Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House - Carol Felsenthal (2008)
Chapter 11. FIRST GENT: A DOLLEY MADISON FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?
SHOULD HILLARY WIN THE NOMINATION, HOW WOULD Bill Clinton handle the traditional role of “first lady”?
One thing is certain: A woman as president and her husband, a former president, as first gentleman is, as Melanne Verveer puts it, “a brave new world.”1
In a July 2007 interview on Nightline, Clinton said that he would keep an office in the East Wing, the traditional location of offices of the first lady—Hillary broke that tradition and insisted that hers be where the president and the power was, in the West Wing. He would also keep his office in Harlem.2 (In subsequent interviews he seemed to backtrack a bit, saying he’d keep an office in whichever wing Hillary wanted him, or even in the White House basement.)3
People close to him politically—pollster Peter Hart, for example—say that Clinton would need an “exceptionally well-defined” issue or cause, in the sense that Lady Bird Johnson had wildflowers and Laura Bush has literacy. “Obviously it’s her [Hillary’s] presidency and the last thing that you would choose is to have his fingerprints all over the Oval Office,” says Hart, adding that he doubts it would be a “groundbreaking” issue, such as national health care, because that would put him in a role akin to Hillary’s in 1993.4
The work he would do from that East Wing office is most often described as a kind of ambassador without portfolio or “goodwill ambassador,” which sounds a little like a UNICEF greeting card, or a more high-profile version of Karen Hughes’s work for George W. Bush. Sarah Wilson describes the Clinton take on this role as roaming the world practicing “cultural diplomacy,” with the goal “for people not to hate America.”5 Leon Panetta sees Clinton as a “very high-level ambassador…trying to repair some of the damage that has been done with our allies.”6
On Labor Day 2007, campaigning with her husband in Iowa, Hillary promised, as Jackie Calmes reported in the Wall Street Journal, that Bill would be among the “distinguished Americans from both parties” whom she would send abroad immediately after her election to explain to the world her bipartisan foreign policy. She would charge Bill with telling people, “America is back.” In his short but sweet introduction of his wife, the former president asked, “You want to restore America’s standing in the world overnight? Elect Hillary Clinton.”7
Friends say he would certainly serve as one, if not the most important, of Hillary’s advisers, shaping policy at the top, what one political strategist calls “high politics and policy.”8 During Clinton’s White House years, recalls Alan Solomont, there were “meetings in the residence every week on political strategy,” which he assumes would happen in a Hillary White House. “He will not be absent from those meetings.”9 (Clinton told Barbara Walters in December 2007 that he would sit in on cabinet meetings, but “only if asked.” He added that he thinks it “better for me to give her my advice privately most of the time.”)
Others insist that Hillary would want him to deliver his advice long distance, out of the White House, out of the country, out of her way, and out of the news.10
But always engaged in good works and exploiting his network of contacts worldwide: “He would be capable of a considerable amount,” says Bob Kerrey. “A United States president has to make those phone calls to the prime minister of Turkey: ‘Will you let us put U.S. military forces in Turkey as a staging area for an invasion of Iraq?’” He also sees Bill Clinton being able to work magic on trade agreements and on Capitol Hill. “I would not want former president Clinton to come out and campaign for my opponent, so my guess is that [he] would be enormously helpful on the Hill to President Clinton.”11
Clinton has implied that he would drop off the speaking circuit if his wife becomes president. He explains that he hopes to have saved enough not to have to work.12 “I don’t think they’re people who are looking to amass a fortune,” says Alan Solomont. “They don’t need to amass a fortune; they have friends who have fortunes enough.”13
“We’d get all those speeches for nothing,” says Bob Kerrey happily.14
Most of the people close to him agree that Bill Clinton would continue to devote much of his time—he has quantified it as two to three days a week—to his foundation and the offshoot CGI.15 “I think he would be smart enough to say that his work in his foundation is his priority,” says Mark Buell.16
WITH THE exception of his initiative on childhood obesity, Clinton has focused his attentions abroad, and, says Tony Coelho, that would remain the case. “He would stay on the international stage and be very helpful to her. I think he’d be a counselor in effect but stay out of everything domestically.” He could not be perceived as being the one who was really running the show.17
The key to his role as “First Gentleman,” says Chris Jennings, is transparency. The American people must know exactly what he’s doing and where he’s doing it. There cannot be “an air of mystery or intrigue surrounding him.” People would have to be comfortable that “he wasn’t president from behind.” Jennings argues that Bill Clinton “would be the first to say, ‘I’m not president; I’m not copresident; I’m not vice president.’”18 Appearing on David Letterman’s show in September 2007, Clinton said that the Constitution would prohibit him from serving as Hillary’s vice president: “…that’s just not in the cards.”19
But others, such as Howard Tullman, see the inevitability of Bill as “a partner in the process,” indeed a kind of copresident. And that raises the question: in such an arrangement, the role of the vice president becomes something even less tempting than the “bucket of warm piss,” as the office was described by John Nance Garner, FDR’s vice president. “What would be left for the vice president to do if you had the first husband be a combination secretary of state/everything else?” asks Tullman. Campaigning in Iowa for Hillary in November 2007, Clinton received a standing ovation for a speech that made it sound like he would indeed be running things with Hillary: “We’ve got to restore the economy, deal with health care, deal with education,” Clinton thundered. “Make this country a modern, vibrant, innovative, successful country again.” Clinton closed, according to a report on Iowa Radio News, by warning that the ovation meant nothing if his wife didn’t win the Iowa caucuses. A month later, campaigning in New Hampshire, the former president was fifteen minutes into an hour-long speech enumerating the challenges that will face the next president before he remembered to add, “Everything I’m saying here is my wife’s position, not just mine.”20
Biographer Carl S. Anthony, who writes about first ladies, sees the prospect of Clinton 42 and Clinton 44 setting up housekeeping at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as endlessly fascinating. “I can’t imagine a more powerful couple in world history since William and Mary.”21 To Chicago attorney and political player Gery Chico, the unique aspect of this 42/44 White House would be that when the former president gets done advising the current president, instead of returning to his home and family, he “just walks upstairs to the residence,” where he might tell her, “I need an appropriation of $10 billion to stand behind me in Africa.”22
Once Hillary had decided, probably on the advice of her husband, that Bill Clinton was an asset, not an embarrassment to be sidelined, she began, sometimes without even being asked, to suggest roles Bill might play in a Hillary White House.
At the fund-raiser at Ron Burkle’s mansion in March 2007—which yielded her campaign $2.6 million—she pronounced him “probably the most popular person in the world.”23 At another event she boasted that her husband’s feel for international policy and relations was “a lot better than what we’ve recently seen.”24
When Bill Clinton boosters began to ask her at campaign stops if she would name him secretary of state, she cited an antinepotism law passed after John Kennedy named his brother Robert attorney general that, she explained, would preclude family members of presidents from serving in the cabinet or on the West Wing staff. (The law, passed in 1967, also prohibits appointment as an ambassador.) She touted him instead as “an ambassador around the world dealing with problems.” (Barack Obama promised, according to the Chicago Tribune, that, if elected, he would offer Bill Clinton a cabinet position “in a second.”)25
The most intriguing role for Bill Clinton, suggested often by his admirers, is Mideast envoy, one who could actually get the process moving again.26
“If Bush was a bigger man,” says Jonathan Alter, “he would appoint Clinton to go to Syria and start working on this stuff.” He’ll never do it, Alter says, because his presidency is too often a “built-in reaction to Clinton…. Anything Clinton did was wrong and he’d do the opposite. It’s moronic.” If asked, Alter says, Clinton would “do it in a heartbeat.”
Shortly after Clinton left the White House, Alter saw him at the Manhattan restaurant Le Cirque, and they started to talk about the Middle East. After a while they repaired to the bar and “he talked and talked and talked about the Middle East. I said, ‘Why doesn’t Bush send you over there and get it straightened out?’ and he just said he’d love it, but Bush would never do it.”27
As much as Sandy Berger thinks Bill Clinton would have been the man for the job during the George W. Bush years, he understands why Bush never asked. “It’s very tricky when you ask a president to be your envoy. Jimmy Carter did some things for us and you have less control over a former president who is acting as an envoy than you do over someone else.”28 A Hillary Clinton administration would be another story.
People close to Bill Clinton have also suggested in the years since he left the White House that he could fill two specific positions: secretary-general of the United Nations and president of the World Bank.
Clinton has never jumped at the suggestion that he head the United Nations, but he has also never dismissed it—even though it was easily dismissible; in the UN’s history there has never been an American secretary-general, and Ban Ki-moon of Korea recently got the job. (The unwritten rule is that none of the Security Council’s five permanent members can produce a secretary-general.)29
Others argue that Bill Clinton is an exception to almost every rule and that he “ought to be the secretary-general,” as Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund, says. In mid-2005, before Ban’s election, Wirth was at a reception, chatting with the French ambassador. “‘What you guys ought to do,’ I said, ‘is to select Bill Clinton as the next secretary-general,’ and he looked at me with some surprise, and he said, ‘Well, that’s not possible, can’t do that.’” About ten minutes later, Wirth and the French ambassador were waiting in a receiving line, “and he turned to me and said, ‘We could give him French lessons.’” (Bill Clinton, surprisingly, speaks only English, and high positions at the UN require English and French.)30
Some of his friends tried to persuade him that he should let it be known that he’d be interested. “I think you’d be a wonderful secretary-general,” Sandy Berger told him, “and…it’s exactly what the organization needs at this point to revitalize it and to ignite a spark of energy.”31
Ted Sorensen calls an American, particularly one who had been president, leading the UN a bad idea for the institution and the countries that it serves. “It would distort the whole idea of the United Nations, introduce all kinds of suspicions and tensions.”32 If Clinton ran the UN and Hillary the United States, imagine the conspiracy theories waiting to be hatched. “I don’t think you can have a secretary-general,” says Alan Solomont, “who’s either sleeping with or married to the president of the United States.” But if Hillary doesn’t make it to the White House, Solomont says, he thinks Bill Clinton would “consider” it.33
Rahm Emanuel has a blunt response to the possibility of Clinton leading the UN: “That’s fucking bullshit, in my view…. I think it’s just that people have too much time on their hands.”34
As for the presidency of the World Bank, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who worked in the Clinton administration as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers before moving to the World Bank in 1997 as chief economist, says that Clinton, with whom he sometimes disagreed, would be “wonderful” in that job because “he has a commitment to the problems of the poorest countries…and the kind of…magnetism that you need to generate support…. It’s a very grueling job. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d be interested under the right environment.”35
After World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz was forced out of that job in May 2007, many names came up as replacements—for example, British prime minister Tony Blair, who had just announced his retirement, and Yale president Richard Levin. But Clinton’s name was not among them. (Robert B. Zoellick, who was Bush’s U.S. trade representative, got the job.)36
Still, Rabbi David Saperstein, a friend of both Clintons, suggests a scenario in which it helps Hillary to install Bill as head of the World Bank. Should she win the nomination, she will have to persuade voters that she, not he, will be president. “If I am president, she could announce, I will appoint President Clinton to head the World Bank.” That way voters could be assured, Saperstein explains, “that they both have major things they’re doing; full-time things,…a very defined role for him that’s separate from the White House.” Asked if he has discussed this plan with Bill Clinton, Saperstein won’t comment, leaving the impression that he has.37
Clinton friend Robert Torricelli, former New Jersey senator, says he thinks Clinton would want the position. “No one could marshal international attention and resources on a common agenda like Bill Clinton.”38
One prominent political strategist who knows Clinton well sees the idea as totally fanciful. “Having been president of the United States, why do you want to manage far-flung employees of the World Bank?”39
SOME WHO have lived in the White House found it to be a prison and could not wait to escape. Nobody puts Bill Clinton in that group. To a person, his friends agree that he would love to move back in and would enjoy revisiting a role he played as president: first host.40
All those Lincoln Bedroom guests know how much Bill Clinton loved and became a student of the White House and its history. They also know just how warm a host he could be, and he was that good when he was president and presumably busy; and Hillary, who did not seem to enjoy entertaining sleepover guests, was first lady, and presumably less busy.
When Patricia Duff spent the night in the Lincoln Bedroom with her husband at the time, Mike Medavoy, she famously called Clinton “a full-service President.”41 Aiming to please his Hollywood friends, the president knocked on their door very early one Sunday morning in 1993 to deliver a mug of coffee to Mike, who was leaving Washington that morning to fly home to Los Angeles.42
That sleepover was a particularly juicy one for gossips because Hillary was not home and across the hall in the Queen’s Bedroom was Barbra Streisand. One woman who knows Streisand well says, “He was a total flirt. Whether he went beyond that,…she was certainly taken with him.”43 Hillary was said to be furious about the innuendos and the president appeared with a scratch on his face, about which he offered various explanations.
President Clinton seemed happiest when he had a full White House, especially when things were uncomfortable with Hillary. In April 1998—the weekend of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner—he had Mark and Susie Buell in the Lincoln Bedroom and the golfer Greg Norman and his wife in the Queen’s Bedroom. Hillary was home that weekend—she had been deposed that day by Ken Starr in the basement of the White House—and she was accompanying Bill to the dinner knowing that one of the guests would be Paula Jones, whose lawsuit against her husband would eventually lead to the discovery of the Monica Lewinsky affair.44
Bill Clinton presumably preferred not to be alone with Hillary that night. (The presence of both Hillary and Paula at that dinner was the headline worldwide.) When the Clintons returned, Susie recalls, “they asked us to come up and we joined them in the private quarters.” In addition to the Buells and Normans, Erskine Bowles and his wife were there, and so was one of the president’s classmates from Oxford.45
Clinton suggested they have a drink, although, friends say, they never saw him drink alcohol while he was president. (For toasts at official dinners his wineglass usually contained water.)46 Clinton didn’t have the private quarters “very well stocked,” says Mark Buell, so when the butler, Buddy, came around to take drink orders and the men all wanted beers, Buddy had to run out to the 7-Eleven and buy some.47
The next morning, the president gave the Buells a comprehensive tour of the Oval Office.48
Tom Vilsack, when he was governor of Iowa, recalls “an extraordinary opportunity,” in February 1999, when Bill Clinton gave him and his wife, Christie, “a personal tour,” two and a half hours long, of the second floor of the White House. After the tour of the private quarters and the lessons about the artifacts in each room ended around midnight, the exhausted Vilsacks retired to the Lincoln Bedroom.
It was Hillary who had invited the Vilsacks to sleep over that Monday night. Consumed by the Monica scandal—the impeachment trial in the Senate had ended in acquittal less than two weeks before—and contemplating her own run for the Senate, Hillary, recalls Vilsack, “was very tired that night and had actually forgotten that we were going to stop by.” It was, after all, Bill Clinton who had been the subject of the impeachment trial, yet he was not too tired to play host.
The next morning, the Vilsacks awakened early, before seven, to return to Iowa. “As we tiptoed out of the bedroom [Bill] was in the president’s study on the second floor…. We didn’t know what to do because he was in a sort of a jogging outfit and his hair was kind of messed up. It was obvious he had just…gotten up, he hadn’t showered, maybe he had worked out…. It wasn’t the kind of attire you’d expect to see the president in and so we just walked by the office, we didn’t stop in and say, ‘We’re leaving.’” If they had, they would have missed their flight because he would have found some other lesson to give them.49
Carl Anthony describes Bill Clinton as “an ideal first gent—more heart and soul and power and activism than any prince consort…. He might very well prove to be as hospitable a host of the executive mansion in a manner not seen since Dolley Madison—he possesses her depth and gregariousness.”50 (She was first lady from 1809 to 1817.)
“I don’t think he’s going to be planning menus and selecting the flowers,” jokes Lynn Cutler. “He could even say ‘I don’t want to bake cookies’ and get away with it.”51
In late September 2007, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, plugging his new book Giving, Bill Clinton joked that being “first husband” might not be so great after all. “No, I may slit my throat,” he said, before reverting to his usual pledge to do anything Hillary asked him to do to help.52
TRADITIONALISTS WHO fret about how, in the absence of a first lady, the official social activities of the White House would be discharged suggested that Chelsea Clinton fill that role. Her father, appearing on Larry King Live,said absolutely not. “There is no way she should stop doing what she’s doing and try to assume that role.”53
If Chelsea were to interrupt her career to serve as her mother’s hostess—a nineteenth-century notion that seems outlandishly outdated—she would be giving up a big income.
By agreement between her parents and the press, when Chelsea lived in the White House, she was largely left alone. Snippets leaked out—it was reported, repeatedly, for example, that she wanted to be a pediatric cardiologist54—but not many. Having decided not to pursue medical school, she graduated from Stanford in 2001 with a degree in history.
Admirers of her parents, such as Susan Davis, imagine Chelsea doing good works for nonprofits. “She was at a formative age when she got to travel around the world and see firsthand the plight of the poorest,” says Davis, chairperson of the Grameen Foundation USA, who has observed Chelsea but doesn’t know her personally. “It’s a very powerful experience and whenever anybody sees it firsthand they always become champions for life.”55
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Chelsea wrote an essay for the now defunct Talk magazine. “For most young Americans I know, ‘serving’ in the broadest sense now seems like the only thing to do. Is banking what’s important right now?”56
While at Oxford, Chelsea became what one reporter called the “it girl.” She turned up at the Versace show in Paris in January 2002 in a Versace pantsuit, eyes and hair by Donatella Versace herself, seated in the front row next to Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. (She later flew to Milan for Versace’s ready-to-wear show.) She was seen dancing with Sir Paul McCartney, chatting with Bianca Jagger, dining with her father and U2’s Bono, mixing with Kevin Spacey at the London premiere of one of his films, dining and dancing at the priciest restaurants and clubs in London. In June 2002, Vanity Fair proclaimed her “the new JFK Jr.” and “a sex symbol.”57
After earning a master’s degree in international relations from University College, Oxford, and returning to New York in 2003, she went to work for McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm. According to a recent profile in the New York Times, “She was the youngest in her class, hired at the same rank as those with M.B.A. degrees.”58 Susan Davis explains that decision to join McKinsey as one that would be helpful to Chelsea when she entered the nonprofit world. “I think that this [McKinsey] is about skill building…. McKinsey is a firm that has a very good reputation for ethical integrity and as a place where you can hone diagnostic and analytical skills to be able to develop a wider perspective on the economy and the world and on business, which is very important when you go into the nonprofit world.”59 (She took a leave from the hedge fund in early December 2007 to campaign full-time for her mother.)
She left McKinsey to take a job analyzing investments at Avenue Capital, a $12 billion hedge fund run by Marc Lasry, a financial supporter of Democrats and of her parents.60 The Times reported that by moving to Avenue, she might “improve on her low-six-figure McKinsey salary—reportedly $120,000—by hundreds of thousands of dollars…because of potential bonuses, according to industry headhunters.”61
Chelsea is said to be close to her father, which says something about the depth of the relationship given the embarrassment she had to have felt over the Monica Lewinsky revelations. Most painful for the president, friends say, was Chelsea being exposed to the sordid details of the scandal. “He had to be deeply shaken by that,” says David Schulte, his friend from law school.62 Clinton’s military aide, Robert Patterson, recalls that one of the things that most angered Hillary about the scandal was “the damage it caused to Chelsea…who was caught off guard and obviously hurt by it.” Patterson says that the weekend after the story broke Chelsea flew home from Stanford and “Mrs. Clinton sent Chelsea and the president up to Camp David by themselves to hash it out.”63
When she moved with her parents to Washington in 1993, she was not quite thirteen. Strong roots in Little Rock, and a close friendship maintained with Elizabeth Fleming, helped her to finesse the move. Victor Fleming says that his family has been “a sort of home away from home for Chelsea,” who visited them, usually for a couple of days at a time, during her White House years. His impression from talking with Chelsea is that “she has a very strong relationship with both parents still.”64 Bill Clinton, friends say, is often on his cell phone talking to Chelsea.65 Don Hewitt remembers that when Clinton was in the 60 Minutes studio, “he would excuse himself a lot and go to the phone to talk to Chelsea…. He is crazy about that kid and he’s probably a very good father.”66
While Chelsea was at Stanford, after Clinton left the presidency, Mark Buell played golf with him in Palo Alto. Also in their party was John Doerr, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and former Clinton friend Vinod Gupta. At dinner afterward at a Cuban restaurant in Palo Alto, with a bunch of Chelsea’s friends in tow, Buell and Doerr “conspired” privately to split the bill. “When the president heard about this,” Buell recalls, “he said, ‘No I’m paying. I have an income now.’ It was really kind of sweet…. And I thought it was sort of a poignant scene as a father.”
On another occasion in San Francisco, Bill Clinton had dinner with the parents of Chelsea’s then boyfriend and was obviously pleased with himself. It was the first time he had met them. “And he came back,” recalls Buell, “and he said like any father would, ‘I think they liked me.’ He was wanting to impress his daughter’s boyfriend’s family…. It was so…touching, just to see him wanting to make a good impression.”67
Chelsea’s current boyfriend is Marc Mezvinsky, a fellow Stanford graduate whom she has known since their teenage years in Washington. Once an intern in the Clinton White House, now an investment banker at Goldman Sachs in New York—New York magazine reported that he bought a $3.8 million apartment—he is the son of Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky and Edward M. Mezvinsky, both former Democratic members of Congress.
Edward Mezvinsky is currently in prison for, according to the New York Times, “swindling dozens of investors out of $10 million.” The Mezvinskys were frequent guests at state dinners during the Clinton years and ABC News reported that prosecutors claim that “Mezvinsky used his connections to the Clintons and his son’s social relationship with Chelsea to persuade people to give him money to participate in the scams.”
Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky lost her seat in the House in 1994 after one term when Bill Clinton strong-armed her to support his deficit-reduction bill and break a deadlock. She ended up casting one of the two decisive votes that resulted in a 218–216 victory for the president. She had promised her wealthy, Republican-leaning constituents to oppose all tax increases.68
HILLARY’S RACE for the White House changed everything for Bill Clinton. Instead of the glamour and gratification of elegant speaking venues and four-star dinners, instead of going, as usual, to Davos in late January 2008, he stayed home or mixed it up on the campaign trail. He was applauded, certainly, but he was also ridiculed and denounced for slinging mud and erupting in red-face rages. No one could imagine such behavior from George H. W. Bush or even Jimmy Carter.
During those early primary battles he was working as hard as he had ever worked—for Hillary, but also, more so, for himself. He knew his legacy remained soiled and fragile, and that Hillary’s election would do more to clean and enhance it than anything he could do in Africa. The Bill Clinton holding HIV-positive babies and toddlers, that global statesman and philanthropist the world had come to admire was, temporarily, on leave.
Bill Clinton’s timing has always been good, and so it seemed to be in late 2007 and early 2008 as he presented himself as helping “the finest mind of their generation,” as he took to calling her, become the first woman president. His postpresidency act was thriving in a way, but it was also growing a bit stale. His Africa initiative was losing some steam as other foundations and even George W. Bush won kudos for their work. CGI was brilliantly conceived, but the 2008 meeting would be the fourth and the excitement and novelty was bound to wane. His speaking fees were beginning to attract attention again; a handful of his buddies and funders were in the news for the wrong reasons. Sometimes he still seemed so ridiculously needy; sometimes his behavior was embarrassing.
In fact, until Bill Clinton hit the trail in earnest for his wife’s presidential campaign, he was in danger of becoming a bore—so in love with the sound of his own voice as to seem almost comical. His friend Howard Tullman worried out loud that the former president was flirting with becoming “the next Jesse Jackson,” who shows up wherever a controversy brews or a spotlight beckons.69
Few Clinton observers finish trying to explain what makes him tick without mentioning that he feeds off of public acclaim. “He wants to an inordinate degree to please people,” says Arkansas journalist Bill Simmons.70He’s “a master at understanding how to get people to like him,” says Lou Weisbach.71
But one woman who has spent time with Clinton and stayed the night at the White House says that Clinton’s humiliations have changed him, that he’s “a little less sensitive to his environment than he was before, a little more likely to just opine forever,” and miss the signals that he has lost his audience. Clinton’s need for company is outsized and weird, this woman says. “He is one of the most gregarious human beings, who’s just hungry for human contact and interaction all the time,” and it’s exacerbated now because he essentially lives alone and especially misses Chelsea.72
Robert Sam Anson, writing about Clinton’s postpresidency in Vanity Fair in June 2004, offered a sad view: “One man-about-Manhattan tells of inviting Clinton to a cocktail party that was to run from six to eight. Clinton arrived at seven; an hour and a half later, he was still surrounded by a crowd hanging on every syllable. Join us for dinner, the guest of honor invited. Clinton did—at 9:15. ‘I can’t stay,’ he said. ‘Maybe I’ll just have dessert.’ He sat down and started to talk: about Chelsea (‘a serial monogamist,’ he has called her); Hillary (‘the most interesting, important, worthwhile person’ he’d ever met, he has said); his ‘work’ (the thing he missed most about the White House). At midnight he was still talking (about having been reduced to ‘watching movies all the time’), and the rest of the party was looking at watches. ‘Bill,’ one of them said finally, ‘we have to go to work tomorrow.’ Clinton’s face fell. ‘He looked so lost,’ says the host. ‘Like, Where am I going now?’”73
Mel Gitler and his wife attended a fund-raiser for Hillary’s Senate race in 2006. She couldn’t make it so she sent her husband. It was eleven at night and the former president was still talking and, says Gitler, “the hostess got tired.” He was supposed to wrap it up by ten, but he did not want to stop answering questions. “He could have gone on all night,” says Gitler. The host, receiving signals from his wife, “got up and said that we’ll have a couple more questions and we’ll call it an evening.”74
Sometimes when he gave a speech, especially on a weeknight, he talked so long that some in the audience hoped a hook would drop and drag him off the stage. At the Jewish United Fund (JUF) dinner he keynoted in Chicago in November 2005, many of the eighteen hundred who packed the hotel’s grand ballroom lived in the suburbs, had babysitters waiting, and jobs to go to the next morning; they were stealing glances at their watches. Finally one of the evening’s hosts took the stage, thanked Clinton for being so generous with his time, and announced that the former president would take one more question.
Conrad Black saw him in a similar circumstance at a paid speech in Toronto. “He was very knowledgeable about the state of public Medicare plans in Canada,…but left to his own he sort of garrulously chats on and…it’s uneven, it’s certainly not galvanizing. It’s not an address that gathers you up and brings you to a conclusion and that uplifts you at all.”75
Still, given the right audience and the benefit of an afternoon engagement, he could reliably bring down the house. In June 2006, Bill Clinton spoke, pro bono, to the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, meeting that year in Little Rock. Patricia Calhoun, then AAN’s editorial chair, says the former president’s assorted “handlers” insisted that his speech would run twenty minutes, and that there would be no questions, not even the two preapproved questions that Calhoun had in hand. “I can tell you that all bets were very quickly off as he came back to greet the editor and the publisher of the Arkansas Times. ‘Hey, I’ll take questions from the audience,’ he said.”
Clinton ended up talking for an hour to what Calhoun calls a “rapt and hypnotized” audience of five hundred representing more than a hundred newspapers, people usually skeptical, left leaning, and rude. No one asked about Monica or Rwanda or welfare reform, she says. “In our group for no one to ask about Monica Lewinsky was pretty interesting…. Everybody in that room would have thought, ‘You are so smart, why were you so stupid?’” But nobody asked that question. “It was as though Elvis were in the room,” says Calhoun. “This was a rock star.”76 Another editor later noted the ovations and cheers, and blogged, “You’d have thought he was talking to a room full of supporters at the height of an election campaign.”77
Calhoun, editor of Westword in Denver, joined Clinton onstage to ask him questions and then opened it up to the audience: “I’m getting the sign from the handler that it’s time to cut it off. He pats his chest,…he holds up two fingers and there are two more questions. I said, ‘Well, President Clinton, you’ve held the most powerful position in the world, but your handler seems to be in charge of your schedule.’…President Clinton says, ‘No, we’ll take some more questions.’”
Forty-five minutes later, as Clinton continued to encourage questions, Calhoun said to him, “President Clinton, it appears that your staffer has collapsed in shock over the timing.” He said, “Oh, that’s okay, he’ll get over it.” And he took more questions.78 After the Q and A, Clinton rushed to the security ropes and chatted and signed autographs for another hour.79
Calhoun, who had never before met Clinton, says that he looked great—“really well tailored suit, impeccably groomed white hair,” trim, oddly “smooth hands.” Like others, she noted that the longer he engaged with the audience, the better he looked; “the people contact is what seems to energize him.”
The one jarring note was the toilet paper stuck to his shoe.80
ON AUGUST 19, 2006, Bill Clinton turned sixty. He was not happy about it, lamenting that he had more days behind him than ahead of him, that he always used to be the youngest person in the room, but now he was often the oldest. He showed a childlike side by insisting on celebrating his birthday over and over, unlike most aging adults who would rather just blow out the candles once and be done with it.
On his actual birth date, he celebrated in Martha’s Vineyard at the home of Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson. At the Vineyard party, says Susie Tompkins Buell, who was there, “he played the saxophone and Hillary and Chelsea danced and were just so proud of him and having so much fun. Hillary loves to dance.” There were, says Buell, about a hundred people, including Maurice Tempelsman, Jackie Onassis’s last boyfriend, Meg Ryan, Vernon Jordan, and Walter Cronkite.81
That was not a night for Clinton to worry about his heart. He ate his favorite foods—spareribs, chicken, potato salad, coleslaw. Susie Buell recalls him “off in the corner opening his presents, just beaming with pride at having so many nice friends, and getting books…trying not to be depressed about getting sixty.” The Clintons, who were staying in a guesthouse on Steenburgen’s property, partied until the very end.82
In Little Rock, at the Clinton Library, there was a party in absentia for the former president.
The next day he celebrated again, this time at Innisfree, the Nantucket summer home of Smith Bagley, heir to a tobacco fortune, and Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, Clinton’s former ambassador to Portugal. That night Carly Simon and her two children sang “Happy Birthday” to him.83 (He celebrated his sixty-first birthday at the Bagleys also, in the midst of a $2,300-a-head fund-raiser for Hillary.)84
On September 9, he celebrated in Toronto.85
It was during that event that Bill Clinton gave The American Spectator founder and editor, R. Emmett Tyrrell, material for his new book, The Clinton Crack-Up: The Boy President’s Life After the White House. Conrad Black, a friend of Tyrrell’s, and an acquaintance of Clinton’s—Clinton blurbed Black’s biography of FDR—got Tyrrell a ticket to the event and Tyrrell was able to corral Clinton to pose for a photo with him. (Clinton’s aides, eventually figuring out who Tyrrell was, refused permission for Tyrrell to use the photo in his belittling book.) Tyrrell described the former president as wandering aimlessly around the event, in and out of the men’s room, obviously failing to recognize the man whose magazine printed the first stories about Clinton’s sex life while governor and who dispatched reporters to Arkansas to find Paula Jones and thus in a sense initiated the misery of impeachment.86
On the weekend of October 27–29, with Chelsea Clinton and Terry McAuliffe as cohosts, twenty-one hundred “friends” were offered birthday packages that ranged from $60,000 at the low end—a thousand a year—to $500,000 and higher. The weekend, according to a report in the Washington Post, included a golf tournament, brunch, receptions, and dinner at the American Museum of Natural History. Those who wrote checks for $500,000 or more received the “Birthday Chair Package,” which included the “‘Backstage Pass’ dinner and photo with Clinton, and platinum seating at the Saturday dinner” and the Rolling Stones private concert at the Beacon Theater on upper Broadway. Proceeds went to the Clinton Foundation. He had his friend Ron Burkle seated behind him at the concert, which was packed with celebrities and people whom Clinton was tapping to support his foundation, his CGI, and his wife.87
Shortly before his birthday, Clinton addressed a World AIDS Conference in Toronto. “In just a few days, I will be 60 years old. I hate it, but it’s true,” he said. “For most of my working life, I was the youngest person doing what I was doing. Then one day I woke up and I was the oldest person in every room. Now that I have more days behind me than ahead of me, I try to wake up with a discipline of gratitude every day.”
In a column entitled “Clinton’s Prostate Turns 60,” conservative commentator Ben Shapiro gave his take of that speech: “Turning 60 is certainly a bummer for a man as reliant on his prostate as Clinton is. Nonetheless, Clinton’s speech was a stunning testament to his egocentricity. Who whines about a post-midlife crisis while discussing a disease that has pushed Angola’s average life span to 39.9 years, Zambia’s to 39.7, and Zimbabwe’s to 37.9? Who tells a roomful of people worried about the devastation caused by a global plague that he is personally devastated by having another birthday?”88
Bill Clinton, that’s who. And the audience loved him.
IF THERE was a memorial service for a prominent person, Clinton was often there. He became a kind of mourner in chief: have corpse, he’ll travel, and he’ll give a eulogy, and the eulogy would occasionally stray into being as much about Bill Clinton as the deceased.
In November 2006, he turned up as a “surprise guest” and eulogist at the funeral, at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, for CBS newsman Ed Bradley. Entertainment included Jimmy Buffett and Wynton Marsalis. It was, said Sony chief executive Howard Stringer, “a full house” of two thousand mourners. “I knew I had arrived in national politics,” Clinton said in his eulogy, “when Ed Bradley wanted to interview me.”89
In February 2007, he attended the memorial service for historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the Great Hall at Cooper Union in Lower Manhattan. In that room in 1860, Abraham Lincoln spoke about his presidential candidacy, reported Adam Clymer in the New York Times. Clinton recalled that Schlesinger, who was editing a series of biographies, had asked him to write one of Lincoln. Clinton explained that he was under contract to write his own memoir, to which Schlesinger replied, “Lincoln is a better story, and it’s shorter.”90
He “does” plenty of funerals for the rich and famous, or their dearly departed: Terry McAuliffe’s father;91 Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas. He also delivered the principal eulogy at Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s funeral. “Lloyd felt that Clinton was one of the most brilliant people he’d ever met,” says Houston mayor Bill White, to whom Clinton signed and sent his original notes for the eulogy. “He really has learned to do a good job at those special occasions.”92
“He empathizes like no one else I know,” says Melanne Verveer.93 “I happen to know that Bill Clinton is very good at occasions like funerals,” says Ted Sorensen, and it doesn’t sound like a compliment.94
Clinton also delivers eulogies and comforting words at funerals of people not known to the general public. In November 2005, he starred at the funeral of Carl Whillock who had served as a special assistant to Clinton during his second term; but, more important, in 1974, when Clinton was contemplating a race for the U.S. House, Whillock accompanied Clinton through the Third Congressional District, stopping in every town and introducing Clinton to the people he needed to know. Although he lost that race, Clinton has said that, without Whillock, he would not have become president. Whillock’s wife, Margaret, also worked in the Clinton White House, as deputy director of the White House Visitors Office. During the funeral, says the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Phyllis Brandon, the former president “sat with Margaret and held her hand.”95
In February 2006, Clinton spoke at the funeral of his longtime friend and aide Eli Segal, who died of a rare form of cancer. In March 2006, he delivered one of four eulogies for Steve Gleason, an Iowa physician who committed suicide and who had worked on health-care policy in the Clinton White House. Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack—Gleason had been his chief of staff—also delivered a eulogy. “He didn’t have to come,” says Vilsack, “it was a labor of love for him to come…. He obviously has a way with people and a way to express sympathy and empathy…. He’s physically a big man, as I am, and when a big person like that hugs you or puts his arm around you, I think it’s a comforting feeling.” Vilsack sat next to Clinton during the service: “One thing I found out about the guy; he can’t sing worth a lick, and neither can I. The two of us were belting out those church hymns as if we could.”96
In April 2006, Clinton joined his successor as Arkansas governor, Jim Guy Tucker, at the funeral in Arkansas for Jim Pledger, who had been Clinton’s chief of staff when he was governor. Clinton delivered the eulogy.97
When Eppie Lederer (aka Ann Landers) lay dying of cancer in her East Lake Shore Drive apartment in Chicago in June 2002, Bill Clinton paid a private visit. No one but the former president and the advice columnist knew about it. She died a month later.
While he was in the White House and after he moved out, he would call people who are not famous who had a death in their family—in December 1999, he called restaurateur Phil Stefani, at midnight; his father’s wake was the next morning. “We had a conversation for about fifteen minutes. He told me about how he grew up without his father. He had just come from that fire in Boston where the wall collapsed and firemen died. Here it is one in the morning in D.C…. And I’m thinking, the president of the United States takes the time out to make a phone call…. And again, I’m not a check writer…. [It] wasn’t just, ‘Hey, I’m sorry your father died, talk to you later.’”98
While Clinton was president, he called Tom Kean just after he suffered a heart attack and underwent an angioplasty and insertion of a stent to clear a blocked artery: “Typical Bill Clinton, he talked to me so darned long, the nurses told me to get off the phone. I was sweating.” Just out of surgery, Kean also started to doze, but Clinton continued to talk. He was in the heat of budget negotiations with the Republican Congress. “What do you know about this fellow…Newt Gingrich?” Clinton asked.99