who coordinated Bill Clinton’s impeachment defence in 1998 but has since sided with Obama, has asked whether Hillary could control her husband in the White

House. And perhaps the biggest fallout from the bitterness was Senator Ted Kennedy’s decision to throw his political heft behind Obama, and also try to bestow upon him the legacy and mystique of his brother, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s aides confirmed that the bitter tone in South Carolina pushed him over the edge. That endorsement—not to mention the backing of JFK’s daughter Caroline—gave Obama a tie to Camelot, as well as a vote of confidence from one of the most experienced Democratic hands in the country.

Americans have historically been very uncomfortable with anyone sharing the office of the presidency. After JFK made his brother Bobby his attorney general, Congress passed an anti-nepotism law to forbid family members of a president from holding cabinet offices. More recently, in a Jan. 27 New York Times op-ed entitled “Two Presidents are Worse than One,” historian Gary Wills argued that a co-presidency violates the spirit of the constitution, whose drafters debated and rejected the idea of a shared presidency in the interests of accountability. Wills accused the Bush administration of running a plural presidency by allowing Cheney to assume unprecedented power in areas such as intelligence and national security. “At a time when we should be trying to return to the single-executive system the constitution prescribes, it does not seem to be a good idea to put another co-president in the White House,” he wrote.

Back in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton put his wife in the spotlight, explicitly pitching the idea of a co-presidency or “two-for-theprice-of-one.” When he quickly found that it didn’t sell, his campaign switched gears, casting Hillary in the role of traditional spouse competing in cookie bake-offs against Barbara Bush. But as soon as he was in the White House, Clinton assigned his wife to chair a task force on health care reform, which did not end well. “You can see that clearly, in their heads, there is a notion of a co-presidency,” says Troy. “It is profoundly uncomfortable for a democracy created in rejection of a monarchy. The notion that you get all this power and standing simply because you are married to the president, male or female, is profoundly threatening to a democracy, because it creates the perception of a lack of accountability. You are not fire-able.”

Critics now say Bill Clinton could be another Cheney-style power behind the throne—with even less accountability. And given that he has said he would continue to raise money for his philanthropic William J. Clinton Foundation, for which he has already solicited more than US$500 million, questions are starting to be raised about possible conflicts of interest. There are strict limits on the amount individuals can give to his wife’s cam-

paign—US$2,300. But his foundation and other initiatives face no such limits on the generosity of individuals or even foreign governments who seek to ingratiate themselves with his spouse (he has received donations from the Saudi royal family and the governments of Kuwait and Qatar, for example).

“His fundraising for the foundation is a significant potential conflict of interest,” says Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group that has battled both the Clinton and Bush administrations over access to information and secrecy laws. “His wife will be president. It will be a vehicle for people trying to influence the president, and there can be no doubt that’s what will happen, and it’s already happening.”

Already, the New York Times has reported the case of Canadian mining tycoon Frank Giustra, who gave or pledged US$130 million to Clinton’s charitable efforts after a joint trip to Kazakhstan in 2005. According to the Times, Giustra was trying to curry favour with the Kazakh government in an ultimately successful effort to buy into uranium projects controlled by the state-owned uranium agency. During the trip, Bill Clinton praised the Kazakh regime for its openness and attended a banquet for its strongman leader, while supporting Kazakhstan’s bid to head a human rights organization in Europe. Meanwhile, his wife had expressed reservations about the regime. The case raised alarm bells, and the Washington Post this


week editorialized that “Ms. Clinton must make clear that her husband’s foreign policy freelancing—whether or not it intersects with the interests of his big givers—will have no place in a third Clinton administration.”

But to admirers of the Clintons, the notion of bringing back Bill is one of Hillary’s selling points. “It would be foolish to have such an asset available and not take advantage of that asset,” says Gary Wekkin, a political scientist at the University of Central Arkansas who has authored several studies about Hillary Clinton and the role of first ladies in U.S. history. He argues that Hillary Clinton showed that a spouse can play a constructive role in a presidency. Wekkin notes that after the health care reform failure, Hillary Clinton continued to work for the causes of women’s and children’s rights, mainly outside the U.S. She began with her speech to the Beijing UN conference on women, and lobbied for her husband to appoint Madeleine Albright as secretary of state, who then created a women’s issues department within the State Department. Then Clinton

and Albright launched a non-governmental organization to mentor female leaders in developing countries. “Rather than being stopped, she continued pursuing her agenda but at a different level,” says Wekkin. “It worked on a global level in a way that it didn’t at a domestic level.”

According to some recent political memoirs, Hillary Clinton played a behind-thescenes role in other areas of foreign policy, such as helping the British government under Tony Blair persuade her husband to go into Kosovo; convincing him to stick by the leadership of Boris Yeltsin in Russia; and serving as a back-channel communication between him and the governments of France, Israel and

others. “I think Bill Clinton would certainly advise her as she did him,” says Wekkin. “But he would have to be very careful to have that influence seen to be upstairs. If he’s too involved, too much in the spotlight, he will make her look weaker. That is the lesson we learned in South Carolina.”

The details of Hillary’s role in her husband’s presidency are still largely secret. The Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., holds the papers from those years, but Bill Clinton has instructed it to block the release of records relating to family members including Hillary (the library is now being sued by Judicial Watch). In a Hillary Clinton presidency, in the absence of official disclosures or private leaks, learning about Bill Clinton’s role will be next to impossible, Fitton says, because freedom of information laws would not apply to a husband without an official position. “I think it’s fair to say it would be a co-presidency. Will he be as influential with her as she was possibly with him? I don’t know. That’s almost inscrutable—you’re getting into someone’s marriage.”

At a candidates’ debate in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, Hillary Clinton was asked, “If your campaign can’t control the former president now, what will it be like when you’re in the White House?” She responded that her husband is a “passionate spouse,” but noted that at the end of the day, it’s her name on the ballot. “And it will be my responsibility as president and commander-in-chief, after consulting broadly with a lot of people who have something to contribute to difficult decisions, I will have to make the call. And I am fully prepared to do that.”

On Monday night, when she was a guest on the Late Show, host David Letterman again raised the issue of Bill Clinton set loose in the White House, “going through stuff.” Hillary Clinton laughed quite hard and said, “In my White House, we will know who wears the pantsuits.” Maybe so. But McGill’s Troy suggests she might take out some insurance. He suggests making Bill her personal envoy to the AIDS crisis in Africa. “Bill Clinton is too young and too energetic and talented and egotistical to be put out to pasture,” he says. “So you get him on a plane with Bono— and get him out of the house.” M