Bill Clinton Stands Poised Between His Past and His Wife’s Future

Former President Bill Clinton campaigns on behalf of his wife, Hillary Clinton, a Democratic presidential hopeful, at Bonita Vista High School in Chula Vista, Calif.,
Bill Clinton campaigns on behalf of Hillary in Chula Vista, Calif., in May. Photo: Sam Hodgson/The New York Times/Redux
Bill Clinton, poised between his past and his wife’s future.
Photograph by Sam Hodgson/The New York Times/Redux.
Bill Clinton campaigning in Chula Vista, California, in May.

It was late in the evening at the Crompton Collective in Worcester, Massachusetts, and hundreds of people were lined up for Bill Clinton. They had an air of excitement, as if they were waiting to watch Joe DiMaggio swing a bat. 

The stories about Clinton as a campaigner usually begin the same way: He was running late, always. Then, suddenly, he would appear onstage and the space would shrink. Such was the force of his presence. He’d stand there for a moment, beaming, somehow growing bigger and brighter, as if powered by applause. The later in the day, the better he looked. When most men wilted, he grew.

As soon as the room was filled enough to call it full, the event began. A little murmur rippled through the press. Clinton was running early? He did not even wait to be announced, walking out with Representative Jim McGovern, who had been set to introduce him. If you have not seen much of Clinton since he left office — or since Hillary ran in 2008 — it’s startling when you do. He has lost weight. (After quadruple-bypass surgery in 2004, he became an enthusiastic vegan.) His thatch of thick gray hair is now flossy and white. The expressive lines of his face have deepened; his skin, always sensitive, looks delicate now. Bill Clinton is 69 — a few months younger than Donald Trump, only a year older than Hillary, and a full five years younger than Bernie Sanders. When he was president, his boyishness was one of the more salient things about him. Now even Sanders, surrounded by millennials, seems more spry. In Worcester, the transformation felt almost symbolic.

On the trail for Hillary, Clinton touches on a number of her issues — student-debt relief, equal rights for women, policies to help small businesses, gun control. But what he dwells on is the anger and anxiety and despair of those who have been left out of the economic recovery — not just among minority communities, where his wife is popular, but among the white working class, where his wife is not. In that classic Bill Clinton way, he feels for them. When he talks of rising mortality rates among the white working class in places like West Virginia, he says, plaintively, that people are “dying of a broken heart.”

Some of this is surely strategic. After all, in some respects, working-class whites have been the defining demographic of this election. They won Trump the primary and are his best hope for winning the election. Trump has appealed to them with a message that speaks to their nativism and economic anxiety, in the process gaining the support of many traditional white working-class Democrats as well. And they vote. An analysis by the New York Times showed that in 2012, more older, working-class whites had voted in the general election than exit polls had indicated — and that Obama did better among them than had been thought. That means Hillary — whose coalition is largely minorities, women, and the wealthy and well-educated — can’t afford to write them off. Bill, who is still popular in these communities, can clearly help. “I think the president and Hillary — I know they’ve talked about it — are very focused on making sure those communities are not overlooked,” Tina Flournoy, Bill’s chief of staff, tells me. “I know that is an affirmative decision.”

And yet there is something about the emotional way he reaches out to them that doesn’t feel calculated. He is, despite his wealth, one of them. “Clinton made a lot of money” — $132 million in speaking fees alone since leaving the White House — “but you never really forget where you come from,” says Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton who is friendly with the Clintons. “A lot of the old rap against him was that he was an outsider, even ‘white trash.’ ” He may be a former president who runs an international foundation, but he still roots himself in the small town in Arkansas where he was raised by a poor mother and an alcoholic stepfather. And if these are men who are struggling to maintain relevance in a world that has passed them by, then he might know something about that, too. The Man From Hope won’t let the hopeless go.

The event space where Clinton spoke in Worcester had once been a factory that made looms. George Crompton built it in 1860, near a canal that had already been made obsolete by the arrival of trains. Crompton’s father had invented a loom that revolutionized the textile industry, helping turn Worcester into one of the main industrial centers of the Northeast. But following a series of mergers and expansions, the company, now based in Philadelphia and called Chemtura, became a global manufacturer of petroleum additives and specialty chemicals. 

Clinton had been to Worcester before — seven times, in fact. It was in Worcester that Clinton made his first public appearance after admitting on national television to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Thousands had turned out to see him that August night in 1998, lining the motorcade route, filling Mechanics Hall. They cheered him; they told him they had also made mistakes in their lives, he recalled in his memoir, My Life. And it was in Worcester in 1999 that he gave one of his most memorable speeches, at the funeral for six firemen who had died in the line of duty. “We grieve with you,” he had said, “and we will stay with you.”

There was, in that line, a faint echo of another famous moment — a different occasion, but a similar promise. We will stay with you. Back in 1992, Clinton’s presidential campaign had seemed to be cratering: Reporters were scrutinizing his record during Vietnam; a nightclub singer named Gennifer Flowers was claiming they’d had a long affair; there were rumors of worse to come. Clinton’s poll numbers plummeted 20 points in a matter of days. So he went into crowds, shook hand after hand. “Here’s what he does,” says Paul Begala, a senior strategist on the ’92 campaign. “Normal politicians break eye contact. They keep shaking hands, but they look down the line to the next person. Clinton maintains eye contact and reaches blindly for the next person, knowing the next person will find him.” Clinton is not the one to break the bond. “It seems weird,” Begala adds, “but very few politicians do that. It’s human nature to want to see where you’re going.”

He also gave the speech that would launch the legend of the Comeback Kid to a few hundred people at an Elks lodge in Dover, New Hampshire — a crowd that would have felt right at home in Worcester. He spoke without notes, at length, his voice swelling. He talked about how George Bush made promises but barely glanced at the state on his way to his summer home in Kennebunkport. “I’ll tell you something,” he said. “If you give it to me, I won’t be like George Bush. I’ll never forget who gave me a second chance, and I’ll be there for you till the last dog dies.”

Now he was back in Worcester in 2016, with Super Tuesday only hours away and Massachusetts hanging in the balance. In the end, Hillary would win the state over Sanders by less than 2 percent, and Worcester County by only a few hundred votes. (Trump won the GOP primary in Worcester by a landslide.) “You have been so good to me and to Hillary,” Bill said to the crowd that night. “You gave her an overwhelming victory before.” The plea behind that line went unspoken: Don’t leave us now.

At an event in Marshalltown, Iowa, in January. Photo: Charles Ledford/Getty Images

In 2008, the former president sometimes threatened to overshadow his spouse, the candidate. This time, he is staying mostly in the background. Most of the media coverage of his events is local. He has done very few interviews. Many of the events that he does are fund-raisers, closed to the press. He takes measures to emphasize his supportive role: beginning fewer sentences with “When I was president” than he once did (even if he still says it with a certain relish), replacing the American-flag pin on his lapel with a miniature H. If he’s on CNN, it’s usually because something has gone wrong.

The lower profile lets the campaign capitalize on Clinton’s popularity and obvious talent without too much risk. Clinton’s favorable ratings are still higher than any of the candidates’, including his wife’s. He can enchant billionaires, farmers, the kitchen staff. He talks to baristas about student debt, gleans a little story from the woman who sold him a pair of jeans — and then uses those anecdotes in his talks. His love of politics is obvious in every photograph, every hoarse speech, every lingering departure. He has his own small staff and his own schedule: more than 400 public campaign events in over 40 states and territories so far this year. When aides are asked about Clinton’s age and health, they quickly point to his itinerary as proof against any concerns. “We spend a lot of time talking about how we can’t keep up,” Flournoy tells me.

But Bill is a complicated presence for Hillary’s campaign, not only because of the old concerns that he might overshadow her but because this election has turned in part into a referendum on the legacies of his administration. Hillary would like to benefit from the rosy memories of the economy under his watch. By the end of his administration, unemployment was around 4 percent; the stock market was soaring; the gains in prosperity were widely shared; the economy had seen the creation of 23 million new jobs. Despite persistent scandals, he left the White House with an approval rating of 66 percent.

But the story of his administration was not good for everyone. There was a sense among some that he traded factory workers for soccer moms and that he sold out African-Americans to buy back the white working class — and also that he pushed globalization at the expense of American manufacturing. In the current primary race, Sanders struck a chord when he argued that the game was rigged against ordinary Americans, pointing not only to the Republicans but to the Clinton administration as the game’s architects. After the Great Recession, the Democratic Party moved left. To some extent, Hillary Clinton has gone with it. She has not rejected the promise of a globalized economy, but she has had to distance herself from some of the signature economic achievements of President Clinton’s administration: NAFTA, deregulation, the tightening of ties between Wall Street and the White House.

But the critique from the left is only part of the story, of course. It is another figure from the 1990s who has captured the imagination — and especially the fears — of many white working-class men. It doesn’t matter that Trump was a rich boy from New York who became a real-estate mogul, or that he shows little empathy for suffering, or that his trade policies resemble the opposite of those typically associated with his own party. Trump appeals not just to workers’ frustrations but also to their alienation. (That the standard-bearers of the Democratic Party since Bill Clinton left office include an African-American and a woman have only made the reactions more extreme.) To Trump, Bill is a liability to be exploited. He brings up Whitewater and impeachment and the speculations about conflicts of interest in the Clinton Foundation’s fund-raising. He tweeted that Clinton was “the WORST abuser of women in U.S. political history,” despite his own history of blatant misogyny.

So far, Clinton has refused to engage with Trump’s ad hominem attacks. But he has responded to the widespread dissatisfaction that Trump taps into. He still touts his administration’s record, but he promotes his wife’s platform, which is a far cry from that of the Democratic Party of 1992. He has also shifted his social-policy stance — on everything from mass incarceration to LGBT rights. Times have changed, and so have his positions. Still, the criticisms of his administration clearly bother him. “One, I think he is very proud of his record as president,” Flournoy says. “Two, he is not lacking in historical awareness or facts or perspective, which means he understands that not every decision ended up the way you wanted it to.”

“The irony is that Trump has shown little interest in what their lives are really like. He reaches only their anger; Bill Clinton can feel their pain.”

This awareness did not help him when he started angrily defending the 1994 crime bill he signed — and which he has, at other times, acknowledged was tragically flawed — to Black Lives Matter activists in Philadelphia recently. Waving his finger, he chastised the protesters with impatience and condescension in his voice. “I almost want to apologize,” he said afterward. Almost.

Clinton’s inability to see the optics of those moments can be bewildering, given that he is such an experienced politician. Consider his cross-tarmac stroll to visit the plane of Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the Phoenix airport last month. In both his and Lynch’s accounts, he came aboard to say hello and chat about grandkids and trips. But it looked improper given that Lynch would soon be making a decision regarding the highly sensitive investigation of Hillary’s use of private email servers as secretary of State. Lynch reportedly was uncomfortable with the visit, but, according to The New Yorker, worried about sending the former president onto the tarmac, where the temperature was over 100 degrees, given his history of heart problems. Republicans immediately cried that the meeting tarnished the integrity of the investigation. 

Each of Clinton’s missteps has been followed by a rush of commentary: Bill Clinton is volatile; he is out of touch; he is, consciously or not, sabotaging his wife (in much the same way, it was thought, that he had hurt Hillary in 2008). The campaign tends to argue that those moments are overhyped. “I think he’s been incredibly disciplined,” Hillary’s campaign manager Robby Mook told me a few weeks before the plane incident. The concern that Bill would stray from the message, he insisted, is “the least of our worries.” After the meeting with Lynch, a campaign spokesman said that Clinton’s role in the campaign would not change.

But it is about to become more visible, by virtue of his role at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia at the end of the month. Sources close to the campaign say Bill Clinton will have a high-profile speaking slot. His speech at the convention in 2012 was spectacular — wonky, passionate, half-improvised, just short of too long, and memorable — and it was credited with giving Obama a necessary boost. This speech will undoubtedly be trickier, given the need to call attention to some parts of his legacy while avoiding others, to bring the star power without overshadowing his wife. It will also, undoubtedly, fuel curiosity and speculation about what his role would be as First Gentleman.

A heated exchange with a protester during a rally in Philadelphia in April. Photo: Ed Hille/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Not since Bill Clinton himself ran for office has the partner of a potential president generated so much consternation. This is why the press erupted in hubbub about Hillary’s off-the-cuff announcement in May that she was going to put Bill “in charge of revitalizing the economy, because, you know, he knows how to do it,” especially “in places like coal country and inner cities.” Afterward, Hillary’s camp downplayed her words: Her comments were, in part, an acknowledgment that Bill could reach those people in a way that she could not and, in part, an acknowledgment of his own interest in doing so. “It’s too early to talk about any formal role,” said Mook. “Obviously, he’s an important counselor for her, not only because of their relationship but because he’s a former president. Think about how Obama called on President Clinton and President Bush after the disaster in Haiti. It only makes sense that she’ll be drawing on him for policy or maybe to take the lead on tackling certain problems.”

Whatever his formal role, Bill is likely to be as involved in the administration as he is in the campaign — which is to say heavily, if only because he talks to Hillary constantly. They may only see each other when their schedules line up, but they are in touch by phone throughout the day. He often reads drafts of her speeches. He reports to her team what he’s seeing and learning, what he’s saying, what’s working and what’s not. He’ll deliver a line in Dallas and Colorado Springs; a few days later, she’ll use the same language in a speech in Columbia, South Carolina. He has a voice in major decisions and likes to talk polls, strategy, details, data. “He has more historic context and granular experience in counties than anyone I know,” Mook told me. “That was particularly helpful in March and April.”

Clinton draws on his reading, too, which reflects his preoccupations of the moment. Recently, he read Empire of Cotton, by Sven Beckert, about the global transformations wrought by industrial change, and Jacksonland, by Steve Inskeep, about the confrontation between Andrew Jackson and Cherokee chief John Ross over the government’s seizure of land from Native Americans. There was also Wilentz’s new book, The Politicians and the Egalitarians, which puts the dynamic between egalitarian activists and pragmatic politicians at the center of American history, and The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer’s seminal 1951 text on the social psychology of fanaticism — which explores the desire for change among people who feel they have lost their place in the social order and their power over their own lives.

Clinton has also been deeply affected by the work of Princeton economist Angus Deaton, who wrote the sweeping exploration of economic inequality The Great Escape. He was particularly interested in a study by Deaton and Anne Case that found that the death rate among white people between the ages of 45 and 54 with a high-school education or less had jumped 22 percent between 1999 and 2013, the result in large part of an increase in suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. “He’s spent a lot of time absorbing that, thinking about it, talking about it,” Flournoy says. “It’s not simply that people are losing jobs. Jobs were part of their cultural world. It’s bigger than just this coal job doesn’t exist anymore. It’s that part of a way of life is disappearing.”

In a speech in Athens, Ohio, in early May, Hillary Clinton echoed her husband on the matter: “For many people, these problems are too big to bear. So we have drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and suicide all on the rise across Appalachia … My husband and I have been talking about this for months when we saw the statistics. People are dying from opioid abuse, from heroin. They’re dying from suicide. But I thought Bill really put his finger on it. He said, ‘You know what they’re really dying of? They’re dying of a broken heart.’ ”

For much of Clinton’s life, he has been preoccupied with his own mortality. He’s always liked spending time in graveyards. “He has a very dark side,” the journalist and Clinton chronicler Joe Klein says. “He’s always had a dark side. We would have this conversation 30 years ago. He always expected to die young.” It is an obsession he traces to his father’s death in a car wreck before he was born. “The knowledge that I, too, could die young drove me both to try to drain the most out of every moment of life and to get on with the next big challenge,” he wrote in My Life. He took note of the day when he had outlived his father.

These days, the campaign insists that — despite his history of heart problems — Clinton talks as if he will live forever. “If there was a time where he was more focused on [his mortality], the birth of his grandchild changed that,” says Flournoy. “He’s basically an eternal optimist.” Bill Clinton, after all, doesn’t like to leave a room.

But, as it goes with growing older, Clinton has seen the world change, and not always with him. In Kentucky, despite the state’s longtime support for the Clintons, both Bill and Hillary were sometimes booed during the primary race. Outside a rally at a school in Prestonsburg, coal miners and their families carried signs telling him to go home. And home, it was implied, wasn’t Arkansas anymore; it was Washington, or New York. Clinton tried to shrug it off. “It doesn’t bother me to have protesters at rallies,” he said at the rally. “I’m glad they come, because I think one of the biggest problems in America today is we seem to be less prejudiced about a lot of things, except we don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.”

As president, Clinton had embraced new technology, new sources of energy, and free trade. During his 1996 campaign, he had promised to “build a bridge to the 21st century.” Now the Kentuckians held up signs celebrating their new herald, Donald Trump. He promised them not a bridge but a wall, and a future that looks like the bygone past.

The irony is that Trump has shown little interest in what their lives are really like. He reaches only their anger; Bill Clinton can still feel their pain. “I get this,” he told the crowd. “I know it’s hard when places are physically isolated. I’m not pretending.” He talked about living on a farm without a toilet as a child. His diction became a little more country. “All I’m telling you is … if Hillary got elected president, I would like to be tasked with responsibility to take you along for the ride to America’s future.”

It remains to be seen whether he can rally these communities to his wife. It may be harder than in 1992 — because of his wealth; because Trump is playing upon their baser instincts; because voters are wary of restoration. It will be harder because of the suffering, because of the anxiety and anger. Still, there was a striking consistency to what he said, a thread that ran from his first inaugural as governor of Arkansas to that day — from the empathy to the insistence on change. He would not, could not, turn back the clock.

At a rally in Oakland a few weeks later, he took on the Trump slogan: Make America great again. “That’s a code word, folks,” he said. “I’ve been there. I grew up in the part of the country where people talk like that.” People laughed, but Clinton was serious. “ ‘Make America great again’ is saying, ‘Hey, I know your life is lousy, but I’ll give you the economy that you had 50 years ago, and I’ll move you back up on the social totem pole.’ Well, let me tell you something, America wasn’t so great for a lot of people 50 years ago. And for the people who did like it, you can’t have it again.”

He could feel their pain, but only so much.

“You know, I’d like to be 25 again, too,” he added. “But I can’t. So, I think it’s better for me to think about how I can make the most of the rest of my life, don’t you?”

*This article appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.