Who Was Bill Clinton, Anyway?

The former president heads out on the stump, working to rally voters who don’t even remember his administration.

Mark Makela / Reuters

DURHAM, N.C.—The mercury was well above 90 inside the small gymnasium, and the crowd was starting to look a little wilted from an hour of waiting. But Bill Clinton was just getting started. Clad in his customary suit and tie, the Big Dog was roaming the stage, mic in hand, cracking jokes.

“A couple weeks ago I celebrated my 70th birthday—I still can’t believe it,” he said, chuckling. “All the young people, they’re probably wondering why I’m not wrapped like a mummy or something.”

That’s a helpful, if somewhat macabre, shorthand for thinking about Bill Clinton’s role on his wife’s campaign for president. With the home stretch of the election just beginning, and Clinton unable to open up a wide lead over Donald Trump, he’s hitting the trail along with a flock of other big-name surrogates. What does the 42nd president have to offer Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, how diminished are his gifts, and is his campaigning worth the risks? Bill Clinton is a piece of living history (to borrow a phrase), but he’s stumping for the woman who wants to represent America’s future.

Bill Clinton’s popularity isn’t what it was just a couple years ago. He’s been buffeted by the acrimonious campaign as well as attacks on central elements of his presidential legacy, including the 1994 crime bill (from the left) and NAFTA (from both left and right). Just four years ago, seven in 10 Americans had a favorable view of him, according to Gallup. These days that’s down to 49 favorable and 46 unfavorable. Bloomberg found him at a stronger but still diminished 50-43.

While his own record has become an occasional liability for the Clinton campaign, he remains a major draw and an intuitively natural campaigner. In his speech at a community center in Durham Tuesday afternoon, Clinton’s political talents and long track record were amply on display. He was careful to name and thank each of the speakers before him, even the sixth grader who led the Pledge of Allegiance. A capacity crowd of 720 braved the heat to hear him, and another 100 were stuck outside.

What they heard was partly a detailed rundown of Hillary Clinton’s policies, and partly an act of self-defense. Since Bill Clinton left office—more than 15 years ago now—he’s focused on the Clinton Foundation, which has lately become another liability for his wife’s campaign. Releases of emails from the State Department have shown the frequent communication between the foundation and Foggy Bottom, and raised serious questions about whether there were quid-pro-quos for foundation donors. Critics, including major newspapers and some Democrats, have called on the Clintons to separate entirely from the foundation, or even to shut it down.

That seems like a simple, straightforward solution from the outside, but it doesn’t take much time watching Bill Clinton on the stump to see why the Clintons show little sign of budging. He has now run the foundation for longer than he was president and longer than he was governor of Arkansas. On Tuesday, he spoke lovingly about traveling the globe and doing Clinton Foundation work. For Donald Trump, the Clinton Foundation represents a useful bludgeon. For Hillary Clinton HQ in Brooklyn, it represents a political headache. But for Bill Clinton, it’s his post-presidential life’s work, and he takes the attacks personally.

“I got tickled the other day when Mr. Trump called my foundation a criminal enterprise. That was pretty funny, considering,” Clinton said. “Considering that the three major evaluators of foundations gave it the highest grade they can give, and the most recent one rated it even higher than the Red Cross. Unlike him we actually say who gives us money and what we spend it on, and disclose our tax returns and stuff like that.”

Clinton kept going, attacking the Republican nominee for an illegal $25,000 donation that his foundation gave to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was at the time considering whether to pursue a fraud investigation into Trump University and the Trump Institute. “And mysteriously, the investigation vanished!” Clinton laughed.

It was hard at times not to hear Clinton as the voice of the past. Who could begrudge him the chance to burnish his legacy a little bit, boasting of the nation’s successes when he was president? At other times, he sounded like the septuagenarian he was.

“Everywhere the difference is all that matters, some people may win a few elections, but good things don’t happen,” he warned. “North Carolina at its best represents the future of America, and I think the rest of the world, by embracing your diversity. The problem is we live in a Snapchat, Twitter world where it’s easier to just discredit people and call them names.”

Clinton mostly avoided the meandering which has become more common in his public appearances in recent years. (Of course, Clinton always spoke for a long time, and often far too long. Is he really meandering that much more, or does it just seem that way as he gets frailer?) A couple notable digressions came as Clinton tried to make the case that the good old days weren’t that great. Citing Will Rogers, he wended his way through a biographical riff about the cowboy-politician. Then he added his own experience.

“I hope I will be the last American president who can ever say that when I was a small child, I spent some time on a small farm that didn’t have indoor plumbing. In the wintertime, the outhouse is way overrated. Why am I telling you this?” he asked, as a few audience members nodded in puzzled agreement. “Because we need to live in the future, not the past,” he said, bringing it all home. He followed that up with nearly 20 minutes of heavy-duty policy speech, applying his familiar talent for making dry detail comprehensible as he boosted Hillary Clinton’s plans for expanding broadband internet, encouraging small-business lending, and reducing the cost of a college education.

There was one thing he decided not to delve into: the State Department correspondence being released on a regular basis.

“They make a big deal out of these emails—look, I will not try to disabuse you of that, because I would lose you trying to explain it,” he said. “Just remember this: A huge number of  prominent Republicans have endorsed her for president. The vast majority of them spent their life in national security trying to protect us all. They have reached the judgment that the national-security arguments favor her, not undermine her.”

For older voters, the Hillary Clinton campaign is inextricable from her husband’s term in office, whether for good or ill. The complex legacy of the Clinton years intersects in particularly powerful ways with young voters, a demographic Hillary Clinton has struggled to win over. In the crowd on Tuesday were a number of students from Duke University, who’d come from campus less than two miles away. Did they even remember the Clinton administration?

“I took [AP U.S. History],” Miles Todzo, a freshman, said with a somewhat sheepish grin. He said he thought the ex-president was a major asset to the Clinton campaign, “because a lot of people associate him with prosperity.”

Akanksha Ray, another freshman, admitted her memories of the Clinton years weren’t all that strong either—but, she added, “My parents loved him.” She thought of the ’90s as a time of hope for that generation, and added, “I think Hillary Clinton and her plan for America are what I want for my future.”

The idea of hope—as in The Man From Hope, rather than the Shepard Fairey poster—kept coming up. “Growing up in a post-9/11 America, there’s a lot of cynicism and vitriol,” Jay Rora told me. “The Clinton administration was a time when people had hope.”

For an older observer, the idea that the era of Monica, government shutdowns, and Dan Burton’s backyard demonstrations was an age of optimistic comity in politics might seem peculiar. For Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, these rosy impressions are highly welcome, even if they come at the expense of thinking about the Big Dog as a mummified relic.