|See Bill Run: the former president,
more seen than heard from,
in Selma, Alabama
One of the juicier subplots of the 2008 presidential campaign—so juicy that it could be upgraded to full-fledged plot status at a moment’s notice—is the role that Bill Clinton will play. Will he disappear into the background, ceding center stage to his wife? Or will he reclaim the spotlight, seeking to remind war-weary Americans of better times? And if he does, will his personal history threaten his wife’s candidacy?
Clinton hopes to remain a subplot, rather than the big story. That’s why, at his prompting, researchers at his presidential library and his offices in Harlem embarked on a highly secretive two-year project: investigating their own boss.
The team conducted a painstaking reexamination of all the well-worn issues from Clinton’s presidency, poring over trial transcripts, internal White House documents, notes, and public and private correspondence, searching for any overlooked information that could be used to give new life to old embarrassments. Perhaps more important, the researchers covered Clinton’s postpresidential history too, with a muckraker’s eye, including the rumors about his private life that inevitably trail him.
All but a handful of Clinton’s staff and friends were kept in the dark about the vetting process, though two who did know about it confirmed its existence to me. Neither would describe how the results were disseminated or who has access to them now. But the purpose of the exercise is clear enough: Bill Clinton wants to know what everybody else could know about Bill Clinton. Knowing that, we can safely conclude this, too: Bill Clinton hopes to play a major role in his wife’s campaign.
But will he? The issue of the spousal role in a Clinton presidential run has come up before. During his first campaign, Bill Clinton routinely invoked his wife, joking that voters would get “two for one” if they elected him. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the candidate signaled, would be a coequal partner.
It didn’t occur to anyone—at least not soon enough—that the public might not want a (half-elected) partnership running the country. The downside of such an arrangement became apparent soon after Bill Clinton won the White House. When health-care reform—his wife’s high-profile charge—collapsed, the two-for-one deal became costly, weighing down his presidency.
To her credit, Hillary Clinton endured that ordeal—and the many others that followed. Her husband’s approval ratings when he left office were the highest of any president since the end of World War II. Not nearly as well appreciated is the fact that hers were almost as impressive: When she left the White House, 60 percent of the electorate believed she’d performed well as first lady, and, perhaps more striking in light of the early controversy, 62 percent expressed no reservations about her role formulating policy for her husband.
With First Lady Clinton now Senator Clinton and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, she faces the same choice her husband once did: Will hers be a “modern” political marriage that reprises his two-for-one pitch or a traditional one that features the spouse in a position of deference, to be seen but not heard? (No one close to the Clintons has any doubt that Bill, for a host of reasons, will comply with his wife’s wishes, whatever they may be.)
There are plenty of models for a first gentleman, but you have to look overseas to find them. Joachim Sauer, the husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, tends toward anonymity, which has earned him the nickname “The Phantom of the Opera” because he shows up with his wife only at musical performances. Denis Thatcher, husband of Margaret, was seemingly unbothered by the teasing that resulted from his position and from his penchants for golf and gin. At the other end of the spectrum is Park Sung Jun, the husband of South Korean Prime Minister Han Myeong Sook; both husband and wife are famous pro-democracy activists—but he more than she, for having spent 13 years in prison. (Say what you will about Bill Clinton, but his dossier is prison-free.) And Eva Perón presents the classic case of a spouse thoroughly overshadowing a president throughout the presidency.