Late last year I spent an afternoon talking with Bill Clinton in Fayetteville, at the University of Arkansas. When it was over, all I wanted was to get either a coffee or a beer. Clinton had made one major speech and several other appearances earlier that day, and was due in Chicago that night. As we stepped out of the interview room, we found scores of people still waiting to catch a glimpse of him. Naturally he headed for them and, with apparent delight, shook hands with each person and had his picture taken with most. Once, such a performance could have been explained as part of his thirty-year campaign for electoral approval. Now he does it because he likes to.
And because he can. Two years after he left the White House at age fifty-four, the youngest former President since Theodore Roosevelt, nearly a century earlier, Bill Clinton remains almost alarmingly vigorous. Roosevelt, who was an ex-President at fifty, had served seven years and could have chosen to run again. He soon regretted not having done so, and for the next presidential election he was back, in a losing effort as the Bull Moose Party nominee. But running for President is one of the very few options not open to Bill Clinton. (Before Clinton only Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan were affected by the Twenty-second Amendment, and both were too old and sick to have run again anyway.)
Clinton would clearly run again if he could. In speeches he says he was "too young" and "too restless" to just retire after leaving office. What will he do with himself? How he uses these stores of energy is of obvious importance to him. It will also matter to the rest of us, both because of factors peculiar to Clinton and because of general trends in the role of former Presidents.
The factors peculiar to Clinton involve the aftereffects of his presidency. His central rhetorical theme in office concerned transition—building the "bridge to the twenty-first century," moving the economy from the industrial to the technological age, expanding alliances to reflect the end of the Cold War, changing the Democratic message so that the party could win national elections. The strategy was an obvious success while Clinton was in office. But two years after his departure the completion of each transition is in doubt.
Clinton's Vice President, Al Gore, could not hold the presidency. Clinton himself probably could have done so, as he is known to believe, which only reinforces the suspicion that his two terms demonstrated personal virtuosity more than lasting institutional effect. Consider the contrast with Ronald Reagan: Reagan was not in shape to have won a third term, but his Vice President, the elder George Bush, was elected, and Reagan's impact on his party helped it toward its current natural-majority status in Congress.
The prosperity of Clinton's 1990s, hailed as a "long boom" then, is being reconsidered as a "bubble" now. Both labels overstate reality, but the prolonged current recession inevitably raises doubts about the previous gains. The main defense and security problem of the moment, dealing with terrorism, is one that Clinton today says he was deeply concerned about, but it was hardly the centerpiece of the Administration's public statements.
Clinton is lionized around the world to an extraordinary degree. He is more popular in most foreign countries than those countries' own leaders. When he appeared with Tony Blair last fall at the British Labour Party's annual conference, and made an indirect but unmistakable attack on the domestic policies of George W. Bush, he received a two-minute standing ovation and rapturous comment in the press. "There is no single definition of what makes a great political speech," the Guardian observed in a representative editorial. "Yet no one who was present at Blackpool yesterday afternoon was in any doubt that they had just heard one ... If one were reviewing it, five stars would not be enough ... What a speech. What a pro. And what a loss to the leadership of America and the world."
The performance was so powerful that Blair promptly called Bush to assure him of his continued loyalty and support. At another recent gathering in England, Clinton so upstaged all others, including Blair, that some attendees thought the Prime Minister was miffed. In response to a question I put to him, Blair graciously said of Clinton, "I'm giving no secrets away by saying his contribution was, for many people, the highlight of the weekend ... People listen because they know that he knows what he is talking about."
Yet in his own country Clinton's position is as ambiguous as ever. An illustration of a point everyone understands: On my way to hear Clinton's speech in Fayetteville, I was trapped in traffic amid the throngs of supporters eager to get there. The taxi driver, a native Arkansan, used the time to give an extra-detailed explanation of why Clinton was not simply a terrible President but perhaps the greatest liar ever born.
The polarizing nature of Clinton's personality is a given. But while in office he could always point to his "job approval" rating—essentially, public gratitude for peace and prosperity —as proof of his worth. Retroactively that rating is being revised. Although he cannot run for re-election, he may feel he has to run for history's approval, as Jimmy Carter has done with his good works, and as Richard Nixon attempted to do with his many books about foreign policy. And as was the case with Nixon and Carter, the end of Clinton's presidency has not meant the end of a vociferous anti-Clinton chorus in politics and parts of the press.
In short, Clinton has both motive and opportunity to keep himself in the public eye: motive because of doubts about his legacy; opportunity because of his vigor and relative youth. His circumstances fit a more general trend, which is the institutionalization of the post-presidency as part of political life.
When George W. Bush took office, America had five living former Presidents. Only once before, and briefly, had there been so many. A series of one-term administrations in the pre-Civil War decades left five ex-Presidents on the scene at the start of Abraham Lincoln's term. (Several of them opposed Lincoln's anti-slavery policies, and one, John Tyler, was actually elected to the Confederate House of Representatives.) The difference now is all the structure, expectations, and opportunities that come with being an ex-President.
A presidential-library system gives former Presidents a reason to raise millions of dollars, and provides a venue for conferences, staff reunions, historical displays, and so on. There are corporate directorships, the lecture circuit, celebrity golf tournaments. A world media market has made U.S. Presidents some of the best-known people on earth. They are invited to give speeches, receive awards, resolve disputes, support worthy causes. Foreign publishers bid eagerly for rights to their books.
Different ex-Presidents find different ways of using these opportunities, but the younger they are, the more opportunities they are likely to seize. They have more energy. They need more money for the years ahead. They often have more to prove. They have more time in which to carry out their plans. When Jimmy Carter received the Nobel Prize, twenty-two years after he left the White House, he was only a few months older than Ronald Reagan had been at the end of his second term. Carter was fifty-six when he left the presidency, Reagan seventy-nine.
Younger politicians and longer life-spans mean that the future is likely to hold more Carters and Clintons. George W. Bush is Clinton's contemporary, so he would be fifty-eight after one term or sixty-two after two. America has one very active former President in Carter and is now getting another in Clinton. They are a preview of the future.
Over the course of last fall I had a variety of brief exchanges with Clinton, extensive interviews with many of his past appointees and current associates, and one long in-person discussion with Clinton in Fayetteville. I also saw Clinton perform before a variety of audiences, large and small. Simply as an experience, this was like coming across a champion athlete who had retired in his prime—Sandy Koufax, say—and seeing that he still had the old stuff. No one else in modern politics has matched Clinton's ability to speak with equal poise to people at every level of class, education, and sophistication. To skeptics, this is further proof that Clinton is a chameleon. To me, it demonstrates a combination of emotional and intellectual acuity that other people would copy if they could. Seeing Clinton explain himself to a wide variety of audiences was like meeting Koufax in the late 1960s and watching him toss a ball around.
The immersion also left me with two feelings about the nature of his post-presidency. One is that it will be very much like his Administration. It will be noisy and controversial. It will rely heavily on his skills as a speaker, a charmer, and a fundraiser. It will create both admirers and contemptuous detractors. And it will present Clinton with a challenge he faced throughout his Administration: that of deciding on, and sticking with, a finite number of activities, causes, and principles from the vast range available to him.
Clinton's daily life appears to be a toned-down but still recognizable version of his White House existence. He travels in ordinary sedans or SUVs rather than in an armored limousine—but he still moves through town in a two- or three-car entourage with Secret Service agents and an aide. He can't travel on Air Force One anymore, and he mentioned the agony of returning occasionally to normal airline travel. But he still travels all the time, and advance workers radio back and forth to one another about his movements. The pressure for time on his schedule would seem intense to anyone but a sitting President. I can attest that every time I saw him in a public gathering, throngs were clamoring to catch his eye. He is always on the phone, to political associates around the world and contacts overseas. On a drizzly late-October afternoon, as he walked onto the site of his presidential library, in Little Rock, an aide handed him a cell phone. "Gray, how ya' doing?" It was the governor of California, Gray Davis, checking a few details in the final stages of his re-election drive. If Clinton's in box was jammed with decision memos during his presidency, it's full of temptations and suggestions now. He could be the best-paid speaker in the world. He could endorse products or be dealt into businesses. Some of his associates think that Clinton's future is as an author, whether of policy books or mystery novels. Some think he should be the new Mayor Richard Daley, wielding power and developing strategies for the hapless Democrats. Some think he should be the old Bill Clinton—the leading voice of the Democrats against the Republicans. Some think he could beat Jimmy Carter's record as an international peacemaker, because his greater political skills would better equip him to actually change minds. At least one man told me that Clinton could and should succeed Nelson Mandela as unofficial President of the Third World.
With luck Clinton could do one or a few of these things. No one could do more than a few. The risk, as one of his former senior officials told me, is that "in trying to make a difference in all, he makes a difference in none." (This is the place to note that members of the Clinton diaspora—a term some of them actually use—are reluctant to be quoted by name when expressing even mildly skeptical thoughts.)
Clinton recognizes this danger—in theory. When you leave the presidency, he told me, "you lose your power but not your influence, but the influence must be concentrated in a few areas." Still, at the moment he is trying to do almost everything—write a book, lead international causes, make money, offer advice. We'll soon see whether he can be more disciplined out of office than he was in it.
But my other feeling is this: Whatever path Clinton finally takes, it will not lead him far from the public stage. To the relief of some Americans and the annoyance of others, he is not going away. Clinton has been an international figure for barely a dozen years. He may have twice that long ahead of him. He will be post-President for life.
Bill Clinton has done a few things that are routine in his two years out of office. He has struggled to find the right direction; he has planned a presidential library; he has made a lot of money. A word about each of these.
"In almost every case it takes them a while to figure out what to do with themselves," Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia University, says of ex-Presidents in general. "The exceptions are few. John Quincy Adams is the most obvious one—he was back in the House two years after leaving the presidency." Teddy Roosevelt immediately went on a year-long safari to Africa and remained virtually invisible in political life for most of the next year before re-emerging as a Bull Moose. "Some Presidents never establish a particular role for themselves," Brinkley says. "Actually, most of them. They write their memoirs, build their libraries, play golf, make speeches, have no major role in public life." Harry Truman left office with dismal approval ratings and did not survive to see his rehabilitation. Lyndon Johnson went into a quick decline in Texas, looking as if he were literally being killed by the controversy over the Vietnam War that had destroyed his presidency.
In his first year out of office Clinton fit this part of the pattern. The last-minute pardons he had issued sent him off in a new cloud of controversy and withering criticism. At least one big-ticket speaking engagement was canceled as a result. He was taken to task for booking expensive midtown office space in Manhattan, and he ended up in Harlem—which he now says was the best solution all along. And he turned his attention to his foundation and library.
Clinton's will be the twelfth presidential library. (Or the eleventh "official" one. The Richard Nixon Library, in Yorba Linda, is not recognized or operated by the National Archives, because of an ongoing dispute over presidential papers.) What now seems a timeless tradition was actually begun by Franklin Roosevelt, in 1939, to concentrate the archives of a presidency rather than letting them be scattered among aides and souvenir dealers. The libraries have become strangely revealing testaments to each President's style and character. Lyndon Johnson's library, on the University of Texas campus, is the dominant feature in the view of Austin from the interstate highway.
Clinton's library is meant to be "more than just a little shrine to me," as Clinton put it in our interview. Instead, in keeping with the standard rhetoric of his Administration, it is intended to be "America's first museum about our transition into a new millennium—about a new way of working, of relating to each other and the rest of the world." The parent organization of the library, by the way, is the William J. Clinton Foundation. At his speeches now the former President is always introduced as William Jefferson Clinton. His office e-mail domain is @owjc.org, for "office of William Jefferson Clinton." Jimmy Carter received his Nobel Prize as Jimmy Carter, but at some point in the past few years "Bill" Clinton officially disappeared.
Clinton's library will cost some $165 million to build, and he is trying to raise $200 million for its construction and an operating endowment. Clinton is careful to point out that he now devotes half his time to "public service," which ranges from charitable and international work to fundraising for his party. He also stresses that his mountain of debt, approximately $10 million in legal fees from the impeachment and other problems, is the reason he is spending only half his time this way. "After I get my legal bills paid and my houses paid, and all that kind of stuff, I'd like to get where I can just spend a hundred percent of my time on public service," he told me. "That's my objective, and I hope by the time I'm sixty I'll be able to do that."
At his pace that goal should be well within reach. Even though Clinton has never been accused of being motivated mainly by money, the money is rolling in. "He used to joke that he'd be the poorest member of our class until he left the White House," one of his college classmates told me. "Then he'd be the richest." Hillary Clinton received $8 million for her upcoming book, and Bill Clinton's book deal has been widely reported as worth between $10 million and $12 million. Because Hillary Clinton is in the Senate, her spouse's income from speaking fees must be disclosed annually. According to the report for 2001, in his first year out of office Bill Clinton made $9.2 million in fifty-nine speaking appearances. The listed fees ranged from a low of $28,100 for an appearance at the London School of Economics to a high of $350,000 from the Congresso Nazionale della Pubblicità, or National Advertising Council, in Milan. He got $250,000 apiece for appearances before groups in Hong Kong, Spain, Brazil, and Germany, as well as for attending a Fortune magazine conference in New York. He made a three-day, three-speech swing, for a total of $550,000, through Sweden, Austria, and Poland, and another three-day, three-speech tour, earning himself $450,000, for the Miki Corporation of Japan. The Jewish National Fund, in the United Kingdom, paid $400,000 for three speeches in three days in England and Scotland.
"He has literally a lifetime of six-figure speeches ahead of him, depending on how many he wants to do," Robert Barnett, the lawyer who represents Clinton in his business deals, including publishing and speaking arrangements, told me. "He could give two speeches every day of the year." Clinton's speaking agent, Don Walker, told the Associated Press that invitations were "piling up like airplanes over La Guardia on a foggy day," and that he was "positive" Clinton would be able to keep up the lucrative stream indefinitely. In addition to his star quality and his ability to give a strong speech, Clinton leaves customers happy because of his willingness to stay, socialize, and press the flesh. "He'll greet every guest, pose for every picture, answer every question, sign every autograph," Barnett says. "One afternoon at four o'clock I got a call from him in my office. He'd finished a speech in Hong Kong, where it was five A.M. He said, 'Yeah, I just got done shaking hands.'"
The view in the Clinton camp is that he has relentlessly taken the high road to pay his debts. He has turned down all the thousands of product endorsements, autograph and memorabilia deals, and similar offers that have poured into his office from around the world. Last fall, in a rare moment of total tone-deafness, Clinton kidded Bob Dole about his commercials for Viagra. The two were appearing together on Larry King Live, to raise money for children who had lost parents in the September 11 attacks. You could practically see Dole considering, one by one, the many comebacks he could make to this gauche comment. Finally he bit his tongue. To anyone other than Clinton, Viagra would seem the last subject about which he should jest. Clinton must have felt entitled because he'd rejected all ads himself.
One former senior official, after marveling at Clinton's intellectual and personal abilities, said he was counting the days until the debts were paid and Clinton could go off the circuit. "If you look down the list of people he has addressed, it is pretty undistinguished," this person said. "I'm not sure he actually addressed the New Jersey Beer Distributors, but he's addressing groups like the New Jersey Beer Distributors." For the record, the speaking list includes Success Events International, of Tampa, two events at $125,000 each; International Profit Associates, $125,000; an executive-search firm in Spain, $200,000; Colonial Life Insurance of Trinidad-Tobago, $200,000; and the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives, $125,000. In fairness to Clinton, he does have those debts, and any other way of raising so much money so fast, from endorsements to corporate consultancies to sweetheart venture-capital deals, would seem more compromising. The test will be whether he has actually stopped buck-raking by age sixty, in 2006.
Then there are those of Clinton's activities that are unusual. "If you look at the former Presidents that played a real role, they basically break down into three types." This was Clinton's response when I asked him which historical models he thought fit his own case.
The first group is represented by Thomas Jefferson; these are the ex-Presidents who kept a hand in politics through relationships with successors and protégés. "Jefferson essentially went back to his business but continued to exercise great indirect influence over the affairs of the country," Clinton said. "He gave advice to Madison and Monroe, counseled them." Richard Nixon also illustrates this approach, though Clinton did not mention him.
Clinton's second group is made of ex-Presidents who return to direct involvement in presidential politics. Theodore Roosevelt is known for his failed attempt to regain the presidency. Grover Cleveland is the only man ever to return to the White House after being voted out.
"Then there is the 'find some other way to serve' model," Clinton said. The best-known examples here are John Quincy Adams, with his return to the House, and Jimmy Carter. "But there are two other important examples." One is Herbert Hoover, who in his seventies, after a long period in the wilderness, complied with Harry Truman's request that he chair the Hoover Commission on government reorganization. The other is William Howard Taft, who in his mid-sixties became Chief Justice of the United States.
So which was the path for Clinton? More Carter than anything else, he said. "I had to sort of reconceive my life when I got out. I'd been in one vein for thirty years. 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."
Some of the activities Clinton is now considering or undertaking can be fit into either the Jefferson or the Carter category, but whichever model ultimately dominates, he faces the problem of deciding how many things he can try to do.
His ongoing role in politics depends on two traits that even his harshest critics acknowledge: his skill as a speaker and his cunning as a political strategist and tactician. As I observed him at events last fall involving a wide variety of groups, I was reminded of his virtuosity. I won't try to present vignettes, not even of his induction into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, because when his words are reproduced on the page, they look much less interesting than they sounded when delivered. At none of the speeches did I see an audience member who squirmed in his or her seat, or seemed to lose attention even during hour-long presentations. At the end of one event in Washington, which occurred while the Senate was preparing to authorize war against Iraq, Clinton initially flummoxed his listeners by saying that instead of Iraq he wanted to discuss ... Africa. A deflating sound escaped the crowd, as if air were going out of a huge balloon. I saw at least one reporter stalk out the back door. But an hour later, as Clinton reached his conclusion, every face in the room was turned to him attentively. I actually overheard a grizzled network cameraman, packing up his gear behind me in the press gallery, say, "I had forgotten what he can do."
I had interviewed Clinton several times over the years, usually in a more official setting; the long interview I conducted with him in Fayetteville reminded me what the nonstop flow of information out of him is like. Clinton was forty-five minutes late when he strolled into the office where I was to see him. Yet he acted as if he had all the time in the world. He pulled out a big cigar, which he never lit but gestured with throughout our conversation—and for half an hour, before I asked a single question, he delivered a monologue.
He gave a long, detailed, unhurried social history of Fayetteville and its environs. He talked about the local architect Fay Jones, whose Thorncrown Chapel, in the Ozarks, won a coveted design award, delivered by Prince Charles. He talked about Robert Leflar, who was a very old member of the Arkansas law-school faculty when Clinton was a very young member—and who for decades traveled once a week to New York to give lectures at New York University. About what victory at the nearby Battle of Pea Ridge had meant to General Grant during the Civil War. And why Isaac Murphy, a schoolteacher from the area who later became Arkansas's governor, led a movement for secession from Arkansas when the state seceded from the Union. "See, these five counties around here were hill-country counties, so there was no cotton culture! There were actually a hundred and fifteen free blacks in Marion County, ninety miles east of here. That was in the 1850 census, before all the southern states passed rules saying freed slaves had to get out. When the five counties tried to get out of Arkansas, they couldn't, because the counties were the creatures of the state. But Isaac Murphy kept trying ..." (Surprisingly, most of this checked out when I looked it up. The easy, encyclopedic display of obscure knowledge must have been the model for President Bartlet's discourses on The West Wing. If you enjoy that kind of display from Bartlet, you'd enjoy it from Clinton.) He mentioned the student who was "basically my first serious girlfriend," a concept to conjure with, but who was wooed away by the son of Sam Walton, the billionaire founder of Wal-Mart. "I mean, all these rich, textured characters. I could tell you stories ... I saw people out there I could not bee-leeeeve." Clinton is a bigger, rangier man than one might guess from pictures; his hands and fingers are like a basketball player's. He sat a few inches away, poking toward my chest with his finger or slapping me on the knee.
Eventually he took up the events of the day, with capsule judgments on Iraq options, George Bush's performance, and Al Gore, then still considered the favorite for the 2004 Democratic nomination. On the subject of Iraq, Clinton said, he was "neither fish nor fowl," by which he meant that he was more alarmed about Saddam Hussein's menace than most doves but more concerned about the side effects of unilateral action than most hawks. "It's a funny thing when you're not in office anymore. In some ways your vision is clearer, because you see the big things clearer. But in other ways your vision is cloudier, because you may miss the exigencies of the moment."
The heart of his assessment was that Saddam Hussein has to go, but getting rid of him the wrong way could be as dangerous as leaving him in place. The wrong way would be one that alienated Europe, NATO, Arab and Muslim states, the United Nations, or anyone else who should increasingly be part of "us." The right way would strengthen those same alliances in the process of driving out Saddam Hussein. "My instinct is that the Iraqis will do pretty well when he's gone," Clinton said. "It's just that we can't go around deposing people without global support. Every African leader I know wants [Robert] Mugabe [the President-turned-tyrant of Zimbabwe] gone. But they'd be mad if we sent fifty thousand soldiers to depose him." In his speech earlier that day Clinton had made the case for international rather than unilateral efforts by arguing that America's current world dominance is "clearly a fleeting moment" that will end when China and India fulfill their ambitions and other powers rise. Therefore the United States should use the "magic moment" to build institutions it can rely on when the moment passes.
After a summer in which it seemed to disdain the need for or the value of allied cooperation, the Bush Administration had taken its case against Iraq to the United Nations. I asked Clinton what he thought accounted for this.
He ran through a list of suspects, trying to identify the people or forces that had changed Bush's mind. Perhaps Tony Blair? Blair had been faultlessly supportive of Bush in public, but Clinton suggested that the Prime Minister "probably has been quite effective behind the scenes" in advocating an allied approach. "[Blair] took the problem very seriously. He was somewhat bullish on our ability to have good things happen in Iraq. But he also was determined to pull for the moderates in the Bush Administration who wanted to do this, if at all possible, with a broader alliance and in a way that strengthened the multilateral process." Maybe Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to the elder George Bush? Perhaps his celebrated summer op-ed opposing unilateral war had been a powerful signal from the Republican wise men. "And I think that [the hawks] were somewhat sobered by the reactions of the Germans and other allies," Clinton said. "They might have complained about it, but they heard it ... And Colin, you know, Secretary Powell, he must have been weighing in."
But Clinton's central judgment was that Bush himself was responsible for the shift away from a threatened unilateral war: "I think President Bush has pretty good political instincts." He raised his eyebrows at this point, so that I would appreciate the significance of this praise. "I think his antennae are sharper than, you know, the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz wing. I think he's got a sense of what the traffic will bear." "It might all be a ruse," Clinton said of the Bush strategy of working through the United Nations. "But it looks legitimate. It looks to me like it's a real straight-up deal. I tried to support the President's speech in Cincinnati [which endorsed the UN approach] as well as his subsequent efforts in the UN. I think changing this resolution [so that it called for tougher inspections] was really smart. Because, I mean, how are the French or Russians going to justify a vote against real inspections in favor of phony inspections?"
He continued, "That's sort of my take on it. I like where this thing is going. It seems—it feels legitimate. It feels like this is not just a vast charade, preparing for conflict. If that's true, and the conflict comes, we'll have much broader support and be much closer to where we were in Kosovo." The allied effort in Kosovo is for Clinton and his associates the gold standard of international peacekeeping cooperation. "And that will guarantee a much greater likelihood of success in the aftermath. And if, God forbid, [Saddam] does use or give away any of those weapons, we'll have a more broadly shared responsibility, because everybody else is going to be aware of the risks just like we are."
I mentioned to Clinton that the previous day the conservative pundit and sometime presidential candidate Pat Buchanan had said that George W. Bush had a "look in his eye" that showed he was determined, one way or another, to go to war. "A lot of the liberals think that too," Clinton said. "And I think part of [Bush] does want to do it."
"If I were one of those guys"—by which he meant veterans of the first Bush Administration—"I would feel pretty bad that I got talked into this hundred-hour war [in 1991]. But I've never criticized the Bush Administration for not deposing Saddam Hussein. Because I know the facts. And the facts are that George Bush had to promise not to march on Baghdad to get the Arab support."
Clinton was notably respectful when talking about the current President, in part because he understands from experience the difficulties of coping with Saddam Hussein. "I'm not criticizing President Bush on this, because I did the same thing," he said. "I've sat there and pontificated about how [Saddam] is 'the only guy to use chemical weapons on his own people.' Yeah, he did that, and the Reagan Administration was for him when he did it"—during the Iran-Iraq war. "Nobody raised a peep then, because he was against Iran."
Clinton seemed less engaged when it was time to talk about Al Gore. Weeks after our interview, after Gore had announced his decision not to run, Clinton e-mailed a response to a question I had asked: "I believe history will show that Al Gore did more good things for Americans as Vice President than any other person who ever had that office." But when I asked him in the fall what he thought of Gore's highly publicized speech in San Francisco in September, in which Gore had said that the Administration was using the prospect of war for political ends, Clinton said he hadn't heard or read the speech—a revealing admission in itself. "All I read were the press reports. And"—here a long pause, basically the only one during our discussion—"my observations would be three."
His first big point was that Gore had a legitimate beef. A computer disk had recently turned up containing a memo from Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, that emphasized the value of the war issue in the 2002 midterm elections. "I can only imagine what they would have done to us if they'd found a computer disk that said, 'Hey, we've got to bomb Bosnia because we're not in good shape for the '94 elections.' I mean, they would have just killed us!"
His second point was that it was also legitimate to discuss various means of conducting a war, including working through the United Nations. But—point three—it was important to raise questions "in the context of this serious problem we face from Iraq."
"Al and I, we had endless conversations about Iraq," Clinton said, somewhat seigneurlike. "Al Gore has a good, clear, unambiguous record of being strong on the importance of trying to contain Saddam Hussein and dealing with his chemical and biological weapons. So if he said what I think he said, I think it's fine."
Clinton then began to talk more directly about American domestic politics. His very existence poses a dilemma for the Democratic Party. On the one hand, he is still the best explainer, fundraiser, and campaigner the party has. During his speech at the Labour Party conference Clinton made the case against the Bush Administration's economic policies more effectively than any congressional Democrat has dared or managed to do.
On the other hand, Clinton's power seems strangely nontransferable. He could get himself elected, even after working himself into terrible binds. But compared with, say, Ronald Reagan, he has not had tremendous coattails—for his Vice President, for candidates in the House or the Senate, for his party nationwide. So arguments swirl among Democrats at all levels about where Clinton, like some sixteen-inch gun on the battleship Missouri, should be deployed. Should he speak more in public? Should he stick to a backstage role? Can he teach others what he knows?
The Democrats are gravitating back toward Clinton's original slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," and they realize that Clinton might help to bring attention to the issue. Robert Rubin, Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury, told me that over the next year and a half the basic premises of economic policy should come up for debate, especially "fiscal discipline"—that is, controlling budget deficits. "The people who want tax cuts can't justify them if they're also concerned about fiscal rectitude," Rubin said. "So they'll have to say that fiscal discipline doesn't matter. In my view, that's nonsensical—and at odds with virtually all mainstream economic thinking—but it's the only thing they can say." Clinton could be "enormously effective" in making the fiscal argument, Rubin said— if he could find an "appropriate" way to re-enter the debate.
Some of Clinton's associates think that the only appropriate forum would be something august and nonpartisan, such as a university or a blue-ribbon commission. Others say to hell with augustness, get back into the fray. There was never a serious chance that Clinton would undertake a daily daytime talk show, on the Oprah model, because of its confining schedule. But some activists have tried to sell him on a weekly or monthly prime-time talk show, which would position Clinton as a hybrid of Ted Koppel, Bill Moyers, and FDR.
Clinton just waved his hand when I asked him about talk-show options. What he did say about direct involvement in today's debates is that he doesn't want to "take up oxygen" that the struggling preemies of the Democrats' next generation need in order to survive.
"Look," he said. "I can't run." In his tone he reminded me again of a champion athlete whose career had come to an unnaturally early end. "If somebody needs me to go do something [for the party], and nobody else can do it, I'll go do it." He pointed out that he had appeared at more than a hundred fundraising events for the party and its candidates in 2002. "I'd like for my direct political involvement to go way down ... but this year I don't know who else would have done it if I hadn't."
The political role Clinton says he prefers, and toward which he is moving, is that of strategist, coach, and rabbi for the Democrats' next presidential campaign. He said he has friendly relations with all the announced or presumed candidates—which in the absence of Al Gore means John Edwards, John Kerry, and Joseph Lieberman, from the Senate; Dick Gephardt, from the House; and Howard Dean, from the statehouse in Vermont. "If they want to talk to me, I'll talk to them and give them my best advice," Clinton said. But he made it clear that he would not pick a favorite or—despite his obvious relish for the topic—try to "handicap" the race by talking about how each was doing against the field. The closest he came to a handicap statement was, surprisingly, about John McCain. "Senator McCain has become increasingly outspoken on progressive issues that make him attractive to Democrats," Clinton replied by e-mail last year. "I wish he would join our party. But I think it is unlikely."
Tom Daschle, who had considered a run, told me, "I am quite sure that every person who has contemplated seeking the presidency has attempted to build a better relationship with him. I think he is widely acknowledged as one of the best political strategists not only of our time but of any time." John Podesta, Clinton's former chief of staff, said that Clinton would avoid leaning toward any favorites because he trusts the primary process to winnow the field: "Ultimately he is brutally analytic, so he thinks, Let's see who emerges as the one with the guts and the gumption, and the ideas and the ability to sell them."
The coaching relationship is complicated, for some obvious reasons, and the most intriguing tension is between Clinton and Edwards.
On paper Edwards is the closest thing to another Clinton. He is a moderate-seeming, youthful-looking, racially progressive, glibly well-spoken "fresh face" from the South. A year ago hopefulness about Edwards and despair over the alternatives triggered an early rush toward him by party activists. According to some members of the diaspora, Clinton, too, hoped Edwards would be the next big thing for the Democrats.
But the Edwards campaign soon went into reverse, in the judgment of party elders. The shift began on May 5 of last year, when Edwards appeared on Meet the Press and seemed so ill-informed on so many issues that he looked like the wrong bet to make the Democrats' case against George Bush. In fairness, he was as well-informed as Bush himself had been four years earlier, but not as well-informed as the incumbent he would face in 2004.
According to Washington lore, Clinton called Edwards after the appearance to offer him some Dutch-uncle counseling. Look, young man, you've got a great future ahead of you, he is supposed to have said. But you've got to learn the issues—so stay off the airwaves for the next year and hit the books.
I asked Clinton if that was true. Not exactly, he said—which turns out to mean, essentially, yes. "But it's got a smidgen of truth in it"—which he began to explain by offering his theory of presidential elections.
"Every presidential election is really about three things. At the bottom level it's about the specific issues. Then there's the big-deal idea. What's this election about? What's the meta-message? And then right at the top is, How do you feel about this person to be President?" Clinton said admiringly that in the 2000 campaign Bush had figured out "the only conceivable meta-issue" for his side. "At the time, I had a sixty-five-percent approval rating. What could they say? So the compassionate-conservative message was, Well, hey, I'm not going to be all that much different from them, but with a smaller government and a bigger tax cut. Wouldn't you like that? So they made their deal look like our deal. That let them thread the needle—or at least they got close enough for the events to unfold."
How did the formula affect Edwards's chances? Clinton said, "He's a smart, articulate guy. Tough as nails. He's got a compelling life story. He's been a senator as long as George Bush was governor of Texas. But ... he's been a senator ..." And here the real class divide in politics emerged, as Clinton sees it: between senators, who give speeches and cast votes, and governors, who have to balance large budgets and make departments run.
Four of the past five Presidents have been governors—all except Reagan's Vice President, the first George Bush. The last President elected from the Senate was John Kennedy. "The thing that people don't understand about running for President, which Clinton did understand," says Al From, one of Clinton's early backers at the Democratic Leadership Council, "is that you have to know what you want to do. What we did for two solid years before Clinton announced was go around the country testing ideas. Governors see the reality of the school system and the welfare system and the tax code." Clinton told me that it was his twelve years as governor, with experience at the delivery end of government, that prepared him for a national campaign. This brought him back to Edwards's predicament.
"I never saw the Meet the Press program," he said. "But way before that appearance, when [Edwards] was making all these other television shows, he called me. I told him: John, you're great on TV. You make a great talk. You can talk an owl out of a tree." (I think he said "owl," but I didn't want to ask and sound like a city boy.)
"So I told him, months before that Meet the Press thing, that he'd been on TV enough to be hot. Which was good. But if I were in his position, I'd spend lots of time trying to think things through. 'Cause I told him that I thought that my association with the Democratic Leadership Council, with the education commissions in the state, with policy boards, with these groups most of you had never heard of, had given me a chance over a ten-year period to decide what I really believed about the big issues facing the country. And to build a meta-message of the bigger themes that would be the basis of my campaign. By the way, the great thing about this approach is that if you win, you don't need to wonder what you'll do. You've actually got something in place."
The prevailing wisdom of the moment, though Clinton did not say so directly, is that Edwards has not risen to the challenge. In October, as Democratic senators queued up to give speeches on Iraq, Hillary Clinton was chosen to speak in a prominent time slot. Edwards had been hoping to speak at the same time but was squeezed out. "Just stand there and look pretty, John," Hillary called to him mockingly, in a remark that was heard through the chamber (and later reported in Newsweek). Edwards left rather than listen to the speech. With Edwards, and with all the other candidates in the current crop, Bill Clinton's dealings are further complicated by the knowledge that Hillary Clinton could well be a candidate in 2008 if the party fails in 2004. The least candid-seeming comment Clinton made to me, by e-mail, was about his wife's future political prospects: "Hillary has made clear she has no plans to run for President. She is working very hard to be the best senator she can be for New York, and I'm proud of all she has already accomplished for our state and America and the world. We have worked for many of the same things throughout our lives, and generally have no conflict in that regard." As I look again at those last three words, I think this answer may be as artful as many of his others.
In addition to choosing the right "Jefferson" course to take in the years ahead, Clinton will also decide which of the various "Carter" possibilities he can sustain.
He says he hopes to emulate an underpublicized part of Carter's post-presidential career: his success as an author. Carter published one thick, dull book after leaving office —his official memoir, Keeping Faith. Then he turned himself into a best-seller machine with a string of shorter, livelier, more personal books and memoirs, including Turning Point, about his first run for office, and An Hour Before Daylight, about his boyhood in Plains.
With his eight-figure contract from Knopf, Bill Clinton has already been wildly successful by most writers' standards. The book should eventually appear in at least thirty languages—in many cases with special chapters by Clinton about subjects of particular interest to readers in, say, Pacific Rim countries or parts of the former Soviet Union. But the typical White House memoir is a failure in the literary and artistic sense. Even Presidents who, like Carter and Nixon, write other, very interesting books do their worst work in their presidential memoirs. The one widely praised official memoir is Ulysses S. Grant's, which Grant wrote as he was dying, in an attempt to pay his bills, and with which he is assumed to have enjoyed the guidance of Mark Twain. Clinton has told his associates that he has read all previous presidential memoirs, even the most obscure, plus other celebrated autobiographies, such as those of Lillian Hellman and Katharine Graham.
Clinton has put high hopes on writing a book that will be celebrated, rather than one that just pays the bills. In part this is natural vanity. "You know, this is scary," he told me. "Even if you've been totally honest, and think the book is you ... what if people don't like it? You can't make 'em buy a book. You know, what was that line from The Producers—'Sometimes they won't come and you can't make 'em'?" He laughed broadly. His uncertain tone could have been an act, but he sounded like someone who is bulletproof in his chosen field but now is exposing himself on new terrain. Also, if this book succeeds, Clinton has more he would like to write. He is a voracious reader of mysteries, and like many such people, he has fantasized about writing some of his own.
The book project highlights the question about Clinton's ability to focus. Writing a book is lonely and demoralizing work, even for someone who is not traveling every other day and making a hundred speeches a year. The hardest thing to imagine him doing is sitting alone for hours on end, staring at a notepad or a screen. Is he temperamentally fit for this process?
"Yes," he said sharply and immediately. "You know, I was scared to death I wouldn't be able to do it." He described how he has remodeled an old barn behind his house in Chappaqua and set it up as a writing studio. He has his lifetime's accumulation of memorabilia: the programs from his schoolboy band concerts, every letter he wrote his mother in college and every letter she wrote back, the thoughts he tape-recorded every month or so while in the White House. There are more than eighty hour-long tapes in this collection, which he has had transcribed. "I organize this stuff. I bring the boxes in. And I sit and I write in a notebook." A jab at the chest for me on each stressed word.
"Some of this has been painful for me," he said, "but it's all been wildly instructive. And it convinced me that nearly every person over fifty should find a time to sit down and engage in the same exercise, even if you never intend to publish anything. You need to think about what really meant something to you. Who did you really love? Who really made you what you are?"
Clinton said the book would be doomed if it involved a ghostwriter. The stilted tone would give it away. His main literary help comes from Ted Widmer, an American historian at Washington College, in Maryland, who was a speechwriter on Clinton's national-security staff. Widmer meets with Clinton once or twice a month for a day, and asks him questions to draw out his recollections. The sessions are taped, and Clinton works from the transcripts.
What remains to be seen is whether the diction and pacing that serve Clinton so well as a speaker will survive the transition to the page. His formal speeches are not encouraging. I'm not sure the Guardian would have accepted as an op-ed article the speech that it praised so highly. His editor, Robert Gottlieb, who has seen several hundred pages of manuscript, presumably knows how it's going, but he is not free to discuss the book with reporters until it comes out, in 2004.
As if all this were not enough, Clinton is also undertaking several international humanitarian efforts of the sort often associated with Jimmy Carter. One is the struggle to control AIDS worldwide. In a speech this past fall at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington, Clinton argued that AIDS is the most complicated and potentially most important international challenge of the next decade. He pointed out that medicines available in the developed world have largely made AIDS possible to live with. Yet in Africa, India, China, and elsewhere, tens of millions of people are likely to die from the disease—perhaps as many as were killed in the wars and genocide of the twentieth century. Politically, strategically, and economically this large-scale death will have tremendous ripple effects throughout the Third World. And as a moral issue, Clinton said, the deaths should be seen as a preventable holocaust. He has joined Nelson Mandela in leading an international effort to improve the medical infrastructure of affected countries, so that drug companies and donors in the developed world won't feel they're throwing their money away if they send aid.
Clinton's other main international effort comes through his alliance with Hernando de Soto, an influential Peruvian economist and writer. After leaving office Clinton read De Soto's book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. The book, like De Soto's previous The Other Path, argues that changes in property rights are the key to creating capital for the majority in the Third World and the former Soviet Union. Peasants in the countryside and workers or squatters in Third World cities all have "assets," De Soto says. They run tiny businesses, they tend little plots of land. Together these assets are worth trillions of dollars, or many times more than foreign aid or international loans. But because corrupt or antiquated legal systems do not recognize their rights to these assets, people have neither the ability nor the incentive to create new economic value in a market system.
De Soto is not at all a conservative by American political standards, but because of his emphasis on property rights, his acclaim in the United States has come mainly from the right. Late in 2001 Clinton got in touch with De Soto to say that he was much impressed by Mystery and that he would like to get together. "We had a meeting that went about three hours," De Soto told me. "What surprised me is that he had actually read the book cover to cover and thought about it. Then he told me, 'I've got a big chunk of my life, hopefully, ahead of me, and I want to do some good in this world. I think you're off to doing something really extraordinary, and I would like to become involved.'"
Since that time Clinton has praised De Soto's work as "the single most significant systematic thing going on in the world economically." He has also served as a middleman for the main action De Soto is proposing: namely, revising the constitutions, laws, and property regimes of developing countries to foster the growth of a market system. As De Soto puts it, his main audience is heads of state. In Afghanistan, in Kazakhstan, in Ghana, and in other countries Clinton has offered to participate directly in helping to bring these legal-reform projects to fruition. "His value is precisely as a politician who can help them work out the compromises," De Soto said. "And in every country I have seen he is, strangely, seen not as an American but as an approachable honorary citizen." Another associate said, "It's all the harder for him to pass up the foreign opportunities, because there is so much demand for him. He likes keeping this out of the American media, so they're not all over him with questions about motives."
Clinton's impact is potentially more sweeping in these regards than Carter's, because it involves the work of politics on a broader scale. As De Soto says, "Jimmy Carter's heart is in the right place, but when he comes to visit, it is as a respected gringo. Mr. Clinton goes beyond that, though he doesn't speak another language." It was De Soto who suggested that Clinton's appeal in the Third World was so broad that he could serve as a younger, more engaged successor to Nelson Mandela.
But even De Soto wondered whether the very breadth of Clinton's potential might be a problem. As a former senior appointee of Clinton's said, "There is one thing Jimmy Carter has that Bill Clinton lacks. That is a kind of dogged discipline. There is a kind of promiscuity in Clinton's interests, even though there is a greater need for discipline when he has fewer resources at hand. I have no doubt that he could make a big difference with AIDS in Africa, or in civil rights in the United States, or in increasing state capital in the poorest countries of the world, or in political philosophy." But, this person said, Clinton couldn't do all of these—or succeed in any of them unless he concentrated on one or two.
What Bill Clinton can do, in his public struggles to decide which opportunities to pass by, is help show the way for youngish ex-Presidents of the future. When I asked him about the prospect of an expanded corps of active ex-Presidents, he sounded excited in a way that made me think of "The X-Presidents" on Saturday Night Live. "What I would like to see us try to do is first of all find a few things we could do together," he said. "And secondly, if we're still all compos mentis, I'd like to see us organize really constructive debates about our honest disagreements—in a respectful way, so America could hear them ... Once we've got a handful of people who have been President and don't have a vested interest in hurting anybody else publicly and personally, I think we might be able both to do things together and sort of edify the American people about how to handle our differences."
"There is a certain liberation that comes with leaving the White House," Clinton said in a later exchange. "And in that sense there is more room for the kind of contentment that comes with having more free time, more freedom to decide what to do in life. But in the bigger scheme of things, I hope never to be 'too content,' because I consider myself as having a lifelong responsibility to use whatever influence I retain to help other people."
Whether people like or hate Clinton essentially turns on whether they believe or scoff at sentences like the previous one. I basically believe him. I've seen enough of the effort he has invested in well-meaning causes, and have heard enough thirdhand testimony about beneficial things he has done, to think that he is trying to do more than simply coast through the years left to him. Because of his youth, vigor, talent, and restlessness, he is sure to mark new parts of the political and social landscape as appropriate for post-presidential involvement. The less cynical our expectations about him, the more valuable his effect is likely to be.