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.