It all starts, if you think about it, on Inauguration Day. Would Bill Clinton hold the Bible for his wife? It’d be a lovely tableau, but fraught with ambiguous symbolism—is this another twofer? A passing of the torch? An unfortunate reminder she wouldn’t be there without him? (None of these ideas is something the first female president of the United States would want to communicate to all posterity.) The questions would continue with the festivities: How are the two Clintons introduced? As the Former and Mrs. President Clinton? Mr. and Mrs. Presidents Clinton? President Clinton and Mr. Clinton?
Ask Hillary’s staff, and they’ll tell you they haven’t gotten around to thinking about questions of pageantry and protocol, though one aide admits they’re already trying to determine whether she’d be Mrs. or Madam President, which is complicated enough. But every Washington insider eventually wonders aloud about these niceties. And, vastly more important, what he would do all day. Presumably, Bill Clinton would not kick off the White House Easter-egg roll. He wouldn’t obsess over Christmas-tree decorations. The only traditional First Lady responsibility one could really envision him embracing would be the state dinners—not the menus themselves (unless the chef could be persuaded to do cheeseburgers, or takeout Chinese) but the hosting part, the part that involves schmoozing and storytelling and the subtle diplomacy of the seating chart. “Maybe the press won’t cover what’s on the menu, finally,” says a former Clinton-administration official. “It’ll be more like what the actual discussions were at the dinner tables.”
By now, we’ve come to expect experiments in political androgyny from the Clintons. From the moment they first set foot in the White House in 1993, they provided a precedent-setting example of upside-down gender politics in public life. While the traditional role of First Lady was to soften and humanize the commander-in-chief, he came across as the more empathetic one, biting his ample lower lip and uttering without irony how he could feel others’ pain; she, meanwhile, insisted on an office in the West Wing, spearheaded a major policy initiative, and set about winning friends and influencing people with all the subtlety of a Sherman tank. She even wore pantsuits. (In fact, she attended her best friend’s wedding in a tux.)
Today, Hillary is taking this experiment to its extreme and logical conclusion, by attempting to become the first female president of the United States. And Bill, in this equation, will be … well, what, exactly? On Oprah, Clinton joked that his Scottish friends say he should be called “First Laddie.” But that’s just the point: This future office he’d hold, the title he’d have, this historic role he may well play and idiosyncratic function he may well serve—none of it, for now, has a name, or a precedent. If Hillary is elected, he will be by far the more experienced party in the White House. Yet he will not be the decision-maker. So what would a Clinton restoration involve? Would it be (to use the standard political formulation) change? Or more of the same? Some Democrats are fervently hoping for Bill II—but given that this time he’s in a supporting role, they are likely to be surprised by what they get.
‘Thank you for your support for Hillary,” says Bill Clinton as he bounds to the center of a huge platform at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. It’s a warm July day, but one senses the crowd would have been enormous even if it had been cold and pouring rain. “I want to thank all of you who are here,” he says, “and all of you who have signs, but there’s one guy back in the back over there that represents the group I belong to…” Deadpan pause. “It says HUSBANDS FOR HILLARY.” He points to the man, encouraging him to step forward. “There he is! Thank you very much!”
The crowd goes berserk. Even his outfit, a polo shirt of blinding banana yellow, manages to outshine her blouse of rosy pink.
It’s an old rule of vaudeville: Never follow the animal act. On the campaign trail, it’s Bill Clinton. No matter how you label him, he’s still the headliner. For Hillary’s staff, titrating proper doses of him is tricky. He’s what the Greeks called a pharmacon, both a medicine and a poison. (Al Gore struggled with this issue, too, unsuccessfully, and he didn’t even have to worry about Clinton following him back to the White House.) Yet Hillary has discovered there are times when nothing short of an appearance by her husband will do. He joined her in Selma, Alabama, on the day that she and Barack Obama gave competing civil-rights speeches, with the obvious hope of mutely reminding the crowd that Toni Morrison already called him “the first black president.” After a memo leaked from one of her advisers suggesting she skip the caucuses in Iowa, Bill was at her side in the state for a multicity swing. And he’s been spending a lot of time with Hillary lately in New Hampshire, still the most important early primary state. Over Labor Day weekend, at the Hopkinton State Fair, he gave an impromptu disquisition on pumpkin-growing. “It’s basically seeds plus soil plus care,” he reportedly told the crowd. “That’s what watermelon is, too.”
During the second primary debate, Hillary answered with surprising directness a question about what she’d do with her husband in her own Clinton administration. “I think we should have everybody helping us to repair the damage of the last, by then, eight years,” she said. “When I become president, Bill Clinton, my dear husband, will be one of the people who will be sent around the world as a roving ambassador to make it very clear to the rest of the world that we’re back to a policy of reaching out and working and trying to make friends and allies and stopping the alienation of the rest of the world.”
But Hillary’s aides have a harder time envisioning, in a granular, day-to-day sort of way, what the magnitude and depth of her husband’s involvement would be in a Hillary White House. In part, this is because the Clintons haven’t spent long stretches of time together for nearly seven years. She lives in Washington, D.C., and New York; he lives in New York but spends a spectacular amount of time on the road, from Detroit to the Canary Islands to Zanzibar. He offers his campaign advice mainly over the phone, a medium that naturally limits his influence. But at close range, this is what Bill Clinton is like, this man the crowd sees in a New Hampshire sheep barn and at the Iowa State Fair: a giant whirligig of ego, a dervish of energy and appetites (for both politics and less lofty vices), a creature of acute intellectual restlessness with a propensity for sticking both thumbs in every policy pie. If Hillary is elected president, he’ll presumably be re- surrounded by a bulked-up security detail and at least partially reinstalled in the White House (which he once called the “the crown jewel of the federal penal system”), which means he’ll be around a lot more, or confined in ways he hasn’t been for the better part of this decade. And he’ll have more experience than she and her vice-president combined.
So what’s it going to be? Will he stay out of her hair, traveling the world and working on his Nobel Peace Prize résumé? Or will he, having so much to contribute, also insist on an office in the West Wing and attend staff meetings, as she once did? And what will he do in the more delicate and complex scenarios, like legislative junctures that may affect her legacy: Will he use his muscle with members of Congress, meeting with them, charming them, taking them out for golf?
“He’s always been a guy who could bloom where he’s planted,” says Paul Begala, one of Clinton’s top advisers in his first presidential campaign. Which is true, as we’ve all seen. But it’s up to Hillary to decide whether she wants him in the sun.
“He understands that he can’t wander the West Wing willy-nilly,” says Mike McCurry. “If he were here a lot, there’d be some kind of speculation, always, about the role he’s playing.”
Right now, there are two competing beliefs about what will happen if the Clintons reoccupy the White House in 2009. The first is that Hillary, upon becoming president, will move swiftly to contain her husband in every respect, forcing the world to understand she’s not just wearing the pantsuit but wearing the pants. The policy content of her administration might be similar, but the Zeitgeist would be colder; preserving her own integrity would necessarily mean making at least a few choices in deliberate contrast to his. “I think Hillary will go to great pains to make clear that she, not he, is president, just as Bush has done with his father,” writes Dick Morris, the Clinton confidant turned critic, in an e-mail. “She’ll have to disempower Bill to empower herself.”
But this theory neglects the most crucial bit of evidence: Once Hillary stepped out of her husband’s shadow and found a proper power base of her own—namely, as a United States senator—she rarely faced the accusation of being either too much or too little like her husband. In short order, she managed to define herself in a way that was sui generis, her very own, and the uncompromising, humorless ideologue was gone. (George W. Bush, on the other hand, often gives the impression that he’s made the radical choices he has precisely because he’s trapped under his father’s shadow. Think of his staffing choices: James Baker, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. Of all people, why Cheney as your running mate? It would be like Hillary choosing Vernon Jordan.) Hillary’s response to questions about her husband’s role—global plenipotentiary extraordinaire—hardly makes it seem like she’s running from him. Repairing our standing in the world is one of the major tent-poles of her candidacy. Nor does Hillary seem to have trouble making use of her husband on the campaign trail. He’s been furiously active behind the scenes—fund-raising, reading over important speeches, speaking to her several times a day—and Hillary, being a quick study and disciplined in the extreme, has clearly absorbed a great deal of his advice. His words for her always run toward similar themes: Think big and be big, because pettiness can diminish even the most serious candidate (like Al Gore); keep the emphasis on the future. While on certain issues—free trade being the most prominent—she’s made a point of creating distance between them, in most ways they seem a unity. There are times when you can practically hear him in her remarks. “I heard him in her speech on health care,” says Begala. “He has this great gift for, as they say back home, putting the jam on the lower shelf so that people can reach it. And I think she’s picked that up.”
The second belief about a Clinton revival, gauzily attractive to those who like the Clintons and terrifying to those who don’t, is Bill II: a White House with the former president bustling about, helping his wife to deliver a multilateral foreign policy, more progressive tax rates, and a velvet revolution in health care, correcting the biggest policy catastrophe of Bill I. (A poetic closing of the loop, considering the failure was in fact Hillary’s.) His charm would be the coin of the realm. It would also be her administration’s Achilles’ heel, as it was his, one so wobbly that her administration, like his, would always be haunted by the sense that the other shoe was about to drop.
Certainly a Clinton restoration would effect a return to Democratic principles. But it wouldn’t necessarily effect a return to Clintonism. What this theory ignores is Hillary’s genuine independence from her husband. From 1993 forward, she’s kept a separate and distinct staff—fanatically loyal, tight-lipped, mostly female—making it hard to imagine how he’d fit comfortably into the West Wing. Their leadership styles and characterological differences couldn’t be more distinct: Hillary runs a tight ship and has little tolerance for wiftiness; where he’s inclined to meander, she’s inclined to drill down. She listens better than he does. Yet she’s warier of people than he is. She doesn’t believe that everyone’s susceptible to reason and gentle persuasion. “Her personality is not his personality,” says Leon Panetta, the former California congressman who served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997. “He walks into a room and melts people, because that’s the way he is. She’ll walk into a room and impress people. So it’ll be interesting to see, How does that dynamic work if they go into the presidency? I think the crunch comes when there is that one issue that, for some reason, doesn’t look like it’s getting anywhere, and she’s taken a tough position. His nature is to believe he can cut a deal with anybody, anywhere, anytime. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily her first instinct.”
Bill’s words for her always run toward similar themes: Think big, and be big, because pettiness can diminish even the most serious candidate. Keep the emphasis on the future.
Particularly during a time of war—which, above all else, makes a comparison between the past and potential Clinton presidencies exceedingly hard. Recently, a Hillary adviser tried to make the case to me that she was more hawkish than her husband, which on the face of it seemed plainly self-serving (No, truly, she’s a wartime president). But the adviser protested, “She believes in good and evil. She really thinks that some people are bad.” When framed this way, the observation isn’t spin; the First Lady’s Manichaean worldview has been well documented since her early days in the White House. And she must be subtly telegraphing this view, somehow, to the world at large: Right now, a cult favorite among sci-fi buffs is a trilogy called Axis of Time, an alternate history set in 2021. The vessel that takes the main characters back in time is a giant aircraft carrier called the U.S.S. Hillary Clinton, so named for “the most uncompromising wartime president in the history of the United States.”
Watching Hillary and Bill these days, one could reasonably come to a strange conclusion: Never has their marriage made so much sense. Her campaign, in its way, suggests she’s more suited to be our chief executive than her husband ever was. Yes, he had all the magnetism. But she runs a far more disciplined operation than he ever did, and she’s running much further ahead in the early primary polls than he ever was. She may periodically deploy her husband as a charm weapon. But what he really is is her wartime consigliere—he’s a brilliant strategizer and tactician—and she’s the general.
One could even go as far as to say that Bill Clinton is already leading the life of an ideal First Lady. His foundation focuses on just the type of causes associated with presidents’ wives—fighting childhood obesity, urban renewal, stemming the spread of poverty and aids—and his most recent book, Giving, about the virtues and pleasures of philanthropy, is a First Lady topic if ever there was one. Certainly, as a candidate’s spouse, Bill is doing a better job at lending a traditional feel to Hillary’s campaign than she ever did to his (or Judith does to Rudolph Giuliani’s, for that matter, or Elizabeth Edwards does to John’s, or Michelle Obama does to Barack’s). Like campaign wives of yore, his approval ratings are considerably higher than hers, and one of his many functions on the trail is to blunt her corrugated edges. In his afterlife, Bill Clinton has become nonpolarizing, almost benign; if you look at recent photographs, you’ll notice he’s almost always off to the side, hands clasped behind his back, head tilted in the traditional posture of feminine fascination, looking on as someone else speaks.
Carl Jung theorized that people don’t become whole until they’ve had a chance to express both the masculine and feminine parts of themselves. And maybe that’s what we’ve been witnessing in the Clintons for the last seven years. Hillary has stopped baking cookies and joined the Armed Services Committee. And Bill, as he notes in his introduction to Giving, got out of the “getting business” of politics and into the nurturing business of philanthropy. “My wife,” he writes, “was my first role model for what it means to be a public servant without public office.”
When Bill Clinton left public office in 2001, everyone assumed he’d have a hard time adjusting to the world beyond the White House. But over the last seven years, he’s surprised us all, becoming something wholly other and unique: a world supercitizen and Über-celebrity. In his new life, the former president gets to enjoy both the virtues of the public sector (visiting and convening the most famous people on the planet to problem-solve) and the perks of the private (raking in speaking fees by the millions, lunching in Davos with Nobel Prize winners and supermodels). It turns out he’s a pretty natural private citizen. He likes going to BLT, likes the airborne rumpus room of his friends’ private jets. Those who know the Clintons well will add—not on the record, but with conviction—that these seven years have been some of the finest of their marriage. Something about the pacing and spacing, the splitting apart and coming back together again, makes the just-right time-distance formula for them, the Goldilocks zone for their partnership to flourish.
So the real challenge for Bill Clinton may not be for him to figure out how to carve a role within his wife’s White House, as everyone assumes now. The real challenge may be for him to figure out how to carve a role outside it—finding a way to keep an independent life and career.
As much as the Clintons idealized a close, working political partnership during his 1992 presidential campaign, they learned from bitter experience that working together at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is an almost impossible exercise in minefield-walking. In the most literal of ways, the personal is destined to become political—and affect the political. When her husband first captured the White House, for instance, Hillary, according to Carl Bernstein’s A Woman in Charge, harbored hopes of becoming her husband’s chief of staff, but had to be dissuaded by Dick Morris, on the grounds that the president could not fire her if something went wrong. This brutal reality frustrated her deeply, and she sometimes acted, instead, like a shadow chief of staff, generating awkwardness and resentment in the West Wing (not to mention the vice-president’s quarters, where Al Gore was fighting for the president’s ear). Eventually, the president put her in charge of health care, but it turns out he couldn’t fire her from that job either. And after the American Spectator ran a sleazy story about Troopergate, alleging the president used state troopers to procure mistresses when he was still governor of Arkansas, he felt powerless to criticize her, fearing she’d already been humiliated enough. (“I cannot recall him publicly confronting her on any health-care issue” after that, David Gergen, an adviser to Clinton at the time, told Bernstein.) And we all know how health care turned out.
The solution Hillary has devised for her husband is an ideal one, in this respect. As a diplomat without portfolio, Bill Clinton would be extremely far from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He’d be on a 12,500-mile leash, sent all over the world to charm, forge deals, resurrect dead alliances, troubleshoot. “I think it’s a great role for him,” says Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary from 1995 to 1998 and, prior to that, spokesman for Warren Christopher’s State Department. “He’s not the classic negotiator, the kind who opens discussions with the structure of the arrangement he wants. He starts by probing the other person’s political position. So in this case, one could imagine he’d come out of these meetings and say, ‘Here’s what the guy needs.’ A tour d’horizon, or tour of the horizon, is what you call it in diplomatic parlance. And then he’d let others do the negotiations.” The beauty of such an arrangement is that while it keeps the former president out of the United States, allowing Hillary a wide berth, it still gives him a chance to engage in the three-dimensional chess of domestic politics—just not the domestic politics of his own country, but China’s or Lebanon’s instead. McCurry can imagine him in the Middle East; he can imagine him even making overtures to Pyongyang. “He understands and knows he can’t wander the West Wing willy-nilly,” says McCurry. “If he were here a lot, there’d be some kind of speculation, always, about the role he’s playing.”
This solution is not without pitfalls or potential collisions with her staff—especially her secretary of State, who’d have to tolerate being bigfooted from time to time (or with ego-annihilating regularity, who knows?). But for Bill Clinton, the role of roving diplomat at least holds out the possibility of his preserving a private life, and it’s patterned after the same globe-trotting, internationally focused model he’s selected for his own post-presidency. If he can figure out how to preserve that shell of a life, whether it be by keeping a toehold in Chappaqua and Harlem, attending yak-yaks in Aspen, continuing to play host to his Global Initiative, or, most important, continuing his work at the William J. Clinton Foundation, then both he and his wife will have triumphed. And if Hillary’s smart, she’ll make Africa a greater priority in her Clinton administration than he did in his, in order to help him combine his public role as world ambassador with his private role as foundation head. Her husband’s a demigod on stilts in that part of the world. And so is she. (People forget that it was Hillary who first took Bill to Africa in 1998, and not the other way around.) Shining the spotlight on the continent would also correct one of the most shameful parts of her husband’s legacy: the neglect of the genocide in Rwanda.
If all this came to pass, Bill Clinton, like his wife, would redefine the role for all future presidential spouses. And in their new arrangement, the Clintons would maybe, at long last, be able to change the White House in ways Bill couldn’t when he was in charge. And maybe, in the process, he would even learn to pick the china. Though on second thought, one hopes they’d get a professional for that.