“We didn’t want it to be a flies-in-the-eyes trip,” says McCurry. “So we focused on the emerging trends that showed where things were going well, making the argument that Africa didn’t have to be a basket case in our minds. If you focused on the AIDS pandemic, you just put Africa right back in the basket.”
Yet during Clinton’s presidency, Africa did, to his credit, come alive in three dimensions on the map, which may be the main reason Africans still love him. He made two trips here, said slavery was wrong, and forgave many African nations their debt. He also engaged Africa as he did so many developing nations—with a trade bill—which may ultimately have an even bigger impact than doubling aid to the continent, the objective of the G-8 Summit last month. “More than anything, he gave the people on the continent a sense of self-respect,” says Charlie Rangel, the Harlem congressman who first encouraged Hillary to run for the Senate. “Racism is so embedded in the world that even African leaders felt the need to get white wives.”
Back in Stonetown, Clinton is trying to help the local economy in his own small way: by shopping. “Say, look at this!” he exclaims, fiddling with a beaded, wooden object. “I love folk instruments.” He emerges from the store having purchased not just this but a bongo. He goes on to buy gourds, baskets, spices, jewelry, and wooden giraffes, forcing three of his aides to double as sherpas, humping his spoils through the streets. As he wanders back to his hotel, three men reach out simultaneously to touch him. They lean so far over, their kaffiyehs fly off their heads.
Clinton may say he loves his new civilian life, loves his new house in Chappaqua. But that doesn’t mean he’s mentally decamped from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “I thought that if I had six more months,” he tells me, “I could make peace in the Middle East. I’d have figured out what was really keeping Arafat from saying yes.”
What was it?
“I don’t know.” He shakes his head. “But I think I would have. And I think I’d have gotten more help from the other Arabs, a couple of whom he told he was gonna take the deal.
“I also wish,” he continues, “I desperately wish, that I had been president when the FBI and CIA finally confirmed, officially, that bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. Then we could have launched an attack on Afghanistan early. I don’t know if it would have prevented 9/11, but it certainly would have complicated it.”
The sentiment sounds both sincere and self-justifying—both a regret and a preemptive exercise in legacy protection.
The gaffes and conflicts of Clinton’s administration, self-created and not, also still plainly cling, still sting, and so does the criticism he continues to endure, even if it’s for more highbrow policy choices. When I ask Sandy Berger how often he talks to Clinton, he answers, “Usually when he sees something critical of his foreign policy in the newspaper and wants to revisit it.” Similarly, when I ask Clinton what his first February as a civilian was like—he’d said in My Life that Februarys make him miserable—he launches into a screed about his frustrations over media coverage of his final days in office.
“I was really mad about the setup I got on the way out the door,” he says, referring to (in retrospect) a completely inane dispute about whether the Clintons had left the White House with furniture that was rightfully theirs. “It was totally bogus, totally manufactured, totally false. The people running the White House suggested we take the furniture, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll pay for it, it has sentimental value . . . ’ ” The story goes on and on, for what seems like ten minutes at least. “The whole thing was just one more lie,” he says, giving his cigar clipper an emphatic snap. “I was really angry.”
Did he call the Washington Post, which broke the story, to explain?
“No, I didn’t call them,” he says. “After the way they, you know . . . they were an extension of the special counsel’s office.”
And then, before I know it, he’s off and running on a related topic: “And the same thing was true about the pardon deal . . . ” Another ten minutes about Marc Rich follows.
This is the Clinton you just want to shake: the defensive Clinton, the one who can’t concede he might have had a hand in his own undoing—perhaps not in these particular instances, but in the bullheaded, fingers-in-the-ears manner he attempts to bat them away. Then again, Clinton had the peculiar misfortune of presiding over an era of prosperity—one he helped usher in, no less—which often gave a bored White House press corps little to do but write process stories, inconsequential little play-by-plays about what was happening behind the scenes, rather than policy outcomes. Their bellicosity, combined with Clinton’s relentless indignation, produced some pretty foul chemistry.