Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House - Carol Felsenthal (2008)
Chapter 10. HILLARY’S (AND BILL’S) RUN FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
AT A WASHINGTON RECEPTION ON JANUARY 4, 2007, after Hillary was sworn in for a second term as senator, the public abuzz with the probability that she would run for the Democratic nomination for president, Hillary was the in-demand half of the couple. A long line of people waited to see her and a short line waited to see her husband. Simon Rosenberg had never seen that before. “It was easy for me to get up to talk to him. I couldn’t get near her. I hope he’s going to get used to that…. He was clearly an afterthought in that room.”1
IN THE summer of 2006, Bill Clinton was romancing a couple whom he would soon start soliciting for financial support for CGI. The wife asked: “Is Hillary going to run in 2008?” “No,” the former president answered, “because she can’t win…. Do you realize that 51 percent of the people in this country who vote are women? Women don’t want Hillary. So I doubt if she’s going to run.” But he added, “She’d love to be the majority leader in the Senate.”
The former president has been heard to say that he doesn’t think the country is ready to elect a woman president, and that the first woman to reach that office will likely be a Margaret Thatcher type (i.e., a Republican).2
Clinton had also been heard to say that Harold Ford Jr. and Barack Obama “are the two guys with the juice to go all the way some time in the future.” In late 2006 and even in very early 2007, Hillary’s advisers did not see Obama as a threat. Bill Clinton knew better and advised them to attack Obama before he reached iconic status. They dismissed his advice, for the time being anyway.3
PEOPLE CLOSE to the Clintons were not surprised when Hillary announced in January 2007 that she was “in to win.” Whatever Bill Clinton’s reservations, she wanted to run and he owed it to her to help. “He feels like she made a lot of sacrifices throughout her career for him,” says Chris Jennings, “and…I could never conceive of him saying, ‘Hillary don’t run.’”4
Out of fear or guilt, Bill Clinton has delivered on his debt to Hillary before, sometimes to the detriment of his presidency. Payback soon after he took office was giving her national health-care reform to run, even when he knew that health care was better handled incrementally, not in the blunderbuss fashion Hillary advocated. She got what she wanted because she held the moral high ground—think Gennifer Flowers et al—and he had to accede to her demands.
In his recent book, former senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley, who was one of those whom Hillary threatened to “demonize” if he did not support her plan, describes Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House as a “lost opportunity,” and he argues that the administration’s health-care initiative failed because “Hillary Clinton’s political skills were not well honed” and “mistakes of conception, consultation, pace, and strategy” were made.5
Bill paid his debt to Hillary again when he acceded to her demand that he appoint a woman as attorney general no matter what. When it turned out that the first two picks, Zoe Baird and Kimba Woods, hadn’t paid taxes on their nannies’ salaries, Hillary continued to insist on a woman and that’s how the unmarried, childless Janet Reno got the job. Some said it was Reno’s mishandling of the special prosecutor that resulted in Ken Starr and impeachment.
Once Hillary was in the race, Bill Clinton embraced it wholeheartedly and, as is typical, the race became as much about him as about her. It was his chance to redeem his legacy, to show that running on the Bill Clinton record is a winning strategy—take that, Al Gore!—to prove that he is so loved by the American people that they’ll vote for Hillary just to keep Bill in public life and, best of all, to return him to the White House.6
At first, she seemed determined to keep her distance from Bill. In the carefully calibrated lead-up to her announcement, when Hillary appeared on Today, ostensibly to promote a new edition of It Takes a Village, anchor Meredith Vieira kept pushing her to admit that she was set to run. Hillary talked about how important her family was but never mentioned Bill by name, dropping in Chelsea’s name twice.7
One had the sense that if she could have reverted to being Hillary Rodham she would have. But it was too late for that, and when she announced, she became—oddly for the first woman to be a serious candidate for the presidency—simply “Hillary!” Her website is “Hillary for President.”
Through the winter of 2007, the Clintons made a conscious decision not to share the same stage. “I mean unfortunately, as good a speaker, sincere, and wonderful as Hillary Clinton is,” says one man who has volunteered for both Clintons since 1992, “someone once said when you look at a 150-watt bulb right in your face, it looks really bright; put it next to the sun, it doesn’t look so bright anymore.”8
They wanted to avoid any repeat of the Coretta Scott King funeral in February 2006, when Bill Clinton left his wife, not yet announced but planning to, in his shadow. His euphoric, pulsating eulogy compared with her stiff, off-key effort became the headline.9 “This is Bill Clinton in his element,” says historian Douglas Brinkley. “He’s essentially mastered the African American church pulpit…. And that was her at her kind of puritanical worst…. Nobody does a better job at catching the cadence and the rhythms of the southern black experience than Bill Clinton.”10
His natural warmth seemed to capture just about everyone. The Reverend Robert H. Schuller, senior pastor and founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, and host of The Hour of Power television program, gave the benediction. As the other former presidents came onstage they shook the clergyman’s hand—all except Bill Clinton. “He opened his arms and gave me a big hug with his cheek against my cheek and tears in his eyes.”11
At that service for Mrs. King, Bill Clinton’s moral lapses seemed inconsequential. The Reverend Schuller’s embrace of Clinton showed how far the former president had moved beyond Monica. Schuller had denounced Clinton publicly in 1998 for “open[ing] a gaping breach of trust with his family and with the nation…. We all share part of the shame for…high public approval ratings that have enabled President Clinton so far to avoid confronting the problem of his sexual behavior.”12
Once Hillary was in the race, Bill Clinton was dispatched for solo appearances in which he would sing Hillary’s praises, especially as Barack Obama seemed increasingly to be stealing her thunder and Bill’s supporters. The former president was attending every fund-raiser for Hillary he could squeeze into his packed speaking schedule; he was deconstructing Obama’s position on Iraq and lecturing potential donors that Obama did not deserve to be the progressives’ pet, that there’s next to no difference between Obama’s views on the Iraq War and Hillary’s. (She voted in 2002 to authorize military action in Iraq. Obama, then a state senator in Illinois, with no legislative authority on the war, issued a strong antiwar statement.)13 Mark Buell was at an event starring Bill Clinton at which someone “made a comment about Hillary and her position on the war and implied [something] negative about her. He just jumped all over the person.”14
Obama was then the man of the hour, and the idea of the first African American president took on a romance that the first woman president, especially one who had grown so stale in the public imagination, did not.
The edict against Bill and Hillary sharing the same stage was soon relaxed.
When both Hillary and Obama were scheduled to preach on March 4, 2007, in African American churches in Selma to mark the forty-second anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” Hillary’s strategists decided they needed Bill. They worried about their candidate having to ply her trade in the proximity of Barack Obama.
Hillary’s people announced that Bill Clinton would attend with her. The plan had been for Hillary to accept on Bill’s behalf the honor of his induction into the Voting Rights Hall of Fame. The change in plans would have the former president accept his honor at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge where, in 1965, mounted state troopers attacked marchers with bullwhips, billy clubs, and tear gas.
That morning, Hillary and Obama preached in black churches on the same street, three blocks apart—her speech at Selma’s First Baptist Church came off as condescending and phony; his at Brown Chapel AME Church came off strong and genuine—although later fact-checking of his pitch-perfect stem-winder discovered the exaggeration in his saying that Selma is what brought his parents together to produce him. (He was born four years before Selma.)
Bill Clinton told friends that he had worked with Hillary on her speech until one that morning. Not only did her tone deafness overwhelm the message, but the content even came into question. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak, a conservative, let her have it. “She claimed to have been inspired by being taken by the youth minister to hear [Martin Luther King] speak in Chicago in 1963, a time when she was an active [Barry] ‘Goldwater Girl.’” Her hero, Barry Goldwater, was opposed to the 1964 Voting Rights Act—“one of only six Republican senators who joined southern Democratic segregationists opposing the historic Voting Rights Act of 1964 inspired by King.”15
The Chicago suburban girl, her accent as flat as the terrain of her home city, had slipped into a weird southern cadence dropping her g’s. Months later she explained to a group of African American columnists, “I lived all those years in Arkansas, and, you know, I’m in this interracial marriage.”16
After the church services, Obama was to cross the infamous bridge and, by decree of Hillary’s staffers, the Clintons were to cross arm in arm, but the reenactment march was delayed. “A crowd swarmed around Mr. Clinton, who smiled and hugged his admirers, a few of whom were even wearing Obama buttons,” reported the New York Times. Earlier Clinton had jumped out of his car to greet crowds gathered across from the church in which Obama was speaking.17
Although other appearances on Hillary’s behalf did not get as dramatic as the one in Selma, Bill Clinton dropped her name into the public airways whenever he could. In May 2007, delivering a joint commencement speech with former president Bush at the University of New Hampshire, he thanked the university’s first female president: “Madame President Newman, that has a nice ring to it…. I’ve decided women should run everything; George and I can spend more time playing golf.”18 Once he found a good line, he didn’t mind recycling it. Speaking to the NAACP in South Carolina around the same time, he said the same thing, minus the reference to “George.”19
And Hillary returned the favor, dropping his name in front of the right kind of audience (i.e., African Americans whom she was trying to pry away from Obama).20 At a candidates’ forum in Nevada, she said, instead of answering the question put to her, “And, you know, I believe Bill Clinton was a good president. I’m very proud of the record of his two terms.”21 When she made her first foray to New Hampshire in February 2007, the same weekend Obama announced that he was running, a New York Times reporter counted “at least eight times” when she brought up Bill’s name.”22
Still, early in 2007, Hillary was losing some support to Obama. In Chicago, for example, where both senators had strong ties, Obama seemed the favorite. Abandoning a long tradition of not involving himself in primaries, Chicago mayor Richard Daley endorsed Obama. And the mayor’s brother, Bill Clinton’s friend and cabinet secretary Bill Daley, did likewise.23 David Schulte, the Clintons’ friend from law school days, signed on with Obama. Schulte was recruited by Chicagoan Lou Manilow, another Bill Clinton backer.24 Lou Susman and trial lawyer Bob Clifford also declared their support for Obama.25
Months before Clifford embraced Obama, his mixed feelings about Bill Clinton were evident in an interview. He said he was “turned off” by Clinton’s behavior with Lewinsky. “I felt…disappointment in the fact that here’s a man who we made extraordinary efforts to help elect and he’s now shifted the whole debate away from the things that matter most to the whole marital indiscretion…. I was always bothered by just the whole vision of the president of the United States having inappropriate sexual…activity in the White House.” There’s no doubt, he concludes, that Clinton’s behavior put Bush in the White House.26
And in Hollywood, Obama was at least temporarily definitely the “it boy.” David Geffen’s remarks, in a February 2007 interview with Maureen Dowd, in which he described Obama as “inspirational” and Hillary as “overproduced and overscripted,” not to mention a liar, got things rolling: “Everybody in politics lies, but they [Bill and Hillary] do it with such ease, it’s troubling.”27 (That was the same interview in which he said, “I don’t think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person.”)28
The Wall Street Journal reported the new Hollywood “catchphrase”: “Don’t tell Mama, I’m with Obama.”29 A phone interview with Irena Medavoy is interrupted by another call: “That was John Emerson about Obama coming out on Friday. We’re very, very excited. He’s our star…. Barack is black, how revolutionary is that?”30
Obama was the next new thing as Bill Clinton had been in an earlier election cycle. Darius Anderson, once a close aide to Ron Burkle, puts it in perspective. “The Hollywood crowd is about the flavor of the week and that’s how they run. They loved Clinton. He was interesting,…he was fresh; he was exciting. It’s the same thing as Barack is. The problem is, if you sit down…and ask them ten minutes of questions…they don’t know anything about him.”31
Bill Clinton was not happy when everyone from former senator Tom Daschle—who was so close to Bill Clinton that he was one of the people Clinton called during the darkest days of impeachment—to Ted Sorensen to George Clooney, started to compare Obama to Jack and/or Bobby Kennedy and to go public with their Obama endorsements.32
And there was something about Obama that made him seem an irresistible alternative to the Clintons. On The Tonight Show in December 2006, Jay Leno asked Obama, who admitted in his memoir to having smoked marijuana while in high school: “Did you inhale?” “That was the point,” Obama answered.33
Determined not to let Obama grab the nomination from Hillary, Bill Clinton pursued the smallest lead in a manner one might expect of a first-time candidate for the state legislature. Melvin Gitler, owner of a sports bar in New Jersey and, as Gitler puts it, “into real estate in Arizona and Louisiana,” first communicated with Bill Clinton—with the help of his neighbor Congressman Jerrold Nadler—when he was assigned by his daughter’s public school, P.S. 199 on the Upper West Side of New York, to find some “interesting gifts” for the PTA’s auction. To Gitler’s surprise, the former president called him to tell him that an auction item was on its way. A signed photocopy of a Clinton speech arrived with an invitation to have a “photo opportunity” with the president in his Harlem office.
Gitler next received a call from someone at “Friends of Hillary,” asking for his help raising money for her Senate reelection campaign. “I have a big customer base; it was easy to hit up my customers.” Gitler’s wife is the daughter of Herbert Fisher, the founder of Jamesway, the now defunct chain of discount department stores. Soon Gitler was invited to events, including an invitation to Hillary’s house in Washington.
Hillary was to appear at an event at a house in suburban New York. Gitler and his wife were met at the door by the host and hostess who explained that the senator could not make it—she was held up in Washington—so she sent her “B Team.” They moved away from the door, “and guess who’s standing there?—Bill Clinton.”
“I know the senator quite well already,” says Gitler. “In fact, I’m going to have cocktails with her this evening.” Gitler is now building houses in Louisiana in areas devastated by Katrina and has talked to Bill Clinton at various cocktail parties and fund-raisers about the false, “sugarcoated” view of the devastation. “So all of a sudden you’ll get the access”—a meeting in Harlem with Clinton’s people. Soon Gitler is licensed to build tract homes in Louisiana.34
FIGURING OUT how to use Bill Clinton was tricky. “He has the ability to destabilize the campaign,” says New Democratic Network president Simon Rosenberg, who worried that Clinton’s presence could “overshadow and downgrade” the other staffers who, out of his shadow, would naturally assume positions of authority and expertise.35
Don Fowler calls Bill Clinton “certainly an icon and approaching a god…. There is a danger that he could overstep and appear to be casting a shadow over her.”36
Pollster Peter Hart recalls a conference at which both Bill and Hillary appeared. Bill spoke one night, Hillary the next. When she spoke he was seated in the front row. “She answered one question in a way that he thought was incorrect and he called the moderator down…and said, ‘I think my wife’s got the formulation wrong. Why don’t you call on me and I’ll clarify it?’” The moderator declined to do so.37
Hillary, Leon Panetta predicted, would not repeat Gore’s mistake of running away from the accomplishments of the Clinton/Gore terms. And, added Panetta, she would also anoint her husband as strategist in chief, even though he would carry no title. “She knows that she’s got probably one of the best political advisers in the business, and she’ll make use of him.”38
“She respects his political sagacity more than her own,” said former pollster/adviser Dick Morris.39 Even someone as cool to the Clintons as Paul Greenberg saw Bill’s assets: “If Miss Hillary is as wise and practical as I think she’s become, she will listen very closely to his political advice,…use him very strategically like a bishop on the board.”40
THE DOWNSIDE for Hillary was if people wondered who would actually be president. That, some said, was a bigger problem for her than any or all of Clinton’s sexual indiscretions. What role would he play in her administration? Would he be her top adviser? And if so, would he really be the president? “If there’s a feeling that he’s an undue force on her politically and on her decision making,” said Tony Coelho, “she’ll never get elected president. And I think that’s true of a man with an overly forceful woman.”41
For every Hank Sheinkopf, who saw an enormous plus in Bill Clinton’s presence because “when he shows up he reminds people of the way things were when he was president,”42 there was another pundit who saw the downside. The Nation’s Bill Greider calls Bill “a big handicap for Hillary’s ambitions. The notion we would have to listen to more of him if she got elected.”43
Still, when Hillary’s fund-raising for two quarters looked anemic compared with that of her rookie rival, Barack Obama, Hillary called a meeting in Chappaqua, with Bill in attendance, to discuss how to respond. Obama had raised more, had more donors, and had raised more on the Internet. In a rare misstep, Bill Clinton had described the deadline for the first quarter of fund-raising as “the first primary of the 2008 race.”44
Added to that was a national poll in late June 2007 that found 52 percent of Americans saying they wouldn’t consider voting for Hillary for president if she captured the Democratic nomination.45
That was enough. Hillary’s handlers asked Bill to campaign with her.
The first outing, over the Fourth of July weekend 2007, was in Iowa, where Bill Clinton enjoyed huge popularity, and where Hillary was then trailing in the polls for the Iowa caucuses behind John Edwards. Bill’s marching orders were to hold Hillary’s hand as they walked, exude his warmth and charm along the parade routes, tell voters why Hillary should be the nominee and, come November 2008, the president.
Her campaign staffers had to fine-tune the act as they went. At a rally in Des Moines, Bill introduced Hillary and then retired to a stool onstage while she spoke. He didn’t have the Nancy Reagan total-adoration act down and appeared on the verge of drifting off into deep boredom or light sleep.
Both their performances got mixed reviews. Hillary’s speech was boring. In Davenport, Iowa, Bill criticized George W. Bush for commuting the sentence of Scooter Libby, which left an opening for a comeback and Bush’s then press secretary, Tony Snow, took it—and managed to change the subject to Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich: “I don’t know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it.”46
The Clintons’ next outing was to the equally important state of New Hampshire where Bill earned the name “Comeback Kid” for his second-place finish after the seemingly devastating stories about his draft record and his affair with Gennifer Flowers. This time, on the football field at Keene High School, the biggest cheers were for Bill. As the Clintons made their way about the state, Bill was kept to ten minutes of introduction and relegated to the stool, perhaps seen as a better bet than a chair on which the ever sleep-deprived sixty-year-old might do the unthinkable and doze off. Clinton continued to struggle in New Hampshire as he had in Iowa with the proper stool posture, sometimes slouching or resting his head in his hand.47
Some of the Clintons’ most loyal supporters thought Bill’s performance was an unalloyed advantage. “There’d be none of the dismay over two for one that there was in ’92,” says Lynn Cutler, “this time it would just be a total plus.”48 John Catsimatidis even evoked the name of Dick Cheney: “I think that if Hillary ever became president, he…would be…as influential as Cheney is to George Bush…. I think the chances for her to be elected get amplified tremendously if people think he’s going to be behind her.”49
HE HAD once been the most powerful man in the world, but, as the campaign proceeded, Bill Clinton embraced the grueling, groveling work of lining up the all-important endorsements from state legislators and congressmen and governors. In March 2007, Newsweek reported that Clinton was on a private plane with Malcolm Smith, the Democratic minority leader of New York’s State Senate, who had, a few days before, been publicly critical of Hillary’s campaign. Hillary needed Smith to help her capture the black vote in the New York primary. “During the two-hour trip, Smith was treated to a full course of Southern-fried charm, courtesy of Bubba himself.” Two months later, Smith endorsed Hillary, explaining that the airplane ride with the president was one factor that influenced his decision. “You would get two [presidents] for one, and that’s a good thing.”50
In late May, Bill delivered to Hillary the endorsement of Los Angeles mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa who was being courted by all the front-runners. Some bet that the influential Hispanic mayor would endorse the half-Hispanic Bill Richardson, but Bill Clinton bagged Villaraigosa. A couple of weeks before, Clinton, accompanied by Ron Burkle, wined and dined Villaraigosa at the Kobe Club, a steakhouse in Manhattan. The news of that endorsement was a tad tarnished when, while at the restaurant, they saw Rush Limbaugh, who, the next day on his radio show, recounted that while he talked to Villaraigosa, Clinton flirted with Limbaugh’s date.51
In October 2007, African American Georgia congressman John Lewis, a heroic voice in the civil rights arena, gave Barack Obama some kind words and Hillary his endorsement. Obama’s spokesman noted the congressman’s “long relationship with Bill Clinton.”52
If the biggest threat to Hillary’s quest for the Democratic nomination seemed to be Barack Obama, then the first “black” president was, for a while at least, a huge help. He was dispatched to speak before African American and Hispanic groups. When he keynoted Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push annual conference, before he did more than wave to the audience, he got a standing ovation. (Jesse Jackson is supporting Obama for the Democratic nomination; his son Yusef, Ron Burkle’s business associate, is supporting Hillary.)53
According to a report in New York magazine, Bill Clinton called the Reverend Al Sharpton of Tawana Brawley infamy to build a bridge to an endorsement from Sharpton. Clinton’s task would not be easy—Sharpton had his own presidential ambitions and was said to be threatened by Obama—so the former president had to think of anything he could to win the reverend’s good feelings. He offered his condolences on the death of singer James Brown.54 He also addressed Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, in New York.55
HILLARY BEGAN to surge in the polls, and conventional wisdom had it that she had the nomination sewn up. Still, the road to the nomination was full of potholes, among the deepest the constant allusions to her husband’s infidelity, the cheap double entendres, the smirks that even her supporters could not suppress. In Davenport, Iowa, at a town hall meeting of about five hundred, a man asked Hillary, “Do you have what it takes to stand up to evil men like Osama Bin Laden and the dictators of North Korea and Iran?” She paraphrased and amplified the question for those in the audience who might not have heard it: “What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?” The audience laughed out loud, very loud.
Several months later, when the editors of the New York Times Magazine, planning a baby-boomer issue, asked the world’s most famous baby boomer to contribute to a crossword puzzle, it seemed a perfectly benign activity. Clinton was presented with a completed grid, all the answers filled in, and his job was to create the clues.56 The baby-boomer-themed puzzle, “Clues by President Bill Clinton,” proved good material for his enemies. Clinton’s clue for 4 down, seven spaces, was an impolitic one: “It’s nice to be on the receiving end of one.” The first thought of some people was “blowjob” or “handjob.” The answer is a word perhaps more on Clinton’s mind these days: “endower.”
“Can you imagine the challenge of creating an entrance into the White House so he could sneak in without being noticed?” asks David Schulte. “The Corps of Engineers is probably working on it already.”57
And the jokes about cigars and putting the former president in charge of the intern program droned on, because, unlike every other former president in history, Bill Clinton had a wife who was running for president. “A lot of people don’t want to go back to the Clinton era, don’t want to go back to opening up stories about their marriage,” says Douglas Brinkley. “People are…sick of it and bored and annoyed.”58
In August 2007, Michelle Obama, in Iowa, introduced her husband: “Our view is that if you can’t run your own house, you certainly can’t run the White House.” Mrs. Obama claimed that she was not referring to Hillary.59
STILL, BY the fall of 2007, Hillary had begun to look stronger as some of Obama’s magic fizzled.60 The untested candidate—Obama walked into his U.S. Senate seat without a scratch, because the candidacies of his primary and general election opponents imploded—seemed incapable of punching back.
In late September 2007, on the last day of Bill Clinton’s CGI, he gave an interview to Al Hunt for Bloomberg Television’s Political Capital. Clinton described Obama’s experience as about equal to his in 1988 when he decided not to run for president because “I really didn’t think I knew enough, and had served enough and done enough to run.” People who know Bill Clinton know that inexperience had nothing to do with his decision. He probably considered himself ready to run for president at about the time he graduated from law school. He decided not to run in 1988 because of problems in his marriage and the possibility of a bimbo erupting before he and Hillary were sufficiently primed to shove the bimbo back in her box.
That same weekend Bill Clinton gave interviews to Tim Russert on Meet the Press and George Stephanopoulos on This Week. Neither interviewer challenged his assertion.
Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, speculated in November 2007 that Bill Clinton might be deliberately trying to derail his wife’s campaign. Matthews pointed to a speech the former president gave in which he suggested that when her male opponents seized on Hillary’s inept performance in a debate—she came off as calculating the political impact of every answer instead of saying what she thought—they were stooping to the level of critics of Al Gore in 2000 who said the vice president was too stiff, or to critics of John Kerry in 2004 who questioned the decorated veteran’s war record. Clinton said, in effect, that these men were “Swift-Boating” his wife. Hillary’s campaign advisers disassociated her from her husband’s remarks. Matthews blurted out without a trace of doubt that what lost Al Gore the race in 2000 was Bill Clinton.
Again in Iowa, later that month, he gave a 50-minute speech that AP reporter Ron Fournier described as “long-winded, misleading and self-absorbed.” The former president larded his speech with “I”—mentioning where he bought coffee that morning, where he ate breakfast, seeming to forget to bring Hillary into the folksy talk—and used his time onstage to polish and even misrepresent his legacy. In a state in which Hillary’s vote in 2002 for the Senate resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war against Iraq loses her votes, her husband boasted of having opposed the war from the start; a claim quickly questioned by her opponents. One might have thought he was stumping for Obama, who did oppose the war from the start.
When Bill blasted Obama on PBS’s Charlie Rose Show in December 2007, he sounded more like a pit bull than a former president. Rose mentioned twice that Clinton’s aides had asked his producers to stop the interview. Were they afraid he was hurting Hillary? Or himself?
That same month, Oprah Winfrey drew record crowds for Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The following Monday Bill Clinton hit the hustings in Iowa for a panicked Hillary. “I thought she was the most gifted person of our generation,” he rhapsodized. But given the pain and humiliation he caused her, his comments did not ring true. Was a return to the White House more about him than her?
His campaign lines grew to sound almost desperate as Obama eradicated Hillary’s lead in early primary states. Campaigning in New Hampshire in late December on the heels of the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the former president argued that the future of the world in an age of terrorism and global warming—“whether our grandchildren will even be here fifty years from now”—depended on Hillary winning the nomination.
The first contest—the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008—ended dreadfully for the Clintons. Not only did Obama beat Hillary by nine points, John Edwards also beat her, narrowly, but nonetheless relegated Hillary to third place. Some of Hillary’s supporters blamed Bill, for hogging the limelight, for straying off message in weird, sometimes dishonest asides and angry outbursts, for reminding voters that Hillary was not the candidate of change—a mantle then monopolized by Obama—but rather the candidate of the fractious, scandal-scarred 1990s.
Bill’s golden rock star glow turned gray. At Hillary’s Iowa concession speech he bit his nails as he surveyed the crowd. Although he stood beside Hillary, she never acknowledged him. An AP report described him as a “relic” and pundits noted that while Obama rode a wave of adulation from young people, the faces surrounding Hillary as she conceded were old—Bill’s, Madeleine Albright’s, General Wesley Clark’s.
The day after Iowa and five days before the New Hampshire primary, Bill Clinton addressed a rally at the University of New Hampshire. Writing in the New York Times, Mark Leibovich described only “polite applause” as the former president entered and “rows of empty seats.” Leibovich acknowledged that the university was on winter break, but then described a rally the next day at a two-thirds empty high school gymnasium.
The Clintons stayed true to their roller-coaster, death-defying style when Hillary, against all media expectations and polls—several of which showed Obama winning by as many as thirteen points—eked out a win in New Hampshire. Although Bill had seemed at his finger-wagging, crimson-faced worst in his bitter attacks on Obama, he was credited by some with helping Hillary pull off a comeback in New Hampshire, a resurrection even more impressive than his own in 1992. Still, Hillary’s advisers weren’t completely persuaded, and he was off camera during her victory speech.
On to the next contests in Nevada and South Carolina: Bill’s putdown of Obama’s anti-Iraq war claims as “the biggest fairy tale” offended African Americans and risked that an important South Carolinian, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, would break his pledge to remain neutral and endorse Obama. (He didn’t, but advised Bill Clinton “to chill a little bit.”) A key Clinton supporter pointed out that African Americans had saved Clinton’s presidency in the wake of Monica Lewinsky. CNN’s Jack Cafferty characterized Bill Clinton’s claim, “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” as the biggest fairy tale of all. The atmosphere grew so toxic that the former president found it necessary to call in to Al Sharpton’s radio show to explain what he meant. (Sharpton would later counsel Clinton to “shut up.”) The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Obama’s Chicago church, preached that contrary to conventional wisdom, Bill Clinton was “good” for the African American community. “He did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky.”
Campaigning in Nevada, Bill claimed that he had personally witnessed members of the Culinary Workers Union, which had endorsed Obama, engaging in suppression of voters supporting his wife. Again, Hillary beat expectations and won the Nevada caucus.
Prominent Democrats fretted that Bill Clinton was splitting the party by introducing race into his wife’s battle with Obama. Ted Kennedy and Rahm Emanuel advised Clinton to curb his Obama bashing. Jonathan Alter wrote that Kennedy was so offended by Clinton’s tactics that he was flirting with endorsing Obama. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle denounced Clinton’s tactics as “not in keeping with the image of a former president” and warned that they could “destroy the party.” Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy endorsed Obama and slammed the former president’s “glib cheap shots” as “beneath the dignity of a former president.” John Kerry called Clinton’s criticisms of Obama an “abuse of the truth” and also endorsed Obama. Later, Chris Dodd, one of the senators whom Bill Clinton called for comfort during the endless nights of impeachment, also endorsed Obama.
On ABC’s Good Morning America on January 21, Martin Luther King Day, Obama complained that he felt like he was running against both Clintons. The former president “has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling. He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts.”
Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, who had worked for Bill Clinton, accused the Clintons of employing “a good cop, bad cop” routine in which Bill “slashe[s] and burn[s]” Obama, and Hillary “stays positive.” Axelrod described the former president’s behavior as “crass” and “disappointing,” and urged him to stop “truncat[ing] quotes to make your case.”
Bill Clinton was unmoved by the senators and newspaper editorialists who warned that by playing the ugliest kind of racial politics he was diminishing his stature as a world statesman. He paid no attention when Dick Harpootlian, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, compared him to the late Lee Atwater, an infamous Republican dirty trickster.
When the former president came out swinging, when he boiled over with indignation, waxed disingenuously, and waved that famous index finger, his wife won two primaries in a row. He believed that his strategy worked, and so, apparently, did Hillary. Aides to Obama, including one who had worked for Bill Clinton, raised the possibility that Hillary and her people simply could not control Bill, and if they could not control him during the campaign, how would they ever control him should she make it to the Oval Office. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who knew Bill Clinton at his smartest and most unhinged, said that Hillary had signed on to Bill’s approach. If she hadn’t, she would have ordered him to stop and he would have.
Bill Clinton had rehabilitated his reputation many times; most impressively in those early years out of the White House. He figured he would do so again, this time from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the historic role as husband of the president.
In the days before the South Carolina primary on January 26, with Obama widely perceived as the likely winner on the strength of the large African American vote, Hillary tended to the big states holding primaries on Super Tuesday, February 5, while Bill and Chelsea remained in South Carolina, Bill hitting every rally and rope line he could find. If Obama won, so what? She didn’t campaign much there in the final days, while Obama devoted himself to the state. The Clintons’ sub rosa message was: Obama was the black candidate.
Bill continued to misrepresent Obama’s statements. His musing that Ronald Reagan was a “transformative figure” who managed to attract conservative Democrats became Obama arguing that Reagan had better ideas than the Democrats. Fearing that he had gone too far, the former president let loose a whopper: “I like this election because I haven’t had to be against anybody. I like these people who are running.”
He continued to talk too much about how wonderful a president he was, forgetting to mention Hillary, and seeming to be running for a third term. Hillary might have rolled her eyes at his excesses, but she understood, and polls—such as one showing 44 percent of Democrats naming Bill as the reason they would be more likely to support Hillary—supported her belief that significant numbers of primary voters would check her name on the ballot, but they really wanted Bill back.
Both Clintons left South Carolina as the polls closed—Hillary to campaign in Tennessee and Bill in Missouri—because they knew Obama was going to win in a landslide. He captured 55 percent of the vote to 27 for Hillary, and also won a respectable chunk, 24 percent, of the white vote, far exceeding pollsters’ predictions.
Analysis of the South Carolina race from exit polling showed that Bill’s manic, mean campaigning had hurt Hillary. Six in ten voters cited him as important in their voting decision, but more of them voted for Obama (48 percent) than for Hillary (37 percent). Among those who made up their minds in the final three days, 51 percent went for Obama; only 21 percent for Hillary.
Obama won four of every five black voters in South Carolina; and did particularly well among the black women whom Hillary had courted. The polls there had not yet closed when Bill stuck another knife into Obama, reminding reporters, without being asked—the question on the table was what does it say about Obama that it took two Clintons to try to beat him—that Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in 1984 and 1988. Bill’s point was clear: Jackson did not go on to win the nomination and neither would Obama. Further, both Jackson and Obama are black and 53 percent of the state’s voters are black, so what did anyone expect? Rep. James Clyburn said he “recoiled” from Bill Clinton’s remark. At his victory celebration, Obama warned, “We are up against the idea that it’s acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election.”
Two days after South Carolina, in a packed rally at American University in Washington, Ted Kennedy endorsed Obama, comparing him to John Kennedy, and promising that Obama would end “the old politics of race against race…” The Massachusetts senator had taken a telephone call from Bill himself, pleading with him to stay neutral. Instead Kennedy seconded his niece, JFK’s daughter, Caroline, who, the day before, had endorsed Obama, whom, she wrote, reminded her of her father. She applauded his “dignified and honest campaign.” Ted Kennedy was less polite, praising Obama for having the character not to “demonize” people who hold different views—a verb familiar to anyone who watched Hillary’s nasty campaign for universal health care in 1993. He openly mocked the Clintons when he described Obama as ready to be president on “day one,” a Bill and Hillary staple.
Next came Ethel Kennedy’s Obama endorsement. She explained that he reminded her of her late husband, Bobby. JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen also entered the arena, taking credit in an interview on ABC News for the trend of comparing Obama to JFK. He called Bill Clinton “a great communicator,” but added, “The one sentence best remembered is, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’”
Next, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison rebuked the man she had dubbed “the first black president” and endorsed Obama.
Bill Clinton called Jimmy Carter, presumably to head off the possibility that he too would endorse Obama. According to Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon, the former president said he did not plan to make a formal endorsement, but sang the praises of Obama, and noted that all but one of the members of his extended family were supporting Obama, whom, Carter added, they found “titillating.”
Hillary promised that her husband would keep up the wonderful work he was doing, but her advisers hinted that Bill would dial down the intensity and resume a more conventional role as “supportive spouse.” He hop scotched among the Super Tuesday states—fifteen primaries, seven caucuses, 1,681 Democratic delegates at stake, 52 percent of the total of 2,025 needed to win the nomination—and for the most part he adhered to scripted speeches, but not always. “We just have to slow down our economy” to fight global warming, he said in a speech in Denver, “’cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.” He was still prone to speaking off the top of his head, especially if he could hit someone who had betrayed him. He denounced George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law, mentioning Ted Kennedy as a key supporter and adding that Kennedy and other legislators who backed it obviously did not bother to talk to teachers. NBC’s Tim Russert pointed out that among the bill’s backers was Senator Hillary Clinton. “Passing this landmark legislation,” she said in 2001, “sends a clear message that all American children deserve a world class education.”
Bill was no longer the crowd magnet; Obama was. (Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton also sometimes attracted bigger audiences.) The former president’s speech at the University of Denver basketball stadium was sparsely attended. Earlier in the day Obama spoke in the same stadium and required overflow spaces to contain the crowd.
The Super Tuesday states had smaller black populations and larger Latino ones. Hillary, who won two-thirds of the Latino vote in Nevada, had an edge because, historically, Latinos are reluctant to vote for African Americans. Some Democrats worried that the Clintons—whose advisers reportedly refer to the Latino vote as Hillary’s “firewall”—were capable of unleashing a variation on their South Carolina race baiting: pitting Latinos against blacks.
On Super Bowl Sunday, two days before Super Tuesday, Bill Clinton toured four African American churches in Los Angeles, presumably to mend fences that he damaged by his remarks in South Carolina. His reception was polite but muted. A Washington Post–ABC News poll found that 50 percent of Americans would be comfortable with Bill back in the White House, down ten points from September.
The former president arranged to watch the Super Bowl with Bill Richardson in the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. Richardson had dropped out of the race for the nomination, but his endorsement was sought by both Obama and Hillary. The next morning, Richardson told reporters that the two old friends had fun watching the game—they smoked cigars and ate heart unhealthy foods—but he was not ready to endorse.
Bill returned to California where he served as Hillary’s Super Tuesday “closer,” while she campaigned on the other coast and appeared in New York on CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman. Asked how she’d control Bill, she joked, “In my White House, we’ll know who wears the pant suits.”
Super Tuesday was a let down for the Clinton camp. They had expected to claim the nomination that night and instead ended in a draw with Obama, each winning just over 7.3 million votes and roughly splitting the delegates. In the two weeks preceding Super Tuesday, polls showed Hillary trouncing Obama.
While each campaign spinned itself as the Super Tuesday winner, Obama’s claim seemed stronger. For months, Hillary had been designated the inevitable nominee. When Katie Couric asked Hillary how disappointed she would be if she was not the nominee. “Well, it will be me,” Clinton replied. Hillary’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, had been quoted as saying in January, “This thing will be over by February fifth.”
Hillary won eight states, including California, pocketing seven in ten Latino votes there—exit polls showed Hillary taking two-thirds of the Latino vote across sixteen states—while Obama won eight of ten African American voters. She also took New York and New Jersey and her “home” state of Arkansas and neighboring Tennessee, also Arizona and Oklahoma and Massachusetts. (In late January, Clinton had led there by thirty points; she ended up winning by about half that.) Obama took thirteen states—including his home state of Illinois (by twice the margin that Hillary took her current “home” state of New York)—and the bellwether state of Missouri.
Obama won Georgia, and carried the black vote by about eight to one. Bill Clinton had campaigned there for Hillary, and she had the support of Bill’s friend Andrew Young. The former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador did Hillary no favors when he suggested that “Bill is every bit as black as Barack. He’s probably gone with more black women than Barack.”
Into the next week, New Mexico was still counting, and Bill Clinton was reportedly seething at Bill Richardson for not having the guts to actually endorse when it mattered. The AP’s Ron Fournier reported that Richardson declined to endorse her even after an angry call from the former president, who had appointed Richardson UN secretary and energy secretary: “Isn’t two cabinet posts enough?” Richardson’s spokesman denied that exchange ever occurred. (Hillary eventually won the state by two thousand votes.)
Obama and Billary—the media’s shorthand for the Clintons—pivoted to a primary the next weekend in Louisiana, where African Americans accounted for nearly half of those voting; caucuses in Nebraska and Washington state; and a caucus the next day, Sunday, February 10, in Maine. Hillary campaigned in Washington state and in Maine, leaving Louisiana and Nebraska to Bill and Chelsea.
Obama won every contest, and by huge margins, roughly two-thirds of the vote in Washington state and Nebraska. In Louisiana, 90 percent of black voters who cited race as a factor in the campaign, voted for Obama. On Sunday, Obama won the Maine caucus. Hillary had campaigned hard there and so had Bill and Chelsea. Obama’s 59 to 40 percent victory was a shocker because the state’s demographics seemed to favor her—white, working class, and support from the state’s governor.
To add to the pain of that Sunday, Obama won a Grammy Award for the best spoken word album for the audio book version of his bestseller, The Audacity of Hope. He bested Bill Clinton, whose Giving had also been nominated.
Of the states in the Potomac primary on February 12—Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia—Hillary considered Virginia to be her best shot: it had the smallest population of African Americans of the three, less than 20 percent. She campaigned there on her own, and Bill campaigned there for her as well. Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder—Virginia was the first state in America to elect an African American governor—endorsed Obama, and said that he had less respect for the former president because of his offensive remarks during earlier primaries. “A time comes and a time goes,” Wilder, currently mayor of Richmond, said. “The president has had his time.”
Still attempting to make amends with the African American community, Bill campaigned in Maryland at an African America church in Prince George’s County and at the Temple of Praise in Southeast Washington. A Washington Post reporter described the latter service, usually “filled with singing and clapping,” as “subdued.” Referring to the uproar over his comments in South Carolina, Bill Clinton insisted, “I didn’t say anything negative about Senator Obama.”
Obama scored triple landslides—64 to 35 percent in Virginia (this time Bill knew better than to mention that Jesse Jackson had won the Virginia primary in 1988); 60 to 37 in Maryland; and 75 to 24 in Washington, D.C.
Obama won close to 90 percent of the black vote in both Virginia and Maryland, and exit polls showed Obama winning, in Virginia and Maryland, almost 60 percent of female Democrats. Two-thirds of men in both states chose Obama, and Latinos chose Obama over Clinton by six points. Clinton won in Virginia and Maryland among white women, but her margin of victory among that group was significantly smaller than it had been on Super Tuesday. In Virginia and Maryland, Obama even carried the demographic that had previously gone heavily to Clinton, those earning less than $50,000 a year—by twenty-six points in Virginia and twenty-four in Maryland.
Wisconsin and Hawaii voted a week later on February 19. Obama had the advantage in Hawaii, where he was born and reared. In Wisconsin, with its small African American and large working-class population, Hillary would have seemed to have had the edge. Playing the expectations game, she ceded it to Obama, but not really. She campaigned there hoping for an upset, and so did her husband and daughter.
Obama won decisively, 58 to 41 percent. He did better among white men, voters who did not go to college, blue-collar workers, union members, and older voters. Hillary maintained her advantage among older white women, especially those over 60, but again that cohort was shrinking. NAFTA, Bill Clinton’s trade agreement with Canada and Mexico that he pushed through Congress in 1993, helped Obama. Seventy percent of Wisconsin Democrats said it cost them their state jobs.
With his win in Hawaii, Obama could claim that Hillary hadn’t won a contest since Super Tuesday, while he won ten straight. He had a lead of 154 in pledged delegates.
Bill Clinton intensified his lobbying of super delegates—the 796 elected and party officials, 20 percent of the votes at the convention, who are free to vote for whomever they like, not bound to their states’ caucus or primary results—to cast their votes with Hillary. He called in favors extended over decades, jobs and appointments dispensed, campaign appearances made. (Chelsea had her own call list.) The system, exclusive to the Democrats, was created in 1982 to boost the influence of party insiders and deflate the influence of party activists. Super delegates decided the nomination in 1984, when the upstart Gary Hart was battling party warhorse Walter Mondale. (Clinton was then ahead in the super delegate race 238 to 173, but that changed by the hour as Obama added super delegates and Hillary lost them.)
The AP’s Ron Fournier predicted that super delegates would abandon the Clintons if they perceived Obama as winning. Members of this elite group, Fournier wrote, “are not all super fans of the Clintons”—some are angry over loss of jobs from NAFTA; some haven’t forgiven Clinton for welfare reform; some for the failed health care reform; some for the resulting loss of Congress in 1994; some for the Monica Lewinsky scandal; some for Gore’s loss of the presidency in 2000; and some for George W. Bush’s two terms.
Georgia congressman John Lewis, who had noted that his district had gone three to one for Obama, and that Obama reminded him of Bobby Kennedy, formally switched his super delegate status from Clinton to Obama. Al Gore was rumored to be staying neutral so he could be an honest broker should the Hillary/Barack battle go all the way to the convention. Two days after Obama’s Wisconsin win, a 21-year-old super delegate, a junior at Marquette University in Milwaukee, announced that he was going with Obama. He had been courted by Chelsea, who had taken him to breakfast. He received phone calls from Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright urging him to go with Hillary.
Speculation persisted that Obama could come to the convention in Denver in August with more delegates, but Hillary could win the nomination by capturing more of the super delegates. And if Bill Clinton helped her capture them, by whatever smoke-filled-room tactics necessary, she would, in the end, owe him her presidency. Sending a message at odds with his wife’s vow “to go the distance,” Bill told a rally in Beaumont, Texas, that if Hillary won Texas and Ohio, which had primaries on March 4, she would win the nomination. “If you don’t deliver for her, I don’t think she can be. It’s all on you.”
Hillary seemed to step on her advantage in Texas, which is 36 percent Hispanic, when she ousted as her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, daughter of Mexican immigrants and the only Hispanic to ever manage a presidential campaign, and replaced her with an old Clinton hand, African American Maggie Williams. Mary Mitchell, an African American columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, quoted New York State senator Ruben Diaz as saying that Solis Doyle was made a scapegoat for Hillary’s losses, and that if any of Hillary’s top advisers should have been fired, it should have been Bill, who “has made statements that were embarrassing, and he is the one that caused his wife to lose.”
The former president continued to serve as the celebrity for cocktail party fund-raisers. For as little as $1,000, supporters could buy a seat at the table with Bill. But would they even want one? Wall Street Journalcolumnist Peggy Noonan described him as having lost his “political acumen,” having become a “flat-footed…oaf lurching from local radio interview to finger-pointing lecture. Where did the golden gut go?”
Campaigning in eastern Texas, Bill revealed his irritation with the huge crowds that Obama attracted. Although he seconded his wife’s declaration that being president was more about finding solutions than giving a good speech, he added, “I’ve been told I give a pretty good speech.” As evidence, he boasted that more than a million people heard him speak in Africa, and more than one hundred thousand heard him speak at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
During a debate with Obama in Austin, Texas, on February 21, Hillary reduced her husband, who was not in attendance, to a laugh line. Asked to describe how she had handled a crisis in her life, she spoke of “crises…and…challenging moments,” and watching her it was clear that she was referring to Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. The line provoked friendly laugher and applause, but it came at her husband’s expense. Other than that, she never mentioned him.61
IT’S THE general election, stupid!
Should Hillary win the nomination, could she win the general election? At the center of the argument that she can’t win the general election is Bill Clinton.
Hillary Clinton has argued that she is the best bet to run against a Republican in November 2008 because she has been “fully vetted,” investigated so relentlessly that nothing could possibly turn up to harm her in the general election. The comment raises eyebrows and guffaws because not only is there likely more to uncover about Hillary, but she’s married to Bill, whose post–White House activities constitute a Pandora’s box.
“I think they’re going to kill her,” says one woman with close ties to the former president, expressing a fear common among Democrats that Hillary would lose to the Republican nominee, John McCain. They predict that the Republican opposition researchers are developing a dossier of Bill Clinton’s postpresidential sexual dalliances that will derail her campaign. “They probably have video,” this woman says.62
Elaine Kamarck says she has no doubt that the Republicans will dredge up some kind of personal scandal. As to what the former president is actually doing, she says, “Nobody knows; everybody worries.”63
If Hillary thought the 1992 campaign was humiliating and demoralizing, says Larry Sabato, she hasn’t seen anything yet. “My feeling is that nothing will remain private this time. Lots of things were kept out of the press in ’92 for various reasons, a lot of it a desire by the press for change after twelve years of Republican administrations. They really did try to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt. I remember myself arguing that his private life should be left alone…. I had no clue what he had really done and how many times he’d done it…. This time we all have a clue, and it’s going to be very different and I just don’t think they have an understanding of what they’re facing. They think they do but they really don’t.”
Sabato also says that Hillary should forget about getting the kind of sympathy afforded her after Lewinsky. By now, Sabato says, “I think people realize this is…a neurotic relationship and I’m trying to be kind…. It cannot possibly be based on the normal marital romantic love. What it’s based on is anybody’s guess. Many have suggested power…. Remember, if she’s elected, he moves back into the White House, with less to do. What does that say to most people? I don’t know what he’s going to do, but my guess is he’s not going to be inactive.”
For the Democrats, Sabato argues, this is a minefield. “They could very quickly get saddled with her as a nominee and then have to go through all of this Clinton mess all over again for months.”64 Jim Hornstein, a liberal Los Angeles lawyer, calls Hillary “the Republicans’ best hope…. She’d take California in the primary and in the general election, but I don’t think she’ll take a single state in the South, and I think she will do a lot worse than Al Gore did the last time around.”65
Lou Susman, who ran John Kerry’s finance operation in 2004, says that the standard line is that Hillary is the best fund-raiser for Republicans. “I know people in Lake Forest [Illinois] that literally will give $2,000 to the Republican nominee and if it’s Hillary they’ll go out and raise $20,000.”66
Others think that no matter how much Bill Clinton has been philandering, it will no longer hurt Hillary. “Voters have pretty much discounted it,” says Michael Barone. “That’s the behavior they expect of him…. It’s what they say in the financial community—it’s built into the price.”67
Clinton supporter Ray Lesniak argues the scandals won’t matter and uses a George W. Bush bit of bluster: “Bring it on!” “The guy was impeached and he had close to 70 percent approval rating when he was impeached. I think their position is…‘Gone through it, didn’t even scratch us on the surface.’”68
Others speculate that the sixty-one-year-old Bill Clinton will be calmer this time just because his age and health require it. The former editorial writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Kane Webb, says, “He’s an old man with two heart operations, right? Surely he’s just going to be hobbling through.”69
And if Americans no longer care about Bill Clinton’s sex life, there’s always his financial/business/philanthropic life to make headlines.
On January 31, 2008—that night, with John Edwards having just left the race, Hillary and Obama would debate head-to-head for the first time—the New York Times ran a front-pager on Frank Giustra, another massively wealthy FOB, an outsized contributor to Bill’s causes, and owner of a lavish private jet on which Bill Clinton has traveled the world.
In early September 2005, Clinton accompanied Giustra—a Canadian of Italian roots, son of a nickel miner—on his MD-87, the size of a commercial airliner, complete with a stateroom, to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Giustra’s purpose was to make a deal to mine the country’s deposits of uranium, a material necessary to fuel nuclear reactors. On arrival, according to Times reporters Jo Becker and Don Van Natta, Giustra and Clinton partook of a “sumptuous midnight banquet” with the country’s president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. Clinton heaped praise on him for “opening up the social and political life of your country.” With those words, according to the reporters, Clinton “undercut both American foreign policy and sharp criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record” by none other than Senator Hillary Clinton. She had previously cosigned a letter to the State Department noting that Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev had “serious corruption,” including canceled elections. (In December 2005, Nazarbayev won reelection with 91 percent of the vote, allegedly achieved by “intimidation” and “ballot-box stuffing,” and suppression of the news media.)
Two days later, according to the Times, Giustra, a novice in uranium mining, shocked the industry by signing a deal worth “tens of millions of dollars.” In the months following, Giustra gave Clinton $31.3 million for his foundation, on top of $100 million that Giustra had already given, along with a promise of half his future earnings from “natural resource business ventures.”
When questioned about the uranium deal, Clinton’s spokesman said the former president had “no discussion of the deal with President Nazarbayev, but others disputed that, implying that Giustra’s friendship with Clinton was a factor in winning him the deal. Bill Clinton later invited Nazarbayev to attend CGI.
In 2006, Giustra “co-produced” a sixtieth birthday party in Toronto for Clinton. The event, which raised $21 million (Canadian) for the Clinton Foundation to fight AIDS in Africa, featured stars such as Billy Crystal, Kevin Spacey, James Taylor, and Jon Bon Jovi. (A movie buff, Giustra founded and later sold Lions Gate Entertainment, a film production company in Santa Monica.)
In February 2007, Giustra reportedly arranged for the chief of the Kazakhstan-owned uranium agency to meet with Clinton in Chappaqua. Giustra was present at the meeting. According to the Times reporters, both Clinton and Giustra initially denied such a meeting had occurred. Giustra later acknowledged it. The Kazakhstan official came away with the best evidence of all: a photo of him with the former president.
In a stinging editorial titled, “Clinton’s Filthy Lucre,” Investor’s Business Daily called it “a bribery racket,” claimed that the deal made Giustra a billionaire, and that the potential for President Hillary Clinton granting favors to her husband’s donors raises “Marcos-like corruption and a sellout of American interests on a scale unknown in the U.S.” The paper also raised a subject that Bill Clinton hates almost as much as Monica—the Marc Rich pardon: a fat donation to the library followed by a pardon for a fugitive from American justice.
The Giustra relationship, like the relationship with Ron Burkle and Vinod Gupta and others, is surely a gift that would keep on giving to Hillary’s general election opponent were she to win the nomination. Recognizing the danger that his tangled postpresidency poses to his and Hillary’s return to the White House, Bill promised, should she be elected president, that he would release the names of all future donors to his library and his foundation, only heightening the suspicion that he is hiding something. Is there another Frank Giustra lurking in those donor rolls? He insisted that past donors should remain private, “unless there is some conflict of which I am aware, and there is not.” Journalists certainly would not trust him to be the arbiter of what constitutes a conflict.
A look at the library donors—by law their identity and the amount given does not have to be disclosed; a bill to require disclosure passed the House but is stalled in the Senate—who ponied up in the final years of the Clinton administration shows, the New York Times reported, that some of them were seeking government policy changes, some were under investigation by the Justice Department, and some were enmeshed in campaign finance scandal. In addition, once Hillary started to run for the Senate and then the presidential nomination, she successfully tapped for her campaigns many of the same donors who had given to the Clinton Foundation and through it to the library.
Presidential foundations can accept as much as donors care to give, and donors can be anyone, including foreigners. They can contribute anonymously and the foundation does not have to disclose their identities. The Times discovered donations from the Saudi royal family, the ruler of Dubai, the governments of Kuwait and Qatar, and others.
And then there are the Clinton White House papers. If Hillary is the candidate of experience—she claims thirty-five years, which includes her time as first lady in both Little Rock and Washington—and if a key part of that experience touted by both Clintons is her service to the country and the world as first lady, then why is Bill Clinton refusing to sign off on the release of the White House papers that document that service?
The former president requested in 2002 that the National Archives withhold until 2012 White House papers that contain direct communications between him and Hillary. By law he’s entitled, but should Hillary win the nomination, that decision will certainly be questioned by the Republicans, and speculation as to what’s in those papers will not be limited only to the imagination of the most rabid Hillary haters. When asked by Tim Russert about release of the papers, Hillary demurred, “Well, that’s not my decision to make.” Obama had earlier infuriated Hillary and Bill by, in an interview with Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and Richard Wolffe, calling Hillary “disingenuous” for claiming that the release of those papers is up to her husband. “She can release these papers,” Obama said.
A Wall Street Journal editorial headlined “Who Was Hillary Clinton” noted that when the Clinton library, partly supported by public funds, opened in 2004, Hillary promised, “Everything’s going to be available.” More than three years later, two million pages covering Hillary’s days as first lady are still unavailable. The Journal speculated that the White House papers might even contain information on a possible role by Hillary in the Marc Rich pardon.
Hillary’s campaign released a stunning piece of news on the day after Super Tuesday. She had loaned her campaign $5 million. She claimed that the funds were “my money”; her spokesman said the loan came from her “share of their joint resources,” but the assumption was that the money was coming from Bill’s postpresidential earnings. What precisely was the source of the money? Ron Burkle? Donors to the library? Donors to the foundation? Organizations and corporations that paid the former president fat speaking fees? What would these people expect in return?
Obama, who had released his tax returns, in addition to his Senate disclosure forms, called on her to do likewise. She refused, arguing that her Senate disclosure forms sufficed and that she would release her tax returns once she wins the nomination. She knew that the tax forms would reveal more about the source of her husband’s income for consulting and advisory services to Ron Burkle and Vinod Gupta, for example, beyond the payment is “over $1,000” category that appears on her Senate disclosure forms. It would also give a picture to the American people of whether the Clintons—Bill has said often that he ought to pay more in taxes—employ loopholes or shelters to lower their tax bill.
On February 11, the day before the “Potomac Primary,” Hillary Clinton gave an interview to a local television station and to The Politico. A reader of the latter asked Hillary if she could offer assurances that “no new business or personal scandal involving Bill Clinton” would erupt were she to be the nominee. She assured the questioner, “that is not going to happen,” but added, “You know, none of us can predict the future…but I am very confident that that will not happen.”
It took three days for another Bill-related story, characteristically complex, to break. On February 14, the Wall Street Journal headlined more news about Frank Giustra. According to reporters John Emshwiller and Jose De Cordoba, at the first CGI in 2005 an aide to Bill Clinton introduced Giustra to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. In February 2007, Clinton and Uribe and Giustra met at Clinton’s home in Chappaqua. In March, the three met in Colombia. In June, Giustra, Clinton, and Uribe attended a dinner party in New York. It coincided, the Journal reported, with “increasing criticism in Congress due to allegations that Colombian officials had been working with paramilitary death squads.”
Giustra eventually profited handsomely from deals involving Colombian oil fields. President Uribe denied that Guistra received special treatment because of his ties to President Clinton.
Other news organizations began to look into this relationship and others. A detailed story by Bloomberg News’s Elliot Blair Smith ran thirteen days before the Texas and Ohio primaries and raised questions about whether the Clinton/Giustra relationship could affect the tax-exempt status of the Clinton Foundation. Smith quoted the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy: “If former President Clinton is making decisions about where to put the charitable efforts of the Clinton Foundation based even partly on where he’s likely to benefit personally, or see his friends benefit, then that clearly is a classic conflict of interest.”
A Freedom of Information request for FAA flights logs yielded information on where Giustra’s plane went, but not on who was onboard. By matching the dates against Clinton’s schedule, Smith reports that on the day Giustra hosted the sixtieth birthday party for Clinton in Toronto, his plane made a New York/Toronto round trip. “On May 20, 2007, Giustra’s plane flew to Tromso, Norway, on the same day Clinton gave a speech there for which he was paid $290,000. He made five speeches over four days, with two more stops in Norway, one in Denmark and one in Sweden, netting a combined $1.485 million in personal income.”
In February 2008, Hillary mounted an aggressive campaign against Obama in Ohio and Texas, after, in Obama’s words, throwing “everything but the kitchen sink,” at him, questioning his readiness to handle a 3 A.M. crisis and whether he meant it when he promised Ohio voters that he’d do something about NAFTA. Hillary also charged that an Obama adviser had pulled a “wink wink” by promising the Canadians that his anti-NAFTA talk was just posturing—she then pulled off a big win in Ohio and a narrow win in Texas on March 4, and vowed to take the fight to Pennsylvania on April 22. Bill, in addition to warning voters that if Hillary did not win both states she was finished—a brilliant ultimatum as it turned out—had campaigned tirelessly for her in Texas.
The Clintons had staged another stunning comeback. The lesson Obama’s advisers took from Ohio and Texas was that he had to hit back hard and focus on tax returns, on donors to the Clinton library and foundation, on post–White House business deals; on the baggage that Bill Clinton dragged behind him.70