On Bill Clinton’s desk at his Harlem office, there are nearly 100 missing flyers, sorrowful mementos of his handshaking visits to ground zero and to the family-crisis center. He can’t bring himself to file them away, an aide says, so they sit there, a reminder of the horrendous loss of life – and of his inability to either prevent it or do much to heal the wounds.
The World Trade Center attacks have catapulted the former president – who was just starting to mellow out and revel in his post-Oval Office life as a New Yorker, senatorial spouse, and money-making private citizen – into the unfamiliar and frustrating role of action figure in search of action.
“Clinton misses the work, sitting and making the hard decisions, having these smart people around him,” says Joe Lockhart, the former White House spokesman. “It’s a new experience for him, not being in the middle of it.”
Interviews with nearly a dozen Clinton confidants reveal a man struggling to find a way to be useful and worrying that his peace-and-prosperity presidency will be recast as a footnote to the Bush-family dynasty. Right after the attacks, Clinton admitted to a friend that he wished, for the first time, to be back in the White House. And he couldn’t resist bitterly telling an ally that if the FBI had spent as much time chasing terrorists as it had investigating his behavior, perhaps things would have played out differently.
Yet if he has any I-could-handle-this-crisis-better thoughts, he’s keeping them to himself; in speeches and in numerous conversations with friends, Clinton has made a point of supporting Bush. “He knows his role is trying to provide comfort in New York City, and to add his voice in support of President Bush,” says John Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff. The feeling may not be mutual. Condoleezza Rice briefed Clinton early in the crisis, but a former aide says the exchange was “not rich in detail.”
At least he can still get back-channel information. As Sidney Blumenthal, Clinton’s White House spinmeister, puts it, “He and Tony Blair are good friends. And he talks to world leaders who seek him out.”
While there have been rumors that Clinton and Giuliani might co-chair a commission to rebuild downtown, his aides say he seems more likely to use his bully pulpit and play national hand-holder. Nevertheless, being on the sidelines has become perhaps the toughest challenge of his career.