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The Comeback Kid

With a tongue-tied and TV-challenged president in the White House, Bill Clinton is poised to assume what could be a more powerful role: celebrity-in-chief.


Nixon's post-presidency media strategy was a series of communications from exile: an almost Churchillian number of books along with personal letters and memos to later officeholders (Nixon's usually unctuous and slyly influential memos from Park Ridge, New Jersey, resulted in Alexander Haig's appointment as secretary of State, not to mention his own grand funeral). Carter's strategy has been a public expiation of his unsuccessful presidency through many years of good works. Johnson's media pose, after he left office at the age of 60, was to go mute; he went into hiding and grew his hair to Howard Hughes length. Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, and Bush all instantly became avuncular Republican retirees upon leaving office, barely pretending to continue an interest in great affairs or in maintaining their public voices (although Reagan drew down a few million dollars in speaking fees for some after-dinner remarks in Asia).

JFK's exit from the presidency might have been more instructive. Too young to write his memoirs, as he put it in what must have been a commercially more innocent time, he had arranged, it is said, for his friends Ben Bradlee and Phil Graham to have the Washington Post Co. buy and warehouse Newsweek for him. Then, in 1969, leaving the presidency at the age of 52, the consummate media politician would become a media baron.

But other than JFK's unrealized scenario, Bill Clinton -- the first president to leave office after two terms with his popularity intact and at an age when he might take advantage of it -- is pretty much on his own in figuring out not just how to fill his days but how to craft a media persona that will give him
both cosmic influence and maximum attention.

This personal and career dilemma is being cast in humorous turns (running after Hillary with a lunch bag). The photo op is Clinton, in his yellow fleece, shaking hands at delis and gas pumps in the suburbs. It's a classic comic juxtaposition: enormous power suddenly belittled. Schwarzenegger has played this sketch several times. Then, too, there are many who believe that he should go quietly, and who are irritated that he might try not to. CNN's Inauguration Day reporting was almost churlish on this point; ABC's Cokie Roberts said his counter-inaugural speeches had a "tackiness."

The assumption is there can be no meaningful or suitable role for him -- other than that of spoiler, or media hog (of course, the prospect of a media-hog spoiler is delightful to most of the media).

Clinton, who we know is only half alive when he is not campaigning, is the Democrats' biggest weapon, and he will certainly make the midterm elections not just a W. referendum but a Clinton celebration.

Nobody has gone here before. No former president has had a hankering to be more than a memoirist, or reputation burnisher. Nobody has envisioned more than a coda to his career. Nobody has even continued to work full-time.

The position Clinton finds himself in is as strange and anomalous as the one George Bush is in. Indeed, Clinton would not be in the position he is in were Gore president; Clinton would be at best the nettlesome relative in the attic (it's likely, too, that if Al Gore were president, the Republican independent counsel would have had no incentive to punt on a Whitewater-Monica indictment -- and both Gore and Clinton would have been left to struggle on with the mess). It isn't supposed to happen that we have a vital, competitive, fire-in-the-belly ex-president. But now the same fluke that put Bush into office affords Clinton the opportunity to be a character and have a job possibly more distinguished than that of president.

How big, how meaningful, how disruptive might he be?

The possibilities must be as confounding to Clinton as to anyone else. How do you parse it? Celebrity-in-chief, contraster-in-chief, confronter-in-chief, once-and-future-commander-in-chief? How do you put it together?

Celebrity-in-chief is obvious. He will be the finest invite, the ultimate get, the most doggedly pursued person in the social and media firmament. The novelty of his position feeds the celebrity -- along with his hunger for it. And there is, of course, his willingness to orchestrate it. He has left office in a tidal wave of magazine covers, op-eds, decrees, pardons, administrative actions, pointed digs, and repeated televised good-byes to Washington and the nation and hellos to New York -- he knows how to make a media plan. What's more, he is positioning himself on the fifty-sixth floor of 152 West 57th Street -- at the center of the media machine (in the former offices of Talk magazine at that). All of Manhattan is astir ("A view of a national monument, without a rent increase," says my friend Susan Braudy, who lives nearby). He will never be out of view. He will be on television more than Bush; he'll be a part of daily language and reference; hell, he'll be an airborne antigen. This is, potentially, enduring celebrity of the Beatles-Kennedy-pope kind. (There really is no such thing anymore as overexposure.)

The contrast factor, too, is almost unfairly on his side. It is now, for the first time, a direct match: Clinton versus Bush. (His position would not now be so good if Gore had allowed him on the campaign trail and still lost. Of course, if he had campaigned Gore would probably be president, and that wouldn't have helped Clinton's present position, either.) The discomfort of Bush, the play of pained emotions on his face, the on-air haplessness (there is a sympathy-repulsion thing here; we see ourselves in his public awkwardness -- not liking him more for it but liking ourselves less), against the fluidness and vibe of the former president. As Kennedy distinctly benefited by not being Eisenhower, and Reagan by not being Carter, so Bush is in danger of the opposite effect.

The risk of charm without mission is that Clinton ends up as the duke of Windsor. Yet, just start to imagine the size and the stature of a former president who also has serious pop-culture currency -- and who will now be able to stand even more on the side of media power, glamour, and consensus, which is what truly moves the nation. (He may become the first commander-in-chief of pop culture.) Such a figure, such an idea of leadership, is, as we have seen, quite a delight to the nation (the shame of his presidency is possibly the real source of its power).

The conflict is real. Bush will represent small-town, country-club, Anglo-Saxon, nuclear-family, Republican America; Clinton will represent media-influenced, urban-sprawl, sexually laissez-faire, open-family, changing-color America (out of office, he'll even be able to represent nonvoting America). Bush will be constrained by all manner of political concerns and handlers; Clinton will be as free and as voluble as a conservative radio commentator. Bush will speak from the government capital; Clinton will speak from the media capital.

It hardly seems like a contest.

Certainly Clinton will have to overcome his reflexive desire to negotiate and conciliate and be loved by anyone who will love him. Conflict is what his media strategy has to be about. He will have to oppose Bush on the basis of principle and, with unrelenting digs and innuendo, on the basis of legitimacy and character. And what better setup for this opposition could you imagine than to be the last rightful president: It's Clinton's Free French to Bush's Vichy.

The madder the Republicans get at him, the more significant he becomes (we'll surely see a disgorgement of anti-Clintonism over the next few months). And certainly, the notion that they might still have to deal with him will drive them all over the edge. The idea that Bush will be judged against and taunted by Bill Clinton may finally get the famous W. temper, so guarded, or medicated, through the campaign, to explode. We've only just begun to see some snippiness.

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