Ballot Box

Clinton’s Last Ride

Washington, D.C.–An inauguration is both a beginning and an end. As the new administration unpacks its as-yet unsullied aspirations, the old one is engaged in a more poignant ritual. Its survivors cart home their trophies in the drizzle, say their farewells, and wonder what to do next. As someone who always preferred the last day of the school to the first, I find the spectacle of departure much more compelling. So instead of mooning around Blair House, where George W. is practicing his address, or watching John Ashcroft’s redeployment as a sensible moderate before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I opted to spend yesterday on a final excursion with the guy on his way out the door.

Bill Clinton’s last presidential trip, to Little Rock, Ark., promised to be a sentimental journey. His daughter Chelsea and a few old school buddies joined him for what was arranged as a nostalgic tour through his earlier political career. At every step, he greeted childhood friends, protégés, even historic antagonists. Reporters, including several who covered him in 1992, were invited to dinner on the ride home aboard Air Force One. Speaking to well-wishers inside a frigid aircraft hanger, Clinton seemed so subdued by the emotion of the day that he gave perhaps the briefest speech I’ve ever heard him deliver. As he began, someone in the crowd shouted out, “We love you” and Clinton choked up. “That’s what I want to say,” he answered. Rather than spend the hour speaking, he wanted to kiss, hug, and shake hands. At one point, I saw him doing all three of these things at once, to three different people. 

Other bits of emotionalism sounded a bit more scripted. “I will leave office at noon on the 20th, amazingly grateful that somehow the mystery of this great democracy gave me the chance to go from a little boy on South Hervey Street in Hope, Arkansas, to the White House,” he told the Arkansas Senate and Legislature in an earlier speech at the state capitol, the place where he presided as governor for five terms and announced his presidential candidacy in 1991. Clinton views his political biography as a great Log Cabin story and often casts it as such when the occasion seems to call for it. At both events yesterday, he spoke of returning to the White House at night feeling the way he did when he first saw it as a 17-year-old boy.

But what struck me most about the day was the way in which Bill Clinton simply doesn’t seem done being president just yet. His speech to the legislature was an hourlong litany of accomplishments that outlined new policy challenges ahead. It sounded less like a farewell than a State of the Union address in which the president lays out his next term agenda. Clinton told the legislators what they should look for in federal efforts to reform education and health care before he launched into a pitch for voting reform. As usual, he couldn’t resist the details. Did you know that Idaho, not Florida, had the highest rate of uncounted votes in this year’s election, some 5 percent?

Even more oddly inappropriate to the valedictory occasion was Clinton’s retailing of pork-barrel spending delivered to the home he’s not returning to. He boasted about the money he got to repair the I-82 bridge, his efforts to save the Little Rock Air Force Base, and the 460 Arkansans who’d gotten jobs in his administration. Not to mention his $200 million presidential library and something called the “Dale Bumpers Rice Research Center.” My God, I thought, listening to the speech. What’s he campaigning for? A local legacy, perhaps. But more truthfully, in fact, I think Clinton is still campaigning out of irresistible habit.

So far as I can tell, his way of dealing with his impending retirement from elective politics is avoidance. Clinton wants to savor every moment left in his presidency, figuring he’ll have time to plot his afterlife after Saturday. My understanding is that he’s made few plans for what to do when he arrives at the new house in Chappaqua, N.Y., on Inauguration Day. Looking ahead, Clinton knows that there are some things he needs to do, like make money. So he’ll write a book and give some expensive speeches. But he hasn’t figured out any details. Clinton says that he’ll need a couple of months to rest before he can begin to sort out what his new life will be like.

What Clinton has done, characteristically, is to examine the historical precedents for his predicament. In a recent conversation, he said that based on his study of the matter, there have been only two great ex-presidents, and three pretty good ones. It’s a surprising list. The two great ones, in Clinton’s opinion, are John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. The good ones are Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Herbert Hoover.

None of these men offers a paradigm for Clinton to imitate directly. John Quincy Adams had a post-presidential career as a congressman, something that Clinton would surely enjoy, but which he doesn’t think is a practical possibility today. Likewise, the Taft option of a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court seems foreclosed to a lawyer facing disbarment proceedings. Nor can Clinton emulate Teddy Roosevelt and run again for the White House as the member of a third party, at least so long as the 22nd Amendment remains in force. Clinton sees the Roosevelt example as a cautionary example. Frustrated with his own chosen successor, Taft, TR diminished himself by his inability to refrain from political meddling.

The two examples that Clinton thinks he might be able to emulate in some way are Carter’s and Hoover’s. Carter has devoted his post-presidential career to charitable good works and free-lance diplomacy, efforts to which Clinton hopes to devote at least some of his time. But Hoover, in a way offers the most encouraging parallel. After leaving office in 1932, Hoover wrote books, served on various national and international commissions, and managed, after a decent interval, to involve himself usefully in questions of policy and governmental process. Hoover kept a hand in government without looking like a frustrated politician, which is Clinton’s goal. 

I predict he will encounter considerable frustration. Whatever you think about Bill Clinton–and I continue to believe that his accomplishments vastly outweigh his shortcomings–you have to acknowledge his extraordinary gift as a politician. Yet he is being forcibly retired at the height of his powers, at the age of 54. The equivalent would be ordering Michael Jordan off the basketball court at 28 or telling Yo-Yo Ma to give up the cello at 40. Clinton will surely do other things. But the one thing he’s really good at is the one thing he can never do again.