JANUARY 30, 2008
It's been speculated that Bill Clinton may not want his wife to be president. The evidence for this claim is that his stump speeches on her behalf are rarely about her. They are all about him--his accomplishments, his prescriptions, his dizzying displays of wonkery. (For a particularly funny example of this, see Jeffrey Rosen's "Primary School.")
This analysis of President Clinton doesn't quite work. Yes, he's a narcissist on the stump—and perhaps in other settings, too. But that doesn't mean he wants his wife to go down in flames. All the evidence of the past week is that he badly wants her to win. That's why he vented about the unfairness of the press and went negative against Barack Obama. He understands that the Clinton franchise will end with a Hillary defeat—and a loss in a primary would, in effect, represent a repudiation of that franchise by its own party.
The post-presidency is usually a good phase of a president's life. At their best, these retirees largely extricate themselves from factional politics and remake themselves as servants of the common good. That's basically what Clinton has done. True, he has made a fair amount of cash, speaking in Dubai and palling around with Ron Burkle. But he also claimed some important achievements through his foundation work. And, in the course of these good deeds, he rebuilt his reputation from his last ignominious years in office. He became a kind of Global President, or at least, the Crown Prince of Davos-land—a symbol of a prelapsarian era.
Even if Bill helps Hillary eke out a victory over Obama, he will have diminished these recent accomplishments. When you go to watch Clinton as he makes his case to small crowds in Podunk locations, you can't help but view him differently. He loses his post-presidential luster and dignity, turning himself back into just another pol. And not an especially classy one. He bitches about the press and decries Obama's inexperience. Donna Brazile, a veteran of Clinton campaigns from the 1990s, has raised the alarm over these attacks: "For him to go after Obama using 'fairy tale,' calling him a 'kid,' as he did last week, it's an insult. And I tell you, as an African American, I find his words and his tone to be very depressing." You don't have to agree about the racial subtext to feel the same.
You can't begrudge a husband standing up for his wife. (Nobody much complained when George H.W. Bush went to bat for George W. Bush.) And presidents shouldn't have to avoid partisan affairs entirely. But Bill Clinton once proved a force for good in his party—and his prestige helped fuel his philanthropy. If he spends the coming months pounding away at Obama, and in ugly ways, he will have squandered that.
This issue appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the magazine.