Bill Clinton has never been shy about making headlines. This week, he’s had plenty of opportunities, with his Clinton Global Initiative meeting in Chicago. There he gets the chance to share a stage with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, no wallflower himself. Before that, at a private event hosted by another Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the former president broke with the current one and pushed for a more aggressive U.S. posture toward Syria.
“Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit,” said Clinton, who also got a chance to bring up his own efforts to stop ethnic conflict in Kosovo and Bosnia. He was siding with McCain, who must have been relishing a little one-upmanship over his 2008 opponent. The whole thing forced White House press secretary Jay Carney to respond, “Obviously a lot of people who have expertise in the matter both outside of government and in Congress and inside of government have perspective to add, … and the president welcomes all of that.” Sure he does.
It added another chapter to the Barack Obama-Bill Clinton drama and, coincidentally, intruded a bit on Hillary Clinton’s own moment in the spotlight. The former secretary of state, said to be considering a 2016 White House run, debuted a Twitter account and made her own policy speech, where she played a little nicer with her former boss. Her speech emphasized educational and economic empowerment, though, of course, she had carved out foreign policy expertise in her former cabinet post.
That can’t trump the experience of a former president, though. Plus, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama interact, all eyes will always turn to them, whether it’s a buddy-buddy embrace, as at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, or this latest tussle.
It was a reminder that the quote 1992 presidential candidate Bill Clinton often used in reference to his wife — “you get two for the price of one” — will always be true and will always be both blessing and curse for one or the other.
Her independence and role in crafting health care reform hurt Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but Hillary Clinton has long since forged her own path in the Senate and as an international icon. Now I wonder if sometimes even she looks over at her husband and says, “Too much.”
When I covered the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina, I wondered that myself. Hillary Clinton was a star on the campaign trail, speaking authoritatively, warmly and without notes, and drawing diverse crowds of women and men of all races and economic circumstances.
Her husband drew crowds in his appearances, too, where he would talk about his wife for a while, and them be sure to remind the audience how great the country did economically during the Clinton years. Even his fans, and he had a lot, would ask how much influence he would have in a Hillary Clinton White House in their comments to me. It was his bravado and their uncertainty that caused many South Carolinians to think twice.
And while people wrote off Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Obama as fair during a hard-fought race, when Bill Clinton added his own attacks it seemed like piling on from a heavyweight. When he said voting along racial and gender lines was “understandable” and compared Obama’s decisive win there with Jesse Jackson’s in past primaries, you just knew Hillary Clinton wished she had sent him on a global fact-finding mission instead of South Carolina. Many black voters I talked with felt disrespect from Bill Clinton, whom they had supported, and punished the Clinton on the ballot.
Former president Bill Clinton is now riding high in the polls, recently winning Father of the Year award, which, though I don’t think past transgressions should follow you forever, I don’t quite understand. He’s a smart survivor, a charismatic speaker and you’d rather have him in your corner than working against you.
But now it’s Hillary Clinton who might have her eye on the White House. Her undeniable though unpredictable ally Bill Clinton would be beside her on the journey, of course, supporting and occasionally competing for the world’s attention.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3