Bill Clinton on getting involved in the primaries, ca. 2002

In the fall of 2002 I flew from Washington to Little Rock and then Fayetteville, Arkansas -- in my own little propeller airplane, it was a blast -- to spend time interviewing Bill Clinton. He was just settling into his post-presidential life. Raising funds for his foundation (now a source of controversy on its own, then still a goal). Laying out plans for his presidential library, then still under construction. Working on his book -- already behind schedule, but of course it turned out well. And theorizing about how, as a young and vigorous former two-term president, he should deal with the next crop of Democratic candidates then on the rise.

Ah, if only he'd listened to his own advice five-plus years later. Sample: "Look," he told me back then. "I can't run." As I said in the article, "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 ..."


Full transcript of the interview is here. Passages from the resulting cover story, "Post President for Life," come after the jump.

From the article:

Clinton just waved his hand when I asked him about talk-show options [ie, being a radio talk-show host, then a rumored option]. 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."