By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008
The question was about a campaign polling memo in 2008, but somehow the answer drifted back to the political wars of 1998. Bill Clinton was holding forth to a group of college students in New Hampshire too young to remember much about the investigations and battles of his presidency. But Clinton remembered.
"Ken Starr spent $70 million and indicted innocent people to find out that I wouldn't take a nickel to see the cow jump over the moon," he told the students last week, his eyes narrowing and his finger jabbing the air. At another point, he complained that the investigations during his White House days virtually bankrupted him: "The Republicans were so mean to me when I was president that I was poorer when I left than when I got there."
Ten years ago Monday, the story of Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and the perjury investigation that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr had initiated as a result of it broke in the media, and the former president's anger over that time can still seem close to the surface.
As Clinton travels the country campaigning for his wife with characteristic intensity, he is fighting not only to promote Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy but also to set the record straight on the two terms he spent in the White House. And if some cast the Democratic nomination battle as a test of whether the party wants to turn the page on the Clinton years, then he is determined to win the referendum.
Friends describe a man who has made peace with the past since leaving the Oval Office, but with his wife's campaign now on the line, Clinton's frustration seems to be boiling over. He has likened her Democratic rivals to Republican "Swift boat" attackers and castigated Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for making up a "fairy tale" about Obama's war position. Just this week he berated a television reporter who asked about a dispute over Nevada caucus rules.
"What he perceives is a lack of fairness -- equal scrutiny, equal accountability," said the Rev. Carolyn Staley, a longtime friend from Arkansas. "While their lives have been an open book for all these years they've been in public service, other candidates have not been subject to that sort of scrutiny."
Few know more about the harsh scrutiny of Washington than Bill Clinton. He spent much of his presidency fending off investigations by special prosecutors, congressional committees and news organizations. His marital indiscretions were excavated by tabloids and depositions. And then, on Jan. 21, 1998, came news that Starr was investigating whether he obstructed justice to cover up an affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
The next 13 months were absorbed by the battle to save his presidency as Clinton tried to mislead and maneuver his way out of trouble and House Republicans impeached him on a party-line vote. Clinton won acquittal in the Senate, but a federal judge later found him in contempt of court for not telling the truth under oath. He eventually admitted giving false testimony about his relationship with Lewinsky, surrendered his law license and paid about $1 million in fines and settlement costs.
Hillary Clinton's campaign has managed to avoid much discussion of these episodes over the past year, and her Democratic rivals have brought them up only obliquely, saying, as Obama has, that they do not want to return to the political battles of the 1990s. Advisers to the senator from New York are acutely aware of Monday's anniversary, coming at the height of the primary season, and hope it will pass with little notice. Some of them cringed last week when her husband recalled the scandal-ridden times at the same event where he made his "fairy tale" comment.
Friends and associates said the former president does not dwell on the old battles. If anything, they said, he has proved to be an unusually forgiving combatant. He has exchanged cordial notes with former congressman James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), one of the House managers who prosecuted his impeachment trial. His wife has teamed up on political initiatives with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), another manager, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who helped drive impeachment. Clinton even broke bread with Richard Mellon Scaife, the wealthy conservative who bankrolled many of the anti-Clinton projects in the 1990s.
"He's not a normal politician who keeps score in his head and remembers everything," said Joe Lockhart, who served as Clinton White House press secretary and still stays in touch. "There are people who did him wrong a million times that he loves. . . . But there are exceptions. Starr is one."
Clinton himself said in his New Hampshire appearance that his heart surgery a few years back changed his outlook. "I'm very close now to former president Bush," he said of the man he defeated in 1992. "I've always liked him a lot, and I've actually got a good relationship with the current president, because I just made up my mind that after I survived my heart trouble, I was too old to have enemies with anybody."
Yet the instinct for conciliation seems to struggle at times with a deep sense of grievance. By his own account, he has been stewing over what he sees as unfair media treatment of his wife while Obama has gotten a free ride. "I've been blistered by it for months," he said in New Hampshire. Nor does he hide his low regard for reporters. "I almost always disagree with them," he told Charlie Rose on PBS.
Collectively, his recent comments echo the feeling of victimization he often expressed when he was president. "I don't think he spends a lot of time thinking about the Whitewater investigation and the special prosecutor and all that. I don't think that crosses his mind much at all," said Staley, who sees Clinton regularly when he visits Little Rock. "But I think he now thinks he understands injustice because he was treated so unfairly. When you're singled out for persecuting, trumped up -- as he would view it and many would agree -- and politically motivated set of events, you never forget that."
Another old Arkansas friend, David Leopoulos, said Clinton is able to put his experiences in perspective. "Yeah, he was hurt," Leopoulos said. "But you know what? How hurt was he? They impeached him, and his approval rating was 67 percent when he was impeached. The American people aren't stupid."
Leopoulos recalled talking with Clinton in the White House solarium two weeks before he left office in January 2001 and asking how he felt. "David, I don't hate anybody," he recalled Clinton answering. "I knew it would be tough when I got in. I didn't know it would be as radical as it's been, but I knew it would be tough. And I love this place and I wouldn't do it any differently. I would do it again in a heartbeat."
For most of the seven years since then, Clinton has avoided the partisan fray, focusing instead on making money, working to fight HIV/AIDS and climate change, and raising funds for victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Instead of portraying him as eager to jump back into campaigning, friends and former aides say he is somewhat reluctant to step back from his role as a world statesman. Other than fundraising, he had largely stayed off the campaign trail until late November.
"He is different than I've ever seen him," said Terence R. McAuliffe, one of his best friends and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. "He is totally at peace with himself. He loves doing the Clinton Global Initiative. He is more introspective than I've ever seen him. He's started joking that he now realizes he has more days behind him than ahead of him. He's in a different place."
Some Democratic strategists privately have wondered whether Clinton is more drawback than asset for his wife. His early speeches seemed more about touting his own record than hers, and he has gone off message a number of times in recent weeks with his "Swift boat" and "fairy tale" comments and with his assertion that he opposed the Iraq war in 2003, despite past statements.
"He's not always singing from the same song sheet," a Clinton campaign adviser acknowledged. "He's the best political strategist in the world. Sometimes he's got ideas and he runs with it. Probably half the time he was right and we were wrong."
Other strategists said the former president was one of the few voices in the Clinton camp urging the candidate to attack Obama many months ago, before he became strong enough to upend her in Iowa -- advice that was rejected but looks better in hindsight.
The Hillary Clinton campaign has tried to claim the best parts of his record while keeping its distance from less successful ones. His wife has depicted herself as a virtual partner in creating 22 million jobs and forging peace in Northern Ireland, but she repudiates the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which is unpopular with organized labor.
When a debate moderator pointed out that her position on torture differed somewhat from his, she brushed it off with a couple of quips. "Well, he's not standing here right now," she said, then added wryly, "I'll talk to him later." A friend said Bill Clinton, watching on television, loved the moment and called out, "Go get 'em, girl!"
Not everyone has been convinced. In endorsing Obama in Nevada's caucuses, the Reno Gazette-Journal wrote yesterday that Hillary Clinton "continues to struggle under the cloud of her husband" and that his "baggage" would "follow her into the White House."
Still, campaign advisers said the former president is a net plus given his vast popularity with Democratic loyalists. "I start laughing every time I hear it -- 'Is it positive or negative?' " said former commerce secretary Mickey Kantor, Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign chairman and an adviser to Hillary Clinton. "This borders on the ridiculous."
Yet it is true that some in her circle still privately resent what they learned about 10 years ago and harbor no great loyalty to him. "I wouldn't be out here for Bill Clinton," a former White House aide close to Hillary Clinton said on the campaign trail. "I believed in his presidency, but I never really liked him all that much."
As the former president hopscotches across the country these days, he campaigns with all the indefatigable fervor of his own White House bids. At a school in New Hampshire, he talked for hours, took questions and worked the rope lines until he had exhausted everyone but himself. As the clock passed midnight and he prepared to leave, he ran into the school custodian and lingered for 20 more minutes to talk about energy-efficient light bulbs.
Clinton seems intent on giving his wife the chance he once had -- not out of guilt or an attempt to make amends, friends say, but out of genuine conviction that she is the best person for the job. And she is best prepared, he often argues, not in spite of the political wars of the 1990s, but in part because of them.
"She would have the best chance to win because she's been beat up so," he said in New Hampshire, sounding as though he might be talking about himself, too. "It's hard to get blood out of scar tissue."