In His Wife's Campaign, Bill Clinton Is a Free Agent

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

LITTLE ROCK -- In the complex transformation of Bill Clinton from former president to candidate's spouse, last week was typical.

One night in New York, he showered affection on his wife during her 60th-birthday-party-slash-fundraiser, joking that when a 23-year-old Hillary Rodham met him at law school decades earlier, "the poor child didn't know any better" than to talk to him. Another day, the two appeared together in Harlem.

But at other points in the week Clinton did not share a stage with his wife, the junior senator from New York. During an expansive speech at his presidential library here, he pivoted from issue to issue, touching on subjects including social inequality, the Nobel Prize and his recent appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

In more than 45 minutes, Clinton failed to mention one timely topic: his wife's presidential campaign. Another day, in Minneapolis, he paid tribute to a prominent donor to her campaign without invoking Hillary's name at all.

Exactly how Clinton would conduct himself during this unprecedented process has been a subject of much speculation from the outset. Advisers worried that his charisma might eclipse his wife, that his past marital misconduct might become an issue again, or that after years of dominating public attention it would be hard for him to cede the spotlight.

But so far, he has maneuvered the uncharted territory of running what amounts to a third presidential campaign largely as a free agent -- attending occasional strategy meetings with senior advisers at the couple's home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and serving as a surrogate in places his wife cannot be, but rarely making his presence felt at the campaign's headquarters in Arlington, several campaign officials said. He is at times out of the loop on campaign strategy and developments, they said.

Whether the remoteness is real or for show is difficult to measure; Hillary Clinton has sought to present herself as her own candidate and to assure voters that she would exercise her own judgment if elected.

But in several television and campaign appearances, and by virtue of his recent travels -- doing the duties of a former president, promoting his new book, championing his foundation work -- Clinton has seemed convincingly on his own, arguably promoting his own causes as much as hers.

Federal election rules are such that Clinton cannot advocate for his wife unless her campaign is financing the event. So as he tours the globe wearing his other hats, he is likely to talk about himself as much as the current presidential candidate.

There is every reason for him to talk about his own life and work, of course. He is one of the most sought-after speakers in the world, collecting about $40 million in fees since leaving office. A Clinton campaign adviser said the former president is still giving some paid speeches, but far fewer these days given his other obligations. (The campaign declined to disclose the precise amount he is taking in speaking fees, a figure that will become public when Hillary Clinton's personal financial disclosure forms are filed later this year.)

Advisers said Clinton maintains an open line to Jay Carson, his former spokesman who now works on his wife's campaign; Mark Penn, his former pollster who is now her chief strategist; and Patti Solis Doyle, the campaign manager. But they said he tends to offer his advice most readily in direct conversations with his wife.

Clinton's approval ratings remain stratospheric, with little evidence in most polling data to suggest that he is having any negative impact on his wife's campaign. Many voters in both parties say they would welcome his influence in a future Clinton administration.

Campaign advisers are aware that they cannot deploy the former president as freely as Barack Obama's campaign might Michelle Obama, or as John Edwards's campaign might Elizabeth Edwards, because of Federal Election Commission rules regulating how his campaign appearances are paid for and because of the extra scrutiny he receives.

At the same time, campaign officials do not want to squander his star power through overuse. One adviser compared it to using "conventional weapons versus a nuclear bomb -- when he goes places, it's a huge deal."

"We've never seen anything like this," said Skip Rutherford, a former director of the Clinton Presidential Library who is now dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. "This is a completely new role and completely new ground in American politics."

Clinton has played an important pseudo-surrogate role at times. A week and a half ago, he headlined a closed fundraiser in Florida -- where his wife has pledged not to campaign after the state party moved its primary date up in violation of Democratic National Committee rules. (Under DNC rules, the candidate could have attended the fundraiser herself, but she chose to dispatch her husband.)

Still, Clinton is keeping his profile high in other ways that are only tangentially about his wife. Between a recent book tour and the annual Clinton Global Initiative summit in New York, he has amply promoted his own causes over the past two months.

When he appeared on "Oprah" in September -- an event that in political circles was seen as a way to undercut the talk show star's endorsement of Obama -- Clinton talked about how he should, as a former president, be addressed ("You can call me whatever you want"); whether he misses the White House ("yes and no"); his formerly bad eating habits ("potato chips, ham, I mean, potatoes, french fries, hamburgers"); and his book ("In the last chapter of my book, you know, I talk about how much people should give and why they do it").

But he mentioned his wife only in passing, to credit her with starting him jogging during law school and keeping him tied to the political world ("I'm still sort of in politics, 'cause Hillary is in politics," he said). Asked whether he is acting as a strategist for the campaign, Clinton demurred, saying he is, but "not in an organized way."

"Like, you know, if there's -- she's writing an important article or giving an important speech, she'll ask me to read it, particularly if it's something I know a lot about," Clinton said.

Last week at his library, in a speech at a Slate conference honoring top philanthropists, Clinton sounded almost critical of the presidential candidates, including his wife.

His complaint? None has put the subject of population control in a world with shrinking resources on the 2008 agenda.

"Now, nobody's going to talk about this in the election this year -- in either party -- but I ain't running for anything, I can do it," he said, saying the world population will be 9 billion by the year 2050.

He congratulated Al Gore for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, saying it was about time his vice president was recognized for his work on the environment. "He'd been ridiculed for it long enough, he deserved it," Clinton said.

He mentioned his wife by name only once. Then he circled back to the subject of his "Oprah" appearance.

Afterward, Clinton shook hands and walked the rope line. A reporter asked how he had been.

"I'm okay," he replied. He added that he had been "working hard" lately, flying around the world -- without so much as a fleeting reference to Hillary.

The next day, after spending the night in his two-bedroom condo atop the presidential library, Clinton flew to Minnesota for a fitness center dedication at the Mayo Clinic. He acknowledged Dan Abraham, a donor, as a "generous friend" to the Clinton family.

But the former president said no more about the current candidate. He mused instead about being "dictator for a day," saying that even if he were given such a post, he could not solve the country's health problems unless people got serious about preventive care.

Only that night did Clinton focus on campaigning for his wife. He held a 2,000-person fundraiser at the State Theater in downtown Minneapolis, where he opened his remarks by discussing his 32-year marriage.

"We were laughing and talking, and believe it or not the campaign even gave her the night off," Clinton said, describing an anniversary celebration the couple shared 12 days earlier.

"We had about decided by the end of the night that the key to a long relationship was never being bored with one another," he said. "And I still would rather spend the night talking to her than anybody I can think of."

Even in that appearance, though, Clinton detoured more than once to talk about his own work in the Oval Office (ruminating on the Kyoto accords at one point, he said, "It was the only bill I ever lost before I sent it to Congress").

Later, he was interrupted repeatedly by several hecklers. When he responded to defend his wife, he did so with full force.

One man shouted from the audience that Hillary Clinton's Iraq vote had been a fraud.

"A fraud? No, it wasn't a fraud, but I'll be glad to talk to you if you'll shut up and let me talk," Clinton said. When another heckler shouted that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were an inside job, Clinton grew defiant, asking: "An inside job? How dare you? How dare you?" The audience loudly cheered on the former president.

After yet another taunt, Clinton drew a breath and shot back: "These people did not come here to hear you speak." And he made the audience laugh. "If you don't have any self-control," he said, "we can live with it."

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