Thursday, May 24, 2007

New Role for Bill Clinton: Will He Take a Backseat in a Hillary Administration?

This week's cover story at Newsweek is a fascinating analysis of the role Bill Clinton might play in a potential Hillary Clinton presidential administration. I'm going to leave readers with just two introductory quotes, but also a little spoiler: The Clinton's are very worried about the challenge to Hillary's prospects from Barrack Obama's White House bid. Here's the first quote, from the introduction:

"Man, I like that stuff," Bill Clinton said. "I shouldn't eat it, but I like it." It was Sunday, March 4. On a private plane headed south from New York, the former leader of the free world was staring hard at a fully stocked bowl of food. A recovering snack-addict since his quadruple-bypass surgery in 2004, Clinton was thinking about falling off the wagon with a few bags of Fritos and some granola bars. No one on the plane was going to stop him—certainly not Malcolm Smith. The Democratic minority leader of New York's state Senate, Smith was just happy to be along for the ride. "He sat right in front of me," Smith later gushed to a NEWSWEEK reporter. "We shared the food."

Clinton and Smith were headed to Selma, Ala., to commemorate "Bloody Sunday"—the day in 1965 when 600 civil-rights marchers were attacked by white state and local lawmen at the foot of the city's Edmund Pettus Bridge. For Clinton, the occasion was at once historic and personal. That afternoon, the man Toni Morrison called America's "first black president" would make his own march through the city and be inducted into the Voting Rights Hall of Fame. But the day's great test was not for the former president; it was for his wife. In town for the commemoration, Hillary Clinton was set to compete for attention with Barack Obama, her nearest rival in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. The media wondered how Hillary would fare, not just against Obama, whose strong baritone and preacher's cadences had earned him comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr., but against her own husband, who had inadvertently overshadowed her at the funeral for King's widow early last year. Perhaps not by accident, as Hillary spoke in Selma, Bill's plane was still hurtling through the air.
Bill Clinton was known for his great appetite, and clearly not only for food. I also liked the passage's preview of the article's thesis: How can Hillary manage an administration with a "first gentleman" who's not only a former president, but her greatest political mentor as well?

Here's the second quote, which gets to the crux of the issues surrounding Bill Clinton himself -- do or will Americans see him as a great president, and will he be an asset in a Clinton White House restoration under Hillary?

For Hillary's campaign, "The Bill Factor" is a complex one. To some he's a shrewd politician, a clear thinker, a brilliant explicator who was president during an era of relative peace and indisputable prosperity. To others he's "Slick Willie," an undisciplined man who let his private appetites, and his addiction to risk, blur his focus, distracting the country for much of his second term. Hillary Clinton is running for president on her own. Her name will be on the ballot; if elected, she'd be making the final calls. But how engaged would the former president be in Hillary's White House—and would his vices once again overshadow his virtues? NEWSWEEK's reporting on the role the former president is playing in his wife's campaign thus far reveals that the Clintons are fully aware of the perils and promise the 42nd president brings to her bid, and depicts a campaign carefully working to manage an asset no other presidential candidate has ever had: a spouse who has run, and won, twice.
That's interesting. Those who've read some of my earlier posts will know that I voted for Bill Clinton as a Democrat in my earlier, pre-9/11 days (see this post, for example). I liked Bill Clinton a lot. I particularly liked his incredible political skills (conservatives, be honest here, he bested the Republicans on the government shut-down back in 1995), and his communications skills have been virtually unrivaled by any president, with the exception of Ronald Reagan.

Yet, I felt betrayed by Clinton's immoral behavior in the Lewinsky sex scandal, although I did not support impeachment (I didn't consider Clinton's misdeeds coming close to the constitutional requirements of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" [Article II, Section 4]). The impeachment was purely political, though I guess all three of our historical impeachment episodes have been. Still, Bill Clinton's reputation with me went down the drain, and my views of him have changed only slightly since then. (He portrays himself too much as the victim, my key recollection of that being his interview with Peter Jennings on ABC around the time of the opening of the Clinton presidential library.)

I've only read one biographical book on Bill Clinton and his White House years: Stanley Renshon's, High Hopes: The Clinton Presidency and the Politics of Ambition. Renshon's a political psychologist and a great biographer. It's been awhile since I read the book, but as the title indicates, Clinton's problems throughout his political career have stemmed from an incredibly powerful attraction to political power. Clinton's Machiavellian in some respects, so integrity takes a back seat to realizing political goals. As noble or magnanimous as his political ideology might appear, his political behavior is more akin to Nixonian realism than Wilsonian idealism.

Read the whole Newsweek piece. I'd be interested in seeing another nice comment thread develop, so keep at it my loyal readers!

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