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The President In the Room
Hillary Clinton's Biggest Issue? A Certain Someone in Her Background.

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.

It's such a delicate subject that many people who know the Clintons well refuse to talk about it. If they do, they summon their most diplomatic selves when addressing it.

"I guess the best way to say this is that they're going to be watched very closely," says Leon Panetta, Clinton's former White House chief of staff. "I think the press and everybody around him is going to be watching to make sure that the same mistakes aren't made."

Discipline: That's the key. It was Clinton's struggle while in the White House, says Panetta -- to stay focused, to not respond to diversions or to provocations. That struggle is an essential aspect of Clinton's personality.

"Clearly, in someone who is probably the brightest and most capable that I've ever met in politics, that's the weak side," Panetta says.

And it's not just sex we're talking about. It's the need for attention, adulation; to play a grand role, make a sweeping impact.

There's something unbridled about Bill's neediness, this love of the crowd -- like the story about his trip to the World Cup in Berlin this year. En route to the stadium on a bus carrying several aides and donors, Bill told the bus driver to head instead to the Brandenburg Gate, the New Yorker reported. There, hundreds of thousands of soccer fans had gathered to watch a match on giant television screens. Uninvited, the former president mounted the stage where a rock band had been performing, and just stood there waving and thanking the crowd, which responded with roaring cheers.

Could Bill's hunger for the spotlight pose problems? You bet, says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. Hillary will have to be careful not to be upstaged by him or lost in the glare of his global political stardom.

Thurber, called the issue of Bill "a central question to her candidacy."

For starters, he said: "You have to be very careful in terms of Bill Clinton taking the headlines. So one way you do it is use him behind the scenes, to bring in money to your campaign through closed events. And in my opinion, you rarely have them appear on the stage together, and if you do, you don't have him speak."

Her campaign strategists also have to be "very careful" about managing Bill because "he sucks up the air around everybody when he's there," says Thurber. "And he needs to be loved. She is more self-assured, doesn't need as much adulation as he does. And that's trouble."

There are "so many barriers for her, alone, and then add Bill in there and then add his infidelity to it," says Thurber. "Well, she doesn't want to be looking over her shoulder and having questions asked by the media about it."

But there will be questions aplenty. How could there not be? The Clinton marriage fell into political soap opera with the troubles of Bill's White House years, with nothing but question marks hovering overhead, for a time. Was he contrite? Had she forgiven him? Would she stay? The woman whose earlier assertiveness as first lady rankled some now was tagged with a new set of labels: Hillary the martyr. Hillary the steadfast, for sticking with her man. Hillary as Machiavelli, accepting marital humiliation as the price of power.

Her 'Most Difficult Decisions'

She raised the subject in her 2003 memoir, "Living History," writing, "The most difficult decisions I have made in my life were to stay married to Bill and to run for the Senate." Rarely has she discussed that period since. As she has prepared to possibly run for president, questions about the marriage have bubbled to the fore again.

Earlier this year, both the U.S. and Canadian press ran stories about Bill's periodic meetings with a Canadian auto-parts magnate turned politician, Belinda Stronach. Both have characterized themselves as just friends since they met in 2001 at a fundraiser. But tongues wagged nonetheless, because of the baggage.

Folks around the Clintons believe -- or want to believe -- that Bill's indiscretions are a thing of the past, that he has faced his demons.

Since the Lewinsky scandal, Bill has received counseling for a sex addiction. He and Hillary have grown as a couple. She has burst out of her role as wife and first lady to become a politician in her own right. He has had a brush with death, in the form of his emergency heart bypass surgery in 2004. He has found his global calling as an active former president and is fully committed to helping his wife along her chosen path.

Despite all that, the subject of the marriage is too hot to handle.

"It's uranium-242," said longtime Clinton adviser and friend James Carville, earlier this year. "You pick that stuff up and it'll blow up in your face . . . I'll talk about anything. But I ain't gettin' near anybody's marriage, especially the Clintons.' "

But he did concur that Bill Clinton could require special management by her campaign strategists, because of his political stature.

"I think it is something that people are cognizant of," he said. "You could make a pretty persuasive argument that there's more good to come out of this than bad."

Asked how Hillary's presumed rivals might deal with the Bill factor, an aide to one of them said, "Everybody knows everything there is to know about the Clintons." The aide spoke anonymously to avoid any damaging blowback for the comments. "No one needs to point out to them 'guess what? Bill Clinton was impeached [after] having an affair' . . . It's obvious to everyone that her husband is a huge benefit and he comes with some baggage."

Spokesmen for both Clintons steadfastly refused to discuss the theory that Bill might pose obstacles should Hill, as the New York tabloids call her, run for president.

"He campaigned for her in 2000. He campaigned for her in 2006," says Howard Wolfson, a Hillary Clinton adviser. "In both instances, we found, as did many other candidates across the country, that his presence on the campaign trail was a huge boost."

In her first campaign, when he was a sitting president, her handlers found it necessary to carefully calibrate Bill's role -- just as they are likely to do should she run in '08.

Both Clintons declined to be interviewed for this article. Ditto for several members of her innermost circle, known as Hillaryland.

If she runs, her husband "will do anything and everything to support her," says Jay Carson, Bill Clinton's spokesman.

So get ready to see that Bill Clinton thing at work on the campaign trail, if she runs -- that charm, that way with the crowd, that charisma. With him, it's seems innate.

Different Styles

The nation saw the contrast quite starkly during the nationally televised funeral last February of Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr. Bill spoke in the subtle cadences of the pulpit and seemed to reach right into the heart of the mourners, give expression to their feelings.

Hillary spoke more stiffly, with little hint of emotion, of a connection to the crowd.

Their appearance set off a wave of speculation about her style vs. his and how it would or would not serve her in a campaign.

"Of course I've seen the difference," says Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who prodded Hillary to run for the Senate back when she was still first lady. "But I never would think that anybody would say one would not shine as brightly. It's always been a team. I think that the personal problems have cemented that even more so than in other couples."

"I don't think there's any woman in public life that has such self-esteem and assurance as Hillary Clinton," Rangel said.

Theirs has not been a competitive marriage, but a complementary one, Panetta says. "I think that she knows he's got a lot of charisma and people pay a lot of attention to him, and I think she has always viewed that as an important asset not only because of the attention he gets and the guidance he provides, but also because it makes both of them larger than life."

They once called themselves the "blue-light special," offering "two for one" -- two leaders for the price of one, quickly dubbed "Billary." That was back during Bill's 1992 presidential campaign, when Hillary was the first professional woman, a lawyer, heading for the role of first lady.

The co-presidency idea got jettisoned pretty quickly. Campaign polls showed voters didn't necessarily want Clinton's wife acting as an unelected leader. The notion of the co-presidency gave rise to some of the early condemnations of Hillary as power hungry. And when, as first lady, she lead the failed charge for health care reform and wound up politically bruised, she retreated from major policy crusades, putting the two-for-one deal to bed.

And yet, today, the nation faces a combination that's far closer to the mythic co-presidency than their stature of yore.

"Most people say it's two for one," Rangel said of Hillary's prospective campaign. "Anyone would know that one of the most outstanding public officials in the free world is Bill Clinton. . . . To have the benefit of a former president and a person that has international respect as your partner, I don't see how it gets any better than that."

Some folks who know her take umbrage with the two-for-one idea. They say it denigrates her singular leadership abilities and suggests she's not up to the job on her own.

And it could confuse the public in a campaign in which the lines between the two Clintons would have to be clear. Her candidacy, not his; her presidency, not his; not a blue-light special; and certainly not an attempt at dynasty.

"The biggest challenge facing Hillary is: Can she convince the American people that they are not trying to build a dynasty, but rather they are trying to help improve the lives of people?" says Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist who chaired Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

In the past several months, Bill has appeared to be her chief campaigner, publicly saying Hillary would be a great president, even better than him, because she would enter the White House with more experience.

It is in the nature of the Clintons and their evolved relationship, says Panetta, that Bill will subordinate himself and summon all his discipline, for Hillary's sake.

"This is the love and loyalty that they share in their relationship," Panetta said. "It's very genuine. And that's why I think he'll want it. He will not want to in any way jeopardize her chance to win the presidency."

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