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Bill Clinton's biggest gamble ever

Chelsea and Bill watch Sen. Hillary Clinton campaign in Philadelphia the day of her big Pennsylvania win. He is betting his legacy on her.

New York Times

Chelsea and Bill watch Sen. Hillary Clinton campaign in Philadelphia the day of her big Pennsylvania win. He is betting his legacy on her.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton isn't the only one in the family whose future is at stake in this campaign.

Former President Bill Clinton's aggressive campaigning not only has upended the standards set by every former president save Millard Fillmore and Theodore Roosevelt, it has threatened to upend his own legacy as well.

Already he has sidelined what was shaping up as an admirable ex-presidency in benevolent humanitarianism. With African-Americans, particularly, he has torn through his accumulated goodwill like a bag of fried pork rinds. And if Sen. Clinton loses to Sen. Barack Obama, it will mean much more for Mr. Clinton than the shared disappointment of a spouse.

It would mean the rejection of a sequel to his own administration, a sign of his waning political and persuasive powers, and it would force him to go to work again on how he wants to be remembered.

Call around to presidential scholars these days, and it's not hard to find those who marvel at Clinton's appetite for self-destructive behavior — the peevish, finger-wagging eruptions over what he did or didn't say, his naked willingness to wallow in the mud of politics in a way considered unbecoming of a former president.

Veteran Clinton-watchers, of course, have seen this before. The eight years of relative peace and prosperity that marked his administration through 2001 was overshadowed by a scandal involving a bubbly former intern wearing a thong. In that and other missteps, his critics contend he never showed much respect for the Office of the President of the United States, so why start now?

But if his wife wins, President Clinton, 61, will have scored the next best thing to a second chance.

"If Hillary Clinton became president, we would be living in the age of the Clintons," said Douglas Brinkley, the noted presidential historian. "It would mean that from 1992 to now, the Clintons would have been the dominant counterforce to the age of Reagan, and mean that the Clintons would go down as the dominant political family of our time. The stakes are huge here.

"You talk about George Bush, with the war in Iraq, putting all the chips on the table. The Clintons have put every chip into winning the nomination. Everything."

The underlying theme of Hillary Clinton's presidential expedition is that the Clinton years were a hit and the Bush years are not. Her role in her husband's administration, exaggerated or not, has been used to propel that story line, a foil to Obama's message of hope and change and fodder for those spooky ads suggesting that when the White House phone rings with bad news at 3 a.m., she's the one who should answer.

One of the problems for Sen. Clinton as a candidate, however, has been the difficulty of simultaneously embracing and rejecting select portions of her husband's administration — celebrating the creation of a children's health insurance program, for instance, while shaking her head over NAFTA.

He has now climbed into the same boat, and anchored himself to her wins and losses. "A win by Hillary would be seen as carrying on his policies," said James Pfiffner, a presidential scholar at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"He would be getting some credit for helping to get her elected, and probably playing some role in another Clinton White House. That's not an unattractive position for a former president who clearly isn't finished with public policy."

But, Pfiffner added, "He's really putting himself out there, and is taking a big risk. If she loses, he will be perceived as being not as effective as he was.

"Of course, he thrives on danger and risk. And in the past, he's often been able to pull himself out of it."

• • •

It started in January, after Obama thumped Sen. Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary. Bill Clinton compared him to the other black candidate to win that state, the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988.

With all due respect, Jackson was never a contender for his party's nomination. Clinton's comparison was widely seen, especially among black leaders, as an attempt to marginalize Obama, to suggest he was no more than Jackson was — a pioneering African-American political figure, perhaps, but not someone who could actually move into the White House.

It continued last month, when Clinton complained in a radio interview that Obama had "played the race card on me" for his Jackson comments. Asked the next day in Pittsburgh what he meant by that, Clinton angrily denied he'd said it.

"You have mischaracterized it to get another cheap story to divert the American people from the real urgent issues before us, and I choose not to play your game today," he told an NBC TV reporter. "Have a nice day."

Clinton has said voting for Obama would be like rolling the dice. He has called Obama a man of words, not actions, and warned voters across the country that he's not prepared for the job.

That's not exactly a cheap shot — Obama is a fresh-faced 46 and has served in the Senate just three years. But the sense that blacks are always coming up short is a palpable frustration in the black community, and the message has been especially jarring coming from someone whom many African-Americans see as a sympathetic friend — the white man writer Toni Morrison dubbed the "first black president," the humanitarian whose foundation fights AIDS in Africa, the millionaire who opened his office not in Midtown Manhattan, but in Harlem.

For all the complex and often contradictory factors that one day will go into defining Bill Clinton's legacy, that aspect, at least, had been secure. No longer.

"One of the reasons people are so upset about this is because it was so unexpected, because he had build up this well of confidence with the African-American community," said Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland.

"African-Americans are used to racism. It is the unexpected racism that they got out of Bill Clinton that was so painful, and that is a scar that will be there for some time."

Or as Brinkley put it, "He's turned himself in about three months from being Gandhi to becoming a Cracker. It's a pretty dramatic turnaround."

But Clinton is finding other ways to ding his image, too. In stumping for his wife, he again has become an ordinary politician and all that entails — the attacks, the defensiveness, the fabrications, as when he insisted everything he'd said on the campaign trail was true.

Or last month, when he became irritated by reports debunking his wife's tale of landing in Bosnia in 1995 under sniper fire and having to dash off the runway. It wasn't true — the first lady was actually greeted by a little girl with a poem — but Clinton carried on about how an overzealous press had seized on a one-time mistake, uttered at the end of a long day by a fatigued candidate. Nothing in Clinton's defense of his wife was true. She had told the false tale lots of times.

"It seems to me that he's put the goal, the successful campaign for his wife, above any questions about what his legacy is going to look like at this point," said Andrew Dowdle, the Clinton history project coordinator at the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas.

Even when his son was first on the ballot in 2000, former President George H.W. Bush remained a modest campaigner. Gerald Ford took the term "retirement" to heart. Richard M. Nixon spent his post-presidency writing books and trying, somewhat successfully, to recover from Watergate.

Harry Truman criticized Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nixon, and former President Theodore Roosevelt unsuccessfully ran in 1912 on the ticket of his own Bull Moose party. But in looking for a parallel to Clinton, Brinkley reached back to Millard Fillmore in the 1850s. After his Whig party collapsed, he refused to join its replacement, the Republican Party, and later ran for president again on the ticket of the Know Nothing Party. Later, he would criticize Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War.

Clearly, Clinton hasn't gone that far, but he is showing that he's still willing to mix it up.

"He never showed the respect for the institution of the presidency while president, and now he's showing that being ex-president means you're just another ward politician who goes on talk shows," said Brinkley, author of Unfinished Presidency, about Jimmy Carter's post presidency.

"He doesn't seem to understand what the seal of the presidency of the United States stands for, and that it's more important to be dignified to people than to take the low road."

• • •

It sounds pretty grim. Some folks who loved him can't stand him. He's accused of sullying the presidency when he was in office, and of sullying the ex-presidency now that he's out of office. Meanwhile, his wife is lagging in the race for the 2,024 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination for president.

No one seems quite sure if the former president is doing more harm than good to his wife's campaign. He clearly distracts from her message at times. But critics contend he also has buoyed questions about Obama among working-class white voters. If so, then he's keeping Sen. Clinton's candidacy alive.

Regardless, there's no incentive to back down now.

"I think he is afraid that Hillary is not going to get the nomination and he will not have this opportunity … to extend and cleanse and polish his own legacy," said biographer Carol Felsenthal, author of a forthcoming book about Bill Clinton's time out of office called Clinton in Exile.

"This is a man who when he dies and his obit is written, his impeachment will be if not in the lead, in the second or third graph, and that irritates him."

One reason he may not be so concerned about his legacy now is that he's always been able to recover.

Bill Clinton has called himself "The Comeback Kid" since the night of the New Hampshire primary in 1992, when his second-place finish revived his presidential campaign. The weekend he was impeached by the House of Representatives for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, his approval ratings hit 70 percent. He left office with an approval rating above 60 percent — twice that of President Bush now.

How he manages his next comeback, of course, depends on what happens this summer. If Sen. Clinton wins the nomination, she and her husband must rush to mend any fences they trampled, especially among African-Americans, to ensure a united Democratic coalition in time to confront Republican Sen. John McCain in November.

But a timely recovery is not guaranteed. After months of nonstop campaigning, Bill Clinton has begun to wear out one of a former president's most important powers, conferred by the office and sustained by its judicious use: The power to make people stop and listen.

Wes Allison covers national politics from the Times' Washington bureau. He can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

As President Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, he has abandoned the traditional role of former president and raised questions about how his foray into the messy fight for the Democratic nomination for president may affect his legacy.

His follies aren't helping. Here's a sampling.

* In an interview with a Philadelphia radio station a day before the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, Mr. Clinton complained the Obama campaign "played the race card on me" after his comments about Obama and Jesse Jackson.

When asked about the comment during a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, Clinton denied he had said it.

* At a campaign stop in Indiana in April, Clinton referenced his wife's false account of facing sniper fire while landing in Bosnia when she was first lady, saying she had told the story just "one time, late at night, when she was exhausted," and that she "immediately apologized for it."

In reality, she told the story numerous times.

* While campaigning in February in Maine, Clinton asserted that everything he had said on the campaign trail was "factually accurate." That was not factually accurate.

* Bill Clinton compared Sen. Barack Obama's January victory over his wife in the South Carolina primary to Rev. Jesse Jackson's victory there a decade ago. Jackson was never a likely presidential contender, and critics accused Clinton of trying to portray Obama as simply the black candidate.

* In January in Nevada, Clinton portrayed Obama has having Republicans had had all the good ideas since 1992 (which would have included the Clinton administration). He took his comment out of context.

Bill Clinton's biggest gamble ever 05/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2008 2:18pm]

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