There’s a tangible, almost merciful way that the postpresidency agrees with Bill Clinton. Here in Africa, where he’ll be spending the next seven days, he’s relaxed, smiling, pink. On the first night of our trip, in a faded old colonial hotel in Mozambique, he comes bounding to the dinner table in bright-white pants, a bright-white shirt, an almost-as-white sweater (knotted around his shoulders), and brand-new canary-yellow running sneakers, like some Queer Eye project gone cheerfully awry. I will soon discover that these running sneakers perfectly match one of his ties—he’s brought a whole array of pastel cravats for the Southern Hemisphere.
“You guys ordered already, right?” His appetite is back. He’ll shortly be plunging his fork into everything. “Hey, girl.” He gives my shoulder a squeeze.
And as soon as he’s seated, Clinton launches into stories. He’s a furious chatterer, talking in uninterrupted spurts; interjections are difficult, rejoinders impossible. His unscripted conversation is a combination of highbrow and bawdy, shrewd and reassuringly profane. It’s also Arkansan once again—over the course of this week, I will hear “It’s the darnedest thing,” “I wouldn’t take a nickel to see the cow jump over the moon,” and (my favorite) “That guy’s lower than a snake’s belly,” among other regional aphorisms. During appetizers, he throws in an impersonation of Natan Sharansky’s reaction to a proposed withdrawal plan from Gaza:
I come from the biggest country in the world to one of the smallest countries in the world, and you vant me to cut it in half? I don’t sink so.
“Natan,” Clinton tries to plead. “You were not in the biggest country in the world. You were in a jail cell this big.” He extends his arms, approximating the dimensions.
I don’t sink so, Natan repeats.
Today, one could say the former president has the best of both worlds: He still visits with heads of state everywhere he goes, yet “there are no earthshaking adverse consequences,” as he puts it, if he declines to take up a cause. Though he no longer flies on Air Force One, private jets don’t seem to be in short supply. (For this particular trip, Issam M. Fares, the business magnate and deputy prime minister of Lebanon, lent us his private jet, a fabulous flying wonderland of retro suede recliners, wood paneling, and mirrors—one half expects Austin Powers to pop out of the loo.) He still stays in the finest hotels, yet he’s also regained some measure of privacy: In Zanzibar, two young women in bikinis, each roughly proportioned like Jessica Rabbit, spot him as he wanders by the pool and leap out of their chaise longues to chat. He loves it, lingers. Could he have done this before, without the tabloids wrenching some double-entendre headline out of the moment? One gets a perspective now that Ken Starr’s cloying legion of moralists could never fully appreciate: To Clinton, the world’s a seascape of temptations. And the hip-shaking sensuality of the pageantry here—so awkward for other world leaders they haven’t a clue where to put their eyes—seems perfectly of a piece with who he is.
“I loved being president,” Clinton tells me later that night. “I’d have done it again if there hadn’t been term limits, until the people threw me out. But now, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve woken up and said, ‘Gosh, I wish I were still president.’ I just don’t do it anymore.”
That may be so. But to come from nothing and become president of the United States, a person has to be metabolically preposterous, a freak cluster of aspirations and desires and appetites. To assume that this hunger would fade away after the presidency is naïve. In Kigali, Rwanda, I watch Clinton spend three minutes trying to coax a smile out of a long-faced child with AIDS; he simply will not leave until he’s managed to do so. In Lesotho, he jumps out of the car as we’re headed to the king’s palace and starts grabbing people’s hands. Why? For the simple joy of the contact? Because he’s still running for something?
Clinton is still a man of huge public-service aspirations. He’s still adored abroad. And he’s still considered president by the nation’s estranged, bluer half. Yet he’s also still deeply wounded, burdened by a sense of both underappreciation and unrealized promise. Much more than his successor, Clinton understood exactly which direction the world was headed when he twice took the oath of office, yet he didn’t, for reasons both circumstantial and of his own unlovely making, deliver some of the things he valued most: universal health care, a shored-up system of social security, energy independence, security at home and in the Middle East. He can’t rest on his laurels. So what does a man do with all this feral hunger—to do more, to set the record straight—and all this hurt, God, so much hurt, which steams off him with such intensity it practically blurs the air?