The President In the Room

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

NEW YORK -- He stood far behind, hiding in plain sight, though his glowing white hair and ruddy complexion rendered him as inconspicuous as a face on Mount Rushmore.

The spotlight was not Bill Clinton's. It belonged, instead, to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as she celebrated her reelection victory.

So Bill stood poker-faced. He clasped his hands. He held his head high. He clapped when appropriate. He smiled ever so faintly. And he did not move. When Hillary offered thanks to him and turned around to acknowledge him, he did not step forward, did not step to her side. He stayed put, several feet away, as if taking pains to soak up not one ray of the spotlight he so dearly loves but that, now more than ever, must be hers and hers alone.

It was political Kabuki -- Bill Clinton, held in check -- on a night that some observers saw as the start of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Bill is poised to mightily help or deeply hurt his wife's White House prospects. Either way, his impact will be profound as he undertakes the unprecedented role of ex-president turned male campaign spouse to the first woman ever to have a serious shot at the presidency.

Yes, Bill can deliver political superstardom. He's a razor-sharp political strategist. He knows the institution of the presidency. His fundraising chops are unrivaled. All that is well and good -- perhaps too good, according to a September CNN poll, which showed his favorable rating higher than hers, 60 percent to 50 percent.

But there's the other Bill, the one who could be a massive and messy distraction. That Bill is the ex-president known for his outsize appetites and indiscipline, the Bill who still revels in the limelight, who runs with global jet-setters. He is prone to pop up in the press for even the smallest of curiosities, like being spotted at dinner with another woman -- bad news for an ex-president already infamous for marital infidelity.

If she runs, will voters focus too much on him? Will they remember too much of the national trauma known as "that woman" (Monica Lewinsky) -- and the presidential prevaricating, hair-splitting (what is"is," anyway?) and impeachment that followed? Can voters look at Bill without thinking of sex? If they don't think of sex, they'll likely think the word: "president," which may also not be such a good thing for the spouse who wants that title.

From now until Election Day 2008, the national fascination with the Clintons and their marriage will be central to the race. The media-industrial complex will again feed like hungry hounds on the Clintons, their past and future; on the Clintons and their mysteries; on power and politics as the Clinton lifeblood propelling her run against all odds.

She will face haters. She'll face sexists. There'll be folks who think she's power-mad, including some still queasy about what she knew and when she knew it when it came to Bill's marital indiscretions.

Look at the polls; opinions on her are strong and run the gamut. Gallup last month asked 1,003 respondents to state what comes to mind about Hillary. Thirteen percent said they disliked her. Ten percent said she's qualified to be president. Nine percent said she's riding Bill's shirttails. Eight percent called her strong. Six percent called her intelligent, and another six percent called her dishonest and said they didn't trust her.

With numbers like that, plenty of Democrats are asking: Can she win? So the last thing she needs is people asking, as they have in the media and at cocktail parties: Can Bill control himself during her presidential campaign?

Such a familiar circumstance, such a Clintonesque conundrum, which her supporters can only hope won't lead to a Clintonesque spectacle: Bill, the management challenge.

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