Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House - Carol Felsenthal (2008)
Chapter 2. THE BEST HOUSE
INAUGURATION MORNING, SATURDAY, JANUARY 20, 2001, the Washington Post’s headline announced, “In a Deal, Clinton Avoids Indictment; President Admits False Testimony.”1
With two hours left, his last weekly Saturday radio address was broadcast to the nation—he had delivered a television farewell from the Oval Office the Thursday night before—he signed off on his pardon and commutation list, strolled in the Children’s Garden with Chelsea, and prepared to receive the Bushes, the Cheneys, and the Gores. While awaiting their guests, Hillary and Bill began to “sway” to “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” played by the pianist who would provide background music for the coffee.2
Press secretary Jake Siewert describes the atmosphere as “awkward,” because “Gore and Bush couldn’t have felt great about each other.”3 (And then there was the matter of how Gore and Clinton, barely speaking, felt about each other.)
At 11 A.M., Bill and Hillary left the White House for the last time as president and first lady. The Clintons and Bushes climbed into one limousine and the Gores and Cheneys into another for the ride to the Capitol, where, at noon, Bush and Cheney would take the oath of office.4
On a cold, drizzly day, President Bush delivered his inaugural address at the West Front of the Capitol. Bill Clinton briefly dozed off, missing some of the words the new president was obviously aiming at his predecessor. “America at its best is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected” and “Our public interest depends on private character.”5
In the meantime, back at the temporarily vacant White House, at one second past noon came the jarring scene that signals the change from one administration to the next. The doors were opened, and scores of workers—to Sarah Wilson, a young lawyer who had worked in the Office of the White House Counsel, it seemed like “hundreds,” some stationed on the lower level of the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB) with “huge rolls of carpet”—rushed in, like runners out of the starting gate. Wilson, who says she “turn[ed] off the lights” in the White House as the Clinton administration ended, describes the workers as literally “stripping” carpet, wiring, and drywall in the White House, including the Oval Office, redoing the basics and the decor—the carpet and upholstery are replaced to the specifications of the next occupant. They followed the same drill in the OEOB. This “major overhaul,” Wilson explains, had to be completed between the time the Clintons left to go to the inauguration and the time the Bushes returned postinaugural to settle into their new home.6
With the miserable weather matching the mood of some of the Clinton staffers who, as Sarah Wilson puts it, were “saying good-bye to one of the best jobs they’ll ever have in their lives,” former president Bill Clinton and his suddenly shrunken entourage had to drive to Andrews Air Force Base, across the Potomac in Maryland, from which the former president would fly to his new home in suburban New York. The weather was too nasty for Clinton, suddenly one among four living ex-presidents, to travel, as planned, by helicopter.7
It was striking, says Siewert, who accompanied his boss, how quickly Clinton’s change in status affected his routines. He had “already lost…the full police escort, what they call intersection controls…. It’s not completely shut down the way it would be for the president. So a pretty quick comedown;…all of a sudden you’re in traffic.”8 His armored black limousine was shorn of the presidential seal.9
Clinton arrived at the AAB hangar—the same place to which coffins of American soldiers are brought—at about 1:15 P.M. to a full military honor guard, the military band substituting “Ruffles and Flourishes” for “Hail to the Chief.” Scores of people who had served in his administration had come to say good-bye. The president’s mood was nostalgic. “When you leave the White House you wonder if you’ll ever draw a crowd again,” he said, in a voice hoarse from exhaustion. In the crowd an admirer held a sign, “Please don’t go.” Clinton’s response, to cheers, was “I left the White House, but I’m still here.”10
Chuck Robb, who had just lost his Senate seat in Virginia to George Allen, recalls Clinton as “really clearly enjoying his last minutes,” although there was no particular focus to his remarks.11 Siewert calls it “sort of a nonevent. He didn’t say anything terribly interesting; it was just a chance to say good-bye.”12
But in typical Bill Clinton fashion he said nothing for too long, and he was criticized for trying to “steal George W. Bush’s thunder” as the new president led his inaugural parade. Siewert calls it the “classic conundrum, the media…runs a split screen and then complains that Clinton’s trying to get in Bush’s face during the parade.”13 Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter calls Clinton’s remarks the “long good-bye” and adds, “People were really, really happy to see him go at that point.”14
“He’s doing more encores than his friend Barbra Streisand,” joked the Washington Post’s television critic Tom Shales. He predicted that Clinton will “pop up on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ or ‘Who Wants to Marry an Ex-President’ or, appropriately, ‘Survivor,’ but he’ll definitely pop up.”15
Those gathered in the hangar, recalls Mickey Ibarra, who had worked in the White House as Clinton’s director of governmental affairs, had “mixed emotions.” There was no escaping Clinton’s “squandering of political power that was the result of…impeachment…and all of the energy that was averted from getting the real work of the nation done to defending our actual completion of our second term. It was very disappointing to people…. Some were angry, some simply sad, some disgusted.”16
Chuck Robb, husband of Lyndon Johnson’s older daughter, Lynda, went to AAB to say good-bye because he felt it was his duty. “I knew because of the association with the former presidential family how much it meant to outgoing presidents to have friends go out to Andrews to see them off.” Lynda would have gone, he says, but she was in Texas with her mother who had suffered a stroke.
Robb slipped in toward the back of a reserved section in the hangar. When Clinton happened to spot him seated behind several of his now former Cabinet members, whom he had not mentioned by name in his remarks, “he asked me to stand, and, quite unexpectedly, publicly praised me for my service, and then sent somebody to ask me to join his cabinet members when he boarded the plane, as the final good-bye.” So Robb left the heated, covered hangar to stand outside at the foot of the ramp in the freezing rain, to shake Clinton’s hand as he boarded, not Air Force One, but Special Air Mission 2800.17
Former Treasury secretary Larry Summers had not brought his coat. He was wearing a muffler around his neck and shivering as Clinton, still inside in the hangar, took “a very, very long time,” says Sarah Wilson, “shook every possible hand…on this very long receiving line of former employees.”18
When the plane carrying the Clintons and some friends and advisers—Terry McAuliffe; Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger; his friend Vernon Jordan Jr.; his secretary, Betty Currie, among them—finally took off at 2:57 P.M., Wilson recalls that although the day was heavily overcast, “You could see the plane going up…. It was really a beautiful image and then all of a sudden it was sort of swallowed up by the clouds. It was like a movie screen ending,” minus only the words “The End.”19
MAYOR ROCKY Anderson, a Democrat, sat through the new president’s inauguration speech. “It was a dreary, pretty depressing, terrible inauguration speech. The only applause he got the entire time was when he talked about cutting taxes.”
Anderson figured that the commutation petition for Cory Stringfellow had been denied, and that added to the mayor’s dark mood. He had worked so hard at it, says Mickey Ibarra, who had grown up in Salt Lake City and served as the president’s liaison with all the mayors and governors. Ibarra, now a Washington lobbyist, says Anderson “became almost obsessed with this.”
Anderson was walking toward Union Station when his cell phone rang. “Mayor, we got it!” shouted Ibarra, who was at Andrews Air Force Base. Ibarra told Anderson that the president had signed the commutation on his way out the White House door. A bit of an exaggeration, but not much.20
Others received less happy news.
Stan Brand, a criminal defense lawyer who says that he was on television “a hundred times” defending Bill and Hillary during the two terms, figured his chances were pretty good to get a pardon for his client, former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker. Clinton and Tucker, although both Democrats, were more rivals than friends. A Harvard College graduate, Tucker was a guest at Bill and Hillary’s wedding in Fayetteville on October 11, 1975. (Having lost his first race for Congress in 1974, Bill and his Yale Law School girlfriend, Hillary, were teaching law at the University of Arkansas when they married. )
As Brand explains it, “Tucker got sucked into the Whitewater vortex through no fault of his own and became a victim…because they saw him as a way station to Clinton.” But, says Brand, Ken Starr had the wrong guy. Tucker “took the full brunt of the government and refused to rat out the president on anything.” He was convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud related to the complicated real estate deal. He was forced to resign from office in 1996, and he served prison time. To this day, Tucker professes his innocence and says “the clear message I was receiving regularly” from Starr and his people was he could save himself if he would just tell Starr what he wanted to hear.
Brand speculates that Tucker’s pardon fell victim to the “mayhem over there at the end,…a real sort of chaotic situation and nobody was in charge and nobody was focused.”
Brand and his wife had left Washington and were driving to Vermont because they could not bear to be in town for the inauguration. It was then that Brand received a call from the White House counsel saying that Tucker would not be pardoned. “I had to call him and try to explain it to him and I really couldn’t.” Tucker, expecting the pardon, was shocked. “He had told a number of people that he was going to pardon me,” Tucker says.21
The other man who was said to be waiting by his telephone for good news that never came was the Clintons’ old friend Webster Hubbell, an Arkansan and a partner of Hillary’s in the Rose law firm. Hubbell went to Washington with the Clintons after the 1992 election and was installed in the Justice Department as associate attorney general. His downfall came fast. In 1993, he was playing golf on Martha’s Vineyard with his buddy Bill, and in 1994, he resigned his position. In 1995, he was in a federal prison serving eighteen months for stealing from his former law partners and clients. During Clinton’s second term, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion.22
AS BILL CLINTON left office, he did not have a father (he died in a car crash three months before Bill’s birth) or a mother (Virginia Kelley died of complications from breast cancer in January 1994). He had not had a settled, comforting place to retreat when things got tough in Washington. He now had the newly purchased house—($1.7 million in 1999) in Chappaqua, in Westchester County—but it was purchased for one reason only, to give Hillary the address she needed to run for the Senate. It was hardly inviting, full of unpacked cartons and unfinished spaces. He and Hillary were headed there together after the event at AAB, but she would soon be decamping for her new life in Washington where she had acquired a house with a name, Whitehaven—it is located on Whitehaven Street—but more commonly called “Hillary’s house.”
MUCH WOULD be made of the difference in style between Clinton’s exit and that of his predecessor, the patrician and dignified George H. W. Bush. When he and Barbara Bush left the White House to Bill and Hillary and Chelsea on a sunny January 20, 1993, hundreds of Bush supporters gathered at AAB to see them off. Ron Kaufman, who had worked for Bush since 1978, choreographed his run in 1988, and served as his political director in the White House, recalls that Bush wanted no one there, “wanted to downplay the whole thing,…felt it was very much 42’s [Clinton’s] day and wanted it as low key as humanly possible.” Kaufman can’t remember Bush addressing the crowd, just that the friends traveling back with them to Houston hurried to board the familiar blue and white Boeing 747 bound for Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, the same plane that now carried Clinton and his party. The Bushes’ two dogs, Millie and Ranger, were also on board.23
On January 20, 2001, Clinton was exhausted. Melanne Verveer describes him as “almost asleep standing up on the plane.”24 When the plane landed at Kennedy International Airport in New York, there was still another rally inside a TWA hangar—at this one Hillary gave a longer, campaign-like speech and Tom Shales described Bill as “gaz[ing] off into the distance as if terribly bored”—and then McAuliffe joined Bill and Hillary in a van for the drive to their house in Chappaqua. “As soon as we got inside the van,” McAuliffe wrote, “Clinton’s head went down on Hillary’s shoulder and he was out, dead asleep.” They arrived in Chappaqua at 6 P.M.25
That night, McAuliffe hosted a dinner at the historic Kittle House in Chappaqua (circa 1790) for the people who had flown with the Clintons to New York. Sandy Berger, who was there with his wife, calls the dinner “a very poignant and warm exit.” Some of those assembled had served Clinton for eight years and some had been in the campaign also, “so it was just the end of a decade.”26 Siewert recalls the mood as “pretty festive.” But many of the people on the plane and at dinner were Hillary’s staffers because, explains Siewert, she was “getting ready to be a senator so she had her whole team with her.” After dinner nearly everyone went back to the city and the Clintons went to their eleven-room century-old Dutch Colonial at 15 Old House Lane on a woodsy cul-de-sac, a guardhouse for Secret Service agents at the foot of the driveway.27
One woman who has lived in Chappaqua describes it as “a completely beautiful upper-middle-class enclave…that has more Democrats than Republicans,…not the fanciest part of Westchester which is Bedford and Pound Ridge. Those are where the masters of the universe live…. Chappaqua is the land of doctors and lawyers.” If she did not know the house was the Clintons’, this woman says, she’d guess it belonged to a doctor or a dentist.28
Some of the Clintons’ friends describe the house as “modest.” Howard Tullman describes it as “like a New England ranch…. When I think of the people’s houses we went to for events, they were ten times the size.”29The woman quoted above says, “It’s a generous-sized suburban house” and not particularly “charming.”30
LARRY SABATO, who has made a specialty of writing about political scandals, describes Clinton as leaving the White House under a dark cloud and going off to Chappaqua “to lick his wounds.”31 When he slept his first night there as former president, Bill Clinton had no idea how deep those wounds would become.
On Sunday morning, January 21, their first postpresidency morning together in Chappaqua, Hillary sent Bill into town to buy breakfast. According to one newspaper account, “He lingered over coffee at the local deli and made a point of speaking to, or shaking hands with, everyone who had turned out to catch a glimpse of their new neighbor. It took a full 90 minutes, but he seemed unhurried, as if the day had little else in store. Only after he had autographed the last [coffee] cup did he retreat to his new suburban home in Old House Lane with his greaseproof package of egg sandwiches.”32
That casual outing would be his last for a while.
Clinton’s plans included work on his presidential library (i.e., on his legacy) and vague plans to show up the knaves who had hunted him nearly every day of his presidency. He was the first president ordered to give blood so a DNA test could connect his semen to an intern’s dress, but he was going figuratively to remove that stain and show how minuscule it was next to his huge successes, including a bombing campaign in Bosnia that shoved a dictator from power and resulted in not a single casualty. It would not take long, he figured, before the pundits and the people saw that he was one of the greats—up there with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
That daydream was rudely interrupted.
Mark Buell attributes the stories that broke just as the Clintons were trying to settle into their new home to “the Republicans [who] just couldn’t let go of him as a punching bag.”33 And so came reports that made the Clintons look like trailer trash. They were charged with filching furniture and other items from the White House that belonged to the nation, not to them. The allegations leached from the tabloids to the broadsheets to the late-night comics. “There’s talk on Capitol Hill of impeaching Clinton again,” said Jay Leno. “How do you do this? He’s not even president. The first time he got impeached for staining the furniture, now they get him for stealing it!”34
Eventually the stories were largely debunked—although the Clintons did return to the White House $28,000 worth of furniture, lamps, and rugs that were from the White House collection—but the damage was done. “To think that he was running around the White House saying, ‘I need this couch,’” says Jake Siewert, was simply ridiculous.35
Hillary in particular was “really discouraged,” says Susie Tompkins Buell. “They took the things that were personally given to them, that every other president and first lady does.”36
Reports that the Clintons and their friends had stripped the 747 on the swan-song flight back to New York of everything that wasn’t nailed down had developed a life of their own, fueled not only by talk radio and cable television, but also by respectable newspapers and magazines. Before those stories could be discredited, which they ultimately were, the Clintons were portrayed as the sort of lowlifes who steal towels from hotels.
Reports of Clinton staffers trashing government offices and equipment on their way out came next. Chris Jennings answered one charge by saying he and other staffers were working so hard until the final hour that they hadn’t “the time or creativity” to pull the “W’s” off the computer keyboards.37 “Clinton justifiably got pissed off,” says Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, “because the Bush people made up a lot of stories about them…. That was when we started to learn that these were not good people who were coming in…. Here’s Clinton leaving, not president anymore, and they felt like they had to make up stories about it.”38
Sarah Wilson, who calls those press reports “a load of crap,” was assigned as Clinton’s term ended to inspect the offices “and make sure that everything was in order and there were no cartoons on the walls or anything like that…. I remember taking down one…anti-Bush cartoon off a wall.” Wilson claims that the Clintons and staffers John Podesta and Bruce Lindsey “wanted to go out and leave for the incoming president…memos, guidance,…because they remember when they came in that everything was a mess…. Staffers were asked to write memos,…to leave an orderly, nonpartisan process, help the next team understand.”39
“There were posters hanging of Bill Clinton with darts through his head,” says Lynn Cutler, a former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, of Clinton’s arrival in 1993. “We didn’t go and talk about it.”40
George W. Bush seemed magnanimous when he proclaimed that the Clintons should be left alone and that the country should move on (presumably to a more refined first family).
It hardly matters whether these reports were true, false, or merely exaggerated, says Larry Sabato. “Those last scandalous developments,…however true they all were, just underlined some of the worst parts of the Clinton presidency and encouraged people to want to turn the page. And so they did. And they did it by focusing on a new president, which was inevitable.”41
The trashing stories were nothing compared to details bubbling up about Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich. That pardon exploded into a controversy that had politicians threatening to haul the former president in front of a congressional committee, and editorial-page writers excoriating the president as unethical, unpatriotic, and downright sleazy—the politician from Dogpatch who was an embarrassment to the nation and whose pardon of Rich was par for his crooked course.
Clinton and his close advisers, including his press secretary, Jake Siewert, were dumbfounded. On Clinton’s last morning in the White House, when Siewert announced the pardons, “I didn’t get a single person asking me about Marc Rich. Not one knew who he was. He’s not out of that Washington world; it was a real New York story.” Over the next couple of days that was confirmed when the New York tabloids pounced on it, digging up gossip and innuendo and collecting reactions. The New York Post had really “ginned” up the story, says Siewert, but then nearly every news outlet followed the Post’s lead. Siewert remembers Clinton as “just mad. Certainly, no one ever warned him that the Rich thing would be that big a deal.”42
Clinton did not know how to respond. He was accustomed to the elaborate White House press office. In Chappaqua he had six Secret Service agents in the garage; Oscar Flores, a military valet, there to wash his socks and cook his meals; and Doug Band, a former White House intern turned presidential coat and water holder and traveling aide, sometimes called Clinton’s “butt boy.”43
So much thought had been given to Hillary’s life after the White House and so little thought to Bill’s that he had not bothered to hire a postpresidency press secretary or to line up a staff. Jake Siewert had asked the previous December if the president would require his services post January 20 and was told “it wasn’t necessary.”
“It was sort of an unspoken assumption around some of the people who were planning his life afterwards,” says Siewert, “he doesn’t need a communications plan, she needs a communications plan…. She is becoming a senator; she’s going to be in the spotlight, so a lot of the focus…was really on how do you manage her transition from first lady to senator.”
No one but Siewert, apparently, had considered the obvious: “Sometimes when you don’t want press, you still need someone to deal with the press, because the press writes whatever the hell it wants to write, and you need someone to put those stories back in the box…. At the White House, he had this extensive…communications operation that was constantly managing stories about him.” Siewert estimates that during that period when Clinton was without a spokesman, “probably fifty percent of what was said about him and Marc Rich; him and the [alleged trashing of the] plane,…was just complete fabrication.”
Into this category Siewert puts the news reports and gossip that Clinton was going to take a job in Hollywood heading a studio. Siewert calls it an example of “the idiocy that gets printed when you don’t have someone to speak on your behalf.”
Nobody expected, Siewert adds, that “he should just stay in the basement at Chappaqua while she becomes senator…. It was really more like she needs the help and she needs the planning and that’s where the resources are going to be, not on his life in Chappaqua. We’ll worry about that later. And so when all hell broke loose…there was just no one in place to [handle] it.”44
Five days after Clinton left office, Mary McGrory, the reliably liberal Washington Post syndicated columnist, wrote just the sort of column that would ruin a press secretary’s day: “President George W. Bush is having a fine first week in office, helped enormously by…Bill Clinton. Clinton’s departure lent a deafening resonance to the Bush campaign mantra about ‘restoring dignity to the White House.’…The Clinton exit was…a script that would have made ‘Saturday Night Live’ blush.”45
For a man with Bill Clinton’s insecurities, his situation was dreadful. His idol John Kennedy had sex in the White House much more often than Bill Clinton ever did, but the people Bill Clinton cared about still revered Kennedy. Clinton recognized that in some ways he was in worse shape when he left the White House in the conventional way than Richard Nixon was when he was, in effect, thrown out. “Unlike Nixon,” says Larry Sabato, “Clinton had just become a joke. Nixon was roundly condemned and was despised but he was taken seriously…. There’s never been a president in American history who has been such continuous fodder for the late-night TV show hosts. Even to this day I think there are almost as many jokes about Clinton as there are about Bush, the incumbent. And that’s just unheard of.”46
A small sample follows from just one Jay Leno monologue, the same day as the McGrory column; Leno jokes about Bush’s first one hundred hours in office, much of it poking fun at Bush for being dumb, but Clinton is prominently featured:
HOUR 100: Walked around Oval Office with pants around his ankles saying, “Look, I’m President Clinton!”
LENO: And President Clinton—we still call him president. You keep the title for life. You are always “President.” Kind of like how we still refer to him being “married.”…President George W. Bush has imposed a new dress code at the White House, a little more strict, as opposed to Clinton, where staff members just needed a new dress…. An intruder broke through security at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. The guy, four years ago, got up and shook Clinton’s hand. He was harmless. He was able to do it again this year and shake Bush’s hand. Bush said that he wasn’t worried about the intruder breaking security, he was more worried about the guy touching Clinton’s hand and then touching his…. 47
Jake Siewert had rented a house in Wyoming to ski for a month. But at the end of Clinton’s first week as a private citizen, “the press was so bad that he called me up to ask if I’d come up to help him out.”48
There was the president sitting in Chappaqua, a prisoner in his house—reporters were waiting for him to take his dog Buddy for a walk so they could pounce with questions and cameras—and he had no spokesperson, nightmarish press that portrayed him as being for sale, and, worse, in Clinton’s mind, “the President from Dogpatch.” Some of his former staffers, like Siewert, were trying to help, but, says Melanne Verveer, “they were also creating their own new lives. They all needed to find jobs.”49
Clinton was in a bind. Hillary had left after two days to go to Washington; McAuliffe writes in his memoir that “Clinton called me the afternoon Hillary left and seemed down in the dumps. I said I’d fly up to New York the next day and we’d play some cards.” He and Clinton walked to lunch on the main street of Chappaqua and passed an ATM: “Clinton looked at the machine…and scratched his head…. ‘It gives you cash?’”50
Even if Hillary had wanted him there, which she didn’t, with the pardon scandal unfolding, he could not join her in Washington, although there was no reason, legal or otherwise, for him to be in New York. Hillary’s advisers wanted her to keep her husband at bay; he could only hurt her. Having him even briefly visit Washington would have been “incredibly distracting” for Hillary, says Siewert. When the Senate went into recess, Bill and Hillary were scheduled to take a vacation together; until then the plan was for him, in Siewert’s words, “to stay undercover.”51
Clinton’s only child was in college across the country in California; he had a strained marriage that some said was a charade. Friends say that the former president understood that it was now Hillary’s turn; he was to stay quiet, out of the spotlight, and out of trouble and share his political wisdom only when asked. Mark Buell suggests that “it had to be pretty tough” to watch Hillary get all the attention: “I think he was a little lost at times.”52
SOME OF the pardons Clinton issued as he left the White House were judicious and appropriate, but others seemed Bill Clinton’s way of thumbing his nose at his enemies, particularly Special Prosecutor Ken Starr. Friends maintain that Clinton connected the plight of any pardon seeker who could be seen as the victim of an overzealous prosecutor with his own. He would never be able to let go of his anger at Starr, who had turned most of Clinton’s second term into a living hell; who had issued “The Starr Report,” snickered at by millions around the world, making explicit the most humiliating details of a pathetic tryst with an intern not much older than his beloved Chelsea.53She had read the “Report” online at Stanford, a fact that “drove her father to tears,” writes Sally Bedell Smith. (Smith also notes that Chelsea used to do her homework in the private study off of the Oval Office where Lewinsky later serviced Chelsea’s father.)
And so he had decided yes on a pardon that he had anguished over that last night—for Susan McDougal, an Arkansan and FOB (friend of Bill), who went to prison for eighteen months after being convicted of bank fraud, snared in the Whitewater investigation, because, she claimed, she would not tell Ken Starr what he wanted to hear. McDougal was often seen on national television in her orange jumpsuit. She has never wavered in her refusal to implicate Bill or Hillary.54
Clinton also pardoned his former secretary of housing and urban development, Henry Cisneros, convicted of lying to the FBI about how much money he had given to a former mistress. In Clinton’s mind, Cisneros too was the victim of an out-of-control special prosecutor. And so was Cisneros’s former mistress, whom Clinton also pardoned.55
Many later attributed Clinton’s decision to pardon Marc Rich to his overtaxed physical and emotional state as he prepared to enter private life. “I don’t think he slept for a week,” says Melanne Verveer, “and if he slept, he had catnaps.” She describes him as “just running on empty.”56
Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, who has covered Clinton for years, says that the president “was acting…very sort of hyper in his last hours and I think that his judgment was impaired. I think he was just doing a lot of things very, very quickly. He was very tired; he was very…depressed about leaving the presidency…. And he had a kind of ‘screw it’ attitude. ‘They’re never going to like me anyway. I’ll do what I want.’”57
Not even his friends had a kind or even neutral word to say about Clinton’s pardon of the billionaire fugitive-from-American-justice accused of trading with the enemy. Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, a liberal Democrat and the brother of Hillary Clinton aide Ann Lewis, called the Rich pardon “one of the worst things President Clinton has done.”58 Congressman Henry Waxman, an equally liberal Democrat, called Clinton’s pardon a “chaotic mess” that should “embarrass every Democrat and every American.”59
At best his loyalists bitterly accused former White House counsel Jack Quinn, Rich’s lawyer—some charged really his lobbyist—of taking cruel advantage of Clinton’s vulnerabilities and betraying his former boss/client, the president of the United States, in order to make a fat fee.
As the details seeped out, things did not look good. Although Rich was not a friend of Clinton’s, Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, who was pushing for the pardon—in phone calls, notes, and a conversation with the president at a party at the White House on December 20—was; there were even unsubstantiated rumors that the president and the songwriter had been lovers. In 2000, Denise Rich had bestowed more than $1 million on the Democratic Party, $450,000 on Hillary’s Senate campaign, and $450,000 on Bill’s presidential library. On a smaller scale she gave Bill a new saxophone and Hillary $7,375 worth of furniture.60
The pardon stories moved beyond charges that Clinton sold a pardon to Denise Rich’s husband in exchange for her hefty contributions and/or because the two were romantically involved, into a scandal that featured Clinton trashing this noble constitutional prerogative. In these stories, Clinton, unlike his predecessors, had reduced the pardon power to cronyism and worse. There were enough irregularities in the Rich pardon to give this story muscular legs.
Over many administrations, by custom, not requirement, the Justice Department’s pardon attorney had been part of the process, advising the White House on meritorious pardons and advising against others. In issuing the Rich pardon, Clinton had bypassed the pardon attorney. He simply granted the pardon.
The pardon also drew Eric Holder, who had been number two in Clinton’s Justice Department under Attorney General Janet Reno, into the mess and made it look like somehow Holder had manipulated the process in hopes of becoming Al Gore’s attorney general. In this scenario, Holder would do Quinn’s bidding in exchange for Quinn, not only Vice President Gore’s chief of staff but also his friend, pushing Gore to name Holder his attorney general, the first African American in history to have that office.
The press fed on the details. Quinn acquired Marc Rich as a client after a dinner in New York in November 1998 when a public relations man named Gershon Kekst, who represented Marc Rich, chatted with another guest at the dinner, Eric Holder. The two men did not know each other, but, on discovering his position, Kekst allegedly asked Holder who could help get a pardon petition in front of Bill Clinton. Holder, allegedly, pointed to Quinn, whom Kekst already knew. At that point Kekst “pursued me,” says Quinn. “He came to me on at least three occasions, urging me to take on this matter.”61 (Holder, now in private law practice, says that “the conversation never concerned Marc Rich’s pardon…. This guy just asked me general questions about appealing…a decision…and how does that happen in the Justice Department. There was never a mention of Rich or Jack Quinn.”)62
In the storm that followed, Holder, who had overall responsibility for pardons, was portrayed as so ambitious to be attorney general in the expected Gore administration that he played ball with Jack Quinn. This plot line had Holder failing to alert prosecutors of the impending pardon and making certain that the Justice Department pardon attorneys would not review the Rich pardon, raise concerns, and recommend to the president against issuing it.
Quinn was then meeting “frequently,” he says, with I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was then another of Marc Rich’s lawyers and was about to become the top aide to Vice President Richard Cheney. It was Libby who was reportedly the brains behind the analysis Quinn used to advocate for the pardon.63 Quinn says he was motivated to take the case and persuaded of its merits by Libby’s analysis, as well as by the “tax arguments” of still another lawyer employed by Marc Rich—Martin Ginsburg, the husband of Clinton-appointed Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Having himself been White House counsel, Quinn says, “I was well aware of the pardon attorney’s guidelines for the matters that came before the pardon attorney and this didn’t fall within the parameters of the pardon attorney’s authority.” So, Quinn says, he went directly to Holder. He says he also discussed his course with Beth Nolan, who was then Clinton’s White House counsel. He insists he did not try to sneak in the pardon.64
One man who served in the Clinton Justice Department claims that other presidents have issued pardons without Justice Department consultation—naming, for example, the George H. W. Bush pardon of six men, including Caspar W. Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s Defense secretary, involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, which saw money from arms sales to Iran directed to the Contras in Nicaragua.65 Then there was Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974, granted before Nixon had even been charged with anything, a way to wipe clean the national slate, also done without consulting the Justice Department pardon attorney.66
The pardon of Marc Rich proved to be a migraine not only for Bill Clinton and Jack Quinn, but also for Eric Holder whose chances of becoming attorney general in any future Democratic administration are likely over. Like Quinn, Holder was hauled before a televised House Government Reform Committee chaired by Clinton nemesis Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana. Burton called Holder, who testified voluntarily, a “willing participant in the plan to keep the Justice Department from knowing about and opposing” a pardon for Marc Rich.67 Burton’s report also cited an e-mail from Jack Quinn dated November 18, 2000, as they were working on the pardon petition, and sent to members of Rich’s team, that seems damning: Quinn wrote that he spoke to “Eric” the night before. “He says go straight to wh. also says timing is good.”68
Holder adamantly denies there was any secret deal: “There were a whole host of people who expressed their support assuming Gore would win…you become attorney general…. The notion that someway or other these things were in any way tied is totally, totally wrong.”69
While Clinton sat in Chappaqua watching his reputation take another beating, those still willing to defend him charged that he was bamboozled by Quinn, that he was relying on Quinn for the facts and details of the case and was too distracted or exhausted to understand its repercussions. “He did it for Jack Quinn” is a charge made by several of Clinton’s friends.70 Quinn “was pushing Marc Rich’s pardon and he was pushing and pushing,” says John Catsimatidis, “and got to the point where [the president] finally said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”71
Quinn argues to this day that Clinton was as sharp as ever and knew the details of the Rich case cold, as he knew the details of every matter he handled. Clinton gave the pardon, Quinn says, because “he was persuaded on the merits.”
In retrospect, Quinn says, “the single biggest regret of my life” was pushing the pardon because it so damaged the reputation of Bill Clinton. Quinn says that he “miscalculated the political effect of this and the public reaction.” He calls himself “one of the people who thinks that [Bill Clinton] is among the very greatest presidents this country has ever had. I…wish that I had not had a role in putting him in a difficult situation.”
Quinn himself endured a dark period, summoned before a congressional committee, his reputation “damaged in the firestorm of reaction.” Quinn describes himself as a victim. After leaving Clinton’s employ, he had been a regular on broadcast and cable political shows—especially in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal. Invitations to appear on television dried up. “I believe that no one…was on television more than I in defense of Bill Clinton.” Furthermore, he says, “When I was out there defending him on the Lewinsky stuff,…there was at least one occasion when I said to people in the White House, ‘I feel like I’m pretty far out on a limb here and…if I am saying things that are not true, that I shouldn’t be saying, please pull me back in from that limb,’ and no one ever did.”72
“Who knows?” answers Leon Panetta when asked why Clinton pardoned Marc Rich. “It’s one of those things sometimes you think is part of Clinton’s cycle in which every time he’s doing very well, every time things are going very good, somehow a mistake is made or something happens, that sends you from an up roller coaster to a down roller coaster and I think he was leaving on a high. He was doing very well; people had high regard for him. I think [his approval rating] was in the 60s…. To then do what he did at the end, it’s very hard to find an explanation for.”73
During those lonely days in Chappaqua, Bill Clinton was also regretting that he hadn’t pardoned Jim Guy Tucker and Webb Hubbell.
Tucker, now a businessman in cable television and software, has let his anger at Clinton go and says he sees the former president every other month or so in Arkansas, sometimes at funerals. A few years ago, in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock, says Tucker, “with tears in his eyes, [Clinton] said he was terribly sorry and [not pardoning me] was one of the worst mistakes he made when he was president. He promptly volunteered his regrets and dismay.” Did Tucker ask Clinton why he didn’t pardon him? “It’s not something that I’ve ever inquired into in the form of ‘Why in the heck didn’t you.’”74
As for Webb Hubbell, “the president and he were so close,” says Jake Siewert, “and their relationship was so deep that I’m sure that he would have preferred to have done that but was convinced by someone that it would just look like he was taking care of a friend…. Given all the flack he took for someone he didn’t care much about, he probably feels ‘If I took all that flack anyway I might as well have taken care of people that I like.’”75 Today Hubbell, who had been mayor of Little Rock and a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, sells life insurance to “responsible marijuana users.”76 (Hubbell refused requests for an interview.)
Clinton writes in his memoir that he “gave in” to his staff’s entreaties not to pardon Tucker and Hubbell. One can only wonder why he followed their judgment on those pardons but not on Marc Rich. Two of the president’s closest advisers, John Podesta and, especially, Bruce Lindsey, pleaded with their boss not to pardon Rich.77
SIEWERT, WHO would join Alcoa the next October as vice president of global communications, drove to Chappaqua on February 1, 2001, which happened to be his birthday. The former president “had barely left the house at that point.” An Israeli television journalist and his crew were there to interview Clinton. The idea, says Siewert, was for him to “talk about anything other than Marc Rich or some of the alleged stuff that went on in terms of trashing the White House or trashing the plane.” Siewert says that Clinton did the interview as a favor to Prime Minister Ehud Barak.78 (One might think that Clinton, whose pardon for Marc Rich was supposedly influenced by the Israeli prime minister’s appeal, would not have been inclined to grant him another favor so soon.) When the crew left, Clinton insisted on taking Siewert to lunch in town. They were trailed by reporters.79
Clinton told Siewert that the press, including New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who was part of the cul-de-sac stakeout, had been “pretty rough,” and that he hadn’t been reading the newspapers, although several days after arriving in Chappaqua, he had managed to escape to Lang’s Little Store and Deli to buy them.80
In downtown Chappaqua that day, Clinton attempted, for the first time, to use the ATM. He had his card, but he did not know his pin number. He was trying to call Hillary to get it, but he could not reach her. “Look, I’ll buy lunch,” Siewert said, but Clinton wanted to treat because it was Siewert’s birthday. “We were going to some diner in town; he wasn’t sure if they took credit cards, so he wanted some cash…. We split it. I think he had enough cash to pay about half of it.”81 When they entered the diner, he was treated like a celebrity, and, for a short time, the old Clinton was back.82
Clinton’s mood at the time was “a roller coaster,” says Siewert. “He wasn’t sitting around sulking,” but he shifted between being “angry with the coverage” and “constructive about trying to work through some of the things.” Siewert recalls that Clinton was particularly “furious about the implication that they had…stolen furniture.” But then he would lose his anger when they went out for lunch and “[we would] have a perfectly pleasant lunch.” Clinton, says Siewert, was unusually “reflective,” a quality not much noted during his days in the White House. “He was unpacking and he was finding things, as you do when you unpack,…that reminded him of little incidents that he had forgotten and was telling some stories about some of those things.” He was “very happy” with the house. “It was really the first house they’d owned,” says Siewert, “and…he was like any person who has moved into their first house, kind of thrilled about that.”83
On the other hand, “if you got him on the topic, which I didn’t try to,…of what was in the press, he worked himself up pretty quickly. But if you were just talking about the house and what he was going to do next, and kind of reflecting on his period in office, he was fine.” Asked if Clinton expressed regrets over impeachment and Lewinsky, Siewert says, “I wasn’t born yesterday. I wasn’t going to spoil my day by asking about that.”84
On February 11, 2001, a New York Times editorial cast Clinton as a scoundrel, while praising the new president, George W. Bush, for his “mature insistence on order.” The Times editorialized against a man who “in the last moments of his presidency [seemed] to plunge further and further beneath the already low expectations of his most cynical critics…. We sense a national need to come to grips with the wreckage, both civic and legal, left by former President Clinton.”85
Appearing on MSNBC on February 16, Jake Siewert described the former president as “bewildered” by all the attention that the Rich pardon generated. “You’ve got congressmen now who have made a living getting on TV, becoming famous by attacking Bill Clinton. He’s gone. He’s not president anymore. He’s not running for anything anymore…. And they’re going to have to get used to it and find something new to do…with their lives.”86
As Bill Clinton attempted to plot his next move, he could not accept that his pardons had sparked such outrage. He felt the aggrieved victim. One reporter whom Clinton knew well asked him about the Rich pardon during a wide-ranging interview and Clinton “just took off in a torrent of words.” And then he took off after George H. W. Bush, the man who later became his friend but at that time was a former president with whom, in the character and class departments, Bill Clinton was often compared unfavorably. “So I guess you’re not going to mention Orlando Bosch, are you?” Clinton asked, referring to an anti-Castro Cuban exile whom Bush had pardoned in 1990 even though the man admitted to participating in the bombing of a Cuban airplane that resulted in the deaths of seventy-three passengers and crew.87
Clinton’s White House diarist and friend, Janis Kearney, uses the word depression to describe the president’s mood at that time.88 The darkness at the end of this long road, says Melanne Verveer, came in “knowing that his presidency was over. He had had this extraordinary opportunity; it would never come around again.”89
Historian Douglas Brinkley, who has written biographies of Presidents Carter and Ford, and edited the diaries of President Reagan, says that Clinton was not much different from his predecessors. “This happens to all of them; leaving, being stripped of power and going back to being a common citizen is hard to adjust to…. You lose your entourage…. You find yourself in debt; you’re almost obligated to write a memoir and raise money for your presidential library.” He calls the period before all those tasks are accomplished “like a purgatory…that lasts a couple of years.”90
Larry Sabato, who has studied presidents in extremis, sees Clinton as almost in the mainstream of this tiny brotherhood. The exceptions are Ronald Reagan who was “quite content, but then he normally was”; also he was returning to a ranch he loved with Nancy at his side. Reagan, it was always clear but made more clear by the publication in 2007 of his diaries, would have been bereft were Nancy not with him. Gerald Ford, says Sabato, took the loss to Jimmy Carter hard, but he too was “happy to just move to the next phase of his life.”91
Other presidents have experienced misery that came close to Clinton’s—Lyndon Johnson, who never adjusted, and, some believe, died from the transition, and Nixon, and certainly Jimmy Carter, who, Sabato says, “has admitted to virtually a depression…in the wake of his landslide defeat, and the nothingness that came afterwards as they returned to Plains, Georgia.”92
Closest in temperament to Bill Clinton was Theodore Roosevelt, who, unlike Clinton, left the White House with his reputation intact, but who, like Clinton, left filled with regret. Both would have given almost anything to serve another term and regain the bully pulpit. Like Clinton, Roosevelt was almost freakishly energetic, stuck in a perpetual adolescence—First Lady Edith Kermit Roosevelt used to say that she had seven children, counting her husband. Both dominated any room they were in. When Alice Roosevelt Longworth, his firstborn, said of her father, “He was the bride at every wedding; the corpse at every funeral,” she might have been describing Bill Clinton. TR decamped to Oyster Bay, his beloved New York country house, and to the company of a loving marriage to Edith, who longed for private time with him and their children. Those children were solace to TR, who led them on strenuous “romps.” Many noted that TR was more rambunctious than any of his boys. He was soon off with one of them on a thirteen-month African safari, followed by another, unsuccessful, race for the White House.93
Bill Clinton was accustomed to being the center of attention every single day, even if the attention was negative. “Then suddenly,” says Sabato, “there’s a nothingness and it was emphasized in his case by those last-minute scandals and the fact that his wife had a completely new career, near the center of the action, while he was on the periphery.”94
Yes, Hillary had returned with him to the Chappaqua house, which was awaiting renovation, but two days later she was gone. Chelsea was across the country at Stanford University. He was, says one friend, “an empty nester.”95
Oddly, visitors were few. “He didn’t have a steady stream of visitors,” says Jake Siewert.96 The Reverend Anthony Campolo, author, teacher, and an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, one of several “pastoral counselors” who helped Clinton after the Lewinsky story broke, visited him in Chappaqua and said he found him “in good spirits…. He was exceptionally proud of…Hillary and what she was accomplishing politically and was very consumed in advising and helping her in any way he could.” (Campolo was not surprised to find Clinton upbeat, recalling sitting with him in the Oval Office on the afternoon of his impeachment. “We talked, we prayed, and he seemed to be totally unshaken by the events that confronted him. He is a very strong personality.”)97
Mike and Irena Medavoy flew from Los Angeles to visit him, shortly after Hillary left for Washington. “He wanted to show us Chappaqua,” says Irena, “and if you’re real friends, you don’t just go and stay in the Lincoln Bedroom like we were lucky to…. You go when he’s in Chappaqua, and you go and see his life there. He was so proud of it…. He loved his house and he showed us every room.” She remembers the dog bed in his bedroom and Clinton telling them that Buddy, his Labrador retriever, slept with him. She noted “this bonding and love” between Bill and Buddy and attributed it to “empty nest syndrome.” He also showed them all “his mementos” and notes he had made for his memoir. He seemed eager to start to write, she says.
When they walked around the neighborhood, Buddy at Clinton’s side, “he loved it” when people stopped him, Medavoy recalls. “He’s a man who wants to be in the fabric of a town. He is a small-town boy at heart.” She describes Chappaqua as “charming, like small-town America,” and the house as “a small, little traditional home…. It’s not imposing.”98(One woman who lived in Chappaqua says only someone from Hollywood would describe the Clinton home as small.)99
When the Medavoys left late that afternoon, Clinton was once again alone, not a comfortable position for someone who, as political consultant Hank Sheinkopf puts it, needs an audience, who is accustomed to drawing “tremendous energy from being in the public spotlight,” who prefers not to be alone with his thoughts.100
According to a report in Newsday, on a Sunday morning soon after Clinton moved into the house, he asked his Secret Service agents to invite a neighbor and his daughters, then fourteen and twelve, over to his house and chatted with them for thirty to forty minutes. He talked to the girls about school, showed their father his carpets, and suggested that one day they could play golf.101
After the trashing stories were shown to be “absolute garbage,” Siewert was waiting for the next loony story to drop. It didn’t take long for stories to appear that Clinton was trying to join a golf club, apparently almost any golf club, and was being rejected. In fact, Siewert says, Clinton doesn’t belong to a golf club. Why would he? “He’s got plenty of people he can play with.” That fact did not stop people from “leaking that they had banned him from the club before he’d even heard of the club…. You’d read in the paper that some club had blackballed him and I’d ask him and he’d say, ‘I’ve never heard of that…. [S]ounds like someplace I’d like to play.’”102
But the tone was set; in fact, it had been set years before as the press covered the most intimate details of Bill Clinton’s life and learned that when it came to him, nothing was off-limits. In late February, the New York Times’s Adam Nagourney described Clinton going to an AIDS fund-raiser at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Accompanied by Representative Charles Rangel—it was he who recruited Hillary to run for the Senate from New York—singer Roberta Flack, and Secret Service agents, Clinton drew “a flicker of applause and recognition from the audience.” Nagourney described him jammed into a center seat for four hours, “occasionally autographing a program that was passed over the seats. Mostly, though, he was a very famous man who was sitting very much alone.”
Nagourney also described a distant relationship with Hillary; the planned vacation never happened, and Bill had stayed only one night at her house in Washington. Nagourney reported that Hillary’s staffers were still urging her to keep her distance from her husband so that his pardons did not damage her debut.103
No matter how chastened Bill Clinton was by recent missteps, he was still Bill Clinton—but without the structure of the presidency.
IN EARLY February 2001, while at loose ends in Chappaqua, Clinton asked Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor and senator, and a sometimes Clinton rival—they competed in the 1992 primaries for the Democratic nomination—to accompany him to a St. John’s–Connecticut basketball game at Madison Square Garden. They followed that with dinner at Babbo, a chic Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village.104 Clinton, also accompanied by two former aides and one current aide, then behaved like such a boor that he ended up in the gossip columns.
Someone should have warned Clinton that Kerrey, with whom Clinton had a strange and prickly history—Kerrey had advised the president to resign before he could be impeached—might not be his best companion. (Kerrey served in Vietnam, won the Medal of Honor, and left behind part of his foot. Clinton famously dodged the draft and then lied about it.) “Something went really bad between them,” says Jonathan Alter. “Kerrey is really quirky and in a way that is off-putting to Clinton on a lot of different levels.”105
Bob Kerrey’s run for the 1992 nomination had been fatally damaged when a microphone captured him telling Clinton a joke about two lesbians and former California governor Jerry Brown. Clinton had responded in kind, but he was not on tape, and his campaign survived while Kerrey’s folded. “I was very impressed by how he handled it,” says Kerrey. “They didn’t catch him; why confirm it?” Kerrey is certain Clinton would not have done what Kerrey did next: “I went to San Francisco the next day, not a great place to go in 1991 after you told a lesbian joke.” He soon found himself with “a very large bouquet of microphones sticking in [his] face,” and then did something that he figures Clinton would have been way too smart ever to do; he issued an “abject apology, which made matters worse.”106
During Clinton’s first term, they had a profane fight about the budget bill, Clinton warning Kerrey, then a senator, that his no vote would bring down Clinton’s presidency. “Fuck you,” Kerrey responded, offended at Clinton’s suggestion that Kerrey was responsible for the survival of the Clinton presidency.107 In 1996, Kerrey had called Clinton “an unusually good liar,”* the meaning of which, as is the case with many statements emanating from Bob Kerrey, was not quite what it seemed. Friends of Bill Clinton’s say he does not have a particularly good sense of humor, while “one of the things that makes Bob Kerrey very appealing to reporters,” says Jonathan Alter, “…is that he has that really quirky, ironic sensibility…. Clinton’s not Mr. Irony.”108
At Babbo, Clinton was talking too loudly and a nearby diner heard parts of the conversation and called Lloyd Grove, who then presided over “The Reliable Source,” the Washington Post’s gossip column. According to Grove’s report, “Clinton regaled the table with, uh, raunchy lesbian jokes. A whole series of them.” According to other reports, Clinton confessed that he had indeed told Kerrey a joke about lesbians in 1991. Clinton then loudly retold the joke to those at the table.110
One part of the conversation reported later by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker had Clinton mentioning his five least favorite members of his White House team, a list that included George Stephanopoulos, who had been in the Clintons’ inner circle and then wrote a critical book about them; Louis Freeh, his FBI director who found Clinton too scandal prone and soft on terrorism; Janet Reno, his attorney general, whom Clinton’s friends blame for Ken Starr; and Robert Reich, his Labor secretary, who had also written a candidly critical book about Clinton. Kolbert reported that Kerrey, who told her the story, could not remember the name of the fifth person. (Kerrey claims that Clinton never said those names to him, but Kolbert says she stands by her reporting, and Kerrey allows that one of the Clinton aides might have listed the names and Clinton would have nodded his head in assent.)111
AT THAT point, Clinton was still without much notion of what he would do next. There was no more talk about his becoming president of Harvard, a job that, according to Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, would have interested JFK had he lived to have had a postpresidency.)*112
That Clinton’s interest in a visiting lectureship at Harvard—he saw it as a buffer, a structure for his immediate postpresidential days and a reason for him to spend time in a politically friendly community—had been met with such silence had, says his friend Howard Tullman, caused the former president to pull back from the idea of teaching. As much as he would have “desperately loved” an appointment, says Tullman, “I think he did not want to subject himself to the prospect of these politically correct idiots…rejecting him.”114
That the rumors of his heading to Hollywood were so persistent and seemed so plausible was, Clinton also understood, a kind of insult. Clinton friend and CNN talk-show host Larry King calls the rumors “logical…. If I were a studio I would have hired him, because one of the keys of being a Hollywood studio head is that you’re bidding on films, trying to persuade people to come to your studio to do a movie. Who would have been better than Clinton?”115
NELSON SHANKS, whom Clinton had selected to paint his portrait for the National Portrait Gallery—he had also painted Katharine Graham, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Princess Diana*—had two or three sessions with Clinton the November before he left the White House. Shanks had delayed work on the Clinton portrait because he felt the commission was left a little “ambiguous.” In 2002, officials at the National Portrait Gallery called: “Hey, where is it?” Shanks called Clinton’s people and scheduled a couple of sittings at his New York studio, located in an apartment on West Sixty-seventh Street.116
Shanks rented the space from an elderly woman who lived there full-time. Before the sittings, Clinton’s security people and his “art person” went to the apartment to scout it out. They “were absolutely insistent” that no one not authorized by them be in the apartment. “They were watching like a hawk, who could be there,” Shanks recalls, “and my landlady was in her eighties and they refused to allow her to be present.” Given that she lived in the apartment, Shanks found it awkward to banish her from her own home. “We thought it a bit unnecessary. I don’t know if they were worried about physical security or whether just any female presence could be seen potentially as a problem…. It was just strange.”
Shanks found the former president “more serious this time”—different from the Clinton he observed during their last meeting in the White House when he had been chatting so energetically and for two hours with the photographer Shanks brought with him. “I think I make him a little bit nervous,” Shanks speculates. “I tried to even paint him that way, as looking a little at dis-ease. I think he was a little uncomfortable being examined by me…. I’ve painted so many people and…I see him as quite self-conscious, a certain discomfort in his own skin perhaps.”118
AS HE was leaving office, one of his aides told a reporter that Clinton had been reading books about the two postpresidential careers he most admires: that of John Quincy Adams, who was elected to the U.S. House and argued before the Supreme Court for freeing the slaves, and that of Jimmy Carter, “who has monitored elections around the world.”119
In fact, Bill Clinton found the prospect of looking to Jimmy Carter totally unattractive. On leaving office, Carter was widely reviled as incompetent, plodding, and unstylish, the anti-Kennedy if there ever was one. Yet he had become one of the most admired ex-presidents in history.120 How galling it was to Clinton to give even a moment’s thought to Carter, whom he genuinely disliked—Carter and Clinton had a long, unpleasant history, and the ever-pious Carter made no attempt to keep private his disgust at Clinton’s trysts with Monica Lewinsky.
There was no denying that Carter had not only kept his place on the public stage, both nationally and abroad, but that he wrote bestselling books—how would the disorganized, easily distracted Clinton ever pull off his memoir—and that he had won an honor that Clinton coveted: the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet Clinton knew that he had to move quickly before he became irrelevant; at times lately it seemed to him that his character and his future were being defined by late-night comics, cable talk-show bullies, and right-wing radio ranters.
Melanne Verveer describes the question he was asking himself: “How somebody so young who had had this enormous power…How does he take…his extraordinary talents and his place in the world and begin to put together a new life that doesn’t compete with the current occupant of the presidency?” He knew that if he tried that, he’d be laughed off the world stage, while helping to increase W’s stature and watching his own sink even lower—and, as Verveer frames it, he knew too well that “whatever he’s going to do next in some ways would be less than what he’s done.”121
At first, as he tried to dig out from under the pardon mess, it seemed that his magic touch and stunning luck were gone.
But then the resilience, the optimism that defines Bill Clinton kicked in. Clinton liked to call himself “Baby Huey,” after the cartoon character who keeps getting knocked down and keeps getting back up. John Emerson calls that “Baby Huey” quality key to his friend’s “brilliance” and says that Clinton was able to make that “a metaphor for the American people.” The “I feel your pain” promise that is so closely linked to the Clinton campaigns—Emerson claims that Clinton never actually said those words—was “very genuine and I think something people responded to because of his ability to take hits and come back, his resilience. Everybody loves that, they love an underdog story, they love a comeback story, and that’s this guy’s life.”122
In trying to explain why they knew Clinton would find some way or other to come back after the fiasco of his White House exit, Clinton’s friends hark back to 1988 and “the speech.” Having decided not to run for president in 1988, but determined to run in 1992, he was delighted to receive the invitation to introduce nominee Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. That keynote speech, broadcast in prime time, is intended to highlight future stars—the most recent example, the surge of Barack Obama after he delivered the keynote at the 2004 convention. For Clinton, the speech, which was supposed to be twenty minutes but bloviated to fifty, was a colossal embarrassment. As it was ridiculed that convention week it grew even more tedious; his only applause line was, “In closing.”123
“Everybody recognized that as a major faux pas,” says Don Fowler, who was CEO of that convention. “It was a golden opportunity for him because…this was prime time, man, this was big time for a governor of a small state like that and he blew it and he knew it.”124 Pundits and politicians—Walter Mondale for one—wrote Clinton’s political obituary. So did Jimmy Carter aide Hamilton Jordan: “It was clear that whatever remote possibility he had of national office was dashed that night.”125
One Democratic operative recalls that within minutes of delivering the dud, Clinton “has such self-assurance” that he hit all the restaurants where the important politicos were dining. This woman was having dinner with a pollster when Clinton stopped at their table to do what she calls “damage control,” trying “to ingratiate himself and do what he does best, which is just to get people to like him. And act as though everything was just fine.”126
His friends, television writers and producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason—the latter, one of Clinton’s sleepover companions his last night in the White House—booked him on the Johnny Carson show. He traded self-deprecatory barbs with Carson—joking that his speech was deliberately crafted to make Dukakis look good—he donned sunglasses, and he played the saxophone with Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra.127Remembering that night, Chuck Robb said Clinton “was sort of like kudzu and bamboo…. You just can’t keep him down. He’s going to bounce back.”128
John Emerson, who first met Bill Clinton when he was governor, and who would run the Clinton/Gore campaign in California, credits Clinton with inventing the shamed politician’s appearance on late-night TV. Emerson also points out what he calls “a hallmark of the Clintons”—the hard work that followed. “People minimize that…. They think, ‘Oh, this guy’s very glib and…it comes easy.’ Man, this guy works his tail off.” He “tirelessly covered the country for Dukakis,” says Emerson, and was “fully rehabilitated by the end of that ’88 campaign.”129
Jake Siewert, who saw Clinton up close both in the White House and in Chappaqua, says that the most important thing to keep in mind about Clinton is “he wakes up every day and he may grumble a little bit…but he’s not the kind of guy who pulls up the sheets over his head and says, ‘I’m not going to go out today and play.’ So people say, ‘Oh, he was paralyzed or he was furious.’ He may be furious but he’s still relatively constructive…. I heard a lot of people picture him walking around…Chappaqua…talking to himself; even in those days when he really didn’t have anything to do, he was still…fairly constructive in trying to handle the problems that he had caused for himself or had been thrown at him.”130
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette political editor Bill Simmons echoes Leon Panetta’s explanation about why Clinton gave the boneheaded pardons: because things were going too well. Simmons calls Clinton’s political history a “Ferris wheel; he’s always up and down.”131 To political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, Clinton is “a political Fred Astaire, he knows how to dance.” He “finds the moment” to pick himself up “and his timing is excellent.”132
ALL FORMER presidents have offices paid for by the taxpayers. Clinton was now a suburban householder, husband of the senator from New York, and no one expected him to be anywhere but Manhattan. It wasn’t his fault that Manhattan is among the most expensive real estate markets in the country. But again, his famous political instincts seemed to fail him—temporarily.
On February 2, 2001, when the Washington Post ran a story that the space Clinton was leasing would cost $600,000 or more a year, “three times the amount authorized by Congress,” conservative talk radio had another hot topic.133 Two weeks later, the New York Times reported that the rental would cost even more: $738,700 a year for the fifty-sixth floor at Carnegie Hall Tower, 152 West Fifty-seventh Street.134 His office neighbors would include Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, and Barry Diller.135
Representative Ernest J. Istook Jr., Republican from Oklahoma, said that that price was way too steep. And he had a soapbox from which to chastise Clinton because he was chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the General Services Administration (GSA), the agency charged with arranging office space for presidents as they leave office. Istook warned that the taxpayers should not be stuck paying the full cost of “a penthouse” for Bill Clinton136 and claimed that the Carnegie Hall Tower rent cost “more than the annual rent of all other offices of former presidents combined.”137
Jay Leno got into the act, with a joke that might seem to the average American to be more commonsensical than funny, although Leno’s was a point never raised about any other president. “Here’s my question: why does he even need an office? He doesn’t have a job. Shouldn’t you get a job first and then worry about an office?”138
Clinton was saved by African American congressman Charles Rangel, whose district includes Harlem. Rangel telephoned the man whom novelist Toni Morrison had dubbed “the first black president,” and suggested that he put his office in Harlem.139 (Morrison paid Clinton that compliment in 1998, when the Lewinsky scandal threatened to bring down his presidency.)
Jake Siewert calls Rangel’s suggestion “a stroke of genius” and credits Clinton with seeing “a way out on that one and [taking] it pretty fast.”140 Bill Clinton, it seemed, was back in his zone. An idea that was not his was credited to his natural inclusiveness and openheartedness. “It was a great foresight for him to establish his office in Harlem,” said Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, expressing a common sentiment: “I think [he has] done more for Harlem…because he broke the line by moving there.”141 That accolade pales in comparison to that of Clinton backer Joe Power, a Chicago trial lawyer: “What he’s trying to do symbolically by taking his office and putting it in Harlem…[is] look to the future and pick up those who are the poorest among us…. I think he’s trying to do whatever he can to end world hunger, to end hunger in this country, to provide medical care to everyone who needs it.”142
As one Clinton friend puts it, “Bill Clinton owes Charlie Rangel big-time on that move.”143
A negative story that made him look profligate with the public’s purse turned into a public relations bonanza, and, in the end, Bill Clinton got his fourteenth-floor penthouse, with spectacular views of Central Park, Midtown, and the George Washington Bridge, but at 55 West 125th Street, on the neighborhood’s busiest shopping street.
Before the deal was closed, he had to battle a political opponent of Hillary’s, Mayor Giuliani, whose city agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, had already rented the space for a Harlem field office. Although at first cranky about the transaction, Giuliani agreed to take lesser space so Clinton could have the penthouse. “I believe that President Clinton’s being in New York, and particularly being in Harlem, is a very good thing,” he said at a news conference at City Hall. “I think it is something that will say something very significant about where Harlem is now, not only to the people of New York, but to the rest of the country.”144
The annual rent was modest at $210,000 as opposed to the rent at the Carnegie Hall Tower, which was finally reported at $811,000.145
When Clinton went to look at the space, the New York Times reported, “a crowd of people in the street shouted ‘We love you, we love you!…Please come to Harlem.’” On one of his first visits, he took a walk, trailed by fans, and he made a beeline for Bayou, a nearby Cajun Creole restaurant, where, according to the Times, he ate “shrimp and okra gumbo.”146 “I used to tell people he’s very happy to drink out of fine china but he doesn’t mind if his coffee comes in a styrofoam cup,” Jake Siewert says. “He’s not that kind of a person who’s real stuck-up.”147
The newly renovated building was closer to his house in Chappaqua, and it was not as if he had to take the subway to get to the rapidly gentrifying area. He had a black SUV and a Secret Service agent to drive him.148 He would go to that office only once a week or so; he thrived on the adulation of his new neighbors, and he appreciated the fact that African Americans had loved him through Monica and impeachment, and, in his opinion, had correctly seen the scandal as manufactured by a bunch of uptight white Republicans.
If Clinton did not exactly deserve the badge of courage bestowed upon him, he did deserve an “attaboy” for putting himself in the center of a spectacularly positive story. His new office was in an economic empowerment zone, which he as president had helped to create from Charlie Rangel–sponsored legislation.149 And he constructed a centerpiece for his postpresidential work by proclaiming, as the Times reported, that Harlem represented “a lot of what I want to do in my post-presidential years—bringing economic opportunity to people and places who don’t have it here at home and around the world, and bringing people of different races and religions and backgrounds together.”150
He swerved off the believability track when he told the Times reporters that as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, when he was in his early twenties, he used to come to New York, “and every single time I did, I took the public transportation to 125th Street on the West Side—I mean the East Side—and I would walk down 125th all the way west…. And people—this is back in the 60’s now—people would come up to me and say—ask me what I was doing here and I said I don’t know, I just liked it; I felt at home.”151
Not surprisingly, the senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, was all for it. Public relations don’t get any sweeter than that.152
However, Hillary was also reportedly miffed that her husband’s press conference upstaged her first speech—on health care—in the Senate.153
Vernon Jordan, an African American civil rights leader turned investment banker, who lives at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, liked to tease Clinton, “Did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine that you’d end up in Harlem and I’d end up on Park Avenue?”154
“I’ve got to let it go,” Clinton told Jonathan Alter. “Being angry or resentful is totally destructive.”155 Clinton liked to tell the story about when, in 1998, he visited South Africa—he is proud that he made the first trip by an American president to South Africa—he toured, with Nelson Mandela, the jail cell on Robben Island where he had suffered for twenty-seven years. Clinton asked Mandela if, as he walked out of that cell to freedom, he hated his jailers, some of whom he would later invite to his inauguration and place in his government. Mandela said he did, but he recognized that if he didn’t let the hatred go, his jailers would “still have me. I wanted to be free and so I let it go.” Clinton seemed to equate his political problems, even his pursuit by Ken Starr, to Mandela’s battle against apartheid. “Whenever I feel anger and resentment rising inside myself, I try to think of what Mandela said, and follow his example. We’d all be a lot happier if we could do that.”156
He was also starting to see the outlines of a plan. “You lose your power but not your influence,” he said to the Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows. “But the influence must be concentrated in a few areas.”157
The memoir loomed large, but the actual hard and lonely work of writing was not inviting. Jake Siewert says Clinton saw the project as “his job,…in his mind that was what he was going to be doing.”158 But he was not ready to start, and he put off meeting with publishers. He and his Washington agent, lawyer Robert Barnett, were waiting for some of the negative headlines to subside.159
The high-rent stories pushed the pardon stories off the front pages for a time, but the pardon controversy was back and there were calls for investigations and even speculation that Clinton might have done something illegal.
He needed something far more dramatic that would catapult him back on the world stage and he found it in an earthquake that had struck the western state of Gujarat in India on January 26, 2001. The quake was described as the most powerful to hit India in more than fifty years, registering a magnitude of 7.9, rendering more than nine hundred villages rubble, killing some nineteen thousand, the actual toll perhaps as high as a hundred thousand.160
The former president was already a much-loved figure in India and so the visit he was planning in April and the several million dollars in contributions for earthquake relief that he was trying to raise, much of it from the Indian American community, guaranteed he’d be greeted as a hero. “India was the perfect choice of country,” says Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and under-secretary-general of the United Nations. “He has a very special status in India, he is a much-loved figure in India because of what he did during his presidency.”161
Raymond C. Offenheiser Jr., president of Oxfam America, a Boston-based organization dedicated to ending global poverty, was in Bombay when he saw “massive crowds on the streets trying to…see [Clinton] go by; there were massive events at the major hotels in the city that turned out everybody who was anybody in Bombay…. It was the major [story] in the major Indian newspapers all over the country for that entire week as he traveled through India.” While in the United States, Clinton’s work raising money preparatory to his trip drew scant notice, pushed out of the headlines by pardon stories, including a Time cover story, “The Incredible Shrinking Ex-President: How Can We Miss You If You Never Go Away?; Smelly Pardons, Expensive Gifts, Deluxe Offices—Is This Any Way for a Former President to Behave?” That was not the case in India. “You could just see the energy that was in the air,” says Offenheiser.162
He would also visit his friend Nelson Mandela in South Africa and he would go to Nigeria to get a close-up look at the AIDs crisis. Mandela was a special pleasure for Clinton, a way to remind himself that there was a world of good feeling for him beyond the ugly carping in New York and Washington. At the height of the impeachment mess in 1998, Mandela had come to the White House—while there he accepted a Congressional Gold Medal—and, during a speech in the East Room, said, “I just don’t understand what your country is doing to this great man.” Melanne Verveer, who was there, recalls that Mandela “talked about what Bill Clinton represented to him and his country and the world…. It was just so personal and so embracing of Bill Clinton in one of his lowest moments.”163
Verveer, who was part of the large entourage for that Africa trip in 1998, says that Clinton had insisted that the trip not be fancy dinners and toasts, but that he venture into the rural areas and “really mix it up with the people.” She recalls a stop in Senegal; “a very poor” villager on the side of the dusty road waved to the president and he ordered the motorcade stopped, bounded out, and hugged the man. “They’re still talking about that in Senegal,” she says. “Imagine the president of the United States…. There were pictures of this all over the paper.”164 After his presidency, Clinton knew that he wanted to revisit that poor village.
The trip to India for earthquake relief was a tonic, and Clinton was happy to travel abroad. He soon learned that foreign hosts were happy to have him.
IN 1990, WHEN he was still governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton’s salary of $35,000 was the lowest among governors of the fifty states. New York’s Mario Cuomo made $130,000.165
Clinton did much better as president, $200,000 in salary, a $50,000 expense account, and no living expenses, but he left the White House owing approximately $12 million to the lawyers who represented him during the scandals that pockmarked his presidency.166 As part of his last-day-on-the-job deal with the independent counsel, he had to promise not to seek government reimbursement of his legal bills.167
The stories about the Clintons and their lives of public service forgot that Hillary had been a partner in the Rose Law Firm, the most important in Arkansas, and that they would make millions on leaving the presidency. Hillary had already signed an $8 million contract for her memoir, just before her new position as U.S. senator would have made acceptance of the advance illegal, and Bill figured that when he signed for his memoir, his advance would be even higher. His immediate postpresidency staffing needs might not have been sufficiently addressed, but his staffers had signed him, while he was still in the White House, with the Harry Walker Agency, which was busy booking speeches at a minimum of $100,000 each.168 At that rate, if he gave ninety speeches a year, he would earn $9 million, so there was no doubt that he was poised to become a wealthy man.
But friends say that Clinton was not reassured by his potential; he would feel better about his family’s future only when he had money in hand. His financial fears were expressed in his red-faced rage, in late August 1999, when he learned, while on the golf course with Terry McAuliffe, that he would not be approved for the mortgage he needed to buy the house in Chappaqua that would allow Hillary to run for the Senate from New York. McAuliffe remembers Clinton’s anguish: “We’re going to lose this damn house.” In an unusual bit of candor, McAuliffe reveals that Clinton was terrified to tell Hillary that they were being turned down because of the scandal-related legal bills. McAuliffe offered to loan the president $1.34 million and the deal was saved. (Once the news broke of the McAuliffe loan, banks offered the Clintons a conventional mortgage and McAuliffe got his money back. He called it “the shortest $1.35 million loan ever.”)169
A bright spot for Clinton was his presidential library in Little Rock. His legacy “was so important to him,” says Bud Yorkin. When Yorkin and his wife visited Clinton at his Harlem office, “He always had to show you the model—‘Look at this. Right down here, they can read every letter I ever wrote.’”170
The not-so-bright spot was that he had a stack of bills to pay, a daughter still in college with graduate school in her plans, and two expensive residences to maintain.
At first as Clinton arranged his boxes of books, he wondered, with good reason, if he would be able to make his fortune as a speaker. During his lowest moods, he worried that the business, policy, and nonprofit worlds would reject him out of fear that their members would be offended by his very presence. That fed into his biggest insecurity—that he did not really belong in the elite circles in which he mixed, that he was, after all, just white trash. It hardly seemed to matter that he was one of only forty-two men who had been president of the United States and the only Democrat to be reelected since FDR.
“Initially a lot of people ran scared of him,” recalls Jake Siewert. “There was a lot of hesitancy at some of the firms for all the obvious reasons…. At the time it was as if you were taking a stand if you asked him to speak to you.”171
His first postpresidency speech, to Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company’s Global Leveraged Finance Conference in Boca Raton, Florida, was scheduled for February 5, 2001, for a fee of $125,000. Newspapers reported that the company’s chairman, Philip J. Purcell, had e-mailed clients that he thought it a mistake to have invited Clinton. “We should have thought twice before the speaking invitation was extended. Our failure to do so was particularly unfortunate in light of Mr. Clinton’s actions in leaving the White House.”172
Purcell might have fretted that his audience of important customers would be listening to Bill Clinton talk about the accomplishments of his administration or tax policy or globalization but they would not be able to get out of their minds the image of Monica in the president’s study, just off the Oval Office, giving the president oral sex while he lobbied a congressman on the telephone.173
Robert Torricelli, one of Clinton’s confidants, then a U.S. senator from New Jersey, saw this insult to the former president as one more blast from the lunatic Right: “He found his footing. The Far Right…is never going to be comfortable with Bill Clinton’s success…and what he has come to represent to many Americans.”174
Clinton gave his speech, basked in enthusiastic applause, and the boost to his mood was palpable. Five days later, on February 10, he was warmly received at a synagogue, the Aventura-Turnberry Jewish Center in Aventura, Florida, and paid a fee of $150,000.175
The objections voiced at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter did not stop there. “This has happened over and over,” says Melanne Verveer. She recalls talking to a businessman who said that “he stuck out his neck at his company and basically made the decision that Bill Clinton would be the keynote speaker, and…there were a lot of murmurings that is this really what we want?…They weren’t die-hard Democrats by any stretch of the imagination. And the long and short of it was he came, he saw, he conquered. They couldn’t stop applauding; they thought it was the best speech they ever heard.”176
The lecture agent, Donald Walker, denied reports that some groups that had invited the former president were canceling. “There has never, ever been a speaker nearly as much in demand as President Clinton on the lecture circuit,” Walker told a reporter for the Boston Globe. “He is the highest-priced speaker in the history of the lecture circuit.”177 He was soon outearning his nearest competitor, former secretary of state Colin Powell.178
To his relief, Clinton found that paying off his debts was easy. He gave essentially the same speech everywhere he went, so there was not much work involved; he got to travel in style, and, before long, he owed no one anything, says Bud Yorkin, “not a dime.”179 He was, says another friend, “surprised” and “enormously” pleased at just how easy it was for him to earn all those hundreds of thousands of dollars.180 He soon had a net worth in the millions. “He felt a lot better after he got all his bills paid and had a lot of money,” says Jonathan Alter. “He wasn’t doing it for the money, but the money…eased the pain. You know how money is a motive for a lot of people. For him it wasn’t a motive; it was more like a treatment for his transition.”181
Republican strategist/lobbyist Scott Reed watched Bob Dole climb out of debt after a lifetime in public office; and then he watched Clinton do the same by getting “two hundred grand a whack for the speeches.” Reed also points to another income source that is often missing from the calculations of Clinton’s postpresidential earnings. His billionaire friend Ron Burkle gave Clinton a piece of his Yucaipa Global Opportunities Fund, which has reportedly yielded him millions and will continue to do so. Before long, the speeches were just frosting on a very large cake.182 The Wall Street Journal estimated that the fund would yield Bill Clinton “tens of millions.”183
The former president would make more than $50 million in speaking fees over seven years, according to newspaper analyses and a review of Senator Hillary Clinton’s financial disclosure reports through 2005. He earned an additional $10.2 million in speaking fees in 2006, including $450,000 for one speech in London in September 2006. Hillary’s disclosure forms do not reveal how much her spouse collects from Burkle’s Yucaipa fund, only that it’s more than one thousand dollars. Much more.184
Still, it wasn’t until he gave his first speech abroad in March 2001 that he realized that he was home free. Audiences loved him; reporters described him ad nauseum as a “rock star.” He did not like it that some bluenoses back home thought him an unsavory character, but it was easier to take once he recognized that he was a hit in Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, Canada. Between March 9 and March 14, 2001, he gave speeches in Vancouver, in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in Baden-Baden, Germany, and in Copenhagen, Denmark. (His take was $700,000.)185
In Baden-Baden, Clinton watched the awarding of the German Media Prize—which he himself had received in 1999—collected $250,000 for a speech, and, as reported in the Boston Globe, “cried after delivering an emotional appeal for rich nations to give more aid to poor countries. Then he walked the mile back to his hotel, mobbed by local residents.”186
Chicago supporter Mike Cherry and his wife traveled there to be with the former president. Cherry remembers how happy Clinton looked, almost a look of freedom, as if he had been sprung from a prison cell. “A little kid,” Cherry recalls, “was running down the street trying to get ahead of this group. We were like a rock star going through,…the little boy still running carrying a scruffy piece of paper and a pencil.” Clinton gestured him over and, as the cameras clicked, gave him the autograph.187 He was regaining his touch.
Friends use medical metaphors to describe the joy Clinton felt at the approval he found. “It’s like somebody who’s anemic who gets a blood transfusion,” says Alan Solomont, former national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “He got his footing and as the world came to accept him he stopped feeling sorry for himself.”188 Tony Coelho describes how cheering crowds “juiced up” the deflated former president.189
The fees he commanded abroad that first spring out of the White House—$250,000 in Hong Kong—were twice what he was making at home. Between May 14 and June 8, 2001, he delivered speeches in Norway, Sweden, Austria, Poland, Spain, Ireland, England, France, back to England. His total take was $1,599,999. During the last quarter of 2001, Clinton pulled in more than $3,353,000; fifteen of the twenty-three speeches were outside the United States.190
“When he stepped down,” says Tony Coelho, “he felt that people globally felt the same way that people domestically felt. He found that wasn’t true, that people globally loved him.” Clinton had many more speaking invitations coming in from abroad than he had available dates. “And when he did travel internationally, the rooms were packed,” says Coelho. “He’d go to these…conferences where he would be only one part of a conference and the rooms with the other conference speakers were empty and people were demanding to get into his speech. And it gave him all the confidence in the world again. He became a rock star internationally.”
At that point, says Coelho, Clinton’s luck resurfaced: the domestic press was so busy with the aftermath of the pardons and the presidential election recount that reporters tended not to look too closely at the former president’s other activities. If editors thought about the disgraced president, they presumably figured he was hanging out at home. Meanwhile, says Coelho, “they didn’t concentrate on the hundreds of thousands of dollars that he was making…. They would have written that up front-page and tried to embarrass him on that amount of money.”
The coverage from the international media was adoring. “He can charge a group $300,000 for a speech,” says Coelho, “and the media would make it look like he was giving that group $300,000.”191
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism—he lobbies for the interests of Reformed Judaism before Congress and the administration—is not surprised that Bill Clinton emerged on top. “I do know that as is so often the case with him, the actual doing of things, the actual engagement with life, took on its own life…. No one could draw the crowds, no one could excite the crowds, the way he did, and I’m sure that helped to get the juices flowing again.”192
Eyebrows were raised over the number of zeros on the checks that foreign entities paid for his services. According to a report in the Washington Post, he raked in $600,000 for two speeches to an investment firm in Saudi Arabia; $200,000 for one speech to a real estate development company in China; and $400,000 for one speech to a “political studies center” in Japan.193 “It’s perfectly okay,” says Larry Sabato, “he’s now a private citizen. But it’s not the most admirable thing for an ex-president to do.”194
Eventually the American press began to notice and to report that Clinton was collecting large fees from poor nonprofits—including modestly endowed public colleges. On March 26, 2001, Clinton spoke in Salem, Massachusetts, to Salem State College. His fee was $125,000. This was Salem State, not Harvard (where he spoke on November 19, 2001) or Yale (October 6, 2001). Both Ivies were presumably pro bono, because they do not appear on Hillary’s disclosure forms. Salem State certainly didn’t lose money on the event, and Clinton’s fee was said to be raised from private sources—the thirty-six hundred tickets, ranging in price from $25 to $125, quickly sold out.195
That Clinton was not the first celebrity to speak at the college, which in years past had hosted Presidents Bush, Carter, and Ford, as well as Gloria Steinem and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger,196 seemed hardly to matter to the Boston Globe reporter who lambasted Clinton. “While Clinton would prefer that the public take note of his interest in helping poor nations, the reality is that, for Clinton, much of his time since leaving office has been focused on money.”197
Three days later, Joe Fitzgerald, writing in the Boston Herald, more conservative, working class, and never a fan of Clinton’s, asked, “…were you, also, a bit appalled watching Nancy Harrington, the matronly president of Salem State College, giddily greet the disgraced Bill Clinton like some goo-goo-eyed adolescent fawning over her favorite rock star?…If there’s one place this empty vessel ought not to be welcomed, it’s a campus populated by coeds, most of whom, presumably, have been taught not to tolerate the kind of workplace exploitation that became Clinton’s calling card…. And that’s to say nothing about pardoning criminals, lying to grand juries, grabbing gifts and looting souvenirs.” He branded as disgraceful the “hero’s welcome” given “to someone so predatory, so vile, so deep in denial.”198
At the end of his speech, Clinton was greeted with a standing ovation. Earlier, the Boston Herald reported, outside in the bitter cold stood a handful of protesters clutching LIAR, LIAR signs. At a private dinner for Clinton at the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, protesters carried signs warning COUNT THE TOWELS.199
In June 2001, he was a guest at a surprise birthday party for Juanita Jordan given by her then husband, Michael, at a restaurant he owned in Chicago.200 Film critic Roger Ebert was also there. “Now you’ve got Michael Jordan in a room and Bill Clinton comes into that room, the center of gravity shifted and in particular I was looking around at all the women…. First they were looking at Michael and now they’re looking at Clinton.”201 (Clinton played golf with Michael Jordan at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, near the Chicago Bears training camp.)202
Clinton was starting to have more fun, to revel in the return of his personal magnetism. But he recognized that he had a long way to go.