Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House - Carol Felsenthal (2008)
Chapter 12. GETTING THE FULL CLINTON—PRO BONO
TRAVEL AND TIME, FRIENDS SAY, WERE THE TWO “great balms” for Bill Clinton. “To go abroad as former president and be treated with the respect that he thought he was due,” says Jonathan Alter, “that brought his spirits back.”1
Lou Susman, who sits on the Citigroup Advisory Board, hosted a meeting in Paris in March 2004 and paid Clinton $250,000 to speak. Susman was impressed; the dinner audience at the Paris Opera House consisted of “very powerful people…. He wowed them. He didn’t use a note…. They ate up his speech.”2
Not surprisingly, Clinton drew solace and cheer from how good he looked in retrospect. “People recognized that brains count for something,” says Alter. “Part of him wasn’t sure whether he could be happy without the power and without public office. He found out that he got to be kind of bigger than public office; people were always [wondering], ‘What’s he going to be? Is he going to be secretary-general of the UN? Is he going to be this or that?’…It’s like Jesse Jackson was for a while. He just became Bill Clinton; he became his own brand and it was a huge international brand. And I think he fed off of that…. ‘You know what? I’m not a has-been. In America there’s room for a different kind of former president.’”3
As George W. Bush’s administration came unhinged by the Iraq War, Clinton’s reception in the United States, as well as abroad, became fit for, well, a rock star or a movie star. John Emerson, chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Music Center, invited his old boss to speak two years running, sold-out back-to-back nights each time. “I’m telling you people can’t get enough of him.”4 Bud Yorkin was there: “I never heard an audience that raucous. It was like you thought you were in a football game…. He got such ovations…. The speech stopped every other line almost.” When it was over, the Yorkins and Clinton went out: “It’s amazing,” Clinton told Yorkin. “Everyplace I go, I get this welcome and I guess if people are paying that much money to hear me talk, they really like me.”5
He was still being paid obscenely fat speaking fees. In June 2005, he pocketed $800,000 from Gold Services International, based in Bogotá, Colombia. For four days running, at $200,000 each, he spoke in Mexico City, Bogotá, and twice in São Paulo. In Canada, for The Power Within, he spoke on consecutive days, one day in Toronto and the next in Calgary, and collected $650,000. He also managed to squeeze in another speech in Toronto before the Calgary speech for a mere $125,000.6
Clever planning around the Jewish United Fund booking in Chicago allowed the former president to pull in $400,000 for three speeches—two on November 7. (On November 8 and 9 he was back in New York where he picked up another $400,000.) Clinton was well worth the money that the JUF paid him. Its dinner normally attracts from five hundred to eight hundred people; for the dinner featuring Bill Clinton, the JUF drew eighteen hundred.7
Some of Clinton’s friends fear that his moneymaking approaches moneygrubbing and that he is pricing himself out of the market. He’s “getting to the point,” says Howard Tullman, at which he is “embarrassingly expensive.”8
And at least twice, he has accepted invitations to speak to groups under federal investigation. In December 2001, he took a fee of $125,000 from International Profits Associates, a management consulting firm for small businesses, to speak in suburban Chicago. Charges against it included, according to a report in the Washington Post, allegations of “widespread sexual harassment.”9
Clinton supporter Mike Cherry represents the company’s founder and managing director, John Burgess. Burgess’s press coverage has been awful, including allegations of criminal conduct. IPA was reportedly extremely generous to Hillary whose campaign and PAC collected nearly $150,000 in donations from IPA executives. She also flew on the company’s corporate jet.10
Vinod Gupta proclaimed himself close friends with Bill Clinton when responding to a request for an interview. The sixty-one-year-old Gupta, based in Omaha but calling from Scotland, asked if Clinton had authorized the book, and, when told no, stopped returning calls. After meeting President Clinton at a dinner in Washington in 1994, Gupta began to raise money for Clinton’s reelection and became a presidential golfing buddy at the famous St. Andrews course in Edinburgh and a sometimes vacation companion. He also scored an overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom and offers of ambassadorships and appointment to the board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Gupta is the immigrant success story. Born to poverty in rural India, he arrived in Omaha in 1967. He is chairman of the publicly traded infoUSA, a provider of database processing services. Speaking in Aspen in 2004, Clinton gave the company a priceless plug when he said that companies like Gupta’s could have prevented 9/11 because “Vin has all these terrorists in the computer—legally.” Gupta is Clinton’s financial supporter, employer—Gupta has paid Clinton more than $3 million in consulting fees—and also the host of the conference to which Clinton was speaking for a fee of $200,000. Gupta also appointed Clinton’s moneyman, Terry McAuliffe, to the board of one of his companies. In addition, Bill Clinton got six figures from Gupta for his presidential library, and another million for the Clinton Foundation.
The arrangement attracted little public attention until Gupta made front-page news in the New York Times and the Washington Post in late May 2007 and again the front page of the New York Times in July 2007. The news stories reported $900,000 worth of travel—charged to the company as “business development”—by Bill and Hillary (also by Terry McAuliffe) on Gupta’s corporate plane. They flew to such places as Switzerland, Hawaii, Jamaica, and Mexico, some of them vacation destinations, another, in New Mexico, a campaign fund-raiser for Hillary.
A shareholder lawsuit charged that hiring Clinton was a “waste of corporate assets.” The lawsuit described the “extremely vague purpose” of Clinton’s hiring to provide “strategic growth and business judgment.” (As required by federal law, the Clintons reimbursed Gupta for some of Hillary’s travel, but they paid the cost of a first-class ticket, which does not come close to covering private air travel.)
The investors who sued questioned Gupta’s need for the corporate jet and for an eighty-foot yacht anchored in the Virgin Islands that boasts an all-female crew.
The suit also focused unwanted attention on a New York Times report the week before that infoUSA allegedly “sold consumer data several years ago to telemarketing criminals who used it to steal money from elderly Americans. It advertised call lists with titles such as ‘Suffering Seniors,’ a compilation of people with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.”11
With a shove from the Clintons, Gupta no longer boasts his ties to them on his website; he helped to plan a fund-raiser in New York for Hillary in June 2007 but did not attend it. In November 2004, the company informed shareholders that the SEC had begun an “informal investigation,” although the allegation that hiring Bill Clinton was “a waste of corporate assets” was dismissed, the court noting company claims that Clinton might have been responsible for as much as $40 million in sales.12
CLINTON COULD not have been happy with another zinger from columnist Maureen Dowd in 2007: “When you rake in $10 million a year from speeches, do you really need that $150,000 for speaking to the Boys and Girls Club of L.A.?”13
He was giving more speeches pro bono, however, especially when the people asking were old friends and/or financial supporters. Bob Kerrey got him pro bono for his university’s School of Urban Planning and Management. S. Daniel Abraham, founder of SlimFast, says that when he asked Clinton to speak at an event and tried to pay him, he wouldn’t take any money for it. (On the other hand, Abraham, a billionaire, is a major supporter of Hillary’s campaigns, of Bill’s library, and of his CGI; on the latter he paid for the interreligious dialogue panel.)14
When he spoke at the Kids in Distressed Situations dinner in New York, the group’s president, Janice Weinman Shorenstein, the daughter-in-law of real estate mogul and Clinton friend Walter Shorenstein, says nothing went to him personally, but the organization gave him $1 million worth of new children’s clothes and shoes and toys for distribution through the Clinton Foundation. The Bush/Clinton tsunami relief effort also received $250,000 in cash. Clinton’s speech was a knockout, Weinman says. “People were just overtaken with his conviction and with his energy and with his articulateness; he never looked at a word, he spoke from his heart…. He was absolutely electric.”15
When he spoke to the National Council of La Raza in Los Angeles, he did it pro bono as a favor to Mickey Ibarra whose lobbying firm represents La Raza. “We created a special session that started at nine in the morning at the LA convention center,” says Ibarra. “Our worst fear was that nobody would show up…. As it turns out, at eight in the morning, the place was packed,” and the speech sparked “ovations, over and over.”
Clinton flew in on a private jet from Aspen that morning and, says Ibarra, didn’t even charge them for his transportation. “The president of LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) called it a $250,000 gift.” (The year before he spoke pro bono in Little Rock to LULAC’s convention.)16
Persuading Bill Clinton to commit to be the pro bono speaker at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law dinner required the help of Clinton friends Rahm Emanuel and former Commerce secretary Mickey Kantor. It also helped that the dinner’s honoree was R. Sargent Shriver Jr., first director of the Peace Corps and, says the organization’s then executive director Rita McLennon, the visionary who “totally revolutionized the delivery of legal aid to poor people in this country.” Clinton is a big fan of Shriver’s.
Luckily for McLennon, she was friends with Kantor, who suggested Rahm Emanuel as the person to call Clinton and ask him to say yes and to do it for free. McLennon says the organization could not afford even a fraction of his fee. Clinton said he’d do anything for Shriver, but he insisted that the dinner be held in Los Angeles; she would have preferred Chicago where the organization is headquartered. He also insisted on a private plane to fly him to Los Angeles. McLennon recalls that she “panicked and I called Mickey who didn’t even blink.”
“Yeah, I’ll get it for him. Don’t worry about that.”
The dinner, at the Beverly Hilton, attracted Shriver’s son-in-law, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other movie stars who would not have shown up in Chicago. One of them, Melanie Griffith, approached McLennon’s teenage daughter and said, “Gee, I really love your dress. Who’s it by?” “We bought it at Target,” McLennon says, “so nothing could have made my daughter happier.”17
In his speech, Clinton paid tribute to Shriver, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, as the “quintessential example of someone who just through the force of his own personality was able to change the world.” Clinton got a standing ovation.18
Georgette Bennett worked almost a year to persuade Clinton to give the Rabbi Marc H. Tannenbaum Memorial Lecture, named for her late husband. He did it, not for free, but at a reduced rate. Because she knows him—she and the organization she heads participate in CGI—she was able to lobby him face-to-face. She also had an important ally. “Billy Graham was very helpful to us…very close to my late husband.” And then there were the Clintons’ next-door neighbors in Chappaqua. He sits on her board and plays golf with the former president.
Bennett still sounds moved when she recalls his speech. “He had a text but I never felt he was using it. His eye contact was wonderful, he has charming modesty about him. After he finished his remarks and we finished our Q and A and I escorted him down from the stage, he said, ‘Well, I guess that went all right, didn’t it?’ It was extraordinary…. People were just riveted…a standing ovation.”
Walking with Clinton to his car, she explained that her first and only child with Rabbi Tannenbaum was born in 1992, seven weeks after the rabbi died. “I told him the story of how I went to the polls on that November day, very cold day, with my infant, bundled up and held in my arms because I wanted my child to be part of…electing Bill Clinton…. I gave him the visual, this little baby who had just been born, whose father wasn’t there for his birth;…and how important to have him there to vote for Bill Clinton.”
She says that “his eyes started tearing up and he gave me this wonderful hug. He’s this wonderful bear of a person, very physical in a good way. I’m not at all alluding to Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers; I’m just talking about a wonderful natural warmth that he has.”19
RECENTLY, WHEN rankings of senatorial wealth were published, Senator Hillary Clinton was listed as the twenty-fifth richest member of Congress. In 2007, the Washington Post estimated the Clintons’ worth at between $10 and $50 million, basing it on Hillary’s most recent disclosure form, which does not include details on the money Bill is getting from Ron Burkle but does include the millions he’s making on speeches.20
Jimmy Carter still disapproves, but once Clinton launched CGI, the relationship between him and Jimmy Carter warmed up. Clinton invited Carter to speak at CGI.
If Carter is envious of the puffy front-page New York Times stories glorifying Bill Clinton’s work in Africa, he doesn’t show it. “There are parts of Jimmy Carter that are very big,” says journalist and biographer Christopher Ogden, “and parts of him that are very small, and I think that in this case because he’s regained a lot of confidence,…he has been acknowledged, he’s a Nobel laureate,…I think he’d say there’s room enough for everybody in this pool to help our fellow man, and if Clinton’s spending more time on that instead of chasing women, then isn’t that great.”21 Chris Jennings says that the new relationship between the men has them viewing their work as “complementary.” He also sees Jimmy Carter as “comfortable with who he is. He’s a spiritual man…. I don’t see that jealousy at all.”22
One close aide to Bill Clinton in the White House suggests not getting too carried away with the new, warmer relationship. “The relationship of Clinton and Carter has never improved, and never will,” he says. And he goes way back, saying that Clinton will never get over the “Mariel boatlift.”23
Douglas Brinkley agrees. He calls Clinton’s famous friendship with George H. W. Bush just Clinton being Clinton—“stealing a page” from Jimmy Carter’s friendship with Gerald Ford. Clinton took what Carter did in his postpresidency and tried to one-up him. He calls the Carter/Ford friendship “a less Day-Glo version of Clinton and Bush, and the reason why [they] get so much more attention is because he’s the father of the sitting president and Bill Clinton’s like an international rock superstar.”
Brinkley judges Carter as a man who “walks the walk and talks the talk,” while Clinton, whose work is “straight from Jimmy Carter,” is more of a spokesman, even a showman—“the Bono of American politics.” Carter, on the other hand, has this “Baptist missionary streak in him where he wants to endure suffering himself.”24
Kevin De Cock has seen Jimmy Carter in Kenya and says “he doesn’t grab the crowds quite as much” as Clinton does. Clinton “comes across as a famous person.” Clinton so relishes crowds, relishes human contact, that it would be difficult for him, if he saw a crowd, “not to go up to it and shake hands.” Carter is more cerebral, more analytic, “dryer than Clinton…. Clinton sort of gushes.”25 Chris Ogden puts it more bluntly: Clinton is “gregarious”; Carter, “constipated.”26
Sandy Berger, who worked in the State Department during the Carter years, sees Carter as “more narrowly focused”—attacking guinea worm in the Sudan, river blindness in Ethiopia, monitoring an election in Paraguay, increasing agricultural productivity in drought-stricken Eritrea. Bill Clinton, he says, is more “macro” in his focus; Carter is putting his attention to “neglected” diseases and Clinton to diseases such as AIDS that are very much in the public eye.27
Trained as an engineer, ridiculed for monitoring who used the White House tennis courts, Jimmy Carter approaches his work like the engineer he is, says Vartan Gregorian—“structure, organization,” methodical, not a multitasker.28
On a more basic level, Clinton, determined to keep Hillary’s prospects viable, is an accommodator who will do or say whatever is necessary. Jimmy Carter has nothing to lose, says Susan Davis, so he’s a “sharp critic and a truth teller…. He doesn’t have anybody that he needs to worry about, except his country.”29
If Jimmy Carter had to confine his lust for women to his heart, so Bill Clinton has to confine his lust for the Nobel Peace Prize to his heart. The fact that Jimmy Carter received the prize in 2002 made Bill Clinton want one all the more; and when Al Gore won his in October 2007 for, according to the Nobel Committee citation, “disseminat[ing] information about manmade climate change,” sharing the $1.5 million prize with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Clinton’s need for one grew exponentially.30 Gore had morphed from an often ridiculed loser to the “Goreacle,” a kind of prophet in his own time.
Clinton had hoped to win the Nobel Peace Prize while still president for achieving peace in the Middle East.31 (Theodore Roosevelt won the prize in 1906, during his first full term in office; Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 during his second term.) Asked if Clinton deserves one, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz says, “I think he certainly has made a very important contribution, and…some of his efforts came within a hairsbreadth of really being successful while he was president…. It’s sad that things didn’t turn out.”32
People who are more obviously in Clinton’s corner, Tom Downey, for instance, think he will ultimately get the prize. “CGI is going to win him a Nobel Peace Prize one of these days.” And if it’s not for CGI, Downey imagines that the next president, he hopes a Democrat, perhaps Hillary, will give Clinton more responsibility to deal with issues like the Middle East and other matters “where his enormous talents and persuasive abilities are put to some use.”33
Some who are more skeptical of Clinton—Hofstra history professor Stanislao Pugliese, for example—think Clinton’s entire “Africa initiative” is all about “angling for the Nobel Peace Prize.”34 To writer Mark Updegrove it is obvious that the postpresidency plan is designed to reap that prize. “He is extraordinarily ambitious and obsessed with his legacy, so I can’t think of anything that would make him appear to historians to be more venerable as a former president than receiving a Nobel Peace Prize.” It’s a way for this damaged man to “strive for respectability.”35
One favorable sign for Clinton winning the Nobel, says Michael Barone, is “If the…Norwegians think that they could give a poke in the eye to a Republican administration by giving Bill Clinton a prize, I’m sure they’d be happy to do it. That’s why Carter got his.”36
PERHAPS IT’S Bill Clinton’s insecurity, perhaps his restless intelligence, but he does want to get the book thing right. The disappointment and criticism that greeted his memoir—he so wanted it to be judged among the great ones and instead it was dismissed as, at best, average—made him want to try again.
He loved to talk to writers; he toyed with taking on a big subject himself; he told people he was most interested in writing about Abraham Lincoln. According to a report by the Washington Post’s Al Kamen, Bill Clinton was at a book party in June 2006 for former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, at the home of Mark Penn, Clinton’s pollster and also Hillary’s pollster and chief strategist. Clinton approached writer Jay Winik, who had recently published April 1865: The Month That Saved America. He asked Winik what he thought of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy. Kamen quotes Clinton as saying, “I wanted to write that book, but he beat me to the punch. I was going to write it next year. I love Lincoln—for all of his problems, he grows larger with history.”37
Kamen’s source for the exchange was Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld who was at the party. President Clinton had read and admired Blumenfeld’s book, Revenge: A Story of Hope, published four years before, about her search and eventual reconciliation with a Palestinian terrorist who had shot and slightly wounded her father in 1986 while he was visiting Israel.
When Clinton asked Blumenfeld what she was writing next, it was not their first conversation. Clinton had telephoned her in early 2002, sparked by a conversation with Jonathan Alter in Clinton’s car en route to his Harlem office. Alter told the former president that he had just finished reading Revenge. “Oh, I’m really interested in that,” Clinton said, explaining that he too had read the book and “thought it was fantastic.”
“Do you think I could get in touch with her?…Do you know her?” Alter did and gave Clinton Blumenfeld’s number. Clinton called her and became so absorbed in the conversation that he kept his lunch date, Willie Mays, waiting for twenty minutes.38
In his quest to cleanse his legacy, Clinton might, like Richard Nixon, see writing as a path back to respectability. Jimmy Carter has also proven to be a prolific and successful writer, with twenty-four books, fourteen of them bestsellers.39 Jonathan Alter sees Clinton’s strength, not as a writer, but as a speaker and convener.40
Ultimately, Clinton was stuck with his own, unfinished story.
If he were to follow Douglas Brinkley’s advice, he would waste no time in selecting an official presidential biographer, a serious historian, to make sense of Clinton’s two tumultuous terms. “Maybe a left-center kind of scholar,” Brinkley suggests, “who could really do a nice job of explaining the president to people. But nobody would want to enter that if President Clinton is going to whitewash all the warts out of his biography.”41
A book about Clinton by his close friend Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer best known for the three-volume America in the King Years, 1954–1968, definitely does not fill that bill. In 1998, Branch, who worked on both of Clinton’s inaugural addresses, told the New York Times that he and Clinton had discussed a collaboration on Clinton’s memoir but dropped the plan. “After a while, I told him I wouldn’t be taken seriously because I’m not objective about him.”42 (In the summer and fall of 1972, while organizing Texas for George McGovern, Clinton roomed with Taylor Branch.)
In a letter to this writer of August 18, 2006, Branch refused to be interviewed because “I have just undertaken to write a memoir about him myself,” based on eighty secret sessions, across both terms, during which Branch taped conversations with the president. Most of the time they met in a second-floor office in the family quarters of the White House—and once at Camp David—often talking as late as 2 A.M. (After each session, Branch told the Times, Clinton would hide the tapes in his sock drawer.) As he drove home, Branch would record his memories of their conversations.43
A spokesman for Simon & Schuster said that the former president has no input on the project, but Branch has also been quoted as saying he doesn’t know whether he’ll let the president read the draft before publication. Branch did tell the AP that he spoke to Clinton the night the Monica scandal broke, but that the focus will be more about “Yeltsin, China and Osama.”44
In the summer of 2006, Clinton signed another contract with Knopf, this one to focus on what he has been doing since he left the White House. Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, mostly about his work in Africa, was advertised as a compilation of the inspiring stories he has heard as he traveled the world.45 Knopf published the book to coincide roughly with Clinton’s September 2007 CGI. With a first printing of 750,000, the book’s launch also gave Bill Clinton a reason to combine book promotion—an appearance, for example, on The Oprah Winfrey Show—with Hillary promotion.46
The early Publishers Weekly review was a reminder that writing is not this president’s forte. The reviewer described the book as a “homily” and complained that it “uncritically surveys a vast philanthropic landscape.” The profiles that comprise its heart are “formulaic”; the book’s stories are “often as eye-glazing as Clinton’s memoir could be.”47 The Washington Post’s Peter Baker, who wrote a book about Clinton’s impeachment, called it “an extended public service announcement masquerading as a book,” and he pointed out that Clinton’s claim that since leaving office he has switched the focus of his life from “getting” (votes, contributions, endorsements) to “giving” skips “the fact that he has spent a good part of the last six years getting $46 million in speaking fees.”48 New York magazine also took up the giving versus getting theme, pointing out that in the book Clinton pushes ethanol and pays tribute to the people, such as billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who invest in ethanol plants, while not revealing his ties to Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa fund, which invests in ethanol plants. “So long as the fund does well, [Clinton’s] given a cut of the profits.” (In December 2007, Clinton promised to ease out of his ties—one report used the word “sever,” another “reduce”; Hillary spokesman Jay Carson characterized Clinton’s intention as “taking steps to ensure…an appropriate transition” to Yucaipa should Hillary win the nomination. In late January 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that Clinton would be receiving approximately $20 million from two of Yucaipa’s domestic funds, apparently a step on the way to the again mentioned “appropriate transition.”)49
As before, the crowds were huge and adoring. Outside Borders in Chicago, hundreds waited as long as twelve hours for Clinton to sign their books. So many fans showed up that Borders began to turn them away.50 After hitting the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list, it dropped down, behind the new book by conservative Clinton basher Laura Ingraham. Six weeks after its publication date, the AP reported that the book was not selling well.51
WHEN TONY COELHO talked to Bill Clinton about how to conduct his postpresidency, Jimmy Carter’s name never came up. If there was anyone whom Clinton wanted to emulate, Coelho says, it was John F. Kennedy. “He was the only political hero he ever had,” says Coelho. That Kennedy did not accomplish much as president, that, as Coelho argues, he “brought about the civil rights revolution because he died,” seems not to have mattered to Clinton, who was attracted to Kennedy’s sex appeal and charisma. Coelho argues that Kennedy was in “serious trouble” at the time of his death and might not have won a second term.52
The most widely acclaimed postpresidencies of the twentieth century are not ones likely to appeal to Bill Clinton—besides Jimmy Carter, the name that comes up most frequently as an impressive postpresident is that of Herbert Hoover. Seventy-five years after he left the White House and forty-four years after his death, when most people hear the name “Hoover,” they think of the Great Depression and the miserable “Hoover-villes” that resulted. “Of all the ex-presidencies in my lifetime,” says Ted Sorensen, “Hoover had a very constructive [one]”—made possible, Sorensen adds, by President Harry Truman who named Hoover head of the Hoover Commission to make government more efficient.53
FDR never had a postpresidency, so his legacy rests on his terms in office, and, because he led the country in a different era, certainly not on relationships he had with Lucy Mercer or other women thought to have been his White House intimates. Had he outlived his last term, says his biographer, Conrad Black, he would have spent his retirement pursuing hobbies—deep-sea fishing, coastal sailing—and he would have built a house in Key West, Florida, from which to pursue them. He would have continued to try to reverse the ravages of polio; during the last five years in office he rarely walked with his braces alone. He would have written a memoir. “He strangely was not a particularly talented writer,” says Black. And because he lacked the discipline to write a book, he would have told it to others who would have written it and he would have edited the typescript. He described to a friend his plans for what would become the United Nations and the friend wrote in her diary that FDR would like, postpresidency, to be “chairman” (i.e., secretary-general).54
Harry Truman did not play an active role postpresidency; Eisenhower stuck to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, just as Lyndon Johnson stuck to his ranch outside Austin, Texas.
Bill Clinton never met LBJ and certainly gave no thought to emulating him. In the spring of 1968, shortly before Clinton graduated from college, LBJ announced that he would not run again. Had he run, he might have been defeated, so bitter were the arguments over Vietnam. “I think that Vietnam took a lot of life out of him,” says his older daughter, Lynda Robb. “No question, he was a casualty.”
He shared heart disease with Bill Clinton and the sense that he would die young. “He had said to everybody over and over and over again,” says his daughter, “that none of the men in his family lived past sixty, or much past.”
Johnson’s postpresidency could not have been more different from Bill Clinton’s. He made amends with people whose feelings he hurt during the heat of political battle. He went to University of Texas and Dallas Cowboy football games, happy to be surrounded by his family. He bought gifts for his wife and children and grandchildren. He doted on his grandson, Lyndon, and on Lucinda, his firstborn granddaughter. Much to Lady Bird’s distress, he took to micromanaging the ranch. “His sphere was not quite as large as it had been,” explains Lynda Robb. “He was organizing everybody around the ranch,…trying to raise chickens and gather their eggs and…try to make that part of the world pay for itself…. That didn’t work out for too long.” He took vacations, to Florida, to Mexico. “It was something he hadn’t done before.”
He also worked on his memoir, which didn’t turn out the way his daughter would have liked. “I wish somebody had just gotten a tape recorder and gotten him to start talking. Because he was so good in small groups, one-on-one…. I think he believed that it wouldn’t be presidential to write a kind of a folksy book…. The presidency was very special to him…. I think he felt that he wanted to be very respectful of the office, so I think his book was a little too textbook….
“He let his hair grow long and scraggly,” says Lynda Robb. “He thought that was funny. He laughed because he said that’s what all the young people were doing.”55
Johnson also worried about his legacy. He mostly stayed clear of Washington, but in 1970 Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of the Washington Post, invited LBJ to the paper’s dining room to meet with top editors Ben Bradlee and Phil Geyelin—the men’s criticism of Vietnam had made Johnson’s life in the White House miserable. Another Post editor who was there, Eugene Patterson, recalled, “It was really a fascinating sidelight on history to sit and listen to this bird.” He was accompanied by his assistant, Tom Johnson, a White House fellow and Johnson’s deputy press secretary who had followed his boss to Texas. Johnson—who later ran CNN—supplied the backup data, the documents LBJ needed to vindicate himself. Patterson recalled that the former president “brought a whole file drawer full of paper, so LBJ would simply hold his hand out over his shoulder and Tom would whisk out a paper…. He was trying to get his spin on history before we got around to writing it.” The lunch started at noon, and four hours later, Johnson was still holding forth. As the editors were wondering if they were going to get out the next day’s paper, Lady Bird called and ordered him across the street to the Madison Hotel, where they were staying. “Come home for your nap, Lyndon.”56
Johnson did not have a public role in the Nixon administration. “President Nixon very graciously would have somebody come down and brief Daddy on what was going on,” says Lynda Robb. “He really did try to keep Daddy in the loop.”
Johnson went on only one board, that of the Mayo Clinic. He gave some speeches, but Lynda Robb thinks he was not paid for them. “He just didn’t do that.”57 In 1971, some two-plus years after he left office, he dedicated his Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, on the University of Texas campus in Austin. It adjoins the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
There’s obviously a bit of sensitivity on Lynda’s part when it comes to Bill Clinton. Probably the most famous photograph of Clinton—next to that of him greeting the beret-topped Monica on a rope line as if she were just another rallygoer—is the one of the sixteen-year-old Arkansan shaking hands with JFK. Lynda Robb opened her home to Bill Clinton, but, friends say, she’s a bit put off that the supposedly voraciously curious Clinton has showed so little curiosity about her father.58
Sometime in the mid-1980s when Chuck Robb was governor of Virginia and Bill Clinton governor of Arkansas, the men and their wives traveled on a trade mission to Taiwan. “I would have to tell you that my father-in-law’s older daughter never thought he was as vocal in praising her father as he could have been,” recalls Chuck Robb. “She would have liked for him to have been more visibly supportive of some of the programs and policies that were developed by her father but…the charismatic young leader was JFK, not LBJ.”59
He died on January 22, 1973, at Gillespie County, Texas.
Nixon’s circumstances were as peculiar as the man. Having left the presidency in disgrace, says Ted Sorensen, “obviously he didn’t have the same stature and influence that the others did.”60
Although the parallels between Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, both such enormously talented politicians who left the White House under a cloud, are striking, some see a closer parallel between Nixon and Clinton. Paul Orfalea notes a similar resilience in both men—Nixon’s losing the governorship in 1962 after losing the presidency by a squeaker two years earlier, perhaps stolen from him by the partnership of JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, and Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, brooding, but organizing himself to come back. “Nixon managed in spite of himself…. Clinton is the same way,” says Orfalea.61
To writer Mark Updegrove, Clinton’s postpresidency is a combination of Carter’s and Nixon’s: “Nixon’s because he left the White House under a cloud of controversy and pursued an activist postpresidency seeking rehabilitation for the sins that he committed in the White House and did so with great success, being celebrated against all odds…more as a venerable elder statesman than as a disgraced former president, the first to resign the presidency. The Nixon postpresidency is a model [for Clinton],” Updegrove argues, “because of the rehabilitation he was able to achieve.”62
Nixon became a wise man who invited other wise men or would-be wise men to his home in Saddle River, New Jersey, where he fussed over the wine and pontificated off the record on great international issues. If the rest of the world saw the Monica Lewinsky scandal as incomprehensibly minor, so did much of the world find Watergate much ado about next to nothing. Larry Sabato, who sees a clear tie between Nixon and Clinton, says that Nixon “was able to pursue his career abroad if not at home, mainly because most of the other countries didn’t regard Watergate as being serious…. They didn’t even understand it…. Nixon had an excellent opportunity to rehabilitate himself because of his encyclopedic knowledge of foreign policy.”63
Jonathan Alter also recognizes the parallel, although he sees the insecurities of the two men as being much different. Clinton, whom Alter calls “a damaged soul in other ways,” was not insecure in the way Nixon was. “They set about restoring their reputations in different ways. Nixon didn’t really go off and try to help people; he wrote books. Clinton might write some more books, but he’s not going to try to make his way back as a writer, but as a speaker and a convener…. He has always seen his role as bringing people together, like he did with Arafat and Rabin.”64
President Clinton did communicate with Nixon and, says Jake Siewert, read and appreciated the long memos about specific world trouble spots that Nixon sent him. Nixon went about his memo writing in a classy manner. “Say what you want about Nixon,” says Siewert, “and in my family he was the devil, but that was a very constructive way for an ex-president to act. You write a very thoughtful memo, that’s really an eyes-only memo; you send it in quietly and you don’t brag to the press that you’re giving advice. Clinton would read it and he’d say, ‘Hey, this guy grappled with this issue; he was as serious as anyone about figuring out how to deal with Russia.’…He’d read it, absorb it, and take something from it.” Unlike Carter, says Siewert, who would pop up on CNN boasting about giving advice to Clinton, Nixon would do so without the need to take credit or publicize his contribution.65Clinton would later say publicly that Nixon, in the final weeks of his life, gave him his “wise counsel, especially with regard to Russia.” At Nixon’s funeral, Clinton also mentioned a telephone conversation and a letter received “just a month ago.”66
For most “name” Democrats, any comparison of Clinton to Nixon is blasphemy. To Lynn Cutler, Nixon was “a crook” who “tried to take the country down.”67
“I don’t see any parallel,” says Ted Sorensen. “Not only was Nixon a crook, but he was forced out of the White House, forced to resign in the middle of his term, and Clinton…wasn’t forced out…. Those so-called sessions Nixon had, inviting people to see him, may have boosted his ego, but they didn’t do anything for his reputation. They were so private that I know nothing about them.”68
Yet, there was something about Nixon that struck a chord with Bill Clinton; it wasn’t only that they had both, at times, faced hideous demons within the walls of the White House. There was something more.
When Richard Nixon died on April 22, 1994, President Clinton immediately announced a state funeral. “[There was] not going to be any suggestion that Nixon was entitled to anything less,” says Nixon’s most recent biographer, Conrad Black. “He basically drew a line through Watergate and said, ‘twice our president, twice our vice president; the nation officially mourns him.’”69
All four former presidents—Reagan, Bush, Ford, Carter—sat in the same row, making Clinton look boyish by comparison. The main eulogy was delivered by former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger: “He stood on pinnacles that dissolved into precipices. He achieved greatly, and he suffered deeply, but he never gave up.”70
Clinton’s words that day were not as vivid as Kissinger’s—the Washington Post’s television critic, Tom Shales, declared Clinton’s eulogy “flat and uninspired.”71 But there is poignancy in what 42 said about 37, four years before 42 would come perilously close himself to losing his presidency.
“As a public man,” Clinton said, “he always seemed to believe the greatest sin was remaining passive in the face of challenges, and he never stopped living by that creed…. Oh, yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record…. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times. He said many times that unless a person has a goal, a new mountain to climb, his spirit will die…. May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”72
BILL CLINTON’S friends cannot get out of their minds how close they came to attending his funeral in the late summer of 2004, that even a short delay in his bypass surgery could have meant a fatal heart attack. While some say he’s the same old Bill Clinton, that he did not seem to take much in the way of life lessons away from his illness, others say he’s fundamentally changed. Hank Sheinkopf sees “a different air about him, a much more thoughtful look…less glib.”73 Tony Coelho says that Clinton, postsurgeries, “doesn’t look as healthy, but he looks much more relaxed…. He really looks at peace with himself now.”74
He is also noticeably older and slighter looking. Ray Lesniak says that when the two embraced recently, “he felt a little frail.”75 Clinton is in better shape than he was “when he was eating those cheeseburgers,” says Larry King, “but the older you get, you get a little hunched over. You lose an inch in height.”76 To one journalist who has extensive one-on-one time with Clinton, he looks shorter, less commanding. “There’s something about his gravitas that has sort of gone away a little.”77
Others say they like the new look: the white hair, the lean physique. Nelson Shanks, who painted his portrait, calls him “pudgy” when he was in the White House; later “much better looking…not as pudgy in the face and a little more wizened perhaps; the whiter hair was much more interesting than the salt and pepper.”78
Clinton is more disciplined about his eating, although he still can’t resist a bowl of Doritos or Fritos and granola bars when he finds them waiting on a private plane.79 When he eats at Phil Stefani’s restaurants, he eats pasta, lamb—Stefani says he particularly loves lamb—chicken, even steak. He would not order a pasta with a cream sauce but would order one with marinara sauce.80
He drinks little alcohol, wine occasionally, but remains addicted to Diet Coke. He chews on rather than smokes cigars and plays incessantly with the clipper.81
He is proud of his exercise regimen—he no longer runs, but he walks four miles a day.82 He described his routine to former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack: “It’s a German-based training system that involves balance and light weights; it’s pretty intricate. Like everything else, he has an understanding of the detail of it…. Most of us are just thankful if we can lace the shoes and get on the treadmill.”83
Clinton’s friends worry about his pace and his seeming inability to keep any sort of normal sleep schedule. “I would like to know that he rested more,” says Susie Tompkins Buell, “but…he’s the man who doesn’t rest.”84*
John Emerson traces Clinton’s driven nature to his boyhood. “When someone has a parent…who died young, you feel like you better hurry up because you never know, is this day going to be your last? Now he’s the most optimistic guy I’ve ever met,…so he’s not someone who’s sitting there, ‘Oh, my gosh I might die tomorrow,’ but I think in part the drive and the energy…that’s sort of his mind-set…I wish he’d slow down and take care of himself more.” But, says Emerson, Bill Clinton says to himself, “I’ve got a lot I want to do and I just have to keep pushing at it.’”86
IN 2007, as Clinton campaigned for his wife, he was looking and feeling good. Don Hewitt calls Clinton “about as attractive a male as anybody’s ever seen. When you marry that with former president of the United States, you get an animal who’s one of a kind.”87
When Simon Rosenberg saw him in January 2007 at a reception in Washington marking Hillary’s reelection to the Senate, “he looked amazing…. He looked better physically than I’ve seen him in a couple of years.”88
Yet as the campaign heated up and Hillary took the humiliating loss in Iowa, he looked exhausted; some days he looked seventy, not sixty-one. His hair seemed as unhinged as his speeches; he no longer looked elegant. He seemed bloated; his jackets didn’t fall right and they pulled at the button. On the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day 2008, he was the guest of honor at services to mark the holiday at the Covenant Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem. Seated in a comfortable chair behind the preacher, he fell asleep. His futile struggle to keep awake was on video for the world to view. The New York Post headlined its story, complete with photos and video, “Bill Has a ‘Dream.’”
Bill Clinton still predicts that he won’t live a long life. At first, when he left the White House and was preparing to hit the lecture circuit, he would say, according to Jake Siewert, “I need to provide for my family because no one in my family lives very long.”89
His quadruple bypass focused his attention on the fragility of life. “He had a second chance and most people don’t even have a first chance,” says Chris Stamos.90 Two surgeries later, his friends worry about him because they don’t know what fixes are left should he relapse. “I do believe that the president is pushing himself far too hard,” writes Tony Campolo. “His health has failed him at times, and I sometimes think that he is not aware of his own physical vulnerabilities.”91
Alan Solomont sits on a board with Ira Magaziner who is always saying that they worry about Clinton’s intensity and pace—always running around the world.92 Lou Weisbach has the same concern, which he mentioned to Hillary. She said that she and his doctors think he’s doing more than he should be doing.93
Leon Panetta describes the transformative nature of Clinton’s illness: it forced him to “think about what life is all about and what you want life to be.” On the other hand, Panetta admits, Clinton is falling back into his old habits. “He seems to be getting back into that pretty quickly…. He’s got a campaign schedule now that won’t stop…. I was just listening to him speak…. You could hear it in his voice; he’s reached a point where it’s starting to wear.”94