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The First: Female President, Male First Lady, Former President in the White House

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Welcome to the New World Order, as it might be if Hillary wins.
Photo-illustration by Dienststelle 75  

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.”


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