Bill Clinton Lucks Out

Why Hillary’s loss is Bill’s gain.

Bill Clinton

It’s often been said that Bill Clinton is one lucky bastard. Indeed, Lucky Bastard was the title of a satirical roman à clef about Clinton that Charles McCarry published in 1998. According to the lucky-bastard theory, no ordinary candidate could recover from Gennifer Flowers’ revelation of an adulterous affair just before the New Hampshire primary. Clinton did. No ordinary candidate could expect to win a general-election contest against a commander in chief who’d just led the nation to swift victory in a war in which fewer than 400 American soldiers were killed. Clinton did. No ordinary incumbent could win re-election against a politically moderate war hero after suffering midterm congressional losses of historic proportions and seeing his No. 1 legislative priority (health care reform) go down in flames. Clinton did. No ordinary incumbent could survive impeachment over a sex scandal in which he lied under oath and, to all appearances, obstructed justice. Clinton did. No former president could amass a record like this and yet be respected for his policy achievements. Clinton is. These examples all testify in part to Clinton’s remarkable political skills—two Clinton biographies were titled The Natural and The Survivor—but being blessed with remarkable skills is a matter of luck, too.

At the moment, the general feeling is that Clinton’s luck has run out. Where once Clinton seemed a master of political communication, he’s come off on the campaign trail for his wife as blustery and undisciplined. Where once he was viewed as a genius at political strategy, he’s now a key architect—how much of an architect we don’t know, but his role can’t have been small—of a primary race that in retrospect seems laughably inept. In the July Vanity Fair, Todd Purdum, a former White House correspondent for the New York Times, criticizes Clinton for keeping sleazy company and quotes unnamed Clinton friends suggesting the man has been angry and weird ever since his heart surgery in 2004. Clinton’s response to this allegation—he called Purdum a “scumbag” and issued a tendentious 2,500-word rebuttal—was … angry and weird. On top of all that, even Hillary Clinton seems finally to realize that she has lost the nomination to Barack Obama. She may even have blown her chances of becoming Obama’s running mate. The husband-wife world-domination plan lies in tatters. Has the comeback kid’s luck finally run out?

Actually, no. The brutal truth is that a Hillary Clinton presidency was never going to be pleasant for Bill Clinton. He’s dodged the bullet yet again.

Judging from his behavior, it’s doubtful the former president sees it that way. It’s widely reported that Bill is campaigning energetically for Hillary to get the vice-presidential nod, and in the June 5 Wall Street Journal, Jackie Calmes suggests Bill may even be urging Hillary not to quit the race, Obama’s ownership of the required delegate count be damned. In her 2007 book, For Love of Politics: Inside the Clinton White House, Sally Bedell Smith argues that since 1974 Bill and Hillary “have been united in a common quest to win—and keep winning—political office.” Here is how her narrative ends in January 2001:

They were more battle hardened than ever, ready for the long march back to Pennsylvania Avenue. Fortified by the acquisition of vast wealth to augment their high profiles and political connections, they had become a new and more powerful entity, Clinton, Incorporated. Their mission remained the same: high political office, a Democratic agenda, the accumulation of power, and the pursuit of the Clinton legacy for the history books. To be sure, the principals had swapped positions. Bill had become chairman, giving up day-to-day control of the enterprise, and Hillary had taken over as CEO. But they continued to operate as force multipliers—through it all, they were still two for the price of one.

I don’t doubt this was, and remains, the reality of Bill and Hillary’s ongoing joint enterprise. I don’t even necessarily quarrel with the idea that it embodies a legitimate, if unusual, bond of marital love. But I don’t really believe that the big prize sought by Clinton Inc.—a Hillary Clinton presidency—would benefit Chairman Bill. For starters, if Hillary were president, Bill’s own activities would become severely restricted. Bill has already pledged that if his wife received the nomination, he would terminate his lucrative business relationships with Ron Burkle and others. But there’s no evidence that he’s thought through the future of the William J. Clinton Foundation, which Bill rightly regards as the most vital endeavor of his post-presidency. (Full disclosure: Slate holds an annual philanthropy conference in conjunction with the Clinton Foundation. I do not participate and know little about it.) The Clinton Foundation raised $113 million in 2006, the last year for which data are available. Legalities aside, I seriously doubt as a practical matter that Bill or even other representatives of the Clinton Foundation could continue raising money for the foundation if Hillary were president; such solicitations would look too much like a shakedown on President Hillary’s behalf. The same logic applies to the Clinton Library. A Hillary presidency would also surely mean that Bill would have to disclose every past contribution to the Clinton Foundation and Library. (For a partial list, click here.) Bill’s reluctance to do that has reportedly emerged as an obstacle to Hillary’s vice-presidential aspirations.

Hillary would have difficulty appointing Bill to any meaningful post, because a 1967 anti-nepotism law (passed partly in response to John F. Kennedy appointing his brother Robert attorney general) prohibits the president from appointing any relative to a job over which he or she has authority. A “roving diplomat” role, which has been discussed, seems unlikely to pass muster. Indeed, what job is there in the executive branch over which the president doesn’t have authority? Even the civil service isn’t totally immune to presidential control. Precedent suggests that Bill would be permitted to craft legislation on Hillary’s behalf, just as Hillary crafted Bill’s health care reform. But precedent further suggests that this is not an effective way to get Congress even to consider a law, much less pass it.

Finally, a Hillary presidency would inhibit Bill’s penchant for fun and games. Granted, he found a way to indulge when he occupied the Oval Office. (A 1996 article by Slate’s David Plotz demonstrated the virtual impossibility of Bill’s having an affair while president. The piece, though wrong, remains extremely persuasive.) I withhold any opinion as to whether Bill is on the prowl these days; apparently there’s no real evidence he is. But Purdum’s Vanity Fair piece demonstrates that Bill, at the very least, likes hanging out with guys who are on the prowl. He couldn’t get away with such Rat Packery as first man. Unfair? Most certainly. It’s nobody’s business who the spouse of any politician hangs out with. Laura Bush can bar-hop with Amy Winehouse till 4 a.m. as far as I care. (Granted, it seems unlikely.) But the press would be watching, and the public would punish Hillary for letting her man run wild.

Bill has said he wouldn’t mind running the White House Easter-egg roll, and I don’t doubt his sincerity. In truth, though, he might not be permitted to do much else. For a guy who likes to be the center of attention, it would be hell on earth. But with Obama’s emergence as de facto nominee, it’s not going to happen (not in 2009, anyway). Bill’s off the hook. What a lucky bastard.