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.