|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.
The Kremlinology of the Clinton political universe is forever murky and subject to interpretation. The signs at this point, however, suggest that Hillary Clinton and her husband have different ideas about what he’ll do. Perhaps more telling than Bill Clinton’s self- investigation is a subsidiary detail: He also asked his staffers to compile an exhaustive list of his achievements, which must be about as close to the creation of a résumé as ex-presidents get, and betrays a longing to return to the presidential campaign trail that Al Gore overcautiously denied him. But so far his wife, too, has played it safe and kept him in a traditional spousal role, or as much of one as a popular former president can assume.
Bill Clinton, initially a vocal champion of his wife’s presidential chops, has said next to nothing to the press since Hillary announced her candidacy in January. His advisers say he has deliberately taken a hands-off approach to her campaign and ordered his staff to defer to hers. With the 2008 campaign well under way, he has spent most of his time writing a book about citizen activism, delivering paid speeches to private audiences, and tending to his foundation.
Still, Hillary Clinton cannot entirely ignore the benefit of his appeal. The former president regularly hosts private fund-raisers for her campaign and sends blast e-mails soliciting money. He also acts as surrogate in chief when she’s unable to attend important events. And like a chef who prepares a special recipe on important occasions, Hillary Clinton will sometimes invoke her husband’s name and legacy. In February, speaking before largely black audiences on her first campaign swing through South Carolina, she referred to him no fewer than six times, drawing applause at the mention of his name. And he was prominently displayed (though he did not speak at her events) during her recent trip to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the civil-rights movement.
Surprisingly enough, when husband and wife do talk publicly about the first Clinton administration, they don’t hesitate to discuss, at least indirectly, the scandal over the president’s marital infidelity—or, more precisely, the reaction to the scandal. As Bill Clinton wrote in a recent fund-raising pitch:
During eight years in the White House, Hillary and I faced a constant barrage of attacks from Washington Republicans. No insult was off- limits. No tactic was too low. They threw everything they could at us—but we beat them time and time again.
Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s oft-repeated justification for her candidacy— “Bill and I know how to beat [Republicans], and we have consistently”—is nothing if not an allusion to surviving her husband’s impeachment. Both Clintons try to use the memory of the Republican overreaction to the scandal to reignite liberal outrage, while simultaneously trying to prevent that scandal from overshadowing the current campaign by sequestering the man at the center of it. It’s a classic Clintonian straddle.
The irony of it all is that if the polls are to be believed—and if Bill Clinton’s elaborate self-examination didn’t turn up anything new—this tortured orchestration is unnecessary. And if you look closely, an answer to Hillary’s conundrum can be found right there in the numbers, too. Of those who think she would not make a good president, a recent Gallup/USA Today poll found that only 11 percent cite her husband as the reason. But of those who think she would, nearly half laud her experience, most of it gained in his administration, suggesting that “two for one” might be an attractive offer after all.